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Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“You see that small building beside the prison?”

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

“That’s our way in.”

“But that’s past the gate, too.”

“It is,” Roman agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s one of the secrets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

“I don’t tell anyone.”

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

“Not even Dinara.”

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? It looks ancient.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They looked entirely black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” Maebhe asked him.

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

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

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

“Are there many more?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fourth floor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were a fearie. Maebhe tried not to stare.

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

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

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

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

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

“My mistake,” Drys said mildly.

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

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

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

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

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

“She said she did!”

“I do,” Maebhe said. “In theory.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maebhe nodded in agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, she hit the water.

Chapter 9

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

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

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

“Mmph,” Roman said.

“Then let’s do something fun.”

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

“Whatever we want.”

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

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

“With something fun…”

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

“Like he’ll believe that.”

“That’s never stopped us before.”

Roman sat up. “Let’s do it.”

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

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

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

“It’s not smiling, it’s grimacing!”

“It’s hardly terrifying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unity?” Roman guessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Roman, this is Dinara.”

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

Roman shrugged. “I don’t like Unity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A couple of days.”

“How many?”


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

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

“What about them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only what?”

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


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

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

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

“He’s not the type to mind.”

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

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

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

“Roman?” Dinara asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Maebhe and Dinara,” Roman said.

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

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

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

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

“Do you all need out?”

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

“No problem. Where to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Where does it lead?” Maebhe asked.

“The sewage tunnels.”

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

“Just a revolver.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll never forget.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure that helps.”

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

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


“Then yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He helped design these tunnels.”

“But that must’ve been—,”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

Dinara knew she would fall before her foot even touched down. Her ankle rolled and she hit the ground hard, a sharp wave of pain shooting up her leg. Somewhere nearby, someone cried her name. It spurred Dinara to push herself to her feet, but Tabia was already on her way over, worry written plainly across the older woman’s face.

Dinara sighed. At least it wasn’t disappointment.

“I’m alright,” Dinara said, flexing her foot. It hurt, but at least she could still bear weight on it.

Tabia knelt in front of Dinara to check for herself. “It happens to everyone, pet,” she said consolingly.

Dinara surprised herself by laughing. It sounded manic even to her own ears, and it made Tabia look up. Of course she was bound to fall sooner or later; they’d been at this for hours. She doubted she could land one more jump, with the way her muscles shook from the exertion of just standing, with the way the world was beginning to tip about.

“Would you like a break?” Tabia asked.

“I’d like to be done.

“Very well. Let me talk to you some about Edith, then we can end this for the day.”

Dinara nearly collapsed with relief. She didn’t know what more she could possibly learn about Edith, but she’d listen if it meant she could go take a nap after. Edith was Tabia’s legacy, anyway, and Dinara wouldn’t take that pride from her. Not more than she already had.

“Go sit. I can tell you everything from here.”

Dinara hobbled to the edge of the stage and sat carefully, keeping her injured ankle held away from her body. By the time she looked Tabia’s way, the older dancer had tied her tight braids back with a strip of cloth and was flitting through the lead-in steps to the jump Dinara had just botched. She executed it flawlessly, and a sting of jealousy tore through Dinara alongside the familiar awe.

Mortality was a tragedy, Dinara thought. According to their group leader, Tabia was too old to keep playing Edith. Dinara hated being the one to take her from Tabia, especially when Tabia’s passion and talent hadn’t faded with age. She stepped forward deliberately, rhythmically, toes pointed outward and arms spread wide like she was greeting an old friend. Fully in character now, she dropped into a low curtsy. Dinara couldn’t see any of Tabia’s usually jaunty sway in her movements.

“You have the same naivete,” Tabia began, still moving with a grace that ebbed and flowed, “But you’re missing her pride and fearlessness. Do you understand? Edith’s story is about trusting instinct and doing whatever you must to follow it. You have to feel this with all of your heart if you want to understand Edith.”

Dinara nodded. She wished Edith wasn’t a young heroine. She wished she didn’t have this responsibility. She wished Cahrn could forget accuracy and keep Tabia in the role— he would, if they were performing for some secluded village or minor court, but they were performing for Unity. There would be no blurring anything, which is why Tabia had been asked to name a successor.

Dinara wished Tabia hadn’t named her.

“Had Edith believed anything other than this, she would not have discovered the assassination plot. The goddess Ellaes would not have given her the power to stop it. She would not have saved Unity and, subsequently, the world.”

“Have you really met her?” Dinara blurted. It was a common rumor among the Players, but Tabia never commented on it. Dinara figured that if she’d tell anyone, it would be her successor.

Tabia stopped dancing, a smile slipping onto her generous lips. “Yes, I met her. It was a long time ago. Edith was old, much older than I am now, and frail. But there was something fierce in her eyes when she told her story.”

“Did she talk about Ellaes?”

Tabia shook her head. “I wondered whether Ellaes was an embellishment, or whether Edith had to deal with people who believed such for so long that she no longer believes in Ellaes herself. But enough of this,” Tabia said with a clap of her hands. She held her hands out to Dinara; when Dinara took them, she pulled her back to her feet.

“Don’t be so afraid, Dinara. Be true to the emotion. Even Unity would prefer a passionate Edith to a cold, precise one. Stories aren’t about skill, they’re about emotion. Stories only mean anything if you’re moved them, in some way or another.”

Dinara nodded, determination renewed. “I’m sorry for complaining, Tabia. I can keep going.”

Tabia waved her off. “You’ll be no good for the performance tomorrow if I wear you out today. Go home and rest. Don’t let the brat keep you up late.”

“He hates when you call him that.”

“I’ll stop calling him that when he stops reacting to it.”

Dinara laughed and threw a wave over her shoulder. She stepped down from the traveling stage into the Webhon Players’ camp, which was pitched in the park near the Rinehart Grounds. If Dinara listened, she could hear the sounds of the festival— laughter, cheers, clashing strains of competing musicians.

For being so close to such an important performance, the camp was at ease. Dinara passed Julian, their best troubadour, tapping idly at a sweet, percussive instrument of his own devise. His wife was nestled on the ground beside him, asleep with her back resting against his legs. Off in the distance, Dinara spotted a group of her friends playing kickup when they were supposed to be dismantling the skene they’d used for the festival. Dinara wove through the camp, reaching her wagon without incident.

She climbed its rickety steps, each one siphoning away some of her exhaustion. The paint was chipped and the floorboard creaked, but the small wagon was sturdy and cozy. It was Dinara’s home, the only one she had. Her parents built it shortly before they’d married, and since then, it had seen a lot of road. Most of Calaidia, in fact.

Pushing past the curtain of beads that served as the door, Dinara did a quick sweep of the narrow room. Her lover wasn’t home, but she hadn’t expected him to be. He helped with the occasional show, but he wasn’t one of them. She didn’t know how he spent his days and didn’t care to. Living on the road as they did, you took privacy where you could find it and gave it in return.

Dinara gave her lover a lot of privacy.

She collapsed onto a bench to unwind the wraps around her ankles. Not much later, the curtains rattled and a face peeked through the doorway. “Di?”

“You can come in, you know,” Dinara called. “This is your home, too.”

He stepped inside with a sheepish grin. “I know. I’m just surprised to see you; I thought you’d be rehearsing all day.”

“Mm. You’re home early.”

“So’re you. Did you finally snap and murder Tabia?” he asked, after giving her a chaste kiss.

“Not yet.”

“You know I’ll help hide the evidence when you do.”

Dinara almost laughed. “She let me out early because I kept messing up.”

“Did she say that, or did you just think it?”

Dinara frowns. “It doesn’t matter if she said it or not. I’m sure it’s true.”

“Di, she chose you as her successor for a reason. You’re amazing.” He held a hand out to her, and she took it, letting him pull her to her feet.

“You think?” Dinara asked in a husky voice, pressing close to him.

“Of course,” he answered, and Dinara pretended not to notice the way his breath hitched.

She looked up through her eyelashes at him and then, she pushed him away. “And how would you know? You never stay to watch my shows.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” he said, catching her arm and pulling her in again. “That has nothing to do with you. You know how I feel about that play.”

“I know, but I don’t understand.”

“I’m not sure how to help with that,” he said. It was Dinara’s turn to hold on while he tried to slither away. It was a favorite dance of theirs, a push-pull.

“Talk to me. Explain it. Who doesn’t like Egil stories?”

He smiled, the expression not reaching his eyes, and shrugged. “Someone who’s had bad experiences with Egil.”

“What does that mean? You know he’s not real, right?”


“Fine. I won’t push.” Dinara put her hands on her hips. “Now that we’ve gotten our daily fight out of the way, you’re supposed to ask how this morning’s show went. That’s next in our routine.”

He laughed and backed up to their bed—just a lumpy mattress on the ground— and sat. “We have a routine, do we?” He patted the spot next to him, but Dinara hiked up her skirts and dropped onto his lap instead, straddling his hips. He leaned in with a wolfish grin. “Is this part of our routine?”

“It usually comes after the fights.”

He laughed. “And this?” It was his turn to look up through his eyelashes, playing the innocent game. He was beautiful and he knew it, and he knew how to make Dinara weak with a look. But his was the beauty of a predator caught in a moment of peace, innocent now when just that morning he’d been dripping with blood, sated from a violent chase.

The mischievous glint in his eye was the only warning Dinara got before his hands shot out to tickle her sides.

Roman!” she squealed, laughter forced out of her like a punch to the gut. She tried to squirm out of his grip, but he was relentless, fingers finding the ticklish spot just above her waist. “Stop it!”

Roman was laughing as well, but stopped the moment Dinara went on the offensive. She went for where she knew he was most ticklish— the back of his neck. For a minute, they wrestled, Roman trying to get at Dinara while protecting himself and Dinara doing the reverse, both of them laughing until they couldn’t breathe.

Dinara ended the battle by pushing Roman back onto the bed and following him down. “Truce?” she asked, sitting up on her elbows so she could look down at him.

“Truce,” he agreed.

“You’re an ass. You know how ticklish I am.”

“That’s what makes it so entertaining,” he said, his bright grin making it hard for her to be annoyed. He reached up to brush Dinara’s hair away from her face.

“What did you do today?” Dinara asked.

Roman blinked, surprised at the question. “Me? Oh, I…” he paused, long enough to remember, or maybe long enough to come up with a believable lie. “I just wandered around a bit. Lots of interesting gossip buzzing around Gallontea today— have you seen the papers?”

“No, I haven’t,” Dinara said. She never kept up with the news, didn’t know what to do about the heartache it gave her. Better not know than know and be unable to do anything, she thought.

“They think Orean is trying to start a war.”

“Oh,” Dinara said. She was about to ask more when she realized how easily he’d slithered out of answering her question. “So you—,” she began, but he slipped further away.

“I’m sure Unity will step in before it gets to that,” he said with false cheer. “Speaking of Unity, your performance is tomorrow, isn’t it? Have you seen their theater yet?”

“Yes, I helped carry some things over today. Oh, Roman, it’s beautiful. Wait until you see it— you are coming, aren’t you? It’s not an Egil story.”

“Even if it was, I wouldn’t miss this,” Roman promised, looking up at Dinara.

Dinara was unsettled by his eyes as often as she was struck by his beauty. They were dark, so dark as to appear black. That was fine, that was normal; Dinara’s eyes were a similar shade. She was sure, though, that her gaze never sent a jolt up anyone’s spine, make their hair stand on end, or set off some distant warning in the back of their minds. Not like Roman’s sometimes did.

It was only like this, when the full weight of his focus landed on her, that she felt it. She dropped her gaze, noticing him flinch out of her periphery. When she managed to look at him again, he was staring at the ceiling.

“Thank you,” Dinara said, trying to pull Roman back to her. More and more since they’d entered Gallontea, she’d been losing him to the murky depths of his thoughts, thoughts she couldn’t begin to guess at. He wasn’t the same Roman she’d known for the last year, and she wanted that Roman back. She kissed him, hoping to lure him out, but he withdrew further, shifting beneath her to push her off.

Dinara changed tactics. She broke the kiss, twined her fingers with his, and pinned his hands on either side of his head. His eyes widened, and his attention shifted back to her. She didn’t flinch away from it this time. “It’ll be nice to have you there.”

Roman blinked lazily at her, trying to think past Dinara’s hands, warmth, and weight to process the words. Dinara didn’t give him a chance. She kissed him again, and when she trailed the kisses down along his jaw, he tilted his head to give her better access.

“I promise not to make faces at you when you’re on stage this time,” he eventually managed, when he could find the words. A breathy laugh followed, and Dinara sat up. He was smiling at her— finally, it reached far enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes, and Dinara recognized him again.

“You’d better not! Cahrn yelled at me for that last time!”

Roman snickered and squirmed, a half-hearted attempt to break out of Dinara’s grip. Dinara only pressed her weight into him more, shifting more of it to her hands and ducking to ghost more kisses along Roman’s jaw.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate this…whatever this is, Dinara,” he breathed, “But I came home to ask you something.”


“Gemma invited us out to dinner tonight. They’re all going somewhere nice, to celebrate the end of the festival. I told her I’d ask if you were up to it.”

“A pressing question, I see,” Dinara teased, releasing his wrists. “I don’t know. I want to, but…I also don’t.”

“It’ll be fun,” Roman said. “And knowing you, you’ll just stay here and fret over tomorrow if you don’t have something to distract you.”

“There are other distractions than parties,” Dinara purred, ducking her head to kiss Roman.

He let her but when she pulled away again, said, “We don’t have to stay the whole time.”

“I’m tired,” she groaned. “And my feet hurt.”

