“Polinomia! Stand aside!” Wilanu shoved the big guard out of the way. He moved through the very nice entry hall and into the large receiving area. Leander followed a step behind, hand on his pistol, practically growling.
Economides had excellent taste in art. The floor was beautifully tiled. A low hearth ringed by cushioned benches occupied the center of the room, the flames unpleasantly warm. More benches lined walls that were covered in exquisite murals, except ….
Wilanu frowned, his attention skipping across the walls. The focus of each painting was odd; in that one, the eye was drawn to Varro the Proud, not Theonie the Weaver; in another, Nauarchus Maximus stood at the head of the Roman invasion fleet, the defending Magna Athenaians pushed strangely to the side. Very curious ….
“May I help you?”
Wilanu’s attention snapped to the woman in front of him: Hindi descent, simple gray dress and white apron, the top of her head barely reaching the middle of his chest.
“Where is Citizen Economides?”
She scowled up at him. “This is a holy day. Citizen Economides is observing the festival in the privacy of his rooms.”
Leander pushed passed her. “I’m sure he won’t mind if we join him in his observation.”
The woman huffed at him, scowl morphing into an expression of outrage.
When the guard moved to follow Leander, Wilanu held up his hand. “Ah,” he said, waving a finger. “Stay.”
He moved deeper into the receiving room, listening for the sounds of Leander searching the house, listening for other guards, other servants.
Nothing except Leander. No family and friends gathered for good food and good conversation. No priest or priestess or head of house leading rites at the hearth or around any other shrine. Actually — Wilanu studied the room again — no shrines at all aside from the hearth, which only had a few scraps of burnt bread scattered along the edges of the flames. A household as wealthy as that of Economides should have had an appropriately ostentatious welcoming altar to Athena or Hestia or Bes or Brighid.
“There’s no sign of him.” A pause. “Nothing. This place is empty.”
Keeping a careful eye on the two in front of him, Wilanu tapped his mic. “Any other servants or guards?”
“Just the cook.”
“Not the word I would have used. I’m heading back with the cook.”
Wilanu could hear her yelling from the back of the house.
The big guard leaped at him.
The grey-garbed servant shrieked, backpedaling. She ran into the wall.
Wilanu spun on the ball of his foot, slipping to the side. The guard still managed to grab his arm and tried to flip Wilanu around and pin it behind his back. Grunting, Wilanu turned into the hold, flipping the guard up and over so that he landed flat on his back with a painful thud. Holding the guard’s wrist at a bad angle, Wilanu pulled his pistol —
— and it was flying out of his hand, the kick from the guard sending shocks of pain through his hand and up his arm.
Wilanu yanked a hair stick loose and rammed it into the guard’s arm.
The guard screamed.
He pulled the stick free and pointed it directly at the man’s eye. “Try again and I’ll hit somewhere more vital. Now roll over.”
Hissing, the guard flipped onto his stomach.
Wilanu clamped the stick between his teeth, pulled the man’s arm down, and wrapped cuffs around his wrists.
The guard spat a very unpleasant curse, his words echoed by the cook as she was led into the receiving room by Leander. Her hands were also cuffed behind her back and her tight hair bun was beginning to unravel.
“Sit,” Leander ordered, plopping her down on the floor well out of reach of the big guard. He frowned in concern at his husband. “All right?”
Wilanu twisted his hair back into order and shoved the bloody stick into position. “Fine,” he growled. He retrieved his pistol, then spun and marched over to the grey-garbed servant.
She cowered against the wall, her dark eyes large.
“Where is Economides?”
She licked her lips. “I — ”
“I will only ask once.”
The woman swallowed hard. “The project site. The business center by the Long Bridge.” She inhaled sharply. “They took her.”
“C-Calliope,” she stammered. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “They took her and he found out and he was so angry and he left. They — they shouldn’t have done that.”
“What are they doing? What’s their plan?”
She shook her head, sinking lower against the wall.
“Priti!” the cook yelled. “Don’t you dare!”
“I — ”
Wilanu heard a click and a snap and the buzz of electricity arcing as Leander shot the cook with a shock dart. She gurgled and thumped against the floor.
Priti squeaked, her gaze darting between Wilanu and Leander and the unconscious cook and bleeding guard. She wrapped her hands over her head, shaking. “Roma Aeterna,” she sobbed. “They are here to remind Magna Athenaia that their freedom is an illusion. That they — we — they belong to Roma Aeterna.”
Wilanu leaned in closer. “How?”
