A gust of warm air grazed Nahlia's cheek, followed by a burst of golden sunlight. A dream?
Her boots scraped against the stone floor as she paced around the room, drinking in the sights. Gold twisting pillars, potted plants, bronze statues, and a massive four-poster bed.
What is this? A palace? It made the Raider's home feel modest by comparison.
The wind ruffled the curtains, exposing a wide balcony beyond. She stepped outside, and the sun's warmth felt as pleasant as the first day of summer. Blue water covered the horizon, far brighter than the sea in Dresten. Palm trees thrashed below, and the palace's bronze spires glowed like flakes of fire in the evening sun.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Thane's voice.
Nahlia turned to see him leaning over the ornate railing, his onyx hair and cloak billowing in the breeze.
"Is this a real place?" she asked.
"It's my home," Thane replied. "My memories of it, at least." He pushed away from the rail and strolled closer. "How have you been?"
"Cold and sore," she said with a casual shrug.
"I trust you've made it to the enclave then?"
She nodded. "I got here on Paladal evening."
Thane braced his chin, scratching the dark stubble there. "Traveling by ship... that puts you at least fifty miles north of Dresten."
Well, he obviously knows more about sea travel than I do.
"I know they blindfolded you," he continued, "but were you able to catch anything useful during the trip? Scents? Sounds?"
"Not so fast." Nahlia folded her arms and drew her lips to a line. "You promised me answers once we were alone."
Thane gave her a flat look "You really don't trust me, do you?"
She thought back to the story of Palatine, the Aeon who could force his victims into the Ethereal and trap them there. That was over a hundred years ago, and it was probably just a legend. Even so, Thane could still be associated with that clan. The fact remained that she knew next to nothing about him.
Her eyes wandered down to his chest and the tattoo that sparked like black quartz. A dragon, not so different from the crimson sword worn by the Raiders. She'd have to remember that when she woke.
"We've only spoken twice," Nahlia finally said. "It takes longer than that to build trust."
"Fine then." Thane opened both palms in a conciliatory gesture. "What do you want to know?"
"You said you're working with the Templars. How did this happen?"
As if expecting the question, he leaned over the railing and gestured west. "See that?"
"What?" Nahlia had to squint to see past the orange intensity of the sun. Ships dotted the waves on the horizon, an unbroken line across the bay. "It's a... blockade?"
He nodded as he led her farther down the balcony. The walkway twisted around a natural stone spire which seemed to make up the palace.
Nahlia looked up, and her head spun at the sheer size of it. It was taller than an ancient tree. Taller than a mountain even.
"This city has never been conquered," Thane told her. "My family spent the past twenty years fighting the Templars on our northern borders. The more we resisted, the more support they gained from the Republic. Before long, we were one of the only clans to stay in power after the Purge."
They reached the front of the spire which overlooked a skyline of buildings. Geometric and sand-colored, they had domed rooftops of bronze and limestone. It was darker here, with the city lying in the shadow of the palace. Smoke curled up in the twilight sky, and Nahlia followed the trails down to the horizon where an army sat at the jungle's edge. Thousands of men and tents and campfires.
"A year ago, we ... lost more battles than we won." Thane dropped his eyes as if he were somehow to blame. "Even our Ethermancy was no match for the Templar's black powder weapons. That's when they pushed us back to the city and surrounded us here."
A city never conquered against the force of an entire realm. Nahlia had read of such sieges before. They lasted for years, sometimes even decades. Neither side would enjoy such a thing, but peace wasn't an option either. Not after what the Templars did during the Purge.
"So your family parleyed with them..." Nahlia said, still trying to absorb everything. "And they gave you up as a hostage. You, and one other person."
Thane raised an eyebrow at that.
"I saw her in Dresten the night I arrived."
"You're right," he said after a short pause. "It was the only way they could end the siege without risking a counter-attack from my father."
Nahlia chewed on that for a moment. "Except... you didn't look like a prisoner the last time we spoke."
"That's why the Templars demanded two hostages. They think they can control me so long as they have her locked away."
