The mess hall was a wide building filled with people, conversation, and the smell of food. It reminded Nahlia of the Moonstone's common room. But while her father's inn held only seventy patrons at the most, this place could easily sit hundreds.
"They shot you a week ago?" Relyn exclaimed in response to Nahlia's story. "You should have told the masters. You could have escaped training today."
"I wish," Nahlia said, shuffling along in the line of students. "But they took my stitches out yesterday afternoon. I didn't have much of an excuse after that."
"Do you always heal from injuries so fast?' Relyn asked as she began piling bacon on her wooden plate.
Nahlia shrugged. "I guess it's not something I've tested."
"You will." Her lips pulled back in a knowing grin. "Just wait for your first combat lesson."
"That bad, huh?"
"Most people leave with a few cuts and bruises," she said absently as they wove their way through the crowd. "But we don't use guns here. That should be an improvement for you."
"Well, thank Aegon for that," Nahlia muttered.
The long plank tables were nearly full, but the other girl steered her toward a pair of empty seats near the hearth. Two others glanced up as they approached.
Relyn gestured across the table. "Nahlia, meet Elias and Yimo. They're both in my battleclan."
Elias smiled and raised his mug to her. "We've already met."
Yimo stood and shook her hand. He was a crelan—several feet shorter than her—with less prominent features than the others she'd seen in the Mistwood. His skin was pale with no hint of green, and his eyes were blue and bright like an Aeon's.
Nahlia pulled off her gloves and scooted closer to the hearth. The fire's warmth felt like Eternity after spending all morning outside.
Elias set his fork down on an already-clean plate. "So, Warrior's Calling, huh? I underestimated you."
Nahlia smiled, still rubbing her hands together. "Well, I figured I already knew how to read books."
"Oh, don't worry. " Yimo gestured with his fork. "They'll still shove a thousand books down your throat here. Only difference between us and the scholars is that we get to run in the snow first."
"Not entirely true," Elias said. "Some days it rains instead."
Relyn turned to face her. "What other classes do you have today?"
Nahlia frowned, trying to remember the list. "Reverian History with Zidane... Geometry with Demeron, and then Battle Tactics with Vash. I think."
"Ah, Zidane." Elias groaned. "I've got him this term too. I swear, that man thinks we're capable of inhaling two books a day with time to spare."
Yimo complained about another teacher, and Nahlia listened with half an ear as the three of them tossed around a storm of strange names and subjects.
She took a bite of the potatoes and they tasted of home. Thin-cut and savory, just as her father always made them. He'd cooked her breakfast almost every day, whether they were on the road or in the safety of the Moonstone. One whiff was enough to send her back to those days, to people and places she may never see again.
Nahlia pushed the memories away, fond as they were. The last thing she wanted was to end up bleary-eyed here at the breakfast table. Focus on the mission, she told herself. That's the only way to get him back.
"So, what's all this about battleclans?" She noted their slate-gray parkas. "Does it have something to do with your matching outfits?"
"No," Yimo said at once. "The outfits are a coincidence. We all just have excellent taste in fashion."
"And by excellent," Elias said, "he means they copy whatever I wear."
Relyn rolled her eyes. "You can ignore them."
"Sorry." Elias cleared his throat and straightened. "You're right. Battleclans are groups of ten to twelve. We live together and train together every day, and then we compete in the Gorge against the other clans."
"And not to brag," Yimo added. "But Wolfe Clan is ranked number one."
Nahlia nodded. "How does someone join a battleclan then?"
"I might be able to help you with that." Relyn cocked her head to one side, a tiny smile curling at one edge of her mouth."
"What? Yours? But you just said you were the top-ranked."
"New girl has a point." Yimo made a vague gesture with his mug.
"And not that I'm against the idea," Elias added. "But we already have ten members."
"So?" Relyn furrowed her thin eyebrows. "There are plenty of other clans with backups."
"I still don't think Vash will go for it."
"Don't worry about it then." Nahlia glanced back to her plate, stabbing her eggs with her fork. "I wouldn't want to cause any—"
"No trouble at all," Relyn interjected. "There are perks of being the Battlemaster's niece. I'll talk to my uncle today and put in a good word for you."
Nahlia looked up again. "You'd do that?"
Relyn shrugged. "I came here from Valaysia when I was sixteen. I know what it's like to be the new person. Meet me outside the barracks at fifth bell. We can talk more then."
Nahlia nodded. While she wasn't eager to spend more time in the Gorge, she couldn't ignore this opportunity. The students were younger in the main barracks, and she doubted she could get any useful information out of them.
Wolfe Clan on the other hand... this was something she could work with.
