Rain fell in the courtyard outside and gusts of wind roared through the open gates. A brazier burned in the center where half-a-dozen guards talked amongst themselves and warmed their hands by the flames.
Thane strolled past them to where a pair of barred wagons sat between the stables and the guardhouse.
Aegon. Were they really left out here this whole time?
He made for his 'sister's' cart, but another voice called his name.
Thane turned to see Nahlia's father sitting in the first wagon. His face was a bruised and bloody mess, his beard stained from days of travel. Despite this, his arms were thick with muscle, more formidable than half the soldiers in this castle.
"You know who I am?" Thane asked. He'd shared his first name back in the Moonstone, but his was a common name among southerners. Hardly enough to give him away.
The older man nodded in the darkness. "Aye. There aren't many Aeon clans who would betray their own race, but yours is definitely one of them."
Thane snuck a glance toward the guards, then shifted closer. "It's more complicated than that."
"It always is. But tell me you're not here for the Aeon enclave."
Thane shook his head to clear it. He would've liked to tell Cole the whole story—to explain that he was trying to protect Nahlia and the other Aeons. But no ... time was short, and they couldn't be seen talking. Besides, he didn't need to justify himself to this man.
He turned to leave when Cole spoke again, "Is my daughter alright?"
Thane paused. "She's here in Dresten. The Templars shot her in Graywind Pass, but it sounds like she'll recover."
The other man leaned back against the iron bars, breathing a sigh of relief. "Please tell me she's getting on a ship and leaving this place."
Thane glanced toward the guards again.
"No." Cole scratched his beard. "If the Templars didn't find her by now, then Clan Raider must've."
Thane nodded. "They say Whitecliff Enclave is the safest place on the continent for Aeons."
"Until the Templars find it," he countered, "then it becomes the most dangerous. That's why you're here, isn't it? To help them find this enclave in exchange for your family's safety?" Cole bobbed his head toward the other wagon a few yards down.
Another pause. "You're right, they think I'm here to help them. That doesn't mean I—"
"Wake up, Solidor." Cole pointed a finger through the iron bars. "Saul Mason wouldn't be here if he didn't have a plan. If you think you can stop this attack, you're delusional."
Thane raised an eyebrow. "So ... you're privy to my plans, as well as Mason's?"
"Not a real answer." Cole snorted. "You grew up in a palace, not a battlefield. Reading a few books on war doesn't make you an expert, and being smarter than these Templars doesn't mean you can manipulate them all at once."
"Funny," Thane said, "considering you grew up in a fancier palace than mine. Even if you were the son of a cook."
"So you know my story. Then you know I've fought in real wars—on both sides. I've seen what happens when folk want bloodshed. There's no reasoning or words that can stop them. If this keeps up, people will die. Then there's no taking it back. No second chances. You want to help my daughter? Put her on a ship to Valaysia. Or anywhere but this shithole."
"I already told Nahlia you're in Dresten," Thane said. "She'll never leave without you."
"Then tell her I'm dead. Better than having the Templars kill us both."
"Hey!" A guard called out from across the dark courtyard. It was Edwin, the officer tasked with guarding Ashara. "Step back, Solidor! You can either see your sister, or you can piss off."
How long had it taken him to notice their conversation? A full two minutes? With security this lax, it was a miracle they had any prisoners left to guard.
Thane turned on his heel, making for the other wagon.
Kira—the girl who was ostensibly his sister— sat curled up against the back panel, and wrapped in blankets. Like Cole, she'd seen better days. But even with her tattered clothes, tangled black hair, and smudged olive skin, she still looked the part of an Aeon princess. Enough to fool these Templars, at least.
As Thane approached, the girl looked up with a hesitant smile. "Well, well. Look who finally decided to visit."
"Sorry." Thane wrapped his cloak tighter to keep out the rain. "It's been a rough week."
"Or a cold and lonely week in my case. But I have to say, the ventilation in here is quite an improvement over that palace of yours."
Thane forced out a slight grin. "I see you've robbed a blanket store."
Kira nodded from within her woolen cocoon and gestured to Cole's wagon. "That nice man gave me his the other day. He's quite the gentlemen, you know. Not like some people."
