As the Arda carried them farther north, its grassy shores became stony ridges. Pine trees covered the western slopes, contrasted by the remains of ancient stone structures. In the east, Nahlia caught a faint glimpse of snow-capped mountains against the morning sky.
She wrapped herself in her new cloak as she stepped across the Redpole's main deck. They'd been sailing all night, and the wind grew colder with every mile. Thankfully, the clothes they'd given her were the warmest she'd ever worn. Not to mention the nicest. Nahlia could barely eat breakfast that morning without worrying about crumbs or stains.
Elias was kneeling on the bow, wrapping a rope around a winch. Nahlia wet her lips as she approached. She needed more information about what was going on, and it wasn't like she could pick up a book full of answers.
He grinned up at her as she joined him. "Hey, you're looking well-rested."
"Thanks." She returned his smile. "I feel much better now."
Not only had she taken a bath last night and gotten a full night's rest below deck, but she'd also tended to her wounds and found an actual hairbrush. Things weren't quite back to normal yet. She still had her father to worry about, not to mention Thane's plot to make her spy on the very people who had saved her. Still, it felt good to breathe again without looking over her shoulder for the Templars.
She continued surveying the deck. Aside from Elias, only Captain Tirion and his two sons were up here.
"Where are the others?" Nahlia asked.
"My mother and her agents?" He shrugged, still wrapping the rope. "Probably meditating below."
"Meditating?" Nahlia cocked her head to the side. "Weren't they doing that last night too?"
"They're all Seekers." Elias brushed his hands together and rose to his feet. "Each one of them is soulbound to several lower-ranking agents, and it takes a while to exchange all that information."
Nahlia blinked. She understood all those words—sort of—but they made little sense together.
Elias must have seen her confusion because he put his palm to his forehead. "Sorry. You've been living with humans for a while now, huh? Guess you're not as familiar with Aeon culture."
"I knew Aeons could communicate telepathically," she said. "But no ... I've never even heard the words 'Seeker' or 'soulbond' until last night."
"My fault," he said. "I'm new at this too—rescuing people, that is. I'm only an apprentice Seeker myself, and this is my second real mission."
"Really? Where else do you train?" Nahlia hoped she wasn't coming off as too pushy, but Thane had mentioned a secret academy as part of the northern enclave. This seemed like a natural way to bring it up.
"Sorry," he said with a quick shake of his head. "I'm sure my mother will fill you in eventually, but it's not my place."
Well, that was as good as a confirmation. Then again ... what was she doing? Thane had mentioned spying on these people, but they'd been nothing but kind to her. Sure, Thane had helped her too, but that didn't make her in his debt. Far from it.
"I can help fill you in on the basics though," Elias said as he moved toward another rope.
"Seekers like my mother work to rescue Aeons who are running from the Templars. Mostly, she works outside the Republic where the Templars don't have a lot of influence."
"Like Northshire," Nahlia said.
He nodded as he tilted the sail to the starboard side. The wind must have been strong because the boat was mostly moving on its own. Maybe the oars were only for moving upstream?
"Anywhere east of Raidenwood, really. She's even gone to Ravenshore, Stormharbor, and some other cities on the northern coast. Anyway, you were asking about meditation." He leaned back against the mast and crossed his arms. "Stop me if you know this already..."
Nahlia nodded, and he continued, "For our purposes, meditation means entering the Ethereal without dreaming. Some people call it lucid dreaming. A soulbond takes several months to develop. But once two people have one, they can share a single dream in the Ethereal—talk to each other, and exchange information."
Nahlia grimaced. "And ... I'm guessing two people can't communicate without one of these soulbonds?"
Elias shook his head, and he continued to explain how one Aeon could only have soulbonds with six or seven other people. Any more, and the existing bonds would weaken. This was why spy networks worked in webs with multiple conduits reporting back to the Master Seeker.
He also confirmed once again that these bonds took months to forge. Two Aeons had to spend a great deal of time in the physical world before they shared a dream. What's more, both participants in the dream had to be willing. These meetings were all pre-arranged with designated times.
In other words, everything Thane had done should be impossible.
Then again, maybe there was a reasonable explanation?. Every rule had exceptions. For example, most women couldn't grow beards, but there was a cafe owner in Northshire who could grow a fuller beard than her husband. Nature was weird that way.
"Is it possible to form a soulbond quicker than that?" Nahlia asked. "I mean—could someone bypass the whole ' two-month' rule"
"Sure," Elias said. "It can happen quicker between family members. Something about thought patterns lining up." He waved a dismissive hand. "I don't know the specifics. But my sister and I formed a soulbond in less than a month. It was even quicker for my parents and me."
