Evening settled over the Moonstone Inn, and Nahlia led the way into the common room. After five days of trudging through the Mistwood, the hearth's warmth felt like Eternity on her cheeks. Thane followed close behind, a black hood shading his eyes.
Half-a-dozen scents filled her nostrils, and her heart swelled with memories. Few things in the world were as wonderful as a warm inn. The fire on your face, the sound of lute strings and mingled voices, and the smells of fresh bread and hot soup wafting from the kitchen.
Nahlia stomped the snow from her boots and started for the bar. Thane headed in the opposite direction to find a table.
Familiar faces filled the crowd, though none spared her more than a quick glance. Northshire was a speck on the map compared to Dresten, but it wasn't so small that everyone knew each other. The Moonstone was but one of four inns in town, and enough travelers came through that they were far from a novelty.
Still, a number of people in town could have recognized her if she hadn't changed her appearance. Her auburn hair had once been long enough to reach the small of her back. Now, it barely touched her shoulders when it was down, and she usually kept it tucked beneath a woolen scarf. A few loose strands fell free to frame her heart-shaped face, and she decorated these with an array of beads and feathers. She also donned a pair of absurdly large hoop earrings which she'd bought from a Crelan woman on the road.
A bit excessive, sure, but the adornments served their purpose. If she passed someone she knew, they'd see the garish jewelry and not the timid barmaid they remembered.
Nahlia continued weaving her way through the crowd, stopping when she found an empty stool at the mahogany bar. The balding innkeeper moved back and forth in the same way her father used to work, tapping barrels and filling mugs.
He poured a round of whiskey for the travelers on her left. The fumes rose in the air, and she drew in hints of orange, hazelnut, and dark chocolate. Father's recipe.
This—more than anything else—made his face clear in her mind's eye. Clearer than it had been these months apart. Things had been so much simpler then, when he was an innkeeper and she was a librarian's apprentice.
Now, he was the Knight Commander of the Templar Order, and she was a fugitive studying lost magics. Fate had kept them apart all this time. How much longer until it brought them together again?
Dragonshard. That's where her mother was, and that was her father's destination. As long as she reached Dragonshard, they'd have a chance at being a family again.
"Evening, young miss," the innkeeper said as he moved to her corner of the bar. "And what can I do for you?"
Nahlia forced a small smile. "My husband and I are looking for a room if you have it."
"Aye." He wiped his hands on a white linen rag. "Should be able to find something for you. Let me go—"
"Actually," she broke in. "Do you have one that faces the square? On the second floor?"
The innkeeper cocked his head. Probably too specific of a request.
"I stayed there before," she hurried to explain. For five years, in fact. "Best view in all the city."
He nodded, seemingly satisfied. "Space is tight, but I'll see what we have up there." At the gesture from another patron, he moved to fill a mug on her right. "How's the road been to ye?"
"Miserable." Nahlia leaned on the bar in an exaggerated motion. "Nothing but ice and snow between here and Dresten." Then she gave a quizzical look around as if just noticing the differences in decor. "Was this place ... under different ownership before?"
The innkeeper made a noncommittal grunt as he rummaged through a wooden case behind the bar. "The folk who owned this place were Aeons, they say. Rumor has it they'd been hiding here for years afore the Templars got to 'em."
"Aeons?" She leaned forward, rubbing the cold from her fingers. "Sounds like a lot of excitement for a town like this."
"I never saw any of 'em, mind you." He returned with a brass key dangling on a small ring. "I just came up 'ere from Ravenshore when the town auctioned off the inn." His eyes narrowed as he took a meaningful look around the common room. "But folk around here talk. Some say they were 'ere the night the Templars came. Bad business, that was."
"Well," Nahlia said. "Let's hope they keep their war to themselves from now on. The north's no place for Aeons or Templars."
He gave another grunt of agreement then extended his arm. "This is for the room upstairs, first door on the left. Hope you have a pleasant stay, miss...?"
"Natalie," she replied. "Natalie Overhill." She stuffed her old bedroom key in her pocket and pulled a few silver pennies from her purse. "We'll also take some traveling food if it's not too much trouble. Cheese, sausage, flatbread. Anything that will keep for the next few days on the road."
This had become their routine over the past week. Wherever they went, Nahlia did the talking, giving a false name and story, while Thane kept his head down to hide his bright Aeon eyes. They learned the hard way that they needed to buy their food before they set out the next morning. Casella Raider's agents were only one step behind them, after all.
