The Raptor's Claw soared over the snow-capped mountains. Thane's crew had all donned black-tinted goggles as the sun crept over the horizon, spearing its golden rays through the airship's glass canopy.
Thane lowered his own goggles as he climbed the last few stairs onto the bridge.
"Officer on deck!" a technician's voice called out. Either Dario or Karlo. The Maric brothers looked nothing alike, but they sounded identical.
"Report?" Thane asked.
"Still deep in the Cloudwals," Xiao Fang replied from the helm. "Power at fifteen percent."
"That's a one and a five," First Mate Vinko clarified before Thane could ask. Fang's Valaysian accent was far thicker than Relyn's, and numbers were especially tricky.
"We're flying into the wind." Fang kept his eyes ahead with both hands on the mahogany wheel. "Otherwise we’d have made it twice this far."
Thane held onto the railing as he shuffled down the bridge. The ship had flown smoothly all morning, but he'd spilled his coffee far too many times to take chances.
"Do we know how much farther?" he asked.
"I'd have to consult the map," Fang replied.
"Or the navigator," First Mate Vinko added helpfully.
If nothing else, Fang and the airmen had mastered the art of sarcasm. There was no map or navigator, of course. The Cloudwal mountains divided the west half of Valaysia from the east, and there was little travel between them. Even dragonriders were wary of the journey since larger breeds were said to inhabit these mountains. A few rumors even spoke of dragons big enough to devour Thane's airship.
As someone whose family bred dragons, Thane had his doubts about that last rumor. Technically, dragons never stopped growing, but they also lost their ability to fly if they grew too large. Finding enough food was also a problem at that size.
Still, no sense in taking chances. Most dragon breeds slept in the early morning, so that was when they made their journey.
Thane kept walking until he reached the front of the bridge. The airmen and their tools faded from his vision, and the white mountain peaks filled his view.
He'd flown long before this airship, but riding a dragon demanded complete focus. You could hardly enjoy the view when you had to worry about keeping your body in the saddle. Not to mention the face full of wind.
But this—to stand here without a helmet, with a mug in his hand, watching the world roll by below. Even after all this time, it felt more surreal than dreaming.
"Smoke up ahead!" Dario or Karlo called out. "North by northeast."
Thane turned to his left where a black plume laced the air beyond the horizon. "Let's swing by for a look," he told Fang.
The deck shifted beneath him as Fang steered the ship toward it.
"Sure, what's the worst it could be?" one of the Maric brothers wondered aloud.
"A dragon that eats airships for breakfast?" First Mate Vinko suggested.
Thane's lips curled up. "It's been a while since our last skirmish. Have to keep you lot on your toes somehow."
The minutes passed as the ship drew closer to the smoke. The mountain sloped steadily downward and the snowy terrain gave way to green valleys. Structures of wood and stone appeared in a cluster on the horizon. More than a dozen smaller houses sat scattered throughout the surrounding plateaus.
"Looks like we have ourselves a village," Thane said. "Rice farmers, by the looks of it.”
From this high vantage, the terraced paddies created swirling patterns on both sides of the valley. The water reflected the morning sky, broken up by borders of green like a massive stained glass window.
Beyond the rice paddies, he spotted a smooth grass field several miles from the main cluster of buildings. Probably where their animals grazed.
"Fang," Thane called out. "You think you can set the ship down there?"
"Easy enough," Fang replied.
"You sure about that, Captain?" one of the Marics spoke up. "That field can't be more than a few miles wide.
Thane grinned again as the vessel moved in the indicated direction. The airship was simple enough to take off and maneuver, but landing it was another matter. And in Fang's case, he'd spent the better part of a year mastering the skill before he became captain.
Fang grunted. "Sorry, Lieutenant, I didn't catch that."
First Mate Vinko cleared his throat. "I believe Lieutenant Dario just volunteered to clean the privies, Captain."
"Good to hear," Fang said.
"Hey!" Dario protested. "That was Karlo!"
"Was not!" Karlo shouted back. "I think Captain Fang could land this ship on a nail."
As they descended, Fang and the first mate bellowed orders as the airmen worked to lower the landing gear and keep the ship stable. Thane grasped the railing until they were safely on the ground, then he headed down to mid-deck to wake his wife.
Like most rooms on the Raptor's Claw, the king's cabin didn't waste an inch of space. Every piece of furniture was bolted to the floor with barely enough room for two to walk side-by-side. The wooden wardrobes stretched all the way to the ceiling while smaller cupboards arched over the writing desks.
Thane wove his way around to Relyn's side of the bed, tilting the blinds to let in the morning sunlight.
Relyn lay on her stomach, arms wrapped around her pillow with her back peeking out from the blankets. Thane leaned down and planted a kiss on her shoulder. She always smelled good in the morning—like ocean salt and sunlight.
"Did we land yet?" She rolled over on her side, stretching her arms like a cat.
Thane nodded. "We're on the other side of the Cloudwal."
