Like everything else in Villa Solizhan, Nahlia’s bedchamber was the biggest she’d ever seen. There were shelves, but no books—just bare polished wood. There were chairs, but relaxing was the last thing on her mind. Nahlia paced back and forth like a wolf in a kennel, debating her options.
For Aegon’s sake, she’d just fought a Sile’zhar and won. She shouldn’t be this nervous.
Ilsa had pressed on her emotions during dinner, filling her with bouts of courage and determination. Those feelings had faded now, but the memories bubbled back to the surface.
If they stuck with their original plan, then Nahlia and Thane would continue on to Dragonshard while Elias and Relyn stayed behind with the Codex. Tonight might be her last chance.
Nahlia left the room and stepped into the hallway. Like her bedroom, the floor was polished marble that glimmered in the lamplight. Azure pillars lined the edges, with painting and sculptures filling every space between them.
She raised her hand to knock on Elias’s door. Her fingers were cold despite the warm air.
Nahlia knocked. Once. Twice.
She waited half a minute before knocking again, much louder this time.
Well, at least she’d tried. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be after all. Then again, she didn’t soften with relief as she might’ve expected. It felt more like having the wind pulled from her sails.
Still too restless to sleep, Nahlia made her way downstairs.
Villa Solizhan was large but not so large that you could lose yourself in it. The upper levels comprised mostly bedrooms and offices while the main floor was all atriums and sitting rooms. She shuffled by the main vault where they held the Codex. A dozen Aeons stood guard, probably all Ethermancers.
Finally, she wandered by another closed door with no obvious indications as to what lay beyond. But somehow, she knew the answer already. Maybe it was the scent of leather, parchment, and ink. Maybe it was the general air of secrets and knowledge.
Whatever the reason, Nahlia knew a library when she saw one.
She pulled open the heavy door, and a gust of cool, dry air ruffled her hair. This was the first time in weeks she’d worn it down, and the tips tickled her bare shoulders.
The library turned out to be a single room, cylinder-shaped, with all the shelves meeting in the center. The distance was about an arrow shot from one end to the other.
And ... did she really just use arrow shot as an actual form of measurement? Aegon, she’d been spending far too much time with mercenaries.
Darkness shrouded the stacks, and raindrops pattered against the tall windows. The glow of an oil lamp shone like a beacon against the far wall, and Nahlia shuffled along to its source.
There, she found Elias and Ashara sitting at a long table amongst piles of books.
“Nahlia.” Elias turned to face her, resting his forearm on the back of his chair. “Was wondering if we’d see you here.”
Ashara turned around as well, and Nahlia gave a polite bow. “Princess Solidor.”
She smiled and waved a dismissive hand. “You can call me Ashara. Titles like that belong in throne rooms.”
Nahlia returned the woman’s smile, forcing away any petty jealousy before it could take root. She took a few steps closer to the table, scanning over the piles of leather-bound books. “What are you reading?”
“Forbidden tomes, of course.” Elias closed his book so she could read the cover. The Justicar’s Heir.
“It’s about Raiden’s granddaughter,” he explained. “Apparently, after Raiden and the rest of his sons perished, she was his last descendant. She took over the Justicars, and she inherited Raiden’s Etherite sword.”
Nahlia leaned forward. “A red sword, right? Like your clan sigil?”
He nodded. “Most modern books say the sword is a myth, but I’ve seen more than a dozen other books reference it.”
Nahlia glanced at some other titles in his pile. Each one related to Ethermancy or Aeons in some way. “Definitely the sort of thing they’d ban in Whitecliff,” she agreed. “Do you think they have any about the Redeemers?”
His grin widened, and he pushed his chair back, grabbing one of the two lanterns. “Right this way.”
Nahlia followed him past several more rows of stacks into an aisle at the room’s edge. Elias stopped walking and made an expansive gesture at the entire shelf.
Nahlia bit her lip as she scanned the display. “Which ones are...”
“All of them,” Elias said at once.
“Oh.” So much for getting any sleep tonight.
The hours flew by as they read. Eventually, Ashara excused herself and headed back to her room for the night.
