On his third time back in the Arcade, Leilan didn’t like it any better. Whatever he’d picked up from Cyrin and Mireya’s lives of crime, it hadn’t made him more comfortable in the crowd he and Kaja were moving through. He kept out of people’s way and avoided eye contact, letting Kaja clear the way for him. She was much better at the glaring and intimidation anyway.
“I think it’s to the right,” he murmured to her, checking the diagram Mireya had drawn for them of the screen of his communicator. Kaja paused, stopping in her tracks, before nodding and making a turn.
They came to the pillar that they thought was indicated by the last circle on the Arcade map. Leilan was about to place the last spell stone, but Kaja shook her head and pointed to her communicator. “My timer still has seven minutes on the clock,” she reminded him.
“Right.” Leilan nodded, leaning against the pillar. “Thank you. I’d forgotten we had to time it with everything else.”
Kaja lowered her wrist, and he saw her amber eyes searching the area, assessing how freely they could speak. “This is elaborate, isn’t it? It’s hard to believe we’re doing it. Right now, we should be back at our Houses, getting ready to go to our largest celebration of the year.”
“I should be getting fitted for a suit.” Leilan smiled faintly as he let his head fall back against the pillar.
“And I should have someone instructing me how to smile politely as if I like the people there.” Kaja clicked her tongue. “But we’re here instead. I could probably fit in here, you know. Everyone’s scowling and looks ready to fight.”
Leilan let out a huff of laughter. “If there’s some underground fighting ring here, and there probably is, I’m sure you’d make a killing. We’d miss you, though.”
Kaja raised an eyebrow. “Would you really?”
“Yeah. We’d be a little worried too. You know, risks of the place and all that.” Leilan gestured around vaguely. “I wonder how Mireya and Cyrin had to adapt to the place, or if they’ve always been comfortable with this scene.”
“You want my honest thoughts and theories on that?”
Leilan shrugged, faintly surprised that she wanted to share. “Well, we’ve probably got to wait about six minutes still, so sure.”
Kaja tapped her foot on the ground. “With Mireya, I’d guess that she’s been doing this forever. In the figurative sense, of course. She seems either really good at going along with the flow in general, or she’s a natural to this, because she seems very used to an illegal lifestyle. I doubt there’s much that she does that is legal, in fact.”
He glanced her way, furrowing his brow. “What do you mean by the last part?”
“I don’t know, a bunch of little things.” Kaja examined her fingernails idly. “She does things in a certain way, doesn’t she? She’s reckless and doesn’t seem to have any fear for whatever she does, of course, but I keep thinking it runs deeper than that. Do you think she even has a life outside of this?”
Leilan opened his mouth to say something— he wasn’t quite sure what— but she went on.
“I mean, she hates the Houses. That’s clear as day. We both know we have opposition, especially among mages, but I haven’t met someone with such a strong hatred for our institutions. You heard what she said about us being irredeemable, right? It didn’t seem like she meant that lightly. It sounded more radical, like she’s built her life around standing up to us.”
“So maybe she’s especially passionate among those who lean towards anarchism,” Leilan said slowly. “That doesn’t mean she’s made it her life’s mission—”
“There is more, though,” Kaja interrupted. “Remember the Amber City airport? The inspection agent didn’t trust her ID papers— he thought she didn’t properly exist. I was worried that one of the five of us would have to step in, show him who we were, and basically grant her immunity. If she hadn’t put up a defense, I feel like that might have happened.”
Leilan frowned. He did remember that, and it still struck him as odd, but… “What are you saying?”
“If her papers are suspicious, whether they’re fake or inaccurate, she’s probably hiding something about her life as a whole,” Kaja said. He expected her voice to be cuttingly, impatiently blunt like it was every time she explained something to him she found to be obvious, but there was none of that. Just a slightly cautious, uncertain tone, like she knew she didn’t have all the evidence she would like for drawing a conclusion. “To the level that it seems like to law enforcement, she didn’t exist. Cyrin didn’t have that kind of problem.”
Leilan hesitated for a long moment. This conversation was making all kinds of thoughts buzz around in his head, but he needed to know if they’d have time for them.
“How long do you have left on your timer?” he asked weakly.
Kaja checked her communicator. “Around four minutes.”
“Right. We’ll save that for later then.” Leilan blew out a long breath. “What about Cyrin? What do you think for them?”
Kaja hummed thoughtfully. “He knows what he’s doing with crime, but I think he’s newer to it, or hasn’t become fully comfortable with all of it. I was more eager to fight Pia— that’s the mage he got the magic for the Permafrost’s Fall from— than he was. I think he does best with theft than anything else.”
“You think he’s got a life outside of the Arcade scene then?” Leilan asked. “Unlike Mireya, possibly?”
