Thane was on his way to his bedchamber when he heard the familiar melody of harp strings echoing down the corridor, paired with a voice like honey on bread. He pushed open the door to the chambers he and Kira shared. Flickering candlelight painted the room in shades of orange, and the last rays of the evening sun struggled to break through the wall of clouds.
Kira sat playing her harp on the bed, her fingers dancing through the strings with expert precision.
Aegon, but she's beautiful.
The thought came as a surprise, although a part of him had always believed it. Not every freed slave could have passed for an Aeon princess. Not if she had years to prepare for the task. But Kira's voice held an unparalleled strength and passion, even among Thane's own people.
As the last notes faded in the air, she lowered her hands and turned to regard him."So? "What do you think?"
"It's perfect." HIs response came out softer than he'd intended, and he cleared his throat. "I can't say I've ever heard it before."
"I'd certainly hope not," she said with a grin. "It's still a work in progress, after all."
"You wrote this, then?"
She nodded, not quite meeting his eye. "It's inspired by a story from Aeonica."
"I thought I recognized some of the names." Thane kicked off his boots and sat on the bed beside her.
"Thane Solidor!" Kira's jaw dropped, and her eyes grew wider." I'm a lady of the court! Imagine, a boy and a girl... alone... unchaperoned in her bedchamber. Keep this up, and we're going to have quite the scandal on our hands."
"Oh?" Thane raised an eyebrow. "And where were these courtly manners that night you climbed out your window?"
She waved a dismissive hand. "A mere moment of weakness."
"And when you stalked me into that dark alley?"
"It's been quite the week of weaknesses on my part."
"Regardless," Thane said with a shake of his head. "I'd hardly call it a scandal under the circumstances. We'd be quite a boring couple, really—more cliche than scandalous."
"Oh, but of course," she replied. "The handsome Aeon prince of Dragonshard and his sister's handmaiden, the exotic beauty of the Southern Isles. We may a cliche, but we're also the stuff of great songs and stories."
Thane grinned, taking that as a sign to move closer.
Kira turned away with a dramatic tossing of her black hair. "But alas, as an Aeon prince, certain things are expected of you. Knowing your father, he'll probably sentence you to marry some highborn Aeon lady to secure an alliance for your clan."
His lip twitched upward. "You've been reading far too much Aeon lore. We can't have nice things like political alliances when we're fighting for our lives." He glanced out the window toward the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. "Besides, the rest of my race is hiding out there somewhere, and I'm helping the Templars find then. Not what you'd call friendly terms."
"Isn't that when alliances are made?" Kira offered. "Not much to gain by marrying your friends now, is there?"
That much was true. Another fact he'd always known, but rarely dwelled on. Instead of replying, Thane reached into his cloak and pulled out a twine-wrapped package, setting it on the bed between them.
Kira raised her eyebrows in question.
"Open it," Thane said.
She loosened the twine, revealing a small bundle of fruits that glowed like treasure in the candlelight
"Are these real?" Kira picked up a peach and ran her fingers over the soft surface.
Thane nodded. "I was down in the market today when I ran into a merchant from Dragonshard. You said they were the thing you missed most, so..."
Kira took a slow, delicate bite, savoring the moment as if it were too good to be true. Then she closed her eyes and smiled.
"They're perfect," she whispered. "Thank you."
They sat together in silence for several minutes until Thane turned back to the wooden harp at the head of the bed. "You know, It's been a while since you've played anything just for me."
"Mm?" Kira's eyes danced from the instrument, then back to him. She had to swallow her bite of fruit before she could speak again. "What do you want to hear?"
"Another of your original pieces," he said at once. "They suit you far better than the classics."
"Oh?" Kira wiped her hands dry but made no move for the harp. "And what makes you think I have more than just the one?"
"Because I've heard you play them before. Not here, but back in court."
"Really?" Her lips curled upward, more sincere than he'd ever seen her before. "I didn't think you noticed me back then."
"You'd be surprised." Thane reached over and handed her the harp. "Now play. I did bring you fruit, after all. You owe me."
And so Kira sang another story from Aeonica. Of the Archaeon Treluwyn, and how she first came into her powers as an Ethermancer. Despite having no training, she had faith in Aegon, and he helped her heal her mother, saving her from a fatal wound.
As she played, Thane felt the pulsing energy of the candles nearby. He reached out absentmindedly with his thoughts, causing the small flames to flicker and sway to the rhythm of Kira's song. As the sun finally sank below the blue horizon, additional candles sprang to life around the room.