“I don’t — I — All I know is that it involves the Sacred Island. That’s all! I swear!”
Jaw clenched, Wilanu turned his back on her and ran towards the door. He heard two more snaps and gurgles and the thump as Priti slid to the floor. He tapped his ear mic, running for the cruiser. “Central, unit twelve, general alert: possible Roman incursion, Economides business center, Sacred Island. Central, dispatch unit to Economides estate for processing. Central, connect Egilsdottir, Garrison Zeta.”
He had never heard an operator hesitate. “… Unit twelve, confirm, general alert. Confirm dispatch. Standby for Egilsdottir.”
He yanked open the driver’s side door.
Leander piled in beside him. “How fast can you get us there?”
The engine revved, the tires biting into the stone driveway to hurl the cruiser forward.
Trees, buildings, vehicles, people were a blur outside the windows. He caught a brief glimpse of the holy icon as it was carried along the processional route by her priests, the statue of Athena draped with wreaths and flowers and silk.
He prayed. He prayed to Athena and Zeus and O-let’-te and Wek’-wek and the ancestors and the God of the Bay.
He prayed to anyone who would listen.
Beside him, he saw Leander press a hand to his chest, feeling for the devotional pendants that hung around his neck.
Leander grabbed the role bar. “Economides is working with Roman agents. We believe they are at the new business center near the Long Bridge, but they may also have agents on the Sacred Island. That seems to be their target. They’ve taken Calliope Economides, and probably Kiran.”
The line went dark for a long minute.
The tires squealed. The engine roared. The wail of the sirens bounced between buildings and cars and back again.
“If they hurt him, I’ll kill them.”
Wilanu spun the wheel, taking a corner tight and fast. “We both will.”
The line fritzed as Egilsdottir came back.“Stratagos Guinne has issued a red alarm. Units have been dispatched to the business center. I’m en route. Do not breach. Did you hear me? Switch to red com.”
“Heard and understood.” Leander tapped his mic, Wilanu doing the same; a soft click as the secure channel came up and units three, eight, and fifteen reported their status.
They passed the processional route again, pilgrims lined up a dozen people thick along the edge, waving banners and miniature icons.
“Aerial unit three reports activity floor three-zero. Repeat, three-zero.”
“Unit fifteen on site.”
“Unit two on site.”
Wilanu killed the siren. He clamped down on the brake, took a corner too fast, accelerated again, and slid the cruiser to a halt beside a tall metal gate. Fencing wrapped around the construction site. Beyond the fence the mostly-completed building rose up into the sky, thirty stories of stone, ceramic, and steel. Bare dirt and construction equipment surrounded the structure, and scattered piles of building materials. The exterior surface was finished, but most of the windows were open. Wide steps led to the main entrance over which loomed the relief of a Goddess, a fistful of laurel branches and spears in each hand.
The gate was open, two cruisers pulled up beneath the wide awning that covered the sweeping front staircase, their trunks flipped open as the officers loaded up on extra weapons and ammunition. Wilanu accelerated slowly and pulled up beside them.
Officer — what was her name? Right. Shin — looked over as he climbed out of the car.
“Haven’t seen anyone. Don’t think they know we’re here yet. Egilsdottir is still about ten minutes out.”
Wilanu only nodded tightly and joined Leander at the back of the cruiser. Leander popped it open, reached inside, and began to pull out extra pistols, extra ammunition, a holster with a second short rifle. He kept his head and his voice down.
“You get him out of there,” Leander whispered. “Both of them. Kiran and Calliope. Don’t worry about me.”
Wilanu shoved extra ammo packs into his belt. Pulling out his hair sticks, he grabbed more from the trunk, and slid them up inside his sleeves. He tucked his hair down the back of his uniform. “No.”
“All of us. We’re all getting out of this. We’re all going home. Together.” He cupped Leander’s cheek and leaned in for a passionate kiss. When he pulled away, it was only far enough to rest their foreheads together. “Ready?”
Wilanu stepped away, reached back, and pulled his face mask up and over his head. Through the eye slits, he watched as Leander did the same. The bright red gorgoneion grinned ferociously against the black of the mask covering his face, her snaky hair snapping and twisting.
Without another word, they ran up the stairs and through the unfinished doors.
Shin called after them. “Hey! Wait! Where — you can’t go in yet!” Then her voice tinged in his ear. “Red com, unit fifteen. Unit twelve has entered the building.”
The interior was dark and dusty and empty, the only light spilling in from the open doors. The ceiling soared three stories overhead.