A mischievous glint in his eye was the only warning she got before he flipped their positions, then sat up and grabbed Dinara’s leg. She nearly kicked him in the face, thinking he was going to tickle her again, but instead, he sat back and began massaging her feet. “I know you’ll regret missing this.”

“Yeah,” Dinara agreed. She hummed, let her eyes fell shut. “Is that why you want me to go so badly?”

“I’m far too terrified of Gemma not to give it a fighting effort,” Roman said, making Dinara laugh. “Plus, it’ll be good for you. If we stay, you’ll fret, I’ll brood, and we’ll fight. Dinner with friends seems like a much better option.”

Dinara hummed, held her other foot out for Roman to massage. “But this is going to make me fall asleep.”

“Sleep, then. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

Gareth’s necktie wouldn’t lay flat. After a dozen attempts of his own, Isobel leaned over to fix it for him. The heavy fabric of her dress ruffled with the movement and brushed against Gareth’s leg. From Gareth’s other side, Moira shot Gareth a searching look. She’d been on edge all evening, obviously wanting to discuss something. And all evening, Gareth had been ignoring her.

The Ranulfs all sat together in a private box at Unity’s theater. Down below, a lively crowd shifted and chattered, eager for the show to begin.

Finally, clearing her throat, Moira prompted, “Well? Gareth? Are you going to tell me how things are going or not? You’ve been avoiding me since the Club; don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Gareth raised an eyebrow, surprised she had, actually. “We’re not allowed to discuss the meetings with anyone outside of the team.”

“With civilians. You’re allowed to tell me,” Moira said.

“Mr. Nochdvor was quite clear about secrecy,” Gareth said.

“Secrecy about what?” Gareth and Moira’s younger brother Aldous asked, leaning over Moira to join the conversation. Aldous was a successful businessman in the north, but like a child, still hated when his siblings spent time together without him. Upon learning Gareth was in town, he’d taken the first train down to join them.

“Nothing,” Gareth and Moira answered at once, making Aldous narrow his eyes.

Isobel shushed all three of them. “The show’s about to begin.”

Sure enough, attendants went around dimming lights and a broad man stepped onto the stage.

“Let me tell you a story,” the man began, his deep voice reaching all the way to the Ranulfs’ box, to every shadow of the cavernous theater, “Of love and bravery, of loss and strength…”

The show followed another story Gareth was familiar with. It was about a girl named Edith Albert, the youngest daughter of a Unity Representative. Centuries before, Edith had learned of a plot to assassinate the Magistrates. The goddess Ellaes came to her in a vision, guiding her, showing how to stop the terrible plot.

Gareth had seen this story portrayed before, but never with such emotion, with so much skill. It was clear the Webhon Players were putting more into this show than the one at the Rinehart Festival. He recognized some of the actors, reused— the lead, Edith, had been the Oracle in the Rinehart show, the young man who’d played the prince was now a Unity Representative.

Gareth sat surprised when the curtains drew shut and intermission began.

While Gareth and the rest of the audience were still waking from the dream, sitting and blinking and trying to reorient themselves with the present, Moira leaned toward Gareth, looking to resume their conversation. Gareth took one look at her, mumbled something about the restroom, and fled out through a side door. Only then did he slow, struck by his surroundings.

Above his head, elegant figures and scenes were painted across the arched ceilings. Gold candelabras lined the walls between long panels of mirrors and the carpet was a deep red. Gareth was in awe of the Unity Theatre; he’d never been anywhere so garishly luxurious in his life.

“A bit much, isn’t it?” Someone asked, coming up beside Gareth.

Gareth saw him in the mirror first, all golden hair and slow, feline movements. Gareth turned and offered the newcomer a bow which was returned with far more grace. “Perhaps, Mr. Nochdvor, but hardly surprising where Unity is concerned.”

Leandros surprised Gareth by laughing. It was a bright, musical laugh, an homage to old songs and forgotten myths. It reminded Gareth of ancient stories about eld alfar dancing on the moors among streams of wild magics. It was an insult to everything Alfheim was now, what it had become. Very suddenly, it stopped. Leandros took in a sharp breath. “Atiuh above, Ranulf, what happened to your face?”

Gareth laughed sheepishly, his eyes flicking to the mirrors. Despite Isobel’s cosmetic touch, there was no hiding the blotchy bruise under his eye. “I was mugged,” Gareth said, preparing to tell the story for the hundredth time. He’d almost been desensitized to the embarrassment by now. Almost.

Leandros narrowed his eyes at the bruise. “That looks a few days old, at least. That didn’t happen after our meeting, did it?”


“This is my fault. I should have insisted on giving you a ride.”

“Nonsense. You couldn’t have known I’d get myself lost. Anyway, no real harm done; someone came to my rescue before the worst could come.”

“That’s good,” Leandros said, relaxing. “Awfully kind of them.”

“Indeed,” Gareth said. “Any word on that last teammate?”

Leandros sighed. He looked tired, Gareth realized, more than he had just a few days ago. “None at all. Unity may be allowing me to lead our little expedition, but they refuse to tell me any more than they have to. I don’t know who she is, why she’s so important, or when she’ll be back.”

“Well, I’m not going to complain,” Gareth said. “I’m in no hurry to leave my family.”

Down the hall, the bell rang, alerting them to the end of the intermission.

“I’d best be getting back to my seat, Mr. Ranulf, but what say we get drinks after this? I’d love to hear more about the daring rescue.”

Gareth had never been one to turn down an opportunity to study an interesting personality, and Leandros Nochdvor, with his tightrope walk between cold and kind, with his musical laughter and his flashes of anger, was interesting. Plus, this would be an excellent excuse to avoid his sister. “I’d love to.”

The two men walked back to the theater together, the alfar parting crowds with nothing but a look. He seemed to exist apart from the rest, like they were all ghosts and he was the only one that was real.

Gareth returned to his box alone, content with the promise of picking the alfar apart over more drinks.

The second act was somehow better than the first. The Webhon Players teased the line between tragedy and comedy; Gareth cried one moment, then cried from laughter the next. The performance got more fantastical as the play went on, the Players incorporating stage tricks like metallurgy to make it more real. Gareth cried again when it was over, not because it was sad, but because it was over.

Isobel hung on his arm, leading him out of the box and downstairs. Gareth searched for Leandros among the crowd, and it was only a prickling sensation at the back of his neck that made him turn around. A familiar figure leaned against the wall by the stage doors, the line of his body tense, his wary gaze on the crowd. He started in surprise when his eyes met Gareth’s.

Without thinking, Gareth grabbed Isobel’s hand and pulled her back toward the doors, moving against the crowd. “Mr. Hallisey!”

Roman responded with a smile and a lazy wave.

In a whisper, Gareth explained to Isobel, “He’s the one who helped me the night I got mugged. Roman Hallisey’s his name.”

“What a strange coincidence,” Isobel said.

“I knew he was connected with the Webhon Players, but— hello, Mr. Hallisey!”

“Gareth,” Roman greeted as they approached, “I was wondering if I’d see you here tonight. Your eye looks like it’s healing well.”

“Yes, thank you.” Gareth touched his cheekbone self-consciously

“And this must be the beautiful Mrs. Ranulf,” Roman said, extending a hand. When Isobel offered her own, Roman raised it to his lips and kissed it. “Your husband talks about you a lot when he’s drugged, did you know that?”

“I wasn’t aware. I can’t say I’ve ever drugged him.”

Roman laughed. “Well, he doesn’t do you justice,” he said, with another kiss to her hand.

“Aren’t you cute,” Isobel said. The considering look she gave him didn’t quite match the tone of her words, and when Roman’s gaze again darted over to the crowd, she asked, “Are you waiting for someone?”

Roman’s attention snapped back to her, her considering look now mirrored on his own face. “No, no,” he said smoothly, “Crowds just make me nervous.”

“I see.”

Roman lit up, then, and a mischievous grin slipped onto his face. “Would you two like to see something exciting?”

Gareth opened his mouth to decline, but without hesitation, Isobel said, “Of course.”

Roman nodded back at the stage door and opened it for them with a flourish.

“Are we allowed back there?” Gareth asked doubtfully.

“You are if you’re with me. I want to introduce you to someone.”

Roman ushered them through the door. Unlike the rest of the theater, backstage was chaotic and messy, the Players already beginning their post-show cleanup. People in costumes ran back and forth carrying crates and dismantling set pieces. It was like a dance, one Gareth and Isobel were careful not to get in the middle of.

Roman led them down a flight of steps, stopping so abruptly at the bottom that Isobel nearly ran into his back. He knocked on a plain door— Gareth noticed that everything down here was plain, so unlike the rest of the building. A moment later, the door opened, answered by the actress that played Edith. She threw her arms around Roman.

“What did you think?” she asked.

“Absolutely enchanting, Dinara,” Roman answered, picking her up and giving her a twirl. “You stole the show.”

Dinara laughed and pulled back, finally noticing the Ranulfs. “Oh, hello,” she said breathlessly, her voice softer than it had been on stage. “Roman, who are your friends?”

“Di, meet Gareth and Isobel Ranulf. Gareth, Isobel, this is Dinara Connell.”

“It’s a pleasure, Ms. Connell,” Gareth said, shaking Dinara’s hand. “Your performance tonight was so moving, I nearly cried.”

“Liar,” Isobel said. “You did cry.”

Dinara tried to hide a laugh. “Come in, won’t you?”

The inside of the dressing room was simple and bare, not what Gareth would’ve expected for the star of a Unity show. He took a moment, while Dinara regaled them all about a costume mishap that happened in the second act, to study Roman.

It was different, seeing the young man like this— among friends, not in a darkened alley holding a bloodstained sword. And that’s definitely what Roman was— young, except for his eyes. They still struck Gareth as strange, serious when nothing else about him seemed to be. He smiled, he laughed, and his eyes stayed hard and wary.

Dinara, beside him, was stunning, even out of costume and clearly exhausted. She had rich brown skin and her hair, which had been pulled back during the performance, now fell in ringlets to her shoulders. She had a gentle air, very different from her portrayal of Edith. Gareth envied the two of them. They had a youthful vivacity that had long escaped him— if he ever had it to begin with— and they were beautiful together.

“We’re all going out to celebrate,” Dinara said. “You two should come.”

“I think we might be overdressed,” Gareth said, nodding at his suit and Isobel’s dress.

“Half the Players will be going in costume,” Roman said. “You won’t be the ones standing out. Come on, there’ll be music and drinking and dancing. It’ll be fun.”

Isobel squeezed Gareth’s hand. When he looked at her, he saw excitement in her eyes. “I told the governess not to expect us back until late,” she told him.

Never able to deny his wife anything and feeling more than a little excited himself, he said, “We’d be happy to join you, then.”

Roman answered with his bright, boyish smile, and Gareth felt he’d made the right choice. Some unidentifiable quality of Roman’s made Gareth want to earn his favor, make him grace Gareth with that smile that promised adventure and mystery. Roman clapped Gareth on the arm. “That’s the spirit, Gareth! Wait till you see how the Webhon Players party.”

Gareth gave him a tentative smile back. “I have to go find a friend of mine, first. I have to cancel our plans.”

Gareth would have plenty of time to get to know Leandros on the road, he reasoned. Roman and Dinara, though, he may never see again and they were both so interesting. He wanted to learn all of their secrets.

“Bring them along!” Dinara said in her lilting accent, adding, “If they’re fun.”

“I don’t know him well, but I believe he could be. His name is Leandros Nochdvor.”

“Not him,” Roman interrupted, surprising everyone. The smile was gone from his face. “Don’t invite him.”

Gareth blinked at Roman, taken aback by his sudden chill. Dinara frowned as well, brows furrowing. Under the weight of their stares, Roman blinked and shook himself. “I mean…he’s from Alfheim, isn’t he? You know how they are. No fun. And he’s…he’s a noble. I just don’t think wherever we go will be up to his standards.”

Dinara’s brow furrowed further, but if she thought Roman was hiding something— as Gareth did— she didn’t comment. Gareth, too, decided not to push, even if this made him more curious. “I understand. I do need to find him and cancel, though.”

“I’ll catch up with you outside,” Roman said. He smiled and kissed Dinara on the cheek, but there was still something tense about him. “I think I left something back at my seat.”

Though there were shared looks, nobody commented as he slipped away.

Gaeth, Isobel, and Dinara made their way to go find Leandros. Leandros understood, as Gareth knew he would, but made Gareth promise to get drinks with him before they left Gallontea.

And as promised, Roman caught up with them when they were about to cross the bridge. He took over leading their group— about twenty or so, in total— to a nondescript tavern with a sign of a snarling wolf hanging above the door. Music and laughter drifted out to the street, and the warm glow streaming out the windows greeted them.

“Welcome,” Roman said, gesturing grandly, “To the Hungry Hound, my inn of choice whenever I visit Gallontea.”

A hound, then, not a wolf.

The Hungry Hound Tavern was the kind of place Gareth might write about in a book, for how cozy it was, with the warmth radiating from the wide fireplace, the smell of garlic and spices heavy in the air, the music drifting gently over from the violin being played in the corner. Later in the evening, after everyone had their share of drinks, the group asked the violinist to play a more lively tune, then pushed the tables this way and that to clear a space for dancing.

Isobel couldn’t drink because of the pregnancy, so Gareth didn’t, either. They danced a few songs, but spent the rest of their evening enjoying the company of strange and interesting people. Roman and Dinara spent longer on the dance floor, though as the evening wore on and they both had more to drink, their movements could be described less as dancing and more as something that wouldn’t be tolerated in Gareth’s usual sort of establishment.