Kira stared at the display, setting her harp down on a pillow once she finished her song. "How do you do it, anyway?"
"What?" Thane said. "Ethermancy?"
"You've never asked me about that before," Thane scooted closer. "Why the sudden curiosity?"
Her gaze wandered around the room before settling on him again. "You said it yourself, I've been reading too many stories. I'd rather hear it from you."
"Fair enough." Thane shifted on the bed to sit cross-legged. "I can't speak for the other two orders. But for a Sanctifier, it's the use of thought energy to manipulate other forms of energy. Heat... light... electricity."
He turned to face a candle on the nightstand "My thoughts can control that fire the same way they control my body. I can reach out and form a connection, making the flame an extension of my thoughts.
"Energy can't be created or destroyed..." He extinguished the candle with a wave of his hand, lacing the air with smoke. Then he opened his palm to reveal a small, solitary flame. "But it can be transferred."
Kira smiled at the showmanship. "As impressive as that is, I could have read about the science of it in the library. I want to how it feels to control fire."
"Ah." Thane inclined his head. "So I'm your muse, then."
"Well..." She looked around at the empty room, suppressing a grin. "You may not be my first choice, but you know what they say about beggars..."
Thane chuckled and shook his head. "Alright. You know how when you're angry or excited or afraid, you can feel that in your body?"
"Sure." Kira tilted her head.
"It's like that, except you can feel it in the world around you. Of course, that's not to say it's easy. Ethermancy requires absolute focus. If you're distracted, your thoughts are weaker. Even then, they need to be powerful thoughts."
"And no thoughts are stronger than those woven with passion," Kira said, paraphrasing an old Valaysian poet whose name Thane had long forgotten.
"Right." He smiled at the astuteness of her answer. "That's how your subconscious mind knows you're serious."
"So that's it?" Kira frowned. "If all it takes is concentration and emotion, then how come humans can't do it too?"
"There is one more thing." Thane reached down and picked up a leftover peach, holding it out between them. "If I drop this, what will happen?"
"It will fall on the bed," Kira said flatly.
"How do you know?"
She shrugged. "Because gravity pulls things down."
Thane shook his head. "You're right, but that's only a theoretical understanding. The answer's simpler than that. Simple enough for a child to understand."
"Fine," she said with a grin. "Because I've dropped enough things to be reasonably sure."
"Exactly," he said. "We believe in the laws of physics because we've experienced them firsthand. Bending those laws requires similar experiences. In other words, most people can't do Ethermancy unless they've already done it. You need to have absolute faith that it will work. If you doubt yourself—even a little bit—your mind will latch onto that doubt as sure as if it were a command."
"So... you have to do it... before you can do it?" Kira arched an eyebrow. "Sounds like a paradox to me."
"It is... until we take the Ethereal into consideration. The laws of physics are more lenient in our dreams. And there's unlimited energy all around us. This is why Aeons practice there. We practice until it feels natural. Only then can we extend those abilities into the physical world."
Kira gave a slow nod. "I never knew it was so much work. The stories all talk about Aeons doing Ethermancy by accident."
"Most of those stories are exaggerations," Thane said. "But there's some truth to them too. Remember your song? How Treluwyn healed her mother? She didn't have to understand how Ethermancy worked. She just needed to believe it would work."
Kira leaned closer, darting her eyes between him and the candles. "So what emotion do you weave in your thoughts, then?"
Thane paused to consider. "I'm not sure. Candles are easy for me now, so I can do it without much thought."
"And when you heated the wagon?"
"I wanted to keep you warm." He slipped his hands under her shawl and ran them down the back of her sleeveless dress. He expected to find smooth skin there, but it was laced with long, thin scars.
He pulled away slightly, his lips twitching down.
"A souvenir from my days in Kalamir," Kira said. "I told you before: I've had worse than a knife grazing my leg."
Thane pulled her close again and brought his lips down to kiss her scars. Apart of him wanted to resist, but the lavender scent of her hair drew him in. A sea of black waves engulfed him, and he felt her breath in his ear. Her lips grazed his own neck, as smooth and warm as her song.
But no ... this was a mistake. They had a mission here, and this would endanger them both. Worse than that, it could endanger their home.
Thane straightened and looked straight into her blue eyes. "Kira, I—"
She threw her hands over his shoulders and melted against him. Thane cast away his doubts as he pulled her closer and met her lips with his.