Pistol leveled, Wilanu surveyed the large room carefully, eyes straining, listening, holding his breath.
Egilsdottir. “Copy unit fifteen. Unit twelve, stand down.”
Ignoring the snapped command, Wilanu headed across the open space. There were tracks in the dust. At least five sets of footprints, maybe more. One definitely belonged to a child. The tracks led to the back of the space, to a row of six elevators along the left wall. There were six more along the right wall.
“Egilsdottir, unit twelve, respond.”
Wilanu started hitting buttons. Every button. One by one, sometimes two at a time, the elevators pinged and the doors slid open. He selected floors randomly — five, eight, seventeen, thirty, multiple floors for each elevator — jumping out before the doors could close.
“Leander! Wilanu! Answer me!”
He climbed into the second to last elevator with Leander. His husband hit the button for twenty, and the doors closed.
Economides was screaming at Folia.
She stood before him, hands casually clasped behind her back. She looked simultaneously bored and aggravated.
“ — no reason to bring her here! None!”
“There was every reason and, really, I am quite done explaining myself to you.”
His head hurt and his face was swollen and bleeding. He could barely see out of his right eye, and his hands and lower arms had gone numb. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “It will be all right. Everything will be fine.”
He knew he was lying.
Fear twisted through his gut. He wondered if this was the same fear that Theonie the Weaver had felt. It left him cold, his brain sluggish. Almost paralyzed.
One of the launchers squeaked as it rotated, the missile angling down.
What was in that direction?
“The Sacred Island.”
He did not realize that he had spoken aloud until Economides stopped yelling. He swallowed and looked up to find all of them watching him, Folia’s mouth curled up in a mockery of a smile.
“You’re going to attack the Sacred Island. Blow it — blow it up.”
“Burn it to the ground,” Folia purred.
“Pilgrims. Families. Whole families.” He swallowed again. “The temples. Athena’s temple.”
Folia sauntered towards him, hands still clasped behind her back. “The heart of Magna Athenaia. I wonder, how will the people of this corrupt city react when the Goddess’ temple is lost to them so suddenly, so tragically, and on her most sacred of days?” Her hand whipped out, fingers catching on his cheek and tearing as she knocked his head into the wall. “They will cry out in fear, in terror. They will realize that they are not safe after all.”
Calliope burrowed deeper into his chest.
Folia grabbed his hair, angling his head up. “That Roma Aeterna is eternal and that we will never abandon our claim to this city and its people.”
The laugh that bubbled up out of his belly surprised even him. It was edged with hysteria. Folia’s eyes widened, then narrowed in anger.
He kept laughing. Calliope bounced against his chest, her weight making it difficult to breath. “How many times?” he puffed. “How many times have you plotted and conspired? Sought to undermine us? Sent generals and ambassadors and priests to intimidate us? How many times have you attacked us, only to have your soldiers become a feast for sharks and vultures?”
She cracked him across the face. Blood gushed from his nose and Calliope screamed.
He gagged and found his voice. “We defeated you three hundred years ago, and we — ”
Another hit. His ears were ringing. Calliope’s weight was gone and she was screaming again. Economides was yelling. Folia was cursing, her voice like a whip.
He blinked, the room gone all fuzzy again.
Something was pinging. Electronic beeps.
Where was Calliope?
There. Folia had her by the arm and was dragging her towards the open window.
Economides was flapping his arms, face red, yelling, yelling at Folia to spare his daughter, please don’t, don’t hurt her —
Kiran was yelling, too. He must have been yelling, because he was panting and his throat was raw.
“Domina!!” One of the men, the one with the tablet, shouted. Loud. Louder than the rest of them. And pointed beyond Kiran, towards the back of the room, towards the walls behind him.
Another ping, and another. The sound of doors sliding open and closed.
Folia swore and shoved Calliope away. Still crying, the little girl crawled to the nearest corner and made herself small, arms wrapped around her legs.
“Launch as soon as you are ready,” Folia ordered over her shoulder. “Gratianus.”
The smaller man kneeling beside one of the launchers nodded and jumped to his feet. He drew a wicked pair of knives from inside his jacket and ran over to the elevators.
Kiran twisted around, trying to get a better look. But he could only see part of one bank of the lifts, the row immediately behind him out of his line of sight.
More pings. Numbers lit up to the side of one elevator car, glowing bright blue: 5, 11, 14. The next lift over: 3, 27, 30. A ping every time the elevator hit a floor, rising steadily.