Roman never crossed the line into drunk, though. Gareth knew because he was watching closely, hoping to even the score after Roman had gotten to see him so high on painkillers the other night. Roman drank as much as the rest, but aside from his flushed cheeks and boundless energy, it barely seemed to touch him. Between dances, he told stories— fantastic tales that Gareth had trouble believing— and listened with rapt attention to others. Even Gareth’s, which Gareth didn’t feel deserved such enthusiasm. He made sure the Ranulfs were always included in conversations, and demanded that everyone have just as much fun as he was having.

But when a fight broke out between one of the players and another patron, he shed this enthusiasm like a mask. He stepped between them, stopping the fight and moving so quickly and fluidly Gareth wouldn’t have believed his eyes if he hadn’t been sober. When both parties backed down, Roman slipped the mask back on and returned to Dinara’s arms.

If Gareth had thought this evening would give him insights into Roman Hallisey’s mysteries, he’d been wrong. All he had were more questions.

Still, Gareth couldn’t remember having so much fun in his life. In the early hours of the morning, Gareth carried Isobel home on his back, her heels clutched in her hands, her arms wrapped around his neck. They both hummed their own clashing melodies under their breaths and thought, for the first time in a while, of things more pleasant than missing kings and Gareth’s upcoming departure.

Chapter 7

Íde rested the heels of her boots on the table and shifted so her weight wasn’t distributed entirely on her tail. She paged through her book, searching for the folded-over corner of the page she’d left off on. She hadn’t planned to get much reading done on this holiday, considering what her companions were like, but morning was the best time to do it. Maebhe still slept and Kieran was out for his morning walk— if Íde pretended to sleep until he left, she could avoid being dragged along.

A movement across the room caught Íde’s attention. Their hotel room was small for three adults, and painfully garish with velvet sofas, boldly stitched rugs, and striped wallpaper. The movement came from the further of the two beds, where Maebhe, hidden under a mountain of tangled sheets, stirred in her sleep. Íde smiled and returned to her book, barely finishing a page before the door to their room flew open with a bang.

Kieran stood in the doorway, eyes wide and mouth set in a way that let Íde bracing herself. He marched over to the table, pressed his palms flat against it, and leaned in toward Íde. “We need to leave.”

Íde pursed her lips. This was something Kieran had brought up a few times in the last week, ever since the rumors started circulating— rumors of missing kings and of murderous orinians. Ever since they’d started getting the looks, ever since they’d been refused service in a small corner shop, ever since a man spat at their feet as they walked by. The message had been made clear: Kieran, Íde, and Maebhe didn’t belong here. They should go back to Orean.

Secretly, Íde was beginning to agree with Kieran. “But we—,”

“Spent so much money on this trip, I know. That’s what you keep saying. It’s just money, Íde. Who cares? Look at this.” Kieran pulled a rolled up newspaper out of an inner coat pocket. The paper was hot off the presses, if the ink smudging his fingers was any indication. His tail whipped back and forth in agitation until Íde took the newspaper from him. She didn’t read it immediately, instead regarding Kieran with concern.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, softly. “If we have to leave, we’ll leave.” She looked down at the newspaper, the headline making her eyebrows climb up toward her hairline.

“What does it say?” Maebhe asked from her bed, having woken when Kieran first burst in. She blinked at Íde, her angular features scrunched up in concern. Her blonde hair was piled atop her head, its ends sticking out in every direction; she looked about as hungover as she no doubt felt, and in any other situation, Íde might have laughed. Instead, she just held the paper up, its headline reading: “ᴀɴ ᴀᴄᴛ ᴏғ ᴡᴀʀ? ᴡʜᴀᴛ Dᴏᴇs ᴏʀᴇᴀɴ’s ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋ ᴏɴ ɪʟʟʏᴏɴ Mᴇᴀɴ ғᴏʀ ᴛʜᴇ ᴛᴡᴏ ᴄɪᴛɪᴇs?”

“What,” Maebhe said, voice falling flat. She jumped out of bed and snatched the paper from Íde’s hands. Out loud, she read, “Long-standing rivalries between Illyon and Orean came to a head last week when King Amos Nochdvor of Alfheim was abducted by a group of Orinian soldiers. The King’s nephew, Leandros Nochdvor, reported the event to Unity and remains in the city for reasons yet unknown. Mr. Nochdvor was unavailable for comment. You may remember Mr. Nochdvor from his father’s scandal…blah, blah…” Maebhe skimmed through the article impatiently. “Many believe that the kidnapping was perpetuated by Orean as an act of defiance— oh come, on. Illyon’s got all of Unity behind it. Why would we be so stupid—,”

“It’s just nobodies conjecturing, Maebhe. Sensationalist garbage,” Íde reasoned. “It doesn’t mean a thing, and I’d wager none of it’s true.”

“But it’s possible, isn’t it?” Maebhe asked, looking at Íde, then Kieran. “What if Orean really did—,”

“We’d never,” Kieran interrupted. He sighed. “Even if it’s not true, it’s what everyone in Gallontea is thinking, which is just as bad.”

Maebhe sagged against the back of the sofa and Íde scowled, both of them staring at the paper. Kieran knocked Íde’s boots off the table.

“We eat there, Íde,” he said, sounding scandalized.

“On plates! I don’t see you licking the table.”

“That’s because he has better manners than that,” Maebhe said, reflexively. “He waits until no one’s around to see.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Kieran said.

“Really, dear. Gallontea’s talking about war and you’re mad at my boots?” Íde asked.

“It’s easier to be angry at your boots than at all of Gallontea,” Kieran said with an apologetic smile. He was paler than usual, the thick black markings that stretched and swirled across his face just bringing his pallor into sharper contrast. The design of them was concentrated on the left side of his face, but a small swirl curling around his right ear trailed down his neck like a creeping vine, or a bolt of lightning— not really like either, but similar to both. The mark disappeared underneath his shirt collar, but Íde knew how it continued down his entire body.

Maebhe’s markings were exactly the same as Kieran’s, only focused on the right half of her face instead of the left. Íde bore entirely different marks. Hers were thinner, lighter, barely visible against the planes of her face. From a distance, her silver-patterned marks looked like old scars instead of bold tattoos. These marks— dirin, they were called— were the birthright of anyone with orinian blood. Superstitious orinians believed an orinian’s dirin reflected their soul.

“So?” Kieran asked. “Can we leave? I feel like someone should tell Orean about—,” he gestured at the newspaper, “All of this.”

“I don’t want to leave,” Maebhe whined. “We just got here.”

Íde’s vote would decide it, then. Whichever way she chose, the infamous Cairn anger would be brought down upon her. She stood and stretched, flattened the folds of her skirts, and looked up to find two pairs of gray eyes on her, waiting.

Apart from their eyes and their dirin, the twins were far from identical. The idea of them was much the same: white-blonde curls, bold dirin layered over ochre skin, angular features, loud voices. Seeing them side-by-side, the differences were clear. Maebhe was sharper— nose, jaw, cheekbones. Kieran was sturdier, with larger eyes and a rounder face.

But then, Íde knew these two better than anyone else, and the differences might not be as obvious to an untrained eye. Right now, their emotions further alienated the similarities between them. Kieran looked worried, Maebhe angry. She’d already guessed Íde’s answer, then.

“I’m sorry, Maebhe. It’s getting too dangerous to stay.”

Maebhe’s nostrils flared, the only warning Íde got before she was yelling. “Of course you’d take his side! It’s so typical.” Then, she was throwing open the door and storming out of the room, barefoot and still in her dressing gown. Íde and Kieran both cringed when the door struck the wall with a bang.

“You and your sister,” Íde marveled. “How is your house still standing?”

“What do you mean?” Kieran asked, absently twining his tail with Íde’s.

“You both run around throwing doors open with enough force to knock them off their hinges.”

“We’re just dramatic,” Kieran admitted.

Íde laughed. “I’ve known you both for years. You don’t have to tell me that.”

Kieran laughed, then pressed a hand to his heart, pretending to be offended. “You’re not supposed to agree with me! You’re supposed to say, ‘No, Kieran, Maebhe may have many flaws, you don’t have any.’”

“I’m never going to say that,” Íde tells him, deadpan.

“I’m hurt.”

“Don’t be. I love your dramatics, most of the time,” Íde said, winding her arms around Kieran’s shoulders. “You should go talk to Maebhe; calm her down. I’ll start packing.”

Kieran made a face. “Must I?”

Íde ruffled Kieran’s hair and shoved him toward the door. Kieran tried to scowl back at her, but left to find his sister.

Maebhe hadn’t made it far. She stood at the end of the hallway, leaning out an open window. The window was the only source of light in the hallway, and Maebhe was barely more than a shadow outlined against it. She stood perfectly still, arms hugged close to her body, and didn’t turn to look when Kieran joined her.

Kieran stood beside her at the window, staring out across Gallontea. He was again struck by how different the buildings here were from Orean, tall and new and strange. Their hotel floor was high enough up that he could see over the buildings to the gray outline of Unity Island, its silhouette seeming to reach like a clawed hand, the clock tower a long finger pointing toward the sky.

“We barely got to see the city,” Maebhe said, winding her arms more tightly across her chest.

“You should put on something warmer, Mae,” Kieran said. Even fully dressed, the morning chill that seeped in through the window had goosebumps raising on his skin.

Maebhe let out a biting laugh and finally looked at her twin. Kieran looked back, and it was like a mirror image, their asymmetrical, swirling markings refracted back on the other’s face. “That’s all you have to say?” Maebhe asked.

“We barely got to see the city,” Kieran echoed back, the words visible on the air in a small cloud, dissipating as another gust of morning breeze hit. “The people here are talking about bringing war, and that’s all you have to say?”

Maebhe looked back out at the city. “Yes. Selfish, isn’t it?”

“No,” Kieran said quietly. “I think it’s fair. It’s our first holiday since…since mother and father, and now it’s being cut short by something like this.”

“You know who’s really to blame for this situation we’re in, don’t you?” Maebhe whispered conspiratorily, glancing back to ensure the door to their room remained shut. “Us. We should’ve gone to the coast, like Íde wanted.”

Kieran laughed, then clapped a hand over his mouth. “We are not going to remind her of that, or she’ll bring it up every time need to make a decision for the rest of our lives.”

“She can take it as a lesson,” Maebhe said sagely, “Not to always give you what you want.”

“You wanted the same thing!”

“Hm. Let it be your lesson, then. To always vote for what your fiance wants.”

“But you just got annoyed at Íde for— ugh,” Kieran said, throwing his hands up in defeat. “I can’t stand you, sometimes.”

Maebhe flashed a wicked grin. “I know. I suppose I’ll have to actually listen to you both this time, though. We should leave.”

“Maebhe Cairn,” Kieran marveled, “I have never known you to agree to an idea of mine so quickly.”

Maebhe laughed, her bad mood vanishing like their breath on the cold air. “Don’t get used to it. I’m only agreeing to this if you promise to take Íde and me on another trip once this all blows over. And you’re paying.”

Kieran made a face, but nodded. “Fair enough. Speaking of payments, I should go see if we can get a refund on our room.”

“I’ll come with you.”

The hotel lobby, with all of its painted moulding and garish wallpieces, was crowded when the twins arrived. Maebhe rounded the corner first, entering into full view of everyone milling about the front desk, then let out a yelp when Kieran yanked her back into the shadows. Maebhe whirled on him, but he held a finger to his lips. Carefully, both twins peered around the corner.

The small crowd in the lobby was made entirely up of Gallontean Police. Maebhe was about to ask Kieran what was happening, but her attention snapped back to the front desk at the clerk’s next words. Loud enough for his voice to carry perfectly through the narrow lobby, he said, “The orinians are in room 401.”

Kieran’s grip on Maebhe’s arm tightened, his nails biting into skin as he pulled her further up onto the stairwell, out of sight.

“What are you going to do with them?” The clerk’s voice came again, drifting past the twins into the stairwell. The officer’s reply was garbled, but Maebhe caught “depends” and “cooperate.”

Kieran dragged her back up the stairs and into their room, shutting and locking the door behind him. Pushing Maebhe out of his way, he dragged a chair over to the door, propped it up and hooked it around the door handle. Íde watched with wide eyes, frozen in the act of folding a shirt.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“The police are here to arrest us.”

“They’re what?”

“They didn’t say anything about arresting,” Maebhe said. At Kieran’s skeptical look, she continued. “Maybe they’ll…just escort us out of the city.”

“That’s not how war works, Mae,” Kieran scolded. He’d rushed over to Íde and was now helping her pack. “When you don’t know who’s a friend and who’s a foe, you lock them both up, just to be safe. If Unity thinks a group of orinian soldiers kidnapped Nochdvor, they’re not going to let us run around their capital city.”

“You’re just being paranoid,” Maebhe said.

“Am I? The same thing happened in the Great War—the marionites turned on the alfar, criminalized alfar living in their city and held them until the altercation between them over,” Kieran said, like he was reciting from a history book.

“But we’re not at war,” Maebhe reminded him.

“If there are really police here,” Íde interrupted, “Don’t you think we can reason with them? Explain that we were about to leave?”

“I don’t know if they’ll listen,” Kieran said, unsure.

Maebhe joined Kieran and Íde, tossing a change of clothes into her lightest bag. “We could sneak out before they get to us,” she said, as if it was really that simple. As if they weren’t on the fifth floor, the police probably coming upstairs for them at that moment.

“Excellent, Maebhe!” Kieran cried. “And how, exactly, do you propose we do that?”

Maebhe scowled at his tone, and all three orinians froze when someone knocked on their door, sharp and insistent.

“Too late,” Kieran said, breaking the silence.

