“Favia should be close,” Leilan muttered, looking more at his communicator than in front of him as he relied on Kasumi and Dawn at his sides to get him through the crowd. “Her location hasn’t changed for minutes now, and we’re drawing in.”
“Shouldn’t we be seeing her by now?” Dawn asked worriedly. “It seems like we’ve gotten close enough to spot her.”
Leilan glanced up, scanning the crowd. There were no familiar faces in the intimidating environment of armed, suspicious people, no brown-haired and stoic bodyguard. Favia’s location marker still blinked on his screen, almost overlapping with their own.
“It could be off by a little,” Kasumi suggested. “Let’s keep going.”
Leilan kept walking, wondering how Shane and Kaja were tackling the problem. Kaja had been eager to search for information on the First Spell— should there even be any— but he hoped Shane would be able to keep the two of them on track. They hadn’t run into each other since they’d split up, so they might have tried searching blindly for Favia. Considering how their own hunt was going, it might have been just as effective as their plan.
Leilan stopped in his tracks as Favia’s circle on his communicator map appeared directly over theirs, without it having moved. If the location was accurate, they should have been standing right on top of each other.
“She’s not here,” Dawn said, echoing his thoughts exactly.
The doubt and worry that he’d been trying to dispel returned, and Leilan slowly lowered his wrist to his side, staring blankly in front of him. The three of them had stopped in the middle of the crowd, and people had to alter their paths around them. We must look strange, he thought, a clueless trio just standing around. But he couldn’t care less about their appearances. Favia was well and truly missing.
“I sent her a message when we started searching,” Kasumi said, and it brought Leilan some relief to hear it in her voice that she was at least taking things seriously. “It doesn’t seem like she’s read it.”
Leilan shook his head. “We’re in—”
The sudden feeling that he was being watched, accompanied with the hairs on the back of his neck rising, distracted him from finishing his sentence. Leilan snapped his head up, scanning for someone staring at them. His gaze snapped to a person standing a floor above, visible through the empty area above their heads, who was leaning against the railing. He could have sworn the stranger was looking directly at them, even through the tinted helmet of the…
Is that a spacesuit they’re wearing?
Leilan blinked, then squinted as he tried to make out the details. The person in the spacesuit clearly noticed the attention, however, because they turned around and ducked into the crowd and out of his sight before he had any luck. Leilan stared at the space they had been standing for a few moments longer, before he saw Dawn shift worriedly in the corner of his eye, and he realized he’d left her and Kasumi hanging.
“We’re in too deep?” Kasumi asked hesitantly.
“I was going to say we’re in some trouble,” Leilan said quickly, tearing his gaze away from the upper floor and back to his team. “Being in too deep would depend on whether Shane and Kaja— mostly Kaja— have dragged us into anything more.”
“Did you see anything?” Dawn asked, sounding equally concerned and curious.
“I probably imagined something,” Leilan said, shaking his head as if that would clear it. He couldn’t think of any reason why an astronaut in full gear would be here— this place was strange, but in another way entirely. “Let’s go back to the meeting spot and tell the other two we’ve had no luck. I want to get us out of here.”
Kasumi and Dawn both nodded, ready to move on. When their backs were turned and they’d already started walking, Leilan glanced over his shoulder to make sure the mysterious astronaut hadn’t returned. But the stranger in the spacesuit was gone.
Shane and Kaja had already made it back to the meeting point when Leilan’s group showed up. He peered around them, just in case he was missing that Favia was with them, but there was no sign of the bodyguard. Shane was running a hand through his hair, staring down at the ground, and Kaja seemed to be standing a little more stiffly than usual. Leilan knew that meant something, but he wasn’t sure what.
“No luck?” Kasumi asked, though the answer was clear.
Shane shook his head. “No sign of Favia.”
“We couldn’t find her either,” Dawn said. “We went to her location, but she wasn’t there. It seems like a bad sign.”
“Are we going to keep looking here?” Shane asked.
Leilan slowly shook his head. “I think we should turn that over to someone better equipped for a real search. Acelin and Daphne will understandably be very frustrated that we lied to them and went here, but I think I can work things out with them.”
Shane and Kaja exchanged a look, and Leilan had to brace himself for whatever was coming next.
“Well, are you going to be the one to say it?” Kaja asked.
“I was hoping you would, actually,” Shane muttered.
“Have some spine, Shane. He’ll blame me anyway.”
Shane heaved a sigh. “Leilan. My dear best friend since we were age seven. My marvelous partner-in-crime of three years— uh, government colleagues, I mean, for now. We aren’t actual partners-in-crime just yet. You trust me, don’t you?”
“I’d say yes, normally, but I have a very bad feeling about this,” Leilan said slowly.
Shane bit his lip while Kaja glared at him. “Okay, how do you feel about us learning a little more about the First Spell?”
Leilan frowned. “Maybe a little better.”
“How about us talking to someone who was definitely a crime boss for that information, and who would also be able to get us in touch with those thieves?”
“I— what? A lot worse.”
Shane held up his hands. “Is it true you’ll blame Kaja instead?”
“Please tell me you’re joking,” Leilan said in a pained voice. “A crime boss?”
“That’s very much what happened,” Kaja said. “Though he left out the part where we agreed to meet with them.”
“Kaja!” Shane hissed. “I was going to wait on saying that.”
