Thane reclined in a leather armchair with his back against the balcony. He opened his eyes as Nahlia materialized in the middle of the room. She wore her barmaid's uniform: a white blouse, a gray skirt, and a matching vest. Her auburn hair flowed free in the sea breeze.
She whirled around the bedchamber, more apprehensive than usual. Her eyes narrowed when she saw him. "You brought me here."
Thane gave a cautious nod. "I did. The same as before."
"This was different," she said. I was still awake."
Damnit. He had been too presumptuous, too careless as he made the connection. He eased his hold at once, letting her return to the physical world if she had to.
"Were you sitting down?" he asked. "Somewhere safe?"
"Yes, but..." Nahlia shook her head as if to clear it. "Aegon... this whole time—you could bring me here whenever you wanted?"
"I'm sorry." Thane rose to his feet and stepped closer. "It's past midnight. I assumed you'd be asleep already."
"Well, I wasn't." She folded her arms, and he felt her anger flaring, contorting the energy around them.
Off to a great start so far, Thane thought. And it's only going to get worse from here.
He drew in a deep breath, scrambling for any way to phrase this delicately. "Something urgent has come up. If you'd like to sit down—"
"I'd rather not," she broke in. "Not until you tell me how the hell you've been doing this."
"I spoke with Saul Mason tonight," he went on, heedless. "He says you only have one more week to find Whitecliff's location."
A pause. "What?"
"He wants the location by next Aegondal evening," Thane repeated. Otherwise..." He trailed off. He wasn't trying to be dramatic, he just couldn't bring himself to say the words.
"Or what?" Nahlia stared at him as if he'd just asked for one of the moons. When Thane didn't answer, belated understanding shone on her face. "My father?"
He gave a reluctant nod, suddenly prickling with sweat. "Mason will have him executed."
"Why?" Her brow furrowed, and her mouth made a thin line. "What does he have to gain by doing this?"
"This is what he's wanted from the beginning," Thane admitted. "And with winter approaching, he knows his window of opportunity is shrinking."
"And you didn't think to share this with me before?" Tears of frustration glistened in her eyes, and the look she gave him was a winter gale.
"You told me to be patient," she shot back. "That's what I've been doing! I've been patient. I've been careful, and half the enclave is still suspicious of me."
"I know," Thane said. "And I fought for more time. I swear to you, I did everything I could."
"You should have seen this coming." Nahlia bit out each word as she spoke.
"I know," he said, "and I'm sorry."
"Well then, as long as you're sorry."
Thane closed his eyes and exhaled. "You have a right to be angry, but we're both doing the best we can here. Do you want to argue like children, or do you want to move forward with the mission?"
"Fine," she said. "Then get my father out of Dresten. I can't get you Whitecliff's location that soon, but you can still help him."
"It's not that simple. There are over five hundred Templars in this city. I'll get him out, but now isn't the time."
"And that will change when I hand over the enclave's location? You said you had a plan to stop them from attacking Whitecliff. What is it?"
Thane hesitated. He hadn't shared this with anyone yet, not even Kira. Still, she had a right to know. "I have a poison that I intend to put in the Templars' wine. It's non-lethal when diluted, but it will trap the army in Dresten, draining their resources for months."
Even though she insisted on standing, Thane returned to his chair. "Timing will be critical here. Too soon, and the Templars will have ample time to recover before winter sets in. Not to mention the other half of the army which hasn't even arrived yet."
"Then why not stall them for now?" she asked. "Give them false information to keep them busy?"
"And if that lie contradicts what they already know?" Thane shook his head. "Mason has spent the better part of a year studying northern maps, and his scouts have been searching for months now. We'll lose all credibility if we lie, and the result could be worse than telling them nothing at all."
"Wonderful." Nahlia walked past him onto the balcony, grasping the white stone railing.
Thane stood and followed her, squinting his eyes in the afternoon sun. "I realize no one's going to tell you the location, but what about a map? Some sort of written record?"
She opened her mouth as if she might object, then closed it. "There might be something like that."
"Then that's a start," Thane said. "Do what you can for now, and I'll check back in a few days."
He was about to leave, but she flung her gaze on him. "I know who you really are."
Curious, Thane turned around.
"You never bothered to tell me," she said. "So I looked into it myself. You're the prince of Dragonshard."
"I am, and I've never denied that."
"No. You've just cleverly danced around the truth these past few weeks. You've failed to mention how you're the reason the Templars sailed north."
"You're not just their hostage," she said. "You've been working with them from the beginning. You led them to Whitecliff to draw their attention from Dragonshard."
Thane shook his head again. "You're on the right track, but you're thinking too small. Someone did direct them north, but it wasn't me or my family."
"So it's a complete coincidence that they sailed here immediately after ending their siege on Dragonshard? It seems a little too convenient to have both your enemies fighting each other."
"The Aeons of Whitecliff are not our enemies," Thane said. "We'd be allies if not for our disagreements."
"Ethermancy," he said. "They have faith in the Testaments, yes. But to them, those stories are things of the past. They call us heretics and warmongers simply for using the gifts Aegon gave us."