Folia stalked passed him, pressing the tiny mic in her ear. “Stella. Florus. Respond.” Mouth tight, she threw a hate-filled glare at Kiran, drew a pair of pistols from beneath her jacket, and leveled them at the elevators.
They got out on the twentieth floor and entered the stairwell. They were quiet. They met one guard on the landing to twenty-five. A dart and he was down. The second guard was a bit more problematic. They met her on the landing for twenty-eight. She managed to level a pistol at them.
Wilanu tossed a hair stick. It embedded itself deep in her shoulder. Another shock dart and she was down.
Leander could hear the pinging of the elevators, the gears and cables grinding on the other side of the wall. Yelling, too, lots of yelling and screaming.
That sounded like Calliope, terrified.
And Kiran. He had never heard Kiran scream like that.
And then it got quiet except for the elevators.
He nodded to Wilanu, who nodded back.
Leander eased forward, wrapped his hand around the door latch to the thirtieth floor, and quietly — quietly — eased it open a crack.
Wilanu leaned forward, then quickly stepped back. He held up four fingers, motioning two to the right, then again; further right.
Leander nodded once.
Wilanu drew both of his pistols. He moved back another half-step, chest rising as he inhaled. A nod —
Leander yanked the door open.
Wilanu leaped through, rolling.
Shouting. Bangs and resounding cracks.
Leander dodged out after his husband, short rifle in one hand, pistol in the other. He saw Folia and a man with knives and, beyond them, Economides, looking terrified and confused. And, further, on the far side of the room, Calliope huddled in a corner and —
Good Goddess. Missiles.
Something whizzed passed his head. Not a dart. More bangs and cracks.
Folia was shooting at him, and she was not shooting darts.
Leander cracked the heel of his rifle against the open button for the last elevator. The doors slid wide. He jumped in, banged his knee against the hold button, and leaned around the threshold to continue shooting at Folia. Bullets ripped through the walls around him. He could finally see Kiran, wedged up against the wall around the opposite row of elevators.
The man with the knives ran at Wilanu.
Folia retreated further into the room, nearly coming even with Kiran, still shooting, now yelling in Latin at the man who stood by the launchers. His hands were moving rapidly across his tablet, his gaze jumping back and forth between the screen and Folia and Leander.
Leander shot him.
The dart embedded itself in the man’s neck. He twitched, spun, and toppled through the open window.
Grim satisfaction curled through his chest.
Folia shrieked —
— and Kiran’s legs shot out, tangling around her feet.
She fell backwards, slamming into the floor, still shooting. Calliope screamed as bullets punched into the third launcher, pinging, tinging, ripping. Electricity sparked, something popped, and the missile veered sideways. Then more. It slid around, pointing down at the floor, a flame beginning to glow on the back end. A thread of smoke rose into the air.
Folia snarled, curling her legs to jump up again.
Leander lunged out of the elevator. He shot her, one dart, two, three, four. She twitched and drooled, urine staining her skirt, and fell back to the floor.
“Time to leave!” Leander yelled. He shoved the rifle onto his back, dashed into the corner, scooped up Calliope, and bolted for the stairwell.
Kiran was trying to stand.
Leander stumbled, reaching for him ….
But Wilanu was there, cuts in his uniform bleeding. He grabbed Kiran, hefted him over his shoulder, shouted at Leander because there was more smoke coming out of the missile —
Economides was ahead of them, already through the door of the stairwell. They followed, Calliope clinging to Leander. Twenty-ninth floor, twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twen —
Fire and heat and noise and everything was shaking and it was so loud and then it was dark.
“Suspended. Both of you. A full month, no pay.” Egilsdottir crossed her arms, black eyes narrowed. Her smooth dark scalp glistened from the sun and the light rain created by the emergency vehicles trying to extinguish the fire that was consuming the unfinished business center.
Now, never to be finished.
“And you can expect a note in your permanent records.”
Wilanu nodded. When Kiran opened his mouth, likely to protest, he set a gentle hand on his husband’s shoulder. Kiran exhaled and sank back on the stretcher.
They sat in the back of a med unit across the street. It was only slightly quieter here than it would have been out there among the emergency vehicles, journalists, observation drones, and curious citizens.
“Economides?” he asked.
“On his way to the Garrison, along with one of the two you met in the stairwell. If the jury is feeling merciful, he’ll get the death penalty.” She smiled, her eyes hard. “Personally, I’m hoping for exile. I’d like to fly him out to the middle of the desert myself.”
“He give a reason?”
“No. And I don’t care. There is no excuse for treason.”
