Aaron Cole leaned over the table, sipping a bitter northern ale. The map laid out before him was a monstrosity of painted canvas, as long as he was tall. Wooden figurines covered the surface, representing the various factions scattered throughout Revera. Gray crossed rifles for the Templars. Red swords for the Raiders. Black dragons for the Solidors.
The setup was like a massive game of Cruscendo spanning an entire continent. Whether Cole was a king or a pawn in this game remained to be seen.
Other Aeon groups dotted the map between Raidenwood and Tregarde. Whitecliff's survivors numbered in the hundreds, and the other two enclaves could have twice that. Maybe even more.
Cole's own army comprised just over a thousand troops after the battle of Whitecliff. The Templars had taken heavy losses, but several hundred were still unaccounted for in the northern wilds.
Finally, Palatine's fleet filled the Ember Sea to the south, represented by orange meteors colliding with the earth. Ten thousand troops, and over 150 ships.
Twenty years ago, Palatine would've been a fool to send such an invasion fleet here. Revera was the ultimate power in Aeondom back when the six great clans were united. Now, that same realm had spent the last two decades destroying itself from within. All but an open invitation for the foreign crows to come and feast.
Dragonshard was the only city with a fighting chance, and reports claimed Lord Solidor had already allied himself with Palatine. Along with Cole's wife.
Lyraina ... alive and well after all these years? His thoughts drifted to that possibility whenever he had a spare moment, which wasn't often these days considering he was the Knight Commander now.
Cole's eyes turned to Dragonshard at the southwest corner of the map. Did he really believe his wife was there? Honestly, he couldn't say. He'd seen Lyraina die, after all. Saul Mason put a sword through her heart as Cole fled with Nahlia in his arms. What's more, why hadn't she contacted them? Didn't Aeons communicate telepathically through dreams? Lyraina had done it a hundred times with her own parents over the years. Why not do the same with Nahlia?
Meanwhile, the Chancellor and his assistant had given him nothing but hearsay—rumors and whispers from faraway lands. He wouldn't get his hopes up that easily. If Lyraina were alive, he'd cross that river when he came to it. For now, he'd do his job.
Unfortunately, he knew even less about their supposed enemy. Palatine's empire once spanned half of the known world. Not just the continent of Palavar, but portions of Revera and Valaysia as well. Ethermancers ruled with iron fists, and humans were no better than slaves under that regime. But that was centuries ago. A different ruler, and a different time. How much of it still held true today?
He took another sip of his ale, glancing up as the evening sun speared his tent flap. Beyond the opening, he saw hints of the world outside. Rolling hills, frost-covered trees, and half-frozen rivers.
I should be out there right now. At least searching for Nahlia was a problem he could tackle head-on. So help him, there were days he almost grabbed a horse and left. Let someone else clean up this mess.
Another moment of blessed silence, and then Marabella Lawguard entered his tent. The Chancellor's Spymaster had a slender build and chin-length blonde hair. Captain Foster followed close behind. Nearly as tall as Cole, he was clean-shaven with a standard military haircut.
Foster was second-in-command of the Templars, while Marabella operated outside the chain of command, answering only to Chancellor Brighton. Cole liked the captain well enough; he hadn't accepted Cole's command easily after his duel with Mason, but he’d made the right choice when it mattered most. He'd take that over a silent backstabber any day.
The captain gave a sharp salute which Cole promptly returned. "At ease soldier. What's your report?
"Sir." He kept a stiff posture with both arms at his sides. "Scouts report another group of deserters back in Starglade, taking shelter in the mine. At least three squads, but they could have up to fifty in there. They have a prisoner with them. A young woman. Tall, light of hair, built like a fighter."
Cole nodded. "Golden eyes?"
"No official confirmation, sir, but it’s possible."
Cole stepped over to the northeast corner of the map. Starglade was once a mining town, six or seven days southwest from Northshire. He'd never been there personally but he'd heard his share of rumors as an innkeeper. The town fell apart when the mine went dry, and the rubble had played host to all manner of rogues and vagabonds over the years. Smugglers, mercenaries, and even Aeon fugitives.
Cole set down another wooded Templar figurine, painted red to represent this new faction of rebels.
Marabella spoke up in her thick accent—crisp, deep, and throaty. "If they're making their way south, is it safe to assume their destination is Raidenwood?"
"That was my guess too," Foster said.
"Raidenwood," Cole murmured with disdain. That cursed place stood against everything they were trying to achieve here. One of his first acts as Knight Commander had been to halt attacks on Aeons. Meanwhile, the “Templar” leaders in that city paid a bounty for live Aeons, and they used those as bait to capture even more. He'd even heard rumors of slave markets which sold able-bodied Aeons to fighting pits and mercenary groups.
How were the Templars supposed to unite Revera when half the Order was still intent on civil war?
"I still think we made a mistake sailing around The Bloodrift," Cole said. "If we'd passed through Raidenwood..."
