Dresten was crawling with Templars now. Hundreds of men crammed into Kyroth's estate by day, spilling out each night like a swarm of insects. They filled every tavern within ten blocks of the castle, and Thane heard their drunken skirmishes echoing down every side street.
He had met with Saul Mason that evening, and things were escalating far too quickly for comfort. Nahlia would be furious when she heard the new timetable. Not to mention the consequences if she failed.
And rightfully so, Thane thought. He told to be patient before, but there was no time for patience now. The Templar fleet was arriving within a fortnight, and with winter approaching in earnest, their window for attack was shrinking by the day.
And so Thane threaded his way out of Old Town and into the lower tiers of the city. It was time to put his own plans in motion.
The shouts and laughter faded as he reached the Forge District—a part of Dresten with the good sense to sleep when the sun fell. The echo of his footsteps filled the alleyway as he descended a crumbling stone staircase between a butcher and an armory. Snow melted from the rooftops above, running in rivulets between the cobbles.
He was rounding the corner when he heard a rustling behind him. He turned to find the alley's mouth just as empty as before. No movement but for the shop's wooden sign swinging on its hinges.
Don't be so paranoid, Thane told himself as he plunged on. Growing up in a palace could hardly prepare him for secret meetings in dark alleys. He may have been a gifted Ethermancer, but that was the extent of his—
Thane whirled to face the voice. A dark figure leaned casually against the brick wall, grinning up at him. Short and broad-shouldered, he wore close-cut black hair and a loose-fitting jacket.
Thane let out a breath of relief. "Hilarious, Joron"
"Can't help myself, kombre," Joron said with a chuckle. "You're as jumpy as a gazelle ."
"Yeah,' Thane murmured, "And that sense of humor is going to get you killed someday, kombre."
The other man gave a shrug, then his expression turned more serious. "Anybody follow you here?"
When Thane shook his head, Joron snorted. "Well then, let's hope Mason's men are as loud as you."
Thane ignored the slight. Joron Wren was an old informant from Dragonshard's criminal underworld. He didn't care if the other man showed up respect as long as he came through. He had been useful back home, but he was invaluable in this strange new city.
"Did you bring it?" he asked.
"Of course." Joron unlatched a worn leather satchel, revealing a collection of stoppered vials inside.
Thane plucked one out for inspection. The teal-colored liquid sparked in the moonlight.
"Has to be ingested," Joran said. "And the victims won't show signs for at least twelve hours ... maybe longer."
Thane nodded. "And the symptoms are?"
"Nausea, fatigue, headache, fever." He laughed. "Just two drops of this stuff, and the poor sods will be in bed for weeks."
Thane tucked the vial away in his cloak. "And how much to kill someone?"
"Five drops, kombre." Joron gave his satchel a shake. "You've got enough poison here to kill an army."
"I hope it doesn't come to that," he said. "I made a deal with the Knight Commander..."
"But you don't trust him."
"I trust him well enough. That doesn't mean I'm about to let him butcher two-hundred Aeons."
That earned him an appreciative smirk. "Your father's not gonna like that, kombre."
He was right, of course. His father would rather see both armies kill each other, and be rid of all his enemies in a single day. That may be the best thing for Dragonshard, but Thane couldn't bear the thought of it. If he could just slow the Templars down, Nahlia could warn the others in Whitecliff and no one had to die. Once winter arrived, the Templars would be trapped here in Dresten, exhausting their supplies for months.
The plan was messy and unpredictable, but it was the only outcome that didn't end in bloodshed.
"It's a good thing you work for me then," Thane finally told him. "If my father wanted it done his way, he should have given himself up for—"
"Kombre." Joron's eyes darted over Thane's shoulder. "Someone followed you."
Thane froze, knowing better than to turn around.
"Top of the stairs." His voice changed to a ragged whisper. "Short, skinny, dressed in black."
"Well, that narrows it down." Thane exhaled, feeling his heart beat faster. "I suppose he's watching us?"
"Aye." Joron fingered a throwing knife at his belt. "Want me to take him out?"
Thane hesitated. It could be a street urchin for all he knew. They often marked foreigners like himself as easy targets. Annoying, yes, but hardly worth a knife in the back.
Then again, what if it was a Templar who had followed him from Kyroth's estate? One glimpse of the sarenseed oil would be enough to ruin his plans.
Aegon, but he hated making decisions like this.
Still fingering his throwing knife, Joron's eyes widened with impatience. "Kombre?"
"Slow him down," Thane said, "but nothing lethal."
Steel caught moonlight as Joron whipped out his blade. Their guest must've seen it too because Thane heard a frantic scurrying behind him.
The knife whistled through the air, but the figure was too quick. He bolted away, leaving the unsatisfying ring of steel on stone
"Damnit," Joron cursed as he sprinted after him.
Thane followed close behind, heading up the stairs and rounding the corner. Raindrops pelted his face, and his lungs filled with the chill night air.
Their boots thundered against the cobbles as they chased the figure through a series of winding alleyways, across the thoroughfare, and into a warehouse. Their mark moved as swift as a shadow, gliding effortlessly between boxes and barrels.
Joron threw a second knife as he ran, catching the figure's cloak in a wooden crate.
He scrambled to break loose, barely escaping up the staircase.
The figure's form was more slender than Thane realized, and he saw a head of dark hair break free from the hood. A woman?
She led them up several more levels onto the warehouse's roof. Thane was gasping for breath when he reached the top. Their mark was already leaping toward another rooftop.
Joron chased after her, spanning the six-foot gap. Thane set his jaw and followed, forcing himself not to look down. The wind blew fiercer up here, sending his cloak billowing behind.
The chase continued until the rooftops reached the base of Dresten's upper-tier. The woman jumped again, catching the wall's parapet and hoisting herself over.
Joron took advantage of the pause and threw his third knife in a wide arc over the gap. The blade grazed the woman's leg as she broke into a dash. She staggered and collapsed on the cobbled street.
Thane drew in a breath as he approached, pulling heat from the Etherite gem at his neck. He opened his palm and a flame blossomed to life, chasing away the darkness like a torch.
Joron stepped up beside him, drawing his shortsword.
"Wait!" the woman turned and threw up a hand. "Stop!"
That was when Thane finally recognized her. A face he'd come to know over the past six months, but the last person he'd expected to see out here.