“It’s not,” Maebhe said. She crossed to the balcony door and threw it open. Stepping onto it, she looked down, then up. They were only one floor up to the roof, and it should be an easy climb, the building’s surface all protrusive bricks and gritty columns. “This is how we sneak out.”

Kieran and Íde shared an identical look, eyebrows raised and mouths drawn into long lines. “You could, maybe,” Kieran said. “Íde and I aren’t climbers,” Kieran said.

“But you’re—,” Maebhe began, interrupted by a more insistent pound at the door.

A voice called out, and the handle jiggled. “In the name of Unity and the city of Gallontea, open up!”

“You’re orinian,” Maebhe repeated, desperately. “You can climb one story.”

“Get the keys from the desk clerk,” the voice came again. The pounding continued.

Íde cast a last desperate look at the door, then nodded and joined Maebhe on the balcony, taking Kieran’s hand and pulling him along. Both made the immediate mistake of looking over the balcony rail. Kieran backed away. “No,” he said quickly. “This is absurd. There must be another way. We’ll talk to them, like Íde suggested.”

They all looked back at the door as their sensitive ears picked up on the sound of keys jangling.

“What if we fall?” Kieran whined, long ears twitching toward the sound.

Maebhe followed his gaze over the balcony ledge. “You wouldn’t die if you fell from this height.”

“Thanks, Mae! That makes me feel much better.”

“I mean it! I’ve fallen out of taller trees!”

“You’ve also broken a lot of bones.”

“You know I love your banter, but is this the time?” Íde asked. Another bang on the door, louder this time, made her jump. They were trying to break the door down.

Maebhe kicked off her shoes. “Watch me do it, and I’ll be waiting at the top to help pull you up.”

“No,” Kieran said, something in his voice making Maebhe stop what she was doing to look at him. His eyes were trained on the door. When another crash came, it was accompanied by the sound of splintering wood. “Íde’s right. There’s no time.”

“Kieran,” Íde began uneasily, “What are you planning?”

Kieran turned to look at them both, and Maebhe’s heart sank. She’d seen that expression on his face before, whenever he’d taken blame for her, or caught a punishment that was meant to be hers. “You two go. Get back to Orean and tell them what’s happening. I’ll hold them off while you get away.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Íde snapped, her gentle voice harsher than Maebhe had ever heard it.

“It doesn’t make sense for all three of us to get caught.”

“He’s right,” Maebhe said. It may not make sense for them all to get caught, and the half-formed rescue plans she was already piecing together may not succeed, but if both she and Íde got away, they’d have a chance. If all three of them were caught…

Another crash, more splintering wood. Kieran pulled Maebhe into a hug, startling a squeak out of her. “Thank you,” he breathed, then released her and kissed Íde, quick and desperate. As he pulled away, he said, “I love you. Both of you. Be safe.”

With that, he marched back into the room.

“Íde,” Maebhe prodded gently. Íde didn’t look at her, just watched Kieran go with wide eyes. “We have to go. I promise we’ll come back for him—,”

“I won’t leave him,” Íde said, shaking herself. She turned to Maebhe and smiled, then pulled her into a hug, same as Kieran had. “Go. Take the Adriat road home— you’ll be able to avoid Illyon that way. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of him.”

What—,” Maebhe began, but Íde backed into the room, shutting and locking the balcony door before Maebhe could get another word out. She tried the handle anyway, debated breaking the glass panels and marching in there, insisting that the three of them not be split up, but a final crash from inside stayed her hand.

“You idiots,” Maebhe muttered, accommodating her rescue plans to include Kieran and Íde. She didn’t know how she’d do it, but she could be resourceful.

Maebhe backed away from the balcony door, tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the other side. She clambored up onto the balcony rail and wrapped her tail around it, using the extra grip for balance. Once she was steady, she sank into a crouch and gripped the rail with all five limbs. Then, she turned slowly to face the hotel. She didn’t think about the street behind her.

She tensed, reinforcing her balance by wiggling like a cat about to pounce, and jumped to the overhang. It made a loud clanging noise when her body hit it and inside, things went quiet. As the balcony door unlocked with a click, Maebhe began to climb.

She doubted they’d follow her. She doubted they could. No Gallontean could climb like she could. Orinians might belong to the human species, but they had adaptations Unity humans did not, leftover from a time when the only escape from the large predators that roamed her Valley was up into the trees, into the mountains. Orinians had extra muscles in their legs to make jumping easier, and extra joints in their feet to help with climbing.

And Maebhe, who hunted, climbed, and explored for sport, who used these extra adaptations every day if she could help it, had no difficulty reaching the roof before the officer on the balcony even thought to look up. She hauled herself up onto the shingled surface and paused to catch her breath, peering over the edge just in time to see the officer disappear back into the room.

Only a few minutes later, the guards exited the hotel, dragging a handcuffed Kieran and Íde out with them, and Maebhe covered her mouth with her hands to keep from crying out. The weight of the situation finally slammed into her. She felt as if she’d missed her earlier jump and had finally hit the ground.

While the officers shoved Íde into the back of a cab, Kieran risked a look around, eyes running along the rooftops. Maebhe risked a little wave and even from that distance, could see the tension drain out of her twin. Then, he was shoved into the cab as well, an officer climbing in behind him.

Maebhe pushed her panic away, saving it for later. When the driver spurred on the horses, she launched into motion as well. She ran along the rooftop with the speed and agility of a full-blooded orinian, always keeping her eyes on the carriage as she leapt from building to building. Once or twice, she almost slipped on dewey tiles, but she always caught herself, always kept going, even when the horses started to pull ahead.

Her path was blocked, eventually, by a building—too tall to jump to, too uneven to run across. Casting her eyes around the sides of the squat building she stood on, she spotted a fire escape and scrambled down it. From there, she continued her pursuit, but when she stepped into the street, she could no longer see the carriage. She pressed on, anyway, and managed to catch sight of it just as it turned a corner ahead.

Maebhe pushed past passersby, jumped over a stroller, and skidded to a halt once she’d turned the next corner. The carriage was too far to catch, but Maebhe could see where it was going. She watched the carriage carrying Kieran and Íde press on toward Unity Island and the realization that she was now alone in an enemy city loomed all around her.

Chapter 6

A/N: Warning for more violence in this chapter.

Gareth was only out for a moment. He blinked awake to find Tag standing over him with the knife and came to very quickly after that, biting back tears and holding a hand out. “Don’t! Don’t kill me. Just listen to me. Please, you need to let me live.”

Tag hesitated and looked at his brother uncertainly. Even through the pain, Gareth could tell who the smarter brother was. He wondered if he could use that to pit them against each other.

“Do we?” The vendor asked.

“Yes. You see, I have more money, it’s just not with me. Let me live, and I’ll reward you. But you won’t get any of it if I’m dead.”

“And how do we know you’re gonna—,”

The vendor cut off mid-sentence with a gasp and looked down at his chest, the gasp turning to a splutter when he saw the blade sticking out of it. The glint of the blade retracted, a dark stain taking its place. Then, a hand wrapped around the side of the man’s head from behind, slamming him sideways into the wall. Gareth flinched at the cracking sound his head made when it hit the brick.

The vendor collapsed on the ground, a tall man with a bloodstained sword standing over him. He glanced at Gareth but didn’t otherwise pay him much attention, instead focusing on Tag.

“Watch out for his knife,” Gareth mumbled from his spot on the ground. Tag’s blade flashed in the moonlight as its owner lunged, but the newcomer dropped his own weapon and sidestepped the attack easily, looking more like a dancer than a brawler, and caught Tag’s forearm. He twisted the limb until Tag cried out and dropped the knife.

The newcomer moved so fast Gareth almost couldn’t follow.

But then, maybe it was just the head wound.

Without his weapon, Tag was left wide open, barely able to put up a fight when the newcomer grabbed him by the hair, yanked Tag’s head down, and brought his knee up until it met the man’s face. Tag collapsed onto the ground, motionless.

Gareth squinted. “Did you kill him?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.” The man glanced at the other brother’s body, where long fingers of blood were snaking along the ground toward him, reaching for him. “I try to limit myself to one murder a day. Are you alright?”

The man’s voice sounded familiar, as did his accent— it was the softer, rounded accent of the north. Gareth peered up at the man, trying to place him, but the alley was dark and his right eye was swelling shut. “I will be, thanks to you.”

The man hummed and retrieved his sword, a sleek, narrow thing that he wiped off and tucked easily into a sheath at his hip. When he started toward Gareth, Gareth shrank back, and the man stilled. “Come, it’s alright,” he said, his voice gentle. “I want to check your injuries.”

“Can I trust you?”

The man tutted. “You really did take a wrong turn somewhere, didn’t you? You shouldn’t trust anyone in Greysdale. But,” he began cheerfully, “I don’t see that you have a choice.”

“I’m looking for Kramer Street,” Gareth mumbled as the man knelt beside him.

“You’re quite a way off. Come on, it’s too dark to see here. Let’s get out of this alley before your friend wakes up.”

The man helped Gareth to his feet, then let Gareth take a few stumbling steps on his own. He caught Gareth when he stumbled.

“Bit woozy,” Gareth said.

“Right. Hold onto the wall a second,” the man said. Gareth did, cringing at the grime, and the man bent to retrieve Gareth’s pocketbook and cigarette case.

“You’re going to rob me now, too, are you?”

The man raised an eyebrow and rifled through the pocketbook before passing it back to Gareth. “Eh, no. There’s not enough in there to make it worth it.”

He helped Gareth throw an arm over his shoulder. Gareth normally wouldn’t have accepted the help, but everything hurt and he could barely see the path ahead of him, so he leaned into the man for support as they hobbled to the end of the alley and emerged onto a sparsely crowded street.

The man pushed Gareth gently onto a bench. “Sit. Let me get a look at you.”

He knelt in front of Gareth, studied his face. It gave Gareth a chance to study him in return, but past the pounding in his head and the blur of his vision, he didn’t get much further than young and earnest, with a pair of wide, dark eyes. His head hurt.

“Atiuh and the Three, you’re lucky I was following you.”

“What?” Gareth asked.

“I said you’re lucky I found you,” the man repeated with a bright, boyish smile. “I’m Roman, by the way. Roman Hallisey.”

“I wish I could say it was a pleasure, Mr. Hallisey, but given the circumstances…” Gareth trailed off. “Name’s Gareth Ranulf.”

I’ll say it, then. It’s a pleasure, Mr. Ranulf.”

“Have we met before? You seem terribly familiar.”

“No, I don’t think so. How could I forget a pretty face like yours?”

“Is that some sort of jest?” Gareth reached up to touch his nose, but Roman batted his hand away.

“Don’t do that,” He said, peering up at Gareth. “Touching will only make it worse. It’s stopped bleeding, at least.”

“Is it broken?”

“I can’t tell. I don’t think so.”

“And my eye? Is it bad that it’s swollen like this?”

Roman laughed. “You have a strange idea of good if you have to ask. But you’ll live, if that’s what you mean.”

“How long is it going to be like this?”

“The swelling? A couple of days. Weeks to heal completely, I think. You’re going to have a nasty bruise for a while.”

“You seem to know a lot about how this works.”

Roman smirked, the expression too deliberately innocent to be genuine. “I’ve seen some similar injuries in my time.”

“Right,” Gareth said, unsure how to respond to that. “Thank you for the help.”

Roman patted Gareth. “Of course. You’re going to be just fine, Mr. Ranulf. Anywhere else hurt? They didn’t stab you or anything, did they? I assume you would’ve mentioned it already.”

“No, they just…hit me a few times.”

“Are you dizzy?”

“No. Yes. Maybe when I was standing,” Gareth admitted.

“You might have a concussion. Or be in shock.” Roman stood and looked down at Gareth. “I don’t know; I’m not a doctor. I think you’ll be just fine, though. Let’s go. Lackless Inn, you said?”

“Yes,” Gareth said, accepting Roman’s help up. He hadn’t been standing for ten seconds before he turned to the side and hurled.

“Ah,” Roman said, wrinkling his nose. “Maybe a hospital is a good idea, after all. Come on. There’s one on the way.”

Gareth nodded, the taste of bile too fresh on his tongue to argue.

“Interesting name,” Gareth said as Roman led him down the street.

Roman readjusted Gareth’s arm around his shoulder. “Thank you, I think. Romanos is a celestial being in Borean mythology. Ro- meaning ‘above’ and –manos meaning all personkind, or the like.” Roman waved his free hand around flippantly. “My mother was a bit fanciful, with a particular idea about who I should be. You know, mothers. She thought ‘Roman’ was a name for someone who’d do great things.”

“And have you?”

Roman’s smile fell a little. “That depends on how you define ‘great,’ I suppose.”

“I would say saving a man’s life qualifies as great.”

“They wouldn’t have killed you,” Roman said. His tone was still flippant, but he looked away from Gareth, embarrassed by the praise. “Just robbed you blind.”

“Speaking of blind, I can’t see a damned thing out of this eye. I can barely tell what you look like.” Gareth went to touch the eye in question, which was swollen completely shut, but Roman again batted his hand away.

Don’t touch. To be fair, I can’t tell what you look like, either. Right now you look like an ogre who’s been stung by too many bees.”

Gareth scowled. They walked in silence for a minute, until he asked, “Why’d you do it?”

“What, save you?”

“Yes. I’m not sure anyone else would have.”

Roman shrugged with one shoulder, the other still supporting Gareth. “I was there; I heard you call out.” He looked over at Gareth, grinning at his expression. “Not the answer you were expecting?”

“I admit I was hoping for something a little more altruistic. It’s not particularly comforting knowing I’m only alive because of a young man’s whims.”