"Who is she?"
Thane held up a hand. "I've answered enough questions in good faith. Now it's your turn. You've given me nothing so far, despite our agreement."
He was right, of course. She'd been lucky to get as much out of him as she did.
Nahlia followed Thane back inside where she filled him in on the past few days. She described her arrival in the enclave, her interrogation by the White Council, and the various structures and systems that made up the academy. She told him of the people she'd met there—the masters, the instructors, and the members of Wolfe Clan.
Thane took notes on a pad of paper as they spoke. He obviously couldn't bring that back to the physical world, but he claimed it made the memories stronger.
They were back in the bedchamber now, sitting in opposite armchairs near the balcony. The sun still hung low in the sky, despite the passage of time.
"Can you estimate the enclave's population?" Thane asked, still scribbling on his paper.
"Hundreds," Nahlia said. "Over two hundred students in the academy alone, and just as many in the surrounding village. Other than that, I didn't ask them specifics."
"Of course." He waved a dismissive hand. "Questions like that could raise suspicion. You've done well so far though."
Nahlia leaned forward in her chair, setting her wineglass on the table between them. "Can I ask how you plan to free my father now? I mean—how are you in a position to do anything as a prisoner?"
Thane set his pad aside and settled back. "Saul Mason lets me move about freely so long as he believes I'm helping him. It's the same reason he's keeping your father alive."
"So you're sharing this information with him?"
Thane nodded. "Some of it, but only enough to keep him appeased. The Templars are still my enemies."
"I believe you," she said. "But the Raider spies claimed there were three thousand more of them bound for Dresten."
"I have a plan to deal with those too."
"So confident," Nahlia noted. "You really think you can stop an army on your own?"
Thane chuckled and pushed a hand through his black hair "You know it's funny; your father said the same thing."
"You talked to him?" Nahlia leaned forward even more.
Thane nodded, taking a long sip of wine.
"What else did he say?"
A short pause. "Honestly? He wants you to leave him behind. To get far away from the Templars; out of Revera if you can."
"That sounds like him," she said with a wistful smile. "How did he look?"
"He's looked better, but he's still strong."
She grabbed the edges of her chair, taking in a sharp breath. "That's good. I'm sure he's been through worse than this."
Thane set his glass on the nearby table and stood. "You have the whole story now. It's time to decide: are we still in this together?"
Her thoughts drifted back to the enclave and all the innocents who lived there. Not just a group of soldiers as she'd first imagined, but scholars, craftsmen, families, and children. She shuddered to imagine someone invading this place. But if the Templars found it based on what she'd given Thane, she would be responsible.
Was it worth risking their lives to save her father? The question made her conscious itch. But then ...he had always been there for her, all her life. What if their places were reversed now? Wouldn't he do everything in his power to free her? Isn't that what family was supposed to do?
Nahlia stood to meet his eyes, pushing away the last shreds of doubt. "Just tell me what I need to do next."
His lips curled into the barest hint of a smile. "The next step will be narrowing down the enclave's location. You mentioned that the Raider twins are trusted with that?"
"That's right, but they're an exception."
He nodded. "And you're in Elias Raider's battleclan now. You should take this opportunity to get closer to him."
"Get closer?" she echoed. "You think he hands out maps to his friends?"
"Of course not, but it's a start. Spend time with him, use your feminine wiles if you need to. Whatever it takes."
Wonderful. She had more experience with combat than she did with this. A few boys in Northshire had sought her affection, but she had always turned them down. Now she was supposed to attract Elias Raider, the highborn son of an Aeon lord? Her stomach filled with doves at the thought of it, and she turned away to mask her unease.
"Maybe I'm wrong," Thane said. "It could be a terrible idea. I just think you should take advantage of—"
"No," she interjected. "No, you're right. It's the best chance we have."
"Good. I'll share what you've found with the Knight Commander. This should keep him happy for a while longer. Just be patient for now and take your time. This will all be over soon."
Thane dematerialized then, leaving her alone on the balcony, staring out into the vast dreamscape.