Thane kept his head bowed against the salty wind, passing more docked ships and trade galleys than he could count. Richly dressed merchants from Sunfall hauled their carts of food, wine, and alchemical wares down the seawall. Serpent ships from the Ember Isles carried precious gems, fruits, and spices. There were even a few tradesmen from Valaysia bringing their foreign dyes and herbs from across the Sunrise Sea.
Thane stopped and watched from a safe distance as one particular vessel prepared its departure. The crew tried to pass themselves off as ordinary tradesmen, but they moved with a military efficiency that set them apart from the rest. What's more, the golden-eyed man who stood at the helm was no common captain.
Bearded workers bustled up and down the ramps, rolling barrels of grain, salt, and meat. Enough food to feed a small army.
Just how many Aeons are in this enclave, anyway?
He knew the clans of Raider, Vash, and Elveron were all affiliated with Whitecliff. Beyond that, he could only speculate. Most Aeon families remained unaccounted for after the Purge. It was impossible to say whether they were hiding or extinct.
Thane continued surveying the scene until he spotted Nahlia on the harbor's stone steps. Her red hair made a bright spot of color against the gray cobbles and the dark ocean beyond. Like a torch burning in a blizzard; delicate and vulnerable, but also filled with warmth and resolve.
She met his gaze after a moment's pause, and her green eyes widened as if to take in the full sight of him. Thane nodded toward a nearby alley, and she followed him beneath a stone archway and into the doorway of an abandoned apothecary. It felt good to be out of that cursed wind for a change.
"Where have you been?" Nahlia demanded once they were alone.
"Don't worry," he said. "I didn't forget about you."
She rolled her eyes. "It's not that. I was starting to wonder if your plan was even real."
Thane frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"The way you just... found me in the Ethereal. I heard that sort of thing was impossible."
She hasn't figured it out yet. Perhaps it was safer that way for now. The connection worked both ways, and you never knew who else might take advantage of it.
"Communicating with strangers isn't impossible," Thane explained. "Just difficult. Especially for the inexperienced. But I'm assuming you figured that out by now."
"Only because everything else you told me came true," she replied. "You're lucky I'm still doing this. I barely convinced the Raiders to let me go."
Thane nodded. "I never said this would be easy."
"No." Nahlia crossed her arms. "In fact, you hardly told me anything at all. How are you going to free my father, anyway?"
"You're asking for specifics?"
"I took the first steps on my end. I'd say that entitles me to something."
Thane drew a careful breath and looked around the empty alley for a moment. "Sometimes," he began, "the Templars will cooperate with Aeons if they believe it's in their long-term interest to do so."
Nahlia narrowed her eyes at that, and he continued quickly, "I've offered my services to the Knight Commander. They think I'm helping them, and that was enough to get me inside Kyroth's fortress without violence."
"So you're deceiving them," she noted. "Is that a habit of yours?"
"We're at war with the Templars," Thane said, keeping his voice measured and low so as not to carry. "You and I are on the same side."
"It's just... suspicious. Not only are you cooperating with them now, but your motives seem to align perfectly."
Fair point, that.
"And," she continued, "you implied before that these northern Aeons are no friends of yours. If you're not helping the Templars, then why are you so interested in this enclave?"
He paused. "They have something."
"Something you want?"
"Something dangerous. An artifact that could lead to an even greater war."
"A vague artifact that could cause an ambiguous war," Nahlia said flatly. "With a description like that, I hope you don't expect me to find it for you."
Thane sighed, raking a hand through his damp hair. She's been through a lot, he reminded himself. She has a right to be frustrated.
"I can't share everything with you now," he said. "This isn't the time or the place, but I haven't lied to you either. We're on the brink of war, and I'm infiltrating this enclave to stop things from getting worse. The Templars are a means to an end, I'm here to slow them down and to free your father."
"I need more than that," Nahlia said. "I need assurances you won't betray me."
"And what assurances do I have?" Thane retorted. "You mean to tell me you wouldn't have betrayed me to the Raiders if they offered you a better deal?"
Nahlia hesitated, looking away.
"We need to have faith in each other," he said. "That's the only way this will work."
"And why should I trust you?" Her voice rose. "You speak of noble intentions, but I already had to lie to the people who saved my life and took me into their home. Now you're asking me to do the same with the hidden enclave. They deserve better."
"And your father murdered Aeons by the hundreds during the Purge. You think he deserves to be saved?"
Nahlia stiffened, eyes like daggers. She backed away as far as the enclosed space would allow.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have said that."
"You don't know him," she whispered, biting off each word. "That was twenty years ago; he's tried to live peacefully ever since."
Thane met her eyes again. "And you don't know anything about the place you're going—not yet, anyway. There are other Aeons who aren't so innocent. My father believes they're the ones to instigate the human revolution. They might even be working with foreign clans. We've been trying to figure this out for years, and this is the closest we've come."
The words poured from his mouth in a rush. Truths to be sure, but all with an air of desperation. He was about to continue when a cluster of sailors swept around the corner, raising their eyebrows at the sight of the two together in the doorway. Thane pulled back, looking away.
"Do you know how far I'm traveling?" Nahlia asked once they were alone again.
Thane shook his head. "I was hoping you did."
"No one's told me anything. On top of that, I'm to be blindfolded for most of the journey. They said it's for Whitecliff's safety, and my own."
He nodded. "I can't say I'm surprised. It's an old tradition that goes back centuries, for as long as Aeons have had secret enclaves and academies. It's one of the reasons these places stay hidden for so long."
She grimaced. "Well if that's true... then how am I supposed to tell you where it is?"
"For now, just be patient. Pay attention to whatever details you can, but don't draw too much attention to yourself. If we're going to do this, we need to do it right."
She scanned his face, and a dozen emotions ran undisguised. Suspicion, curiosity, the desire to trust.
"I promise," Thane said. "I'll explain everything with time. But not here."
"I'll wait a few days, then I'll come to you in the Ethereal."
"Fine." Nahlia crossed her arms. "But I'm not telling you a thing until you come clean. I need to know that I'm fighting on the right side."
"Lady Cole," a man's voice echoed from down the alleyway.
Nahlia turned to leave, and Thane set off in the opposite direction, vanishing back into the crowd from where he came.