Roman laughed, then steered Gareth out of the way of a large hole in the pavement. “I told you, they wouldn’t have killed you.”

“I am glad you did it, anyhow. Thank you, Mr. Hallisey.”

Roman stopped suddenly. “We’re here.”

Gareth squinted up at the squat, prison-like building Roman indicated. “This is the hospital?”

“You’re still technically in Greysdale. This is the best hospital you’re going to find.”

“I…I should be getting home,” Gareth stammered, hesitating when Roman tried tugging him toward the hospital. “I can have the maid call for a physician there.”

“You’re going to go home looking like that? Do you have a wife, Gareth? I’m guessing you do. Kids, too. You seem the type. You don’t want to show up at home looking like—,”

“An ogre stung by bees?” Gareth finished. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I usually am. Now, be reasonable. They’re not going to hurt you; they’ll just clean you up and make sure nothing’s broken,” Roman said, patting Gareth on the back.

“You won’t—,” Gareth began, biting his tongue when he realized how silly he was about to sound.

“Won’t what?”

“You won’t leave me, will you? I could never find my way home alone.”

Roman grinned again. “I’ll stay. Do you need me to hold your hand?”

“Oh, stop it. Just make sure they sterilize everything,” Gareth grumbled as he pushed past Roman into the building.

“Sure, but if you need stitches, I’m waiting in the hallway,” Roman said cheerfully, trailing after Gareth.

Gareth led the way into the surprisingly bright foyer, stopping just inside. It was well-lit and clean; the sterile smell that flooded his nostrils, while unpleasant, was familiar. “It’s much nicer inside,” he observed.

“You don’t judge a dragon by the shine of its scales,” Roman said. “Sit. I’ll go talk to the nurse for you.”

Gareth did as he was told, sliding into the closest seat and cringing at the sharp pain that trilled up his side. While the harshness of the lights made his head pound, they did make it easier to see. Gareth’s attention wandered across the room, to where two nurses sat behind a great stone desk. Roman stood talking to one of them, leaning against the desk like it belonged to him. Gareth couldn’t make out what was being said, could only hear the songlike cadence of Roman’s accent.

Mr. Hallisey, it seemed to Gareth, was one of those individuals whose age was hard to place. He was easily younger than Gareth’s forty-two, everything about him exuding an almost childlike exuberance. If Gareth were pressed, he’d guess thirty, tops, but he wasn’t confident in the assessment.

Roman wore tight-fitting trousers tucked into tall boots and an open waistcoat without a jacket. His hair was at a length between the two currently popular styles— too long to fit with the close-cropped style of younger and working men, but not long enough to tuck behind his ears, a look the upper class loved. It was too messy to be fashionable, at any rate. The black mop seemed permanently ruffled, and Gareth understood why when he watched Roman reach up and tangle a hand through it. Nothing about Roman was fashionable, really, but he had enough charm and natural attraction to excuse it.

The nurse nodded at something he said, then looked over to where Gareth sat. Roman beckoned him over.

“Mr. Ranulf?” the nurse asked as he approached, pushing several forms and a pen across the desk toward him. “If you could just sign these for me. Do you need someone to read for you?”

“No, no,” Gareth said, brushing her off with a wave of the hand. “I can do it.”

“The nurse will take you back right away, but I’m afraid your friend will have to wait here.”

Gareth’s hand hovered just above the signature line. He glanced nervously at Roman.

“I told you I’d wait,” Roman reminded him.

“I’m sorry if I’m keeping you from any prior plans.”

“You’re not.”

“Good. Of course, I’m happy to compensate you for your time.”

Roman raised an eyebrow. “If you’re offering.”

“I’m insisting.”

“Even better. Now Gareth, stop making this poor nurse wait on you. I’ll be here when you get back. You can thank me more then.”

Gareth followed the nurse deeper into the hospital. After ushering him into a barren room, shebade him sit while she moved to an old sink in the corner. It clanged and rattled when she turned it on, and the water ran red for a moment before clearing. A moment later, she returned to Gareth with a bowl of water and a cloth and began to clean the caked blood from off his face.

Gareth gritted his teeth through it, and by the time she’d finished, the water in the bowl was a dusky red. With a gentle, “Wait here,” the nurse left the room and returned minutes later with a small canvas bag in hand. Gareth almost dropped it when she handed it to him, not expecting it to be cold and wet.

“Ice,” she explained with an encouraging smile. “For the swelling.”

“Thank you.” Gareth lifted the ice to his eye, sucking in a sharp breath at its first contact with his skin.

Shortly after the nurse left a second time, the doctor swept in. “Mr. Ranulf? My name is Dr. Carthian. Can you tell me what happened?”

Gareth explained about the mugging, leaving out the part where he’d just come from a secret Unity meeting. The doctor asked a series of questions about how Gareth was feeling, where he had been hit, if anything hurt, and how much he could remember. No, he felt fine aside from a few aches and pains. Yes, he could remember his name, the date, his address. No, he didn’t feel particularly groggy or dizzy.

“I don’t think you’re in shock, then. May I?” the doctor asked, holding his hand near Gareth’s face but not touching. Gareth frowned and nodded.

The doctor checked Gareth’s pupils, waved a finger back and forth and told Gareth to follow it. with his eyes. He then poked and prodded and performed very few tests. All in all, it’s over in under two minutes. “Hmm. Bruised ribs, a mild concussion, swelling around your eye and nose, but nothing worse than that. Nothing that warrants immediate medical attention, anyway.”

Gareth blinks at him. “That’s all? I mean, that wasn’t very…thorough.”

The doctor smiled pleasantly. “I’m rosanin.”

“Oh,” Gareth said, still not understanding.

The rosanin were a class of individuals born with inexplicable abilities. Superstition used to say they were blessed by the Guardians, and even with all the scientific advancements of the last several hundred years, scientists had yet to come up with a better explanation. Gareth didn’t know much about the rosanin—no one did. They tended to keep their abilities to themselves.

The doctor smiled at him, used to this sort of confusion. “Our gifts vary, you know. Some have a knack for gambling, can see sound as color, read auras, or have perfect aim. Me, I find injuries—I can tell when something’s not as it should be, especially with human bodies. A lot of hospitals have someone like me on staff, especially in areas with high intake—it speeds up the process, saves everyone time.”

“Huh. It sounds like you’ve had to make that speech before.”

“Patients tend to be skeptical if I don’t,” the doctor said, expression tight. “As I said, none of your injuries require medical treatment, though I do suggest that you look at changing your diet or exercise routine—there’s a slightly concerning plaque buildup in your arteries. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a small lifestyle change. I recommend resting a few weeks until you’re healed. Ice your nose and eye for half an hour four times a day, if you can.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Before you go, I can give you medication for the pain, but it might impair your motor functions for a few hours. It’ll be like you’re drunk,” the doctor explained, seeing Gareth’s wary expression. “You should take it, Mr. Ranulf. I imagine you must be in a lot of pain right now.”

Gareth sighed. “Since you recommend it so strongly, Doctor, I would be remiss in ignoring you.”

The doctor moved to the room’s only cabinet, unlocked it, and grabbed a bottle of the top shelf. “Drink,” he ordered, passing a small cup of the thick, clear liquid to Gareth. Gareth nearly gagged when he caught a whiff.

“Revolting, I know,” the doctor said. Gareth shuddered, steeled himself, and drained the cup. Ignoring Gareth’s coughing, the doctor continued. “If you experience pain when this wears off, laudanum should do the trick.”

Gareth nodded.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to be careful during the next few hours, while the medicine takes effect. If you’re willing to wait in the foyer for a few minutes, I’ll have a nurse bring you a fresh bag of ice. Do you remember how to get back to the waiting room from here?”

“I think so,” Gareth said, sliding off the cold metal table. “Thank you.”

The doctor waved a goodbye as Gareth left the room.

When Gareth found his way back to the waiting room, he was relieved to see that Roman had indeed stayed. The young man sat near the door, picking at his nails, and didn’t notice Gareth until he dropped into the seat next to him.

“Your face is clean!”

“Yes, apparently the doctor needs to see the injury in order to be able to assess it,” Gareth said dryly.

“Wow, Clean him up a bit and all of a sudden he’s a comedic genius.”

Gareth huffed and sat. “This whole bloody visit has been a waste of time.”

“And that’s why we’re sitting here and not leaving, is it?”

“A nurse is bringing me a fresh bag of ice,” Gareth said, pulling the current bag away from his eye and shaking it so Roman could hear the slosh of water.

“Why was it a waste? It was fast, at least.”

“The doctor didn’t do anything, just told me to rest. Nothing I wouldn’t have figured out on my own.”

“Well,” Roman began, “At least you know there’s nothing worse going on.”

“He did give me some medicine.”


Gareth shook his head.

“No?” Roman asked, studying Gareth. “Tell me it wasn’t Carujan Oil.”

“I don’t—,”

“Clear liquid. Kinda thick and sticky. Smells and tastes like goblin piss.”

“That sounds right,” Gareth said. His nose wrinkled at the memory. “Why is that bad? He’s the doctor, Mr. Hallisey. I believe he knows best.”

“Sure, but he didn’t give much thought to the poor bastard stuck walking you home. Carrying you home, rather.”

Gareth bit his lip. “He did say it might impair some motor functions.”

“That’s an understatement. Hopefully we can get you home before it starts working.”

Silence fell between them while they waited for the nurse. Eventually, Gareth asked, “Where are you from? Your accent is northern, right?”

Roman smiled. “Yes, I grew up in Troas.”

Gareth nodded. That made sense. They neared the end of a bright summer, and Gareth’s skin had tanned beyond it’s usual pasty white. Still, Roman’s skin was a few shades darker than Gareth’s could ever be, no matter how much sunslight he caught. Paired with his hair and accent, Gareth should have guessed Troas sooner.

“I’ve never been,” Gareth said.

The nurse arrived, then, replacing Gareth’s mostly-melted bag with a new one. When Gareth stood, the world tipped precariously forward, backward, and side-to-side, and he grabbed Roman’s shoulder for support. Funnily, the young man didn’t seem at all affected by the world’s shifting. He just gave Gareth a sidelong look and said, “Let’s go.”

Gareth was once again struck by how familiar Roman was. It wasn’t until they were out of the hospital and halfway across the street that he finally figured it out. “Wait!”

Roman twirled to face Gareth faster than Gareth had ever seen anyone move, his sword appearing in his hand between one second and the next. “What?

“I know who you are!”

Roman’s gaze landed on Gareth, and Gareth nearly staggered under the weight of it. Had he been entirely in his right mind, it would have felled him. It would have terrified him. As it was, Gareth just giggled. The sword disappeared and Roman grabbed Gareth’s arm, dragging him the rest of the way across the street. Gareth hadn’t even realized he’d stopped walking.

“Atiuh’s name, Gareth,” Roman growled, “Don’t do that. I thought there was trouble.”


“It’s fine. Well?”

“Well what?”

“You said you know me. Who do you think I am?”

“Oh. We’ve met, sort of,” Gareth said. He followed Roman’s lead when Roman turned onto a dark side street. The fact that Gareth didn’t even question it distantly worried him, but he was mostly focused on treading that didn’t want to stay still. “My limbs feel funny. I saw you at the play— the Rinehart one. The Egil story, with the Webhon Players. Do you remember?”

When Roman laughed, Gareth imagined he could see the tension leaving the young man’s body in tangible waves. “I’m there every day, Gareth, I don’t remember—,” Roman paused, then, and gave Gareth a strange look. “Wait, I do remember! You’re that old man I had a random staring contest with last week.”

Gareth pouted. “I’m not that old.”

Roman laughed again, the sound bright and youthful, and even though his mind’s haze, Gareth envied Roman. “No, you’re not. One of those encounters the memory exaggerates, I suppose. Must have been the bald head.”

When Gareth kept pouting, Roman said, “Gareth, you’re not old, I swear. Please, though, walk faster. The medicine is taking effect.”

“Very well.”

Gareth blinked up at the purple sky as he walked. One foot in front of the other. Step, step, step. They turned onto Main Street just as a carriage rattled past, its side lanterns making Gareth squint and avert his eyes.

“Remarkably fast, this stuff. And strong. I hardly feel a thing,” Gareth said. Remembering the thread of their earlier conversation, he asked, “Are you one of the Webhon Players?”

Roman looked back at Gareth, trying and failing to hide his amusement. “I’m an honorary player, I suppose. I just do the opening.”

“I thought your opening was beautiful.”

“Maybe you should stop talking for a while, Gareth.”

“Okay.” Gareth had to rely on Roman more and more for balance as they walked. They hadn’t made it another block before he started complaining. “How far away are we? My boots are getting dirty.”

Roman glanced at Gareth’s shoes. “Gareth, those boots were doomed the minute you set foot in Greysdale.”

“Set foot. I get it.” Gareth laughed. “How long until home?”

“You’re staying at Lackless? It’s about a ten minute walk from here. At the rate we’re going, forty.”

Gareth groaned and kicked a loose stone. To his credit, Roman managed to keep a straight face, even after looking over and seeing Gareth’s rather undignified pout. He asked, “So where are you from, if not Gallontea?”

“Adriat. Just outside of it.”

“Do you visit Gallontea often?”

“Once a year.” Gareth shrugged, pausing to look in the window of a ladies’ hat shop. He gawked at how big some of them were. How did the ladies not fall over, with those on their heads? Roman stifled a laugh, and Gareth realized he’d said that out loud. “Sorry. What were you saying?”

“I was trying to figure out how someone like you ended up this far north of Main Street.”

“I was on my way back from a meeting.”

