Ciena clung to the dragon’s saddle as they soared over the Ember Sea. The twilight air found every gap in her armor, and the tides rose high enough to splash her boots. Their destination shone like a beacon on the distant horizon.
Dragonshard, where all the clans of Revera had come together in one place. Here, they would choose sides and determine the fate of their realm.
Alexel had given her plenty of reading material the day before, and Ciena struggled through it as best she could. King Solidor was on their side, as were most of Dragonshard’s nobility. However, many of the rural clans—including Dazen’s family—would sooner side with the Templars.
No wonder Dazen and his cousins had all left.
The Solizhans were also harboring the stolen artifact from Whitecliff. The king’s son, Thane, had carried it all the way across the continent and now he sought to keep it for himself.
Alexel didn’t say much about the other clans. Still, there was no way Whitecliff would choose the Templars over an alliance with Palavar. The realm couldn’t continue in its current state. It needed a new ruler like Alexel to—
Wait. Ciena caught herself and backtracked. When had she started thinking of Palavar as a potential ally? Those were Alexel’s words worming their way into her skull as if they were her own thoughts.
She would have to be more careful from now on. Think twice about everything he tells you. Make sure your thoughts are your own. Remember what’s real.
The dragon flew over the harbor where dozens of ships docked and unloaded. Ciena glanced down at the streets to find them packed with people—common folk, performers, and street vendors alike. With only a day’s notice, they’d all dropped what they were doing to celebrate the coming Etherfall.
Which was coming tonight, to everyone’s great shock. What had the astrologists said before? Ten days? Aegon only knew why they were so confident in the first place. The telescope wasn’t even invented when the last comet passed, so it wasn’t like they had any practice.
The dragons circled around the palace, soaring past balconies, glass windows, and rounded stone platforms. Their rider pulled the reins, and their mount spread out her dark wings, bringing them down on one of the many landing pads.
Ciena and Alexel dismounted from the saddle as a second dragon touched down nearby. This one carried Rhia’s parents— Zirrik and Rakoja Vassaj. Like Alexel, the two of them wore formal dress tunics for the Clansmeet.
Ciena still wore her leather armor with Steelbreaker in a scabbard at her side. Unlike the three of them, she wouldn’t be attending the actual meeting. Apparently there were only so many seats at the grown-ups table, and her name didn’t carry much weight without the city to go with it.
No matter. Let the politicians debate all they want. Ciena was here for one reason: to find her family.
Nahlia sat in a high gallery overlooking the festivities below. Hundreds gathered outside the throne room, drinking, and gossiping amongst themselves. A great fountain shot out from the room’s center, taller than most homes back in Northshire. The water glimmered like falling gemstones in the lamplight.
The musicians played Elassan’s Seventh Symphony in the gallery opposite her. Nahlia didn’t know much about music, but she’d heard some minstrels play a variation of this song with a harp and a drum. It hadn’t seemed so impressive then, but hearing it with court instruments was another thing entirely. The notes were all long and deep—the sort of sounds that made her neck hairs stand up like a warning of impending doom.
As if tonight wasn’t stressful enough.
She reached for her glass and took a long drink. Her mother was scheduled to return soon, and no amount of wine could calm her nerves. Even after all these months of traveling, Nahlia hadn’t decided how she’d feel during their reunion. Happy to see her mother again? Angry that it took ten years?
The gallery door slid open behind her. Great. This better not be another stranger. She missed Elias for the hundredth time that day. He made small talk look as easy as breathing. Nahlia, on the other hand, could only handle so much of that before she wanted to bury her head in a pillow.
“I see you’ve found my father’s library,” Thane said as he took a seat beside her. He wore a formal black tunic and carried a wineglass of his own.
Nahlia nodded to the pile of books on the table. “Must have been nice,” she mused, “to grow up with all these.”
Thane gave a humorous chuckle. “Not everyone loves to read like you do. My instructors had to force-feed them to me.”
“Really?” she asked. But maybe it shouldn’t have surprised her. In Thane’s own words, he’d surpassed most of his instructors because they spent all their time studying rather than practicing.
Of course, things still weren’t going so well for him at the moment. For all he knew, one of these books held the answer to his problems.
Thane nodded into his wineglass. “I preferred socializing and adventuring. You don’t get much of either when you live in a palace.”
“Oh?” Nahlia raised an eyebrow at the crowd below. “And here I thought this was a typical night for you.”
His lips curled up in a small grin. “Sure, we had plenty of parties. But this”—he made a wide gesture at the room—”none of this is real. When you’re a Solidor, every interaction is a test of power.”
After what she’d witnessed from the guards yesterday, she knew Thane wasn’t exaggerating. Why else would the king bar his son entry to a room, despite wanting to speak with him?
Nahlia shrugged and leaned back into the soft leather chair. “I had plenty of adventure growing up. Socializing, too. But all I wanted was more books.”
“Well then...” Thane raised his glass in the space between them “Here’s to scarcity...”
“...and wanting what we can’t have.” Nahlia clinked her glass against his and took a drink. “Seriously, though. You hate adventure.”
“What?” His eyebrows shot up in genuine surprise. “That’s not true.”
“We just traveled across the world, and all you did was complain. The camp was too noisy, the tents were too small, the air was too cold...”
“You’re exaggerating,” Thane said.
“I am.” Nahlia set her near-empty glass on the table. “But of the four of us, you still complained the most. You couldn’t wait to get back to all this.”
