Alina leaned back in the grass, looking up at the pale blue sky, and sighed happily. Beside her, one arm holding her close, Cathak Citrios glanced over at her and smiled. â€œGood day?â€
â€œVery.â€ Alina looked back at her lover, and grinned. â€œBut then, you know that already.â€
â€œItâ€™s nice to be appreciated.â€ Citrios matched Alinaâ€™s grin, and she luxuriated in the feel of the grass beneath her. For the last several days, she had been out with the crew of the Azure Sky, patrolling the waters around Juriss for ships out of Luthe. The Risen City had become increasingly aggressive since its rise during Calibration, and while no one thought that they knew of the Malfean gateway hidden in the islandâ€™s depths, they were still ready to act as predators. Alinaâ€™s visions had warned her of one such fleet, and the Sky had sailed out to lead it astray, pulling it apart. It wasnâ€™t a grand blow against the Conduit of Cytheria, but Alina wasnâ€™t ready for another fight of that magnitude yet. It was enough to work to keep the surrounding area free, and train for the day that she knew was coming.
And speaking of whichâ€¦ â€œThere they are.â€ She resisted sitting up for a moment, but then sighed. â€œRight on schedule.â€
Citrios followed her gaze towards the sky, nodding after a moment as he saw the specks on the horizon, already growing in size as they approached. One was traveling due west, with the other a good distance away, but they were converging towards the island. â€œAre you sure?â€
â€œHow many skyships are we likely to see out here?â€ Alina slid out of Citriosâ€™s grip, her expression turning solemn. â€œItâ€™s the ones Iâ€™ve dreamed of. Trust me.â€
â€œAlways.â€ Citrios rose a bit more slowly, his eyes fixed on the two boats gleaming as they sailed through the air. They were still several miles away, barely more than tiny shapes, but it would only be a few more minutes until they arrived. â€œWeâ€™d better get down to the harbour if weâ€™re going to beat them there.â€
Alina nodded, taking his hand. Together, the two walked down to the harbour docks. As they did so, her heart raced. Everything was coming together. It remained to be seen how accurate her earlier vision had been.
At the harbour, newly restored from the battle three months earlier, they found Cathak Lodaris already waiting, his armour polished to a shine and his swords belted at his hip. The former Immaculateâ€™s hair was pulled back in a ponytail behind him, and he stroked his beard as he watched the skyship approach. As the others walked towards him, he glanced over and nodded. â€œCitrios. Alina.â€ He gestured to the air. â€œIs this it?â€
â€œI think so.â€ The skyboats were slowing now, losing speed and altitude as they approached the harbour, lowering towards the water. The first splashed down in a swirl of sorcerous Essence, a rainbow of lights bleeding away from it as it pulled gently into dock. The three Exalts stepped forwards as a pair of sailors lowered a ramp, and dockworkers, trying to disguise their awe, scrambled to arrange it properly.
Alina stepped forwards as the first woman stepped off the boat. â€œMadame Conduit. Itâ€™s an honour to meet you.â€
For a moment, the other woman paused, then she suddenly grinned. â€œYou must be Alina. I was wondering whether you would know we were coming.â€ She gestured behind her. â€œI am, as you guessed, Serafin Ordered-Chaos. My husband, Alakazar the Sky Dragon, Silverâ€™s Hand.â€ As a brilliantly-clad Fair Folk stepped off the boat, a smile on his lips, Alina bowed, mostly to cover her surprise. She hadnâ€™t been aware of who was coming with the Conduit of Gaia, only her approach. A Fair Folk?
Well, she thought, glancing over at Lodaris as she rose, stranger things had happened.
Serafin, meanwhile, was continuing. â€œThetram Nash, a good friend of mine. And our companion, Tandar Kieran, of the Twilight Caste.â€
There was a long pause. Kieran, halfway down the ramp, broke it, his eyes meeting Lodaris with a smile that held a hint of nervousness. â€œUhâ€¦ weâ€™ve met.â€
â€œIndeed.â€ Lodaris, after another moment, bowed low. â€œYou are looking well, Master Tandar.â€
â€œYeah. You too.â€ Kieran finished stepping off the plank, glancing over at Alina. â€œSo, uhâ€¦ I take it youâ€¦ uhâ€¦â€
â€œI am aware of Madame Alinaâ€™s nature, yes. And I am no longer with the Hunt.â€ Everyone else was looking between the two now, and Lodaris glanced back at them, and then to Kieran. â€œI hope that this is notâ€¦â€
â€œWater under the bridge. We fought against each other, we fought together.â€ Kieran smiled. â€œBesides, everyone in Creation needs to stand together right now.â€
â€œYou speak wisdom.â€ The second skyboat was now mooring, and Lodaris glanced over to it as its passengers began to disembark. He froze. His jaw dropped. Everyone followed his glance, and Alinaâ€™s eyebrows rose as Citrios mirrored him. There was nothing particularly impressive about the middle-aged man strolling towards them. Although, she reflected, he looked vaguely familiarâ€¦
â€œRegent?â€ Citriosâ€™s voice was faint, and Alina gaped as it fell into place. The man shrugged.
â€œNot anymore, Iâ€™m afraid. Iâ€™ve been rendered superfluous.â€ He grinned, and bowed. â€œNow I am merely Tepet Fokuf.â€ A heartbeat pause. â€œEclipse caste.â€ He gestured behind him. â€œMy companions, Tenrek and Amaya, of the Zenith and Twilight castes, and our new friend Khory, who travels with Kieran.â€
Khory grinned. â€œWeâ€™ve met too. No hard feelings about that, ehn?â€
After a moment, Lodaris laughed, shaking his head. â€œWill wonders never cease. Of course not, Master Khory.â€
Alina looked around the gathering. Townsfolk were assembling to gape, whispers running through the crowd at the strange people on their docks. â€œMaybe we should continue this inside. I believe youâ€™re here to recruit me for something?â€
â€œI am.â€ Serafin smiled and nodded. â€œPlease, lead the way. I think weâ€™ll all want to be sitting for this.â€
The group moved off. Lodaris brought up the rear, muttering to himself. â€œThe Regent, a Solar. Wonders upon strangeness.â€