"How far is that?" Elias asked. "A month?"
His mother nodded darkly. "Shorter, if the winds favor them."
Nahlia suppressed a shiver as an icy silence fell over the table. The Templars had seemed unstoppable before. But now... Aegon, with those numbers they could accomplish anything. They could conquer Dresten, and sack the surrounding villages as far as Northshire. The North would lose any trace of freedom from the New Republic.
"Well then." Ciena stood and threw down her napkin. "I say we attack Kyroth's estate before they arrive. Take out their leaders while we still have the advantage."
"No." Lady Raider set down the parchment and met her daughter's gaze. "We'll do no such thing."
"Why not? You said there were fewer than fifty of them in the city now. We can take that many."
"That might be so," Lindilus Raider broke in. "but we can't just assault another magister's fortress. Kyroth will rally the others against us if we do."
"To hell with politics," Ciena snapped. "I'm talking about us—Clan Raider—taking the fight against the Templars on our own terms. Isn't this what we've been preparing for these past twelve years?"
"So you're proposing that we storm Kyroth's gates and kill anyone who gets in our way?" Lindilus asked. "His household guard? His servants? His family? The Templars have broken no laws, and they've made no moves against us yet. How do you think we'll look if we attack them first?"
Elias leaned back in his seat, contemplative. "Everyone will see overly-ambitious Aeons trying to seize control."
Lord Raider gave his son a nod. "Even if we defeated the Templars here, the rest of Dresten would drive us out, leaving Whitecliff without a supply line. Then when the army arrives, our position would be worse than before. We'll have achieved nothing."
Ciena shifted, chest heaving. "There are always excuses and repercussions. But if we can't even fight fifty Templars, how do we ever expect to take back Raidenwood? Or does that not matter to you anymore?" She shot accusing glances around the table.
"Of course it matters," Lady Raider said, her voice uncharacteristically soft. "But wanting something isn't enough. Your father's right; we need to be prudent, and choose our battles with care."
"Which is a fancy way of saying we should do nothing at all."
"We shall be patient," Lord Raider said. "But we'll also plan and prepare. Having an army in Dresden is unprecedented, and it's not something the council will take kindly to."
"So that's the solution," Ciena said flatly. "We're going to talk our way out of this. Why don't you go talk to Uncle Cladius too and see if he—"
"Enough." Lindilus stood, slow and deliberate, his voice echoing throughout the dining chamber. "We'll continue this conversation later. In private."
Ciena's eyes darted toward Nahlia. She looked surprised to find her still sitting there.
"And attacking the Templars is not up for discussion," he continued. "You and your brother will return to the enclave tomorrow, as planned."
The hours lumbered by with all the speed of a sleepless night. The Raiders came and went from their own affairs, and Nahlia spent most of the day in her bedroom upstairs. It was the only place she could linger without looking purposeless and alone.
Unfortunately, being left to her thoughts just made her all the more anxious. Images of her father being wheeled through the streets flashed in her mind, along with this magister's fortress they spoke of that morning.
To think, he might only be a few blocks away...
Why couldn't Lady Raider spare a few of her agents to break him out? The excuses they gave Ciena had seemed rational enough—an outright attack could lead to more deaths overall. Even so, couldn't a smaller force infiltrate the fortress? She had to speak with them one more time. The alternative was working with Thane, and Aegon only knew where that path would take her.
As the sun dragged its feet toward the distant horizon, Nahlia went out of the room and down the marble steps into the solar. There she found Lord and Lady Raider sitting by the hearth, unoccupied for the first time since breakfast.
The pair turned to face her as she shuffled through the doorway, and she took a deep breath. "Any news of my father?"
Lord Raider gestured toward the vacant leather armchair by the fire. Nahlia smoothed her skirt and sat, feeling the tightness of impossibility squeezing her chest.
"You probably heard during breakfast," he began, "but the Templars have allied themselves with Magister Kyroth, one of my peers. They're using his estate as a base of operations. It's likely your father is being held there."
Nahlia turned to Casella; her face was devoid of expression. She turned back to Lindilus. "Is anything being done to help him?"
Lady Raider drank a long swallow of her red wine. "You heard what we told Ciena."
"I remember," Nahlia said. "But my father is there in that fortress. You're a Seeker. Isn't it your job to rescue people?"
"This is different."
"Different how? You saved me in the Mistwood, and that was a two-day journey."
