Thane Solidor adjusted his hood as he trudged through Dresten's night markets. Thane hated this city and everything about it. Of all the places he'd visited, this was the least like home.
Everything was warmer back in Dragonshard. The air, the sand ... even the ocean seemed warm compared to this frozen wasteland. He longed for the sight of green palm trees, the warmth of the sun against his face, and birds soaring against a cloudless blue sky.
Instead, gray buildings stood against gray clouds, and gray roads hid beneath piles of mud and horseshit. Beyond that, he seemed to trip over swarms of beggars, whores, and thieves with every step. No doubt foreigners like himself made easy targets for their coin-grabbing fingers.
Thane didn't make eye contact with any of them. He kept his eyes on the road and a hand on his coinpurse as he climbed the stairs toward Magister Kyroth's estate.
Was "estate" even the right word here? While the other magisters lived in sensible parts of town, Kyroth lived in the Historic District. His "estate" looked more like an ancient castle, and not in a good way. Broken crenelations ran along the outer walls, and the stone watchtowers loomed absurdly tall and sharp, all but vanishing into the mists above.
Aegon, just how old was this place? He swore the Archaeons themselves could have lived here.
The gate was a stone archway with a raised portcullis. A pair of Templar guards straightened as Thane approached.
One man put a hand on his saber hilt. "Who the hell are you?"
"Thane Solidor." He tossed back his hood, and black hair fell around his forehead.
The two men exchanged a look, then they gestured him inside with agitated glares.
It must drive them mad, Thane thought. They came north to kill Aeons, and now Saul Mason lets an Aeon walk among them.
The inner courtyard was like something out of a Valaysian horror play. The only light came from the scattered lanterns around the cloister, making eerie shapes of the crumbled stone buildings. Uneven cobbles littered the ground beneath his feet, and the rainfall had turned other portions to mud.
Another pair of soldiers patrolled the battlements above, rifles slung over their shoulders. They dressed as Templars, but they stood straighter than the others, their movements a strange combination of weight and grace.
Aeon spies. Probably sent here by Lady Raider. Did the Knight Commander know?
Thane crossed a rickety drawbridge and passed under another portcullis. As he'd expected, the inside of the keep was no better than the courtyard—all dark stone corridors, damp floors, and creaking doors. He climbed his way up six levels, asking servants and guards for directions along the way.
The Knight Commander had taken up residence in one of the larger rooms. Thane passed another pair of guards in the sitting room and found Mason sitting at his desk, hunched over a stack of papers. The lantern light did nothing to flatter his scarred face.
Lieutenant Gallow stood when Thane entered the room. Balding with an unkept brown beard, the shorter Templar reeked of bravado and desperation. "We're busy here, Solidor. You can—"
"It's fine, Lieutenant." Mason didn't even look up from his ledger. "Let's get this over with."
Gallow stepped aside with a grunt, and Thane stormed up to the desk.
"You bastard," he snapped. "You shot her?"
"Keep your voice down." Mason finally met his eyes. "We're not alone in this castle."
"Oh?" Thane cocked an eyebrow. "Don't trust your men?"
"I trust them to follow their training," he replied. "And Templars always shoot to kill."
"You could have ordered an exception."
"And if the Raiders got wind of such an order?" Mason shook his head. "No. We're surrounded by their spies here."
"She still could've died," Thane countered. "Good luck finding the Aeon enclave in that case."
"Don't be so dramatic." Mason leaned forward and dipped his pen in the inkwell. "You want to know how many men I lost these past two days?"
Not nearly enough, Thane wanted to say, but he only shrugged. "I warned you not to attack Aaron Cole directly."
The Knight Commander waved a hand. "We needed him as a hostage. If I have one regret, it's that I didn't bring more troops to Northshire."
Thane shook his head. "I stand by what I said before." Mason had originally planned to capture all three of the Coles and free Nahlia afterward, promising to release her father and uncle if she cooperated. Thane had advised against that plan. "The Raiders would have seen the trap if you'd captured her first. And it's obvious Nahlia has principles. She'd never feed me information if she knew it went to you."
