Nahlia opened her eyes to icy darkness. Thane's face sat fresh in her mind, along with the ornate palace and the shining sea. She could still feel the salt breeze on her face, and the scents of sand and palm trees filling her nostrils.
All of that faded as she ripped herself from her bed, huddled in a cloak of blankets. Her room on Wolfe Clan's plateau was pitch black but for a few glowing embers in the hearth. The stone floor burned like a cold fire, and her teeth chattered as she fumbled for the oil lamp, knocking over several trinkets and books in the process.
The flame burst to life a moment later, bathing the walls and furniture with orange light. Relyn Vash snored in the top bunk, her hands folded beneath her cheek. Even if she risked waking the other girl, this was too important to wait. Memories from the Ethereal weren't like those perceived by the physical senses. They were fragile things, fading like smoke in the wind.
She sank into the desk chair and set pencil to paper, outlining the black, serpent-like body of Thane's tattoo. It formed the shape of an "S", encased within a perfect circle.
I could've just asked Thane for his clan name, Nahlia thought as she drew. Of course, Thane only shared what he wanted her to know, and even then he was reluctant. She would never gain an advantage that way.
Relyn sat up on the bed behind her, making a sound that was half-yawn, half-complaint.
"Sorry," Nahlia said. "I didn't mean to wake you." She glanced at the mechanical clock above the desk. Half-past five. The horn for the Gorge would sound soon.
"It's fine." Relyn climbed down and shuffled over, squinting her eyes in the lamplight. "What are you doing?"
Nahlia didn't reply. She flipped over the paper and began a second sketch. Maybe this time, it wouldn't look like something a six-year-old drew.
"A dragon?" Relyn sounded more disappointed than surprised. "You woke up early to draw... a dragon?"
"I..." Nahlia fumbled for an answer, then shrugged. "I saw it in a dream."
"So... you draw your dreams first thing in the morning?" She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "You know, that's a thing you warn your roommate about in advise."
"In advance," Nahlia corrected absently. She crumbled up her second attempt and began a third. There were hundreds of Aeon clans in Revere; Aegon only knew many had similar sigils.
"Well, where did you see it?" Relyn asked from over her shoulder. "In the dream, I mean."
"It was a tattoo."
"Well then." She perked up. "Why don't I ever have dreams like that?"
Nahlia felt her face go hot. "It's not what you think."
Her grin widened. "Was it a boy?"
"No!" she said at once. "I mean, maybe—but that's not the point." Eager to change the subject, she turned the paper for her roommate to see. "Here, do you recognize it?"
"Hmmm..." Relyn leaned over the oaken table, sweeping several strands of black hair from her face. "It could be a clan sigil."
"I thought the same thing. Any idea which one?"
She shrugged. "I'm the wrong person to ask that. I know the Valaysian clans more than the Revecan ones."
Nahlia nodded and continued adding details to the drawing. Relyn continued to hover.
"Have you seen the sigil in real life before?" the other girl asked.
"No," she murmured. "Not that I recall."
"And the person in your dream ... was he real?"
Nahlia stopped drawing. What sort of a question was that? Why was Relyn so interested anyway?"
The horn sounded outside before she could reply.
They stood and changed into their Wolfe Clan battledress: slate gray parkas, fur-lined trousers, and gloves and boots of supple leather. Even after three days in Whitecliff, Nahlia hadn't gotten used to changing or bathing in front of others. While she was slender and slightly curved, the girls form the battle clans were all hard lines and muscle. Even Relyn Vash—who was barely over five feet tall—still looked stronger than half the boys back in Northshire.
They slid open the timber door and stepped into the chill morning air. Sunrise hadn't yet graced the jagged mountains, and only a handful of lanterns lit the plateau. Ice cracked beneath her feet, and the wind seemed to find every gap in her garments.
Elias Raider paced down the line, pointing out errors in the others' uniforms. One boy's belt was too loose, another forgot to tuck a trouser leg into his boot. Nahlia did a double-take of her own battledress, ensuring she hadn't made similar—
"Nahlia," his voice cut over the morning wind. "Tighten your scarf."
She did so, raising the woolen material over her nose and pulling the ends taut.
"Alright." Elias jogged back to the head of the column. "Let's move."
They jogged through the tunnels and into the Gorge where they met the other five battle clans for their morning warm-ups.
The obstacle course was even more gruesome than the day before, taking them down a separate part of the canyon. They hung from a heavy net now, climbing over a ravine. The river surged below, dark blue beneath the dark sky.
Nahlia's muscles groaned in protest at being worked again so soon, but she tried not to dwell on her fatigue.
One hand in front of the other...