If it were up to her, they wouldn't have stopped at so many towns in the first place. Not only was it risky, but their purses were growing lighter by the day.
Unfortunately, while Thane was competent in many areas, he knew next to nothing about the wilderness. Not that Nahlia was an expert in hunting, but at least she knew how to forage and cook. Thane couldn't even manage that. He'd never admit it, but he probably had servants to do all that for him.
What's worse, Thane hadn't used his Ethermancy since they set out. Not once. He insisted things were fine and that he’d still been practicing in the Ethereal every night, battling figments of his subconscious. But then … Marwyn and Elveron might’ve done the same. It wasn’t the same as doing it in real life.
Nahlia met Thane at the table a few minutes later, brass key in hand, travelsack pleasantly full. Thane was sitting hunched over a steaming cup of coffee with his eyes fixed on the window. A dusting of snow clung to the outside of the glass, and the inside mist was thick enough to draw on.
She slumped into the seat in front of him, dropping her cloak on the back of the chair. As usual, he didn't turn to look at her.
A question kindled inside her as she continued rubbing warmth into her knuckles. "The last time you were here, you didn't need to hide your eyes like this. They were darker then. Like a human's."
"Voidcap," Thane replied without turning his head.
"The plant's oil can be used to make an eyedrop. It darkens the brighter pigments in your eyes, making them appear more human."
"What?" She leaned forward to hear him over the music. "If that exists, why don't all Aeons use it?"
"It's always been outlawed," he explained. "Even under the old Imperium, it was reserved for undercover guards and constables. Once the humans took control, they tripled those restrictive efforts. Now, you can practically buy a horse for the price of a small vial."
Nahlia recalled the massive indoor garden in the Raider's manor and all the strange plants they grew there. No doubt Lady Raider had a collection of this for her agents.
Her eyes darted around the room before settling back on Thane. "So anyone here—"
"—could be a Raider spy," he finished in a whisper. "So don't let your guard down. Not even for a second."
Nahlia opened her mouth to reply, then froze when a barmaid approached their table. A barmaid she knew.
Alison had long blonde hair and usually wore a low bodice dress. She had never liked Nahlia, even less so on the days she showed up late for her shifts and got away with it.
"You two ready to order now?" she asked.
Aegon ... we shouldn’t have come here, gold or no. Nahlia's heart rate doubled, and her voice caught in her throat. When she finally met the other woman's dark eyes, she expected to see recognition there.
Instead, Alison rested a hand on her hip and continued, "Potato soup just came off the stove. That, or we have a few meat pies left."
Thane put a palm over his forehead, looking like he had either a hangover or a terrible headache. "I'll have the soup."
"Right." Nahlia found her voice after an awkward pause. "Same for me, please."
And with that, the barmaid turned on her heel and made for the kitchen.
Even without looking, Thane must have sensed her unease. "Friend of yours?"
"I worked with her for almost a year," Nahlia replied. "Now she doesn’t even recognize me."
"You've changed," he said. "And not just the disguise."
"And what about my mother?" Nahlia almost surprised herself with the sudden question. "How much has she changed these past ten years?"
Thane met her gaze for a split-second before glancing back outside. "You've asked me that before."
"Humor me." The truth was, she still couldn't wrap her mind around the idea of her mother being alive. The year following her death, Nahlia would see phantom images of her mother wandering in the Ethereal. Even then—at the young age of seven—she knew the sight of her was too good to be true, and the dreams always ended before they took root.
That feeling hadn’t gone away, even once she got over the initial shock of Thane’s news. It seemed more likely this was all a mistake. And even when she made the decision to trust him ... shouldn't the news have made her happy? If she felt anything positive about this, her anger overshadowed it.
How dare her mother go live in a palace while they grieved her? That night had scarred Nahlia for years. It made her lose her faith in Aegon, and in herself.
Thane claimed she didn't know they were alive. Understandable, as they'd been in hiding. But even when she found out, the best she could do was send him to Northshire with a necklace? Not so much as a note or a message?
"We've only spoken a few times." Thane took a sip of his coffee. "What do you remember about her?"
Nahlia looked down, surprised to find her fists clenched on the table. She deflated, allowing some of the fonder memories to bubble back to the surface. "She was always warm and caring. But I suppose that must be true for most mothers."