Some of the tension poured out of her, and Thane pressed on. "But you're partially right. Someone has been orchestrating events since the beginning of the Purge. There was a masked Aeon who burned the city of Stormharbor and assassinated Nathaniel Mason."
Nahlia gave a curt nod. "I'm familiar with that story."
"Than you know it was an Aeon who brought down the Imperium. The Templars are just pawns in some greater game."
"The Templars seized control of half the continent," she pointed out. "What Aeon could benefit from that?"
"Someone foreign," Thane said. "Someone who wants to weaken all of Revera by pitting us against ourselves." Everyone believes they're fighting for equality or faith, but they're just creating more destruction." The words poured out of Thane in a rush. A part of him was just telling her what she wanted to hear. At the same time, he found he believed them. Letting either side lose would harm the realm as a whole.
Nahlia crossed her arms, looking unconvinced. "So we're all being manipulated. Who's to say it's any different for us?" She gestured a finger between the two of them.
"We can't say for certain," Thane said. "But war is Inevitable now, and Whitecliff is the final piece of the puzzle. Something is hidden there, buried deep within the caves under the academy. My father sent me to find it. To keep it safe from our enemy. All I need is that map. If you can get me that, I can free your father and this will all be over."
Nahlia opened her eyes to a blur of flickering flame. Dizziness swept over her as she tried to reconcile the tropical dreamscape with the academy's snow-covered mountains.
It was clear now that Thane wasn't merely entering her dreams. He was pulling her into the Ethereal, the same way Marwyn had with the twin shards. But how? She didn't own any Etherite. In fact, her only possession that survived the trip north was her mother's necklace, and that was made of silver.
"There she is." Yimo raised a bottle in salute. "Good morning, Lady High-Tolerance!"
To her right, another boy chucked. "One minute she's bragging about her years of whiskey drinking. The next, she's fainting into Raider's arms."
Nahlia realized she'd fallen asleep on Elias's shoulder, and she immediately pulled away.
"I told you," Yimo went on, "no one can out-drink a crelan!"
She ignored them as she sat up and adjusted her hair. She was probably more sober than any of them, but perhaps it was simpler this way. Better they saw a shrinking daisy than a traitor.
A quick glance around the fire revealed a handful of empty seats. Relyn and several others must have gone to bed already.
"What time is it?" she asked Elias
He shot a quick glance up at the stars. "I'd say ... first hour of the morning."
"And if you're impressed by his stargazing," Yimo began, "you should know that he was looking at his pocket watch less than a minute ago."
Elias gave an innocent shrug. "Either way, I'd say it's about time to turn in."
The others nodded in agreement as they stood and cleaned up the chairs and bottles from around the firepit. Elias made sure they were thorough in this, murmuring something about surprise inspections by the Battlemaster. A few minutes later and they were all heading toward their respective houses in the cliffside.
"Wait," Nahlia called out to Elias's retreating back. The world was falling apart, but she needed a plan, a way to retrieve the map from Zidane's office.
"Yeah?" He turned to face her, and she found herself unable to meet his golden eyes. Eyes that were so innocent and trusting, despite him being several years older than her.
Nahlia buried her nails into her palms. This was a time for action, not doubt. The Templars were going to find this enclave regardless. That was out of her control now, but she could still save her father.
"I've been thinking about those missing Ethermancy books," she began. "Do you think the council would ever destroy something so valuable?"
He hesitated, clearly caught off guard by the question. "Honestly? I don't know. When I was younger, I'd assumed they'd been moved to a locked room in the library. Yimo and I searched everywhere since then, and no such room exists."
"What about the masters' offices?" Nahlia asked. "I saw Zidane a few days ago, and his room was filled with locked cabinets."
"I suppose it's possible," he said slowly. "Either way, they're out of our reach."
"Are they?" Her eyes darted to the keyring on his belt.
His lips pulled upward in a slight grin. "I have the keys to the Masters' tower, but not their offices."
"How hard would they be to get?"
He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Nahlia nodded, ignoring her pounding heart. "We could go our whole lives and never get a chance like this again. If we find those books, we can learn Ethermancy together ... do things that no other Aeon can."
"It's risky." Elias lowered his voice to a whisper. "We'll be expelled if we're caught."
No, she thought. You'd be expelled. Aegon only knows what they'd do to me. She held his gaze, letting her resolve speak for itself.
Elias eyed her more closely. "You didn't really pass out from drinking tonight, did you?"
"No." Nahlia smiled in what she hoped was a confident way. "I told you; I can handle my alcohol."
"Fair enough." He chuckled. "I'll remember not to underestimate you again." With some reluctance, he added: "Zidane is making a supply run to Dresten in two days. That might be the opportunity we need, but it's too early to say for sure. We'll talk more tomorrow."
They exchanged their goodnights, and Nahlia's smile faded as he turned to leave. She hated the sort of person she was becoming, resorting to lies and deception, all in the name of some distant greater good. She wanted to go to the bathhouse and scrub herself clean, anything to escape this nightmare and go back to the way things were before.
But no... she had dug herself this hole, and she was in too deep to climb out.