The following evening, she heard the cackling of seabirds overhead and she knew Dresten must be close.
"Hard to port!" Captain Tirion bellowed as the crew scrambled up and down the mast. The deck tilted beneath her as the river pulled them around a rough bend of jagged rocks. Its gray mouth grew wider, and the horizon stretched out to reveal the endless waters of The Frozen Sea.
Nahlia sat on the bench near the quarterdeck, clutching the oaken rail to steady herself against the tides. She'd gotten used to this spot over the last few days. It was a great place not to get plowed over.
"Nahlia, look!" Elias pointed west toward the red horizon.
She stood just in time to see an orca break the water's surface in a shower of mist and foam. It rose a full fifteen feet into the air before crashing back down with an enormous splash. Others swam up beside them, their black fins slicing through the swell.
"Ever seen one before?" Elias hollered over the wind.
Nahlia shook her head, smiling. "I've never even seen the ocean until now."
Another whale broke the surface with a flipping tail, showering the pair with a burst of icy saltwater. Nahlia yelped and ducked behind the rail.
"Don't worry." Elias chuckled. "They're not going to eat you."
"Says the girl who's hiding instead of laughing."
She glared up at him, an expression made less threatening by her chattering teeth. Aegon, but it was cold up here in the North.
"Might wanna come out soon," he said, offering her a hand. "We're here."
A thick layer of mist gave way before them, smooth gray curtains parted by their prow. That was when she finally saw Dresten, the City of Steel. At first, its skyline was nothing but a silhouette of dark shapes against the setting sun. But as they drew closer to the city proper, she made out a vast sprawl of individual buildings, towers, and bridges, all crammed together between the mountains and the sea.
How many people live here? Fifty-thousand? A hundred-thousand? Apparently, the city had one of the richest iron mines in all of Revera. The captain's sons had spent the day bragging about it, claiming they supplied weapons and armor to half of Aeondom.
The buildings loomed taller as the ship drifted into the busy harbor. So tall now, she had to strain her neck to see their peaks. The sun sank behind the mountains, and the city came alive with bursts of orange and gold. Lanterns dotted the streets like fireflies while lamplight poured out windows and doorways.
An Aeon chapel dominated the southern skyline, distinguished by its domed ceiling, and the massive statue of Aegon stretching his stone arms over the city. Nahlia had seen such structures in paintings, but never in-person.
She turned back to Elias. "You didn't tell me Dresten had a chapel."
"Sure, but it's not what you think. The people use it as a market these days."
"Still ... I thought the Templars burned all the chapels on principle?"
"The Templars have never been this far north," he replied.
"Unfortunately, that's about to change." Lady Raider up to join them on deck, her blonde hair and dark cloak billowing behind her. "Several squads just entered the city this afternoon, with more on the way."
"Seriously?" Elias rounded on his mother. "And the guilds allow that?"
"That's the nature of free cities," she replied. "They take all sorts. Fortunately, they still have no authority this far from home."
They didn't have any authority in Northshire either, Nahlia thought. For all the good that did us.
"Are we in danger here?" she asked.
"Don't worry," Lady Raider assured her. "It will take more than a few squads to pose a threat to us here. I believe you've already seen what happens to Templars who overstep their bounds."
Elias nodded in agreement, but Nahlia found it hard to share their enthusiasm. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Lady Raider's agents killing the Templars in the Mistwood. She saw the blood running down their uniforms, staining the forest floor. She saw Lady Raider open Hawkwood's throat as he pleaded for his life.
Stop it, Nahlia told herself. She wasn't a librarian's apprentice anymore, and she couldn't cringe at violence like a child. This was a violent world, and she would need to be more like the Raiders if she wanted to survive.
"Our estate is in Hightown," Lady Raider went on. "Half a mile from the Docks District. Stay close to us, and you'll be fine."
The ship pulled into the harbor a few minutes later, and Nahlia said her goodbyes to the captain and the crew. From there, the party followed Lady Raider through the bustling streets.
Thunder roared in the clouds overhead as raindrops fell, sliding down the rooftops and pooling between the rough cobbles. The others raised their hoods, and Nahlia quickly copied them.