Thane shrugged. "My mother died when I was three, but I remember she was more than my father deserved. More than any Solidor deserved."
His eyes remained locked on the window. A simple gesture, but it might as well have put the entire room between them. She considered asking him about Kira again, though it was obvious she’d get nowhere tonight. Nahlia always felt better talking about her problems. Meanwhile, Thane clung to his pain like a raft.
"What else?" he asked.
Nahlia cradled her chin, trying to remember. "She was ... passionate. Passionate about her belief in Aegon, and in Ethermancy.”
Thane stiffened on the last word and shot a concerned look around. Nahlia lowered her voice further, “She always told me I could become an Ethermancer someday, even though she never did. In a way, she seemed obsessed with the idea. My father acted like he was ready to settle down and live a peaceful life, but that was never enough for her. She always wanted more."
Thane ran a hand over his chin. The stubble was more like a full beard now. "In that case, I'd say she's the same person she was back then."
The conversation dwindled down when the barmaid returned with their food. After a quick bite of dinner, the two headed upstairs to her old bedroom.
Nahlia had once known this room so well. Every book, every trinket, every knot in the floorboards. Now the surfaces were bare. Her wardrobe and desk were gone, along with years of books and clothing. Nothing remained but a simple bed and nightstand.
Thane stepped inside, candle in hand. "I thought your father's room was the one in the middle?"
"It is." Nahlia knelt down at the base of the built-in bookshelf. "We made a few adjustments to the inn when we first took it over." She pulled out the bottom shelf and set it aside on the floor.
Thane brought the light closer. "You built a connector between the rooms—yours and his?"
"For emergencies." She slid the back panel along the track in the wall, just enough to see inside. The opposite room was empty, and the town lights pierced the darkness. "My father wanted our rooms to have multiple ways in and out. Just in case the Templars ever came for us here."
"Clever," Thane said. "Dragonshard has similar passages between rooms."
The oaken panel groaned as she pushed it into the crevice. It better be here. If not, they'd taken an awful risk coming to Northshire.
She straightened from her crawl to find a room that was much more lived in than the first. Furniture covered every edge, and books and papers covered every other surface.
"I guess the new innkeeper took a liking to this one," Thane said as he crawled in behind her.
Candlelight chased away the shadows as he stood, and Nahlia made for the northeast corner.
Fifteen planks from here. She followed the gaps between floorboards, all the way to the foot of the wardrobe.
Aegon, of course, he had to rearrange the furniture.
She pushed her back against the wooden monstrosity, but it didn't budge. A memory tickled her as she struggled: Father and Uncle Locke groaning and cursing as they hauled this thing up the stairs. She had helped by staying out of their way.
"Nahlia?" Thane's voice from across the room near the window. "I think you should see this."
"Just a second," she said through clenched teeth. "How about helping me with this first?"
Thane hurried over and threw his shoulder against the wardrobe. The legs ground against the floorboards as it moved several inches along the wall.
"Good enough." She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow and knelt down.
"Someone's outside," Thane whispered.
"What?" Her head snapped up from the floor. "Who?"
"Three or four people. One was a Valaysian woman with a shortbow. I didn't get a good look at the others."
"Great." Nahlia stuck her dagger between the floorboards. "Just go stand watch. Make sure they don't come in here."
"It's not a question of if." Thane headed back toward the window. "Lady Raider knows you used to live here."
Nahlia concentrated on the floorboard, and the blade in her hand. With a creak, it wedged open, revealing the purse inside.
A sigh of relief escaped her lips as she loosened the strings on her father's stash. Gold shone back at her in the faint candlelight. Ten suns. More than enough to get them across the continent.
"It's here," she told Thane.
"Good," Thane said, “because your friends are getting closer.”
Nahlia joined Thane by the window. The three men were hidden in the shadow of the tannery across the street, but the woman's face was clear in the lantern light.
"That's Relyn Vash,” she said. Under different circumstances, Nahlia would have been happy to see her old friend up and walking again. Unfortunately, she wore the crimson leather armor of a Seeker, and this time they weren't coming to help her.
Nahlia ducked behind the window sill as the four figures crossed the town square. She waited a moment as their forms disappeared under the eaves, then she opened the window, letting in the night chill.
Thane let out a weary sigh. "Well, I guess this means we aren't flipping a coin for the bed tonight." Then he gestured toward the open window. "Lead the way, Lady Cole."