"Good." She grabbed his wrist and pulled him closer. Thane lost his balance and crashed into the bed beside her. For a moment, he considered giving into the temptation and letting the crew wait for him.
Guilt overshadowed that idea a second later. They weren't here in Valaysia for pleasure. It was one thing if they were mid-flight with no means to act, but Alexel Trelidor was killing Reverans by the day. What sort of king would he be if he lay here while they starved and died back in his homeland?
They'd stolen this airship to fight Trelidor, but had they done any real fighting?
No. Not unless you counted a few small raids on Palavan soldiers, which hardly altered the course of the war. Trelidor still held his sister hostage in Sunfall. He still ruled Palavar, the Ember Isles, and half of Revera. And judging by the army Thane had seen outside Raidenwood, the other half of the continent would be his before the year's end.
This mission to Eastern Valaysia was their last hope to gather allies.
Relyn kissed the tips of his fingers, and her lips were as soft and warm as the rest of her.
When she looked up at him again, disappointment flashed in her jade green eyes. "Oh. You're wearing your downward-spiral face."
"Since when do I have a 'downward-spiral face'?"
"You've always had that face," she replied. "It shows up whenever you think of things you can't control."
Huh. Maybe that was a downward spiral after all. Not that recognizing it would do him any good. The only way to solve their problems was to take action against Trelidor, and they couldn't do that without revealing themselves as enemies to his new empire. If that happened, Trelidor would execute his sister, and the war would turn to Dragonshard.
Thane rolled his shoulders and took Relyn's hand in his. "We found a village at the base of the mountains,” he said. “Ilsa and I are going to ask for directions. I could use your expertise."
Relyn snorted. “Unless one of you speaks rural-rice-farmer, you’ll need a lot more than that.”
She tossed her blankets aside and dressed with her usual efficiency. The top of her hair was already coiled in a black braid behind her head. As for the sides, she'd had those shaved down nearly to her skin. This wasn’t to say her hair looked tidy—far from it—but at least she wouldn’t get mistaken for royalty.
Thane wore a tricorne hat of brown-dyed felt and a black patch over his left eye. He and Relyn also doused their eyes in Voidcap whenever they left the ship.
A bit stereotypical perhaps, but the disguises had worked so far. While rumors of their new airship circulated all around Aeondom, Trelidor still hadn’t pinpointed the thieves.
Ten minutes later, they walked down the airship's ramp into the open field. The wind tugged at their cloaks, but it wasn't nearly as cold as he’d expected.
The village sat at the bottom of the hill, perhaps two miles away. Relyn hadn’t seen it from the sky, so she examined it with a brass spyglass instead.
"What do you think?" Thane asked.
"Towns like this have no more than two-hundred people," she said. "That means everyone knows each other, and they will be wary of strangers."
"Hostile?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Eastern Valaysians are more peaceful. They don't have the violent history we do."
"Peaceful doesn't mean friendly though," Ilsa said as she stepped up beside them. Captain Fang's wife was probably the least threatening person in Thane's retinue—a stark contrast to Thane and Relyn's outward appearances. This, combined with her mental Ethermancy abilities, made her perfect for small town excursions like this.
Thane nodded his agreement. "I've heard similar things about the Cultivators themselves."
The three of them continued talking as they set off down the hill. Green grass covered the ground beneath their boots while the white mountains still dominated the western horizon.
In a way, this village reminded Thane of Whitecliff Enclave, albeit more rustic. Most of the houses were solid stone, built up against the cliffs to protect them from the elements. Laundry hung out from windows on thin ropes, and smoke wafted up from the chimneys and cookfires.
The villagers' skin was darker than most Valaysians—closer to Thane's own. They wore fur-lined hats, thick boots, and animal skins. One woman was feeding a cluster of chickens while two men gardened outside a hut. A group of five children kicked a leather ball back and forth in the dirt. They shot Thane's group a few curious glances, but no one stared.
"Look for an inn," Relyn said. "Or even a store—someone who might be used to strangers."
They made a full circuit of the village, but there were no obvious signs among the buildings that might indicate an inn or any other establishment. What's more, the layout didn't follow the typical Western Valaysian structure with a landlord's house in the center.
However, there was one person who eyed Thane's group with interest as they passed. An elderly man sat on his wooden stairs with a steaming bowl in his hand. His black hair was tied in a knot behind his head, and his beard was peppered with gray.
Thane shot a glance at Relyn and Ilsa. "Time for a backup plan?"
Relyn shrugged and approached the man's modest hut. She sketched a shallow bow and explained in Valaysian how they'd just passed through the Cloudwal mountains.
The man replied—ostensibly in Valaysian—but Thane couldn't make heads or tails of the words. Relyn had once explained how Valaysian had over a hundred different dialects, and each one was as different from the others as modern Reveran was from High Reveran. Without the Ethereal for widespread communication, she suspected they would have diverged into entirely different languages by now.
"We're looking for the Cultivator's Enclave," Relyn finally said. "Could you tell us how to get there?"