The riot of taverns and brothels echoed around them as they walked—cheering, dancing, breaking bottles, and cackling laughter. Fadeflower hung heavy in the night air, mingled with the rainfall. Many of the streets were too narrow for wagons, and the crowds were so thick that Nahlia struggled to keep up.
They reached the bottom of a cliff and climbed a long staircase into what she assumed was Hightown. The streets were cleaner here, with gardens replacing the forges and taverns.
"Just a few more blocks," Lady Raider said from within the tunnel of her hood.
The crowd parted ahead as a group of soldiers came marching through. They wore gray military coats with steel caps and rifles slung over their shoulders.
Nahlia froze as the realization struck her. These aren't ordinary soldiers.
"Keep walking," Lady Raider whispered. "Eyes forward."
She obeyed, and none of the Templars spared her a glance.
Two horses followed the column, pulling a caged wagon that rattled on the uneven cobbles. A young woman sat inside, hugging her knees. A few years older than Nahlia, she had olive skin and long black hair. She wore a dress of fine fabric, though it was also tattered and well-worn.
Did they capture another Aeon? It was too dark to glimpse the woman's eyes, and they pulled the wagon away a second later.
Nahlia was about to look away when a second wagon emerged from around the corner. A man sat inside this one. Tall and muscular, he had light brown hair and a light beard. It took her mind a moment to recognize him through all the cuts and bruises.
"Lady Raider." Nahlia pushed her way forward. "That's—"
"Get her out of here," the Seeker's voice snapped.
Elias and another man seized her by the shoulders and hauled her away toward a side street,
Her father looked up through the bars of his cage, and their eyes met for a split-second.
The city lights blurred by as they rushed her through the crowd. Nahlia struggled for a moment, but her wits returned and she ran with them.
Lady Raider will handle it, she told herself. Everything will be alright.
They passed under an iron gate and up another set of stairs toward a three-story manor. Smooth stone covered the outside, its facade ornamented with white trim and a web of thick green vines.
The wooden doors swung open as the others led her inside. The foyer glowed with oil lamps and chandeliers, bright enough to make her squint.
"You alright?" Elias asked her.
Nahlia nodded. She took several deep breaths, standing in silence as the raindrops clattered on the glass roof above. A few moments passed, then Lady Raider appeared with her remaining retinue.
"Aegon above," the older woman cursed. "Were you trying to draw attention to us?. For someone who's fled the Templars her whole life, that was incredibly stupid."
Nahlia wilted. "I'm sorry. I should have waited, but that was my father in that cart."
"I know." Lady Raider drew back her hood, spraying raindrops on the marble floor.
"Are we going to help him?"
She shook her head. "There's nothing we can do tonight."
"You said the Templars had no authority here!" Her voice rose. "If that's true, then how can they parade people through the street in cages?"
"It's more complicated than that. We can't just attack them in the streets."
She was right, of course. This was a city, not a battlefield. Still, Nahlia persisted, "Do you know where they're taking him?"
"I don't," Lady Raider said evenly. "I'd need to consult my agents."
Their conversation drew the attention of several others, maids and servants gathering around them in a rough circle. There was a pause as Nahlia groped for something to say. "What if we—"
"Marlene." Lady Raiden beckoned over a young, dark-haired woman. "See Lady Cole to her room. Draw her a bath and have a physician sent up to examine her wounds."
"Lady Raider!" Nahlia protested.
The older woman closed her eyes. "It's late, Nahlia. And I have work to do. We'll speak further in the morning."
"Do you ever plan to help him?" She struggled to keep her voice on this side of a shout. How could she just leave him there? After all the effort they'd gone through to rescue her, it was as if they didn't even care about her father. Was this because he was a human?
"As I said, we'll speak more of this tomorrow." With that, the Seeker strode down a long corridor.
Nahlia turned to Elias then. He gave her an apologetic look, but he didn't speak up or disagree with his mother.
Behind her, the servant cleared her throat. "Right this way, my lady."
Seeing no other option, Nahlia turned and followed her up the marble staircase.
Everything Thane had told her was coming true. The Aeons had found her, the Templars had taken her father to Dresten, and the first seeds of war had been sown.
She hated the idea of spying on her rescuers. But if Lady Raider refused to help her father, then Thane might be her only hope.