Blog Feed

Egil – III

A/N: For those of you reading this interlude out of order, you can get some context for it by scrolling down to the previous chapter button and read the last, oh ten or so paragraphs of Chapter 10. This hint will make sense by the time you reach the end of this interlude 🙂


370 Years Ago

Year of Unity 1500

Bellona kicked her legs, the heels of her worn boots tapping against the legs of the chair she sat in. Her feet didn’t quite reach the floor. She tried not to think about her surroundings, unfamiliar and cold, so instead she focused on the soft taps her kicking made.

She didn’t know where she was. Well, in a distant sort of way, she knew – she was somewhere important, being guided and pushed around by people more important than her mind knew how to comprehend. But she hadn’t paid much attention to how she got there. Her life lately had been little more than a blur – fire and warfare, then carriage rides filled with sickly sweet smiles and promises that she was finally safe.

She didn’t feel safe. She’d felt safe with her parents, but then…

Her head snapped up when a nearby door creaked open, a man entering the room. When Bellona saw his face, she gasped and threw herself out of her chair, crawling then crawling on hands and knees to hide behind the leather sofa beside her. She stayed out of sight for as long as she could bear, her heart picking up when she realized she could hear no sounds coming from the man. Then she slowly, slowly peeked over the top of the couch back.

The man had moved to the open kitchen across the room. His back was to her, but Bellona knew who he was. He’d appeared in her village just before the fighting began, before everything went up in flames. Her parents had called him the Sword of Unity. Wherever he went, Unity’s wrath followed.

She’d heard the stories about him. She feared him more than she feared the monsters who prowled outside her village at night, their glowing eyes staring out from the forest with hunger.

“You can come out,” the man called, his back still to her. “I won’t hurt you.”

Bellona ducked back behind the couch again, but could only stay hidden for so long before her curiosity got the better of her. When she peered over the couch again, she found him much closer, sitting in the chair she’d vacated. She hadn’t seen him up close before. He looked nice, like her best friend’s older brother, who sometimes teased but had always been kind to Bellona.

A plate full of sliced fruit rested precariously on the arm of the chair beside and when he offered a piece to her, Bellona hesitantly left her hiding spot to take it.

“That’s it,” the man said. “Go ahead and sit. How did you get in here?”

Bellona spoke through a mouthful of fruit. “A man brought me here and told me to wait.”

“Brought you through the prison?”

Bellona nodded. She’d never even been near a prison before today, and now she’d walked through one.

“What’s your name?” the man asked, voice soft.

“Bellona.”

“That’s a pretty name,” the man said. He sat forward, his pitying expression turning intense. This was the expression he wore just before Bellona’s village burned. She shrank back into the couch cushions, but she couldn’t look away from the man’s hard black eyes.

“Hold onto that name, Bellona, because they’re going to try to take it from you. That’s what they do. They take your name and give you a new one, and soon you won’t remember who you used to be. You’ll be who they need you to be, instead. Do you understand?”

Bellona shook her head. She wanted to go home. “They who?”

“Unity,” the man answered, voice barely above a whisper.

“And who are you?”

“Egil.”

“Is that your real name?”

Egil smiled sadly. “No, they took mine a long time ago.”

“I want to go home,” Bellona whined, despite knowing, deep down, that she had no home to go back to.

Something softened around Egil’s eyes. “I know,” he said, and Bellona thought he really did understand.

Then the man from before returned, the one who brought Bellona to these barracks, and Egil flinched. He stiffened, standing and dropping into a tense bow. When he straightened again, all the kindness and expression was gone from his face.

“Magistrate,” Egil greeted, voice flat.

“I see you’ve met your new charge,” the Magistrate said, eyeing Bellona and the plate of fruit on Egil’s chair, then dismissing them both in favor of turning back to Egil. “You’re to train her like you did the others. Better, even. This one’s got potential.”

“She’s just a child.”

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you won’t do it?”

“No,” Egil said, glancing briefly at Bellona. “I’m just saying that she’s too young for training to do her any good. Or the rest of us, for that matter. She’ll just get in the way and waste my time.”

You don’t decide what’s a waste of your time; we do. Train her,” the Magistrate said, already turning to leave. He didn’t so much as glance Bellona’s way before heading back upstairs, toward the prison.

Egil closed his eyes, clenched his jaw. At his sides, his hands slowly began falling into fists. For a moment, it seemed he might go after the Magistrate. But the sounds of the Magistrate’s footsteps soon faded, and so did the tension in Egil’s shoulders.

“Come on,” Egil said with a sigh. “I’ll take you to your new room.”

Bellona followed Egil down the hall, fighting the tears that clouded her vision.

“How old are you, anyway?” Egil asked as they walked past plain room after plain room.

“Twelve.”

Twelve,” Egil repeated with a groan. He stopped, and Bellona almost ran into him. “Here. This is it.”

When Bellona saw her new “room,” the tears started flowing freely. Egil’s eyes widened and he stared at her a moment, unsure of what to do. Then, he crouched beside her, gentle again now that the Magistrate was gone. “Come, now. Don’t-,”

“Don’t tell me not to cry!” Bellona said. “My mum and dad are dead and my village is gone and now I’m stuck in this awful place!”

“I wasn’t going to tell you not to try. Go ahead, if it helps you feel better. Just don’t ever let them see you,” Egil said. “Try to get some sleep. Breakfast is at six, and you’ll have to join the other Enforcers for training, after.”

“Even though I’ll just get in the way?” Bellona asked, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
“You won’t get in the way,” Egil said. “I only said that so you wouldn’t have to join.”

“Oh.”

“Bellona,” Egil said, taking one of Bellona’s hands in both of his own. He glanced down the hall, in the direction the Magistrate disappeared in, before continuing. “Listen to me. They’ll summon you for questions, sometimes. The Magistrates. Do whatever they ask and your life here will be painless, but remember what I told you. Remember your name. Remember your parents, and remember how they died. Don’t let them take that from you.”

“I won’t.”

Egil left shortly after that, and Bellona took the first tentative steps into her new room. She dropped her small bag on the bed, opened one of the dresser drawers to peer inside, then caught sight of herself in the mirror in the corner. Her pale face was blotchy red, swollen from crying. Her hair was loose and tangled, making her look like some wild thing – that hair was apple-red, and her skin had the feather-brushed texture of a marionite.

Bellona forced herself to look away. She sat on the stiff bed, steeled her heart, and realized she’d be stuck in these barracks for a long time to come.


A/N: Fractured Magic is back with Book 2 on March 25! (I know I said the 18th on twitter, but I want to make sure I’ve got book 2 fully planned out and ready for you all before I start posting it).

Chapter 25

A/N: Thank you all for reading so far! This chapter’s a long one and a very important one, definitely fitting for the end of Book 1. Lots of pieces click together and some BIG players are introduced. Please comment your thoughts and theories below and, if you’re enjoying the story so far, share it with a friend!


Part One

Roman shivered and rubbed his hands together to generate friction. They faced the first real autumn chill, made more bitingly cold by the unexpectedness of it. The cold stung Roman’s fingers and cheeks, and when he breathed, it clawed its way into his lungs, painful and purifying. Summer had lost its footing, and because the universe was cruel, it had done so the very day they’d left Gallontea. Perhaps Atiuh saw what they were doing and disapproved of their mission.

Roman snorted at the thought.

The others didn’t seem bothered by the cold, but they all sat nearer the fire than Roman. He sat back, away from the group, watching and thinking. Their camp was set up around them, with small tents for the diplomats and the Captain’s trailer parked nearby. The trees of Lyryma towered over them on one side, but despite their looming presence, spirits around the fire ran high. They always did, at the start of journeys like this. Even the coldest among them, Evelyne and Aaror, smiled as they listened to Eresh tell a story about Magistrate Biro tripping at Unity’s last spring ball.

As Eresh’s story reached its end, one of the other diplomats – Trinity Jones – said, “Gareth, aren’t you a writer? Won’t you give us a story as well?”

Gareth jumped at suddenly being addressed, and Roman scooted closer to the circle around the fire. He knew what – who – Gareth wrote about and could fairly guess at the subject he’d choose.

“Oh, my writing is mostly nonfiction, you see,” Gareth said. “Not very suited to this sort of thing.”

“You study Egil, don’t you? I saw all those books in your library,” Thea said. “I bet you know an Egil story we don’t.”

At enthusiastic encouragement from the others— particularly Trinity and Eftychia— he finally conceded. “Oh, very well. I suppose I do know an Egil story or two.”

Across the fire, Leandros met Roman’s eye. The Captain sat between Gareth and Thea on a fallen log, and had to shift back for room to pass his hand across his face, hiding a smile.

“Ah, I know,” Gareth finally said. “In honor of our mission, what about a story about Illyon? Or Ehloran, it was called in those days…”


It began as most Egil stories do, in the halls of Devikra Stormsong, the Great Western Oracle. She’d summoned Egil, as she did whenever her visions posed a problem that only he could fix. He strode into her gilded halls, the air heavy with the smell of incense and cleansing herbs, and bowed low.

“My lady,” he said, kissing the hand she offered to him, “How may I assist you?”

The Oracle waved a hand, and her servants left them alone. She reclined on a bed of lavish crimson pillows and regarded Egil carefully. “Heed my words well,” she said, “And do exactly as I ask. Lives depend on it.”

“Of course, my lady,” Egil said, for he knew consequences always followed disobeying the Oracle.

“Go to the city of Ehloran. When you reach the white tree at the center of the city, travel north. Continue north and do not stop.”

“Why?” Egil asked, unable to stop the question.

Rather than answer, Devikra said, “You will know when you have reached your destination.”

Egil halted his tongue, though more questions burned on its tip. This was the way of the Oracle’s prophecies—they were glimpses, snapshots. They created more questions than they answered. Egil had seen them fulfilled enough times to know that. He also knew that the Oracle was never wrong, so he bowed again and left to prepare for the journey. He made all haste to Ehloran, and he found the white tree, whose petals had just begun to fall.

He turned north and, on foot— as he knew not how far he had to journey— he began to walk. He walked up and down the hilly streets of Ehloran, always pointing due north. Many distractions threatened to break his pace as he walked. He passed through a market, and the smells of the foods there taunted him. A beautiful woman in glittering fabrics danced in the street to swift music, and he longed to stay and watch. When he reached a tall fence, he paused, but the time he would lose finding a way around would cost too much, so he climbed.

Finally, when he reached the city gates, he was forced to stop when a man dressed in rich robes, laden with jewelry, fell at his feet.

“Please, Egil,” the man cried. “I am Trym Bech, leader of this city. I ran as soon as I heard you were here. My daughter Rylia has gone missing. Please, I need your help finding her. I fear something terrible has happened.

Egil thought about the Oracle’s words. You will know when you have reached your destination. Egil did not yet know, so he said, “I am sorry, I cannot. If your daughter is still missing when I return, I will help you find her.”

Egil did not know that, the day before her disappearance, the Lady Rylia’s father had announced she would be married. The intended prince, who’d come from Alfheim for the lady’s hand, was a kind man, but Rylia loved another, a young woman of humble birth. Confronted with the choice to marry someone she did not love or break her father’s heart, Rylia chose to flee into Lyryma. But distraught and alone, confused by the darkness, she lost her way. A witch who lived in the forest, a daughter of Tellaos, found her and spirited her to Tellaos’ realm, intending to feed the pretty young noble to the soulless beasts who roamed the dead forest there.

Egil stepped around Rylia’s father and left Ehloran, continuing down into the grassy fields of the Valley of Creae. And he continued to walk. He walked until he reached the borders of Lyryma, and then he walked yet further. He walked until his feet ached and his eyes drooped, and finally he reached his destination.

As the Oracle had said, he knew it immediately. On the strange, winding path before him, Egil saw the swirling of dark magics. Shadows swelled and sharp branches hung low, and Egil knew— for Egil knew many things about magic— that if he continued down this path, it would lead him to the place between worlds. Egil thought quickly. He pulled the winding vines from the tall Lyryma trees, tied a thousand together to make a rope. He tied one end of the rope to a tree root and the other around his waist, so that he would be able to find his way back.

Thus secured, Egil started down the path. Slowly and somehow all at once, the trees changed. He found himself in Tellaos’ dead forest, completely silent except for the sounds he himself made. No birds sang up high, no creeks bubbled in the distance, no wind rustled the decaying leaves under his feet. Egil continued through the forest until, ahead of him, he heard a woman’s cries for help. He then followed the sound until he found her weeping at the base of a twisted tree.

“Who are you?” she asked when she saw him.

“I am Egil. Your father sent to find you,” answered Egil, and Rylia knew she was safe. Egil held his hand out, and she took it. He helped her stand.

With his rope made of vines, he began leading her back to their world, but a voice stopped them, crying out, “Stop! You will not take her! Stop!”

It was the witch who’d brought Rylia to this realm.

Egil instructed Rylia to follow the rope back. Then he turned to face the witch, and she shot lightning from her palms, meaning to kill him with her magic. The lightning struck Egil in the chest. The witch cackled, sure she had won. But when the lightning died, Egil had not fallen, nor had he even moved. He had not been harmed.

“Are you a child of Tellaos, too?” the witch asked him. For if he had magic, he must have been born of the Guardians.

“I am Egil. My magic is my own,” Egil said. He drew his sword and pointed it at the witch. “I am taking the lady back to her home.”

“You cannot!” the witch wailed. “The beasts of the forest have been promised a meal! They will become violent if they do not have it!”

“Then you shall be their meal,” Egil said. Leaving the witch among the shifting shadows, he followed the reeds back to Lyryma Forest, where he found Lady Rylia waiting. Together, they returned to Ehloran, and the Lord of the city thanked Egil with a grand celebration.


When Gareth finished his story, everyone clapped but Roman. Roman stared blankly into the fire, his mind far, far away. He closed his eyes and saw the shapes of the flames burned into his eyelids, multicolored tongues of flame. Among them he saw Devikra’s face, disappointed and pitying.

Gareth’s story had gotten it all wrong.

Roman hadn’t been working for Devikra long when this happened. That day they’d met in Damael, he hadn’t been away from Unity long. He hadn’t been any sort of functional person, then. He’d been damaged and angry, but Devikra had given him the chance to turn that into something good— to reclaim the title Unity had given him: Egil.

She had her premonitions, pointed him where to go to stop bad things from happening. She’d had a vision of the Lady Rylia being kidnapped, that part was true, but she’d ordered Roman not to go. Conscience heavy with the weight of his past sins, desperate to do anything he could to offset it, even a little, he’d gone anyway, and he’d found Rylia safe at home. It was his arrival, and the chaos that followed— Egil was already quite the recognizable name, by that point— that had created an opening for Rylia to be kidnapped.

Finding her hadn’t been so easy as walking into Lyryma. It had taken weeks and a heavy ransom, but Roman managed to track them. And to get Rylia back, he had to kill them.

He’d returned to Devikra with the weight of more guilt on his shoulder and the blood of petty extortionists on his clothes. It was then that Devikra had given him that look, half disappointed and half pitying.

“If I hadn’t gone, she might have died,” he’d told her.

She’d replied, “If you hadn’t gone, she wouldn’t have gone missing.”

Roman still couldn’t decide whether he regretted it. He’d learned not to play with fate, though, and that the Oracle’s visions always came with tricks.

“Roman?”

Roman jumped, and returned to the present to find Leandros and half the team staring at him. Leandros’ brow was creased with concern. How many times had he called Roman’s name?

“Hm?”

“I asked if you’d tell a story? I seem to remember you being quite good at it,” Leandros said.

Gareth joined him. “Yes, come on, Roman. Put that stage voice of yours to use.”

“Well,” Roman hedged, looking around at the expectant group. He didn’t much feel like telling a story, but of course Leandros knew that. It would probably help draw him out of his painful reminiscing, at least. Of course, Leandros knew that, too. “Alright, fine.”

Thea whooped, and a few others provided encouragements. 

Before he could start, Evelyne stood abruptly. She shot a glare at Roman, and with that, stormed off.

“Don’t mind her,” Ivor drawled, sitting back on his hands. He looked like he might fall asleep at any moment, but his gaze was at least vaguely directed toward Roman. “She’s always a pain.”

