I caught just a glimpse of him as Lalla hurried me through the corridor. At least, I thought it was him. Maybe. Lalla had never known him, wouldn’t have recognised him. There was no point in asking her. But we were already past that room, and in the crowds, it might have been anyone. It might just have been that alien emotion, that unfamiliar jolt that meant something better might be around the corner. I might just have been daydreaming again. It was becoming harder to tell these days, between the dreams and the reality, for I understood neither.
We turned a sharp left, and I felt Lalla tug harder on my arm. She was practically dragging me by now, and I began to walk slightly faster, slightly clumsier, slightly more anxiously. Were we late? We had set off early enough, I had thought - Hadn’t we? Sol Venia was only an hour away from our last camp, we had been told. We had set off on time. Early, in fact. And we had travelled as quickly as was possible by foot, not even stopping for food. My stomach was still aching resentfully.
The corridor was narrowing now, and Lalla pulled me into one of the last side doors on the left. I stumbled and lost my footing on the uneven ground. I ended up crashing painfully against an icy wall, my satchel split, spilt and scattered remnants of our travels strewn across the ground. I didn’t see anyone as I fell, and was glad that of the assumption that none of my superiors had seen such a careless mistake. Using the wall as leverage, I clambered to my feet, hopeful at least that we were not, as I had previously feared, late.
Even as I was halfway to standing up, another shadow crossed mine. No footsteps. It couldn’t be Lalla; she was far too loud. Still half leaning against the wall, I clawed my way further up before turning to face the owner of the shadow. I didn’t want him to look down on me any more than he already did. Because I knew it was him, even before I turned around. There was something about him that gave him away, almost like an aura, only nothing like as mystical. Part of it was in the scent that surrounded him, that wasn’t given off by him but rather seemed to follow him around. Part of it was in the way the air around him seemed so light that it made me dizzy. I tried to gather myself before I looked him in the eye, but I could already feel his gaze sizing me up. I almost expected him to say something stupid and insignificant, to comment on how I’d grown, almost like a parent or an uncle.
“As coordinated as ever.” A light statement, just as insignificant. Nothing that told me what I needed to know. His steady voice was as assuring as I had always found it, but so emotionless and toneless, so impersonal that it hurt. I met his gaze, trying to find answers there. Nothing. Hundreds of questions and thoughts overloaded my brain. Had he seen me before, in the corridor? Why hadn’t he said anything? Where had he been for the past six years? Was he still the same as I remembered? Had anything changed between us? And, most importantly...could I still trust him?
I grimaced awkwardly. “How’s...how’s things?” I swallowed, eyes fixed on him. If he was going to give anything away, it would be now.
He glanced away for a moment, almost imperceptibly. What did that mean? But already, his eyes were back on me, searching. Lalla moved closer towards us and stood at my side, arms folded defensively. “I see they found you a partner.” Again, there was no emotion in his voice.
“Did they have difficulty?” I asked, mirroring his cool tone and raising my eyebrows.
“You have unusual talents. I heard it was difficult to find someone who complemented them.” I frowned for a second before realising I was giving too much emotion away. I remembered asking him when we were younger, remembered him insisting he had no idea why the Guild had recruited me. Had he since discovered the talents that had ruined my life? Or had he been lying to me all along?
I saw a flicker of a smile cross his face, almost to himself. “It takes an unusual situation for clumsiness to become a talent.” I stared at him for a moment, unsure of his intent. His gaze lowered, and I saw his smile return, lingering this time. Smirking, almost.
“Rotten jerk,” I muttered, throwing a feeble punch that I knew he would block. He caught my fist in his palm, closed his fingers around mine.
“You had better luck than I did.” He inclined his head towards Lalla, who was standing almost protectively close to me by this point. Her expression was still wary, her jaw set. “I suppose it was too much to ask to be partnered with Kynith again afterwards, but...” He broke off, and I hesitated, suddenly feeling guilty.
I opened my mouth, but no words came. I floundered for a moment. What was there that I could say? What apologies made up for something like that?
“It wasn’t your fault. Stop blaming yourself. They would have found some way to split us apart eventually.” It unnerved me how easily he could read my emotions.
“But it was my fault that you were split apart so early,” I said in a pained voice. “It was because--”
He cut across me. “It’s better this way. It’s harder to communicate, but we can operate over a larger area. It’s also far less suspicious...”
He paused, and I could feel there was something else he wanted to say. “But?”
“But...my partner isn’t as supportive as I’d hoped for. In fact...she’s a voluntary.”
My face contorted in anger. “That’s--that’s sick!”
“Keep your voice down. You think I’m any happier about this than you are? Ilimya keeps a close eye on me constantly. There’s no room to manoeuvre. She wasn’t as watchful in the beginning, but...Kynith’s had to work solo for some months now.”
“I’m sorry, Leru. If I could trade partners, I would--”
“Don’t,” he advised. “I need you on the inside. You’ll become useful.” There was brief moment of silence as we both each thought about what the other had said. I heard Lalla huff quietly. Had something upset her? “So she’s supportive of our cause, then?” he asked, gesturing towards Lalla.
I nodded. “Yes, Lalla’s from Ythith. I haven’t told her much about what’s been going on; I haven’t known that much myself.”
“I know. We’ve been quieter than usual lately. The Guild’s watching us too closely for anything big at this moment in time. But Kynith’s been pulling some invisible strings. We’re finally getting somewhere. My partner and I are responsible for dealing with an isolated rebellion in Ythith. I’ll be doing all I can to help fuel the rebellion, but Ilimya will still be far too suspicious for me to make any mistakes. There’s...there’s a chance I might get caught.” My eyes widened, but he continued as though oblivious. “If that happens, you’re my second-in-command, my replacement. You might not be Ythian, but I know that your heart’s in the cause and that I can trust you. Go wherever your next job takes you, Kynith will find you somehow. She has her methods. Above all, act normally. This operation is already far too much in the open. We don’t want to draw any more unnecessary attention.”
I nodded. “Okay. This seems dangerous, but I trust you.”
“Good.” He fixed his gaze on me once again. “We’re all putting out lives on the line for this. If any of us back out now, this won’t work.”
I nodded again, more slowly this time. Truth be told, I was worried about what I might say if I opened my mouth. Leru had always been so cautious when I had known him before. Yet we had gone straight back to the way we were in under an hour, acting as though we had kept in regular contact for the past six years. Was he that afraid of something going wrong with his plan, that desperate to confirm that I was his ally still? The pressure of being labelled his ‘replacement’ did nothing to ease the tension.
Lalla shifted beside me, her expression almost unreadable. She had kept silent during our lengthy conversation, and I assumed it was because Leru was a stranger, or because he and I had so much to catch up on. Clearly this was not the case.