“He didn’t seem to be a ghost in the same way that she is, from how his identification didn’t raise concern at the airport,” Kaja said. “I wish I’d seen his papers, though. Do you think they’d have Troy or whatever name he swore by as part of his name?”
“I heard it wasn’t their last name,” Leilan said. “That’s all I know.”
“Cyrin is such an unusual first name. Feels like I’ve heard of someone else having it first, though.” Kaja bit her lip thoughtfully. “Is it a Ren name?”
“I think it’s modern?” Leilan suggested. “It might be part of the trend of using words as names, just like Dawn and her siblings Jasper and Lilac. Except for a Ren word. I don’t think it’s popular yet.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Kaja said, nodding. “Anyway, that’s what I think for the two of them.”
“You’ve paid more attention to them than I expected,” Leilan said, faintly surprised. “I didn’t think you’d care that much.”
“Yeah, well, it seems like we didn’t think about whether we should trust them as much as we did about how they could trust us.” Kaja shrugged with one shoulder. “That mattered more to me between the two. I was sure they wouldn’t trust us, regardless of what we did to appeal to them, so I paid attention to them. They’re still pretty enigmatic to me, in different ways, but there were some patterns to be noticed.”
“I noticed a couple things about them too that they didn’t share,” Leilan said with a nod. “Though I wasn’t doing it from a place of suspicion.”
“Did you notice Cyrin is Oathbound?”
Kaja shook her head, looking curious. “No. How can you tell?”
“They have a shield tattoo, between their shoulder blades,” Leilan said. “It’s been mostly covered by what they’re wearing, but I caught a partial glimpse of it while they were fighting off Banes in the Permafrost’s Fall.”
“Interesting,” Kaja mused. “I wonder who he’s protecting.”
“I kind of do, too, but that’s not something he’d share, I’m sure,” Leilan said. “That’s information he’d want to keep safe. And also something else…” He paused for a moment. He’d been about to share what he’d been thinking about Cyrin’s magic, but really, he didn’t know what to think of it yet. It was only speculation even vaguer than Kaja’s. “I think Mireya is interested in Dawn,” he said instead.
Kaja rolled her eyes. “Oh, I thought we weren’t saying obvious things.”
Leilan laughed quietly. “Sorry, you’re the one who’s on the hunt for all their secrets. Just don’t blackmail them. They’ve been nice enough for that.”
“It was one time,” she muttered.
Leilan chuckled, thinking that was the end of it, but a few moments later she spoke again.
“It was a big time, though,” she said, half thinking out loud. “Only scandal I’ve been in, unless this trip of ours becomes controversial in some way. I can see our Leaders and our close family being especially mad, and the rest of our House being irritated, but who knows if it would spread to the world.”
“If we do things right, they’ll notice,” Leilan said. “I hope we don’t get credit for the world mysteriously getting better, though.”
“I’m still concerned about…” Kaja gestured around loosely. “Magic crime,” she said more quietly. “All of our cities could have a place like this.”
“Are you concerned about it, or are the Houses concerned about it?” Leilan asked.
Kaja frowned. “What?”
“You talk about the issue all the time,” Leilan said, feeling a little anxious at how direct he’d been. “But I can’t tell whether it’s something that personally bothers you, or whether it’s something that you’ve made your problem because the Houses are always telling you it is.”
Kaja gave him a strange look. “What’s the difference? We’re supposed to act on their behalf— well, we don’t really act much, but we are supposed to back them up on what they do. It shouldn’t matter whether I want to do it or not if it’s part of our duty.”
“I actually thought that too, when I first started being an Heir,” Leilan said. “I thought that I had to support everything the Houses widely believed, and it bothered me when those things didn’t feel fair to me. But I don’t think we’re supposed to be monoliths of opinions. The five of us sure aren’t one— look at how many times we’ve disagreed on this trip alone.”
Kaja was silent for a few moments. “Did you think that because you hadn’t had that kind of leadership experience before, or because of pressure?”
“A bit of both,” Leilan admitted. “When I was new to the role, I was more eager to conform, but I also knew there were many people who didn’t think I should have gotten it because of my adoption, which apparently didn’t make me fully part of the family. Even though there have been plenty of Heirs and Leaders who married into the House and weren’t there from the start.” Leilan glanced at Kaja. “I was willing to please the crowd who thought I’d taken the position away from someone with a birthright.”
Kaja’s face contorted in what looked like a slight wince. “I attacked you with that, the first time we were at the Arcade.”
“Yeah.” Leilan hummed softly.
A few more seconds of silence passed before Kaja cleared her throat. “I’m sorry for that.”
Leilan turned to her, blinking with surprise. “What?”
“Saints, don’t make me say it again,” she muttered, her face looking a little heated. “That would be too hard.”
Very slightly, Leilan smiled. “I heard it.”