After breakfast, she followed Elias across the courtyard to her history class with Master Chronicler. Like Relyn and her uncle, Zidane came from the far east. His accent was thick, but his Reverian was as flawless as anyone from this side of the Sunrise Sea.
The classroom resembled a small theater. Seats rose in tiered semicircles around a raised stage while daylight streamed in through tall, stained-glass windows. The dark-haired Chronicler stood at the far end of the room. His voice echoed throughout the high ceilings as he lectured them on the Imperium's political situation in the years before the rebellion.
"...which brings us to more recent events," he said after a short pause. " The infamous Purge of our race. This topic needs no introduction, and I'd dare say there isn't a single person in this room who hasn't been affected by it. We've all lost family, friends, and homes."
The Chronicler leaned back on his desk, stroking his neatly-trimmed beard. "So let me pose this question to you all: what caused the Purge in the first place?"
The room fell still without so much as a quiet murmur. Nahlia mustered a few educated guesses but kept them to herself.
"Don't read too much into it," Zidane said, raising a thin finger. "I'm not asking for every factor that led to the fall of the Imperium. We'd be here all day if that were the case. I only want to know why the humans rebelled when they did. What was the grain that broke the mammoth's back?"
Nahlia took one final look around, then raised her hand.
"Ah, our newest student," Zidane gestured up at her as if introducing a queen. "Nahlia Cole, was it?"
"Yes, sir." She nodded and cleared her throat. Her hands trembled as twenty other students settled their eyes on her. "I believe they felt mistreated under the Imperium's rule. They thought Emperor Reverius and the other great clans were abusing their power, and—."
"Yes, of course," Zidane began pacing again. "But be specific. The humans felt that way for centuries, yet it was only twenty years ago that they rebelled. Why then?"
Her thoughts scattered. So many factors to consider. There were the increased taxation and food shortages following the third Venetoran War. The humans had no representation in the government, despite their protests, and the poorest of them still lived in indentured servitude, no more than slaves to their Aeon lords.
But those weren't the answers Zidane asked for. All accounts she'd read pointed to one specific event. While Elveron claimed Ethermancy was a myth, this was the only thing that made sense.
She cleared her throat again. "I heard that a masked Aeon—a commander in the imperial army—attacked the human town of Stormharbor just before the rebellion began. He meant to assassinate the Templar's leader, Nathaniel Mason, but the other Templars and townspeople stood in his way. So the masked Aeon called down fire from the sky, burning the city and everyone in it."
By now, her classmates were shooting her strange looks and whispering amongst themselves. Nahlia hurried to a more sensible part of the story: "When the other Templars found out what happened, the rumors spread through the Imperium, and they used it to rally support for their cause."
More faint chuckles.
"Enough of that." Zidane pointed two sharp fingers toward the perpetrators. "What Nahlia's told us is, in fact, an accurate representation of what most humans believe. It's a textbook example of history written by the victors. Is it true?" He shrugged. "Most likely not. It is, however, a convenient way for the humans to blame us for their rebellion."
"If everyone in the town was burned," a boy with an obnoxious accent said, "there would be no witnesses."
"Correct," Zidane said. "This is a common theme with these accusations. A city burns down, and the humans claim it was the work of a 'mysterious and powerful Aeon.' No witnesses, and no real suspects." He spread his hands out in a wide gesture. "How can an entire race defend themselves against such allegations?"
Nahlia sank deeper into her chair, hooking her feet around its wooden legs.
"But that's not to say Nathanial Mason's death was inconsequential." He pointed to Nahlia again. "You were on right on that account. "Mason was assassinated after he spent his life trying to empower humanity. He applied over a dozen times for representation on the Small Council, and they refused him. He tried to grow the Templar Order, and they halted his progress at every turn. Restricting their numbers, their weapons, and their training opportunities.
"And this is where the revolution truly began. One man's pride and lust for power, with the anger of an entire race behind him. Over the next five years, the Templar Order evolved from a group of scholars, advocates, and scientists to a formidable military force. And as Mason's influence grew, he began spreading lies about our race. Lies so terrible, he amassed followers by the thousands."
"What lies?" Nahlia pressed.
"Ethermancy, as you said. It's only a word, but words have power. Aegonism teaches that our right to rule is divine, but the old stories also speak of ancient abilities, and the Templars used such stories for their cause. Mason convinced his followers that one Aeon could bring down an entire army. Those words had the power to start a war, overthrow an empire, and eventually cause a genocide."
Nahlia grimaced. "But if Ethermancy isn't real, what was the Templar's motivation for hunting us down? Why not stop once they seized control of the capital?"
"An excellent question," Zidane said. "One which I pose back to the class."
