The Onyx Company arrived in Thornhaven later that evening. Fang’s troops made camp on the outskirts while he and Ilsa set out with a smaller force toward the town proper. Nahlia, Elias, and Relyn traveled with him while Thane elected to stay behind—attending to important officer duties, no doubt.
Emre and Kalia were also there, of course. Just as Fang had promised, he would be delivering them to their parents at the town inn. Even after five days on the road, Nahlia barely knew the other girls. They had expressed their gratitude when she freed them from the Brass Bloods, but they wanted nothing to do with her after that.
Probably for the best. Who could blame them for wanting to avoid Ethermancers after meeting that Sile’zhar? And Aegon only knew what else their parents had said about her. As agents of Lady Raider, they could have heard all manner of rumors regarding her and Thane.
The road climbed over a steep foothill, and Nahlia’s muscles felt every inch of the hike. Just what she wanted after six hours of marching and combat training.
A dozen rooftops sprouted into view on the horizon, and pillars of smoke laced the evening sky. Thornhaven couldn’t hold a candle to Northshire, but it was still large enough to swallow most other northern villages. Dirt roads ran between various shops and homes, a manor loomed on the hill above which must have belonged to the town’s former Aeon landlord, and ... was that a chapel in the town square?
The details were a blur with the sun so low on the horizon. Still, it had the same general shape and size of Whitecliff’s chapel—twin spires in the front with a domed roof in the back.
Nahlia turned to Elias who only shrugged in response.
“Maybe they repurposed it somehow?” he said. “Like how they converted Dresten’s chapel into a market?”
That made a degree of sense, especially for a small town like this. No reason to destroy the most expensive building around when you can convert it to something less ‘offensive’.
As they drew closer to the stone structure, Nahlia spotted a wooden sign that read, The Patient Lion. So, this was the inn?
Fang and Ilsa passed under the stone archway and through a pair of heavy timber doors. Emre and Kalia followed close behind, trailed by a score of Fang’s bodyguards. By the time Nahlia stepped inside, Fang’s men had fanned out around the common room and the girls were reuniting with their parents.
The middle-aged couple had light tan eyes, but their clothing was simple enough to pass for regular townsfolk.
Nahlia averted her eyes as the four of them embraced. She clutched her necklace beneath her leather jerkin and fought back a surge of jealousy. Her own time would come. For now, she could at least be happy for them.
Despite the grand exterior, the structure’s inside looked surprisingly ordinary. A bar ran along one wall, broken up by thick stone columns. Eight or nine tables of various sizes filled the remaining space. Nahlia had expected high vaulted ceilings, but they had obviously filled that with a second level. The windows were—
Nahlia paused when she glimpsed a long braid of golden hair from a dark corner. Casella Raider rose slowly from her chair, flanked by a pair of her own men.
Aegon. They should have expected this. Emre and Kalia’s parents worked for the Raiders, so why wouldn’t they report back to her about this meeting? That also explained why they had insisted on meeting here rather than Fang’s camp.
The girls and their parents hurried out the back door as if they expected a fight to break out at any minute. Casella Raider wove her way through the common room, golden eyes glinting like sunstones in the faint lamplight. The other two Seekers stood like sentries on either side of her.
Nahlia turned to Elias and Relyn, but they seemed just as stunned as she was.
Fang was the first of his party to step forward, “You must be Casella of Clan Raider.”
Lady Raider kept her chin high, looking down on him as if he were a stableboy. “I’d like a word with my son if you don’t mind.”
“A pleasure to meet you too,” Fang said, then he turned to the Valaysian man on his right. “Give us the room. Have the men wait outside and see that no one else comes in.”
“Us?” Lady Raider narrowed her eyes, scanning the small group. Her mouth tightened when she settled her gaze on Nahlia, and she ignored Relyn entirely. “Do you afford all your men this much privacy?”
Fang strode toward one of the long oaken tables. “We both know these aren’t ordinary circumstances. Nor has he proven his loyalty yet.”
Others might have called Fang paranoid for that, but he knew his business. If Lady Raider wanted to, she could take Elias and run, contract or no contract. The Onyx Company could declare him a deserter, but it wasn’t worth going to war over.
Lady Raider made no move to follow. “Unless I’m mistaken, any mercenary’s contract can be broken for a price. Five hundred gold suns, was it?”
Elias cleared his throat. “You know I’m standing right here, Mother.”
“Five hundred suns,” Fang agreed, then he nodded toward Elias. “But the choice is his, not yours. You can give him the gold, but he must spend it himself.”
She shot another glance at her son. “I would still like a moment alone with him to discuss this.”
Fang took a seat at the head of the table, face calm and composed. “And if he agrees to leave my service, you may have it. Until then, we talk together or not at all.”
A line of irritation formed on Lady Raider’s brow, making her look like an older version of Ciena. The other two Seekers moved their hands closer to their weapons.
“There is no need for hostilities.” Fang spread out his own arms in a sigh of peace. “I may be a human, but I’ve treated your son fairly. I have nothing against you, your family, or your race. Now, can I buy you and your men a drink while we talk?”
“I know exactly who you are,” she retorted. “You take advantage of desperate Aeons in order to feed your army.”
“What?” Fang’s lips curled upward this time. “Has Clan Raider laid claim to that tactic?” A barmaid set down a drink in front of him and he brought it to his mouth. “I take advantage of desperate situations, yes. The same way you and your husband conquered the north after the Templar invasion.”
