The bell tower struck eight, and the chapel filled with the sudden sound of students rising to their feet. Outside, a pair of moons peaked over the southern hills, gilding their peaks with pale silver.
Nahlia pulled her cloak tight across her chest, quickening her pace with every gust of the night wind. She hurried down the tunnel at the edge of the courtyard, passing crowds of students, young and old. She was halfway to the library before Relyn called out to her.
"Nahlia, wait up!" Her boots thundered down the corridor. Elias and Yimo followed close behind. "Are you doing anything tonight?"
"Not much," she said with a shrug. "I'll probably do some studying."
"Again?" Elias leaned casually against a stone pillar. "You've been in the library every night since you discovered it."
"It's true." Yimo brushed a strand of green hair from his eyes. "You're down there more than me, and I work there."
Nahlia groped for an excuse, but Elias was ahead of her. "What if you came drinking with us tonight instead?"
"Drinking?" She made a show of looking around. "What—does Whitecliff have a secret tavern I don't know about?"
"Sure. It's right next to the infirmary. Didn't you know?"
"The tavern is nice," Yimo agreed. "But the brothel is truly something special."
"They're joking." Relyn rolled her eyes. "We do not have a brothel here. Or a tavern. We sit around the campfire on our plateau. Nothing very fancy."
Elias shrugged, giving her an easy smile. "Come on. Tomorrow's Vauldal. How many assignments could you have?"
Nahlia shuffled her feet, gazing back at the arcade that marked the library's entrance. She had at least two hours before bedtime. Could she really afford to waste them on something so frivolous as drinking?
But then ... hadn't Thane also told her to blend in here? She might as well do one thing right.
"Alright." She returned his smile. "I'm in."
An hour later, and they joined the rest of Wolfe Clan in a loose circle around the campfire. The night wind was cool, but not unbearably so. The mountainside kept out the worst of it, and the fire was wide and warm.
"Right then." Yimo tossed Nahlia the wineskin. "Let's see if we can loosen up our new friend here. Hopefully, she won't become a fit of giggles like this one."
"I hope you don't mean me," Relyn said, then she covered her mouth, stifling a hiccup.
"Case in point." He gestured a small arm across the fire. "Of course no one can outdrink a crelan, but you lot can try."
"We'll see about that." Nahlia curled her lips and took a good long swallow. It tasted sweet with hints of peach and pear.
Elias chuckled. "Well, someone's confident."
"I've always had a high tolerance," she said, passing him the wineskin.
"Do you, now?" He passed it down the line and pulled out a clear bottle of dark-colored liquid. "In that case, how about something a little stronger?"
Nahlia accepted the bottle, and the scent filled her nostrils; wood and earth and smoke. "What is it? Whiskey?"
"Barrel whiskey, from Raidenwood. Aged fifteen years."
"I would stick with wine if I were you." Relyn made a face. "That Revecan drink tastes like a wet tree stump."
"And your Valaysian wine takes like a wet rainbow," Yimo countered. "With a hint of butterfly piss and a bouquet of unicorn tears."
Nahlia glanced back and forth between them. "What's a unicorn?"
"Nothing." Elias grinned. "It's a made-up animal that only drunk crelans can see."
"No need to be jealous now, Raider." Yimo lounged back in his chair as if it were a throne.
Nahlia took a sip, and the dark liquid burned her tongue and throat. The others were watching in anticipation, so she forced herself to look as nonchalant as possible.
Elias whistled softly. "Alright, I'm impressed."
She gave the bottle a dramatic swirl before taking another sip. "Sorry to spoil your storybook image of the blushing Aeon maiden."
"Not to worry," Elias told her. "The image is far from ruined. Still, there aren't many girls here who can handle it."
Nahlia laughed and shook her head. "I'll have you that know I spent three years working as a barmaid in Northshire. Taste-testing whiskey was part of the job description."
"Sure." Yimo leaned over and snatched the bottle. "We'll see how far that gets you."
Another hour flew by as they drank and spoke of small things. Two boys named Ceathen and Marcus even set up a tripod and cooked an assortment of perch they'd caught in that lake.
Afterword, Relyn played her Valaysian pipes across the fire while Marcus strummed his lute. The song and the food reminded her of home, and the nights when traveling bards would visit the Moonstone.
