A gust of cool wind blew over the Ember Sea, providing a welcome relief from the southern heat. If Cole missed one thing about the capital, it was his parents’ apartment near the coast and their view of the open ocean.
As kids, he and Lyraina would sneak out of the palace and make their way down to the beach along the western shore. Standing there in the sand, gazing at the blue horizon, he had always wondered what secrets lay beyond.
No ship had ever returned from the west, at least not in recorded history, although Lyraina knew several older stories dating back before the Ascension. According to her, their ancestors had once crossed the ocean in their airships and found entire cities on the other side. Cole took most of her legends with a pinch of salt, but he always hoped this one held some truth. Supposedly, the three continents of Aeondom only covered one tenth of the world’s surface; he liked to think the rest of it was more than just endless water.
Cole tugged his horse’s reins as their route twisted around a rocky ridge. Four squads of Templars rode behind him as they followed the Emperor’s Road east of Tregarde. He wouldn’t say he trusted these men yet, but he was well past expecting a bullet in the back.
Veterans like Mason and Gallow had fought and killed hundreds of Aeons. They’d lost their families to Ethermancers and killed scores of other families in turn. Their hatred ran bone-deep, and it would’ve taken a stronger will than Cole’s to end it.
These soldiers were nothing like them. The bulk of Cole’s army was barely older than Nahlia, and he’d bet his secret stash they’d never even seen an Aeon, much less fought an Ethermancer. They’d joined the Templars for the same reasons he had—they sought adventure, skills, and recognition. Above all, most of them truly wanted to make this continent a better place. Sure, they planned on killing Aeons someday too, but only to protect their homes and families.
None of them cared that he’d slain Saul Mason half a world away. They only knew the official story: Mason had sailed north against the Chancellor’s orders, and he’d done so under the influence of a foreign ruler. Palatine had fashioned Whitecliff into a death trap for Templars and Aeons alike, and when Cole killed Mason, he’d brought the Templars back under Republic control and saved hundreds of lives on both sides.
Did this mean he expected to see Aeons and Templars fighting side-by-side? Of course not. For now, he’d call it a victory if they just stopped killing each other.
He’d been riding for over an hour when Marabella Lawguard came trotting up on her white mare. Until now, she’d been sitting in her carriage at the back of the column, communing in the Ethereal, no doubt.
The Spymaster wore a long, dark leather tunic that was almost like a dress. Or was that a dress? He never understood the difference with women’s clothing.
“You know,” Mara began. “It’s been almost three whole days since you’ve asked about your daughter.”
“That’s because you always give me the same blasted answer,” Cole replied. How long had it been since she told him something useful? A fortnight? The last he’d heard, Nahlia and her companions were staying off the roads and cutting through the northern wilds.
“She crossed Raidenwood yesterday morning,” Mara said, “and she’s joined The Onyx Company.”
Cole rounded on her. “The Onyx Company?”
The Spymaster nodded. “It’s a mercenary group that—”
“I know who they are,” Cole said. “It’s just—how reliable is this source?”
“It’s my primary contact from Clan Raider,” she said, “so this comes from the best spy network in the North. Nahlia and the others made a deal with Xiao Fang, joining his division to get through the city. She also rescued the daughters of another prominent family, and she’s delivering them in the next few days. Word spread quickly after that became known.”
Cole nodded. Joining a mercenary group to cross Raidenwood was a smart move, at least in the short term. That five-year contract posed a problem, but contracts could be broken for the right price.
Still ... Nahlia ... a mercenary? How could he reconcile the daughter he knew with all these reports? When he pictured her in his mind, he still saw the librarian’s apprentice with her gray linen skirts, long auburn hair, and her head in a book.
Cole’s fists tightened around the leather reins. He hadn’t been there the day she was shot. He hadn’t been there for her journey north, or her combat training. And despite their proximity, he hadn’t even caught a glimpse of her during the Battle of Whitecliff.
Cole still remembered his first battle and how it had changed him. Was Nahlia still the same girl he remembered, or had she become a different person too? Perhaps a bit of both. The fact that he couldn’t help her now was twice as frustrating as trying to unite this realm.
“I want to see her,” Cole told the Spymaster. “I’ve been patient this past month, but enough is enough.”
“She only left Raidenwood yesterday morning,” Mara said. “That’s over a thousand miles east of here.”
Cole held up a hand. He’d heard enough of these lectures during their journey across the continent. “How long would it take to get a message to her division leader? Xiao Fang, was it?”
“A few days perhaps, but why would...” she trailed off, then recognition shown in her eyes. “You’re looking to hire the Onyx Company?”
“We can afford it,” Cole said. “I know we’re short on time and manpower, but the Republic has plenty of gold.”
Mara gave a humorless chuckle. “We owe more than fifty thousand suns to the Jade Bank in Valaysia.”
“Are you saying we don’t have the gold?”
The Spymaster remained silent as the wind blew strands of blonde hair across her face.