“A meeting?” Roman asked, watching Gareth out of the corner of his eye. Under different circumstances, Gareth might have noticed the sharp interest in the young man’s voice. “What kind of meeting?”

“I’m not supposed to say.”

“I understand.” Roman sighed. “I was just trying to keep some conversation going. It’s not like I have anyone to tell, of course,” he said, earnestness dripping from every word. “But if you want to keep our relationship strictly to the life-saving kind, that’s fine.”

Gareth worried at his lower lip.

Sensing weakness, Roman continued. “It’s Unity, right?”

“Yes,” Gareth admitted. Roman’s dark eyes made him itch, just beneath the skin, and soon the words were pouring out of him. “They’re sending a diplomatic team to Orean to negotiate the return of a hostage. I’ve been to Orean a few times, so they put me on the team.”

Roman’s eyes widened. “Diplomatic?” he said, tasting the word like he’d never heard it before. He stared at Gareth like he expected more; Gareth stared back. “You’re sure it’s diplomatic?”

“Yes,” Gareth said. “I did sit through the whole bloody long meeting.”

Roman snorted. “Sorry, it just doesn’t seem like Unity’s style.”

“And how would you know?” Gareth asked, sounding for a moment very much like his father. Gareth hated himself for it, just a little.

Roman smiled and shrugged, and whatever sharpness Gareth had seen behind his eyes disappeared, like a sheathed knife— hidden, but no less dangerous. “I guess I wouldn’t.”

“There’s an invest— investigative part, too. I sorta wish Moira hadn’t put me on the team,” Gareth said, trying to chase away the ghost of his father with friendly conversation. “I hate being away from Isobel and Ofelia.”

“They’re your family?”

“Yes. Isobel’s my wife and Ofelia’s my daughter. Isobel’s the most beautiful woman in the world. You should meet her, Roman! You should come up and meet her! Then you’ll see. She’s pregnant right now. I’m probably going to miss the birth of my second child.” Gareth stopped walking. “Oh, Atiuh. I hadn’t even realized that till just now.”

Roman wordlessly tugs Gareth on again. “I’m sorry, Gareth. I’m sure it’s no great comfort, but with someone of your wit on the team, you’ll succeed and make it back in no time at all. And Orean is beautiful in the fall.”

“Have you been?” Gareth asked.

“Several times.”

You should be on the team, then. Instead of me. You’re much charminger than I, and you know how to fight, and you’ve been to Orean.”

“Charminger, huh?” Roman asked.

“Yes. Would you go, if you could? Would you join the team? Hypo-hyperothetically.”

Roman once again stifled a smile. “No, I wouldn’t. Sorry.”

“Why not?”

“Because I won’t work with Unity.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t trust their motives, I don’t trust them to treat the orinians fairly, and I don’t want any part in what they’re doing, even if they really are trying to rescue Nochdvor. I would’ve leapt at that sort of opportunity, once, and I did. I won’t make the same mistakes again.”

“I don’t understand.” Gareth frowned. He didn’t think he’d mentioned King Nochdvor. He’d been careful not to, in fact.

Roman sighed. He looked tired, suddenly, and much, much older. “I’ve been down similar roads before, you see. You always lose something of yourself on the journey, even if everything seems fine in the end. Who I am is all I have anymore, so no, I wouldn’t join the team. I’m happy enough where I am.”

Gareth blinked at Roman. The word enough seemed to weigh heavier than the others. “You talk older than you look,” Gareth observed, the most cogent thought he was capable of forming at the moment.

“I’m fairly sure that doesn’t make sense, Mr. Ranulf.”

“It does.”

Roman smiled and shook his head. “If you insist. Hey, do you recognize where we are?”

Gareth looked around. Past the slight blur, he recognized Kramer Street. “Oh!”

“And there’s Lackless. Do you need me to help you to your room, or can you handle it from here?”

“I can handle it. Thank you, Mr. Hallisey. I said I’d pay you—,”

“Don’t worry about it. Just promise you’ll be more careful next time you wander around at night. And good luck with your trip.”

With that, Roman was gone, strolling down the street and out of Gareth’s life. Gareth stood outside his hotel, letting the crisp air slowly peel back the medicine’s haze. He didn’t want to be so out of it when he explained what happened to Isobel, so he stood and watched the— few, given the late hour— people pass by on the street.

He was surprised to see the orinians from the restaurant earlier that day slip past him into the hotel. One of them, a girl with curly blonde hair, made eye contact with Gareth. At his stare, the girl’s smile fell, and she hurried after her friends.

“Kieran! Íde!” she called, catching up to them just as the hotel doors swung shut, blocking them from view.

Gareth worried at his his bottom lip, watching the doors long after the orinians disappeared. Unbidden, Roman’s earlier words came to mind. I don’t trust Unity to treat the orinians fairly. Gareth hoped Roman was wrong.

When Gareth’s clarity returned, pain along with it, Gareth went upstairs to where his family waited.

A/N: I hope you all like Roman, because he’s about to become a huge part of this story! If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, please feel free to like, comment, follow, or share with your friends!

Chapter 5

A/N: Warning in this chapter for some depiction of violence

Gareth’s cab rolled to a stop in front of a large, squat building off the public square. He climbed out, careful to avoid the mud puddles pooling over the uneven cobblestone, leftover from the morning’s rain. The air was still crisp with it, and Gareth paused to breathe it in, eyeing the building in front of him. It reminded him of Unity’s prison, only with more windows.

The cab driver didn’t wait for Gareth to move before taking off, the wheels of his carriage splashing mud and rainwater up Gareth’s trousers.

“Wonderful,” Gareth groaned, surveying the damage.

He left his annoyance behind him at the building’s front door, which a well-dressed valet opened for him. Instead, his curiosity took over as he stepped into a warm foyer that smelled of leather, cologne, and wealth. It reminded Gareth of his father’s study. The furniture was configured into some sort of waiting room, and glossy, frosted-paneled doorways led deeper into the building. Off to the side, another employee stood behind a podium, the emblem on his suit matching the one engraved into the wall. It wasn’t one Gareth recognized.

“Are you a member here, sir?” the man asked. He took in the caked mud on Gareth’s trousers with a pinched expression.

Behind him was a wide archway. A woman’s laugh drifted in through it, soft and musical. When Gareth tried to peek past the employee, all he could see was a hazily lit hallway, full of dust particles dancing in and out of beams of light. It was still and listless, just like the foyer Gareth stood in. He felt like he was pushing through water.

He finally knew where he was, at least. “This is a social club,” he guessed.

“Yes. If you’re not already a member—,”

“I think my sister is. Moira Ranulf? She asked me to meet her here,” Gareth said.

“Oh, of course! My apologies, Mr. Ranulf. Please, follow me.”

He turned and led Gareth down the hallway behind him. Paneled windows on one wall overlooked the crowded street, but the other was covered with portraits of serious-looking men— all, Gareth noticed, human. He stopped short when they passed a face quite familiar to him. It was his own father, sneering down at them over the top of his glasses. Gareth gawked at the word “Founder” beneath his father’s name.

“He never told me about this place,” Gareth said to the host, who’d slowed when Gareth did. “Where are we?”

“The Metharow Club, founded by your father and several others to create a place for humans with Unity connections to gather, unwind, and form social connections. Your sister has been a member since she was first appointed as a Representative.”

“I see.”

The host led Gareth down a few more hallways, then up a set of stairs. They passed a well-dressed group playing billiards in a wide, sunlit room. They watched Gareth curiously as he passed, and Gareth matched their stares. Finally, the host stopped in front of a private office in a quiet hallway. He knocked, and Moira answered, inviting them in.

“Ah,” she said when she saw Gareth. “There you are. Come in, come in.”

Gareth did, slipping into the cozy office and sitting across from Moira. The room had the same languorous feel as the rest of the building, and Gareth found he liked it better than Moira’s office on the Island.

“This place sure came as a surprise,” Gareth said, as Moira shut the door on the host and returned to her desk.

“I’m sure I’ve invited you here before.”

“You haven’t.”

“Oh. Well, good thing I finally changed that. What do you think of the place?”

“A human club, Moira? It seems a bit…old-fashioned.”

Moira shrugged. “In a world that’s constantly changing and evolving to fit the whims and needs of others, Gareth, it’s nice to have something that stays the same.”

Yes, Gareth felt certain this place hadn’t changed since its founding. He wasn’t sure that was a good thing. “Why did you want to see me? Your letter said it was important. Does it have to do with Illyon?”

Moira frowned. “What have you heard about that?”

“A lot,” Gareth said. “You have to know how the gossip’s flying.”

“And probably all wrong. Shall I just tell you?”

Gareth nodded, surprised. Moira never told him things when she could just as easily keep them to herself. “If you’re so inclined.”

“Here’s the truth of it, as far as we understand: the King of Alfheim was visiting Illyon on a diplomatic trip when an orinian stole him out from under the noses of Illyon’s leaders.”

Gareth’s mouth fell open. “An orinian? Surely they wouldn’t risk—,”

“And yet, surely they did. The Nochdvor’s eyewitness accounts were quite damning, if a bid muddled. They’re in shock, the poor things. Alfheim wants war, of course,” Moira said, in the same tone of voice she used to discuss dinner plans. “Fortunately, it’s not up to them. Our plan is to send a team to Orean to investigate and negotiate Nochdvor’s return. If Orean has nothing to hide, then they will surely cooperate.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then we’ll let Alfheim have its war. Rheamarie Nochdvor won’t be appeased until she either has her father back or has shed enough blood to account for it.”

“Why are you telling me all of this?” Gareth asked.

Moira gave Gareth a searching look before continuing, her expression unreadable. “We’re being very selective curating this little team of ours, so understand what an honor it is when I say that we would like you to be on it.”

Gareth laughed. “It took you fifty years to develop a sense of humor, Moira?”

Moira didn’t laugh with him. “Gareth, this is no jest.”

What?” Gareth stood, feeling his heart sink to the soles of his shoes. “Why me? I’m no inspector, to run an investigation. I’m not a diplomat, either. I’m rubbish at navigating careful situations. Moira, you know this! I’ve stepped on toes at every event we’ve ever attended together.”

“Everyone on this team will have different experiences,” she explained patiently. “You have unique merits. Your knowledge of Orean and its customs will be invaluable, and the fact that we would send the brother of a Unity Representative on this mission shows the faith we have that Orean will behave itself.”

“So I’m a pawn.”

“Of course not. Gareth, please be reasonable. We’ll have people to handle the investigations and negotiations. The team will have heavy security, so you’ll be quite safe.”


“You said you would do anything for Unity, remember? You said you were loyal to Unity. We all have duties we must perform. I’ve been doing mine for years, filling father’s position on the council, and now it’s your turn to contribute. Think of it this way: you’ll get to be a part of the story for once, instead of just writing about them.”

When Gareth didn’t speak, Moira continued. “I know it will be hard leaving your family, but think of the stories you’ll get to tell Ofelia— how you prevented a war, rescued a king. You’ll be a real-life Egil, without the danger. You’ll be in no danger, Gareth. None at all.”


“Gareth, please,” Moira interrupted. “Will you join the team or not?”

“I don’t see that you’re giving me a choice.” Gareth sighed. “Can I have time to think about it?”

Moira pursed her lips. “The first meeting with the team captain will be tomorrow evening, so I’d like it if you can make your decision before then. Talk it over with Isobel, if you need to, and I’ll send you more information later.”


“That’s enough of that for now, don’t you think? Let me show you the rest of the club. You’re eligible for membership, you know,” Moira said, standing. Feeling a bit numb, Gareth followed her out of the office and into the club.

The following evening found Gareth standing before an old, stately manor, its lights brilliant against the darkening sky. It stood alone on a steep hill, a wrought iron fence keeping it apart from the other houses on the block. Through the front room window, Gareth could see the silhouette of someone pacing.

In that house waited Gareth’s new teammates. He hated thinking of them as that, hated being a part of any of this. After his meeting with Moira, he’d talked it over with Isobel, he’d spent all night thinking on it, and until that very afternoon, had been resolute not to join Unity’s team.

And then he and Isobel went out for supper. They were sat near three orinians in a lavish restaurant— Gareth had seen those same orinians arrive in Gallontea just a few days before. They were staying in the same hotel. Gareth hadn’t said a word to them, but he’d watched them talk and laugh and enjoy their evening, and it made Gareth fear for them and for Orean. He didn’t know what would come of this kidnapping, but he knew it couldn’t be war. Gareth had left that restaurant knowing that if he could help keep this thing with Orean from coming to conflict, he’d do it.

Still, he hesitated.

“You’re in the right place,” a soft voice behind him said. Gareth turned to see a woman with apple-red hair standing on the walkway. A sword hung at one of her hips, a gun at the other. Everything about her seemed to exude a challenge— the way she stood, her disapproving frown, her brows, furrowed over deep-set eyes. Gareth shivered involuntarily and took a step back.

A feather-textured pattern spiraled across her pale skin in elegant waves. Gareth had met marionites before, of course, another one of Calaidia’s long-diluted human races, but he’d never seen someone with so much obvious marionite heritage. Typically, you only saw the red hair, or the feather-brushed skin, or…As if guessing Gareth’s thoughts, the woman smiled at him. She had two sets of sharp canines on each side.

“Pardon?” Gareth asked, remembering his manners.

“You’re here for the meeting?” she asked in her gentle, lilting voice. It sounded wrong leaving those lips, her teeth glinting with every word that she spoke. It didn’t fit her.

“Oh. Yes, I am.”

The woman beckoned him to follow, then started up the drive. “Unity wants to keep this mission secret, and most of what happens on the Island is public,” she said. “That’s why we’re meeting here. This is one of the team member’s house—it’s too close to Greysdale, I told him. One wrong turn and you’re a dead body in a dark alley somewhere.”