“I’d say we are in too deep,” Dawn said weakly.
Leilan took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “The only reason we’re here is because we were searching for Favia, and because I was outvoted. Why are you all so interested in this thing?”
“I was just talking earlier about how it would help us a lot if we were able to control magic,” Kasumi pointed out.
“We don’t need magic to solve our problems,” Leilan said, resisting the urge to sigh.
“Magic is our problem,” she retorted. “This could be the solution.”
“Say that we managed to get it,” Leilan said, surprising himself with the indifference in his voice. He might agree to just about anything as long as it meant he didn’t have to be the only thing standing in the way of their insane plans. “What would we even do with it? After we’ve done something very unconventional for Heirs who are supposed to be responsible and our hope for the future, we would have Aphirah’s greatest artifact in our hands. It could be used to restrict magic in any way that’s best— making it more scarce, less powerful, suspending its effectiveness— but who do we trust to manage that and to know when enough is enough?”
“Ourselves, obviously,” Kaja said. “We’re allowed to propose solutions to a crisis as Heirs. We’d have the legal grounds to do something with the First Spell.”
“Something about the way we’re acting makes me think we aren’t ready for taking something that big into our hands,” Leilan retorted.
He could tell he’d said something too much, either in his message or his flat tone, because he instantly saw a shift in his friends’ behavior. Kasumi’s lips had pressed together, her dark eyes flashing with visible anger and hurt. An ashamed look had fallen over Dawn and Shane’s faces even as they averted their gazes. Kaja recoiled and stood taller, the action reminding him of rattlesnakes he’d seen rearing their heads in the dry grasses of sun-scorched meadows. He knew her bite would sting, and he was already regretting provoking her, but it was too late for him to take it back.
“Sorry you think we’re inadequate,” Kaja spat through gritted teeth. “But this is our birthright, in case you forget where you’re coming from.”
Leilan didn’t wince— nearly twenty years of similar words had taught him not to— but something on his face must have told Dawn this was also too far, because she stepped in between them. “If we’re going to fight over this, we won’t reach an agreement, but we will be more unhappy in the end,” she said, her gentle voice hardened with firmness. “Leilan, can I talk to you alone?”
Leilan met Kaja’s glare with a look that he hoped contained less venom before he nodded and turned away. “Sounds good to me.”
Dawn moved away until they were out of earshot of the group, but not of sight. She wasn’t quite looking at him, always seeming to glance slightly to the side of him whenever she checked that he was following, and he felt another pang of guilt. Dawn wasn’t leading the charge into this plan he found unwise, and his words hadn’t really been for her, but she would have heard herself in them anyway.
“I’m sorry,” Leilan said quietly once they came to a stop. “I know we all have our insecurities about our roles, except maybe Shane, and even then he doesn’t want to be doing his job badly. None of you are.”
Dawn nodded, glancing back at the other three. “I know,” she said, her gaze following a pacing Kasumi. “I’m sorry for what Kaja said, too, though I don’t know that she’ll take it back.”
Leilan laughed, without much humor. “I’m not expecting an apology from her.”
“Have you heard that you don’t belong from her before?” Dawn asked sympathetically. “Or another Heir?”
He couldn’t remember. Kaja had been skeptical of him when he’d first become Heir, and he wondered if she still was at times, but he didn’t know if it was for the same reason everyone else had for doubting him. “I don’t think I have,” he said. “She might not even believe in what she said— it might have just been ammunition for a retort. But I’ve heard it from your brother.”
Dawn’s lips curled into a dry smile that he wasn’t used to seeing on her. “What haven’t we heard from Jasper,” she remarked flatly, which got a chuckle out of them both.
Leilan could have said a lot more, but something told him it was too soon. Jasper Fairburn had been one of the House of Loyalty’s worst mistakes. He’d managed to work with all the people who had been Heir in his four years with the role, even when Kaja had been stubborn and uncollaborative, but it had been impossible with Jasper. The hot-headed and corrupt ex-Heir had nearly ruined all the Houses’ efforts to keep Aphirah stable, and without Dawn’s Champion Appeal of two seasons ago, he could still be watching the damage happen instead of repairing it.
“I just don’t know about this idea,” he said instead. “It’s too much power for five people to hold.”
“Leilan,” Dawn said softly. “There are good applications of it, and I think we can find them. What would you do with the First Spell, if you had it?”
Leilan frowned. “I haven’t thought about it.”
“I think you know, though.”
Leilan paused, realizing he did have an idea after all. “The Tremor rift beside Amber City,” he said. “The one that causes the earthquakes. I’d fix it.”
Dawn nodded. “And no one’s managed to do so,” she said. “But we’d be able to, wouldn’t we? The threat could be gone, without any dangerous operation or experiment. Amber City would be safe again, or safer. That’s why we should be the ones to use it, because we’re trying to make the world better. We'd still be in a little too deep, but we can get ourselves out this way. We can get Aphirah out of trouble this way.”
Leilan wasn’t sure if he could match her optimism, but he knew she had a point. At the very least, they’d be snatching the artifact out of the hands of someone who didn’t have any good plans for it. He knew someone would get the First Spell for themselves eventually, and even though he wasn’t completely sure about some of his team’s motives, he trusted them more than anyone else who might be looking for the artifact.
“Okay,” he said, making up his mind. “Let’s meet with these thieves.”