“Because debts mean nothing if we’re dead,” Cole continued. “And even if we unite the Republic with the Aeon clans, we still have to fight Palatine. A few thousand mercenaries will go a long way toward that.”
Mara’s amusement eclipsed her disapproval. “You’re only doing this to see your daughter.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking rationally,” Cole retorted. “If the Onyx Company isn’t fighting for us, they might be fighting for Palatine six months from now. And if Fang recruited Nahlia and Solidor, who’s to say he hasn’t recruited other Aeons? If anything, I’m surprised no one’s thought of this sooner.”
“Fair enough,” Mara replied. “But the gold isn’t ours to spend. I’ll need to get approval from the Chancellor and Coinmaster.”
“You do what you have to,” Cole said.
He considered sending Nahlia a personal message as well, or even telling Fang to keep her far from combat. He rejected both ideas. Someone like Thane Solidor couldn’t travel without a false identity. And if Solidor was keeping his family name a secret, maybe the others had done the same? Cole wouldn’t be the one to blow their cover, or give Fang more information than he had.
The road wound along the coast until the ocean view dominated the southern horizon. Eventually, Cole spotted a pair of black and red dragons spread out on the sand, perhaps a half-a-mile from them. He’d seen dragons before, but not since he was a boy.
“Learn anything else about Alexel Trelidor?” Cole asked, though he didn’t expect much. The Chancellor and Spymaster were among the few people in the realm who even knew about Trelidor’s existence, much less his secret enclave.
“We still know little about his bloodline,” Mara admitted. “Only that he’s a descendant of Treluwyn.”
“Which explains the lack of records,” Cole muttered. The Redeemers were the reason Ethermancy was first outlawed two-hundred years ago. Back then, it was Aeons killing other Aeons out of fear.
“He’s also ancient,” Mara continued. “Well over a hundred years old. And with Clan Reverius extinct, he might be the most powerful Ethermancer in the realm. At least until Palatine arrives.”
When they reached a better vantage, Mara pulled out a spyglass from her saddlebag and examined the campsite. “The woman on his left is Rakoja Vassaj. She’s married to Zirrik Vassaj, heir to a powerful clan in southern Valaysia. Her older brother was also Whitecliff’s Battlemaster.”
Mara passed the spyglass to Cole, and he looked through the eyepiece. The three figures sat in a semi-circle on wooden chairs around the table while two younger men stood a short distance back.
To his surprise, no one carried a single weapon—at least nothing bigger than a dagger. Then again, if the younger men were dragonriders, they probably wielded fire the same way Solidor had. More than an equal match for the sixty soldiers he’d brought along.
“The man on his right is Korin Demeron,” Mara went on. “A minor descendent of Vaulden. The rest of their clan is scattered throughout the other enclaves, but we believe he’s the heir to their estate.”
A foreigner and the head of a lesser clan? He’d expected more considering the reports about this enclave. Of course, Trelidor’s advisors only represented his senior population. His true strength wasn’t his political connections, but his Ethermancers.
Once they were within fifty yards of the campsite, Cole and Mara dismounted their horses and set off alone. Diplomatic etiquette would’ve put his army at least four times that distance, but he wasn’t taking any chances—not against Ethermancers and dragons.
Even now, he’d never escape if things went poorly. Not that Cole expected violence, but he had murdered his share of Aeons in the past. You never knew when that might come back to haunt you.
Alexel Trelidor and his two advisors stood to greet them as they approached. Trelidor’s hair was bright silver, but the rest of his face looked as youthful as a man in his thirties. Some work of Ethermacy, no doubt. He had a crescent-moon tattooed on his forehead, and his eyes were a chilling sky-blue. The exact color and shade as Lyraina’s.
“Welcome, Knight Commander Cole.” He turned to Mara, “And...?”
“Spymaster Lawguard,” she replied.
“Lawguard,” Trelidor echoed. “A human name. But those eyes ... flecks of gold? A descendant of Raiden, then?”
Mara gave a curt nod. “My father was a human, but my mother belonged to one of Raidenwood’s lesser clans.”
Trelidor introduced his own advisors, confirming the Spymaster’s earlier observations. They took their seats after that, and Cole felt the thin wooden chair creak beneath his weight.
“Something to drink?” Trelidor asked. “Water? Wine? Tea?”
“No.” Cole patted the canteen on his belt. “Thank you, but we brought our own.”
Amusement touched the corners of Trelidor’s mouth and he took a long drink from a shallow bamboo bowl. “A sensible choice for people in your positions.”
Was that mockery in his tone? If it was, Cole ignored it. “We’ve come to talk about the invasion fleet on our doorstep.”
“Ah yes.” Trelidor reclined in his chair. Even sitting, he towered over the rest of them by a full head. “Palatine’s fleet. You want my enclave to join your fight against these foreigners.”
