“We need to talk about this,” Cole said as he gestured to the letter on the table.
Marabella raised a blonde eyebrow as she stepped into the Knight Commander’s tent. The Spymaster had been away from camp for several days, meeting up with her spies around the peninsula. He had expected her back this morning. Not now—mere hours before the Clansmeet.
Mara glanced down at the paper, then back to him. “Your wife?”
He gave a curt nod. “Want to guess what it says?”
The Spymaster paused as if weighing her next words. “We warned you she might be supporting Palatine...”
“You tell me one thing,” Cole snapped, “and she tells me there is no Palatine to support.” He had no spies of his own. That was the problem with stepping into positions like this. Everything was sink or swim. He’d gone through great pains to send and receive his own messages rather than relying on her. Still, it wasn’t enough.
Being so busy with everything else, Cole hadn’t had time to research the larger questions. Was this even a war they should fight? Was the enemy they faced even real? It had seemed so straightforward before. There was an invasion fleet on their doorstep, led by a tyrant. As Templars, it was their duty to defend the realm from any supernatural threat, foreign or domestic. That was the oath he’d sworn twenty years ago. But things hadn’t been so simple then.
They were even less simple today.
Mara drew in a breath. “Have you considered that she’s trying to plant seeds of doubt Now, when it matters most?”
“I’m considering every possibility,” Cole replied. “Tell me this—has anyone ever seen Palatine? Any of your spies or informants in Palavar?”
“No,” she admitted, “but that’s hardly—”
“Proof,” he finished for her. “Right. I never saw Chancellor Brighton until five months ago either, but I’d heard second-hand accounts. I’d seen transcribed speeches, orders, letters in his name. Do we have any of that?”
Her silence was all the answer Cole needed. “Damnit.” he closed his eyes and curled his right hand into a fist. “Tell me this is simple stupidity on our part. Tell me we’re not the warmongers here.”
“Of course not.” she said. “Everything we’ve done has been to form alliances.”
“Alliances are a fine way to start wars,” he countered. “Without them, we’d only have skirmishes.”
“The Chancellor and I haven’t lied to you,” she continued. “Palatine exists. We have no doubt about that. But your wife might also be correct. Things may not be as simple as a tyrant on a throne.”
“Alright.” Cole crossed his arms. “So it’s complicated, then. Explain.”
“I have a theory,” she began, “that Palatine isn’t ruling his own country or commanding the invasion fleet. He’s already here.”
“Here.” She jabbed the map with a finger. “I think he’s been in Revera this entire time.”
Nahlia rode the central lift up to Lastlight—one of the palace’s top floors, just below the royal apartments. Goosebumps covered her bare arms as bursts of dry air raced down the shaft.
The guard heaved on the brake, and the lift lurched to a sudden halt. Nahlia stepped off the platform into a corridor of hollowed stone. Mosaic tiles adorned the floor, forming intricate patterns of black and white.
The hall was eerily quiet compared to the festivities below, with no sound but her own footsteps and breathing. She followed Thane’s instructions to her mother’s bedchamber. Third hall from the left, last door on the right.
Nahlia opened the bamboo door without knocking, and walked past a protesting servant woman.
It wasn’t that she wanted to be rude. She simply couldn’t handle any more delays. Every delay made this reunion seem less and less plausible. Thane had claimed to have seen Lyraina Trelian, but how would he know it was really her? Despite all the evidence he’d provided, doubts always lingered in the back of her mind. What if she’d never revived her mother ten years ago? What if this woman in Dragonshard was merely some clever imposter?
Nahlia passed through the foyer and into a dimly lit sitting room. It was much like Nahlia’s own chambers in Dragonshard, albeit larger and more lived in. One pair of doors led to the bedroom while another opened to a wide balcony. Two leather sofas faced each other with a wooden table between them. Another set of chairs formed a half-moon around the fireplace.
But where was her mother?
The servant woman followed Nahlia from the foyer into the main sitting room. Dark-skinned and dark-haired, she wore a form-fitting dress of fine silk.
Nahlia rounded on her. “Lady Trelian—where is she?”
“Sabine?” A woman called from the bedroom. “Is someone there?”
“Yes,” the servant—Sabine—called back. The look she gave Nahlia was equal parts inquisitive and accusatory.
“I’m Nahlia Cole.” She had meant to explain who she was in greater detail, but the words caught in her throat.
Regardless, Sabine seemed to understand. She immediately opened the bedchamber door and slid inside. Perfume-scented mist wafted out the gap, followed by two murmured voices.
Nahlia heard splashing water, then footsteps on wet stone.
Half a minute later, her mother emerged from the bedchamber clad in a bright blue robe.
Ten years should have changed a person, but Lyraina Trelian looked exactly the same. She was taller than Nahlia by several inches. Her dark red hair hung in wet strands past her shoulders, and her eyes were as blue as the Ember Sea.