The way she emphasized you’re made Gareth think she meant him, specifically.

“Come on,” she said. “They won’t wait all evening.”

Gareth followed, keeping a careful distance. “You’re on the team too, then? My name’s Gareth Ranulf. What’s yours?”

The woman glanced back at Gareth curiously, then seemed to think for a moment before saying, “Evelyne Corscia.”

“Pleasure,” Gareth said, awkwardly.

When they reached the front door, Evelyne didn’t bother knocking, just barged straight into the house and nearly ran into a tall, willowy dryad standing in the foyer. He jumped out of the way just in time. “Ms. Corscia, there you are! And Mr. Ranulf, I presume. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Gareth barely got a chance to look around before the man was ushering him into a large dining room filled with people. He settled in the first open seat, conscious of everyone’s eyes on him. Evelyne sat further down the table, beside a burly man that leaned over and whispered something to her. She nodded and gave him a dry smile in return.

Great. Not only was Gareth late, but everyone else already knew each other.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Gareth said to the man at the head of the table. His face was bright red, he knew. He wore his embarrassment easily, and that embarrassment worsened when he recognized the man. It was the alfar from last week, the Nochdvor royal that had been with the Princess. His new team Captain.

Gareth couldn’t tell whether the alfar remembered him from the eavesdropping incident on the island, but he graced Gareth with an unexpectedly kind smile. “You’re barely late; everyone else was just early.”

“I understand my home can be hard to find,” the dryad from the foyer said. He sat at Nochdvor’s right hand. “When Unity wouldn’t let us meet on the Island, I knew my dining room would seat us all comfortably, so I volunteered—,”

Comfortably,” the dragon crouched at the other end of the table scoffed. It didn’t sound like she was saying anything, though— not in the way that humans say things. It was more the sound you’d get from filling a glass jar with rocks and shaking it, only lower and deeper. Her voice was an avalanche.

Gareth understood her, though. Everyone did. Given how physically different a dragon’s anatomy was from the other two species, it followed that their tracheal structure would differ as well. The performance of autopsies had only been legal for a hundred years or so, so scientists were still working to discover just how different, but dragons couldn’t speak like the other species. They couldn’t make the same sounds.

They had to learn the other species’ languages as well as their own so they could at least understand, and the other species had to learn theirs. The system worked, but historically, it took them all a shamefully long time and far too many lost lives to reach this understanding.

The dragon crouched low to the ground, the only way she could fit in the low-ceilinged room. As she spoke, the iridescent orange feathers that ran along the side of her face flared out. The feathers continued down her neck and tail, their color warning of danger. The rest of her body, by contrast, was covered with pale blue scales.

“We’ll secure better for next time,” Nochdvor said, so confidently that the dragon settled back down without further complaint. “Perhaps we should get started so we can all be on our ways. Mr. Ochoa?”

The dryad from the foyer nodded and ran through a roll call, during which Gareth frantically tried to memorize names. Evelyne, he knew, and now Ochoa. A nympherai woman sat across from Gareth, her hair slicked back and her skin spotted with opalescent scales— Trinity Jones, her name was. Then Cathwright, the dragon, another diplomat. Ochoa started with the diplomats and ended with the security team.

Them, Gareth didn’t study as closely as he did the others. Looking at any one of them for too long had the same disconcerting effect; meeting any of their eyes felt like bugs crawling over skin and a knife point pressed to his neck.

While Ochoa progressed through the group, Captain Nochdvor sat back and studied them. Gareth wondered if he, too, was trying to memorize names, or if there were other thoughts running through his head. His expression was carefully blank, betraying nothing. Finally, he spoke. “My name is Leandros Nochdvor, and I’ll be leading the expedition to Orean. In the interest of disclosure, I am the missing King’s nephew, so I have more than an impartial interest in the outcome of this mission. However, my first priority will always be to this team.

“We’re a small team, with five diplomats— including myself— and five support team members, so travel will be light. You’re allowed two bags, and no more. You’ll all be expected to contribute, whether that be by cooking food, helping pitch tents, or gathering firewood. If anyone has a problem with that, you can see me after the meeting,” Leandros explained, his tone making it very clear that he would not, in fact, tolerate anyone arguing with him on this.

After Leandros’ speech, Eresh Ochoa introduced himself as the appointed Unity Overseer for the group. He was a willowy dryad, with burled green skin and long hair made of hyacinths. Without even giving the group time to process the fact that they were going to be overseen by Unity, he launched into complicated Unity protocols that Gareth knew he would forget before he even left this house.

Fortunately, Leandros cut Ochoa off before he could confuse them all too much. “Perhaps we should save this for future meetings. Ms. Corscia— Evelyne Corscia will be our head of security— do you have anything you’d like to add?”

Evelyne raised an eyebrow. “No.”

“Well, then. We have some time before we leave for Orean; we’re waiting on one final team member to return from a visit to Shema. In the meantime, relax, and we’ll contact you later with information on our next meeting.” Leandros graced them all with a final smile, cold and diplomatic. “Meeting adjourned.”

Gareth sat for a minute, watching everyone get up and leave. The security team moved together, left together. Gareth wondered what it was about them all that seemed so alike. At a loss, he pushed himself to his feet and went to look for his host, peering into a few cluttered, elegant rooms but finding no sign of Mr. Ochoa.

He let himself out without a thank you or a goodbye, but stopped on the porch at the sight of Captain Nochdvor. The alfar stood at the balcony rail, watching the team trickle away, his lean frame outlined against the hazy glow of the city’s streets.

“Captain,” Gareth said, holding out a hand when Leandros turned to him. “Gareth Ranulf. I look forward to working with you.”

Leandros regarded the proferred hand curiously, and too late, Gareth remembered they didn’t do handshakes in Alfheim. It was too intimate, they said. But Leandros surprised Gareth by shaking his hand, even smiling as he did. “Likewise. Ranulf, did you say? I know your sister.” Leandros paused and considered Gareth. “Would you say you’re…much like her?”

“Atiuh’s word, I hope not,” Gareth said, letting out a bark of laughter. Again too late, Gareth remembered how Alfheim viewed open displays of emotion.

Leandros didn’t seem offended, though. Instead, the tension in his posture eased and his smile turned a bit more genuine. It made the long scar on his cheek twist. “I must admit that I’m glad to hear it. Moira was, ah, difficult to persuade when my cousin and I first asked Unity for help.”

Gareth cringed. “She can be like that. Not very empathetic, I’m afraid. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t hold it against you; we don’t choose our family.” Leandros’ expression shifted, but the fleeting hint of scowl quickly passed with another smile. “And you’re certainly the friendliest of the team I’ve met so far.”

“I’ve got to make friends somewhere,” Gareth said, pulling his cigarette case out. He offered it to Leandros. “Would you like one?”

“No, thank you.”

Gareth nodded, took one for himself, and lit it. “The others seem to already know each other, after all.”

“You noticed that too, did you? It’s just the security team and Ochoa, as far as I can tell. The others are as new to this as you or I,” Leandros said. He caught Gareth’s eye, something knowing in his expression. “What else did you notice about them, Mr. Ranulf?”

“Nothing,” Gareth said reflexively. “Well, no. That’s not true. The security team, they seem a bit…off.” He didn’t know how else to voice the intense feeling of unease they gave him, or the same twisted apathy that lurked behind all of their eyes. He didn’t know how to say, “I trust them more to kill me than protect me,” but Leandros gave him that knowing look again, and Gareth thought he understood.

“Something that will hopefully pass the more time we all spend together,” he said. “Or not. We’ll see.”

“I suppose we will,” Gareth said. He got the feeling he was missing something. It was the same feeling he got around Moira sometimes, or at Unity functions, like there was a game being played and he hadn’t been told the rules.

“They’re supposed to be the best Unity could find,” Leandros continued, and it took Gareth a moment to realize he meant the security team. “Skilled, smart, and of course, loyal to Unity.”

“Yes, well, that is some comfort,” Gareth said, clearing his throat and putting out his cigarette. “ I suppose I’d best be getting home, before my wife misses me.”

Gareth started down the steps, Leandros calling, “Do you need a ride?” after him.

“No, thank you,” Gareth said. He took a deep breath; the night air was cold and refreshing, exactly what he needed after a meeting like that. “It sounds like we’re going to be doing a lot of walking on this journey, so I’d best start getting in shape now.”

Leandros smiled at him. “A good idea, perhaps. Goodnight, Mr. Ranulf. Enjoy your walk.”

Gareth waved and left Ochoa’s home behind, heading in the direction he was certain he’d arrived from. Soon, the estates of Ochoa’s neighborhood fell away to dull brick buildings and abandoned storefronts. He passed a tawdry and loud public house, and told himself that he had to pass through an unfashionable part of town to reach Main Street. This was just the way. He remembered it from the cab ride here.

So he kept walking, past the distrustful glances thrown his way, past the grimy children yelling “Sweep! Sweep!”, past street vendors and their carts and moving into a small, run-down marketplace.

Gareth didn’t remember passing any marketplaces on the ride. He tried to tell himself that this was okay. He thought he’d been watching out the window the whole ride, but it was possible that he’d looked away for a moment. He could’ve blinked and missed it. Still, he watched for anything recognizable and continued on with more caution. Soon, the cobblestone turned to mud and the air filled with the smells of food and spices, only barely masking the stench of smoke, rot, and human waste.

When Gareth passed a sign that said, “Now Entering Greysdale,” he began to panic.

One of the small chimney sweeps bumped into him and deposited a thin layer of soot on his coat, the dusty ash standing out against the black fabric. Gareth frowned down at the ash and the boy, who cast too pitiable a figure to be annoyed with. “Do you know the way to Kramer Street?” He asked, handing the boy a small coin.

After mumbling his thanks, the boy shook his head and ran off. As Gareth watched him go, he noticed a nearby street vendor watching him. He worked his way over to the man, a shopper breaking away from the vendor’s cart and bumping into Gareth on his way past, hastily offering an apology before continuing down the street.

“You’re gonna want to check that you still have your purse,” the vendor suggested.

Gareth glanced over his shoulder to check that the vendor was speaking to him. “Me? Why wouldn’t I?”

The man looked up at the sky, as if asking Atiuh what he did to deserve his fate. “That fellow didn’t accidentally slam into you. It’s a con,” he explained, then adding under his breath, “One I thought everyone knew.”

Gareth frantically checked the inner pocket of his coat and breathed a sigh of relief to find his pocketbook still in it. He inched closer to the man’s cart. “I should have seen the trick for what it was. Can you help me? I’m afraid I’m lost.”

The corner of the man’s mouth turned up in contempt. Or bitterness, perhaps. “Are you?”

“I’m trying to get to the Lackless Inn on Kramer Street?”

The man thought a moment, then nodded. “Go on down this street a little further and at the first chance, go left. It’ll look like an alley, but don’ let that stop you. The other end opens up onto main street.”

Gareth thanked the man and followed his instructions, hesitating when he reached the mouth of the alley described. It was exactly the sort of place common sense told him to avoid: dark, with large objects obscuring the view to the other end. When he looked up, though, he could see the spires of a church he knew to be on main street.

Gareth held a handkerchief to his face to block the smell, so foul it brought tears to his eyes. It didn’t help much, but he plowed into the alley anyway. It would be worth it, to get out of this place.

He’d made it about a third of the way through when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, making Gareth jump like a startled cat. He bit his own tongue to keep from shouting.

“Sorry to scare you,” the man said— it was the vendor from before, the one who’d given Gareth the directions. He wiped a hand across his mouth to cover a smile. “You dropped this, I think,” he said, holding out Gareth’s cigarette case.

Gareth cursed himself for his reaction and reached out to take it, frowning when the man only pulled it closer to him.

“You should be careful walking around this place at night, sir. With your clothes and your fancy way of speaking, you’re asking to get robbed.”

It was impossible to miss the threat there, even for Gareth, who’d never found himself in a situation like this in his life. He readied himself to run. He could replace the cigarette case. The same could not be said of his life. But when he turned, he found another man standing behind him, this one with a long knife in his hand. It glittered in the sliver of moonlight that fought its way down to them.

It was the shopper that bumped into him earlier, Gareth realized. He looked so much like the man with his cigarette case that they had to be related, and Gareth cursed himself for not noticing it before. He glanced toward the mouth of the alley. It had been so dark from the street. No one would see them. His mind shut down, left him unable to think anything unless it was, “Atiuh, please,” or “don’t do this.”

Gareth had always imagined that, being well-educated and reasonably clever, he’d react rationally and calmly in emergencies. He hated stories where the hero froze up at a crucial moment. He hadn’t understood then the paralyzing effects of fear, the powerlessness that chilled your bones, that whistled through your blood with every beat of your heart. He understood it now, as the man’s knife danced along the back of his neck.

“Call for help and my brother will cut your throat faster than you can piss yourself.”

Before Gareth could feel a fresh wave of fear at that, the brother with the knife held both of Gareth’s arms behind his back, and the vendor slammed his knee into Gareth’s groin. Gareth grunted, the air leaving his lungs in a staccato burst, and he fell to the ground, barely registering the pain of his knees hitting the hard dirt.

“Take my money, just leave me be,” Gareth gasped when his breath finally returned to him. He wondered, briefly, what his father would think of him begging like this. This was not how Ranulfs behaved, even to save their own lives.

The vendor slammed his fist into Gareth’s face, and Gareth flew back at the blow, falling against the alley wall, the back of his head hitting the brick.

