A stranger walked the halls of Kyroth's estate. A Valaysian clad in a dark, hooded cloak, hiding his face and shielding the shade of his eyes. Thane and Kira had been sitting in the bay window that evening as he crossed the mote five stories below.
Although this man had wandered into a den of Templars, Thane knew he was an Aeon. Everything about him proclaimed it, from the way he moved to the way the world seemingly bent to his will. Even from that high vantage, Thane could see the Ethereal contorting around him like water down a drain.
Kira discerned from the servants that he was here to speak with Saul Mason, and apparently the two had been in his office ever since he arrived.
But why? What did a foreign Aeon have to gain by visiting the Templars in Dresten? For that matter, why would they grant him an audience?
Thane leaned over one of the ballroom's many balconies, looking down at a room that had grown to resemble a barracks. Mugs clinked together and drunken laughter echoed up to fill the high vaulted ceilings. He listened with half an ear as the Templars boasted of the battles they'd fought in. Tales like these were embellished enough when men were sober. Once they had a few drinks in them, it seemed like every one of them became a slayer of emperors and fire-wielding Aeons.
Another hour passed before he glimpsed the cloaked figure behind the room's opposite arcade. Lieutenant Gallow and three other officers escorted him, leaving a trail of salutes in their wake.
Thane pushed off from the rail and set off to meet them where the two balconies met.
"Excuse me," he hollered over the clamor of the soldiers below.
The stranger turned around. The movement was so casual, it was as if he'd been expecting the interruption.
Gallow was less graceful as he stepped forward to bar Thane's path. "Back off, Solidor."
A thin hand emerged from the stranger's cloak, brushing the officer aside. "No. That's alright, Lieutenant." His accent was obvious, but he seemed comfortable enough with the language.
Gallow licked his lips and took a reluctant step back. The other three officers did likewise.
Thane stood straighter and closed the space between them. Slim and middle-aged, the stranger had a neatly groomed black beard and sharp tan eyes. "So," he said. "What brings a Valaysian Aeon to this human-infested hole?"
The stranger's mouth curled upward in a thin smile. "I'd imagine the same thing that brings the prince of Dragonshard."
Thane hesitated, but he didn't break the man's gaze. "You have me at a disadvantage."
The same thin smile. "In more ways than one, I'd imagine. But rest assured, Thane Solidor, I am not your enemy. On the contrary, I think you'll find that our goals align quite nicely."
"You'll see soon enough." The man turned and continued down the corridor, his four sentries following close behind.
"By the way," Gallow hollered back to Thane. "Knight Commander wants to see you in his office right away."
The group rounded the corner, leaving Thane standing there dumbfounded. Our goals align? What in Aegon's name did that mean? Was this man aiding the Templar invasion, or working to prevent it? He'd have to ask Nahlia the next time they spoke—to find out if this stranger came from the enclave, or somewhere across the Sunrise Sea.
Upstairs, he found the Knight Commander sitting at his desk with the shutters propped open. Snowflakes dusted the window sills and the flagstone floor. Outside, the sky had shifted from a dark gray to a faint violet as the sun fell behind Dresten's jagged skyline.
"If this is about the enclave's location," he began, "I already told Nahlia—"
"Relax." Saul Mason took a long drink of wine, leaving his gray beard stained with red. "You were right. A week was too much to ask."
Thane released a sharp breath as he approached the desk. He should have been reassured by this, but something in Mason's expression told him things would only get worse from here.
"So—what then? I can tell Nahlia to take her time?"
Mason topped off his glass. but didn't offer Thane any. He and Kira were never offered wine here. Just one more reason he poisoned that instead of the water.
"I have a new assignment for you two." He gestured to the seat opposite him. "Something of higher priority."
Thane lowered himself into the chair. "Which is?"
"I want Headmaster Elveron assassinated."
His eyebrows shot up. "Oh is that all? Would you like one of the moons while we're at it?"
Mason took another drink, his gray eyes unamused.
"And who do you expect to do that?" Thane said. "Nahlia?"
"Unless you have another spy I'm unaware of."
"No." Thane shook his head. "I already gave her the terms of our agreement: Whitecliff's location for her father's freedom."
"It was the enclave's location for an extension on her father's life," Mason corrected. "Freedom comes after we get inside the enclave, and I can't do that with an Ethermancer there."
"There are no Ethermancers in Whitecliff," Thane said. "Nahlia has already confirmed this."
He grimaced. "And where's all this coming from? Two days ago you were relying on her to get the enclave's location. And now..." Thane trailed off, remembering the cloaked stranger in the corridor. "Who's been whispering in your ear, Knight Commander?"
"That's none of your concern."
"Well, I'm not one of your lackeys." The wooden chair creaked as Thane leaned back, "I don't kill people without knowing the reason."
He raised the goblet to his lips again. "The man you saw outside was another informant of mine."
"I'd gathered that much already," Thane said. "And he's spoon-feeding you a load of—"
"Elveron is an Ethermancer," Mason insisted. "I've seen him wield fire with my own eyes."
A pause. "Where?"
"Stormharbor. I watched him kill my family. I watched him burned everything I ever knew."
