Thane opened the door to see Ashara’s dragon spreading her dark wings over the landing platform. The sun hid behind a wall of gray clouds, and a storm rolled over the Ember Sea to the south.
Ashara jumped off her saddle and hit the ground running, black riding dress trailing in the wind.
Another pair of Ethermancers jogged up the stairs behind Thane—a dragonrider and his apprentice. Ashara tossed her helmet toward them and the boy barely caught it.
“Sister.” Thane gave a faint smile as he reached the edge of the platform.
Ashara dashed forward and threw her arms around him. She smelled like a day of flying over the ocean—salt, sun, and dragon feathers.
“Holding down the palace in my absence?” Thane asked.
“I don’t know about that.” She took a step back, brushing a strand of dark hair from her eye. “But I’ve seen to the usual princess duties. Smoking fadeflower, wasting time in the library, and disappointing Father.”
“I’ll assume one of those is a joke,” Thane said.
“Of course. Father could never be disappointed in his favorite child.”
Behind them, the dragon let out a needy roar.
“Sounds like Pendyla missed you.” Ashara shot a glance over her shoulder. “She wants you to come and say hello.”
“Another time,” Thane said, deliberately casual. You could train a dragon to obey, but only an Ethermancer was truly safe around this breed. Things grew even more dangerous when everyone assumed you could defend yourself.
Suspicion flashed in Ashara’s sea-blue eyes, but she shrugged it away with an easy smile.
The other riders mounted Pendyla and flew her toward the caves beyond the town’s borders. The platform grew quiet in their absence—no sound but for the distant throbs of thunder.
Thane watched as the dragon soared over the jungle, then he turned back to his sister. “I’m sorry about Kira.”
Ashara glanced down at her boots. “She knew what she was doing when she went north. She knew that ... she might never come back.”
Thane nodded. The pain was still there, but it was duller than before. Like a burst of cold rain rather than the crippling tempest it had been. He drew in a breath, “It was my fault she—”
“Stop.” Ashara grabbed his bicep and squeezed. “You think that will do any good?”
“What? Facing the facts?”
“You and your facts.” She glanced skyward then back at him. “You’re so determined not to be like Father that you’re swinging in the opposite direction.”
“I’m exactly like Father,” Thane said. “That’s why she’s gone. She’s gone because I gave into my Ethermancy and couldn’t control myself.”
His sister seemed to consider that for a moment. “And what if you’d been more careful? What if you got there too late, and that Templar killed her anyway? You wouldn’t blame yourself then?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. Cole had made a similar point back in Dresten, but Thane hadn’t been in a mood to listen. Until now, he’d only imagined all the ways he could have saved her.
Another pause, then the two of them started for the stairs.
“So what have you really been doing this whole time?” Thane asked as they walked. “Aunt Avelyn says you’ve been researching Etherfalls, but I didn’t get the details.”
“That’s right.” Ashara turned to the wind and let it push the hair from her face. “I think I might’ve found a connection between the Etherfall and the invaders.”
Thane hesitated as they crossed through the doorway. “Aside from the fact that priceless metal is falling from the sky and everyone wants it?”
“Yes, aside from the obvious. It has to do with the last message you sent me.”
Meaning the Codex.
Their father had never encouraged them to forge a bond. Instead, they’d resorted to sending encoded messages through their clan’s communication web. In hindsight, the king’s motives in this were blatantly obvious. All their lives, he’d forced his children to compete for his favor, keeping them focused on each other in all the wrong ways. By doing so, the king had prepared for a situation exactly like this.
Thane’s relationship with Ashara improved as they grew older. But by then, neither of them could spare the months required to forge a proper bond.
“I hope you’ve thought of a plan,” Thane said. “Aegon knows we need one right now.”
“I’ll fill you in later,” she replied. “But this is all connected in more ways than we thought.”
Nahlia glanced around the dining hall, struggling to reconcile this world with all those months on the road. The cushion beneath her was far too soft, and the tabletops were so immaculate that every crumb and droplet looked out of place.
Half-a-dozen rounded tables filled the floor, each one seating small groups of five or six. Unlike other great halls she’d read about, this one had no dais or high table. Instead, Thane’s grandfather and aunt sat in the room’s center with several others she didn’t recognize.
She had expected Thane to sit with his family, but he sat with several more strange Aeons. The other high lords and ladies of Dragonshard? Such placement couldn’t have been a coincidence. No ... Thane’s family was planning something, and they were gathering allies.
Thane mentioned that the Solizhans disagreed with the king’s decisions. If they were planning a coup to put Thane on the throne, that would explain all the tension and secrecy.
Nahlia sat in the back corner with Relyn and Ilsa. After their baths, they’d been measured and outfitted in dress tunics. Hers was a deep sapphire, tight across the chest and flaring out into a skirt at the bottom. Relyn and Ilsa wore their own clan colors, yellow and violet, respectively.
Their hosts had set a place for Fang, but he’d already gone back with the Onyx Company, muttering something about important business. No doubt the mercenary crime lord felt as out of place here as she did.
That left Elias sitting at yet another table next to Thane’s sister.