Nahlia’s first goal was to learn what happened to the Redeemers two hundred years ago. Why had the Imperium outlawed them first? Why did she have these violent powers in addition to her healing and shields?
She had been so sure of things after Whitecliff, but faith wasn’t enough right now. She needed real answers.
Before Ashara turned in, she’d directed Nahlia toward a heavy tome titled, The Fall of the Redeemers. Apparently, it was a first-hand account from two centuries ago that described the events in detail.
Ashara admitted that she’d never read the book herself, but her grandfather was quite proud of it. Written in the author’s original hand, it was only one of three surviving copies in the world.
“Palatine was a Redeemer too?” Elias asked as he read over her shoulder.
Nahlia nodded as she turned the page. This much she already knew from her previous readings of Aeonica. “All the Archaeons came in pairs. Palatine and Treluwyn. Raiden and Vashet. Kalazhan and Vaulden.”
“Ah.” Elias put his face in his palm. “I remember the pairs, but I didn’t make the connection.”
“You’re forgiven,” Nahlia said with a small laugh. “You didn’t even know Ethermancy existed until five months ago.”
She turned back to the book. “According to this, he unleashed some terrible power against Revera two-hundred years ago. Something they’d never seen or heard of before.” She skimmed further down the page, but the historian refused to name the power directly.
“Well, that’s cryptic,” Elias said. “Any ideas?”
Nahlia shook her head. “Earlier, the writer referred to an army that couldn’t be killed...”
“Resurrection?” Elias offered. “Like how you healed me in Whitecliff?”
“No...” She bit the inside of her cheek, then leafed back several pages. “That can’t be it. See this? They call it ‘a dark perversion and misuse of his power.’ I’m unsure about a lot of things, but I trust my conscience in this. What I did for you wasn’t wrong.”
“Alright.” Elias gave a slow nod. “So what do you think it is?”
Nahlia continued scanning the pages. “I thought it might be what I did to that SIle’zhar on the Black Steppes. That reverse healing...”
He leaned forward to meet her eye. “But?”
“But was that really worse than what a Sanctifier can do?”
“At a larger scale?” Elias made a leveling gesture with his hand. “Whoever took my sister must have seemed pretty terrifying to those Templars.”
“And by Thane’s own admission,” Nahlia began, “he killed five times that number in Dresten. Zidane burned an entire city to start this war, and those Sile’zhar would have made quick work of the Onyx Company if it hadn’t been for us. I’m not saying the Aeon in Starglade wasn’t powerful, but it’s far from the worst thing we’ve heard of.”
“Point taken,” Elias said.
“It’s frustrating,” Nahlia slapped the back cover shut, then she winced when she remembered how old the book was. “How can they leave out the most important part?”
“Well, weren’t they trying to prevent the ideas from spreading?”
“They should have known that wouldn’t work though. Keeping secrets didn’t stop me from learning Ethermancy. It didn’t stop your sister either.”
“But they wouldn’t have known that back then,” Elias pointed out. “Especially if they never tried restricting it before.”
Nahlia hummed in consideration as she opened another book. But even after skimming another dozen of these, the answer eluded her. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Historians couldn’t even agree on what had happened during the Purge, and that was only two decades ago. As usual, more research resulted in more uncertainty.
Elias closed his own book and leaned closer until their shoulders met. “Whatever happened with Palatine the last time he attacked? He obviously didn’t win.”
“No...” Nahlia kept her breath steady, trying to ignore how warm his skin was. “According to this, he was defeated by another Redeemer named Alexel Trelidor.”
“Alexel Trelidor.” Elias tasted the name, considering. “Sounds familiar. What happened to him?”
“He was killed shortly after his fight with Palatine. They never found out who did it. Not that he would have fared much better otherwise. People were afraid of the Redeemers after the war, and they were disappearing left and right.”
“And that’s why your ancestors founded Whitecliff,” Elias muttered. “You’d think people would still want Redeemers around, considering all you can do.”
Nahlia drew her lips back in a thin line. “I’m sure there were hypocrites who spoke against us, and then used our healing anyway. The same way the Templars use Aeons now.”