"I miss Ciena," Yimo mused as the song came to an end. "She had a lovely singing voice at times like this."
"Really?" Nahlia couldn't hide her astonishment.
"No." He broke into a chuckle. "Not really."
"She never did anything fun with us," Relyn said in a sing-song voice. "She just trained by day and complained by night."
Several of them shared a knowing laugh. All but Elias who remained quiet.
"Aegon help the poor bastards in Howler Clan." Yimo raised the bottle in a vague salute across the canyon. "She's their problem now."
Relyn murmured something in Valasaian, then nestled back in her seat as if she might fall asleep there.
"Why does she hate me so much?" Nahlia asked, surprising herself with the question.
Elias rubbed his face. "She doesn't hate you."
"Whatever you want to call it," Nahlia said. "Is it because of my father? Because of what the Templars did to your home?"
"No," Elias said at once. "It wasn't the Templars who drove us from Raidenwood." He stood and stretched for a moment, then knelt down to add another log to the fire. "People talk about the Purge as if the Templars marched around conquering cities. It wasn't so simple as that. Their real strength was how they rallied support from the other humans. There were no sieges or open wars. More like murders in the night."
Nahlia gave a slow nod. "So what did happen at Raidenwood then?"
Elias raised the bottle to his mouth, then seemed to think better of it. There was a long pause as he collected his thoughts. "My father ruled for eight years after Sunfall was sacked. He treated his subjects well. Well enough for our army to remain loyal. Even if the Templars had the strength to fight us, their new government was too young and too fragile. They'd have opened themselves to invasion from Dragonshard .. or Palavar."
The fire snapped, sending a red ember flowing upward.
He took a small sip before continuing. "But as you know, we were betrayed. Our uncle Cladius was my grandfather's... natural son. He was half-human, dark-eyed, and popular with the humans of the city. He identified as a human in every way. He didn't study our martial arts or take part in our religion. He trained with them instead.
"Father played this to our advantage. He gave Cladius more power in the city. Power over the armies even. I can't tell you what happened after that. Maybe Cladius wanted more power. Maybe he just hated us. Either way, the Templars made a deal with him. In exchange for rallying support against my father, he would rule Raidenwood in his place." Elias took a long drink this time. "He's still there now, to this day."
"But he's still half-Aeon," Nahlia pointed out. "That doesn't bother the Templars?"
"He's half-Aeon," Elias agreed. "And that means his power can be taken away. My uncle knows this, and the Templars know it. It's how they keep him in line."
Elias passed her the bottle and she took another drink, filling in the unspoken parts of the story. "And Ciena—she took this betrayal more personally than the rest of you."
"Ciena spent a lot of time with our uncle," Elias said. "With humans in general. She preferred their laid-back nature to high Aeon society. Their culture, their fighting styles ... she looked up to Cladius. He's the one who first taught her how to fight. He encouraged her to learn, even when my parents didn't."
Elias locked eyes with her. "This is why my sister's convinced you're a spy for the Templars. She believes you'd betray your Aeon side for your human side if it came to that. It's not your fault; It's just how she sees the world."
Her stomach churned, and it had nothing to do with the alcohol. Was that what she was doing? Betraying one part of herself for another?
No... She was doing this for her father. For family, and for love. That was different from what Cladius Raider had done.
Nahlia gazed around the fire at the various members of Wolfe Clan. Many of them still had families, but they had all lost their homes to this war. And they trusted her. She hadn't asked for their friendship or their trust, but they had given it all the same. To give Thane more information would be a betrayal of that.
She turned back to Elias, eager to distract herself. "But your uncle spared you?"
He almost laughed. "Aegon, No. He meant to have us killed in the night, but my mother discovered his plan. We just barely made it out alive."
Nahlia nodded again. The fire dimmed, and she pulled her cloak around her shoulders like a blanket. The five of them sat in silence for a long while after that, each left to their own thoughts.
She wasn't tired, but sleep came for her like a dragon swooping down from the sky. She felt Thane's presence, and a warmth like the borders of a dream. He was pulling her into the Ethereal, the same way Marwyn had earlier that evening.
Nahlia tried to resist, but he was too strong. Her eyelids grew heavier as the world closed in.