Thane had never experienced winter before. Snow didn't fall in the kingdom of Dragonshard, and the skies were never so dark or gray.
Aegon, but he felt it now. He felt its approach in the chill wind that cut through his cloak. He saw it in the trees as they shed their leaves and left shriveled skeletons behind.
Why in Revera would the Templars choose now to invade? History was filled with winter conquests, and it never ended well for the invaders. Every good general knew this, and the Knight Commander was no fool. Someone was pulling his strings, pressuring the Order to attack sooner. But who, and why?
He sat cross-legged on his bed, listening to the clatter of rain against his window. He had hoped the sound of it would help him meditate, but he found no peace in this Aegon-forsaken castle.
Footsteps sounded in the doorway, and he opened his eyes to see the false-Ashara standing there. Dark hair fell in tumbles around her shoulders, and her skin glowed like amber in the firelight.
"Sorry," she said. "Am I interrupting?"
Thane shook his head, and she shuffled across the room, settling down on his bed near the hearth. She wore a form-fitting maroon dress beneath her woolen shawl. Had Kyroth's servants given her that?
"Ashara," he began. "I—"
She gave an audible huff. "Do you really need to call me that?"
Thane frowned. "Haven't I called you that for the past six months?"
"Exactly." She wrinkled her nose. "They say there's no sweeter sound than a person's own name, and I haven't heard mine in half a year."
Thane glanced around the bedchamber. As usual, they were alone but for the guards stationed outside the sitting room. Thick stoned lined the walls, and he'd already surveyed both rooms for secret holes, moving every carpet, picture frame, and tapestry.
Despite this, Mason's spies could still be listening right now. Surely she knew the risks. She simply didn't care.
"I'm all in favor of lying to the Templars," she continued. "But it's been so long. It's like we're lying to ourselves now too."
"Very well." Thane lowered himself on the bed beside her. He took a good long breath and whispered, "Kira Sandara of the Ember Isles."
Kira gave a true smile that reached her eyes. It was gone in a heartbeat, replaced with a look of practiced amusement "Why, thank you, Thane Solidor of Dragonshard." She collapsed on his bed and stretched out like a cat.
"By all means," Thane said flatly, "make yourself comfortable."
"I'll try," she replied. "But the beds in this place are truly terrible. I almost prefer that caged wagon outside."
Thane groaned. She always did this—she always tried to make meaningless small talk. He knew she was lonely here, but Aegon ... he didn't have time for her games. Four days had passed since he last spoke with Nahlia. It was only a matter of time before Mason demanded a report.
"I have to say though," Kira continued. "Your bed is a lot more comfortable than mine. What are the chances we could trade?"
Thane rose to his feet. "It's all yours."
Her eyes shot open as she sat up. "I'm sorry." Her smile was gone now, and her blue eyes were wide and serious in the firelight. "Something's bothering you, isn't it?"
"No." Thane knelt beside the hearth. "Aside from the fact that I'm a war hostage, forced to betray my race."
He seized a small log and threw it on the falling flame. That didn't help it grow, so he pulled a burst of power from his Etherite pendant, letting the warmth fill his soul.
"Saul Mason wants information on Whitecliff so he can invade it. My father wants me to get inside the enclave and retrieve the Codex. His advisor wants me to keep her daughter alive, and my conscience wants me to accomplish all of this without killing everyone."
Unfortunately, members of Clan Solidor were much better at destroying.
Thane stretched his hand over the logs and released the burst of fire from his soul. Flames shot out from his fingertips, rekindling the fire. "To make matters worse, I can't even meditate into the Ethereal to speak with Nahlia, much less get information from her."
Kira bit her lip and nodded. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tried to cheer you up."
Thane let out a sharp breath, raking his fingers through his hair. In many ways, her situation was even worse than his own. She was trapped in this castle with no goal to work toward. She'd already succeeded in impersonating Thane's sister, and the Templars had long ago dismissed her as a threat. Which she wasn't. While the real Ashara was an Ethermancer like Thane, Kira had very little combat experience.
All she could do now was wait and sacrifice herself for the mission. Could he really blame her for trying to make the best of her situation?