“Right,” Roman said with a frown, watching Evelyne walk away. He forced himself to turn back to the first. “I’ll stick with Gareth’s theme and tell a story about Creae Valley. How many of you have heard Runderath’s story?”


Today, Calaidia knows peace – or at least something like it. It hasn’t always been like this, though. From the day the world was created until the end of the Great War, pain and violence and tragedy were all anyone knew. During the Great War, bloodshed became a way of life and death a price to be paid. We fought, we died, and we fought still.

Unity didn’t exist, then— there was no regulation, no government. No one could ever stay in power long enough to create one. As soon as the ones in charge showed weakness, someone else rose up to overthrow them. And behind it all was Tellaos, one of the Guardians Atiuh made to protect Calaidia. Tellaos believed the world would do better without greedy, selfish mortals, and so he pitted everyone against each other and stoked the flames of the Great War. 

And where were the other Guardians? Why weren’t they stopping him? No one had seen them since the Great War began, but one day, someone did.

His name was Runderath. He was a young alfar Captain, a fierce fighter and a small-time hero. It was during a rare stalemate – the suns hung crimson in the sky and Runderath picked his way through a bloody battlefield, searching the faces of the fallen for the men he’d lost. No other commanders bothered; there were too many dead, and the nameless faces were just that— memories that would fade. Runderath thought differently. Memories they may be, but they were memories he would honor.

Aside from a lone dragon flying off in the distance, its mournful keening echoing through the valley, Runderath believed himself the only one on the field, so he was surprised when he came upon two figures who stood with their backs to him.

“Ho there!” Runderath called, approaching them. “The alfar army will be coming through soon! They won’t be happy to see outsiders on their land, so you’d best go, for your own sake.”

The figures turned toward Runderath, and Runderath stopped short, the hairs on the back of his neck standing. The figure on the right, a human man in black armor with silver streaked hair, didn’t look at Runderath. He wiped his eyes like he’d been crying. 

The woman did look at him – she turned, and Runderath saw that the ground beneath her feet was charred. Her eyes, flat black with specks that glowed like smoldering sparks of a dying flame, bored into him. Her skin, golden-red like a sunset, was covered in swirling patterns that flickered, twisted, and glowed like tongues of fire. Long wings, shimmering and incandescent like a dragonfly’s, stretched behind her.

“Why would you warn us?” she asked. “You are alfar.”

The man beside her finally looked at Runderath. Though he looked not nearly as alien as his companion, he unsettled Runderath more. He was solid, weighty, eternal. His eyes had seen many things and the weight of them all shrouded him like a cloak.

“I am not cruel. I would not see two nonviolent creatures harmed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Runderath.

“And how do you know we are nonviolent?” the woman asked with a dangerous smile.

“I am unarmed; you are not. You would have killed me on sight.”

The man inclined his head in acknowledgment. “And what are you doing here alone, unarmed?”

“Searching for my fallen men, that I may administer last rites,” Runderath answered. He had been through so much, felt so much fear and seen so much death, that he no longer feared either. So he asked, “And you?”

The man and the woman looked at each other and, at once, began to circle Runderath in slow, concentric circles.

“We are trying to decide how to stop our brother,” said the woman.

“We cannot oppose him directly – both out of love for him and because of the laws Atiuh laid upon us,” the man continued.

“But we can no longer stand by while he destroys the world our Father made for you,” the woman said, passing in front of Runderath in her circling.

“Tellaos must die,” the man said.

“If he does, the war will end.”

The man stopped in front of Runderath. “We need a champion who will fight him in our name. I look into your soul and I see light, Runderath id Kamar. Will you be our champion?”

Runderath opened his mouth and found he could speak no words, for he finally knew whose presence he stood in. Atuos and Ellaes, Atiuh’s Guardians. He bowed low, by way of answer, and when he straightened, Atuos smiled, soft and sad.

Ellaes pressed a kiss that burned like fire to Runderath’s forehead and said, “With this I give you a taste of our magic, that you may meet Tellaos as an equal.”

Atuos drew his sword, made of the same fathomless black as his armor, and offered it up to Runderath. “With this, I give you our blessing. Face Tellaos with courage and heart, and you will not fail.”

Runderath took the sword and felt some light emotion rise in his chest. He realized that it was hope. Hope that things would get better. Hope, finally, that this war would end. “Thank you. I will not fail,” he repeated.

“Be brave, Runderath. We will be with you in spirit,” said Ellaes. With that, they were gone, disappearing in the blink of an eye. Without the weight of Atuos’ sword in his hand, or the fire of Ellaes’ magic in his heart, Runderath would have feared he’d imagined them.

Runderath did not return to his army’s camp. Instead, he turned east, and began the long journey to Tellaos’ mountain. On this mountain was a castle the third Guardian loved most of all: it sat overlooking the biggest battlefield on the continent. The castle was darker than the nights in Rhycr and stronger than the scales of the dragon who lived in it. Anyone who entered— aside from the great serpent himself— never left.

This castle stands today, in the heart of Orean. This is the bloody history of Creae Valley.

Runderath fought his way through the valley to the base of the mountain. He climbed it, Atuos’ sword strapped to his back, and burst into Tellaos’ temple. He climbed the winding stairs to Tellaos’ watchtower, confident in himself and his mission, and there, Runderath faced the large black dragon.

“Tellaos!” he called, “I have come to end your reign! No longer will the people of Calaidia fall prey to your games!”

The dragon’s eyes widened, and he laughed, loud and terrible. “Is that so, little hero? What’s to stop me from killing you where you stand?”

“I have magic, that I may meet you as an equal, and I have this sword, a blessing from those who would see you defeated.”

Tellaos stopped laughing. He knew those words, and suddenly he recognized Ellaes’ magic in Runderath. For the first time, he felt fear. In his rage, he blew a jet of flame at Runderath. But when the flames cleared, Runderath stood in the same spot, unharmed. He raised Atuos’ sword and charged.

On the battlefield below, soldiers of every species paused their fighting to gaze in wonder at Tellaos’ temple, which rumbled and shook in great waves. Then, the dragon’s watchtower began to crumble, and all anyone could do was watch as it collapsed, leaving the southwest corner of the castle open and exposed. As if a spell was lifted, all dropped their weapons and began to cheer. They knew, in their hearts, that Tellaos was dead.

Later that day, a party went up the mountain to search the rubble. Stories were already circulating about the hero who’d been seen fighting his way to the mountain, and they hoped to find him alive so they may thank him. But Neither Runderath nor Tellaos were to be found. 

From that day on, the Story of Runderath the Mighty, the hero who stripped Tellaos of his power but perished in the process, was told across the content.


A few around the fire began to clap, expecting Roman had reached the end of his story, but Roman held a hand up to stop them. “It’s not finished.”


The night after Tellaos’ defeat, while the people down below celebrated, the great dragon clawed his way out of the rubble and found two figures waiting.

“Your plan failed,” Tellaos snarled at them, “I’m not dead.”

“We did not mean to kill you,” Ellaes said. Soft flames flickered across her skin, their glow the only light on the dark mountainside. “Only to punish you, and humiliate you.”

Atuos took Ellaes’ hand and said, in a voice harder than diamonds, “And now, to bind you.”

Together, Atuos and Ellaes bound Tellaos’ magic within him, and they trapped him in a weak mortal form so he would no longer have power over the people of Calaidia. Then, with heavy hearts, they denounced him as a Guardian and left him alone.

When Roman finally fell silent, Eresh blurted, “That’s not how the story goes! Tellaos can’t live!”

Roman stood and stretched. “It’s the story I’ve always been told. You really think it’s so easy to kill a Guardian?”

“Well-,”

“Either way, it’s just a story,” Roman said with a shrug. “I’m tired. I think I’m going to retire for the evening.”

While he was walking away from the fire, Roman paused when he heard someone call his name. He turned to find Gareth approaching, his shadowy form silhouetted by the fire behind him.

“What did you think of my story?” he asked.

Roman raised an eyebrow. “It was fine, I guess. I told you, I don’t really like Egil stories.”

“Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that. I think I might know why.”

Roman turned away. “Whatever your guess, you’re probably right, but I don’t want to talk about this now.”

Gareth huffed, but he was practically vibrating with excitement and was doing a bad job of hiding it. “If I leave you alone now, can I ask about it more later?”

“Ah, Gareth, I can’t help but feel I’d be breaking your heart if I said no,” Roman said with a small smile. “I’ll think about it.” 


Part Two

A red-haired orinian with glowing scars carved into her skin stood on the bridge to Unity. She pressed herself against the stone wall to better look down into the swirling water below. For longer than she could remember, she’d been chased by something, a feeling she couldn’t name. A creeping feeling, like the brush of fingers on the back of her neck, or shadows shifting at the corner of her vision. The black waves reminded her of the feeling— angry, insistent, inviting. They called to her, just like the grasping darkness.

But she couldn’t give in to it. There was something closer, something even more insistent. It was near, now. She pushed herself away from the rail and turned to face it.

A man walked across the bridge toward her, the hard soles of his snakeskin boots clicking on the cobblestones with each deliberate step. He looked human –  handsome in a broad, hard-edged sort of way. His pupils, sideways and rectangular like a goat’s, were on the Unity clock tower above and behind Mercy.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked as he neared. There was no one beside the two of them on the bridge. He looked at Mercy and smiled, his teeth too many and too sharp. If Mercy’s heart still worked, the sight would have stopped it. The man’s smile dropped as he took in the fading glow behind Mercy’s skin, and he cupped her cheeks between his hands. “Oh, I’ve left you alone for too long. You’re almost out. Mercy, are you alright? Are you still with me?”

Mercy shivered and covered his hands with her own. His hands, the only things keeping her tethered in this world. Instead of answering, she asked, “Why are we here, love? Why did we come to this awful place?”

“Mercy,” he warned, voice low. She pouted. It made him laugh softly and lean down to kiss her forehead. “I know it’s awful, but I needed to see it, just once. I needed to see it before I could destroy it,” he explained, softly. He looked up at the clock tower again. “The Guardians’ pride and joy, their solution to everything. It meant so much to them. To him.”

He took her hand and began pulling her toward the Island. “Come, let’s get a closer look.”

They hadn’t moved more than twenty feet before Mercy pulled her hand back, saying, “I can’t.” When he kept walking, she called, “Tellaos! We can see it from here, darling. Please, I don’t want to go any further.”

“Yes,” Tellaos said, his voice like the slither of a snake through tall grass. “Yes, you’re right. Mercy, come here, and we won’t have to move any closer.”

It was then that the two of them noticed a woman approaching from the Island. She was on the older end of middle-aged and she carried herself rigidly, slowing as she approached Mercy and Tellaos. Tellaos, who stood closest to her, she eyed suspiciously, her eyes lingering on the black scales peeking over the top of his shirt collar.

Tellaos began to scratch the scales. He hadn’t wanted to be seen, Mercy knew. She looked between her lover and the woman with wide eyes. “Who are you, then?” Tellaos asked impatiently.

The woman blinked at him, taken aback. “Moira Ranulf, one of your representatives. I could have you thrown in prison for speaking to me that way.”

Tellaos sneered. “You’re no representative of mine. Mercy, would you…?”

Mercy approached, and Moira looked at her for the first time. She took in Mercy’s orinian features, and the glow of her dirin, and something like recognition and fear flitted across her face. “You’re the one the Nochdvors saw.”

Tellaos held a hand up to stop Mercy, and Mercy stopped. “Pardon?” he asked. “What was that?”

Moira was already hastening to back away, though. “I’m getting the guard,” she warned.

Tellaos sighed, then signaled Mercy to continue. He looked away as Mercy killed the woman, cringed when he heard her bones snap. He began scratching his arms, the small mortal body Atuos and Ellaes trapped him in not enough to contain the emotions swirling inside of him.

“I hate having to do that,” he said.

Mercy didn’t respond, instead staring curiously down at the human.

“Mercy, was there any chance someone in that throne room survived? When you took the King?”

Mercy frowned, her delicate features twisting in thought. “I don’t remember. The magic was all too overwhelming.”

“We’re going to have to find out.” Tellaos continued to scratch, then stamped his foot. “Damn Atuos! Damn Ellaes! Damn this body! Mercy, come here.”

Mercy approached, but when Tellaos held a hand out to her, she skittered back. “Wait, no. Tellaos, I don’t want to feel it again so soon. There’s something wrong with it.”

“Mercy, please. I won’t force you, but if you do this last thing for me, everything will get better. I have a plan, but I need your help. I need my body back, love.”

Mercy reluctantly approached. “What do you want me to do?”

Tellaos whispered the answer in her ear. When she nodded, eyes wide, he said, “Now, open up.”

Tellaos put something in Mercy’s mouth. Mercy didn’t get much of a look at it before he did, but it was insubstantial like smoke, yet solid enough that he could hold it between his fingers. It was alive— alive, but not living— something that writhed and squirmed in his fingers like an angry black centipede.

The warped, twisted power of the thing hit Mercy immediately, spreading warmth all the way down to her toes. The glowing in her veins flared bright, so bright that she watched as the slits of Tellaos’ pupils shrunk. She’d been cold before, but this was too hot. It was too much, not enough. Burning, freezing. She couldn’t contain it. She must.

Tellaos watched her closely, and finally, she breathed in deep. That other call, the one that echoed the crashing black waves, felt much further away.

“There you go,” Tellaos murmured. “Perfect, Mercy. It’s almost over now.”

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him, and she raised an arm. Mercy used the magic Tellaos had given her just as she had when she’d stolen Amos Nochdvor away.

Around them, Unity’s bridge began to collapse. It started at the ends, crumbling inward, the heavy rocks falling down to the water. The bridge tore itself apart stone by stone, but the small patch Tellaos and Mercy stood on remained intact, hovering above the water, supported by nothing.

Tellaos laughed, pulled Mercy tighter, and kissed her. Mercy snapped her fingers and like that, they disappeared as the last of the bridge fell.


Part Three

Aleksir Bardon sat stiller than he had in his life, eyes wide and fixed on the white dragon in the center of the room. The dragon was bowed low, unable or unwilling to look at the recipient of his message. But Aleksir looked at her. She sat upright and rigid, her face an impassive mask. Aleksir had worked with her long enough to recognize things others would not, though— the subtle pursing of her full lips, the flare of her nostrils. She was angry.

“What did you just say?” she asked.

The dragon bowed, if possible, lower. His long snout nearly touched the ground. “Unity Bridge has collapsed, my lady. No one was harmed, but one Representative seems to be missing. I flew here as soon as I heard the news.”

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” she said. All around her, her courtiers whispered and shifted. The looks they shared with each other all held the same question: Why didn’t the Oracle foresee this?

Devikra Stormsong stood and the whispers fell silent. “I predicted this long ago, of course,” she lied, with so much confidence that even Aleksir nearly believed her despite knowing better. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing even I can do to prevent natural disasters such as this. I am glad no one got hurt. Please, someone see our messenger to a spare room, and get him whatever comforts he requests. I feel another vision coming on, so I’m afraid I must retire to my chambers. Aleksir?”

Aleksir stood and followed Devikra out of the hall. Once it was just the two of them, Devikra began to pace, rubbing her temples as she passed back and forth in front of Aleksir, who remained silent and watched her warily.

“The entire bridge?” she hissed. “Bridges don’t just collapse!”

“What do you think happened, then?” Aleksir asked.

“I don’t know. I’m more concerned about why we didn’t see it coming. Aleksir, dear, will you go ask Wil about it? I have something I need to do first, but I’ll meet you upstairs.”

“Yeah, sure. You alright, Dev? You seem sort of…worried,” Aleksir said. It was completely out of character for her.

Devikra took one of Aleksir’s hands in both of her own and kissed it. “I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me – I’ll be with you shortly.”

“Sure.”

Reluctantly, Aleksir left Devikra standing in the hallway. He wove through the palace and down long, winding stairways and finally found himself in a cool basement. He knocked on a heavy door before entering and finding himself in a large room, everything about it orchestrated to make the space comfortable for the Oracle. 

The Oracle herself sat in the room’s small kitchen space, and Aleksir dove to catch the door before it slammed, instead guiding it shut with just a soft click.

Aleksir slipped his shoes off, let the room’s calming atmosphere do what it was supposed to do. The colors were cool, manifesting in lots of soft, heavy fabrics— sofas that looked like they’d swallow you whole, pillows on the sofas and grounds and anywhere they could feasibly go, paisley patterned curtains that diffused the suns’ rays and set the room alight with a cool blue glow. Aleksir padded over to the small kitchenette.