Well, at least he didn’t have to waste time explaining. Cole was still mulling over his reply when Mara spoke up, “In return, we’re prepared to offer you land and representation in the New Republic. The Chancellor only wants—”
“Convenient,” Trelidor said, “Isn’t it? The Templars were content to kill Aeons for decades until a bigger fish arrives. Nothing like impending doom to prompt a change of heart.”
“Too little, too late,” Cole agreed. “You don’t have to convince me of that. I already left the Templars once”
Trelidor met his eyes. “And why did you leave, Knight Commander?”
“I—” Cole paused. The other leaders hadn’t asked a single personal question during their short meetings. “I wasn’t proud of what I was doing. I thought I was fighting for peace, but no end justified killing so many innocents.”
“Hm. And now?”
“This is different,” he said. “We’re protecting our borders from an invasion. I’m trying to unite Revera so we can live together in peace rather than serve a tyrant.”
Trelidor tented his fingers on the wooden table. “Indeed. Palatine intends to conquer this realm, the way you and your race conquered it from the Aeons.”
Cole sat up straighter. These were the sort of counterarguments he and Mara had planned for. “We won’t try to justify what our race did to yours, but the realm is in danger, and we’re prepared to offer you a peaceful alliance. Today.”
“The realm is in danger,” Trelidor said, “or your Republic is in danger? You paint this foreigner as a tyrant, but he’s done nothing to me. He’s made no threats to me or my people.”
“Has he offered you an alliance?” Mara asked.
“Not personally,” Trelidor replied. “But many of his agents are already here in Revera. As I’m sure you know.”
“You speak of Palatine as if peace were possible,” Cole said. “Tell me then, why do you think he’s sailing here with an invasion fleet? You’re quick to point out our ignorance, but what if we’re right? What if they conquer us and enslave us all? What if—five years from now—we’re forming secret rebellions when we could have prevented all of this?”
“If we’re going to deal in such hypotheticals, Knight Commander, this could be a lengthy meeting.”
“It’s more than just hypotheticals,” Cole said. “As an Aeon, you should know Palatine’s history better than I.”
“The history of his ancestors,” Trelidor corrected. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but your father was a cook in the Imperial palace. Should I treat you as a cook as well, or see you for the role you’ve earned?”
Cole bit back another retort. This man was quite literally playing Palatine’s advocate, but why? Lyraina had shared plenty of stories about the Archaeon Palatine and his nation.He’d killed at least half of the other Archaeons, and nearly destroyed the world. He even tried to overthrow his creator.
Even if Trelidor didn’t care for such myths and legends, recent history had more than enough evidence. Palatine’s Ethermancy had been so terrible, that it became outlawed in Revera, eventually leading to the outright denial of its existence.
“It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind,” Cole noted. “But if that were true, you wouldn’t have bothered with this meeting. Tell me, what do you want?”
Trelidor gave a half-smile. “Your vision of peace is compelling, even if it is peace through war.” He glanced at both of his advisors before continuing, “We’re prepared to take a stance, but only if the other Aeons do the same.”
“In other words,” Mara said, “you want to join the winning side.”
“This isn’t about what I want. It’s about my enclave. They’ve all lost family to the Templars. Given the choice between a foreign Aeon ruler and a human, who do you think they will choose?”
“And Palatine knows that,” Cole said. “That’s why he chose this time to invade. He knows he can turn us against each other while we’re at our weakest”
“And that’s why I agreed to this meeting.” Trelidor spread his open palms on the table. “My enclave isn’t interested in allying with the Templars, but we are interested in the other Aeon clans.”
Cole rubbed at his temple. “And here lies the problem—the other Aeon leaders said the exact same thing.”
Trelidor gave a slow nod. “It’s not a decision that can be made in small gatherings like this. People these days are too cautious, and rightfully so.”
Mara glanced back and forth between them. “What if we could make this decision together, as a realm?”
“And how do you propose that?” Trelidor asked.
“A meeting between the most powerful factions. Your Enclave, The Republic, Dragonshard, and Whitecliff.
Cole looked to Mara. “Palatine’s fleet arrives in a matter of months. Could such a meeting be arranged that quickly?”
“I believe it’s worth trying,” she said. “This entire continent could be at war a few months from now. If we can’t unite before then, we’ll have nothing but chaos.”
All the leaders together. Trelidor and his advisors, along with Clan Raider, Clan Solidor, and all the other enclave leaders. Cole and the Spymaster would be there too, along with Lyraina if she were indeed alive.
Such a gathering hadn’t been done since before the human rebellion. More than half of these factions were enemies, after all. But Mara was right—if they wanted to unite the realm, then perhaps this meeting was the first logical step.
As Cole and Mara spoke, Trelidor exchanged quick whispers with the man and woman on either side of him. After a moment of this, he leaned back in his own chair.
“If we can discuss this together,” Trelidor said, “with all the leaders around one hearth, then my Ethermancers and I will submit to the will of that council. We will join you in the war against Palatine if that time comes.”