The man's eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he started speaking again. Even without understanding a word, the message was clear. This village was on friendly terms with the Cultivators, and they didn't share their secrets with outsiders.
Especially dangerous-looking foreigners, Thane thought. Their disguises had served them well enough for most of their journey, but they did nothing to make them look respectable.
It probably doesn't help that we arrived in a flying warship either.
"He says he knows who you are," Relyn translated to Reveran.
Thane raised an eyebrow. "Me?"
She nodded. "Even on this side of the Cloudwal, they have heard of the Sky Pirate King. He says you're wanted on three continents."
"Three continents? Well, that hardly seems fair. We haven't committed any crimes in Valaysia yet."
"No crimes we know of," Ilsa added.
"At least he mentioned you," Relyn said. "No love for the Sky Pirate Queen this morning."
Thane could have sworn the old man's lip quirked up at her last comment.
"I'll make it up to you later," Thane told her under his breath, then he turned back to the man.
"You're right," he said in his best Valaysian. "We are pirates, but we're the best kind." He reached into his coinpurse, then pressed several gold suns on the wooden table between them. "We're the kind that passes out gold rather than plundering it."
The man waved a hand, speaking in his Eastern Valaysian dialect. Thane turned to his wife for a translation.
"He's giving you a very long lecture," Relyn said, "about how loyalty can't be bought."
Thane frowned, taking back the coins. The Cultivator's Enclave could be anywhere within a thousand miles from here. Before this trip, Thane had always been able to memorize maps and go anywhere he needed.
And now ... Aegon. Did Revera's future really rest on this man giving him directions?
Of course, there were proper cities in Eastern Valaysia too—cities as large as Dragonshard, maybe even as large as Sunfall. Getting a map wasn't impossible, but it would take months to forge the right connections and to get access to the proper places. They might not have that much time. Thane was already pushing his luck by having Dazen rule Dragonshard in his stead.
How long until Trelidor figured out they were here?
"More lecturing," Relyn said when the man finished talking. "We should be very ashamed of ourselves, he said."
Wonderful. But then ... what was that in the old man's eye as Relyn translated? Amusement? Her translation had obviously been sarcastic, but he seemed to grasp that.
Did this village elder speak Reveran? Unlikely. But then ... several other pieces clicked together in Thane's mind. This man knew about The Raptor's Claw and the sky pirates, but this village hosted no travelers. The lack of an inn proved that.
Thane gazed back at the old man. His eyes were as dark as any human's. But then, Aeons from this part of the continent didn't have bright eyes in the first place, did they? Unlike the rest of Aeondom, they weren't descendants of the Archaeons. They had discovered their powers independently from their ancestors, harnessing their energy from nature rather than Etherite.
"You're not protecting the Cultivators," Thane said in Reveran. "You're one of them.”
Surprise flashed in the old man's face.
"And you speak Reveran," Thane added.
"Yes," the man spoke in Thane's own language this time, though his accent was thicker than any he'd heard before. "All Cultivators are educated in language at a young age." He shot a glance up at Ilsa who was still standing behind Thane and Relyn. "We are also trained to resist the tricks of mental Ethermancy."
"Oh." Ilsa took a step back and cleared her throat. "My apologies."
Thane drew in a deep breath. He didn't like taking risks with their true identities, but it wasn't as if he'd made progress by playing it safe. "Are you familiar with our situation back in Revera?"
The old man nodded once, taking a sip of his tea.
Thane removed his black eyepatch, revealing a bright green eye with no Voidcap. "I'm Thane Solidor," he whispered to the man. "King of Dragonshard. This is my wife, Relyn."
"We know who you are. The Cultivator Sect has eyes and ears all through Revera."
Aegon. Why did everyone have a secret spy network except for him? Relyn had planted the first seeds of her own, but she'd spent far more time studying Ethermancy with Ilsa.
"So you know why I'm here?" Thane asked after a brief pause.
"Yes, but the Cultivators will not help you." The man set down his teacup with a slow air of finality. "You've wasted your time traveling this far when you should be back home, fighting your own battles."
Thane let out a slow breath. “Is this because I failed some test of yours?”
“There was no test,” he said. “I am only stating a fact.”
"This war could come to Eastern Valaysia next," Thane retorted. "Palatine already rules two continents, and he won't stop there. We need to unite now before it's too late."
He hummed in consideration. "It is not for me to argue for the Council."
"Then let me speak with them myself," Thane said. "Please. I'm only asking for directions. Nothing more."
The man paused, and Thane pressed on, "I'll leave peacefully whether you help me or not, but I won't give up. I won't go back to Revera until I've spoken to them. And every hour I delay here, more innocents die under Palatine's rule."
The man sat very still, and there was no sound but the sigh of the wind and a few birds singing on top of his hut. Thane resisted the urge to speak or fidget impatiently.
"Very well," he finally said. "The Cultivator's Enclave is in the Kiburi Canyon to the northeast of here. The journey is two weeks on foot, and three days by dragon. Faster, perhaps, in your airship."