Silence followed. Nahlia hated conflict, but with so much at stake, she had to press on. "What If it were another Aeon they'd captured? What if it were Elias or Ciena? You mean to tell me you wouldn't rescue them either?"
"You're right," Lady Raider replied. "If your father were a different man, many things would be different."
Nahlia shifted in her seat, breaking into a cold sweat all over. "So it's because he's a human."
"A human?" she asked incredulously. "Nahlia, do you know what your father was during the war?"
"Of course. He was a soldier."
"And do you know which side he fought on?"
"He fought alongside the Aeons," she answered at once. "And I'm sure he would do it again. If you rescue him, he could be a valuable asset to you."
"Your father fought with the Aeons at the end of the war," Lindilus corrected. "But that doesn't erase the years of damage he did before that."
"Damage?" She grimaced, and she had to clasp her hands together to keep them from shaking. What rumors had they been listening to? "Are you implying he supported the Templars?"
The two Raiders shared a look, then Lindilus let out a long, exasperated sigh.
"Your father..." he paused as if grasping for the right words. "He didn't just support the Templars. He was one of them."
"No." Nahlia bit off the word and shook her head fiercely. "He would have told me if that were true."
"It is true," Lady Raider said. "He was a Dreadknight in the Templar Order and the squire to Nathanial Mason himself. He received specialized combat training and he knew the Order's inner-workings. You would have witnessed this for yourself over the years."
"That doesn't prove anything," Nahlia shot back. "You could have false information. Rumors. Neither of you knew him personally."
Lindilus cleared his throat. "I did know him as a boy. He worked as a cook in the imperial palace, and he was accepted into the Templar Academy at fourteen."
"The imperial palace," Nahlia replied quickly. "That's where he met my mother. He told me he loved her even then. Why would he join the Templars after that?"
"The Order didn't have the same intentions back then. It was about strengthening humanity, not overthrowing Aeonkind. That didn't come until many years later."
Nahlia slumped back in her chair, clutching her cup for comfort—deep wine, spiced with cinnamon and warmed against the chill evening. A shiver ran through her, as cold as the day she was shot. Nahlia didn't want to believe her father kept secrets from her, but at the same time, he never spoke of his past. Meanwhile, Lord Raider had actually known him back then.
"No one blames you for what your father did," Lady Raider said. "You were innocent in all of this. But you have to understand; I can't send my agents on a mission they don't believe in."
All the other implications were clear: her father had hunted and killed Aeons during the Purge, probably even innocents. Her eyes burned with the first signs of tears, but she screwed them shut before they could fall.
The other two rose in unison then, both making for the door. "We'll let you be alone," Lindilus said.
Thoughts raced through her mind as she came to grips with the reality of the situation. If she didn't work with Thane to rescue her father, no one would. A turncloak to humans, and an enemy of Aeons. She was all he had. The Raider twins were leaving for Whitecliff Enclave tomorrow. If she didn't go with them, she might never get another chance.
"Wait," Nahlia stood, wiping her eyes dry. "The Aeon academy—I want to go."
A pause. "It is our intention to send you there," Lady Raider began. "But these things take time."
"We usually wait to enroll students at the start of a new term. Winter term is a month away."
"But I thought Elias and Ciena were leaving tomorrow? What if I went with them?"
"The waiting period is a matter of safety," Lady Raider said.
Of course. The Templars had her father, and that put them in the perfect position to control her.
"You think I'm a spy?"
"It isn't so personal as that," she replied. "This is standard for all new recruits. In the meantime, you're welcome to stay here in Dresten with us."
"They shot me!" Nahlia put a hand to her heart. "Twice. I don't think the Templars meant to take me alive or turn me against you."
At this, Lord Raider gave his wife an enigmatic look.
"I understand it might be irregular," Nahlia continued. "But so is a city filled with Templars. "
Lady Raider gave an understanding nod. "If it's safety you're concerned about—"
"That's not it," Nahlia said. Then she paused. There was only one answer Lady Raider might accept, and it wasn't far from the truth. "This past week, I watched the Templars kill my uncle and capture my father. That whole time, I was nothing but a liability. I want to learn how to fight. If war is coming, I want to help our side."
Casella Raider fixed her with a stare. "You won't become a warrior overnight. It takes years of training. It would be harder than anything you've ever done."
"Nothing is worse than being locked away in this house with no purpose," Nahlia retorted. "Please, just give me a chance. I promise I'll do whatever it takes to fight for our race."