Chapter 25:

the unknown third party

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest


Halie’s lips were gentle. Hesitant. Unlike the rest of her blaring overconfidence, she kissed like she didn’t know what she was doing. Well, that made two of them. The experience was more grounded than sparks and fireworks and heat that burned him to the very core. It was chapped lips and shaky hands holding his face, and she pulled back far too soon to rest her forehead against his chest.

“Let’s leave,” she said. “We’ll go where no one can follow us. Not Gideon, not the council, not Mahogainy. We’ll leave saving the world to someone else.”

“Hey—”

“Okay,” said Orion. “Where do you want to go?”

“Anywhere. Another city. Halie Viriadian’s hometown. We can be farmers.”

He’d grown some potted flowers once. And he had a succulent in his office for a few years before it wilted.

“Let’s do that.”

“You are the protagonist, Halie. You cannot abandon your role!”

“But you said it yourself, didn’t you?” she said to the ceiling. “I am not your sister! In this version of the game, there is nothing left for you to do.”

“No, my role here is far from over,” said Actaeus. “There has never been an anomaly with the capability to shake up the very foundations of the otome game since I entered the system. If this is the only place that has no other routes, then I must see it. A clue to Mahogainy’s dreams might live here.”

“Then suit yourself.” Halie grabbed Orion’s hand. “We’re getting out of here.”

Actaeus did not protest further, and perhaps he was powerless to her whims too. Halie shuffled over to the door and seized the rusted doorknob.

“Ah,” she said, rattling it uselessly. “Should’ve known he’d lock us in. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from the guy with the most fucked up bad ends. That’s fine. We’ll just bust down the place.”

They’d been offered a place to stay on opposite sides of Caeruleum’s settlement—probably on purpose, now that Orion thought about it. He’d only looked briefly at the room designated for him before sneaking off to meet with Halie here, and he wondered if all that had been an intentional and obvious trap.

Still, Halie had shattered the window last time and jumped out a second-storey window while carrying his unconscious body. This building was already falling apart, and was comparatively easier to escape from. Probably.

Without warning, Halie slammed her shoulder against the door with the full force of trying to break it down. It shuddered, and chunks of the wall rained down from the ceiling and the edge of the doorframe.

“What are you doing?” Orion hissed, watching her shove the door again. Its rusted hinges groaned from the strain, sending down another shower of drywall. “Let me!”

“Sorry, your body is frail and weak,” she said, and she said something else after but the door tilted dangerously, and then everything was drowned out by the resounding crash as it splintered to pieces against the ground.

“Oh my god,” Orion said, coughing and blinking the dust and debris from his stinging eyes. “The entirety of Caeruleum must’ve heard that.”

Halie grabbed his wrist. “Then let’s run!”

She tugged him along, and he tripped over the edge of the fallen door trying to follow her pace—until she skidded to a halt and nearly took him down with her. The breathless gasp and the way she yanked him behind her made him follow her gaze, and his eyes landed on the hooded figure approaching menacingly from the other end of the hall.

“It’s not polite to visit a lady in the middle of the night,” Halie said sharply. “What are you doing here, Gideon?”

“I thought I had arranged separate quarters for our guests,” came Gideon’s voice deep from underneath the shadows of the hood.

“And? You still haven’t answered my question.”

“You lied about Leonis,” he said, which made Orion’s blood run cold.

“You lied plenty too!” Halie retorted, unafraid of anything ever. “You intended to deliver our heads to the council on a silver platter to begin with.”

“You’re mistaken,” Gideon said coolly. “I intended for you to die here.”

Huh?!

He seemed to be alone in the dim hallway, without backup, without a metal bat, just a guy with a hood falling over his forehead and an indecipherable expression even when the orange light filtering in through the cracks in the wall illuminated part of his face. His deep, black eyes were fixed on Halie. It made Orion’s stomach twist, not in a jealous way, but in a terrified way.

He pulled free from Halie’s grip on his wrist and stepped sharply in front of her.

That guy had a knife, Orion realized with a jolt of panic. It glittered faintly beneath Gideon’s long cloak, and he didn’t want to think about how Orion Magnaolia had probably died to that knife in all of those bad ends. His ribs ached faintly courtesy of Aries, but it felt like a phantom blade lodged in his chest in the moment.

He shuddered, trying to shake off those thoughts.

“I knew something was suspicious when you said Leonis had already met with his sister, when I was the one that had sent him away,,” Gideon said, his booming voice ringing across the hall. “But then you asked about Aries. The very man that had contacted me earlier this morning to report your escape. With that, I was sure.”

“Holy shit,” Halie whispered. “We found it. We found the unknown third party. It’s not my fault after all.”

“And Orion, I’m disappointed in you.” Gideon took a step toward them, and Orion’s eyes were locked on the knife in his grip, thinking of the million different ways he didn’t know how to disarm an attacker. The man took another step, the sharp blade glinting wickedly in the strip of light.

“I thought you were different,” Gideon said simply. “I thought you were the least interested in her out of all of us so I had left you alone, but it turned out that was a miscalculation on my part. What sweet words did she say to bind your heart? Why do you pursue such a shallow, duplicitous girl?”

What the hell was happening? Why was Gideon saying words?

Orion swallowed. “Are you uh, trying to ask for love advice or something?”

“No!” Gideon hissed. “I am asking why you chose her!”

“Uh.” Now he was starting to feel a little bad. “Sorry man, but I’m taken.”

Halie elbowed him sharply from behind. “Shut up for a sec! I think I get it now.”

“Get what?”

She sidestepped him, forcing Orion to move back.

“You hate her don’t you?” she said suddenly, raising her voice to address Gideon directly again. “The heroine, Halie Viriadian.”

A wave of Actaeus’s realization washed over Orion, even before he understood anything himself. His disembodied voice had been silent for so long, Orion had almost forgotten he was still here.

“This man. He’s—”

Gideon’s demeanor changed suddenly. His eyes narrowed at Halie, like he was seeing her for the first time.

“You’re not…”

Sometimes, Halie never let Orion finish his sentences. This time, no one ever wanted to finish their sentences. So now, he was the only one standing there in utter confusion like he’d spaced out too hard in the middle of work and suddenly everything was due and he didn’t know where to even begin.

The point was, Halie and Gideon were sizing each other up, communicating something between their gazes and Orion felt left out.

And then at long last, Gideon spoke again. “Are you…Eilah?”

Steward McOy
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