"So... when do I start my combat training?" Nahlia did her best to sound nonchalant as they trudged up the stairs through the melting snow. She clutched one hand around the stone rail, not trusting her balance.
"Second bell," Relyn replied. "But listen to me—Ciena Raider isn't someone you want to get on the bad side of."
"Sounds like I was born on her bad side," Nahlia murmured. "And I was dealing with the Templars a week ago. I'm not afraid of some stuck-up elitist."
"I would still take the Templars over her," Relyn said, her eyes round and serious. "She's more than empty words. She's dangerous. I've never seen her lose a duel to anyone except for her brother and my uncle."
"Duly noted." Nahlia raised her hood as water droplets fell from the outstretched rooftops. "But what if I don't have a choice but to fight her?"
"That won't happen," the other girl said with a shake of her head. "Students aren't allowed to fight without first agreeing to a duel. Duels can only happen in the dojos or clan plateaus, and you need at least three witnesses. The last time someone broke that rule, the masters suspended him for a month.
Well, that was something. Nahlia breathed easier once she realized she wasn't in any immediate danger. At least not until the battlegrounds, but even that was a spectator event.
"So..." Relyn prompted. "Promise me you won't go out of your way to fight her?"
"Of course I won't," Nahlia said. She may have been no match for Ciena now, but it was only a matter of time until she learned how to fight. She'd read a hundred stories of young Aeon farmers and orphans who became some of the most powerful warriors in history—defeating dragons and emperors and dark Aeons. If they could achieve so much, who's to say she couldn't become strong enough to defeat Ciena Raider?
Thankfully, her other classes proved to be far less eventful than her heated confrontation in the Gorge. Logic and Rhetoric with Mistress Academia was nothing new. Unlike History, this was a subject which humans and Aeons actually agreed on.
After lunch, she had Master Vash for The Study of Warcraft. Here, she learned more about the Templar Order, their training regimens, their weapons, and the tactics they used to hunt down Aeons. Apparently, the Seekers sent their agents to infiltrate the Templars and report back what they learned. Some dark-eyed Aeons joined as ordinary soldiers, while others entered the Order as children, training at the Sunfall Academy and becoming fully-fledged officers.
A girl at the front of the room raised her hand. "So if we send spies to the Templar Academy, who's to say they don't do the same to us?"
"Excellent question." The Battlemaster crossed his massive arms, stepping into a circle of sunlight that poured in through the tall windows. "As you know, we trace the bloodlines of every person in this enclave. This makes it nearly impossible for humans to impersonate us. With that in mind, how might the Templars send a spy here?"
A white-robed boy from the healing clans spoke up, "That's why the Templars take prisoners. They can use an Aeon's family members as hostages and get them to do their bidding."
Vash gave an approving nod, and Nahlia sank deeper into her chair. She could've sworn the Battlemaster shot her a gaze as if looking for a reaction.
You're being paranoid, she told herself. You never would've made it this far if they knew.
Vash's class ended at first bell, giving Nahlia at least an hour until her combat lesson. she took the opportunity to visit Master Zidane about the mysterious dragon sigil.
The masters' offices sat on the sixth floor of the main hall, directly below the council chamber. The Chronicler's door was already open, and she peeked inside to find him reading by the light of a dozen candles.
She knocked on the door's walnut frame and Zidane's eyes darted upward. "Ah, Nahlia Cole. The infamous troublemaker from my history lesson."
A blush rose to her cheeks as she recalled yesterday's argument. "I'm so sorry about that, Master. I never meant—"
"That was a joke." Zidane smiled and beckoned her in with a wave of his long fingers. "My apologies. I forget you Westerners aren't always big on humor."
She returned his smile and shuffled into the room. An intricate window dominated one of the circular walls, offering a view of the snow-covered mountains beyond. Packed bookshelves raced from corner-to-corner, and maps and charts filled the remaining space
"If anything," he said, "I should thank you. Yesterday's lesson was the most interesting we've had all term. You have no idea how hard it is to get your generation excited about history. And here you are, not only interested, but questioning it, starting heated debates with your peers."
"Well, the last part was unintentional." Nahlia let out a small laugh as she sat down at the desk opposite the Chronicler. "The last thing I want is to make enemies here."
"Mmm..." He traced his black-bearded chin. "But such conflicts are important. They're the first step in discerning the fact from the fiction—the history from the myth. There is great knowledge and wisdom in the past, some of which has yet to be uncovered. Yet the younger generation would rather beat each other with sticks. It baffles me. "
"I couldn't agree more." Nahlia used the opportunity to unbuckle her satchel, pulling out her sketch of Thane's dragon tattoo. "In fact, I found this image last night, in the library. I hoped you could tell me what it is?"
"Of course." His tan eyes flicked from the drawing, then back to her. "This is the sigil of Clan Solidor."
"Solidor..." How could she have missed this before? That palace in the south... everything Thane said about his family surviving the Purge. It was the same story Lady Raider told her on the way to Dresten.
Zidane turned to a nearby desk and removed a heavy, leather-bound volume. He cracked it open, and a storm of dust motes flew out, dancing and weaving in the afternoon light.
Nahlia spotted a map of northern Revera where the book had been. Something was circled in the mountains near the western shore.
The enclave's location. Exactly what Thane needs.
She averted her gaze as Zidane turned around, flipping through the pages. He made his way back to the desk and set the tome in front of her with a solid sound. The top of the page read, 'Solidor', and the black dragon bore an uncanny resemblance to Thane's tattoo.