“No…” Thane gazed up at the ceiling as if replaying the journey in his mind. “I’d say Relyn complained the most. Remember all those times she muttered under her breath in Valaysian? She wasn’t exactly singing our praises.”
Nahila laughed. “You two would have made a good couple, you know.”
Thane gave her a flat look.
“What? You had your chance.”
“She never said anything.”
“No, she only taught you how to hunt, followed you into the Codex, offered to swear her loyalty to you..” Nahlia counted off her fingers as she spoke. “Oh, not to mention how she sat by your side all night when you were wounded, threatening to break the bones of anyone who bothered you.”
Thane smiled again, this time with an air of nostalgia. “The last was rather touching, wasn’t it? Still … you’ve been reading far too many romance novels.” He leaned over and began inspecting the books in her pile.
“Guilty as charged,” Nahlia said. “I asked the librarian for the steamiest stuff she had. Who knew your father had such exquisite taste?”
“Funny.” Thane shook his head as he dropped a book. “But Relyn was trying to learn Ethermancy from me.”
“So what if she’s a little ambitious?” Nahlia asked. “It doesn’t mean she didn’t like you. Trust me on this. You can’t expect every woman to spell things out.”
Thane hummed in consideration. “Maybe. I don’t see myself getting involved with her though—or anyone. Things are complicated right now.”
Nahlia was about to offer herself as a positive example, but Thane beat her to it. “It’s different for you and Elias. You two support each other. There are things I need to figure out on my own.”
She gave a slow nod. “Anything to do with Kira?”
“No,” he said at once. “She would have wanted me to move on.”
It was the first time Kira’s name had come up where Thane hadn’t immediately retreated into himself. Usually, the mere mention of her was enough to end any conversation in an awkward silence.
Several seconds passed. They each drained the last of their wine. Thane ran his fingers along the leaf of a potted plant, and she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
And there’s the awkward silence. Well done, Nahlia.
“So what do you want?” she finally asked.
Thane turned to regard her.
“I mean, we’ve covered all the things you don’t want. Reading, romance, and ruling a kingdom. So what would make you happy again?”
“A purpose,” Thane said after a short pause. “To know that I’ll do more good in this world than harm. This fight against Palatine should be enough, but who are we actually fighting? It’s all smoke and fog.”
He was still thinking about the takeover, no doubt. They’d spoken about it last night in the Ethereal, far from listening ears. The king’s arguments hadn’t been enough to convince Thane, but his reasoning still made sense. Enough to make Thane question the plans of usurping his own father.
His grandfather had wanted an answer last night, but Thane couldn’t give him one. Not until after the Clansmeet, at least. From what Nahlia had seen from King Solidor, he was beyond reasoning with, and Thane was delaying the inevitable.
Just one more thing to worry about tonight.
Nahlia drew in a breath, “You probably don’t want to hear this, but...
“Have I tried asking Aegon for answers?” Thane ventured.
Nahlia ignored his condescending tone. “I felt the same way back in Whitecliff. You know—when you made me choose between my father and all those innocent people?”
Thane opened his mouth, but Nahlia continued quickly. “Not holding a grudge or anything. My point is, I was lost then. I didn’t know what was right. I felt like I had to choose between two wrongs.”
“And you prayed about it,” Thane deadpanned, “and all the answers became clear.”
“You act like it’s so childish,” she said, “but thousands of educated people believe in Aegon. I even saw a chapel outside your palace. Just because you don’t—”
“It’s not that I don’t believe in Aegon,” Thane said. “Of course I do. I just don’t expect him to solve my problems.”
“Are the two things mutually exclusive?” she asked. “Doesn’t Aegon give us our power so we work on his behalf? Isn’t that the whole purpose of Ethermancy?”
By now, they were treading familiar ground. They’d had this same conversation countless times since Whitecliff.
“You still believe Ethermancy is all good?” Thane asked. “Even after the Black Steppes?”
Was he referring to those Sile’zhar killing the mercenaries, or how Nahlia had killed the Sile’zhar? Maybe both?
“I think power can be misused...” Nahlia replied slowly. Back in VIlla Solidhan, she’d researched Moonfire—the ability for Redeemers to heal themselves and others. It could either give or take life depending on the sort of emotion woven into the technique. Positive emotions regenerated a body while negative emotions destroyed it.
As for why she could take life, Nahlia had no idea. Maybe the power of healing couldn’t exist without the counterpoint? Maybe the negative aspect had some secret purpose she had yet to uncover?
Regardless, she knew what Thane’s next point would be. He’d made the same argument enough times that she could make it for him. What is a Sanctifier’s purpose, in Aegon’s eyes? The name meant to cleanse and purify. In some ways, it was similar to the word “Redeemer.” But while Redeemers cleansed through healing, Sanctifiers cleansed through destruction.
What are we cleansing? Thane would ask.
Nahlia sat up straighter as two figures—a man and a woman—caught her eye in the crowd below. The woman was tall and muscular, her light brown hair pulled in tight braids on either side of her head. If her braids were dyed gold and crimson, she would have looked just like Elias’s sister, Ciena.
The man looked familiar too. A full head taller than anyone in the crowd, he was broad shouldered with silver-white hair that fell past his shoulders. Nahlia had never seen him before. Not in-person, anyway. Rather, the memory was like something out of a dream. He almost looked like...
The door slid open and someone called her name, “Lady Cole?”
She turned to see Kresimir—one of the two Ethermancers Thane’s grandfather had sent with him.
“It’s your mother,” he said. “Her dragon just landed.”