The Harbinger only sailed for two days, but it felt more like two weeks. Nahlia thought she'd grown used to the cold after seven years in Northshire, but even that didn't compare to the Frozen Sea. The nights fell below freezing here, and the winds cut through her cloak like a storm of shattered glass.
For all that, she couldn't even enjoy the view. Thanks a lot, blindfold.
"It's standard for all new recruits," Elias had told her when they'd first set sail. As if that made shuffling around the ship any easier. With every step, she bumped into another wall, crate, or crew member. She even had the bruises to prove it.
The Raiders had given her a simple, windowless cabin below deck, and that was the only place she could uncover her eyes. If she broke that rule—even for a second—she'd be confined there for the rest of the trip. Nahlia might have called them paranoid if people like her weren't the reason for such rules.
The very thought tied her stomach in a knot. What if, by some miracle, she did discover Whitecliff's location? Would she really share it with Thane? She still didn't trust him, and she doubted that would change in the near future. Still, this was her only chance to save her father. It was this, or inaction.
Nahlia almost jumped when someone knocked on the cabin door.
"Come in," she hollered from her seat on the bed.
The oaken door creaked open, and Elias Raider swaggered inside. He was so tall, he practically had to duck to fit through the doorframe. Rain spattered his leather jerkin, and his blond hair lay in disarray. Somehow that suited him though.
"Good news." He crossed his arms and leaned on the doorpost. "We'll reach Whitecliff in less than an hour."
"Finally." Nahlia closed her book and hopped to her feet. She glanced down at the silken blindfold on her nightstand.
"Yeah," Elias said. "You still need it. But don't worry—it's just for the first few weeks of classes."
She narrowed her eyes, suppressing a grin. "Well, I've always wanted to sleep in class and get away with it."
Nahlia tucked away her book and let him fasten the strap behind her head. Darkness shrouded her vision, and she clutched his arm as the ship rocked against the waves.
She braced herself for the wind on deck, but a frosty draft greeted her instead. No light shone through the blindfold, and the sounds of water echoed all around.
A cave? Was the enclave underground?
Elias led her to her usual spot—a wooden barrel at the base of the helm. She strained her ears, struggling to make sense of the cacophony. The captain's graveled voice bellowed a torrent of orders. The crew rowed the oars, and waves lapped against the hull.
Above it all, Ciena's unfeminine voice echoed somewhere nearby. It wasn't deep by any means, or even unrefined. Just sharp, like a pain in your side. The other Raider twin hadn't spoken to her once since their meeting in the garden. At least now, Nahlia had an inkling why.
Still, it wasn't her fault that her father used to be a Templar twenty years ago. Besides, Elias didn't hold that against her, so why did—
Her muscles tensed as a hand tapped her shoulder.
"Sorry," Elias said. "It's just me."
She took his arm again, and he led her down the ramp into ... the underground harbor? She could only imagine. Footsteps echoed in the distance, metallic gears turned, and wood creaked.
Aegon, but it was frustrating trying to make sense of all this.
"Stairs coming up," Elias said as they walked.
Nahlia slowed her pace. "How many?"
"One hundred and forty-four."
"I wish," he said. "but the lifts are all filled with cargo right now. Besides, that way involves riding mammoths on the side of a cliff. Not the safest thing when you're blindfolded."
Even once they reached the top of the staircase, the walk through the cave was several miles at her best guess. She felt the occasional gust of cool air, and Elias told her they were crossing bridges through ravines.
Other sections of the cave were warm and misty, causing her face to prickle with sweat. She heard water everywhere, from soft trickles to rushing rivers.
"Slippery up here," a crew member hollered from somewhere up the line.
Nahlia took a step and almost lost her balance on the thick ice. Elias steadied her by wrapping his hands around her triceps. His grip was gentle but firm, and her cheeks grew even warmer than before.
More metallic sounds echoed from up ahead, like a massive portcullis being raised. They stepped outside again, and this time she felt snow crunch beneath her boots. Light shone through the fabric of the blindfold, and the sun's sun's warmth touched her face.
Elias let go of her arm and finally undid the straps behind her head. Her eyes turned to slivers in the blinding light as she took in the new surroundings.
The sun was low on the jagged white horizon, casting its golden rays over the blue-tinged landscape. The enclave itself was built into a large recession on the mountainside; a cluster of brick and wooden buildings all crammed together, separated by walkways and rivers and waterfalls. A cobblestone path snaked out in front of them, weaving through the rough terrain. Buildings loomed on either side, tiered pagodas with curved terraces, tapering as they grew.
Elias set out with his usual long strides, and Nahlia had to jog to keep up with him. They crossed an arching bridge of wood and stone, and this gave her an unobstructed view of the valley below. Fields of wheat and grazing livestock covered every clearing, separated by violet trees and simple wooden homes.
Whitecliff Enclave was far more than some secret hideout. This was bigger than most towns, with more Aeons than she could have ever imagined. Not just warriors, but craftsmen, farmers, and families.
I can't share this place with Thane, she realized. These people had been safe here for decades, free from the Templars, and the Purge, living peaceful lives. The sort of lives she could only dream of until now.
If there was even a chance that Thane was working for the Templars, then these lives would be on her hands.
"This is the mess hall." Elias gestured to a wide, flat building on their left. It had red pillars in the front, and lanterns hung on each corner of the upturned roof. "We missed dinner, but they should send something to your room later."
Nahlia nodded along as Elias continued pointing out important buildings. The bathhouse, the infirmary, the chapel, the lecture halls, and the Masters' tower. She let the confusion of information wash over her, knowing she'd be lucky to remember half of it by tomorrow.
"And this is the general dormitory," Elias pointed to a long, three-story structure on the cliff's edge. "I'll talk to someone and get you set up in—"
"Nahlia Cole?" a voice hollered from across the courtyard. She turned to see a stocky Valaysian boy, no older than fourteen. He wore a leather satchel at his side and a blue knitted cap that covered his ears.
Nahlia shot Elias a glance before answering, "Yes?"
"The White Council wants to see you immediately," he said. "They sent me here to show you the way."
"Hold on," Elias threw up a hand. "What's this about, Seleon?"
The boy shrugged a shoulder. "Don't ask me. All I know is they're in session right now, and they wanna see her soon as she arrives."
"Damnit," Elias cursed under his breath.
"What?" Nahlia looked back and forth between them.
"Can't say for sure, but it might be your entry examinations."
He nodded. "It's how they determine who gets into the academy."
Nahlia's lips went dry as a cold sweat crept over her. She assumed she'd already been admitted to the academy. Elias didn't seem too concerned. But then, he also had no idea what was at stake for her.
"I'm sorry," he said after a short pause. "I should have told you sooner, but I figured they'd give you time to get ready. Most recruits get weeks to study in Dresten..."
Oops. That might be on her for rushing things. But to test her on her first day here, when she was overwhelmed and exhausted? It was like they wanted her to fail.
The other boy—Seleon—stood there in the snow, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other.
"Fine," Elias said. "Go with him. I'll catch up with you later."
Guess I don't have much of a choice. Nahlia gave a weary nod and followed the boy toward the Masters' tower.