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Chapter 17

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should have,” Íde agreed.

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

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

“She told me as much.”

“What’s the High Council?” Íde asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough, Ioka,” Leihlani snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you do it?”

“I didn’t sing, remember?”

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

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

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

Much,” Kieran repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you say.”

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

“Kieran,” Íde warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When will you be ready?” Kieran asked.

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

“But—,” Kieran started.

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

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

“Maybe,” Kieran said. “Distantly.”

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

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

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

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

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

Leihlani started. “I will?”

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

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

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

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

Kieran shut his mouth and followed silently behind.


EGIL – I

Present Day

Year of Unity 1870

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m five!”

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

“I am! Mother, tell him!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long?”

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

“When are you going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reclaimed it,” Roman corrected.

“Your file said you were dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I already promised you a favor.”

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

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

“What do you want?”

“We want you back, of course.”

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

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

“Hallisey,” Roman interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean his father?”

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He understood this much: he had to warn Leandros.


Chapter 15

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

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

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

“Is that so?” Leandros asked.

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

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

Gareth’s own smile fell. “I—,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I’m a nightingale?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A sloth,” Ochoa suggested, smugly.

“Hush, armadillo,” Leandros said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 14

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

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

“Hello, Gareth! Mind if I come in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is. Early morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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


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

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

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

“Thank you,” Roman said. “Where—,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She looks just like you, Isobel.”

“Fortunately for her,” Gareth said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There was a what?” She gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost five months.”

“How time flies.”

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

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

“He knows about the team,” Gareth said.

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

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

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

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

This seemed to appease Moira.

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

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

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

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

“You’re—,”

“Yes,” Roman said, cutting her off.

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

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m curious about the magic, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moira blinked. “As in—,”

“Yes.”

“Why should I believe you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moira stood. “I’ll think about it.”

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

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

Roman raised an eyebrow. “Tragic.”

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

“Not a thing.”

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

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

Moira considered it, then nodded. “Yes.”

“Then you have a deal.”

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

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

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

Roman and Moira left Gareth standing speechless on the balcony.


Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother?” he breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amaimon considered this. “Tell me a story?”

“A story, hm? About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t wake you?”

“You didn’t wake me.”

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

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

“I’m so sorry.”

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

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

“You’re thinking about yesterday?”

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

“I’m sorry if I’m being evasive.”

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

“You know me better than almost anyone.”

“That’s not comforting. It’s sad.”

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Dinara asked.

“Why what?”

“Why were you a prisoner?”

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

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

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

“What happened to Bellona?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman wasn’t so sure.

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

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

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

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

“What about them?” Dinara asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 12

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

“I’d only just dried,” Maebhe whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s your fiance.”

“And your brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You…” Maebhe said. “You bastard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maebhe nodded solemnly.

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

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

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

“I killed a Unity representative,” Drys said.

“Really?”

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

“Oh,” Maebhe said.

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Maebhe squeaked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We grew up together,” Drys said.

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

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

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

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

“Complications?” Kieran asked.

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

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

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

Maebhe subconsciously reached up to touch her dirin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roughly five thousand.”

“But the city is so—,”

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

“Oh,” Íde breathed. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you really believe that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maebhe laughed.

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

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