On top of being a princess to the wealthiest nation in the realm, Ashara Solidor was one of the most beautiful women Nahlia had ever seen, with dark hair that flowed down to her waist, olive-colored skin, and the sort of curves that most men craved. She was also a Sanctifier, a martial artist, and a dragonrider.
Thane’s sister was so impressive, in fact, that it took Nahlia almost half an hour to realize how much she disliked her. Worst of all, Ashara was far too charming. In fact, she was making Elias laugh right now.
“What’s with this seating arrangement?” Nahlia wondered aloud. “I mean—why put Elias over there with a bunch of strangers?”
Ilsa brought a wineglass to her lips, hiding a smile. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“What?” Nahlia’s eyes darted back to the other table, then a slow horror spread through her chest. “You don’t mean the Solizhans are setting them up? Can they even do that?”
“Nothing so formal as that,” Ilsa said. “Think of it like testing the waters. Being the heir to Raidenwood, Elias is more than a suitable match for a princess of Dragonshard.”
Relyn nodded her agreement. “My parents made me sit through a hundred of these dinners back home. Even before I was old enough to marry.”
Nahlia’s stomach twisted further as she glanced back at the offending table. At first, she’d been happy here in the corner. Now it felt more like being left outside in the cold.
Relyn muffled a laugh behind her hand. “You should see your face.”
“What’s wrong with my face?”
Relyn glanced up at the chandelier, considering. “What is that Reverian word again? When you get angry and your cheeks go red? Not blushing, but...”
“Flushing” Ilsa offered.
“That’s it.” Relyn turned back to Nahlia. “You’re flushing.”
“Shut up,” Nahlia said. “It’s not funny.”
“I think it’s hilarious,” Relyn said in a singsong voice.
“That’s because you’re on your third glass of wine.”
“You’re afraid Elias will like her,” Relyn said.
Instead of replying, Nahlia glanced down and picked at her food—some sort of spicy shrimp.
Relyn continued, “He wouldn’t be talking to her now if you just told him. You know this, true?”
“She knows,” Ilsa said. “I tried helping her weeks ago, but she refused to heed my wisdom.“
“You should heed her wisdom,” Relyn pointed a chopstick at Ilsa, eyes never leaving Nahlia’s. “It’s not like it’s some big secret. We’ve all seen you two in the forest.”
Nahlia frowned. “The forest?”
“You know.” Relyn wriggled her eyebrows. “Sparring together in salacious states of undress.”
“That’s not even true.” Nahlia snapped. Thankfully, the musicians were loud enough to stop their voices from carrying. “And how in Aegon’s name do you know the word ‘salacious’ but not ‘flush’?”
Relyn grinned, taking another long drink of her wine. Nahlia wasn’t exaggerating before—this was at least her third glass. Not to mention the fact that Ember Isle Red was far stronger than anything they’d had on the road.
“You know the Sile’zhar could attack us again at any moment,” Nahlia said.
“Yes, Mother.” She took another drink as if to spite her. “What’s your point?”
“There is such a thing as being too relaxed.”
“She who worries suffers twice. She who drinks...” Relyn trailed off and wrinkled her nose. “Never mind. It sounds better in Valaysian. You get the point, though. If you want to worry that much, why not wear your weapons and armor to dinner too?”
Ilsa nodded along, eyes dancing in amusement. “Even for ordinary folk, death or danger can strike at any moment. No reason not to live your life in the meantime.”
Nahlia groaned. “We’re still talking about me, aren’t we?”
Her smile widened. “Some folk are so busy worrying that they let opportunities slip by. There will always be more conflicts to face. You’re not doing yourself any favors by moping around and being jealous of princesses.”
Nahlia opened her mouth to protest, then snapped it shut. She shot another glance across the room. “Fine. You’re right. I was being petty and immature. I wish them the very best.”
“Sure.” Relyn snorted indelicately.
Ilsa patted her mouth dry with a napkin. “Repressing your feelings isn’t any better than complaining.”
“I’m not complaining.” Nahlia sat up straighter to look more dignified. “I just think we have more important things to worry about.”
“I see.” Ilsa gave a knowing nod. “You are woefully inexperienced with these things, aren’t you?”
A rush of unwelcome color rose to her face, and she hid it behind her glass.
“Well,” Ilsa said, “you should know that life doesn’t always play out like a storybook. There won’t be a perfect moment where everything settles down. In fact, with an invasion fleet on our doorstep, things might get even worse. You should talk to him now while you can.”
Nahlia cradled her chin, letting Ilsa’s words sink in. When she first set out toward Dragonshard, she had imagined reuniting with her parents and returning to a normal life. She had assumed her future was with them, and that everything else was a fallen tree in the road.
But perhaps that was foolishly naive. Her father was the Knight Commander now, after all. Even if he could walk away from that position someday, it wouldn’t be soon.
And her mother ... Nahlia had imagined a hundred ways their reunion might play out. Some good, and others less so. But one fact remained, regardless of her worries or fantasies. Her mother knew she was alive, yet she made no effort to find or contact her. Even now, when they were only a few days away from Dragonshard.
No ... Ilsa was right. Things would only get more complicated from here. She might never have a normal life again. It never had been normal in the first place.