A massive stone pillar protruded from the earth, like a shard of glass that had fallen from Eternity. It was taller than any man-made structure and narrower than any mountain.
When Nahlia first saw the palace, she had assumed they were close to Thane’s city. In reality, they still had a full day of walking ahead. What sort of structure was visible from that far away?
Now the sun was setting behind the Ember Sea, and the palace cast half the city in its dark shadow. Thane led them through the arching stone gate, and dozens of guards dropped to their knees as he passed. Even the raptor riders dismounted.
Aegon ... no wonder Thane acted so full of himself. He’d gotten better since they first met, but one year on the road couldn’t erase decades of royal treatment.
They followed the thoroughfare for about a mile, then the Onyx Company split into smaller groups. Thane directed the soldiers to various inns in the lower tier while the rest of them took a lift into Hightown.
The sights grew more impressive as they neared the palace. There were fountains and waterfalls every few blocks, white marble statues, and buildings as high as ten stories.
Nahlia had already seen Dragonshard several times in the Ethereal. Even so, a real city had the sort of life that no dream could replicate. The Ethereal was more like watching a play. No matter how large and detailed the set was, it would never be anything more than a backdrop. It would never compare to walking through a real crowd of people, all with their own needs and desires.
Dragonshard marked the end of their journey, and no dream could recreate that feeling either. The feeling of putting half the world behind you and finally reaching your destination.
The palace was all polished stone corridors, obsidian pillars, and high-vaulted ceilings. The throne room lay empty as they passed through—something that never happened in plays or storybooks. Nahlia had half expected a dramatic reunion here between Thane and his father. Then again, it was well past sixth bell—no doubt the king had better things to do.
After a brief talk with the guards Thane led them toward the palace’s central lift.
The minutes dragged by as the mechanical platform climbed the hollow shaft, passing iron gates and smooth stone walls.
Ilsa leaned closer to Nahlia, raising her voice to be heard over the gears and chains, “No news of your mother?”
Nahlia shook her head. According to the palace guards, her mother had left the palace by dragon that very morning. No one knew where she went or when she would return.
Talk about terrible timing.
Thane had wanted to keep their arrival a secret until now, but who knew they were so successful?
“She’ll be back soon enough,” Ilsa said. “News travels fast in any Aeon court.”
The lift lurched to a stop as the guard pulled the brake. Nahlia glanced up to see several dozen more floors above them, which must have put them somewhere in the middle of the spire.
Thane slid open the gate and led them into a hallway of hollowed stone. The air was cool and dry—probably the same sigils they used in Villa Solizhan. Come to think of it ... she hadn’t noticed any counter-weights for that lift. Was that Ethermancy-powered too?
Unfortunately, there was no time to ask. Thane and the others were still moving, and Nahlia had to jog to keep up.
“Prince Solidor,” a voice said from the end of the hall. The man wore sharp leather armor with a white dragon insignia on his chest. Five more guards stood behind him. Unlike the men at the gates, these all had bright Aeon eyes.
Thane inclined his head as he approached the door. “Good evening. You must be my father’s new guardcaptain. I’d like to see him, please.”
“The king isn’t expecting you,” he said. “In fact, he hasn’t heard from you in several months.”
“I thought I’d surprise him,” Thane said. “Not that it’s any concern of yours.”
The man narrowed his eyes, showing none of the deference of the other guards. “The surprises will have to wait. His majesty is in a very important—”
“If my father sought to slow me down,” Thane began, “Then he should have stood watch himself. Now, stand aside. If not, I’ll break your legs and my father can find a new guardcaptain.”
Well ... that escalated quickly. They had prepared for this the day before, but Nahlia had assumed it was a worst-case scenario.
The men put their hands on their sword hilts, and Nahlia drew a burst of energy from her pendant.
Thane glanced over his shoulder, met Nahlia’s eyes, and nodded once.
Nahlia spread out her arms, releasing two barriers between the guards. White light filled the hall like a flash of lightning. The barriers parted, and the six guards slammed into either side of the corridor.
Thane walked between them as if the path were a red carpet.
Nahlia released the barrier on the right where the guardcaptain lay. No reason not to. Training with Elias had fine-tuned her reflexes, and she could conjure another one in half a heartbeat.
There was a slow rasp of steel as Thane drew his katana and brought it to the captain’s windpipe. The guard drew in a sharp breath as if he might speak or call out.
