“We’ve got some bad news,” Hankrim said as Ciena and her brother returned to the tavern.
“And here I thought we filled the bad news quota for the day,” Ciena muttered. She collapsed on the leather sofa and put her boots up on the short table. “Am I gonna need a drink for this?”
Hankrim considered that for a moment, then turned to a younger guard. “Go get Lady Raider a drink, would you?”
“Figure of speech,” Ciena said, but the man was already gone. It wasn’t even noon yet, nevermind the fact that she despised alcohol in the first place.
“We are in a tavern,” her brother noted as he took a seat beside her. “What did you expect?”
Hankrim cleared his throat.
“Sorry,” Elias said. “Continue.”
The mercenary pulled out a white envelope with a crimson seal. “A note from your uncle.”
He handed it to Ciena first, but she passed it to her brother without comment. She knew how to read, but she always got the characters mixed up in her mind. Better to avoid the headache.
Elias tore open the note and leaned under the nearest oil lamp. He sat there for several long moments, brow furrowed.
“What’s it say?” Ciena prodded.
“Cladius knows we’re here, and he wants to meet with us.”
“Damnit.” Ciena rounded on Hankrim. “Who gave you this?”
“Two men dropped it off while you were out—looked like palace guards in street clothes. They knocked on the door and asked for you both by name.”
“Did you tell them anything?”
Hankrim gave her a flat look “Yeah, I spilled the whole bloody plan.” He waved that away. “I told them to piss off, and that I’ve never heard of you.”
“And yet, they still gave you the letter.”
Now it was her brother’s turn to clear his throat. “According to our dear uncle, things aren’t as they appear in Raidenwood. ‘There’s no reason for us to be enemies,’ he says. He also promises us safe passage if we meet him in the palace. Any time of our choosing.”
“Well, that sounds safe.” Ciena let her boots slide off the short wooden table and onto the stone floor. “How the hell did he find us?”
“Don’t forget,” he began, “Cladius has found and killed more Aeons than any Templar Dreadknight. We knew that risk when we came here.”
“Still, someone had to tell him.” She glanced around the tavern’s back room before settling her eyes on Hankrim. “There were more of your mercenary friends here last night—at least nine or ten—they all heard you drop our names.”
The guard returned, carrying a glass of brown liquid on a tray. When he set it down in front of Ciena, Hankrim picked it up and took a drink. “I wouldn’t have said your names if I didn’t trust them.”
“Trust can be misplaced. And if Cladius had time to write this fancy little note, I’d say he heard the news last night.”
Elias steepled his fingers and leaned forward. “I don’t think it was anyone here.”
“Thank you,” Hankrim said. By his tone, you would think Elias had just defended his honor.
Ciena narrowed her eyes at her brother. “And your reasoning is?”
“Everyone who heard our names last night also heard the plan. If Cladius has a spy on Nightbridge, why play that card now? Why not wait until after we enter the tomb?”
“We can’t enter the tomb,” Ciena reminded him.
“Not without going through the palace,” he agreed.
“Wait,” Hankrim broke in. “What?”
Elias held up a hand to the mercenary and continued, “The point remains. If he knew our purpose here, he could have taken us by surprise at an opportune moment. This note would be a waste.”
“Unless he doesn’t have the manpower,” Ciena said. “Good soldiers must be scarce with the siege upstairs.”
Elias jabbed a finger at the note. “But you’re assuming this meeting is a trap. Why? If that’s our destination, then why would he warn us?”
Ciena furrowed her brow. So much for not getting a headache.
“Is that even your uncle’s handwriting?” Hankrim cut in.
Elias glanced at the note again. “I honestly can’t say. It’s been ten years.”
Ciena considered the mercenary’s question for a moment. “You think he had scribes mass-produce these?” That was a common Templar tactic they’d learned from Battlemaster Vash. Folk were quick to reveal themselves if they thought they’d already been spotted.
Hankrim shrugged. “I can send a runner to the Brass Bloods—see if they got a letter too.”
“It’s worth checking,” Elias said with a nod. “But it doesn’t take a master spy to place us here. We work for Thane Solidor, and so does the Onyx Company. Both facts might as well be public knowledge.”
Well, when he put it that way, coming to this tavern seemed like a stupid idea in the first place. Elias was right though—the household staff in Villa Solizhan numbered in the hundreds. You couldn’t keep secrets with that many people. The assassination attempts had proved that early on.
“For now,” her brother continued, “I think it’s best to assume the simplest answer: Cladius knows we’re here, but he doesn’t know why.”
“So what’s this mean for the plan?” Hankrim finally asked. “Can we get into Raiden’s tomb?”