Nahlia gave a slow nod. She considered sharing her mysterious encounter with Thane, but he would probably write it off as a hallucination. That was the nature of dreams—your mind could conjure anything in theory.
The only reason she took Thane seriously was the fact that they'd met in the physical world. That, and he'd supposedly helped Lady Raider find her.
Nahlia set that line of questioning aside as it seemed like a dead-end. She had a hundred more questions. Aside from her brief interaction with Thane, Elias was the first real Aeon she'd spoken to in years. She itched to ask him about all the stories she'd read—about Aeonica and Ethermancy, about the ancient clans and the powers they wielded. Was it true that the Archaeon Kalazhan could bend fire to his will? That Treluwyn could heal any wound? What about Raiden's legendary crystal sword?
But no ... the last thing she wanted was to appear childish or to reveal too much of her small town ignorance. Elias might act carefree, but he also spoke in a refined way, and walked with a dignified air. Better to start with something safer.
"Do you know why the Templars came for me in Northshire?"
Elias gave her a confused look.
Great. She'd even messed up the safe question. "I mean—I know they hunt Aeons because they think we're all dangerous Ethermancers. But this felt different. Why go through so much effort on my account?"
He hummed in consideration, shooting a glance toward the stairs that led below deck. "I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to tell you. My mother..." After a moment, he shrugged. "Ah, what the hell. You're already involved whether she likes it or not."
"I guess I am," Nahlia said with a smile.
Elias stepped back toward the quarterdeck (was it even called a quarterdeck on a boat this small?) and sat down on a wooden bench. Nahlia took the seat beside him. She half-expected the movement to pull her stitches, but it didn't.
"You're right." He leaned forward, and his knee brushed against hers. "Something's different now. But it's nothing you did." He thought for a moment, holding his chin between his thumb and forefinger. The blond stubble made a distracting sound as he rubbed it.
"Are you familiar with Clan Solidor?" he asked.
Nahlia shrugged. "I know they're the ruling family of Dragonshard. Or at least, they used to be?"
Of course, she knew much more about them from books. For example, their land had a warm tropical climate with plenty of volcanic soil. As a result, some of their primary exports were fruit, coffee, and chocolate. They'd also grown wealthy on rarer commodities such as dragonbone and obsidian. Their most powerful vassals were Clan Kelaeon and Clan Solizhan.
But Nahlia kept all of this herself, not wanting to sound like a stereotypical librarian's apprentice. She'd tried impressing boys with her book smarts before, and they usually walked away.
"They still rule Dragonshard," Elias said. "In fact, they're the only Aeon city-state to survive the Purge. A bunch of factors went into that—geography, communication, military might. The point is, their city still stands, and it's still ruled by Aeons. This makes them the greatest threat to the Templars and their new Republic."
Nahlia blinked at the surge of information. She wished she had a pad of paper to take notes.
"A year ago," he continued, "the Templars gathered an army of thirty-thousand and laid siege to Dragonshard. They pushed through the Black Steppes and got all the way to the city walls. It went on for a few months, then it just ... ended."
Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "So either the Solidors pushed them back, or they came to an agreement?"
"Or a little of both," he said. "We think the Solidors diverted their attention here to the North, but we don't know how or why. Only that there's a connection."
She became uncomfortably aware of the pain in her ribs. "So that's it ... the Templars were using me to get to you."
"Something like that. If they'd captured you, they might have tried to turn you on us—to use you as a spy."
Nahlia averted her eyes, and her stomach twisted into a knot. "A spy?"
"Yeah, it happens sometimes. The Templars will capture a family of Aeons, then set one free. When the Seekers find the one who was released, the Templars have an informant positioned within the Aeon factions."
Aegon, but if that didn't sound eerily familiar.
"As you might've guessed," Elias said, "this is just one more reason why my mother tries to help people before the Templars find them."
"But everyone knows the Templars kill Aeons," Nahlia said. "Even with a hostage, can they honestly expect people to cooperate?"
"Believe it or not," he said, "the Templars honor their deals. They're willing to release a few hostages here and there if it means a bigger prize later on."
"Word gets out," Nahlia mused, "and the cycle continues..."
"Either way." Elias flashed her his easy smile. "That last part doesn't apply to you. You're here now, and you're safe."
"Thanks to you." She wanted to ask him about her father again, but that seemed like a better question for Lady Raider. Elias was nice enough. But like he said, he was only an apprentice Seeker. His mother was the one in charge.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully as they sailed farther up the river. There were no books to pass the time, so Nahlia spent the journey talking to Elias and the other crew members. During these hours, she learned more about Aeon culture, plus a great deal about sailing.
At one point, Elias and the others had some sparring matches on the main deck. Nahlia watched these with interest. Her interest was all academic, of course. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Elias fought shirtless. Neither was this fact responsible for her racing heart.