Mason leaned forward. "Speaking of information..."
"I haven't spoken to her in two days," Thane said. "She hasn't even agreed to work with me yet, and it could be weeks before the Raiders take her to the enclave."
Mason narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Why haven't you spoken to her?"
"I've been a little distracted." It was partially true. Meditating into the Ethereal required his full concentration. Not the easiest thing when you're on the road. Trained spies could do it of course, but spycraft had never been Thane's strength. What's more, he didn't even have a soulbond with Nahlia.
"Well, you better start focusing," Mason said. "The army will be here in five weeks. If the girl can't handle this mission, I'll cut my losses and move to a different plan."
"She'll come through."
"We'll see." Mason fingered his gray beard for a moment. "I assume she's still with the Raiders?"
"Then she can start feeding us information on them. How many soldiers do they command? What magisters and guild leaders are they allied with?"
"Nahlia won't agree to that," Thane said. "And neither will I. We're here to find Whitecliff Enclave. Not start a war in Dresten too."
It was only after the words left his mouth that he saw the test for what it was. If Mason wanted to know about the Raiders, he could have consulted Magister Kyroth. Any politician worth his salt should know that much about his opponents.
"This isn't a democracy, Solidor," Gallow said from over his shoulder.
Thane's eyes narrowed, but he didn't bother turning around. "Oh. Are you still there, Lieutenant?"
"You watch your mouth, boy. You'll do what we tell you. For your sister's sake."
Sweat prickled Thane's palms, and he rose to his feet. He and the Templars were supposed to be allies, but an alliance wasn't a marriage. He didn't have to like the Knight Commander's mad dog.
Thane met Gallow's eyes, and the room's lanterns flickered and dimmed until they were no brighter than candles. "Threaten her again, and they'll find your body washed up on the shore tomorrow morning."
The shorter man reached for his pistol. "You little sod."
The lanterns grew darker still, and Thane felt the flames ready to burst in his palms, urging him to kill.
"It's alright, Lieutenant," the Knight Commander spoke up. "Leave us."
"Sir." Gallow licked his lips, darting nervous eyes toward Thane. "With all due respect, he just—"
"I heard him," Mason said with a dismissive wave. "I heard you both snapping at each other like a couple of sodding schoolboys. But I'm not afraid of an Aeon princeling and his candlelight tricks. Are you, Lieutenant?"
With some reluctance, Gallow turned to leave, but not before shooting Thane a glare. Of course, that didn't last long—Thane's glare was better. Like his father always said, "If you believe you can kill a man with your bare hands, he'll believe it too."
The door shut with a slam, and Thane allowed the lanterns to return to their former glow.
"Sit down, Thane," the Knight Commander told him.
Thane returned to his seat and took a few deep breaths to steady himself. In hindsight, that entire exchange had been stupid. If Gallow hadn't backed down, Thane would've had no choice but to reveal his Ethermancy. None of the Templars had seen his power during the Battle of Dragonshard. If they knew what he could do...
Mason met his eyes. "If you're done with your pissing contest, perhaps we can get back to business? I don't have all sodding night."
"I'm still not asking Nahlia to spy on the Raiders," Thane said. "We've only spoken once, and to call her suspicious would be an understatement. Right now, I need to focus on gaining her trust."
"She wants to free her father," Mason said. "What choice does she have?"
"Like I said before, she has principles. And she doesn't know I'm working with you."
Mason remained silent, raising a wine glass to his lips. The action stained his beard red.
Thane paused, choosing his next words carefully. "I told her my family is interested in the enclave."
"Is that true?" he asked. Thane could practically see the gears turning behind the Knight Commander's dark eyes, wondering if Thane was double-crossing him.
"No," Thane said. "But this lets her keep a clear conscience."
The other man considered that for a moment, then he waved a dismissive hand. "Fine. Just get it done."
Thane nodded, and he turned to leave.
Five weeks until the army arrives. He hoped that would be enough time to put his plans into motion. Thousands of lives depended on it.