“Wilhara,” he called gently. The Oracle ignored him, tapping her charcoal against the counter and squinting at the sketchbook in front of her. “Wilhara?”

When she still didn’t respond, Aleksir said more firmly, “Wil.”

Wilhara looked up, apparently surprised to find Aleksir standing there.

An alfar with orinian blood, Wilhara inherited the graceful qualities of both races. Until her, Aleksir had thought that alfar came in translucent, slightly-not-pale, or almost-tan, but her skin was dark and her hair almost white – darker than Devikra’s, a more natural gray. Because of her mixed blood, her ears were pointed and expressive like an orinian’s— almost expressive as her eyes, always tired and frightened. But the set of her mouth, in contrast, made her look constantly annoyed. Aleksir knew she was generally neither tired nor frightened, but almost always annoyed. He was very fond of her.

Wilhara was the true visionary behind the Oracle’s persona. Devikra taking public credit was a front that worked well for both of them— they knew their strengths and their weaknesses. For Wilhara, dealing with people was one of the latter.

“Good morning, Aleksir.” Wilhara spared Aleksir an effusive smile and the time it took to sip her tea, then went back to studying her drawing book. Aleksir recognized the bitter smell of that brew. It never meant good things for Wilhara’s headspace.

“Did you have a vision?” Aleksir asked.

After a minute of consternated silence, Wilhara asked, “Hmm?”

Aleksir glanced at the drawing book, where Wilhara recorded her visions. It was easier to draw than describe, she’d found, because her visions usually contained an array of people and places she’d never met nor visited. She drew her visions, and Devikra, who’d seen more of the world, interpreted. Aleksir provided the moral support and ran the confidential errands.

“Are you having a bad day?” Aleksir asked, rephrasing the question.

“Oh, very. The visions won’t seem to stop.”

“What do you mean?” Aleksir asked.

“I’ve had a dozen today, at least.”

“A dozen?” Aleksir asked. It was usually considered huge if Wilhara had more than three visions in a week. Aleksir pointed to her book. “May I?”

“I suppose you might as well.” Wilhara pushed the book at Aleksir. “I don’t know what any of it means.”

Aleksir flipped through the newest pages with a frown. There were a lot, and they all seemed to be similar— or at least related— to each other. There was Orean, wonderfully sketched, with a dragon flying above it. The next page was almost the same— same city, same view— but things were peaceful. In the next, everything was on fire and a giant smudge blocked out a third of a page. Aleksir peered closer— not a smudge, but frantic scribbles. That explained the charcoal all over Wil’s fingers and face, then.

“It was like living shadow,” Wilhara said quietly. “I didn’t know how to draw it.”

The next page made Aleksir gasp. It was Unity Bridge, falling into the water. “When did you do this one?” he asked Wilhara.

Not picking up on his urgency, Wilhara regarded it. “This morning, I think. No— wait, yes. Yes, right after breakfast.”

Aleksir stared at her. According to the dragon’s report, that would’ve been around the time that it happened. He turned the page again and blinked in surprise. It was Egil— a dozen sketches of Egil smiling, frowning, crying. His eyes, his mouth, his hands. There were others, too— a scarred alfar, an orinian girl, a dancer – no, an actress? Then Aleksir stilled. There was even a drawing of himself in here. He looked up at Wil. “What is this?”

Wilhara rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know. I just kept seeing your faces, one after the other, and the visions are so blurry. They change so fast. That’s not the last of them.”

Aleksir turned the page again, then quickly shut the book. He felt like he might be sick. “That’s impossible. How did he…?”

“I don’t know, Aleksir. I didn’t see. I just see him over and over again like that. I don’t know! I—,”

Aleksir grabbed Wil’s hands and rubbed soothing circles into the backs of them. “Hey, hey, it’s alright. We’ll talk to Devikra about it. I’m sure she’ll have answers.”

Wilhara nodded. “Yes. Okay. Where is she?”

“She went to— Oh, shit. Wil, I meant to tell you. Unity’s bridge is gone.”

“The bridge is gone,” she repeated slowly. “Like my vision.”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“This morning.”

“But I saw it this morning!” She shook her head. She clenched her hands in her skirts then grabbed her head. “No, no, no. I usually get more warning than that! First I missed Nochdvor, now this. What’s happening to me?”

Aleksir shrugged, and was saved from having to answer when the door flew open. It struck the wall, and Wilhara flinched at the sound. Devikra stormed in, all righteous fury and terrible beauty, looking significantly more tired than she had downstairs.

When she noticed Aleksir and Wilhara staring, the tension drained from her like she’d sprung a leak. “Wilhara, dear, I wasn’t sure you’d be up. I’m sorry about the noise.”

“I understand. Aleksir told me what happened.”

Devikra joined them at the table and dropped into the seat across from Wilhara. “How strange this all is. Wil, you didn’t see anything about this, did you? Something we might have missed?”

Without prompting, Aleksir opened the drawing book up to the page with the falling bridge and showed Devikra.

“When—?”

“This morning.”

Without looking up, sensing more than seeing Wilhara’s distressed look, Devikra said, “Don’t fret, Wil. There’s nothing wrong on your end. I think I know what’s happening.”

“You do?”

“Wilhara is rosanin. According to the old stories, Rosanin abilities don’t work on the Guardians.”

“The Guardians?” Aleksir asked. He waved a hand. “Like, Ellaes and them?”

“Ellaes, Tellaos, and Atuos, yes.”

“But they’re not real.”

“They’re as real as you or I, dear.”

“It’s true,” Wilhara said. “I forgot about— I mean, it’s happened before. Tellaos has changed my visions.” She met Devikra’s eye, then quickly looked away. “It was a long time ago.”

Devikra nodded. “I’m afraid it’s Tellaos again. Your visions have been acting up since Nochdvor’s kidnapping, right? I fear he had a hand in that, too.”

“What does he want?” Aleksir asked.

“That’s a good question. I could only theorize.”

“So if Wil’s visions can change, what about the other ones she drew today?”

Devikra looked sharply at Wil, who passed the book back to her. Devikra spent more time on each drawing than Aleksir had, her eyebrows drawing closer together with each page she turned. Normally, Wilhara’s drawings were clear and logical, not frantic and chaotic like these. Devikra ran her fingers over two almost identical drawings of Aleksir— identical except for his expressions, one happy, one anguished.

She said, “Your visions are so frantic because you’re seeing the different possibilities. Every time Tellaos changes course, he changes the futures you see. He must have been doing a lot of thinking this morning.”

Devikra stopped on the last page, the one of Egil, and stared at it for a long time. Wilhara fidgeted; Aleksir looked away. He didn’t like Egil much. He couldn’t get over their first meeting. But still, Egil had been one of his heroes. He didn’t want to see the man like that.

“I’m sorry,” Wilhara said. “That was the only one that was clear.”

“It’s not your fault,” Devikra said. “I have to warn him.”

Devikra stood, and Aleksir and Wilhara shared a look. “Will that help?” Aleksir asked. “I thought there was no changing Wil’s visions.”

“With Tellaos getting involved, every future Wil sees is subject to change. Aleksir, are you coming?”

“To see Egil?” Aleksir asked. “I dunno, he’s sort of creepy.”

Devikra gave him a strange look. “How so?”

“I dunno, just…not normal. He makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I swear, the first time we talked, his eyes turned all black like some sort of monster’s. There was just something…wrong about him. Dev?”

Devikra had gone still, and was staring at Aleksir in horror. “What did you just say?”

“I— what?”

“We have to go. Now,” Devikra announced. “Wil, you’ll be alright while we’re gone, won’t you? We’ll be back soon.”

After they left, Wilhara continued to stare at the final drawing, the drawing of Egil laying dead outside the ruins of Orean. She ran her fingers lightly over the charcoal figure and sent a quick prayer to Atiuh. 

Devikra could still prevent this.


A/N: Like I mentioned in the last chapter, it’ll be a few weeks until I continue with book 2! I will, however, still be posting Egil Interludes, so keep an eye out!

Chapter 24

“Come along, Ofelia,” Isobel said softly, holding the sleepy five-year-old’s hand as they walked along. It was a foggy morning, brisk and still. The sun had risen only half an hour ago and Gallontea was quiet; they passed only a few others on their way.

“You really don’t have to come all this way, Isobel,” Gareth said.

“We’re seeing you to the city gates,” Isobel said. “It’s the least we can do. Who knows when we’ll see you next.”

Roman, beside them, stayed quiet. When they reached the city gates and Gareth said goodbye to Isobel and Ofelia, he kept his distance. The family had a lot of these small, intimate moments. Watching them made his heart hurt, even as they made him happy.

He stiffened in surprise when Isobel hugged him goodbye, whispering in his ear, “Promise you’ll keep him safe.”

“I promise,” Roman whispered back before they broke apart. When they did, Isobel had tears in her eyes.

She wiped them quickly, turning to Ofelia and holding out her hand. Come on, Fe. Time to go home; we’ll see your father again soon.”

Roman and Gareth watched them disappear back into the city fog. When they were fully out of sight, Roman tapped Gareth’s arm. “The others are waiting. Let’s go.”

“Right.”

Outside the city walls, three half-loaded wagons and horses for the diplomats waited. There were no Unity or Alfheim symbols or banners to be seen, nothing to give away the official nature of their mission. The group looked like any other group of merchants or travelers preparing for a journey. Roman tensed as they approached the group – this would be his first time meeting the team in full.

Thea saw them first, holding her skirts and jogging over, her smile tired but excited.

“Leandros and I have been here for hours already,” she explained breathlessly. “It didn’t quite feel real the other day, but it sure does now. Thank you for arranging this opportunity, Mr. Ranulf.”

“Why are you thanking me?” Gareth asked.

“I’ve never left Gallontea, but I’ve always wanted to. Now, I finally have an excuse. Oh! Here, hand me your bags.”

While Thea helped toss Gareth’s bags into one of the wagons, Roman looked around. “This isn’t everyone, is it, Thea?”

“No, I think we’re just waiting on the security team, now.”

“That’s right, you don’t know anyone yet. Let’s see…those are the other diplomats, over there,” Gareth said, nodding at a small group near one of the other wagons. He pointed out Cathwright, a blue dragon and some sort of barrister, Trinity Jones, a blue-scaled, slippery nympherai trained in political negotiations, and Pierce Williams, their guide. Then there was Eresh Ochoa, speaking in urgent, hushed tones to Leandros.

Gareth quickly excused himself to speak to the other diplomats.

“Hey, Thea,” Roman said in an undertone, “What do you see when you look at them all?”

“Nothing suspicious,” Thea said. “All the diplomats are uncomfortable, but it’s just anxiety.”

“And Mr. Ochoa?” Roman asked.

“Him, I’m not sure about. There’s something flickering under the surface. His motives aren’t what they seem, but they are harmless.”

“Could he be doing something for Unity?” Roman asked.

“Maybe,” Thea said, not sounding sure.

“Hey, Leandros!” Roman called, abruptly leaving their little circle.

Annoyance flashed across Leandros’ expression. “Roman. I was hoping you might oversleep and miss our departure.”

“And lose out on a chance to travel with you again? Not a chance.”

Somehow, Leandros’ expression soured further.

“Oh, you’re Mr. Hallisey! It’s a pleasure. I hear Moira Ranulf personally asked you be added to the team.”

“So he’s alright to be here?” Thea asked, following behind Roman. At Roman’s questioning look, she explained, “Eresh is mad that Leandros brought me on.”

“No! I’m not mad,” Eresh said, waving his hands. “Was it inconsiderate not to even consult me on the matter? Or to add someone to the team on such short notice? Perhaps.”

“I’ll be sure to consult you in advance, next time,” Leandros said.

“You know, I hope that you do! Because it almost feels like you don’t trust me to help you, if you’re finding an assistant! Who even is she? She’s no one!”

Thea flinched.

“What’s Eresh worked up about this time?” a low, drawling voice asked. A slouched, languid man joined the group and slung an arm around Eresh’s shoulder. This time, it was Eresh’s turn to flinch violently away. The man was dressed in heavy leather and had a pistol and a wickedly curved knife hanging at his hips.

Two other members of the security team came up behind him – Eftychia Jones, draped in bright fabrics and weaponless, as far as could be seen, and a broad, scowling man with a bow and quiver strapped on his back.

“Ivor! I’m not worked up over anything!” Eresh said. “I was just – ah, Ms. Corscia, you’re here, too.”

Thea jumped in surprise when she noticed there was a woman suddenly standing beside her. Evelyne Corscia didn’t look her way, only frowned at Eresh and crossed her arms. As she did, the muscles in her arms shifted, highlighting scars from old battles. She stood nearly a head shorter than Thea but somehow seemed to take up far more space.

“We’re ready for final inventory checks, if you’re done here, Eresh,” she said, her voice gentle as ever.

“Yes, of course,” Eresh said.

When he tried to leave, Evelyne held out an arm to cut him off. “Apologize to the girl, first.”

Eresh looked like he’d been slapped. “I’m sorry?”

“She’s Leandros’ assistant. He trusts her. He got permission from the Magistrates to add her to the team. It doesn’t matter who she is, beyond that.”

“Evie,” Eftychia said with a pout, “Go easy on Eresh. I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm.”

Evelyne only raised an eyebrow at Eresh.

“My apologies, Ms. Fairfax,” Eresh said hastily. “Big day, you know. I have lots to worry about. Didn’t mean to take that out on you.”

“You’re forgiven,” Thea said, finding her voice.

Eresh nodded and, with that, left to perform their inventory checks. Eftychia skipped off after him.

“Tell me if he bothers you again,” Evelyne said, looking at Thea. “Or just give him a fright yourself. It’s not difficult. I’m sure you’ve got it in you.”

“Got it in-? Oh! Yeah. Yes. That was…” Thea stammered, then trailed off with a cough. While she stared at Evelyne, everyone wanted expectantly. She finally managed, “Inspirational. You’re very kind.”

Evelyne blinked, surprised, then smiled. It softened the harsh planes of her face, almost overshadowing the hawklike set of her gaze.

“Thank you for intervening, Ms. Corscia,” Leandros said.

Evelyne looked at him, her gaze then moving to Roman beside him. She stilled; her eyes widened, her lips parted. Roman only smiled, politely confused.

“Ms. Corscia?” Leandros asked. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Evelyne said, a muscle in her jaw jumping. She backed away slowly, not dropping her gaze from Roman’s until she finally turned away. “I’m going to help Eresh.”

Ivor whistled. “You two have some sort of history?”

Everyone was looking at Roman, now, who shook his head. “No, I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

“You’re Roman Hallisey, right?” Ivor asked. “What do you do on this team, exactly?”

Roman opened his mouth to answer, but Leandros cut in instead. “Ivor, Aaror, can you go help Eresh and Evelyne? I’d like to be able to leave as soon as possible, and we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other on the road.”

Ivor pursed his lips but saluted, heading over to one of the wagons with Aaror on his heels. They both shot Roman curious looks as they passed, but fortunately didn’t ask any more questions. When they were gone, Leandros said, “Thea, can you tell when people are lying?”

“I’m not lying!” Roman said.

“I didn’t think you were, Roman, it only made me curious,” Leandros said soothingly.

“I sometimes can, I sometimes can. It depends on why they’re lying. But if Roman’s lying, I can’t tell,” Thea said, staring over at where Eresh and the security team were working. Her cheeks were faintly flushed.

“I’m not.”

Leandros hid a smile. “I hope not. We have a long journey ahead of us and you’ll be in close proximity to Ms. Corscia all the way.” He sighed. “I’d best go help Eresh as well. Everyone’s here and we really do need to leave.”

When Leandros was gone, Thea finally looked over at Roman. “So what’s the story?”

“Hm?” Roman asked.

“You were lying,” Thea said.

Roman took a deep breath. “Thank you for not telling Leandros.”

“You’re trying to protect her,” Thea said. “I can see it. That’s the only reason I didn’t tell.”

“I’ll tell you the story later,” Roman said.

“Liar,” Thea said, smiling.

Roman smiled back. “Only sometimes.”