Egilsdottir hissed. “Remember that bombing last year in Alexandropolis?”
Kiran lifted his head from the stretcher, his face pale. “She was involved in that?”
“Mm. There were only a few grainy videos, but — ”
“That’s what I remember her from.” Wilanu dragged a hand through his hair; it was stiff with sweat and soot and blood.
Egilsdottir cast a disgusted look up at the burning building. “If I were to hazard an educated guess, the Senate was so impressed with her work therethat they sent her here.”
“She’s dead. Doesn’t matter anymore,” Leander snapped. His voice softened. “What about Calliope?”
Wilanu lifted his head, looking for the little girl. He finally spotted her in the back of another med unit, blanket wrapped tight around her shoulders.
Egilsdottir followed their gaze, her face softening. “Brauroneion, most likely. She has no other family, and all of Economides’ assets will be seized. She’ll have nothing, but the city will take care of her.”
Leander was silent, his jaw tight.
Wilanu studied his husbands, both bloody and dirty and extraordinary.
He shook his head. “The city won’t take care of her. We will.”
“And this is your room.”
Kiran waved a hand at the small space, Calliope’s cold fingers curled tight through his other hand. This was supposed to have been a sunroom where Leander could grow small pots of herbs and vegetables, but the sloping wall of windows faced the wrong direction so it became the junk room. They had spent the last few days cleaning it out and furnishing it with his old bed and nightstand; his parents had been more than happy to dig those out of storage and were already demanding to know when they could meet Calliope.
“We can decorate it however you want. Paint some constellations on the ceiling or bring in some flowers.”
Silently, the little girl let go of his hand and wandered over to the bed. She clambered up onto it, gaze drifting around the room.
Wilanu shifted around him, carrying her suitcase. He set it on the bed beside her.
Leander followed, squeezing into the space to set a heavy box of books on the floor. “We’ll get you some bookcases, too. Maybe even build them ourselves. That could be fun.” He smiled up at her, but the smile she offered in return held little interest. Leander stood, hands shoved into his back pockets. “Well, I’ll get dinner started. Do you like honey tagenites? Maybe with roasted chestnuts and rosemary lamb?”
That, at least, got a nod.
Wilanu tilted his chin towards the door. “I’ll help her get settled. We’ll be out in a few minutes.”
Kiran backed out of the door and headed down the hallway to the kitchen, Leander behind him. His husband pressed his hands to Kiran’s shoulders, squeezing.
“She’ll be good. It will take time. It took me time. But she has us now.” His hands slid down to wrap gently around Kiran’s chest. “She has us.” A pause as Leander tightened his hold. “And you? Will you be all right?”
Kiran paused in the living area, gaze falling on the shrine. The icons of Sarasvati, Ganesh, Athena, and Hestia smiled at him.
He lifted a hand, touching his cheek. The swelling had gone down, and the deep cuts had begun to scab over. His arms and legs didn’t hurt quite as much anymore.
Neither did his heart. In the hospital, he had shamefully confessed to his husbands how he had given in to fear, how he had babbled a half-lie to Folia, how he had betrayed them and the city, how he had tried to protect Calliope and had failed. He had expected recriminations, anger, disappointment.
He should have known not to doubt his husbands. Leander and Wilanu had wept, too, and hugged him and held him through the night, reassuring Kiran that he was brave and wonderful and loved and that they could never, ever be ashamed of him or disappointed in him.
By the morning, he had believed them.
He smiled now, wrapping his hands around Leander’s forearms. “Yes, I am.”
Half-an-hour later, the pancakes, nuts, and rosemary lamb were ready, and there was no sign of Wilanu and Calliope. Curious, glasses of milk in hand, Kiran headed back down the hallway, Leander at his side.
Hearing the low murmur of voices — one rumbly, one higher-pitched — Kiran paused at the door. With a bemused expression at Leander, he leaned across the threshold and spied Wilanu and Calliope.
They were curled up on the tiny bed. The box of books had been flipped open and Wilanu was propped against the headboard. He held a copy of Agistocles’ The Life of Theonie the Weaver and Calliope was leaning against his side, reading aloud. She missed more than a few words and mispronounced others. Each time, Wilanu gently corrected her, underlining the word with his finger and helping her to sound it out.
Contentment curled through Kiran’s chest.
He carried the glasses into the room and set them on the nightstand. He settled on the foot of the bed, one leg curled under him, his hand resting on Wilanu’s shin. A moment later, Leander followed suit, wrapping his arms around Kiran’s waist.
And their daughter smiled.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her works can be found there.]