Nahlia’s eyebrows went up at that. Relyn had mentioned something about the Raiders ‘restoring order’ to Dresten but Nahlia hadn’t realized the extent of it.
“I don’t need to justify our actions to a mercenary,” Lady Raider said. “And if you—”
“Mother,” Elias broke in again. “Sit down. If you’re here to talk to me, then let’s talk.”
Elias lowered himself on the polished wooden bench and gestured to the seat opposite him. His mother shot another piercing look at Fang before flourishing her cloak and sitting down.
Since Fang hadn’t dismissed her, Nahlia took the seat beside Elias. Relyn seemed content to stand by the doorway with Fang’s other bodyguard.
Elias spoke first this time, “Any news of Ciena?’
A look of pain flashed in Lady’s Raider’s golden eyes. It was so quick that Nahlia might have missed it if she wasn’t consciously working on her empathy. “Your sister’s still alive, I’m sure of that. But I haven’t been able to contact her since Starglade.”
“Why not?” Elias said. “Your bond should be strong enough that—”
“She believes we’re dead,” his mother interjected. “She thinks you died at Whitecliff, and that your father and I were killed in Dresten. I tried reasoning with her several times, but she thought I was an illusion. Now she’s forcing me out completely.”
Elias opened his mouth, clearly choosing his words carefully. “Did you tell her what Nahlia did? That she ... brought me back?”
“I told her you were injured.”
Elias sighed. “You’ve always had a gift for understatement, Mother. I took a bullet in the heart. That’s not an injury you walk away from.”
“There was no evidence of that happening,” she replied
Nahlia cleared her throat. “You think he would be alive right now if I left some evidence behind?”
Elias nodded in agreement. “I remember the bullet. I remember dying, and I remember the look on Ciena’s face as I fell.”
“That’s impossible,” Lady Raider said with a firm shake of her head. “War can be chaotic and confusing. Just because you fell unconscious—”
“I’ve been unconscious before,” he said. “This was different. I can’t explain how, but it was. Nahlia saw it, and Ciena saw it too. If you’re denying what happened to me, then of course she doesn’t believe you. Ciena’s more stubborn than all the rest of us combined. If she saw me die, you won’t convince her otherwise.”
Lady Raider closed her eyes and released a breath. “At this point, I would say anything to get her to listen. As of now, I’ll be lucky to contact her at all.”
“We’ll find her,” Elias said, “Wherever she is, we’ll find her.”
“Perhaps if you tried talking to her...”
“I can’t,” he said. “We’ve been over this—I can’t enter the Ethereal anymore. Not since it happened.”
“Give it time,” his mother replied. “A traumatic experience can affect the mind, but no Aeon in recorded history has been barred from dreaming entirely.”
Except for my mother, Nahlia thought. Unless Thane was mistaken, her situation was the same as Elias’s. What if something inside each of them had broken when she brought them back from the dead? The very thing that made Aeons able to dream and use Ethermancy in the first place?
In such a case, it seemed unlikely that Nahlia could bring anyone back twice. Maybe bringing back an ordinary human was out of the question too? Unfortunately, she would have no way of knowing until she tested it.
Lady Raider met her son’s eyes again, “Will you allow me to pay the fee and break your contract? At least let me have one of my children back.”
There was another pause as Elias considered.
“Your family needs you right now,” she continued. “We’re already stretched thin as it is. Your father stayed behind in the North, and I’m traveling south for a meeting between the other leaders.”
“A meeting?” he asked. “For what?”
“To discuss the Palavan invasion fleet, and who to side with once they arrive. The next few months will decide our family’s fate. As the heir to Clan Raider, we need you by our side for this.”
Nahlia turned to meet Elias’s eyes, but he only stared down at his hands, brows furrowed in thought. She wanted to tell him how much she needed him here, but she couldn’t find the words. And in many ways, his mother was right. Nahlia and Thane were each trying to return to their own families—it made sense for him to do the same.
“You can pay my fee,” Elias finally said, “but I can’t go with you. Not yet, anyway.”
“You don’t want to come home,” Lady Raider replied. It came out as more of an accusation than a question.
“I do,” he said. “But not yet. There’s something else I need to do first.”
Lady Raider locked her gaze on Nahlia once again. In that moment, she was sure the older woman would ask her about the Codex in front of the others.
As an Ethermancer, Ilsa had probably sensed the artifact already. And if she knew about it, then so did Fang. Even so, neither of them knew about the Sile’zhar. If they did, they might force her to give up the Codex and save themselves the trouble of a surprise attack.
But Lady Raider said nothing, and the moment was over as soon as it began. Instead, she turned back to her son. “Just know that your father and I love you, and our door is always open.”
Then she gestured to one of her agents who counted several sticks of gold coins and set them on the table in front of Ilsa and Fang.
“That’s for when my son changes his mind,” Lady Raider told him. “When he does, I’ll have your word that you won’t give him any trouble.”
Fang raised his glass to her. “You have it, Casella of Clan Raider.”
Lady Raider slid her stool back and rose to her feet. “It’s likely that our paths will cross again soon when you reach Dragonshard.”
“What?” Fang almost choked on his drink from the opposite end of the table. “No one said the Onyx Company was traveling to Dragonshard.”
She smiled at him for the first time. “Please, Fang. I knew your destination long before you did. The Knight Commander’s path leads to Dragonshard, as does my own. That’s where the gathering of leaders will take place. That’s where we’ll decide the fate of our realm.”