Less than half an hour, Unity’s team finally left on their journey. The winding road away from Gallontea led them closer and closer to Lyryma forest – and beyond that, Orean.


A/N: We’ve officially reached the end of the first arc of Fractured Magic! Sorry this chapter was short; next week’s will definitely make up for it. After next week, I’ll be taking a short hiatus from posting new chapters so I can go back and work in those Egil Interludes I’ve been promising. So keep an eye on the official Fractured Magic twitter and tumblr (both @fracturedmagic) – I’ll be posting news of updates there!

Chapter 23

Leandros lowered his hood as he reached the front porch of the Ranulf’s small rented flat. He risked a glance behind him, at the rain beating steadily down on the dark cobblestone, washing it clean. He squinted against the rain, checking for any suspicious movement, but no one seemed to be minding him at all, too busy scrambling to get inside.

After he rang the bell, one of the Ranulf’s servants arrived to take his cloak and lead him up to the sitting room, where both Gareth and Isobel waited. Isobel was ready for him this time, medical supplies laid out on the table beside the sofa.

Leandros had to step around a large suitcase in the doorway to approach them. “You’re ready to leave, I see.”

Gareth eyed the suitcase. “Physically, at least.”

“You look tired, Leandros,” Isobel said. She knelt beside the couch, same as last time, sterilizing a pair of tweezers.

Leandros was tired. Exhausted, even. “I’m quite alright,” he said, “But thank you for your concern.”

Isobel looked like she didn’t quite believe him. “You’re welcome to rest here a while before you head back to the Island,” she offered. “You look like you could use it.”

“There’s too much work to be done, I’m afraid.”

Isobel pursed her lips, displeased. “Alright. Well, let’s get a look at those stitches. Take your shirt off and lay on the sofa, here.”

Leandros did as she said, carefully laying his things out on a chair before settling on the sofa. Isobel washed his wound, then prodded at it with cold fingers for a minute, tutting to herself. “You haven’t been careful.”

“I’ve tried,” Leandros said. “It’s difficult.”

“It’ll be more so when you’re on the road. These won’t be ready to come out for at least a week. You’re full-blooded alfar, aren’t you? Longer, then, given the way your kind heals. Is there a surgeon on the team?”

“Not officially, but most of the security team has medical training.”

“One of them will have to help you, then,” Isobel said, starting to push herself to her feet. Leandros held out a hand to help her. “Gareth, should I go get—,”

“Yes, thank you,” Gareth said, pointedly avoiding Leandros’ gaze. When Isobel was gone from the room, he said, “I’m terribly sorry about this, Leandros. I hope you won’t be too angry with you.”

Leandros sat up, eyes going to where his coat was folded over the chair, his gun hidden in an inner pocket of the coat. “Sorry about what, Gareth?”

“It’s nothing too bad,” Gareth said, waving his hands, “I promise. It’s just…I’ve listened to him whine for days about how you’re avoiding him, and I can’t take it anymore.”

Leandros heard voices from the hall, and he groaned when he recognized the loudest of them. “Gareth, you promised he wouldn’t be here.”

“Sorry! You need to talk to him, you know, and preferably before we leave for Orean.”

“I can hear you, you know, and I don’t whine,” Roman said, appearing in the doorway with a stranger at his heels. He perched on the arm of Leandros’ couch before Leandros could get up. “How do you feel? How are the stitches? Are they healing alright? You’re being careful, aren’t you? What did Isobel say?”

“Breathe, Roman,” Gareth said.

Leandros cringed at the already-yellowing bruise on Roman’s cheek. He half-sat up and reached out to touch it before he realized what he was doing, then quickly folded his hands in his lap. “That doesn’t look pleasant.”

“What, the bruise? I more than deserved it.”

Leandros closed his eyes. “Don’t do that. You didn’t deserve anything. I’m still angry with you, of course, but I shouldn’t have done that,” he said softly. He knew too well how the people closest to Roman were always hurting him.

“Oh,” Roman said, staring at Leandros with wide eyes.

Leandros couldn’t meet his gaze, so he studied the bruise a moment longer and sighed. “It’s times like these I wish I was sapien. You all heal so quickly.”

Roman’s hand ghosted over the bruise. “It doesn’t feel like it. How are your stitches?”

“Fine,” Leandros said. He smirked and began to tug down the bandages. “Would you like to see?”

“No!” Roman said quickly.

“Are you sure?”

Roman made a face. “Stop it.”

Leandros realized he was smiling and quickly stopped. “Hand me my shirt, would you? I have better things to do than sit around and chat.”

“Leandros…”

“Whatever you’re about to say, Roman, think it over, and then don’t say it.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding about them,” the girl who’d come in with Roman said to Gareth.

Leandros frowned at her. She met his glare with a single raised eyebrow and said, “Should Mr. Ranulf and I leave you alone to talk? I don’t mind waiting in the dining room.”

“No, no that’s alright. Wait just a moment longer, Thea,” Roman said. “Leandros, I found out who attacked you.”

Leandros stood, cringing when it jostled his stitches. “How? Who?”

“He was part of the Golden Rose, seeking a fifty triem bounty placed by some member of the Alfheim Council.”

Leandros stilled. “Fifty triems? None of them have that kind of money on their own. There must be multiple council members in on it.”

“Aren’t you from Alfheim? You don’t seem very surprised that they want you dead,” the girl said.

Leandros narrowed his eyes at her. “Roman, who is this?”

“I’ll explain in just a second, I promise,” Roman said, stepping between Leandros and the girl. “Just trust me.”

Leandros looked away, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “If you knew how they felt about me, you wouldn’t be surprised, either. They’ve never liked me. A good deal of that is thanks to my father, but I can take some of the blame. I’ve made many mistakes in my youth, following this one being the worst of them,” Leandros said to the girl, nodding Roman’s way at the end.

“Oh, come on. We had fun together, didn’t we?” Roman asked.

“Don’t be cute. Youre the reason they want me dead.”

“What does Roman have to do with this?” Gareth asked, looking between Roman and Leandros with furrowed brows.

“Oh, that’s all in the past! Whatever the reason, Leandros, I made sure no one’s going to go near that bounty anytime soon,” Roman said. A bright grin spread across his face. “Also, I found you a personal guard! Gareth helped.”

Leandros scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t need a guard.”

Roman scoffed back. “You don’t be ridiculous. I think it’s obvious that you do.”

Leandros relented, pursing his lips. “And where is this guard?”

“Here!” the girl said, holding a finger up. “I would have introduced myself earlier, but…Ms. Theodosia Fairfax, at your service.”

Leandros blinked at the girl. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five,” Theodosia said, frowning.

The alfar looked at Gareth. “Is that supposed to be a lot?”

Gareth shrugged. “For sapiens? Enough.”

“I have a young face,” Theodosia said, standing taller. She had large green eyes and brown hair piled into a messy bun, emphasizing her large ears, pierced in several places. Her square face was hidden behind a wall of freckles that stretched from the roots of her hair to where her neck disappeared beneath her high collar.

Roman beckoned Theodosia closer. “Thea, tell him what you can do.”

“Do?” Leandros asked.

“I’m rosanin,” Thea said. “I have an ability— that is, I can read people’s auras, and their auras manifest their intentions. You know, whether they’re vengeful, jealous, well-meaning. If they’re doing what they’re doing because of greed or righteousness. Or hurt and love.” Thea glanced between Roman and Leandros, then looked at the ceiling and scrunched up her nose, evidently trying to find a better way to explain it. “Everyone emits a sort of…glow. There’s color, texture, brightness, and that changes based on where a person’s coming from. It’s hard to interpret sometimes, but I’m good at it.”

“It’s different from emotions,” Roman clarified, practically vibrating with excitement. “She can tell when people are going to act a certain way.”

Theodosia nodded. “I see emotion bleeding into action. Someone can hate you and want you dead, but I’ll only see it when they decide to kill you. Or someone could love you, but until they decide to kiss you, I don’t see it.”

Leandros tipped his head to the side, considering. “And if someone tries to kill me because they love someone who wants me dead?”

“People are more than a single motivation. I’d see the love, but the violence would be more immediate.”

Roman grinned. “See? She’s perfect. If someone is going to hurt you, Thea can warn you. Plus, look at her! No one will ever suspect she’s guarding you.”

Hey,” Theodosia said, resignedly.

“Sorry, Thea,” Roman said, patting her arm.

“Are you sure this is something you want to do? We’ll be gone a month, at least,” Leandros told her. “And it may be dangerous.”

Thea nodded. “I’m sure. Mr. Hallisey told me about everything that’s going on, and I want to help.”

Leandros considered her a moment. “Tell me, what do you see when you look at me?”

“Oh,” Thea said, deflating. She eyed Leandros. “Are you sure you want to know? Some people don’t take it well.”

“I can handle it.”

“If you say so.” Thea looked Leandros carefully up and down. “You’ve got a lot of emotions all mixed up, and they’re playing an important part in driving you forward. It’s more emotion than I’ve ever seen from anyone, actually, let alone an alfar. Most of it is layers of anger.” When Leandros winced, Thea added, “Sorry.”

“What do you see when you look at him?” Leandros nodded at Roman. “Selfishness? Cowardice? Apathy?”

“No…Guilt, mostly. Everything’s weirdly dampered with him, so it’s hard to tell.” Thea sighed. “But I thought I was going to be a bodyguard, not a couples’ mediator.”

At Leandros’ shocked expression, she backtracked immediately. “Sorry! I’m terribly sorry. That was rude. Please don’t fire me.”

“I won’t fire you,” Leandros said. “I haven’t even officially hired you yet. Do you think you’ll be able to pack your things and wrap up your affairs before the day’s out?”

Thea nodded. “I don’t have many affairs to wrap up.”

“I’ll need you to come with me to the Island to fill out some paperwork— Unity wants records of everyone going on this mission. As far as they’re concerned, you’re my assistant. Understand?” Leandros asked. When Thea nodded again, he continued, “Good. Would you wait for me downstairs? I’d like to speak with Roman for a moment.”

Thea waved a quick goodbye to Roman and hurried off. Leandros stared at Gareth until Gareth took the hint, starting in his seat and stammering some excuse about going to speak to Isobel about supper. Once Roman and Leandros were alone, neither knew what to say.

Roman fidgeted, then broke the silence. “Hopefully, Thea’s assistance won’t even be necessary. I hear there’s word going around that anyone who harms you will have to face Egil.”

Leandros’ expression softened. “Thank you, Roman. I know how difficult it is for you to invoke that name.”

Roman shrugged and looked away. “You’ll like Thea, I think. She’s a lot of fun.”

“It’s a nice thought, but I don’t have time for fun.”

Roman studied him, his expression turning serious. “You’ve changed.”

“If I have, it’s your fault.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Where did you go?”

“Leandros, I didn’t mean to—,”

“But you did. Amos and Rhea mourned you, you know. They thought you’d died— until new Egil stories started surfacing, anyway. And I couldn’t tell them that you left because I—,” Leandros cut himself off mid-sentence. Thea had been right about layers of anger, and this one sat closest to his heart. He would not be ruled by it. He took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter anymore, I suppose. Have you been alone all this time?”

“What?” Roman asked, thrown by the sudden shift, his dark eyes going wide. Then he shifted, hid his surprise behind his mask. “Would you be jealous if I said no?”

“I’d be concerned if you said yes.”

“Why? Why even ask?”

“Because, despite everything, I care about you and I know how you are about self-imposed solitude.”

“Can’t you go back to yelling at me?”

“So you have been alone,” Leandros guessed, Roman’s expression confirming it. “You have to know how unhealthy that is, Aim.”

Roman flinched at the old nickname. “I did just fine without you mothering me.”

Leandros huffed and moved to retrieve his clothes. “I don’t know why I bother with you.”

“I don’t know why you do, either. Hey,” Roman said quietly, something about his tone making Leandros stop and look at him. He was glad he did. Roman didn’t look like Roman, in that moment; he looked like Egil. There was a difference, albeit a subtle one— something about the set of his shoulders, the depth of his gaze.

Roman would hate Leandros for saying it, but Leandros sometimes felt that Roman was the mask, and Egil the person behind it.

“There are Enforcers on your team,” Roman said.

“I figured.” Leandros shrugged on his shirt. “I could probably point a few of them out. Do you know what they’re after? It’s certainly not rescuing my uncle.”

“No,” Roman agreed. “They’re after whatever it is you and Rhea saw that day.”

“Magic,” Leandros said. Before Roman could speak, he continued, “Don’t you go doubting me, too. I know what I saw. Whatever that was, there’s no other way of explaining it.”

“I’d never doubt you,” Roman said, honestly. “And even if Unity does, they believe you enough to chase whatever this thing is. That’s another reason it’ll be useful having Thea around— I don’t know what the Enforcers are going to do, or how they’re going to do it. Ms. Fairfax can be our secret.”

Our? Roman, what are you even doing back in Gallontea? Why are you on this team? After all you did to get away from them, why are you back again? How can you take it?”

“I can’t,” Roman said. Egil’s edge slipped away as he wrapped his arms around himself, as if trying to hold himself together. “But I can’t keep watching Unity grab at power without doing anything. They’d raze Orean to the ground if they had the chance; I can’t let them. I have to find that magic before they do.”

“You’re planning on betraying the team,” Leandros guessed.

“I’ll help you get Amos back first, if I can.”

Leandros shook his head. “No, leave my uncle to me. You’re right to be doing what you’re doing, and I’ll help you, if I can.”

“Thank you.”

Leandros turned to leave, hesitating in the doorway. “Say you get the magic. What then? You’ve betrayed them with this, betrayed them by not killing me after promising to. You have this magic, this weapon— whatever it may be. What then?”

“I don’t know,” Roman answered. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

“You never do,” Leandros said. “You probably should.”

“Probably.”

Leandros sighed, shook his head, and waved a goodbye to Roman before going downstairs to find Thea.


Chapter 22

Maebhe took two steps out of Lyryma and sank to her knees. It was overwhelming— the open air, her home valley, the silhouette of Orean glittering off in the distance. She felt the grass, wild and damp beneath her. It felt cold through the muddied fabric of her trousers.

Then there was a gentle hand on her shoulder and Íde crouched beside her. “Maebhe, are you alright?”

Maebhe grunted and flopped the rest of the way onto the ground. Kieran laughed and sat on her other side, Íde joining them after a moment’s hesitation.

Finally, they’d made it home.

The group sat at the top of a long hill, Lyryma at their backs. That strange, magical realm was solidly behind them, now, and Maebhe was glad for it. There were no sunlight trees out here, no strange songs drifting between dark trees, no red dragons. Ahead of them stretched Creae Valley, its grassy expanse smattered with patches of golden flowers. Across the valley, the horizon was shaped by the tree-covered hills of Rossmor forest.

To their left was Orean. The city was built on a hill at the edge of the mountains and was walled in with the valley’s famous silver brick. From a distance, they made Orean shine. To their right was Illyon, smaller than Orean but made of the same silver brick.

“Why are we stopping now?” Leihlani asked, creeping out of the forest. “We’re so close.”

“Leihlani, just enjoy being out of that damned forest,” Drys said.

“I like that damned forest. We don’t have to deal with that,” Leihlani waved distastefully at the smoke rising from Illyon’s chimneys.

“And we don’t have to deal with dragons that are supposed to be extinct,” Maebhe countered.

“Neither do we, normally. There is something wrong, and the problem is not only with Lyryma.”

Kieran stood. “Enough of this gloomy talk. Let’s keep moving. The sooner we warn Orean, the more time they have to prepare for Unity’s arrival.”

The others pushed themselves to their feet with minimal grumbling. Maebhe ran to Leihlani and jumped, clambering up the oanai’s sides, then perched herself on the oanai’s shoulder. Leihlani let out an amused snort, and together, the group started down the hill.

The walls of Orean grew larger as they approached, and eventually, even Leihlani had to crane her neck to look up at the battlements. Having seen the massive oanai coming down the hill, a line of officers were assembled at the gates to meet them, their red uniforms and caps making them look identical. Only their leader stood apart, his uniform lined with gold accents. Kieran had the same one sitting in his closet.

He waved a salute to the officers as their leader stepped forward. The man held a hand up to shield his eyes from the suns and squinted at the group, revealing a round face almost entirely covered in swirling dirin.

