As a flight attendant’s cheerful voice played through the plane’s speakers, Leilan brushed his hand against the window. The skyscrapers of Crystal City were blurred with all the fingerprints from him imagining touching the landscape and only reaching cold plexiglass. Every moment, those buildings got closer as the plane slowly began its descent.
Leilan finished his champagne with one more gulp and set the glass aside so that he could stow the tray-table away. This type of table was the kind that folded into the spacious armrest by his side, not into the seat in front of him, as that wouldn’t be feasible with the outrageous amount of space first class passengers were given. If he reclined his seat all the way into the flat bed setting, he would be able to nudge the back of Marius’ seat with the tip of his foot if he tried, and only barely. Marius wouldn’t even notice it if he did, since the seats didn’t rock, and he was throughly involved in a game he had up on his screen.
Across the aisle from him, he watched Kaja fume and glower at the flight tracker that she must have checked a hundred times. Leilan hadn’t minded their flight being late that much: he’d only taken a short flight across the West from the House of Compassion to Amber City, then he’d gotten to spend extra time in his hometown airport. Marius wasn’t going to Crystal City for business, so he wasn’t much worse off. But Kaja, who had flown in from the more distant House of Strength, had hated the length in travel time that the delay had added. As he saw her push a wrapper from a snack they’d been served off her armrest and into the aisle, he figured out that she’d decided to make that everyone else’s problem. He dragged the wrapper over to him with the sole of his shoe and set it in the closed plastic bag he’d collected his own trash in, not bothering to give her a look. It likely wouldn’t work.
While the flight attendant continued about donations that could be made by leaving money in the envelopes their seats had, a couple of the other first class passengers reached to put on headphones. It could be to distract them from the ear pain of increased pressure, but the alternative scenario made Leilan dig around in his carry-on until he found what pocket he’d left his checkbook and a pen in.
“For nearly twenty years now, our partner charities have provided relief after natural disasters in Amber City and its surroundings, helping survivors to recover and supporting reconstruction efforts…”
The check in his hand, signed as Leilan Akamai, Heir of the House of Compassion, felt like more than any disciplined government action had done for the cause.
Kaja was the first person off the plane, which was no surprise to Leilan. She hadn’t pushed, shoved, or said anything about it to anyone, but the only passenger closer to the exit on their feet had taken one look at how her knuckles were white through her skin as she clenched the handle of her suitcase, and they had shuffled out of the aisle. When the passage to the gate opened, she stormed off faster than Leilan could follow, and he got stuck behind a few other passengers.
“Does she hate planes?” Marius whispered behind him as they moved through the line.
“She hates sitting for too long, more like,” Leilan whispered back, repeating the same excuse he’d always heard from her. Shane was the only one of them who had admitted to being uncomfortable with a certain type of transportation, but Kaja didn’t like admitting those sorts of things.
The two of them left the plane using the tunnel connecting it to the airport and entered the gate, where Kaja was waiting for them. She wore a look of impatience— and maybe stress— and she started walking the moment that they reached her. “I miss the times we could use private jets without getting criticized for it,” she muttered to them.
“Those are pretty bad,” Leilan said, though he wanted to use a stronger word. Wasteful. Privileged. Entitled.
“They’re not, they’re better,” Kaja insisted, misunderstanding him. “A private jet would never have taken this long.”
Marius said nothing, his expression blank and distracted. He must have wanted to be part of Heir-exclusive discussions once, Leilan guessed, but had probably changed his mind when he’d actually heard what those conversations consisted of.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw three people break away from the crowd at an adjacent gate and follow a good distance behind. None of them carried suitcases or any other indication that they’d been traveling, which meant he’d found their bodyguards. Two of them were Leilan’s, and the other was Kaja’s. It seemed silly that she had one at all; her height and obvious strength should have made it clear she could defend herself or dissuade anyone from taking her on in the first place. But no one wanted to take those risks with their Heirs.
“Marius, did you have to bring all of your four warm outfits that were hidden among short-sleeved clothes?” Leilan asked, moving past the old topic.
“Only two, because my vacation’s just for the weekend,” Marius said. “But there was a moment when packing where I wondered if my closet was too strongly influenced by Western weather for me to have any clothes for here at all.”
“Are you two missing the heat and rain already?” Kaja asked.
Leilan and Marius both nodded.
“This is why we can’t schedule all our meetings for the same week in the capital and we have to keep visiting for one at a time. You’d freeze.”
Before Leilan could point out that was in no way Marius’ fault, Marius stopped in his tracks and pointed behind him with his thumb. “Sorry, but I think the sign for the taxis was back there.”
“It was great running into you at the Amber City airport,” Leilan said, nudging him with his shoulder in a friendly way. “That was a nice surprise.”
“I know, right?” Marius agreed, giving him a side hug. “We should absolutely have more unplanned and coincidental meet-ups in the future, let’s work on that.” While Leilan smiled at the joke, he turned to Kaja. “It’s good seeing you again.”
“Avoid the paparazzi,” she replied, using the same form of goodbye she always gave him.
“Won’t that be hard,” Marius said with a sarcastic shake of his head, completing the traditional exchange. He lingered for a moment, as if debating whether to say more, before he smiled and turned back around, waving as he walked away. Leilan returned the wave, watching him go until he took the turn and was out of sight. Their bodyguards, still trailing behind, hadn’t given Marius a glance.
Kaja reminded him that they were already late with a sharp glance, and Leilan got back to walking.
There was already a car waiting for them in arrivals when they left the terminal, and they waited for their bodyguards to catch up to them before they got in and sat down. As they joined the traffic of cars trying to leave the airport, Leilan briefly thought about how in another time and another history, Marius could have been one of the people in this car. But Marius Cardozo had no birthright, and the fallen House of Wisdom that his family line had once occupied no longer had any place in this world.