Thane better not be considering following through on his threat. He claimed he wanted to be a better leader than his father. Now he was flaunting power through the halls? And for what? To satisfy his own pride?
“You think my father will protect you from me?” Thane asked the guard. “If anything, he would compliment me on finally showing some spine. Lucky for you, I’m not in the business of making his majesty proud.”
Thane pulled back his blade and nodded down the hall. “You’re relieved of duty, soldier. Tell your wife and children that Thane Solidor showed you mercy. Ask yourself whether my father would have done the same.”
By now, the other guards had all climbed to their feet. Aside from shooting Nahlia some strange glances, not one of them moved to attack. All in all, they were the first guards she’d met who showed more prudence than bravado.
Thane turned to another guard whose insignia was more detailed than the others. Second-in-command, maybe?
“Good evening,” Thane said. “You must be my father’s new guardcaptain. I’d like to see him, please.”
Thane led the way into the meeting room. King Solidor sat at the head of a long, dark table with half-a-dozen advisors on either side. The bamboo blinds had been drawn over the tall windows, blocking out the evening sunlight.
The room fell silent as everyone rounded on Thane and his companions.
“You’re late,” the king said. His black hair was as long as the last time they’d spoken, though he had more iron in his beard. “Are my guards still alive?”
“For now,” Thane said as he stepped forward. “As long as your former captain never shows his face here again.”
Someday, he would reform this city, and such boasting wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, traditions ran deep in the court of Clan Solidor. He’d have to play by his Kalazhan’s rules in the meantime. This was twice as important when Thane didn’t have his Ethermancy. If his father sensed even a shred of weakness, Thane would have better luck negotiating with a dragon.
The king glanced around the table, meeting his advisors’ eyes. “Leave us.”
The old men and women sprang into motion as if already anticipating the request. As the room cleared, his father gestured a finger toward Thane’s companions. “Your friends, too. You and I will speak alone.”
Thane looked over his shoulder, nodding to Nahlia and the others. “It’s alright. You can wait for me outside.”
Once they had gone, the king spoke again. “Was that Lady Trelian’s daughter?”
“Nahlia,” Thane confirmed.
“Hm. I can see the resemblance. She’s rougher around the edges, but the same is true for any half-blood, I suppose.” Then he paused, eyeing Thane from head to heel. “You don’t have the Codex with you.”
“Where it is, then?” The words had barely left the king’s mouth before he answered his own question. “With the Solizhans, I expect. They’ve made their disapproval clear these past few months.”
“At least someone has.” Thane walked around the table. “Do you have any idea what this artifact is?”
The king’s eyes darkened like a storm. “You think this is some game where we flaunt our scholarly knowledge? Our time is too short for that. If you have a point, then make it.”
“I’m no more guilty of playing games than you,” Thane retorted. “How much have you withheld over the years?”
“It hasn’t been years,” he corrected. “Only as long as your loyalty has been in question.”
Thane closed his eyes and released a breath. “You and I have different ideas of loyalty.”
“Perhaps we do. And yet, one of us rules this nation while the other engages in juvenile attempts at rebellion. One of us is king, and the other has no experience leading or making hard choices.”
His father leaned back in his chair. “Now say what you came here to say. You’ve carried the artifact within our borders, but not into the palace. This means you want something in exchange for it. Now tell me what that is.”
Thane should have known this conversation would be like pulling teeth. He had hoped to get his father’s perspective before he revealed everything. Now it was clear that wouldn’t happen. If Ashara were here, she would raise her eyebrows in that “I told you so” look she was so fond of.
So Thane gave his father the bones of the story. He told him how he and Relyn had entered the Codex and confronted the presence inside. He explained the ritual for controlling the Etherfall, along with the potential devastation it might cause.
“Curious,” his father said when Thane finished explaining. “I presume the goal of this ritual is to acquire more Etherite?”
Thane shook his head. “We didn’t even make that connection until later. The Archaeon seemed more interested in ‘cleansing’ the realm. Correcting the power imbalance between humans and Aeons.”
It occurred to Thane that his father wouldn’t see the downside to this, and he continued quickly, “If we give this to Palatine, we could have the blood of thousands on our hands.”