“Kieran, is that you?” he called. “And Íde, too! We weren’t expecting you back until winter! Where’s Maebhe?”

Maebhe waved from her perch on Leihlani’s shoulder. “Hello, Captain Song!”

The orinian captain looked up, eyes widening. “Maebhe! Who, ah…who do you have with you?”

“This is Leihlani and Drys,” Kieran said. “New friends of ours. Song, we need to see the King immediately. It’s important.”

“You know these people?” Leihlani asked Kieran, bending and examining Captain Song with open curiosity. Maebhe took the opportunity to jump down.

“Yes, we work together.”

Leihlani nodded. “Kieran is correct: we need to see your King Whelan.”

Captain Song nodded weakly, trying not to lean away from Leihlani’s scrutiny. He beckoned one of the officers over. “Run ahead and tell His Majesty to expect us.”

The officer nodded and dashed off, the rest of the group following him through the open city gate. Once inside, Maebhe felt a rush of relief at the familiarity of Orean’s streets. The weight from everything she’d seen and done on this journey bore her down, but it eased here in Orean, just a little. It was easier to ignore, here. She was home, and Gallontea was so very far away.

Orean had an unusual design – it was, in essence, a city within a city. Maebhe had always thought that the outer city looked the way someone who’d never seen a city might design one. Everything was planned and compartmentalized the way cities rarely were, too inorganic. And because of the hilly landscape, the streets were confusingly convoluted. To get to the palace, they’d have to go up hills and down hills, around bends and through neighborhoods. It was a shame Leihlani couldn’t fit in a carriage.

They were paraded through the streets instead, orinians everywhere stopping what they were doing to point and stare at the oanai. When they passed a group of children playing in the street, the children peering up at Leihlani wide-eyed and open-mouthed, Leihlani stopped to peer back.

“They’re so small,” she said to Maebhe, voice soft.

The other unusual thing about Orean was the way it had expanded. Rather than add a third ring to the layers of city- and really, being built on the side of a mountain, there wasn’t much room for physical expansion anyway- Orean built upward. It was an architectural mess, modern buildings stacked on top of old ones, towering new structures scattered about the city.

It certainly created a bizarre visual effect, but Maebhe thought the city was beautiful. She’d grown tired of the browns, grays, and blacks of Gallontea. Orean was colorful. It was more than the red and blue rooftops of the outer city, there was life everywhere— flags, signs, lanterns, even the clothes lines stretching from house to house were colorful, with bright banners and ribbons hanging off them. Leihlani had to duck whenever they encountered the latter.

And then there was the old, inner city, dropped right at the heart of the modern one. The old city was walled off from the outer and until recently, when overpopulation demanded they use all the space they had, had been completely inaccessible to the public.

Still, the old city was mostly a novelty, full of crumbling old buildings that had survived the Great War only to be eroded by time. Some of the buildings had been renovated, though, and people had slowly been migrating into the old city – including the King himself, who’d relocated to one of the old city’s palaces when Maebhe and Kieran were still children.

At the old city’s walls, they encountered more guards. All eyes were on them as Captain Song led them through the gates, then through the weathered streets to the King’s palace. Behind it, at the highest point in the city, loomed a building all of Orean liked to pretend didn’t exist.

Maebhe glanced at it and looked quickly away, suppressing a shiver. It was a sinister old castle, char-blackened and ancient. The entire eastern wing had been torn away, leaving the building’s innards exposed. Even the castle’s once-ornate windows had been blown out, and now ivy climbed up and through them. The place felt lonely. It felt hollow. It wasn’t like the rest of Orean.

Captain Song didn’t so much as glance at it, leading the group inside the palace and down a long echoing hallway lined with cold statues. Surprisingly, the ceilings were high enough for Leihlani, who only had to duck in the dark, twisting stairways. When they reached the throne room, the Captain had them wait outside while he spoke with the King.

Maebhe surreptitiously wiped her palms on her trousers. She’d never met the king before. She’d never done anything this important before.

It all hit her at once, here in the grand halls of the King’s palace. Their whole trip, everything they’d been through, it was all for this. It was all to get here. Finally, Captain Song returned, wordlessly beckoning them inside. Their group was given a double – door entrance, palace guards on either side watching them pass before shutting the doors solidly behind them. Maebhe’s ears flattened to her head.

The throne room was round, with floor-length windows taking up its circumference. Some were open, making soft blue curtains billow in from the eastern side. Even from here, Maebhe could catch glimpses of that blackened castle.

The King himself – at least, Maebhe assumed this was the King. She’d never actually met him – was settled in an armchair far from those eastern windows. The modern furniture seemed almost out of place in the otherwise ancient throne room, but the man himself did not. He was an older man, hair streaked with silver and dark skin framed by thin dirin. He stood when they entered, folding his long hands in front of him and inclining his head in greeting.

Kieran bowed, Maebhe and Íde quickly following. Maebhe could hear her heart beat in her ears.

“Please, stand,” King Whelan said in a voice much younger than his appearance suggested. It matched the sharp light in his eyes, the sleek fit of his well-tailored suit, made in the latest style.

“It’s been a long time since one of the oanai people has come here,” he said to Leihlani, who had just wormed her way through the small door. “I hope nothing is wrong. What brings you out of your forest?”

Leihlani pressed a fist to her chest and bowed. “The story your subjects carry with them, Your Highness.”

King Whelan looked at Kieran, Íde, and Maebhe with a raised eyebrow, his stare making Maebhe want to inch behind her brother. Whelan beckoned Kieran forward. “I know you. You’re a detective with the force, are you not?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“What is this story you carry with you?”

Kieran cleared his throat. “You’re aware that the alfar King Nochdvor is missing, sire?”

Whelan’s thin lips pressed together. “I am, yes.”

“You know?” Maebhe asked before she could stop herself, tone accusatory.

Kieran shot her a horrified look, but only glanced between the twins curiously. “Your sister?”

Before Kieran could answer, Maebhe took a step forward, dropping into another hasty bow. “Maebhe Cairn, Your Highness. Kieran, Íde, and I just got back from our holiday in Gallontea. Did you know, sire, that your people are being rounded up and thrown in prison there?”

Whelan stared at her a moment, expression unchanging. “Explain.”

“It’s true,” Kieran said. “Shortly after the Nochdvors told Unity about their King, we were ambushed in our hotel by Unity officials. Maebhe escaped, but Íde and I were taken to Unity Island, where we were questioned about our purpose for being in the city. They thought we were spying.”

From there, Kieran went on to explain their questioning, their escape, and the journey through Lyryma. When he reached the end of the story, Íde fumbled in her bag for the newspaper they’d brought with them from Gallontea. She offered it up to the King alongside Roman’s letter.

King Whelan took the papers and walked over to one of the windows, his back to the group. Over his shoulder, the whole valley was visible. Maebhe wondered if Whelan had been here, looking out at Illyon, the day the alfar King had been kidnapped.

“That should explain more about Unity’s position, sire. The man that rescued us, Roman Hallisey, said that Unity would be sending a diplomatic team to Orean—,”

“I see,” Whelan said, calmly as ever. “They can come and Orean will cooperate, but they’ll find the journey was for nothing. I don’t know where their King is, nor where to even begin looking for him.” He turned to them. “This letter says Unity thinks we kidnapped Nochdvor with magic. What does this mean, magic?”

“We don’t really know,” Kieran said.

Whelan frowned and kept reading. When he reached the end, his frown deepened. It was another minute before he set the letter down and turned to the group. “I’m sorry for all you three have been through. Go home, get some much-deserved rest, and think on this no more. I will work with Unity and ensure that this conflict is resolved smoothly.”

For the first time in weeks, Maebhe felt relief, even when a part of her kept saying, “This can’t be it. It can’t be this simple. Can it?”

Whelan turned to Drys and Leihlani, next. “Will you be staying in Orean?”

Leihlani shook her head. “My message has been delivered, and I must return to Home.” Her expression darkened, thick brows furrowing. “I have things I must report to my people.”

Whelan frowned, but nodded. “I thank you for coming. Know that your people are welcome in Orean anytime.”

Leihlani repeated her salute from earlier. “And know that if you need the oanai’s assistance with Unity, you need only ask.”


Outside the palace, Leihlani said her goodbyes. She crouched low so that she was eye level with the orinians, and said in her low, gentle voice, “It was an honor to meet you all. I’ll miss you, little ones. Please come visit us in Home whenever you like.”

Maebhe laughed and threw her arms around the oanai’s neck. “We’ll miss you too, Leihlani. Be careful going back through that forest, please.”

Leihlani pulled back and did her strange, grimacing smile, and that was the end of it. She was led back to the city gates by Captain Song, but surprisingly, Drys didn’t join her.

“Drys, that’s your debt repaid, isn’t it?” Maebhe said to them. “Aren’t you going to go back to Home?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me, Maebhe Cairn? My debt to Hallisey is repaid, but I think you owe me a debt of your own.”

Maebhe frowned.

“I’m only teasing. I’d only like to explore Orean a bit,” they said, looking around. Their eyes caught on the old black castle.

“You’re not exploring there,” Kieran said sternly, following their gaze.

“Why not? What is that castle?”

“If you believe the legends, it once belonged to Tellaos,” Íde said with a small smile.

Drys laughed. “Tellaos? The dragon Guardian? Why would he have a castle here?”

“This valley was one of the worst battlefields of the Great War,” Íde said. “They say Tellaos used to sit up there and watch for fun, enjoying the hell he created.”

“It’s just an old castle,” Kieran said, stifling a yawn. “But it is off limits. Drys, you’re welcome to stay with us, but don’t expect us to be gracious hosts. I think I’m going to sleep for the next week.”

Kieran, Íde, and Drys began walking away, heading in a different direction than Leihlani disappeared in, but Maebhe didn’t join them. She stared at the darkened castle. As she watched, something moved in one of its windows.

“Maebhe?” Kieran called. “Are you coming or not?”

“Yes,” Maebhe said, tearing her eyes away. “I’m coming.”


A shrill bell rang, followed by the clink of metal and a release of steam. Dinara strolled down the train platform, looking for an open car. She was always loathe to leave Gallontea, and not even heartbreak or treason could change that.

“Hurry up, Di, or we’re going to leave you behind!” Gemma called out an open window. Dinara waved, but didn’t pick up her pace — at least, not until the train whistle sounded again. She hurried toward and empty car and nearly slammed into someone, catching their shoulder with her own.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Dinara said, gasping when she saw the woman’s face. The upper half of it was hidden beneath a veiled hat, but she was clearly orinian— she had the ears, the tail, and striking orange dirin carved like craters into her skin. Layers of an almost-liquid orange glow swirled in the gaps, matching the glow of her eyes.

Dinara stared wordlessly, a slow horror creeping over her, but when the orinian turned to leave, she called, “Wait!” and caught the woman by the wrist. Even through Dinara’s gloves, she could feel how cold the strange woman was. It seeped through the leather and crawled up her arm.

“Are you coming or going, ma’am?” she asked. The woman only stared, though, tipping her head down to hide more of her face.

“You shouldn’t go to Gallontea,” Dinara continued. The woman seemed to have been heading toward the station’s exit, and if she made it into the city streets, Dinara wouldn’t be able to help her. “It’s not safe for orinians right now.”

“Why?” the woman asked, tasting the word as it rolled off her tongue. Her accent was unusual. It certainly wasn’t like Maebhe, Kieran, and Íde’s had been. It sounded much older.

“Haven’t you heard? The King of Alfheim is missing. The people think-,”

“No,” the woman said, cutting Dinara off. “Why warn me? You’re sapien.”

“That shouldn’t matter. I don’t want you to get hurt if I can help it.”

The woman frowned at Dinara, a delicate furrow appearing between her brows. The impatient screech of the train whistle and the low creak of wheels in motion made Dinara jump. “Oh, I’m sorry! I have to go!” she called, then ran and jumped onto the nearest train cart even as it to move away from her. She landed on the narrow stairs, her heavy skirts whipping around her, and turned just in time to see the woman’s strange eyes – still watching her – disappear from view as the train rounded a bend.

Dinara shook herself and continued into the cabin, smiling when she saw she’d chosen the car the costume crates had been stuffed into. She recognized the markings on one as the box of masks and tried not to think about the last time she’d rummaged through that crate, with Roman.

“So much for a quiet trip,” a voice said, and Dinara jumped.

“Oh, Tabia! You startled me,” Dinara said with a laugh. The older actress was nestled between two crates, a book in her hands. “I promise not to bother you too much.”

As they left Gallontea behind, Dinara made her way back onto the stairs. Months earlier, when the Webhon Players had wound their way south, the world had been green. Now, while the long grasses were still verdant, the trees knew that autumn neared. The leaves were changed in preparation, like wildfire in color and scope.

It reflected how Dinara felt inside. Changing and adapting, readying for something new. Holding onto the door’s handle, Dinara leaned out of the car as far as she dared. She laughed as the wind tickled her face and tugged her hair. As if in response to her laughter, the train whistled, shrill and loud. The wind was cold, but it was colder where Dinara was going— north to Adondai, the capital of the Sheman province.

There, the whole world awaited Dinara, if she could only gather the courage to chase after it.


Chapter 21

A/N: Warning in this chapter for discussion of past abuse.


The morning following Leandros’ injury, Gareth lounged in his sitting chair reading when he looked up to find Roman standing over him, hands on his hips, and Gareth nearly dropped his book in surprise.

“Roman! What-?”

“Are you ready to go?” Roman asked, not waiting for Gareth to recover.

“I— yes? Am I dressed appropriately?” Gareth asked. A lot had happened yesterday, but he thought he remembered Roman saying something about training.

Roman pursed his lips and considered Gareth’s pressed suit. “Sure, I’d say so.”

Gareth had a chance during Roman’s pause to study him in return. “What the hell happened to you?”

Roman looked the way one might feel after a long night drinking and then catching the flu to boot. His hair was all in disarray and he had tired dark bags under his eyes. When he smiled, it lacked its usual magic. A blotchy bruise spread across his cheekbone from Leandros’ hit.

“Late night,” Roman said. “Let’s go.”

Roman led Gareth out of the house and to Rinehart Park, heading to a secluded grove off the main path. It felt like days ago that Gareth had been here with Leandros, Eftychia, and Eresh.

“Did you find out who attacked us yesterday?” Gareth asked in a whisper on the way.

“Yes,” Roman said, then refused to elaborate.

“What kind of training are we doing, exactly?” Gareth asked him.

Roman flashed a quick grin. “I’m going to teach you how to fight.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Roman held two fists up. “You know, fight. Just a little self-defense.”

“You told me I was dressed appropriately! I can’t fight in this!”

“Gareth, if you’re being attacked, your assailant isn’t going to give you time to run home and change clothes first. If you learn how to fight in a suit, you’ll be ready for anything.”

“Fine, but I’m at least taking off my jacket. Why do I need to fight, anyway?” he asked, neatly folding his coat and setting it out of the way. “Isn’t that the security team’s job?”

Roman went a step further than Gareth, slipping out of his waistcoat and shirt and leaving him in only an undershirt, arms bare to the shoulder.

You’re not going to train in a suit, but you’re going to make me do it?”

“I can already fight in anything. Besides, no one’s making you keep your shirt on.”

Gareth tugged self-consciously at his waistcoat. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Roman sighed. “I wouldn’t rely on the security team, if I were you, and this mission might be dangerous. Call this a precaution.”

“Still not an answer. You won’t be able to slither your way out of this one, Mr. Hallisey. You promised me explanations.”

“I’ve never slithered out of anything in my life!” Roman said. He raised his fists again and dropped into a defensive stance, growing suddenly serious. “Answers after, Gareth, I promise. Now, show me what you can do. Try and hit me.”

Gareth tried and failed spectacularly. Roman merely stepped aside, then swept a leg under Gareth and knocked him to the ground. “Your form’s not bad, but you compromised too much of your balance with that swing. Get up. Try again.”

Gareth pushed himself to his feet and brushed the grass off his trousers. He swung without any sort of prelude this time, thinking to catch Roman off-guard. But Roman dodged aside again, this time slapping Gareth’s wrist like a parent scolding their child.

“Better,” Roman said. He nudged Gareth’s feet into a wider stance. “Try again.”

