Nahlia woke to rays of sunlight peeking over Dresten's skyline. She stretched to one side, then the other, feeling satisfying pops from her joints.
Her wounds were better now, and even the bandages on her ribs were hardly necessary. Lady Raider's house physician seemed particularly surprised at this.
"Most people would be bedridden for weeks with that wound," the bespectacled Aeon woman had told her. She scribbled a novel's worth of notes on her pad, bombarding Nahlia with endless questions: had she ever been injured before? How fast did she recover? What about illnesses?
It was strange, but Nahlia had been far too exhausted last night to care. Either way, she was decidedly thankful not to be bedridden.
The cold marble floor stung her bare feet as she stood, and the room was silent but for the ticking clock. She shuffled over to the walk-in closet, pulling open both doors to let in the morning sun. Clothing racks stretched along both walls, holding hundreds of pieces in varying sizes.
Whose are these, anyway? She knew wealthy people like the Raiders kept guest rooms. But ... guest clothes?
Nahlia ran her fingers over smooth silk dresses, fur cloaks, rough leathers, and rich cotton casual wear. So many choices—It was almost too much. What was appropriate in this place? What was fashionable?
She finally decided on a long gray-skirt, a sapphire blouse, and soft leather boots. Truth be told, it wasn't so different from her old barmaid's uniform.
Once she was dressed, Nahlia took a brush from the vanity cabinet and began restoring her auburn hair into something that resembled order. There was makeup there as well, but she stayed clear of that. While her bruises could use some covering, she knew she'd only make a more embarrassing mess of things if she tried. Another problem with losing your mother at seven—certain feminine arts remained a mystery.
After a few minutes of wandering through the manor's empty halls, she stepped through a pair of wooden doors into a massive garden. The air was humid out here, almost misty. A glass dome loomed above as big as a city block, with sun rays breaking into rainbows on its surface.
For a moment, Nahlia assumed she was alone. Then she heard the thundering of boots on the stone floor, and the clangor of steel on steel.
A fight? The hair on her neck rose as her body prepared to run.
But no ... there were no screams or hints or chaos. These sounds were too rhythmic, too methodical to be real. Even so, the metallic clashing felt as loud as clocktower bells.
Nahlia followed the cobbled pathway toward the center—presumably to the source of the commotion. Exotic-looking plants bloomed on both sides, their flowers emitting faint gold and violet light. Water cascaded from rocks and through the streams, carving the path into a spiral-like maze.
When she finally reached the garden's center, she found a pair of tall figures sparring in the stone ring.
Elias fought shirtless with a blade in either hand. His moves were graceful and precise, never using more strength than needed.
The woman was the opposite: a swirling vortex of silver and gold and crimson, her precision overshadowed by pure fury and adrenaline. She wore a form-fitting sleeveless shirt with an exposed tattoo on her back. Her hair was pulled back in a pair of tight braids; one half was blonde, and the other was dyed a dark red.
Ciena, Nahlia realized. Elias had mentioned his twin sister several times during the trip up the Arda.
The twins were circling each other now, neither one sparing her a glance. Ciena attacked first, her quarterstaff spinning above her head in a complex pattern.
Her brother was undaunted, and their weapons met in a burst of sparks.
Elias raised his left sword for a counter, but Ciena parried with another spin of her staff. Several minutes passed as they matched each other stroke for stroke. Their movements were a blur to Nahlia's eyes—a flawless dance of exchanges. And to her astonishment, they didn't disturb a single plant, despite the way the flowered-branches grew out and crowded the dueling circle.
The smooth rhythm ended when Ciena landed a hit on her brother's right arm.
Elias shuffled back, gritting his teeth. The arm fell limp at his side, and his sword went flying from the circle's bounds. Nahlia jumped back to avoid being hit.
Ciena moved in for a finishing blow, her quarterstaff spinning even faster than before.
Her brother dodged her strikes and sidestepped her. He cast aside his second sword and lunged forward, wrapping his good arm around her staff hilt.
Elias tried to twist the staff free, backing her into the foliage. Ciena held her ground, gripping the weapon tightly with both hands. For a moment, it seemed like she had the advantage with her two good hands. She could probably—
Elias threw his shoulder into the twist and swept his right leg beneath her.
A second later, Ciena was on her back against the stone floor. Elias held her own weapon at her windpipe.
Their eyes met, and she nodded a silent surrender. Several heartbeats passed, and Elias finally withdrew. He offered her his hand and he pulled her to her feet. The two of them were breathing hard, covered in sweat with muscles pulsing.
Nahlia glanced away and shuffled her feet, feeling more bookish than ever. Apparently, I'm the only Aeon in the realm who's never even held a sword.
She absent-mindedly reached out to touch one of the glowing flowers at the edge of the circle.
"I wouldn't do that," Elias said.
Nahlia yanked back her hand and spun to face him.
"it's the yuchani flower," he said, stepping closer. "Poisonous to the touch." He gestured to his left arm which still hung limp at his side. "Temporary, but painful."
