Twilight fell over Raidenwood and shadows cloaked the lower levels. Nahlia made it past the guards without incident, though her breath almost stopped when they raised the lantern to her eyes.
Normally, the flecks of cyan were only visible in direct sunlight. Then again, humans were always finding new ways to detect her race. Some even claimed they could identify an Aeon by nothing but the patterns in her irises. There was little basis for this theory, but that didn't stop the accusations or arrests.
Finding the meeting spot proved more difficult than getting through the main gates. She was supposed to meet a man here named Xiao Fang. Not only was he a major crime-lord in Raidenwood, but he also led a division of The Onyx Company, an international mercenary group.
Simple enough. Now she just had to find the tavern where he did business.
The city comprised about fifteen main bridges, and each one was a small city within the larger one. Marketbridge acted as the center of trade, packed with hundreds of shops, stalls, and street vendors. Freebridge had the widest streets, serving as the central thoroughfare for those traversing one side of the canyon to another. Highbridge led directly to the plateau where the palace and gardens sat, along with the ruins of the old Aeon chapel.
Nightbridge was the lowest point in the city. It was so far below the gates, Nahlia had to descend almost twenty flights of stairs to get there. The streets were humid with the river's mist, and they smelled like a latrine. What's more, there wasn't a city guard in sight. Apparently, even they knew better than to tread down here.
After more than twenty minutes of searching, and eventually bribing urchins for information, Nahlia found the right street-side alcove. The entrance was so plain and unassuming, she could have walked this route a thousand times and never noticed it. Simple oaken planks made up the door without so much as a sign or nameplate. No surprise there, considering the tavern lacked a proper name in the first place. Most folk just called it "Nightbridge," which was about as silly as calling the Moonstone Inn "Northshire."
The door opened with a creak and the pungent scent of burning fadeflower struck her nose. Would her Ethermancy protect her the same way it did from poisons and alcohol? She was about to find out.
The taproom was dimly lit and filled with the low murmur of conversation. The stools and chairs bore scratches like battle scars, and some looked like they might shatter at the slightest touch.
Nahlia tried to act casual as she made her way to the bar, but she knew her efforts were in vain. Despite her leather armor and shorter hair, she still stood out like a flower in a field of serrate steel.
After making her wait for several uncomfortable minutes, the bartender met her eye.
Nahlia cleared her throat. "I'll have a double shot of your barrel whiskey, please."
She almost winced at her own words. Please? Really? People were barely that polite in the Moonstone, and that was at least twenty steps above this place. Thankfully, the man behind the counter didn't seem to care. In fact, he didn't move at all.
"Two copper," he muttered through the dark forest of his beard.
Nahlia produced a pair of pennies from her pocket and set them on the scratched up counter. The bartender returned with brown liquid in a glass that was surprisingly clean.
"I'm looking for someone," Nahlia said. "A man named Fang?"
"Back room," he said with the slightest nod of his head. "Don't talk to him unless you're invited."
"Thanks." Nahlia picked up her drink and made her way around the bar, past a pair of ostentatious red curtains that looked as out of place here as she did.
The back of the tavern was similar to the front. In one corner, a pair of women sang a duet on a small, circular stage. One sat on a stool strumming her lute while the other stood to her right. Their skin was even darker than Thane's, and Nahlia guessed they were from southern Revera or the Ember Isles.
At the opposite end of the room sat a raised stone platform that was almost like a dais. There, three Valaysian men lounged on leather sofas around a long wooden table. One had an air of power about him, with a hookah in his mouth and a blonde-haired woman on his lap.
The bartender seemed like he knew his business, so Nahlia made for a table near the dais without approaching it directly. The surrounding area was far more crowded than the front, though she noticed a good ten feet of empty space around Fang's section.
Even so, half the room kept glancing up at the dais as if Fang were a king holding court. Were they all waiting their turn to speak with him? Aegon ... this might be a long night.
She'd only crossed half the distance when a fight broke out a few tables down. One man stuck a dagger through the other's eye, and most of the room didn't bother looking up. Even the soft music rolled on heedlessly.
Nahlia tried to swallow. When she found her throat dry, she raised her glass to her lips.
A few more steps, and another man blocked her path. Tall and thin, he was clean-shaven with dark hair that fell around his eyes.
"Let me buy you a drink," he said.
"Thanks," Nahlia held up her glass, "but I already have one."
"You know what I mean."
"Sorry." She turned to walk past him. "I prefer blonds."
"Yeah?" The man grabbed her wrist and squeezed. He leaned forward, touching his mouth to her ear. "Then you shouldn't have come here alone."
Nahlia bit her lip and looked around. She'd heard of moments like this. In a respectable town like Northshire, someone would have intervened on her behalf by now. Usually, one hard look from Father or Uncle Locke was enough to send any mercenary slinking away.
This place was different. If she didn't defend herself now, she'd be dragged out the door without a second glance from anyone.
To her surprise, her body didn't freeze like it would have three months ago. If anything, it was coiled to attack. She'd been pulling energy from her pendant without realizing it, and her legs itched to move into Moonform. The man's grip was strong, but his technique was terrible. In all her time training with Elias, he'd never given her an opening this easy.
Nahlia set her drink down on the table and met his eye. "Unhand me," she told him.
When he didn't move, she added, "Or I'll break your arm."
Her voice came out so calm, it surprised even her. The man met her gaze, and his own eyes widened with realization. For a second, Nahlia was sure he would release his grip and back away.
Then his other hand darted for the dagger at his belt.
Nahlia twisted the man's arm, grappling the back of his wrist. She put another hand behind his elbow and spun him straight-armed out over the table.
By then, it was too late to turn back. If her attacker broke free, he would either overpower her or force her to use her Ethermancy. So Nahlia pushed down with all her might, and the man's arm cracked like a tree branch.
Her assailant let out a cry of pain, but it only slowed him for half-a-heartbeat. Then he whirled around with a blade in his other hand.
Nahlia fell into Moonform and sidestepped his strike. The pain in her attacker's arm left him staggering, and she moved behind him with ease. Then, using the momentum of her step, she kicked him behind his knee.
Again, she was used to fighting Elias Raider. Even if she landed a kick on him—which was only when he let her—striking Elias was like striking a rod of iron. This boy, on the other hand, stumbled forward and hit his chin on a stool.
Unfortunately, what her assailant lacked in skill, he made up for in raw fortitude. He pushed himself up and pulled a second dagger from his belt.
Aegon. Wasn’t a broken arm supposed to be more painful than this?
Their skirmish had drawn more than a dozen spectators. No doubt her attacker's pride was worth more to him than his life at this point.
He charged a second time, and Nahlia dodged three more slashes. One grazed her forearm, but she pushed energy toward the cut before anyone could see her bleed.
Her opponent overstretched his next attack, and Nahlia grabbed his wrist. Then, using the same technique as before, she twisted the man's arm and seized the dagger from his grasp.
Nahlia closed the distance between them and held the blade to his throat. She only meant to threaten him, but a thin line of red broke above his Adam's apple.
The blood ran down the smooth blade, and Nahlia recoiled as if she were the one who was cut. Before either of them could say anything, a slow clap broke the silence.
Nahlia looked left and right, trying to discern the source of the applause. Finally, her gaze met the Valaysian man on the dais who now making a "come hither" motion in her direction.
Without looking back at her injured attacker, Nahlia grabbed her drink from the table and climbed the stairs of the dais.