Marabella cleared her throat. "With respect, Knight Commander, the rebel Templars outnumber us—"
"Two to one," Cole finished with a wave of his hand. "I know." He took another swig from his ale. "I had more of a show of authority in mind. Not so much an open siege. How can they be a part of the Republic and defy us at the same time?"
"I have to agree with the Spymaster on this one," Foster spoke up. "Cladius Raider and the others can smell the chaos in our ranks. We could probably take the city with enough reinforcements and cannons, but that would take months."
They were right, of course. As Knight Commander, he should have been able to demand entry into Raidenwood, find the insubordinate officers and put loyal men in their places. This would go a great deal toward achieving the trust of Clan Raider and the other northern Aeons.
But as usual, regulations weren't always reality. Especially in times like these.
"Raidenwood was built for sieges," Marabella said. "And time is the one thing we're short on now. We need to remember who the real enemy is."
Again with this talk of Palatine. Marabella and Chancellor Brighton spoke of the foreign ruler as if he were the epitome of all evil. He was a threat, to be sure. But a bigger threat to peace than these rogue Templars? Hard to say.
Cole looked up to address them both. "We can't help Ciena Raider either, but we can pass along this information to her parents in good faith. Tell them we’ve spotted a young woman who matches their daughter’s description. Make it clear we regard these rebels as hostile, and we're willing to share any other information that will lead to her rescue."
Marabella nodded. "I'll let my contact know as soon as possible."
"Good." Cole turned to Captain Foster. "Remember those Raider agents we passed in Ravenshore?"
"Have my message transcribed in a sealed letter," Cole said. "And send a pair of riders back to check if they're still there. If they are, pass along the letter."
Marabella rounded on him. "Excuse me, Knight Commander, are you sure that's the wisest use of resources?"
Here we go. Cole didn't take his eyes off Foster. "You're dismissed, Captain."
Foster saluted, all too eager to leave them to it.
Cole turned to Marabella next. "Lord and Lady Raider want their daughter back, and we want an alliance with them. So yes, I'd consider a redundant message to be a wise use of resources."
"I'm meeting with my contact in half an hour," she retorted. "I trust her to relay the message. Casella Raider will have the news a full day before your riders even reach Ravenshore."
Twenty years after the Purge, and we still rely on Aeons for long-distance communication. You'd think we'd have invented something else by now.
"You might trust her," Cole said. "But I'm not putting my faith in someone I've never met."
Marabella stepped forward, forcing Cole to meet her half-Aeon eyes, a sea of deep brown with flecks of gold. "Is it my contact you don't trust, or is it me?"
"It's nothing personal," Cole said. "I don't trust anyone here."
She crossed her arms. "Sounds lonely. And a bit melodramatic."
"Guilty on both accounts." Cole reached for his drink, frowning when he found it empty. "But it's kept me and my daughter alive these past ten years."
She raised a thin eyebrow. "And are you forgetting who brought you to the Chancellor after you killed Mason? Who brought medics for your injuries? Or who recommended you for this position in the first place?"
Cole picked up the flagon from the table and refilled his glass. Even if he owed the Spymaster his life, that only proved that she had a vested interest in him.
Marabella let out an audible sigh behind him. "If this is going to work, we'll need to trust each other. Pray tell, Knight Commander, what would I gain by betraying you?"
Cole didn't answer, but he had his suspicions. If he were the Sovereign Palatine, he'd send spies and saboteurs ahead to prepare for his arrival. They would be Aeons or half-Aeons who had gained the trust of the most powerful people, and they would work in subtle ways to sow the seeds of chaos. The traitor in Whitecliff was one such saboteur, but certainly not the only one.
Or maybe he really was jumping at shadows? His instincts had failed him before, after all. He waved a dismissive hand as he turned around to face her. "What's our next meeting?"
A short pause. "Alexel Trelidor. He's the leader of an enclave to the south. Somewhere between Dragonshard and Vauldenport. It's smaller than Whitecliff was, but the Ethermancers he trains are the strongest in all of Revera. Even the Solidors are no match for them."
Trelidor. The name used the same prefix as his wife’s clan, ‘Trelian’. A distant relative, perhaps?
"Sounds promising," Cole said. "How long until the meeting?"
"Unfortunately, we have to come to him. He's agreed to meet with us in Tregarde when we arrive."
Which meant several weeks of traveling if not months.
Marabella glanced down at her golden pocket watch. "If there's nothing else, Knight Commander, I should meet with my contact."
"Of course," he said. "Thank you, Spymaster."
She left, and Cole turned his attention back to the center of the map. Atop Raidenwood sat twenty red-painted Templar figurines. Nahlia would have to pass through the city on the way to Dragonshard, and there was nothing he could do to help her.
The Knight Commander was among the most powerful people in Revera. Yet, he felt just as helpless as those two months he spent as a Templar prisoner. Perhaps the line between kings and pawns was finer than most imagined.