Elias Raider stood, tall and dignified as ever. "When one noble family stages a coup, the heirs of the old rulers are hunted down and executed. Tradition runs strong, and they know that even innocent children could grow up to become threats one day." He looked around the room meaningfully. "We're the heirs of Revera, and the Templars knew that."
"Exactly," Zidane said with a snap of his fingers. "Taking the Imperium wasn't enough for them, not when Aeon-ruled cities such as Raidenwood and Vauldenport still stood. They needed to convince the people that every Aeon was a threat. That if we weren't exterminated, we would use our power to seize control again."
So that's it? Nahlia thought. An entire rebellion and genocide... built upon lies and propaganda? She respected Zidane, but his arguments made little sense. Thousands of Templars wouldn't fight for a cause based on one man's word. Her father wouldn't have joined that group without a reason. A real reason.
She looked around the room to see a general nodding of heads. They were so convinced that the Templars were the ones altering history and spreading lies, but couldn't the humans say the same about them? She had planned on remaining quiet for the rest of this class, but this was too important to ignore. Thane possessed a power that other Aeons lacked. A power that Relyn Vash had referenced in legend and Casella Raider had deemed impossible. That alone was evidence that these Aeons were prone to mistakes.
She raised her hand again, and Zidane gestured up at her.
"You mention history being written by the victor," Nahlia said. "So you're saying that the history depends on the historian?"
"Correct," Zidane said.
A broad-shouldered boy yawned with theatrical exaggeration, eliciting a chorus of laughter from those nearby. Nahlia rolled her eyes and did her best to ignore them.
"Then how do we know our version is the truth?" she asked. "You say that Aeons didn't burn Stormharbor, but the Templars also deny killing innocents during the rebellion."
Zidane showed a thin sliver of a smile. "When it comes to history, we can say nothing with absolute certainty. This holds equally true with recent events and ancient ones. All historians have their own biases, and just as old books and tomes can mislead us, so can eyewitnesses. Even our own memories can deceive us more than we might expect."
"So it is possible," Nahlia said, "that some Aeons had powers that science can't explain?"
"Possible, yes. It's also possible that our world is flat. I wouldn't dwell on either theory without further evidence. Or without good reason."
"What if the half-blood does have a reason?" This time, it was Ciena Raider who stood. She looked just like her brother, with the same strong jawline and high cheekbones. Her hair was pulled back in the same contrasting braids as before, one gold, the other crimson.
"What if she's trying to justify the Templar's actions during the Purge?"
"Of course not!" Nahlia shot back. "There's no excuse for what the Templars did to us. But Master Zidane just said that all historians have biases. If that's true, shouldn't we acknowledge our own?"
Ciena seemed to stifle a laugh. "Wait—so you're saying Aeons can conjure fire from thin air, but we're keeping it a secret. Not just from the humans, but from each other. All because we're... biased?"
"I don't know," Nahlia admitted. "But I've seen evidence for both sides. Even my—" she cut herself off, remembering who she was talking to.
"Oh, right," Ciena said with lazy sarcasm. "Your father. What was his name again?"
"Aaron Cole." Nahlia bit her lip and looked away. Anything was better than staring into those venomous golden eyes.
"Aaron Cole... Well, if that isn't the most human name I've ever heard." She crossed her arms. "I'm sure your Templar father had no ulterior motive whatsoever when he told you those bedtime stories about magical Aeons."
"You don't know what you're talking about," Nahlia snapped.
"Neither do you," Ciena sneered. "But my brother and I were there when the Templars sacked Raidenwood, when they convinced my father's own men to turn on us. Trust me, if my family had any 'magical powers,' we would have used them that day. We would have burned every last human to a pile of ash."
Nahlia flinched, and her eyes darted back to Zidane. He remained seated on his wooden desk, seemingly content to let them argue. Unfortunately, she didn't have a viable retort. Her only real Evidence was Thane.
"I'm sorry," Nahlia murmured. "I shouldn't have brought it up."
Ciena just rolled her eyes, although the tension in the room seemed to evaporate when she sat down again.
"There's nothing wrong with asking questions," Zidane's voice broke the silence. "However, Ciena's right. Some questions are more dangerous than others, and can serve no other purpose than to fuel the fires our enemies started. In the end, it was the words of one man that brought down the Imperium. And if we allow his lies to live on, then so will this new world the Templars are building."
Nahlia slouched deeper into her seat. This wasn't an argument she could win, not without more evidence. Even so... how could Zidane devote his life to scholarship and not wonder about the legends that surrounded their race?
Either he was right about Ethermancy, or the masters of this academy were hiding something.