Aaron Cole sat in a cafe two days north of Dragonshard. He’d hunkered down in a safe corner where he could drink his wine and wait for his wife.
Cole never liked wine, but he didn’t have a choice today. If one wanted ale in the South, one went to an ale house, not a wine house.
And yes, there was a difference down here.
The room itself was smaller than any proper taproom. It barely held a dozen people, never mind a crowd. Apparently, these southerners liked their intimate settings as well as their meager menus. A cross-breeze blew from one window to the other, and palm trees thrashed outside.
The other clientele looked only half-dressed—Dragonshard fashions, and all that. Most women had their arms and midriffs exposed. As for the men, you were lucky if they wore shirts at all. Cole had opted for a simple black shirt rather than his Templar fatigues. Still, he might as well have donned full battle armor for how much he stood out. His pale skin didn’t help either.
The minutes dragged on as he sipped the too-sweet wine. He hadn’t been half this nervous when he fought Saul Mason five months ago. At least then, his goal was clear. Could anything prepare him for seeing the woman he loved after ten years? Especially knowing that she might now be his enemy?
The bell tingled over the lintel as someone stepped inside. Cole immediately glanced up at the door.
It wasn’t Lyraina.
While his wife’s hair was dark red, this woman’s hair was black. While Lyraina’s skin was pale, hers was olive-colored. A local then, but not from this town. Her dress was finely woven cloth—a dark shade of burgundy that glimmered in the lamplight. It hugged her figure perfectly, which probably made it even more expensive.
The stranger approached his table, and he spotted bright flecks of green in her eyes. She spoke his name with a thick southern accent, “Knight Commander Cole?”
“I have a letter for you,” she said, “but its contents are delicate.”
That must be courtier-speak for “prove it.”
He reached into his belt pocket and pulled out his identification pin, along with the Knight Commander’s seal of office. He held both up for the woman to see.
Seemingly satisfied, she pulled out a sealed scroll from her satchel. “Lady Trelian regrets that she can’t be here in person, but she left you this.”
“What?” He’d been braced to hear it, but it was a blow nonetheless. Ten years of waiting, plus five months of traveling ... for this?
“Where is she?” Cole asked.
The woman refastened her satchel buckles before meeting his eye again. “I’m afraid I don’t know. Only that she left the palace this morning, and that she won’t return for several days. Perhaps the letter explains more.”
And with that, she spun on her heel and left.
Well, apparently he wouldn’t be sending a reply. Not that it mattered now. Two days from now, he’d be in Dragonshard regardless.
Cole glanced down at the letter, and the crescent moon imprinted into the wax. The Trelian sigil. Slowly, he cracked the seal, flattened the paper, and read.
I apologize for not meeting you in-person. It was my intention to be there, but something urgent came to my attention. It regards the Etherfall and its implications on the Clansmeet.
If I still know you as well as I think, then I suspect you will require proof that I am who I say.
The first words you ever said to me were, “How’s the swan?” We were thirteen years old at the time. I was attending a dinner with my parents in the imperial palace. You told me you cooked the swan yourself.
I didn’t believe you, and I told you as much. So you offered to cook me something else to demonstrate your skill. It turned out you were nearly as good as your father, even if he didn’t yet trust you for the important events.
You gave me a real tour of the palace after that. It was far better than the official tour I’d received with my family. You showed me scores of secret rooms and passages. Places to hide, places to watch, and places to listen. The sort of places that could only be found by children with too much time on their hands.
Our first home together was in the Crimson Cliffs east of Raidenwood. Our only home, I should say. I died that night when the Templars came for us. The memory is as clear to me as the first time we met. I remember the bullet and the blade that pierced my heart. I remember the fear as life left me.
My last word was to Nahlia—I told her to run. The last thing I saw was you throwing your hatchet into my killer’s shoulder.
I died that night, and yet I’m alive once again. A powerful Ethermancer brought me back. I tried to find you and Nahlia, but reports claimed the Templars had killed you both. You see, I believed you were dead just as you believed I was dead. I should have felt Nahlia through our bond if she were alive, but I felt nothing. It was only later that I learned how the resurrection damaged my soul, and I could no longer dream.
Knowing you, this evidence won’t be enough. I can already see your brow furrowing in suspicion. “Lyraina kept journals,” you might be thinking. “Anyone could find a sample of her handwriting and her inner-most thoughts.” We also exchanged hundreds of letters during our years apart—when I lived in Whitecliff and you attended the Templar Academy. It’s true, a skilled forger could have found these letters and emulated the way I wrote to you.
But consider this: even if I had been there in-person, there are Ethermancers who can do things to your mind. They can make you believe you’re somewhere else, or make you see things that don’t exist. Showing up at that cafe would prove nothing more than the words in this letter. Sometimes, you have to trust your instincts.
With that said, there’s something I need to tell you. A secret that few in Revera know.
There is no living heir of Clan Palatine. There is no tyrannical overlord ruling the continent of Palavar.
As with any nation, Palavar has rulers. But these rulers are not powerful Ethermancers bent on conquering Aeondom. I’ve traveled there myself and I’ve witnessed this with my own eyes. Palavar is a struggling land, far weaker than Revera or Valaysia. They’re nothing but ordinary people trying to survive.
This may seem sudden or improbable, but ask yourself this: has anyone ever seen this man they call Palatine? Do any of Chancellor Brighton’s people claim to have seen Palavar, much less its ruler?
Your Chancellor and his Spymaster, Marabella Lawguard, are taking rumors and legends and using them to fuel another war. A war between Aeons. A war to finish what the Purge began. They have set up this “Palatine” as a false adversary for you to fight. They blame every evil—past and future—on one man.
It’s no different from what happened at Whitecliff. These wars are merely ploys to weaken the Aeon race, and you’re wrapped up in the middle of this one. Even these invaders are nothing more than pieces on the Cruscendo board.
This Clansmeet will be dangerous. There are too many enemies under one roof, and it’s likely the meeting will escalate into violence. This is but a game for the most powerful of the Aeon leaders. You have nothing to gain by attending it, and I implore you to stay far away.
I still love you, Aaron Cole, albeit from afar. And I still love Nahlia. I realize things are complicated now. I realize the possibility that neither of you will forgive or believe me.
Even so, I ask you to keep your distance from Dragonshard until after the Clansmeet. Even if you can’t trust me, then trust yourself and your own instincts. Find Nahlia if you can, and leave together. Many will die in the Etherfall, and the world will become a far more dangerous place. You two will need each other.