It didn’t take Roman long to realize that Gareth had no fighting talent to speak of. He dropped his aggressive teaching tactics once he did, slowing down, showing Gareth how to block certain attacks and how to get around certain types of blocks. He ran drills, corrected mistakes, had them go again and again and again.

It was at least an hour before Gareth finally landed a hit.

Roman laughed when he did, clearly surprised. “Now you’re getting it!” he said, rubbing his shoulder. Without preamble, he came at Gareth again, feinting a hit, landing another, and once again sweeping Gareth’s legs out from under him before Gareth could even blink, let alone react. Sounding disappointed, he said, “You let your guard down.”

“You’ve been going easy on me!” Gareth sputtered.

“Of course I have,” Roman said, one hand on his hip. The other, he offered out to help Gareth up. “I don’t want to kill you.”

Gareth batted Roman’s hand away. He wished he could sink into the tall stalks of grass and disappear into the soil. He must’ve looked pretty petulant, because Roman rolled his eyes.

“Gareth, you’re just getting started. It took me a lot of time, practice, and training to get as good as I am today.”

Gareth scowled. He found a small pebble in the grass and tossed it in Roman’s direction. “Liar. It was probably effortless, like everything you do.”

Roman was silent a moment, then he flopped onto the grass across from Gareth. “In my first fight, I was beat nearly to death and left bleeding in the street. I was fourteen. I think it was another decade before I actually won a fight.”

“Oh,” Gareth said, horrified.

“Don’t look so glum, Gareth,” Roman said with forced cheer. “I’m sure you’ll beat me someday. We could try—,”

“No more, please. I’m old, Roman. There comes a point where it’s just too late to pick this sort of thing up.”

Roman gave Gareth a strange look, but made no attempt to force Gareth up for more. The two of them fell into silence and stayed that way for a while, letting the flush that comes from hours of activity and sunlight fade until they’d recovered enough to enjoy the breeze. Roman ran his fingers through the grass, flattening the blades only to tousle them up again. Gareth watched him, wondering how Roman could go so quickly from discussing being beaten bloody to indulging in such childlike distractions.

“Who trained you to fight?” he asked.

“It was mostly trial and error,” Roman said. He sprawled out on the grass and stared up at the two suns occupying the cloudless sky, one arm under his head to prop it up. “Did you know they’re getting closer to each other?”

“Who are?”

“The suns.” He pointed. “We orbit them, but they also orbit each other. With each cycle they get closer; we just can’t tell because they’re so far away.”

“Are you an astronomer, now?”

Roman shook his head. “I had a friend who was. She explained it to me. Something about magnetic activity, I think. She thinks they’re going to coalesce to form one big star, but they’re just as likely to collide, explode, and kill everyone. Either way, it won’t happen for thousands of years.”

“I doubt Atiuh would let the suns explode.”

“That’s assuming Atiuh exists. Or, if he does, that we matter to him.”

“You think he doesn’t? Where do you think all this comes from, then?” Gareth asked, gesturing around them.

“Me? I believe he exists, and that he created ‘all this.’ I just think he’s either dead, gone, or no longer gives a damn.”

Gareth gritted his teeth and looked away, making Roman laugh. “Did I strike a nerve? I’m sorry, Gareth, I shouldn’t have said that, knowing how religious you are. What do you say we avoid the topic, since I’m not going to convince you and you’re definitely not going to convince me.”

“Fine.” Gareth mopped some of the sweat off his brow. He glared up at the suns, knowing his skin would be as red as an osun petal later. With his naturally darker skin, Roman probably wouldn’t even show a tan. “Instead, you can tell me why Moira asked you to kill Leandros. Or, while we’re at it, how you convinced her to add you to the team.”

“No, wait, let’s go back to discussing religion.”

Gareth sighed. “Roman, may I be frank?” he asked. Roman nodded, wary. “I trust you. It’s strange, but I trusted you almost as soon as I met you. Now I’m wondering if I was a fool to do so.”

Roman cringed and sat up. “I can see why Moira made you a diplomat. Your talent for guilting people is unparalleled. Hm, where to start?”

“From the beginning.”

Roman laughed. “The beginning? That’s easy for you to say, but where did it all begin? Let’s see, I was born in a small village in Troas to Christian Hallisey and Catalina Rosario-Hallisey. I grew up with my mother while Christian traveled about the continent selling wares—,” Roman paused here and waited for Gareth to interject. When he didn’t Roman said, “This is where you say, ‘Stop being cheeky. I didn’t ask for your life story. Knock it off and answer my questions’.”

“No, keep going. I want to hear.”

Roman regarded Gareth for a moment, something vulnerable shifting in his expression. He laid back on the grass and threw an arm over his face so his eyes were hidden in the crook of his elbow. The words flowed easier after that, like he needed the barrier to be able to continue. “Catalina was killed when I was young. Before you ask, I don’t know how, why, or by whom, even though I was right there when it happened. After that, I was hauled off to travel with my father. We settled in Alfheim, where I started school. I was expelled some years later, and Unity hired me not long after that. This is where you’ll start getting your answers.”

“You underestimate the scope of my questions. I’m sorry about your mother.”

Roman shrugged, best as he could in his position.

“At least you still had your father.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘at least’,” Roman said. “He was a cruel man, made crueler when he decided I was at fault for my mother’s death. On those days, he looked at me and…he saw Catalina. He saw the life he never got to have with her and he saw her dead all over again. I looked too much like her, he always said. Maybe I do. I don’t remember.”

“Don’t remember?”

“Her face,” Roman said.

Gareth didn’t know what to say to that. He’d seen glimpses of Roman’s darker sides and had of course picked up on the telltale signs of a difficult upbringing, but Roman seemed happy, friendly and cheerful and kind. Gareth never could have imagined this sadness existed in him.

Roman peeked out from under his arm and laughed, guessing at Gareth’s thoughts. “What you think people are— what they seem to be— is rarely the truth, Gareth. We all pretend, some of us are just better than others. Myself, I sometimes feel like everything I am is a construction. I have to be, because what’s underneath is a damaged broken thing no one should want to be near.”

“I don’t believe that’s true.”

Roman waved his free hand dismissively.

“What did you mean, you don’t know how your mother was killed?” Gareth asked. Something about the way Roman had said that made it sound like there was more to it.

“I just don’t remember,” Roman said. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried so many times, but that whole day is just missing. I remember pieces of it in dreams, sometimes, but I wake up and there’s nothing.”

Gareth sighed. “I can’t imagine how hard that must be. I’m sorry, Roman.”

Roman eyed Gareth, trying to gauge whether his sympathy was genuine. “It was a long time ago, and things are getting better. Well, they get better and then they get worse—that’s just life— but they always get better again. And for now, I’m doing just fine.”

“Are you?” Gareth asked, considering the bags under Roman’s eyes, the bruise on his cheek, his smile. Nothing about it had changed, but now that he knew to look, he could see the sadness in it.

The smile faltered. “I am,” Roman said, not sounding as sure.

“Even with everything going on with Leandros and Unity?”

“I see what you’re doing, Gareth. You’re trying to get your answers. You’ll have them, but I want to explain the situation first. I just…I don’t want you to think less of me, when you hear what I did for Unity, once. I was desperate. You can’t possibly understand the things I went through, but I want to give you an idea.

“After leaving school, I found myself homeless and friendless. My father didn’t want anything to do with me. I tried living alone in the woods for a time, but—,” Roman cut off with a laugh, shaking his head. “It didn’t go well. Have you ever gone hungry, Gareth? The first week without food is always the worst. You’re in agony, every cell in your body screaming for nourishment. After that, the pain dulls but you can still feel yourself growing weaker every day, getting closer to death. It was a hard winter and this sort of hunger that drove me to here, to Gallontea. I did odd jobs, but it wasn’t enough. I lived on the streets.

“Living like that, you have to beg or steal to survive. My pride didn’t allow the former, but I also wasn’t a very good thief. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to rest— if a guard finds you, they beat you and tell you to go away. If anyone else finds you…You’d think we’d stick together, all of us who lived like this, but it’s not so. It’s man against man, fighting over food, shelter, dominance. In the wild, if an animal finds you they’ll only kill you. Desperate, lonely men do much worse.” Roman shook his head as if to clear the thought, “I wasn’t suited to that life, in the end. I got in a fight with some officers, got thrown in jail. That’s where Unity found me. They offered me a job with security, a salary, and answers to questions I’d long sought. Of course I took it.”

“What was the job?”

Roman sat back on his hands and blew out a slow breath. “That’s a harder question than you realize. Are you sure you want to know, Gareth? Even if the simple act of knowing might put you in danger?”

Gareth swallowed. “I want to know.”

Roman nodded. “Unity has been manipulating the course of the world for longer than you could imagine. If you knew half the things they’ve done…”

“Roman,” Gareth interrupted, “Please, just tell me. What are you talking about?”

“Give me a minute. I’m trying to figure out how to approach this,” Roman said, running a hand through his hair, leaving his curls messy. “Have you ever thought about where Unity’s power comes from?”

Gareth hadn’t, but he paused to do so now. “Its laws, or the representatives making them.”

“But why do we listen to the representatives? Why do we obey their laws? Some people do it because it’s easy, or because they believe in the work Unity does, but what about the others? What happens when that’s not enough? When the damage Unity does surpasses the good, why do we still give them power? What’s stopping us from collectively saying ‘damn them’ and doing whatever we want?”

“Fear of punishment, I suppose,” Gareth said. “Fines, prison—,”

“Torture, execution, or worse,” Roman finished, leaning forward. The suns caught a glimpse of some sharp emotion in his dark eyes. The whites of them seemed to flash in the light.

“Well, yes— wait, what?”

“Unity has been ruling for two thousand years, Gareth, getting greedier and greedier with each passing day. In all that time, there’s not been a single revolution, battle, secession – well, aside from Egil’s rebellion, but that’s another issue. Aside from him – no, including him – anyone who speaks out against Unity ends up mysteriously dead, missing, or they just go silent. Why?”

“I don’t know,” Gareth admitted.

“What do you know about the Enforcers?”

“The what?”

“That’s what I thought.” Roman sighed. “You know those dogs that are bred just to be mean? To attack anyone their owner tells them to? You don’t blame the dog for that, right?”

“No, you blame the owner.”

Roman nodded. “That’s what the Enforcers are. They’re Unity’s attack dogs.”

“Okay,” Gareth said, slowly. Then he shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“They’re soldiers. Or slaves, if you prefer. Unity takes them in as children and molds them, turns them into the perfect killers and spies. They’re taught about poisons, weapons, killing. They learn how to steal into cities, break into strongholds, go anywhere, do anything. They’re trained in diplomacy, too— they can befriend, seduce, blackmail, fool anyone into doing anything— whatever Unity needs.”

Roman watched Gareth’s reaction carefully as he spoke. When Roman continued, he closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, fighting off some dark memory. “Unity tortures them, wears them down, strips away their identities. They take away everything that they are until all that’s left are feral tools, loyal to Unity and no one else. They’re shadows and brute force. There’s no escaping them.”

“It sounds like a fiction,” Gareth said.

“I wish I had the luxury of agreeing.”

Roman, you – were you one of them?”

“I was.”

“But you hate Unity. You don’t work for them now. How’d you get away?”

Roman’s answering grin was feral. “I took one too many beatings and turned on my owner. I fled and hid long enough for them to forget about me.”

Gareth looked away, tried to think. He believed it. Even a month ago he might not have, but with the things he’d seen and heard, he believed it. And he realized it made sense – it filled gaps in his research. Suddenly, the pieces fit together. “Egil was one of them, wasn’t he?”

Roman blinked. “Why would you think that?”

Gareth told Roman about the first real account of Egil he’d read, the words “What monster have we created?” written in a Unity Representative’s shaky hands. “Everyone who met him said he seemed like he was trying to make up for something. It explains his feelings toward Unity, too. It just makes sense.

“Roman,” Gareth continued, “Forgive me for pushing, but…Leandros told me to ask you about Egil. He said you knew him.”

Roman’s lips twitched. “Did he?”

Gareth nodded.

“Egil was the first Enforcer,” Roman said, finally, not meeting Gareth’s gaze. “He trained all the others, before he got away, too. I knew him.”

Gareth let out a shaky breath.

“Gareth, you need to listen to me. We’re getting to the important part. I may have gotten out, but the Enforcers are stronger than ever. You know a few of them by now, actually.”

Gareth stared at him. “I what?”

“There are several on the security team,” Roman said. “I haven’t met any of the team yet, so I’m not sure which, but based on what you and Leandros said yesterday, I’d bet that orinian is one of them.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gareth scoffed. “She’s far too sweet to be an assassin.”

“Did you listen to a thing I just said? She’s trained to be that way. Gareth, what did you think of me when we first met? You just told me you trusted me. You trusted me enough to let you drag you wounded to a hospital. You let me near your family, your wife and daughter. You asked me to stay in your house, and I could kill you a dozen different ways, right now, right here, without even exerting myself.”

Gareth swallowed.

“I’m not going to,” Roman scoffed, “If that wasn’t obvious.”

“But Eftychia— she’s a bit loose in the head, I think.”

“That makes it all the more likely. She has to cope with the things Unity’s done to her somehow. I was the same way when I got away from them. Ask Leandros. He met me not long after.”

Gareth stayed silent.

“The Enforcers are Unity’s prized secret, their greatest weapon. It’s a serious mission that takes even two of them away from the Island, so the question is, why are there so many on the team? I don’t believe that it’s to protect the diplomats. Unity wouldn’t waste even one Enforcer for that.”

Slowly, still trying to process it all, Gareth said, “When you were talking with Moira, you said that Unity wants control of the team.”

“Very good, Gareth! They clearly don’t care about the Nochdvors, given what they tried to do with Leandros, but they still want control of this mission. Why? They’re after something other than the safe return of our dear King Nochdvor, perhaps.”

“The magic,” Gareth guessed.

“You do hear a lot, you nosy thing! How much do you know about that?”

Gareth shook his head. “I’ve just heard the rumors. Moira dismissed them as foolish, but I’m not sure I believe anything she’s told me anymore.”

“Smart choice. When the King was kidnapped, Rheamarie and Leandros Nochdvor witnessed an orinian use magic. Unity’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that the Nochdvors were in shock, that they confused some new kind of weapon for magic. But whatever it is, it destroyed Illyon’s throne room in an instant. Whatever it is, they want it. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Unity would mobilize the Enforcers to investigate.”

“Do you think it really is magic?”

“I have no idea,” Roman said. “I’ll have to ask Leandros what he saw, when he decides to speak to me again. But do you see why I needed to get on this team? There’s something strange going on.”

“Is that why you wanted to get on the team so badly?”

Roman hummed. “Nosy and clever. That’s a dangerous combination, Gareth. Yes, it is. There’s something strange going on, and I want to get to the heart of it.”

“Who’s nosy now?” Gareth asked. “What do we do?”

“Wait and see what happens,” Roman said with a shrug. “There’s nothing I can do here, with Unity so close and Orean so far. If it is magic, I’ll decide what to do when I find it. You are to do exactly what you’re supposed to do. The Enforcers aren’t going to harm any of you, and while the diplomatic mission may have been created as a front, it’s still a good idea. If we don’t get Nochdvor back, if you’re unsuccessful, I don’t have a lot of faith in Rheamarie’s temper. She can hold it back better, but when she snaps, she’s worse than her cousin.”

“You know the princess, too?”

Roman looked away, studying his hands. “And her father. We were close, in a way.”

“How?”

“I went back to the the Alfheim Academy after getting away from Unity. I figured I’d finished enough of the program that I might as well. Leandros was in the same class as me, then. I was still damaged and angry about what Unity did to me, and Leandros saw that I was hurting. We became friends, he…helped me heal. We eventually got so close that his family had no choice but to warm up to me as well.”

“But your reunion yesterday…what happened?”

Roman stared off into the park for a long time, then eventually said, “We drifted apart.”

Gareth was learning how to read Roman, by now. He had a certain way of hesitating that meant there was more to a story, and he was doing it now. Gareth waited to see if he’d continue, but instead he shrugged and refocused on Gareth.

“You know, Gareth, I believe it’s your turn.” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve just told you my entire story, and it seems unfair that I still don’t have yours,” Roman said with a small smile. “And I’m done talking about myself.”