Thane frowned. "It really bothers you that I haven't visited?"
She shrugged. "I mean, It's been six months since we left Dragonshard, and you've hardly said two words to me."
"I—" Thane opened his mouth to protest, but he saw the truth easily enough. He'd been so preoccupied these past few months—so focused on the enclave, the Templars, and the mission. Time had flown by like a sandstorm, and she hadn't complained until now.
"I'm supposed to be your beloved sister," Kira went on, "so you could at least pretend we like each other."
He grimaced. "You know I respect you for what you did."
"Oh, yes." She rolled her eyes dramatically. "Here I am—barely twenty years old—and everyone looks at me like a martyr. You don't need to honor me, Thane Solidor. I'd rather have a friend."
"Yes, a friend. It's someone who—"
"I know what a friend is." Thane gave her a flat look.
"So, what then? Aeon princes can't be friends with lowly human handmaidens?"
Thane and threw up a finger to quiet her. Aegon, she's going to get herself killed talking like that. If the Templars overheard—if they figured out who she really was...
"Relax," she said. "They can't hear us over the rain. Besides, no one cares what we say."
"On the contrary, your life might depend on what you say, and they have every reason to eavesdrop."
"Don't change the subject." She crossed her arms. "I can take the cage and the cold. I've dealt with it all before. But have you ever tried being alone for days?"
That was an exaggeration, of course. She'd just admitted to talking to Cole earlier.
Kira continued, "Would you leave your real sister alone with so many creepy Templars looming around?"
She wants me to stay, Thane realized. A hundred excuses ran through his mind. But then, could he deny her such a simple request? Kira had volunteered for the mission, taking the real Ashara's place, knowing it might cost her life. Keeping her company was the least he could do.
After a long silence, Thane shouted across the courtyard. "Edwin!"
The middle-aged Templar sauntered, head bowed against the rain. "What is it now?"
"I need you to let me inside the wagon."
He made a face. "Can't do that, Solidor. Knight Commander says—"
"—that she has to stay in the cage until the gates are closed. But I'm not asking you to let her out, am I? I'm asking you to let me in."
"Still can't do it," he said. "If you've got a problem, you can take it up with Mason."
Thane smiled as if amused. "You're denying an unarmed hostage access to a cage? You're really that scared of me?"
"None of your sodding games," Edwin said. "Orders are orders."
Fine. Let me in, or I'll break open your throat and do it myself.
So help him, he almost said it. But Thane had enough enemies in this city. He had to be smarter than that.
"You may have your orders, but the Knight Commander also expects you to use your better judgment. That's why he has you guarding my sister instead of some fool like Gallow." He reached into his coin purse and handed the man a single golden sun. Half a year's wages for a Templar officer. "I just want to keep my sister company," he said. "There's no ulterior motive here. Take whatever precautions you need."
Edwin eyed him for a moment, then he beckoned over his men. They all raised their rifles, some trained on Thane, others on Kira. Several threats were made which Thane ignored.
Finally, Edwin unlocked the door and pulled it open with a rusty creak. Thane ducked inside, sitting down awkwardly in the confined space. He'd known this girl for over six years—she was his sister's handmaiden after all—but they had rarely spent time alone, and never so close.
She must have felt the same way because she became suddenly shy when he sat down. His shoulder touched his, and he felt her body stiff and shivering beneath the blankets. If they'd been better acquainted, he might have taken her hands and warmed them between his.
Fortunately, he could do something even better.
Thane closed his eyes, letting his thoughts wander across the courtyard toward the Templar's burning brazier. He cleared his mind of every thought except for the flames. The light, the heat, and the power.
The fire dwindled as Thane pulled the energy into his soul and pushed it into the wagon's iron bars. Ethermancy was a subtle process, more of an art form than a science. Transferring too much heat would turn the cage into a furnace. Metal was a conductor after all, and it required less energy than you might expect.
Several heartbeats passed, and the bars grew as warm as rocks in the summer sun. It was nothing extravagant, but it would keep them comfortable.
Kira relaxed, and he allowed himself to do the same. For a moment, he ceased worrying about the Templars, or the Aeon enclave, or the wars to come. He only thought of her, and of home.