Ciena groaned. “The bloody tomb is sealed.”
“It was sealed before,” Elias clarified, “but we thought we could at least access the door from the outer chamber. Our uncle had that caved in too. That’s why none of your people could find the entrance.”
Hankrim looked back and forth between them. “So, this is impossible then?”
“Cladius built another way into the outer chamber,” Elias said. “A catwalk that runs along the bottom of Highbridge, connecting the western wall to the palace”
“So the only way into the tomb is through the palace,” Ciena said. “And if that’s not bad enough, Cladius is expecting us.”
“That about sums it up.” Elias let out a breath. After mulling it over for a few moments, he met her eyes again. “You know my stance on this. This is bigger than us. It’s even bigger than the war against Palatine. I’m willing to risk everything if you are.”
Ciena nodded once. She reached over to the other cushion and squeezed Steelbreaker’s hilt. “Breaking into the palace will be hard, but not impossible. Getting out of here will be the real fight.”
That was the problem with Raidenwood—there were only a handful of ways in or out. As she spoke, she idly wondered if two Justicars could survive a jump from one of the city’s main bridges. They probably could, but she wasn’t about to test it. Stealth might be a wiser choice.
“At least the tunnel is on the bottom level of the palace,” she said. “That means we’ll be far away from Cladius.”
Elias was silent for another minute. Aegon. Not a good sign.
He glanced back down at the note in his hands. “You heard what Lawson said.”
Lawson was the name of the palace steward they’d met on Marketbridge that same morning. Her brother had recognized his face, and he shared the name within minutes of the encounter.
Ciena felt her frown deepen. “You want to turn this into a bloody revolution.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“We’re finally back home,” she continued, “and now it’s making you sentimental. Let me guess, you think it’s our duty to rule—that we can somehow fix this mess.”
Hankrim rose awkwardly from the other sofa. “I’ll just leave you two alone, then.”
“These people are trapped and starving,” Elias said. “Our people. And we both know what happens when a city is sacked.”
“Three years ago, these same people would have cheered to see our heads on spikes.” Ciena made a wide gesture at the ceiling “They’re nothing but a herd of mindless sheep.”
The mercenaries’ footsteps faded down the short corridor, and Elias met her eyes. “You say that as if you’ve never been swayed by a charismatic ruler and his cause.”
Talk about a low blow. From her brother of all people. Ciena held his gaze, curling her fingers into a fist.
“I’m not holding it against you.” He made a placating gesture. “I’m saying that it’s in our nature—whether we’re Aeon or human. Not everyone does the right thing, all the time. People do what they have to to survive. Does that justify it? No. But they’re not so different from us.”
Ciena clenched her jaw and looked away. She was too quick to judge people—she always had been. Even so, her brother was the one being impulsive this time. Whether Raidenwood needed their help or not was irrelevant.
“I’m not proposing anything that will put the original plan in danger,” Elias said.
“Then what are you proposing?”
“Only that we prepare for every possibility. I know I’m not the only one here who has thought about re-taking Raidenwood.”
“A stupid childhood dream,” Ciena said. Alexel had promised her Raidenwood back when she’d been the proverbial sheep. For most of her life, this city had been a symbol. She thought that if she reclaimed Raidenwood, she would never feel helpless again. That when Cladius looked into her eyes, he would realize his folly.
But now, Ciena knew true loss and pain. No city or throne would fill that void. What’s more, she’d tried vengeance more than once now, and the aftertaste was always bitter. Cladius could die well enough on his own once the Palavans broke through the western gates.
“You wanted Raidenwood for the wrong reasons before,” Elias said. “And I know your goal is to face Trelidor again. Taking back Raidenwood could be a stepping stone toward that. We’ve already talked about it as a long-term plan—after Thane and Relyn return with allies—but what if the time is now?”
Ciena found herself nodding. If they had to fight for Raidenwood regardless, she’d rather do that from inside the walls than outside.
“Besides,” her brother continued. “I get the feeling this letter is more than just a cheap trap.”
Again, she couldn’t help but agree. Their uncle wouldn’t have stayed in power for twelve years with plots this bad. Something else was going on.
“Alright,” Ciena finally said. “But Raiden’s tomb is still the primary goal. We can prepare for whatever we want, but nothing gets in the way of that.”
Elias nodded his agreement, then looked over the back of the leather sofa. “Hankrim,” he called out.
A few moments of silence passed, then the young mercenary stepped through the red curtains.
“How many soldiers does the Onyx Company have in Raidenwood?”
“Two-hundred,” he answered at once.
“Good. Spread the word, and get the officers together—we’re attacking the palace tonight.”