“I don’t have a story. You were right when you said I couldn’t understand the things you went through,” Gareth said. “We grew up in Adriat, my siblings and I. My father was a Unity Representative, so we were never lacking. But he wasn’t around much, and when he was, he didn’t care to spend time with us.”

Roman took a deep breath. “That’s not what I meant about not understanding. Pain is pain— yours being different than mine doesn’t make it less real. An absent father can be worse than a cruel one, and I can’t understand what that was like for you, either. But keep going. That was hardly a full story.”

Gareth snorted. “FIne, fine. Growing up, I spent most of my time with Moira and Aldous. Moira helped teach and take care of us, at least until my father died of consumption and Moira took his place in Unity. I married my childhood sweetheart, bought my own home near Adriat, and had Ofelia.”

“You and Isobel were childhood sweethearts?” Roman asked with a smile.

“Yes, her father was the rector at my father’s church. The parish was on Ranulf property, so she lived close. I never made my admiration a secret. When we reached marrying age, I called on her so frequently that I might as well have lived at the parsonage. Her father’s influence is why I’m so unlike my siblings, I think. He was kind and gentle and taught me to think about more than myself.’ Gareth realized he was rambling. “Like I said, boring.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Gareth hummed, grateful for Roman’s assurances. He glanced at the young man and noticed for the first time a long scar on his shoulder. Looking closer, he saw that it wasn’t the only scar— scores of pale lines crisscrossed a pattern into his arms and shoulders, bringing new life to the Enforcer story.

“Did you get all of those when you worked for Unity?” Gareth asked.

Roman looked down at his arms. “Some of them.”

“And the others?”

Roman sat up and shifted onto his knees. He held his arms up so Gareth could see. “See these?” He pointed to the barely-noticeable circles of pink skin on his hands and forearms. “Chemical burns. Back in my day, schools weren’t as concerned with student safety as they are now.”

“I’m sure it had nothing to do with recklessness on your part,” Gareth said, wondering how long ago ‘Roman’s day’ was. It couldn’t have been long.

Roman laughed. “I wasn’t reckless. Curious, maybe.” He looked over his arms again. “I don’t remember how I got most of these, to be honest.” He lifted his undershirt and pointed at a long, jagged pink scar running along his side. “This one, though, is from the first time I tried to hunt on my own. I had to stitch this up with the supplies I managed to steal from the nearest village, so it never healed right. It actually got badly infected— not sure how it didn’t kill me. Come to think of it, this might be where my dislike of stitches came from. You really can’t blame me. This one—,” He pointed to a scar above his navel, “—Is from the time I got stabbed.”

“You what?”

“You heard me.”

Gareth pointed at the strange, round scar just above Roman’s heart. He’d noticed it a few times peeking out from above Roman’s shirt. It was the size of an orange, at least, getting darker as it approached the center. “What about that one?”

Roman tugged up his shirt, smile falling. “That one’s a long story.”

“Ah,” Gareth said awkwardly, and a silence fell between them.

It was getting late, Gareth realized. He still had work to do and his things to pack. He didn’t realize he’d sighed out loud until he noticed Roman studying him with a frown.

“You’re not old, you know,” Roman said. It was the last thing Gareth had expected to hear.

“Beg your pardon?”

“You called yourself old earlier.”

“So? We were joking. I was joking with you.”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard you say something similar, though. I’m starting to think it’s more than a joke to you. Every time you say something bad about yourself, you really believe it. By repeating the lie you’re changing the way others see you, too. Gareth, you’re not old, not boring, not useless. None of it’s true. You’re clever and sharp and trustworthy— I mean it. I don’t spill my secrets easily. I didn’t even tell Dinara most of that, but I trust you. And I think you could be something amazing if you stopped holding yourself back.”

Gareth opened his mouth to respond, then shut it. Looking at Roman now, Gareth could see Roman’s pain, gaping wounds stitched by kindness and hope. His mask had cracked, the facade dissolved. His pain was timeless.

It wasn’t a child’s terror in the face of murdered mothers and cruel fathers, a fresh wound still bleeding. It wasn’t a young man’s burns hidden behind a false smile, thinly repressed horrors tugging at the memory, every movement jostling and sending a wave of familiar pain coursing through the body. It wasn’t a grown man’s resentment as he copes with the chronic aches of an injury never fully healed. It wasn’t the accompanying oppressive depression.

It wasn’t even an old man’s understanding, the calm that comes from finally surrendering to the hurt of so many years ago and knowing that it would soon be over. Roman’s pain was all of these at once, at war within a man who was both young and old, naive and wise. Hurting, repressing, resenting, accepting. Young, old, and somewhere in between.

Gareth saw all of it in Roman’s eyes.

“Roman, how old are you?” he blurted. “Aren’t you sapien? The way Moira talked about you…the way you talk about yourself sometimes, it makes me wonder.”

“That’s a rude question, Gareth, and I don’t think I feel particularly inclined to answer,” Roman said brightly. The mask was going back on.

Gareth let it drop, but the question burned brighter in his mind than before. He belatedly remembered something Moira said the other day. In all of Unity’s history, only one Enforcer ever left Unity’s services. Not two, one.

“Stop staring at me like I just killed your dog, Gareth. What are you thinking?” Roman asked. “No, don’t tell me – it probably involves more questions I don’t want to answer. Hey, aren’t you curious about yesterday? Leandros was right; it wasn’t Unity.”

Gareth blinked. “So someone else does want him dead.”

Roman nodded. “Leandros won’t be safe until we’re out of Gallontea. Even then, Unity might end up siccing one of the Enforcers on him anyway, if they realize I won’t do it.”

“You’re worried.”

“Of course I am.”

“I know someone who could help,” Gareth said. “Wyndie has a friend in the city, a rosanin with an ability that might be of use to Leandros. Come, let’s go talk to Wyndie.”


A/N: Oh, Roman…


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 and then 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, finally deciding that whatever Drys wanted in return was worth it. “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.

“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 already out of Drys’ arms and covering her mouth to hide a laugh.

Don’t,” Kieran warned her.

Maebhe laughed.

Maebhe! It’s not funny!”

“We should be going,” Leihlani said, staring off into the trees, cutting Maebhe’s laughter short. “We have a long journey ahead of us, and I want to get further from the forest’s heart before nightfall.”

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. The further they got from Home, the more dangerous it was.

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. After what felt like ages, 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 yelled, 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 whispered.

Maebhe covered her nose – it wasn’t the plant, this time. There was a new scent. Something smelled like death.

There, between two branches— the tip of a wing. Then, low to the ground— a feather-tipped tail. Whatever it was 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. Maebhe had forgotten this about the stories of the red dragons: it was said they could breathe fire.

“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. The dragon was looking right at them and it began to open its mouth again.

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

“No!,” Maebhe cried, 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, moving as far from Drys in the small clearing as possible. She couldn’t breathe; her stomach had been tying into tighter and tighter knots the whole flight, and now her legs could no longer support her. She sank to the ground. Had Kieran made it out?

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.”

“Yes, I can! And if they don’t make it out – because of your cowardice – I’ll kill you!” Maebhe turned to face pointedly away from Drys, hiding her face behind her hands.

“Oh, don’t be dramatic. With its size and wings, that creature won’t be able to travel very quickly in such a dense forest. Leihlani could outrun it easily.”

“What about the fire?” Maebhe asked without lowering her hands, her voice muffled.

“It’s been a damp summer. That fire won’t make it far. You know, Maebhe Cairn, I just saved your life. Some might say you now owe me.”

Maebhe gritted her teeth and went back to ignoring 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.

Maebhe jumped up as soon as she saw them, throwing her arms around Kieran and Ide. “I’m so glad you’re alright.”

“Yeah, thanks for just leaving us like that,” Kieran said, the teasing half-hearted. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, thanks to Drys. What was that thing?”

“You saw it as well as the rest of us.”

“It was a red dragon,” Maebhe said. “But they’re supposed to be extinct! And this one, why did it smell like it had been dead for years?”

The group shared a dark look, then Leihlani 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. Isobel laughed from the other room 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 you’d better not teach out daughter any foul manners.”

“I would never!” Roman said. He 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 foul manners; she’s already quite the little liar.”

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

Isobel appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame. She looked tired, thick strands of black hair coming out of its simple bun to frame her face. But she smiled fondly at them, all the same. “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 of you.”

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

“I’m not sure,” Isobel said. “He was acting very strangely this morning. Last night, too. 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.”

“Maybe it’s 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.

“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 when he was finally free. “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. “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 hurried 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 the stairs.

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

Roman hurried over to her. There were more feet on the stairs, now – two sets. “Is it Gareth? Who’s here? What’s wrong?”

“Gareth’s fine, Roman, it’s just…” Isobel trailed off as someone entered the room, a worried furrow appearing between her brows.

Roman’s entire body went cold. “Oh,” he said, face-to-face with someone he hadn’t seen in a long time. “Leandros.”

Leandros only 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 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 in his cold blue eyes. It went out quickly; he sighed and leaned into the supportive arm Gareth offered. “We were attacked.”

“We?” Isobel asked, eyes flicking over to Gareth.

Seeing her worried look, 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 rather than let any harm come to him.”

Gareth coughed, uncomfortable.

Isobel nodded, pursed her lips, then said, “Well, Mr. Nochdvor, we can’t keep you 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, hiding instead in a dark hallway, closing his eyes, and sinking to the ground. He hadn’t expected this reunion to come so quickly, and after that meeting with Biro, he wasn’t ready for it. After a moment, he noticed a strange tingling in his arms. He held up a hand to see his veins set faintly aglow.

“No, don’t you dare,” he said out loud, to himself. “Not now.”

When the glow started to fade on its own, he forced himself to his feet and returned to the sitting room, hands shoved in his pocket. He found Leandros stretched out on the sofa, his shirt off his shoulders and waistcoat still bundled in his hands, pressed against his wound. The once-light fabric was almost completely soaked 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. “Roman! Do you know how to perform stitches? Leandros doesn’t want to call a physician, but I fear we may have to.”

“You think he’ll help me, Gareth? After what you told me this morning?” Leandros asked, glaring at Roman. Gareth cringed.

“What?” Roman asked. “I – no, I can’t, Gareth. Sorry.”

Leandros snorted and closed his eyes. “He’s afraid of stitches, anyway.”

“Not afraid,” Roman corrected. “I’m uncomfortable with them. It’s different.”

Leandros shook his head and looked away. Roman was surprised to find he couldn’t read the alfar – Leandros wasn’t emotive on the best of days (unless that emotion was anger), but Roman remembered a time when he could read the alfar’s every thought.

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. Carefully, one hand on her stomach and the other holding Gareth’s 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?”

When Gareth returned, Isobel passed the ice to Roman. “For your face, 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. He prodded at his jaw gingerly; he was lucky it wasn’t broken.

Next, Isobel passed the brandy to Leandros. “Have some. Stitches are no easy thing, and we don’t have anything stronger for you, unless you change your mind about calling a doctor.”

Leandros shook his head 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, dark brows furrowing. Roman tried not to stare, but he couldn’t get over how much older Leandros looked. He was all angles and hard muscle, now, all traces of baby fat gone. His hair was shorter, barely past his chin. He’d even grown taller.

It had been so long since they’d seen each other. Ever since Roman had found out Leandros was in Gallontea, he’d been carefully avoiding this reunion. He knew that his will to stay away would break the moment he saw Leandros again.

Roman watched Leandros long enough to get a look at the wound but not long enough to see the needle get anywhere near Leandros’ skin.

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

Roman cringed.

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

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

“No,” Leandros said coldly. “We were. A long time ago.”

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

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

“Tell one of the Magistrates that you’d kill me,” Leandros said, meeting Roman’s gaze. Roman could see the fury in his eyes, but there was more to it— sadness, fear, and other emotions Roman wasn’t used to seeing in Leandros’ eyes.

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

“It’s true, I heard it,” Gareth said. “Moira was in on it, too – 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 need to be on this team, and if I’d refused, they wouldn’t have let me just walk away. And then they would have hired someone else, anyway – someone more willing to finish the job. 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’re an idiot.”

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

“Hey, now,” Gareth huffed.

Roman ignored him. “I didn’t mean it, I just panicked. I wouldn’t hurt you, Leandros.”

“We both know that’s not true, though, don’t we?” Leandros asked, making Roman flinch again. He sighed. “Still, I do 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. “Multiple someones. The attackers today definitely weren’t with Unity.”

“Do you know who did do this?” Roman asked.

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.”

“Okay,” Roman said. “I can do that.”

“We left one alive,” Leandros said. “Eresh 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?” Gareth asked.

Roman cringed, but nodded and followed Gareth downstairs. Gareth stopped in the foyer. “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, avoiding 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, first.”

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

Roman nodded and slipped out of the house.


Roman was angry. He hated being angry – 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 the 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 barkeep behind the counter, the shadows of the open doorway, even the silhouette of a dragon pacing the dock outside the only window.

Few knew about the existence of this tavern – the Broken Pistol, it 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 stumble across it, their body would likely be found floating in the pier a week later, robbed down to their undergarments. 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. Until now, they’d never targeted a friend of his.

After leaving Gareth’s, he’d gone to have a chat with Leandros’ surviving attacker in the city jail. The group had all been members of the Golden Rose, trying to take out a someone important to Unity and chase a bounty at the same time. The irony was that they’d have done Unity a favor if they’d succeeded, but how could they have known that?

The organization’s leaders all sat around a table across the tavern. 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.

There’s some demand for his neck around here, you know.”

Roman’s smile fell. “Leandros’? 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,” Roman said, putting on a good show of sounding wounded.

“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.

Unity wanted Leandros dead, and so did Alfheim and who-knew how many others. Protecting Leandros at this point would take Roman’s best trick.

“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. When it came out that Unity didn’t care – and it would come out, sooner or later, more would.

Thane raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. “If memory serves, Nochdvor’s capable of taking care of himself.”

“Yeah,” Roman said, thinking of the long, bloody gash crossing Leandros’ torso.

Roman felt his control slipping. He looked down at his hands – sure enough, that strange white glow pumped through his veins, getting steadily brighter. Normally, this was where he withdrew, ran, fought the fire in him. For the first time, he embraced it, and the glow 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 the whites of his eyes had changed to flat black. The fire burned through him, consuming. Roman’s anger took control, helplessness and fear its catalysts.

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

“Listen well.” 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’s head. 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 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 left fear and stunned silence behind him. 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.

He’d never let it go this far before.

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. He frowned at the crowd and increased the length of his strides, only relaxing when he reached Gallontea’s public square. There, even he couldn’t help but be distracted .He paused to watch the movement of the crowd, bright and colorful. It was restless, everyone always in a hurry and everything so very different from Alfheim. Leandros couldn’t wait to leave.

He certainly didn’t want to go back to Alfheim, nor could he until he found his uncle, but Gallontea was suffocating in its own way. When he was younger, his life was different. It was full of change, discovery, adventures. He missed that.

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? Well, 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 Gallontea 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.

“Yes, I have been known to be—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, madam. 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.”

Eftychia only waved and grinned in response.

Leandros studied Gareth. The man seemed jumpy, a slight sheen of sweat on his forehead and his eyes wild around the edges. “Looking for me, were you, Ranulf? Is something wrong?”

“Well, yes. I’m afraid that…that is to say…” 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, away from the crowd and away from their teammates. “What’s the matter?”

“Last night, I overheard something terrible and I feel it’s my duty to warn you, relation to the other parties be damned. I hope that you won’t think less of me for the confession, but I was eavesdropping. I shouldn’t have been, but I couldn’t resist, and, well…it was my sister, Mr. Nochdvor. And Magistrate Biro. They, ah…”

“Atiuh’s name, man, out with it!”

“They want you dead,” Gareth blurted. “I heard them say so. They want control of the team and need you out of the way for that. They…hired someone, asked that 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 laughed, the sound empty of humor. “Wonderful. Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Ranulf, for telling me. This is good.”

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

“Good that I’ve gotten warning. Now I have time to prepare for it. “Leandros sighed. “I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. I’ve been stepping on too many toes. Who’d they ask to do it? Do you know?”

Gareth, who had been staring wide-eyed at Leandros, dropped his gaze. “I don’t know.”

“Gareth,” Leandros began slowly, “You’re lying. 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. No, that wasn’t true. There was one Gareth had called a friend. How could Leandros have forgotten about him?