A short silence followed, punctuated only by the drumming of rain against the window. For a moment, Thane expected Kira to get up and leave. Instead, she met his eyes and asked, "What can I do to help?"
"Nothing," Thane said with a shake of his head. "It's this place. It's impossible to focus here."
"This is probably a stupid question but ... you can't just fall asleep and enter the Ethereal that way?"
"No," he said. "Regular dreaming is too unpredictable. I might end up in the Ethereal, but the dream won't be lucid. I'll be wandering around, reliving memories, and imaginary scenarios. It has to be through meditation."
There were other methods, of course. You could smoke fadeflower to relax, and that made meditation easier. Some Ethermancers even went into battle that way. But Thane's family had cautioned him against this method.
Solidors don't lean on crutches, his father had told him. And we crush anyone who does.
"Well ... when did you meditate last?" Kira asked.
"Northshire. Over a week ago. It was easier there for some reason. It felt..."
"More like home?" she offered.
Thane nodded, falling back on the bed beside her.
Kira scooted closer, and he caught faint hints of lavender in her hair.
"What do you miss most about Dragonshard?" she asked.
"I..." What did he miss about home? Many of his recent memories were less than fond. The Templars sieging the city walls. Endless negotiations and treaties and war council meetings. Pressure from his father to succeed in this mission.
For all that, there were several memories that stood above the rest. Times when he felt truly at peace.
"I miss the ocean," Thane finally said. "Sitting down by the beach outside the palace. The feeling of the breeze on a hot day. Listening to the waves. I could always meditate there, no matter how bad things were."
There was a short pause before Kira replied, "I miss fruit."
"You know ... pears, oranges, peaches. They don't have sort of thing hee. And if they do, no one's shared any of it with me."
Thane smiled in agreement. He'd passed several fruit merchants here in Dresten, but it was a rare luxury here. Not the sort of thing that made its way to Templar hostages.
"And wine," Kira said with a wistful smile. "Dragon's Blood, and Ember Isle Red. If you're having trouble relaxing, that might be just the thing for you."
"Relaxing is part of it," Thane said, "but it's not that simple. Meditation is about focus. It's about clearing your mind, and convincing yourself that you're somewhere else. That's the only way your thoughts can leave your physical body and enter the Ethereal."
Actually, entering the Ethereal was the easy part. He'd been doing that for decades. It was much more complicated to bring Nahlia there with him, especially when they didn't have a soulbond.
"I see." Kira's eyes went distant, as if deep in thought. "Well, what about music then? That helps people focus, doesn't it?"
"It might," Thane agreed. "but I haven't seen any bards or minstrels around here."
"And what if you found yourself trapped in a room with one, and she was just itching to make herself useful?"
He gave her a sideways look. "I'd say it's worth a try."
With that, she hopped off the bed and scurried toward her own bedchamber across the sitting room. She returned with a simple wooden harp, half as tall as she was.
Thane raised an eyebrow. "Where'd you get that?"
"A servant found it for me. They're not so bad you know—they don't hate us the way the Templars do." She sat in the leather armchair across from him, pulling the harp to close to her chest. She flexed and spread her calloused fingers to the strings.
"It's been months since I've practiced, so I don't know how good I'll be." She turned to look at him again, flexing her fingers nervously. "Are you ready?"
Thane nodded, and Kira rolled her fingers down the strings, plucking notes from high to low. Thane recognized the song at once. It had been a favorite among the courtiers back home. He settled farther back on the bed, feeling a bit of tension leave his body.
His eyelids grew heavier, and the strings blurred to lines of faint gold in the hearth light. The music was like waves in the sand, like palm trees thrashing in the wind. Memories of home flashed before him as vivid as the Ethereal itself.
Kira started to sing, sending goosebumps up his arms. Her voice was like honey on warm bread. Soft and sweet, but filled with raw strength and passion he hadn't expected.
His heartbeat slowed to the rhythm of the song, and his mind emptied of everything else. Every thought and sensation faded away like ripples on a pond. The damp air of the castle grew warm and pleasant, carrying faint hints of sand and salt. The rain ceased its clatter against the windows as rays of sunlight shone in. Finally, even the music faded as Thane slipped into the realm of dreams.