"Oh." Nahlia scratched the side of her head, forcing herself not to stare at his bare chest.
Elias gestured to the girl behind him. "This is my sister, Ciena."
The other Raider was kneeling on the stone floor, running a white rag over her quarterstaff. When she finally looked up, she regarded Nahlia with narrowed eyes. It was the sort of look that a barmaid might give an overly drunk patron.
Oh Aegon, please tell me I'm not wearing her clothes.
She was about to open her mouth to explain when Ciena asked, "What's wrong with your eyes?"
"I-" Nahlia made a face. "Excuse me?"
"One is dark."
Oh, that. Technically, both of her eyes were dark green, but her left one had some faint flecks of blue hidden deep within. Her mother's eye color. It made that one look brighter in direct sunlight.
"It's called heterochromia," Nahlia said, suppressing her annoyance. "My father's a human, so..."
"Oh, you're that one," Ciena interjected. "Cole." She tasted the word, then made a face as if it were something foul.
Her brother turned and gave her a flat look, but Ciena didn't seem to notice. She stood, rested her quarterstaff over her shoulder, and stalked off down one of the garden paths.
"I'm sorry about her," Elias said with a shake of his head.
"Does she have something against my father?"
"Something like that." He grabbed a shirt from a stone bench and threw it over his head. "Come on, we should get back inside. We're probably eating soon."
The air grew cooler as they passed through the double doors back into the manor. She followed Elias down another corridor and into a dining room with tall, floor-to-ceiling windows. Servants bustled around them carrying trays of food and drink.
Lady Raider stood near the head of the walnut table. Instead of her usual leather armor, she wore a crimson-colored dress with the arms left bare. Beside her stood a tall man dressed in dark, fine leathers. He was even taller than Elias, with neatly trimmed hair, bright as beaten gold.
Nahlia didn't meet her gaze as she approached, not forgetting their heated conversation the previous night.
Thankfully, Lady Raider seemed to be in a far better mood. "Ah, There you are, Nahlia. I see you've already met my children." She gestured to the man on her right. "Let me introduce my husband, Lindilus Raider, magister of Dresten."
"My lord." Nahlia smiled and managed her best curtsy. Although to be honest, she had no idea what an appropriate greeting was for a city magister, or for the lord of a great Aeon clan.
"Lady Cole," he responded with a polite bow. His voice was deeper and more solemn than she'd expected. "Welcome to Dresten. It's an honor to have you here."
The five of them took their seats, and the servants carried out plates of food: eggs, bacon, lean ham, and flatbread accompanied by pitchers of fresh-pressed apple cider and steaming coffee. Lindilus Raider bowed his head, and the others did likewise.
He spoke a prayer of thanks, a recitation from one of the seven Testaments of Aegon. Nahlia couldn't remember which one. She hadn't heard anyone pray aloud ever since her mother died. It should have brought back good memories, but it didn't. She knew her race worshipped Aegon, believing themselves to be his children and his chosen. But Nahlia knew from experience that such prayers fell on careless ears.
Her mother had been innocent and peaceful; a true believer. For all the good it did her. Nahlia had vowed the night she died: any creator who was monstrous enough to let his own be murdered would never have her worship.
Lord Raider finished his prayer; everyone opened their eyes and the conversation resumed. It ranged from small talk to politics to current events in faraway lands. Nahlia remained quiet for most of this, having little to contribute in these areas.
She was relieved when Lord Raider finally spoke with her, leaning over from his place at the head of the table. "That necklace," he noted, "it once belonged to your mother, did it not?"
Nahlia smiled, absent-mindedly fingering the crescent moon on its silver chain. "It's the only thing I have left of her."
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said. "It's a terrible thing, what happened."
"Did you know her well?"
"Not as well as I would have liked, but I did meet her several times in Sunfall as a boy."
"You've been to the capital then?" Nahlia asked.
"Oh yes," he replied. "In those days it seemed like the emperor called his subjects to court practically every other week. There was always some grand event at the Imperial Palace. I complained about them as a boy—told everyone I would rather be out fighting the emperor's enemies rather than dancing in his ballrooms. But now..." He held up a metal hand that Nahlia hadn't noticed before. "Well, you've seen what war makes of us."
"Things must have been so much different back then," she mused, bringing her mug to her lips. The coffee was dark and bitter, not nearly as good as it smelled. "I can't even imagine what it would be like to have our own kind ruling the Realm."
"In many ways it was different, and in other ways, it was the same. Life wasn't all peaceful under Aeon rule. If it were, the humans might never have rebelled in the first place."
He took a sip of his own mug just as a cloaked man burst through the door; one of Lady Raider's agents. He approached the long table, setting a piece of parchment down in front of her.
Her eyes scanned the note, and something different flashed in her expression, something that wasn't there before. Fear?
"What is it?" Ciena asked from across the table.
"It's from my agent in Sunfall. "The fleet set sail this morning."
"Fleet?" Nahlia asked, wiping her mouth on a napkin.
"The Templars," she explained. "They're sending an army for Dresten. Three thousand strong."