The cold sting of dread shot through Leandros like lightning, 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, “It was Roman, wasn’t it?”

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 wall of the bridge in time. The chill of the stone sent goosebumps up his spine.

“He really agreed to do it?”

Gareth nodded.

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 finally made it!” she chimed, just as the dryad himself appeared at her side.

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

“Is everything alright, Captain?” Eresh asked.

“Yes,” Leandros said, trying to tell himself it was true. At least he had time, now. 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 our little tour with the park?”

“Whatever you want, Chia.”

Eftychia grinned and turned on her heel, leading the way. Eresh followed, but before Gareth could do the same, Leandros caught his arm and stopped him. “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 this plot, it’s possible they at least know about it.”

Gareth nodded. With a tight-lipped smile and a pat to Gareth’s shoulder, Leandros left to catch up with the others, Gareth belatedly following. The small group cut through the festival grounds to get to the park, the grounds empty now that the performers had departed with the end of Unity’s conference season. They passed the stage where, not long before, Gareth had seen Roman for the first time.

He’d thought then that something about Roman seemed dangerous. He should have trusted his instincts.

Eftychia skipped ahead of the group, but before they’d even fully entered the park, she turned on Leandros. “I think, Captain, I’d like to figure out your petname now.”

“Petname?” Gareth asked.

Ignoring him, Eftychia asked Leandros, “May I ask you a few questions?”

Leandros raised an eyebrow and gave a wry smile. “Very well, but only a few.”

“That’s too subjective!” Eftychia protested. “I can stretch a few to four, to five. Will you be more specific, or do I get five questions?”

“Three.”

“How storybook of you,” Eftychia said. She pursed her lips and studied Leandros, walking backward beneath the golden leaves of autumn. 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. He looked a little sheepish as he answered, “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. It just doesn’t seem in the spirit of…well, how you settle things there.”

Leandros snorted. “True enough. I got this 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. “Even if I am orinian. My turn: 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. Red dragons, I would say. My father used to tell my cousin and me the most terrifying stories of them.”

“How very traumatic,” Eftychia said earnestly. It was difficult to tell whether she meant it or not; everything out of her mouth sounded 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 waved her hands. “No, don’t answer! That’s not one of my questions.”

Leandros shrugged. “I won’t count it. It’s public knowledge, anyway. He wanted the throne, tried to kill his own brother for it. 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, for being related to him.”

Gareth thought of the play he’d seen the Webhon Players put on at the Rinehart Festival. He wouldn’t have thought of it had they not just walked past the stage, but the similarities were striking. The gentle prince, joining with Egil to fight his traitorous uncle and save the golden king. “It’s like the Egil story,” he said.

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

Gareth’s mouth fell open. “But that must have been centuries ago!”

“Not quite two,” Leandros corrected. “I was barely more than a teenager when it happened.”

“Leandros, are you telling me you knew Egil personally?” Gareth asked, excitement coiling within him. He’d been searching so long for firsthand accounts of Egil – he’d always known there had to be someone among the longer-living raced who remembered him, but he’d never been fortunate enough to find them.

And to think, Egil was around only two hundred years ago…with a few words, Leandros disproved half Unity’s records of the man. Unity claimed he’d been dead for centuries – Leandros was proof that was false! Unity said Egil died in a battle against Unity – how could that be true when Unity hadn’t been drawn into a battle in over five hundred years?

“You know Egil?”

“I knew him,” Leandros said reluctantly.

“What was he like?”

“Disappointing,” Leandros said. “Why are you so interested?”

“I’ve written books on Egil, but there are so many questions I can’t find answers to! How was he disappointing? What did he look like? Was Egil really his name, or is it a title that’s passed down?”

Leandros gave Gareth a strange look. “I’d rather not talk about him, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh,” Gareth said, trying not to let his disappointment show. “Of course, I understand.”

Seeing Gareth deflate, Leandros sighed. “However,” he began, “I may be able to point you to someone even better suited to answer your questions.”

“Really?” Gareth asked, perking back up. “Someone else who knew him?”

“Something like that. Ask Roman what he knows about Egil,” Leandros said, practically spitting Roman’s name.

Gareth stopped walking. “Roman?”

Eftychia, who’d started this whole thing, tried to change the subject. “I have my third question, Captain, if you don’t mind.”

Leandros inclined his head for her to continue.

“Who was your love lost?”

Leandros met Gareth’s gaze, and Gareth was surprised to see pain in the alfar’s eyes. He realized the answer without Leandros having to speak it: Egil. No wonder he didn’t want to talk about the man.

“I’m sorry, Eftychia,” Leandros said, “but I won’t answer that one.”

“You promised three answers!”

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

Eftychia stomped her foot. “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. His voice was normally controlled, but his volume now made Gareth and Eresh take surprised steps back. “That’s enough. You can ask another question instead, but I won’t answer that one.”

“Fine!” Eftychia said. Unlike Gareth and Eresh, she didn’t seem at all bothered by the alfar’s loss of composure. “I’ll think of something else.”

The group continued in silence after that. Eftychia sulked, Leandros stewed, and Gareth and Eresh felt far too uncomfortable to try striking up a conversation.

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

When Leandros spoke, he matched her tone.”I feel like I should be offended. But I suppose it’s better than an armadillo,” he added, making Eftychia laugh and Eresh scowl.

Eftychia and Eresh started bickering and didn’t stop until they reached the end of the park. There, Eresh froze, eyes going wide. “Oh,” he said, staring at something across the path. “That’s not supposed to be here.”

At the corner where their path met the main road was an unusual 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 it was made of bone.

“It’s a caindlewood tree,” Gareth said. When Eftychia and Leandros looked at him questioningly, 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 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. “That’s why 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 shrugged. “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. “I’m sure someone is, Eresh. You’re not the only dryad in Gallontea, you know. Can we move on now, please? There’s still so much our dear Captain has to see.”

Eresh gestured for Eftychia to carry on. They proceeded through downtown Gallontea, Eresh pointing out old architecture and providing historical context 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, watching the street behind them a moment, then turned to Leandros. “Lion cub?”

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

“We’re being followed.”

“What?” Eresh asked loudly, Eftychia shushing him. “We’re what?”

Leandros, for his part, only nodded. “I believe I’m being followed, actually; it’s been happening on-and-off for a few days now.”

“Oh, I thought it might’ve been me,” Eftychia said. “Have you gotten a good look at them?”

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

“Has it been the same one this whole time?”

Leandros shook his head. “They’ve swapped out a few times, now.”

“Since they’ve been following you, have you gone anywhere alone?” Eftychia asked, uncharacteristically serious.

“Yes, but I’ve always stuck to crowded places – I only ever go between the Island and my hotel, which is guarded. I assume that’s why they haven’t done anything. What are you thinking?”

Eftychia smiled. “Let’s go to the warehouse district next, Captain. It’s always empty this time of day.”

“You want to see if they’ll attack?” Leandros guessed.

“Yes! Doesn’t that sound fun?” Eftychia asked. “We can set a little trap. 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 do anything with so many of us around, I thought. But don’t look at me like that, Captain. I would’ve warned you before we all said goodbye.”

“What is going on?” Eresh finally asked. “Captain, why is someone following you?”

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

“Mr. Nochdvor…whoever this is, they could be dangerous,” Gareth warned.

“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, though, I’m not concerned.”

Gareth frowned. This seemed to have nothing to do with Roman, but…were there really more people who wanted Leandros dead?

Eftychia laughed and linked her arm in Leandros’. “Come, let’s you and I go. If they’re ever going to act, having you cornered at the warehouse district with only a sweet, unarmed girl at your side will be the perfect chance. Eresh, Mr. Ranulf, this is where we leave you, darlings. It’s a shame we didn’t get to explore more the city together.”

“Wait, Eftychia! 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 security team for a reason; from what I hear, she can handle herself in a fight. But I won’t have you and Eresh getting in the middle of this.”

With that, they split off from Eresh and Gareth. Eftychia led Leandros along, her arm linked with his, chatting like they weren’t walking straight into a fight. The busy downtown gave way to wide streets and quiet factories, and both Leandros and Eftychia kept a careful watch.

“I hope Eresh was correct about your fighting prowess, Ms. Jones,” Leandros said, keeping his voice low. “There’s more than one of them.”

Eftychia laughed and touched Leandros’ forearm like he’d told an amusing joke. “Oh, Captain. Eresh hasn’t a clue how good I am.”

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

“No, I don’t like guns. They end fights too quickly. Here is good, don’t you think?”

Together, they doubled back and ambushed the man that had been following Leandros. Before they could get a word out of the man, it was them who were being ambushed – unfortunately, by a group larger than either of them expected.

One moment, it was Eftychia, Leandros, and the man with the wide-brimmed hat, and the next they were surrounded by four others. Leandros and Eftychia shared a look, then raised their hands in surrender. Eftychia didn’t bother keeping the delighted expression off her face.

“Do you all know who you’re dealing with?” Leandros asked lowly, addressing the circle that was tightening around them.

One of the strangers shoved Leandros from behind, making him stumble forward into the man with the hat. 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 his 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 once them promptly threw her weight into the nearest attacker. Slender as she seemed, she was an excellent brawler with a true orinian’s strength. The first man fell, then she caught the next to come at her with a haymaker.

Leandros moved counter-clockwise to Eftychia, on to the next man in the circle. He grabbed and twisted the man’s gun arm out of the way before he could direct the weapon, then spun and elbowed the man in the face. While he flailed back, Leandros took his gun and used it to shoot the man charging at Eftychia.

Eftychia, who’d been preparing for the blow, pouted. “Captain, you’re ruining my fun!”

Leandros grinned sharp and feral, as he dodged another blow. “Apologies,” he said, dropping the gun. His heart beat fast, his sense on high alert, and he felt alive for the first time since that explosion in Illyon.

“You must be a good dancer, lion cub,” Eftychia called. “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. She took a moment to roll her shoulders and crack her neck. “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. While Leandros and Eftychia were both distracted, the only attacker still conscious retrieved his companion’s gun from the ground and aimed it at them.

Eftychia stepped quickly in front of the gun’s barrel, prying the man’s arm to the side just as he fired. The bullet narrowly missed her body, catching the abundant fabric of her sweater and shooting a hole right through it. She shoved him to the ground and stepped on his hand until he cried out and released the gun.

Leandros ran a hand through his hair, unknowingly spreading a streak of blood through it, and took a deep breath. Then he 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. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, trying to get his anger under control. He opened his eyes to find the other three giving him worried looks. “I’m sure you’re not terrible, Ms. Jones.”

Eftychia blinked at him, confused for only a moment before she grinned. “Really, I really am. I’m good at freestyle dancing, but when there are steps involved, I’m hopeless. I’m bad with rules.”

“Um, Captain?” Eresh said, pointing at the man with the hat, who was struggling to stand.

“Bring him to his knees,” Leandros ordered, retrieving the gun from the ground. As Eftychia did as he asked, Leandros moved to stand in front of the man. “Why have you been following me? What did you mean to accomplish here?”

The man spat at Leandros in lieu of an answer. Leandros trained the gun on his head and asked again. “Why did you attack?”

With a snarl, the man shoved Eftychia back with one arm and pulled a switchblade out of his belt with the other, then leapt at the alfar. Leandros dropped the gun as the man brought the knife up toward Leandros’ chest— he was already too close for Leandros to use the weapon effectively. Instead, he grabbed the man’s arm, twisted out of the way as best he could, and gasped as the knife caught his side in a long stripe up 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 he felt no pain, only stinging. But there was so much blood.

Eresh was at his side in an instant, looking rapidly between the injury and Leandros’ face with wide eyes. Gareth was there next, just as panicked as Eresh. Leandros wondered if either had seen an injury like this in their lives. “Leandros, are you okay? Oh, no. Atiuh help us,” Eresh breathed, a dozen quick prayers leaving his mouth.

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.

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

“Lion Cub, you really—,” 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 step coiled with anger. “Where’s the gun? Eresh, fetch it for me.”

“Leandros, maybe we shouldn’t—,”

“The gun,” Leandros snarled. “Now.”

Eresh cringed and 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. Leandros’ hand shook and he hesitated before shooting, a flurry of expressions passing across his face. Finally, he changed his grip and 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. “But now we have to figure out what to do with him. I’d rather no one know about this attack.”

“But…why not?” Gareth asked.

“Clearly, I have more enemies in the city than I thought. I don’t want any of them thinking I can be hurt so easily.”

“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 gunshots— and I need you and Eftychia to wait here for them.”

“What! But—,”

“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 shook her head. “I need to, Lion Cub. I work for Unity, but I’m still an orinian, and that’s not a good thing to be when Gallontea police are around, nowadays.”

Leandros swore. “You’re right. Eresh, can you do this alone?”

“What if he wakes up and tells them what really happened?” Eresh asked.

“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.”

“Be careful, Eresh,” Eftychia said, giving Eresh a tiny peck on the forehead before skipping away. “Good luck, lion cub!”

“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).


Back in Orean, when she could get away with it or thought she wouldn’t be missed, 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, training. But even with everything 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. Maybe it was because she’d jumped off a building into uneasy waters. All she knew was she ached all over. That was a pressing concern, but she had two other problems. One, she couldn’t actually remember the night before. Two, she didn’t know where she was.

She was lying on the ground, enveloped in a warm quilt. Waiting and listening, she tried to rely on the sounds around her for clues. Something had woken her, and it would make itself known soon enough. Birds sang outside. Nearby, Kieran snored. Neither of those were 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. This was one of the massive houses they’d passed on their way in.

She was sprawled at the foot of a bed wide enough for, say, someone with a large wingspan to sleep comfortably, but not quite long enough for an oanai. When she sat up, she saw Kieran and Íde’s sleeping forms curled up in it.

Before she could puzzle any further, the bedroom’s door slammed open with a bang, making Maebhe jump to her feet like a startled cat. With the opening door, the room flooded with sunslight that haloed the tall figure standing in the door’s frame. Maebhe groaned and covered her eyes.

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

“What are you so loud for?” Maebhe asked. She uncovered her eyes to massage her temples, immediately regretting it when sunslight colored the back of her eyelids, even that almost too bright.

“The better to wake you, 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 of Drys’ noise.

“You’re going to have to be much louder than that 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 flatten 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 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, then uncovered a hazy memory of spilling their story to the gentle oanai. “Oh! Shoot. I told her everything. I’m sorry, Drys.”

Drys shrugged. “Don’t apologize to me. As I predicted, they’re not pleased about the news. You might want to be there to speak for yourselves.”

“What’s the Council?” Íde asked.

“The elected leaders of the six quadrants of Home, and sometimes those of the surrounding families, if they make the journey. The meeting’s public, though.”

“Yes,” Maebhe said, sharing a look with Íde. “We should go. Let’s wake Kieran. He’ll want to be there, 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 morning. 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 clean.

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. Receiving advice from a faerie was a strange thing: they didn’t explain anything they said and half of what they did say contradicted itself. Maebhe tried committing it all to memory, but Drys said many things and never reached their point.

“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. Speak your mind if you must, but don’t speak over anyone and don’t interrupt.”

“Right,” Maebhe said, glancing at Kieran to see how he was handling the deluge of information. He was looking down at his feet as he walked, nodding to himself like he understood. But 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 remember that, just be your darling, charming selves. I’m sure it’ll work out just fine for you,” Drys said. Their voice was light, but they shot a stern look back at the trio. “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 turquoise and purple, too.

Two dozen or so oanai lounged in a circle at the center. 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 consider herself an expert at reading oanai expressions just 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. “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 as she sat, immediately caught up in the song. It 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. Even though there were no words, Leihlani’s song felt like bright suns in the early morning and warm wind ruffling through 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 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, “Did Drys explain the rules to you?”

“Um…no?”

“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. Her 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.

“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?”

“Maybe you should’ve thought of that sooner.”

“What do you mean?” Kieran asks the oanai, shooting Drys and Maebhe an exasperated 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. “We do not want to speak about Unity.”

“I don’t care what you want,” Kieran snapped, his usual friendliness dropped in an instant. “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?” Maebhe asked, calmer than Kieran – but only by a little.

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.

“You can here. 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?”

“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 sighed, drawing Apa’s attention to them. “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.