No one would see and no one would hear. Gareth retrieved his pocketbook with shaking hands and threw it at the vendor’s feet. The vendor first pulled out Gareth’s Unity identification, holding the laminate papers to the light. “What’s this?”

“Looks like junk,” the other suggested.

“What’s it say?” the vendor asked Gareth. He sneered when he saw Gareth trying to inch his way down the alley. “Tag, stop him.”

He returned to studying the papers while Tag grabbed Gareth by the collar and pulled him back. “That’s Unity’s seal, right there. I bet we can get a good price for whatever this is. Search him, see if he’s hiding anything else.”

Help!” Gareth shouted, as loud as he could. He thought he saw a shadow hesitate at the mouth of the alley, but knew it must just be a hallucination brought on by wishful thinking. No one could see them. He looked back at Tag in time to see a fist speeding toward his face and couldn’t even cringe when the blow struck, so intense was the pain. It was everywhere. It was numbing. He fell back against the wall again, and everything went black.

Chapter 4

“Are you ready to order, sir?”

The sudden voice startled Aleksir. He turned his gaze from the passing crowd to the server standing over him, looking down his nose. “I told you, I’m waiting for someone.”

The server shrugged. “Suit yourself,” it seemed to say. He left Aleksir alone on the restaurant veranda, the chill of dusk settling around him while he waited. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting here already, but it was too long. One of the two suns had set, and the lanterns lining the street had been lit. His contact should’ve been here by now.

As soon as he had the thought, a peculiar feeling came over Aleksir, like a feather-light touch to the back of his neck. Aleksir had lived most of his life on the streets— he’d learned at a young age how it felt to be watched.

It shouldn’t be happening here, though— no one knew he was in the city. No one besides his contact, at least.

Subtle as he could, he stretched and looked around, first back at the restaurant, then down the street. It was busy for that time of evening, but when Aleksir looked, no heads turned away and no shapes shrank back into shadows. He made himself sit still a few minutes after that, fighting the urge to look again. Then he rose with in a huff, complaining loudly about being stood up. He threw his napkin down, left a few coins for the server’s troubles, and slumped off down the street.

He waited until he was a good distance from the restaurant before running. He hoped whoever had been watching him didn’t care enough to chase him, but just to be sure, he ran as fast as he could. He wove through side alleys and back streets, and only when he couldn’t run any further,he ducked into a narrow alley.

He studied the back wall for an escape route in the shadows, just in case. There was a windowsill he could haul himself onto, but the window itself was boarded shut with planks of rotting wood, and Aleksir had neither the time nor leverage it would take to pry them free. Higher up on an adjacent wall, was a balcony, but there’s no way its delicate beams could support his weight.

He didn’t have many choices. Instead of planning an escape, he pried free the leg of a discarded chair, the metal giving way with surprising ease, and faced the mouth of the alley. Then, he waited, holding his makeshift weapon ready.

He didn’t expect his pursuer to come from behind.

He whirled when a loud crash came from above. Pebbles fell clanging and clattering all the way to the ground, hitting every possible obstruction along the way. Aleksir watched them fall, almost not noticing the figure hidden in shadows who followed them down, who melted into the alley’s darkness like he’d been borne from it. As the man jumped from the balcony to the windowsill, from the windowsill to the ground, his grace reminded Aleksir of the sure and steady flow of water.

He was like those metal slinky toys— fall, drop. Fall, drop. Fall, drop.

The man landed on his toes like a dancer, his booted feet making only the softest of sounds when they hit the ground. When he straightened out, he revealed a tall, lean figure— clean for a man that apparently took to running around on rooftops.

He stalked toward Aleksir with the lazy, loping prowl of a predator toying with its food, making Aleksir the intended meal. He wouldn’t make more than a light appetizer, though, really, and he debated telling the man so.

“Don’t come any closer,” Aleksir warned.

The man didn’t answer; instead, he smiled. What little sunslight reached them in the alley seemed to seek him out, touching on a messy mop of black hair and youthful face, conventionally handsome if it wasn’t for his crooked smile and hard, dark eyes. It was the kind of face Aleksir had always been jealous of, growing up— charming and dangerous.

When he didn’t stop, Aleksir did the only thing he could think to do: he swung his cudgel at the man’s head. He didn’t expect the man to dodge, moving faster than Aleksir’s eyes could even follow. Aleksir ended up hitting nothing but air, his balance thrown off with the force of his swing. When he’d recovered, he tried again.

The man must’ve gotten lucky. No one could move that fast.

This time, the man held out a hand and caught the metal bar mid-swing, halting its progress entirely and all at once. Aleksir gasped at the loss of momentum, and the man wrenched the cudgel out of his hand. He dropped it and kicked it aside.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” he promised, seeing Aleksir about to dive for the weapon.

Aleksir froze. The man’s face was friendly enough, and there was something vaguely familiar about it. Still, Aleksir said, “Could’ve fooled me.”

“You haven’t exactly given me a chance to explain,” the man said with another smile, wider and friendlier. With the smile, Aleksir realized where he’d seen the man’s face before: an old photograph on his boss’s desk; a half-blurred, smiling face, dark eyes unforgettable even past the grainy monochrome of the photograph.

“Oh, shit,” Aleksir gasped. “I know you.”

The man’s smile fell. “You do?”

“You’re Egil.”

Surprise flitted across Egil’s face, but he recovered quickly and nodded. “And you’re Aleksir Bardon. You’re younger than I expected.”

“I could say the same to you.”

“I would prefer if you didn’t,” Egil said. His smile was back.

“What, um…what do you want with me?” Aleksir asked, hoping Egil didn’t notice the waver in his voice.

But it was Egil— the great northern beast, hero of a thousand stories, confidant of the Oracle of Damael and enemy of Unity. Of course Egil noticed. He tipped his head to the side, studying Aleksir. “Are you afraid of me?”

“No,” Aleksir said, said unconvincingly. He repeated, “No. You’re my hero. As a kid, I heard all these stories about you…I don’t think I’d be alive if it weren’t for those stories. I thought, if the the great hero Egil could get off the streets and do some good, I knew I could, too. And look at me now.”

“Holding a meeting with a known criminal in a dingy alley? Quite the step up.”

“You’re not a criminal.”

Egil sighed. “You put too much faith in stories, kid.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Aleksir said. “I’ve seen a lot of stories being born, you know. They’re usually at least a little true, no matter how crazy they get. And there’s an awful lot of Egil stories from all over talking about how great you are.”

“There are stories that say the opposite, too. What of those?”

“There are less of those,” Aleksir said with a shrug. “That’s telling.”

Egil surprised Aleksir by laughing. The sound echoed in the hollow alley, bright, boyish, and completely out of place. “Alright, fair,” he said, shaking his head. He wrinkled his nose and looked around the alley. “I wish you hadn’t run. That restaurant was much nicer.”

“Sorry, next time I’ll take the time to make sure it’s not Egil tailing me before I react.”

“Or I’ll give you notice and we can avoid this whole game,” Egil said with a grin.

Aleksir nodded. “You never answered my question.”

“Straight to business, then? I’ve been hearing strange whispers all day. Something happened on Unity Island, and I want to know what. I have it on good authority that if anyone can tell me, it’s you.”

Aleksir listened anxiously, his frown deepening as Egil went on. When he first realized who Egil was, he’d thought… “This isn’t about the Oracle?”

The change was instantaneous.

Egil recoiled at the Oracle’s name, falling back a step. In his life, Aleksir had met with his fair share of demons. He knew how deceiving looks could be, how a bright smile and a youthful face can hide the darkest shadows. This friendly young man— seemingly not older than thirty— had almost fooled Aleksir.

But when Aleksir mentioned the Oracle, Egil changed. Aleksir saw the shadows. He saw Egil from those darker stories, someone bitter, angry, tired. Lines of worry and distrust found a home around Egil’s dark eyes, making him look older. Much, much older.

But that wasn’t all. The shadows around Egil’s feet shifted, drawing protectively around him. For a moment, his eyes flashed entirely dark, the whites eclipsed by a cold black that glittered in the fading light. Egil grimaced and turned away, but Aleksir had already seen it: the Egil from the worst stories. The monster.

Aleksir had seen a lot of the world and those eyes were something that didn’t belong in it. They made him feel empty and afraid— he felt it physically, like a bee sting and a bad stomach. Gone was the man he’d been talking to, replaced by someone ancient and dangerous.

Then, Egil blinked and the darkness unclouded from his eyes. His expression cleared.

If Egil man asked again whether Aleksir was afraid of him, the answer might be different.

“What does Devikra have to do with anything?” Egil asked. His tone was strained, forcibly injected with a warped version of his earlier friendliness.

“She’s my boss.”

Realization passed across Egil’s expression. “That’s how you knew my face?” he guessed.

Aleksir nodded. “She has a photograph of you. You’re—,”

“I know the one.” Egil shook his head, a ghost of his earlier smile finding its way back onto his face. “You were on a job for her when I interrupted?”

Again, Aleksir nodded. “I was supposed to meet with my Unity contact.”

Egil considered this a moment, then said, “No, this isn’t about the Oracle.”

“But this is a perfect coincidence, then! She just had a vision—,”

Egil waved a hand to cut him off. “Don’t. Please. I just want to know what’s happening with Unity.”

Egil’s tone left no room for argument. Even though Aleksir wanted to argue anyway, he did have some sense of self-preservation, despite Devikra often teasing otherwise. “I don’t know what happened, really. They haven’t announced anything about it. Word is, Alfheim’s King’s been abducted.”

“Amos?” Egil asked, eyes widening. “How? By who?”

“The orinians, if you believe the gossips. I heard they used magic,” Aleksir said, pausing for effect. It was meant to be a joke, but after what he’d just witnessed with Egil, it fell flat. Magic was supposed to be a thing of stories— more so, even, than the man in front of him. But Egil just frowned, his expression turning thoughtful. “Some alfar showed up on the island today to talk to Unity about it.”

“What’s Unity going to do?” Egil asked. He spoke slowly, like he didn’t want to finish the sentence, if finishing meant he’d get an answer.

“Dunno yet. Maybe you shouldn’t have scared my contact away,” Aleksir said, then shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to get Nochdvor back.”

“I’m sure they will,” Egil agreed. “And to me, that’s terrifying.”

Aleksir’s smile dropped. “The Oracle says big things are coming. Bad things. Maybe this is it.”

“I don’t care what Devikra says,” Egil snapped. Then he hesitated, worried at his lip, and asked, “What kind of things?”

Apparently not even the great Egil was immune to curiosity. It made him seem more human. Aleksir almost smiled. “That’d mean telling you what she saw. Thought you didn’t want me to do that.”

“Just get on with it.”

“She wouldn’t tell me everything,” Aleksir admitted. “Just bits. Riots in the north. Assassinations in Alfheim. Red dragons crawling out of Lyryma.”

“The red dragons are extinct.” Egil crossed his arms. “I should’ve known better than to listen to—,”

“Look, you of all people know she’s never wrong. Weird things are happening in Calaidia, weirder than firebreathers coming back from the dead and alfar kings disappearing from guarded palaces. You have more to be terrified of than Unity.”

“And what am I supposed to do about it?” Egil asked, absently kicking Aleksir’s makeshift cudgel into a pile of trash. “Now that you’ve told me, what is there that can be done? If you’re so close with her, you know her visions can’t be changed. Mr. Bardon, whatever friendship or partnership I had with Devikra is over. It has been for a long time. I don’t know what she told you, but she and I weren’t nearly as efficient together as the stories like to suggest.”

Aleksir ducked his head. He’d been working with Devikra for nearly six years, and she’d been fighting with Egil long, long before that. Calotype photographs had only been around for—Aleksir wished he’d paid more attention to his history lessons—fifty years or so, and Egil hadn’t looked much younger in Devikra’s photograph than he did now.

Aleksir searched Egil’s face. Devikra was nympherai, a different species. She’d been around for centuries and for her, it made sense. But humans generally came with shorter lifespans. Egil didn’t have the pointed ears and sharp angles of the alfar, not the feather-brushed skin and red hair of the marionites. Egil seemed wholly sapien. Nobody was wholly sapien anymore. Aleksir definitely wasn’t. Even Aleksir was mixed — an alfar great-great-grandmother on his dad’s side, an orinian ancestor or two way back on his mum’s.

Egil clearly wasn’t as human as he appeared to be.

“Can’t I just—,” Aleksir began.

Egil cut him off suddenly. Before Aleksir could ask what was wrong, he was being shoved against the alley wall, Egil holding a finger to his lips and pointing up. Aleksir looked up just in time to see a dragon fly low over the alley. It was probably blue, given its size, but it blocked out the light from above, leaving its underside all shadow. All that was left to illuminate the alley as it passed over was the single lantern strapped to its belly, pointed right down at Egil and Aleksir.

“It’s just a dragon,” Aleksir whispered.

“A police dragon,” Egil said, watching the last of its spiked tail vanish from sight. He released Aleksir and backed toward the alley’s entrance. “A clandestine meeting in an alley is cause for some questions, don’t you think? I, for one, don’t want to get caught up in questioning. Gallontea’s police are dreadfully slow, horribly inefficient, and brutally unforgiving, something you may want to remember if you’re going to keep poking around in Unity’s business.”

“I’m careful,” Aleksir said.

I was able to find you, wasn’t I?”

“You’re Egil,” Aleksir said. When Egil kept walking, he called, “Hey! At least tell me how to find you again, in case Dev sees something important.”

Egil smiled back at Aleksir, brighter than the suns that had long since set. “I don’t think I will.”

“You can’t run from fate, friend,” Aleksir called.

“We’re not friends,” Egil threw over his shoulder. “But just watch me.”