Nahlia cradled her chin as she read the first column. It was a long list of the Solidor ancestry, tracing themselves back to Solizhan, one of the five sons of the Archaeon, Kalazhan. The list ended with the current ruler of Dragonshard, Lord Thanatos Solidor, who began calling himself king after the fall of the Imperium. His wife, Evelyn, had died in childbirth in 1134, just before the Purge.
Finally, the paragraph ended with Lord Solidor's two living children: Thane and Ashara.
So it's true. There was a breath of silence as she considered all the implications. The Solidors were an ambitious and powerful clan, even more than Thane had led her to believe. He claimed the Templars had brought him north as a hostage. But what if the opposite were true? What if Thane had brought the Templars here to achieve his own goals?
"It's funny," Zidane said, oblivious to her unease "Twenty years ago, any Revecan child would have recognized this sigil. Signs of heraldry used to be flaunted everywhere, from our banners and clothing to our weapons and armor. Of course, things are different now."
"Because of the Templars," Nahlia offered.
"Quite right. Yet the old traditions still live on. The boldest of our kind may tattoo or brand themselves permanently. It's a promise of sorts, a promise to never deny who they are, even in the face of death. Others, like you and me, are more cautious still."
Zidane held up a finger, revealing a band of pale gold and ebony with the face of a roaring tiger carved in its head.
"I keep my sigil close, just as you do." He gestured to her necklace.
Nahlia raised a hand to grasp the silver moon. A hundred questions were racing through her mind, from Thane's true intentions to the map sitting just a few feet away from her. A map that could free her father, but also bring about the destruction of this entire enclave.
But her next question had nothing to do with either of these. It was a question she'd wondered since this morning when Ciena Raider mocked her mother and her clan. No ... it was a question she'd wondered since she was a child, when she first heard the name 'Trelian'.
Her eyes fell the tome before her, then they met the Chronicler's eyes once again. She took a deep breath, "Is there a section in this book on my clan?"
"There is," Zidane said. "But it's just another ancestral chart, tracing your roots back to the Archaeon Treluwyn. Surely you know that much already."
"I do," Nahlia said. "But everything I know about my clan, I had to piece together on my own. My parents never told me anything."
"Yes, of course." He gave her an understanding nod. "Things were difficult for your parents after the war. Two turncloaks with a half-blood daughter. There was no place for them on either side. I suppose it made the most sense to put their old lives behind them."
"And they never meant for me to end up in a place like this," Nahlia added. "A place where family names mean everything."
"No," he agreed, "I don't believe they did. Even so, Clan Trelian is an old bloodline, and a name to be proud of. Your ancestors were the Headmasters of this academy for several generations. Your mother may very well have succeeded them if she hadn't run off to war and met your father."
Zidane leafed through the pages, ending on a section headed by a crescent moon. "According to legend, the Trelians founded an order of Aeons called the Redeemers. Unlike the Justicars, they advocated for peace instead of war. The moon symbolized a light in the darkness. A beacon to guide Aeons and humans alike."
Nahlia frowned. So while Thane and the Raiders were descended from legendary warriors, her ancestors were ... advocates of peace? Did they even fight at all?
Before she could ask, the bells rang across the courtyard. Nahlia moved to stand, reaching for hew drawing. "I should get going, I have another class today. But thank you so much, Master Zidane."
"Just a moment," Zidane placed two fingers on the paper, halting its movement. "Before you go, we should talk about where you really saw this sigil."
Her smile faded, and she felt the bottom drop from her stomach.
"You claim to have seen this in the library last night, but your name isn't in my ledger." He indicated another open book on his desk. "In fact, you've never visited the library. Not once."
"Oh—I, umm..." She scrambled for an excuse. At least a dozen came to mind, but each one sounded more desperate than the last. Having Zidane catch her in a second lie would only make things worse.
"Don't worry," he said. "I won't tell anyone. But you need to be more careful. If Vash or Elveron had seen this, they'd be conspiring to put you in a cell right now."
"I don't understand," Nahlia said. "It's just a drawing. Unless..." She paused, recalling her earlier interrogation in the council chambers. "Clan Solidor is an enemy of this enclave?"
He nodded. "We've always had... disagreements with the Solidors. Disagreements of what it means to be Aeon"
Ethermancy, she thought. Thane had mentioned the word so casually last night, while every Aeon in the north denied its existence.
"They've been interested in this enclave for years," he explained. "And the Raider spies have spotted Thane Solidor in Dresten."
Nahlia let out a breath. "And the other masters think I'm working with him."
"It's more than mere suspicion," Zidane said. "They know exactly what you're doing here. The only thing they're missing is evidence."
She felt a chill like ice water running through her veins. This was it, they'd caught her. All because of a stupid drawing.
Zidane took the sketch and held it over one of his many candles, letting the bottom catch fire.
Nahlia took a shuddering breath, watching the edges blacken and burn. "But ... you disagree with them?"
"No," Zidane replied. "Let's just say I have a vested interest in you, and that I'm able to look at the bigger picture."
The flames climbed up the paper, and he dropped the final corner into the candle's metal saucer. "Do what you will with this information, but I'd advise you not to mention Clan Solidor to anyone else. Not the masters, not your fellow students. Whitecliff is smaller than it seems, and words travel like ash in the wind..."