Ah... The Masked Aeon. Thane surpassed the urge to shake his head again. It seemed like like half the Aeons in Revera were either taking credit or blame for the infamous event that led to the Purge. Elveron may have been a prime suspect once, but so were a dozen others, including Thane's own father.
"People have been trying to crack that mystery for the past two decades," Thane said. "Every half-wit thinks he has the answer, but no one's been able to prove anything."
Mason nodded. "That's because anyone who got a closer look than me was killed. But I saw what I saw, and I've backed it up with years of research. Stormharbor was in the Vale of Elveron. It made sense for the Emperor to send an assassin who knew the land."
"Two dozen lesser clans owed fealty to the Elverons," Thane pointed out. "The Emperor could have sent anyone of them to Stormharbor that day."
"The assassin wore the golden armor of the Emperor's Honor Guard," Mason countered. "And Pirandas Elveron was one of his most loyal servants."
Thane shrugged. "It could still be a setup. Why else would he wear a mask?"
"It was a helmet," Mason replied. "It's your people who started that rumor about the mask. Every other piece fits."
Thane regarded him thoughtfully. "And is it true what they say then? That the entire town stood in front of Nathaniel Mason to protect him?"
"Aye," he replied. "That part's true. They'd never seen Ethermancy before. They believed that Aeons were no different from us. That if we stood up to them, we could defeat them."
"And the scars." Thane gestured to his own face for reference. "He gave you those too?"
Mason shook his head. "I got burned digging through the rubble."
Thane nodded. "The stories I heard were better."
"Those were stories." His chair groaned as he stood, pacing over to the window. "But the fire was real. The bastard conjured it from thin air. He burned the crowd, my family ... the city. Hell, he's the reason I became a Templar."
Thane nodded again. Being an Ethermancer himself, he never had trouble believing that part. Burning a city was difficult, but far from impossible. He turned and regarded the Knight Commander. "So... You ran and hid while the others burned?"
"Aye, I did."
"Wow." He leaned back in his chair again. "Never would've figured... the Knight Commander of the Templar Order was a coward."
"Knight Commander?" Saul shook his head, still looking out into the twilight. "I was just a boy. A raw recruit. There were enough martyrs that day in Stormharbor, and I had nothing to gain by becoming one of them. I ran because I wanted to live ... to grow up and make a difference someday."
"So that's why you're here."
"In the north." Thane raised his hands in a broad gesture. "You came for revenge."
"Bah." He waved a dismissive hand. "Vengeance was an angry child's fantasy. I'm here to rid the world of people like you."
"Almost sounds noble," Thane said. "But I think you're still a coward now."
The Knight Commander raised an eyebrow. "You've got a heavy pair on you, talking to me like that, boy."
Thane ignored him and continued. "You're afraid to fight Elveron yourself so you want Nahlia Cole to murder him for you Am I understanding that right?"
"This has nothing to do with fear," Mason shot back. "I'll send my men to face Aeons on the battlefield, but I refuse to let them be roasted in their armor. When we march on Whitecliff, I intend to give them a fair fight."
"A fair fight," he echoed, deadpan. "You have at least two-thousand men here in the North. What is that—ten times what Whitecliff has? Not to mention your black powder and your firearms."
"I never said I didn't plan to win." He paced back over to the desk. "How about we make a new deal—just the two of us?"
Thane shrugged. "I'm listening."
"If you take care of this for me, you and your sister are free to go, and I'll consider Dragonshard a sovereign nation."
He raised an eyebrow. "You can speak on behalf of the Chancellor now?"
"As much as you can speak for your father."
"And why would your little Republic accept this? My family will always be your enemy."
Mason crossed his arms and began pacing again."The Republic might not like it, but they can't attack you without my army. And I give you my word: As long as I'm Knight Commander, no Templar will ever set foot in your land.
"Besides," he continued. "We're trying to establish a new government here, not an empire. Palavar and Valaysia are ruled by Aeons, and we have no quarrel with either one. It can be the same for you."
"If it's that easy to end a war," Thane began, "then why not offer Whitecliff the same deal? They seem content to live in peace up here."
Mason shook his head. "Those clans once ruled this land beneath the old Emperor. The Raiders, the Elverons, and the Trelians. We took it by right of conquest, but they'll never accept that. Even the ones too young to remember it ... they'll be raised believing they have some 'divine birthright' to this realm. As long as they live, this war will never end."
Thane gave a slow nod. Unlike with the other clans, nothing was taken from his family specifically. To this day, they held all their land, and still engaged in free trade with Valaysia and the Ember Isles. This would be an opportunity for his kingdom to regain their strength, perhaps even becoming a safe haven for the other Aeons if Whitecliff fell.
"What about Nahlia and her father?" he asked.
"Take them with you," Mason said. "We'll find our own way into the enclave."
The thought was tempting; Thane couldn't deny that. A chance to keep all of his promises. Only one problem remained. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Because. Believe it or not Thane, I respect you. You've been my hostage for six months, and you've never caused a single problem or harmed any of my men. If you do this, then you'll have earned your freedom as far as I'm concerned.
"Besides, we both know you could break out of here if you wanted. You've been looking for a peaceful solution, and now I'm giving you one." Mason extended his hand. "Now, do we have a deal?"