Her legs were like icicles when finally she hit solid ground, and she couldn't feel her feet despite the fleece-lined boots.
The rest of the course was more of the same: vaulting over logs, climbing ropes, and crawling and weaving through narrow spaces. Once again, Nahlia was the last to finish of all sixty students. Most of Wolfe Clan had already gone to breakfast by now. All but Relyn Vash who waited for her at the finish.
"You're learning quickly," she said, handing Nahlia a canteen. "That was even better than yesterday."
Ciena Raider gave a slow clap as she sauntered over, a look of feline delight on her face. "Yes, well done. Truly. Never thought I'd see the day where we praised a member of Wolfe Clan just for finishing."
Nahlia ignored her as she caught her breath. Her throat was so dry and cold now, she couldn't retort even if she wanted to.
Unfortunately, Relyn rose to the bait. "It's her second day, Ciena. Give her a break."
"I remember my second day," Ciena said with an air of nostalgia. "I was ten years old, and I could still run circles around this half-blood. But you're right, it's hardly a fair comparison."
Relyn rolled her eyes. "I know you're angry about being transferred, but this isn't her fault. My uncle is the one who transferred you, remember?"
"Oh right, your uncle. The Battlemaster. The one who gives his beloved niece whatever her heart desires."
"Are you crazy?" she snapped. "You think I wanted this?"
A crowd gathered around as their voices rose. At least a dozen students from other battleclans, all hovering like vultures in the confines of the canyon.
"I'm not an idiot," Ciena said. "I saw you two conspiring yesterday."
"That's because I was recruiting her! Not trying to get rid of you."
Ciena raised a thin eyebrow. "You were recruiting a half-blood with no combat experience who's been in the enclave for all of two days? How did you ever cut through the line?"
"Not everything is about combat," she muttered.
"No," Ciena said flatly. "It's not. More likely, you wanted me gone so you could whore yourself out to my brother."
"That's not true!"
"Oh no?" Ciena's tone held all the dangerous sweetness of a fadeflower. "Isn't that what you said about Kalak Demeron last term? And Tristas Vaulder? Honestly, the walls on our plateau may be solid stone, but they aren't nearly thick enough to—"
"Leave her alone," Nahlia broke in. She had planned on ignoring Ciena's taunting, but this was too much. Besides, Relyn Vash was her only friend in Whitecliff. "She's telling the truth. Recruiting me had nothing to do with you."
"Is that what she told you? In that the case, you half-bloods are even slower than I thought."
"And stop calling me that," Nahlia said. "The Archarons all bred with humans. There's no such thing as a 'pure-blooded' Aeon."
"True," Ciena replied. "But some of us are the daughters of highborn lords and ladies. You're not. We already know your father was a Templar. Aegon only knows what sort of clanless whore would find her way into his bed."
Nahlia gritted her teeth. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
Ciena made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a snort. "Don't I? Enlighten us then: what was your mother's name?"
Nahlia opened her mouth, then closed it. She knew the answer, but did Ciena? Her father had told her little of their history, and her own memories were faint. This could easily be a trick.
A short silence followed, then a look of triumph flashed in Ciena's golden eyes. "Sorry, should I rephrase the question?"
"Please do," Nahlia said. "I don't speak fluent barbarian."
"Of course you don't," Ciena retorted. "I'd be surprised if a half-blood raised in a backwater village was to achieve fluency in any language."
"Were," Nahlia corrected.
"Were to achieve fluency in any language. I was ten years old when I learned the subjunctive mood. But I suppose it's hardly a fair comparison."
Ciena's face darkened, and she hefted her wooden quarterstaff from a snowbank, swirling it in a series of quick and intricate movements. "You can tell yourself that when you're nursing your wounds tonight."
Nahlia crossed her arms, hoping no one saw her shaking hands.
"Our ancestors considered battle to be the purest form of expression," Ciena said as the weapon whistled and cut through the air. "Pick up a sword, half-blood. We'll find out what you're made of."
Relyn sighed. "For Aegon's sake, Ciena. You know she's never held a sword."
"No clan name, no combat experience, and no use to anyone." Ciena looked at her with all the menace of a poised cobra. "Yet someone saw fit to place you in the top battleclan. Why?"
"Enough!" Master Vash roared from atop the stone staircase. He sounded more annoyed than angry. "The next person who opens their mouth can spend the rest of the morning cleaning the armory."
The crowd scattered then. All but Ciena, who smiled the second Vash turned his back. She stepped closer to Nahlia and whispered, "We'll meet in the battlegrounds, half-blood. You can try to run from me then." She gave her a long look from head to toe, and her smile widened, "but I doubt you'll get very far..."