Thane waited in a forest clearing on the outskirts of camp. The sun shone bright in a cloudless blue sky, and the grass glistened with dew.
Relyn emerged from the tree line a few seconds later. “All clear,” she said curtly. “No eavesdroppers.”
Thane nodded. “Elias and Nahlia should be here any minute, then we can start.”
The pair stood in silence as a gust of wind shook the nearby pines. Thane let it fade before he spoke again, “Relyn?”
She pivoted her head just enough to meet his eyes.
“I’m sorry about what I said yesterday.”
“Why?” Her voice was quiet, but carried a sharp edge. “You meant it, didn’t you? I’ve switched sides often enough that no one should trust me.”
“I was wrong.” Thane took a few steps closer. “You haven’t found your place yet, but that’s not your fault. Anyone would be lucky to have you on their side.”
Relyn crossed her arms and looked away, making a great show of indifference. “My offer has expired. I’m not giving my loyalty to someone who doesn’t trust me. I meant what I said too—you haven’t earned it.”
“I know,” Thane said. “It’s been generations since Dragonshard has had a moral ruler. Right now, I’m no better than the kings who came before me. I’ve made mistakes, and those mistakes have cost hundreds of lives. But I want to do better. If you ever do give me your loyalty, I want to earn it first. And not through favors.”
Before she could reply, Elias and Nahlia emerged from the clearing’s edge.
Despite the early hour, Elias looked wide-eyed and ready. He had adapted well to mercenary life—wearing the black leather armor as if he’d been born in it, working every day without complaint. He seemed the type that thrived with rules and structure.
Meanwhile, Nahlia rubbed at her eyes as if she’d just rolled out of bed. Thane couldn’t blame her. She had guard duty last night, after all.
“What’s this about?” Nahlia murmured.
Thane took a deep breath and began, “Fang received a message yesterday from Knight Commander Cole.”
As expected, Nahlia perked up and blinked away the sleep from her eyes.
“How do you know that?” Elias asked.
“He briefed me and the other officers in his tent after sunset,” Thane replied. “Cole is hiring the Onyx Company for the fight against the invaders. After we drop off the girls in Thornhaven, we march south to Vauldenport. From there, we sail west to Onyx Point.”
Nahlia looked back and forth between them. “So ... this is good news, right?”
“It would seem so,” Thane said. Onyx Point was near the borders of Thane’s kingdom, and Dragonshard itself would be less than a month away. At the very least, this would postpone their need to break away from Fang and the others. For Nahlia, it might even mean seeing her father again.
“Do you think he knows we’re here?’ Nahlia asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Thane said. “The ink is barely dry on our contracts, so I doubt the timing is a coincidence.”
The others remained silent until Elias spoke up, “So the Knight Commander is having us meet him in the southwest. Why there?”
“That’s where the invaders are landing,” Relyn broke in. “Down by Dragonshard.”
Thane shot her a sideways glance. Had Lady Raider told her that back when they were still on speaking terms?
Elias nodded. “Suspicious, isn’t it? For them to land their ships so far west when Palavar borders Revera from the east? It makes sense to sail around Raidenwood, but Tregarde and Vauldenport are more centrally located, not to mention more lightly defended.”
All three of them looked at Thane expectantly. This wasn’t a conversation they should have in the open, but no one looked ready to accept that excuse. He’d held out on them for too long already.
Thane lowered his voice and stepped closer into their loose circle. “The last time I spoke with my father, he was considering a deal with Palatine. Whether this was a real alliance or merely a way to string them along, I don’t know. I wasn’t privy to that secret.”
“I think we’ve gathered that much already,” Elias said. “He sent you to Whitecliff to retrieve the Codex, right?”
“My father sent me north as a Templar hostage,” Thane replied. “And he sent an innocent woman along with me so he could keep my sister as his heir. My father gambled with our lives, and all of Whitecliff. I don’t agree with his methods, and he doesn’t have my loyalty.”
The treasonous statement surprised even Thane. They were only words, but his hands shook all the same.
Elias patted the small twine sack on his belt which contained the Codex. “This is still a problem. If there’s even a chance your father’s helping with the invaders, we can’t just waltz in there without a plan.”
“I agree,” Thane shot another glance at the surrounding pines, “but this isn’t the time to discuss it.”
Elias inclined the head. “It’s still a conversation we need to have. Before we reach our destination.”
“And we will. If we just—”
“Maybe we should discuss it now,” Nahlia broke in. “The four of us have hardly talked as a group since Raidenwood. By now, we’ve all carried the Codex and fought the Sile’zhar. We should make this decision together.” She turned to face Thane. “If we put it off any longer, we’ll be at your father’s mercy.”
“Agreed,” Relyn said. “This choice won’t get easier. Might as well decide things now.”
Thane ran a hand through his black hair, taking another look around.
“You say you aren’t loyal to your father,” Elias said. “If not him, then who? Yourself?”
Thane shook his head. “Ordinary folk have the luxury of putting themselves first.” He gestured around the circle with his finger. “But us—we’re anything but ordinary. I’m loyal to my family and to Dragonshard, not its patriarch or its king.”
“And what if an alliance with Palavar really is the best thing for your city?” Elias countered.
“It’s not,” Thane said. “Whatever my father might believe, I’ve been inside the Codex, and I’ve seen hints of the ritual it contains. Even if Palatine lets Clan Solidor keep our land, we’d be kings of ashes.”
“This is all good to hear,” Nahlia said. “But we still need a plan. If we carry this into Dragonshard, good intentions won’t be enough to keep it from your father.”
Thane nodded. “Over the last few days, I’ve been in contact with the rest of my family. Particularly my sister and my grandfather on my mother’s side. Neither of them want anything to do with these foreign invaders, and they’re willing to help us in any way they can. My grandfather’s estate is two days east of Dragonshard. We can gather our strength there before any of us enter the city.”
Thane paused to let his words sink in. “If necessary, we can split up. The rest of you can stay behind to guard the Codex while I go to Dragonshard and try to reason with my father.”
“I’m still going with you,” Nahlia said. “I’ve waited ten years to see my mother again. If she’s in Dragonshard, then that’s where I need to be.”
Elias furrowed his brow. “Again, even if your family doesn’t plan to share the Codex, who’s to say they don’t want it for themselves?”
“Only a descendent of Palatine can learn from this,” Thane said. “Don’t forget—it would have killed me if Relyn hadn’t been there.”
“But anyone can benefit from it,” Elias retorted. “We’re talking about a priceless artifact here.”
“I trust my family,” Thane said. “Unlike my father, they only want peace for our nation and an end to the fighting.” He gave the rest of them a meaningful look. “And we’ll need to trust someone. Unless any of you have a better plan?”
“We could ask my father for help,” Nahlia suggested. “If there’s one group we can trust not to betray us to foreign Aeons, it’s the Templars.”
Thane hadn’t considered that plan, but it might have merit. After all, the Templars had one of the largest and most technologically advanced armies on the continent. More than capable of keeping the Codex safe.
But then … would the fight for the Codex really come down to a battle between armies? It only took one Sile’zhar to sneak in and steal it. And the fact that Cole sent a message from across the continent proved he had Aeons in his employ. Any one of them could be a spy for Palatine.
“We’ll keep both possibilities in mind,” Thane said. “For now, the important thing is that we have options. And we all agree that we’re not bringing the Codex to Dragonshard.”
The others gave slow nods of agreement.
“Good,” Thane said. “Now we should get back to camp. Aegon knows we’re pushing our luck as it is.”