“Potentially,” the king said, “but unlikely. If this Codex is anything like Kalazhan’s, I suspect it will take months to learn the ritual, if not years. The next Etherfall is eleven days away, and we won’t experience another one in our lifetime.”
Thane hesitated. The Codex did, in fact, involve a series of elaborate lessons. Relyn had learned that during her separate excursion inside. Considering the enormity of the task, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume those lessons would take years.
“What if the enemy knew this and planned accordingly?” Thane said.
“Or perhaps you overestimate Palavar’s leaders,” his father said. “You speak of Palatine as if it’s one person rather than an entire clan. You imagine … what? Some all-powerful Ethermancer capable of seizing the Codex’s power in mere weeks?”
“Zidane had faith in their leader,” Thane countered. “And considering all these wars Palatine has orchestrated, I’d hardly say—.”
“Wars.” The king waved that away. “War is in our nature. Any educated person knows this. Put people under pressure, and they make rash decisions. One rash decision can lead to thousands of deaths. This happens well enough without masterminds in the shadows.”
“If that fact is common knowledge,” Thane began, “then anyone can take advantage of it. By appearing weaker than he looks, Palatine could easily make you underestimate him.”
“Nothing is certain,” his father said. “But I’ve sent embassies to Palavar—experts on foreign affairs. My information might not be flawless, but what do the others have? Hearsay and rumors?”
“We have more than rumors,” Thane said, “When Nahlia defeated Zidane, she saw his memories. She saw Palatine as he conspired with Zidane to throw our realm into chaos. She saw Zidane burning the city of Stormharbor, causing the humans to rebel.”
“Absurd,” the king said. “Even a master empath can’t see another’s thoughts, much less see his memories.”
“They were each holding pieces of bonded Etherite when it happened.”
The king hummed in consideration, tapping his fingers on the dark wooden table. “It’s still weak evidence. Such a thing wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. And even if it were true, it doesn’t affect our kingdom’s future. Palavar is still our enemy. I don’t deny this. Any foreign nation poses a threat to us, but this exchange with the Codex will make them an ally for generations to come. Do you think we could ever have such an alliance with the humans?”
“We might,” Thane said. “Knight Commander Cole is offering Aeons their land back in exchange for fighting the invaders. I’m sure he could match whatever deal they’re offering you.”
“In exchange for fighting,” his father echoed. “Is that what you want from our kingdom? For thousands more to die?”
Thane paused, and his father gave a knowing nod. “Now you understand why the Codex is so important. By giving this to Palavar, we secure our future now. Not after a war. Not at the cost of thousands of lives, but right now. Today.”
Thane narrowed his eyes. “First you claim Palavar is weak, but now an alliance with them is enough to secure our future?”
“I never said they were weak. Only that your concerns about a new empire are unfounded. We will give Clan Palatine the Codex, and we will offer our lands as a place for them to stage their campaign. In exchange, Dragonshard will remain independent, regardless of this war’s outcome.”
The king rose from his chair then, slow and controlled. “You think you know what’s best for our kingdom, but I’ve weighed every option with care. This may not satisfy your naïve idealism, but it is the best thing for Dragonshard.”
Aegon ... Thane didn’t need this confusion. He’d expected this choice to be simple. Instead, the king’s plans almost sounded reasonable. Even if handing over the Codex wasn’t the most moral decision—he was still potentially sacrificing thousands of human lives in the long term—Thane couldn’t deny the king had Dragonshard’s best interests in mind.
Thane didn’t like it, but did that give him the right to seize the throne? Who was he to say what was right? If he knew the answer to that question, he might still have his Ethermancy.
The Solizhans thought his father was bending the knee to a foreign ruler, and Thane had believed that because it went along with Zidane’s earlier statements. But now, their evidence seemed insufficient.
What was he supposed to do now? The Solizhans expected an answer, preferably before the Clansmeet tomorrow night.
Before Thane could reply, the doors burst open and a messenger jogged up to the table. Thane raised an eyebrow at the intrusion. The guards had tried to prevent their prince’s entry, but random messengers were fine?
“My king.” She bowed deep at the waist, not seeming to notice Thane standing to the side. “Lady Trelian sends word from the observatory.”
“Speak,” his father said.
“The Etherfall is happening far sooner than we thought. The Astrologists found a gravitational—”
“When?” the king interrupted, voice as sharp as a dagger.
The woman swallowed once, hard. “Tomorrow night.”