She still didn’t agree with the decision to keep Ethermancy a secret, but if all Redeemers were a liability as this book implied, then maybe that decision made more sense. At least back then.
She opened another book from her pile but found her eyelids growing heavy.
“So much for your plan to read all night,” Elias said, lips curling in amusement.
“My tolerance isn’t what it used to be.” Nahlia stifled a yawn. “I blame the mercenary life.”
She stood up from her chair and wandered over to the tall window. The rain danced outside in a gray-blue haze.
Footsteps echoed behind her as Elias followed.
Nahlia rubbed at her arms and found them covered in goosebumps. “How can it be freezing in here when it’s so warm outside?”
“Oh.” He stepped up beside her, brushing her arm again. “Ashara explained that earlier.”
“Yeah, apparently, they use some kind of permanent Ethermancy to control the temperature. They also cool down the food storage to near-freezing, or so I hear.”
Nahlia nodded. “To think ... people live their whole lives like this. It’s like we were in the real world yesterday and now we’ve stepped into the Ethereal.”
“But without all the twice-bright stars and twisting clouds,” Elias agreed. “Most people would call my family rich, and even I’m surprised by all this.”
“No wonder Thane complained so much,” Nahlia said. “This is the life he left behind.”
Thunder came in a sudden clap, shaking the windows in their frames.
Nahlia glanced at Elias from the corner of her eye. They’d left the lantern back at their desk so she only saw faint outline of his face.
“It was raining like this before,” Nahlia said, turning to face him. “The last time we read Ethermancy books together.”
“You mean the night we stole those books from Zidane’s office,” Elias said. “And almost got caught.”
“Technically we did get caught. Just ... not with the books.” Her heart rate quickened as the memory came back, more vivid than anything else from Whitecliff.
“Simpler times,” he said. “At least for me. Things have been hard for you since the beginning...”
The silence stretched between them for several heartbeats, and Nahlia gathered her courage. It was much harder now without Ilsa’s help. When she tried to speak, it was like pumping water from a well. “I wasn’t honest with you that night, you know.”
Elias tilted his head to one side, curious.
“Remember?” Nahlia prodded. “You told me...”
Realization shone in his golden eyes. “...that the kiss was more to me than a clever ploy.”
“And I told you I didn’t feel the same way, but that was a lie.” Nahlia tried to sound calm but her words came out in a breathless rush. “I already felt guilty about betraying Whitecliff. I felt like ... if anything were to happen between us, that would make the betrayal a hundred times worse.”
“That makes sense.” Elias kept his expression carefully controlled but for a slight smile. Was that a good sign?
“How come you never told me?” he asked. “Afterward, I mean.”
Nahlia shrugged a shoulder. “After everything else that happened, I didn’t think it mattered. I didn’t know if you’d moved on.” She shot a glance back to the table where he’d been sitting with Ashara.
“Ah.” Elias followed her gaze, and his grin widened. “Are you jealous, Lady Cole?”
“Not you too,” she stammered. “Honestly, it’s not half as funny as everyone seems to think.”
“I think it’s adorable.”
“I...” Nahlia trailed off as his words sank in.
He continued before she could speak again. “And Princess Solidor is nice enough, but she’s not you.”
“Oh,” was all she could manage. Her knees shook, and she drew in several deep breaths to steady herself.
The rain pattered harder against the window pane. Elias took a step forward until his chest was level with the top of her head.
Tonight or never.
Nahlia closed her hands around his tunic, pulled his face close to hers and kissed him.
His hands found her waist and her back, pulling her smaller frame against his. One hand drifted down to her hip, the other pressed against her bare shoulder. His touch was even warmer now than when they’d sparred together.
Nahlia wrapped her arms around his back, pulling him closer than he already was. She pulled back for breath, and he pressed gentler kisses against her cheek, trailing a line along her jaw and down her neck. Nahlia couldn’t help but laugh when his stubble grazed the hollow of her throat.
His lips met hers a second time. Gentle at first, then deeper and more demanding. Nahlia melted into his embrace and all her tension faded away.