“Nahlia.” It wasn’t a question. Rather, her voice was calm and flooded with relief. She blinked several times, as if taking in the full sight of her.
Of course. While her mother looked the same, Nahlia must have been nearly unrecognizable to her eyes.
Despite everything, Nahlia remembered her lessons, and Ilsa’s warnings. People could deceive you with Ethermancy—they could make you see things that weren’t really there.
Nahlia cleared her throat and said, “I need to be sure it’s really you.”
Lyraina’s eyes widened in confusion, then relaxed into understanding. “You’ve inherited your father’s skepticism.”
“He’s the one who kept me safe these past ten years.” It came out sharper than she’d intended. But ... Aegon, she lived here this entire time? The top of a palace, with perfume-scented baths, silk robes, and servants?
Lyraina nodded to Sabine. It must have been a dismissal because the other woman left the room.
She turned back to Nahlia then, “Ask me whatever you’d like. I’ll do my best to answer.”
Nahlia bit her lip, considering. She’d already thought of many questions, but most sounded too ridiculous. Either that, or they were so specific that her mother could be forgiven for not knowing the answers.
“What was my favorite food?” she asked. Even that question was probably too—
“Apple pie,” Lyraina said at once. “Your father made it for you every autumn, and you two walked all the way down to the Dawson Farm to buy them.”
Nahlia pressed on. Better to be sure. “What were the last words you said to me—before the Templars attacked?
There was a short pause this time. “Nothing’s wrong. Go back to sleep.”
Both answers were right, of course. After all this time. Her mother was standing right in front of her. Nahlia had watched her die, yet here she was, alive and well. She’d thought the memories in the Ethereal would prepare her for this, but this moment was beyond words, more surreal than any dream.
Heat spread through her chest, but the rest of her felt too cold to move. Nahlia took several deep breaths before she spoke again, “Would you like to ask me something, too?”
“No.” Lyraina shook her head. “I know my own daughter when I see her.”
A tear threatened to burst from Nahlia’s eye, but she made no move to step forward. “Why?” she finally asked. “You must have known I was alive. Why did you stay here all this time?”
“I didn’t know,” Lyraina said. “I looked—but your father did too well of a job keeping you hidden. Northshire is so far from where we lived before. It was years before I heard anything.”
“How did you find out, then?”
“Casella of Clan Raider. She’s a—”
“I know who she is,” Nahlia said. “I’m ... sort of courting her son.”
“Oh.” Her mother blinked. “It’s serious, then?
“What?” Nahlia shook her head. “No.” She’d almost forgotten how the nobility had different meanings for such words. For them, courting implied marriage on the horizon. That wasn’t the case back in Northshire. Not that she was against marrying Elias someday, but that would be years in the future, if it were even possible. “Not yet, at least.”
Lyraina gave a slow nod. “Well ... Lady Raider discovered you two after you arrived in Northshire. One of her agents—a former classmate of mine—visited Dragonshard last year. He told me then.”
“Last year,” Nahlia muttered. It was less time than she’d imagined, but she still clenched her cold fingers into fists. “You knew for that long, and you couldn’t be bothered to come north yourself?”
“Things were difficult.”
“Difficult?” Nahlia spread her hands around the ornate room.
“Wealth doesn’t mean freedom,” she said.
That excuse might have worked yesterday if she’d actually been here. Not flying around the Ember Isles—free as a dragon, as they say.
“Be honest,” Nahlia said, “was it truly outside your power to travel north?”
Lyraina considered for several heartbeats before answering. “No.”
“When I found out you were alive,” Nahlia began, “I left for Dragonshard immediately. Not a year later. Not even a day later. That’s what family means to me.”
She gave a weary sigh. “If your goal is to make me feel worse, it won’t take much effort.”
“Fine.” Nahlia crossed her arms and looked away. Maybe she was still being too harsh, considering she didn’t know the whole story yet. “Then tell me why you stayed.”
Her mother slid open the balcony door and stepped outside. Nahlia followed, still feeling dizzy. The air was warm, and stars were already visible in the twilight sky.
“This war will change the world,” Lyraina began, “and the lives of all Aeons. I knew I could do more here than I could for you. Even if it meant I wouldn’t get to see you yet. Even if it meant you would hate me for it.”
“I don’t hate you,” Nahlia spoke softer than before. She wasn’t even as angry as she let on. Anger just happened to be the easiest thing to feel right now, and she clung to the feeling like a sword hilt.
“For what it’s worth,” Lyraina said, “I am sorry I didn’t come sooner. Now that I see you, all grown up, with my own eyes...” She shook her head as if to clear it. “I should have looked harder. I shouldn’t have given up until I found you.”
Not knowing how to respond to that, Nahlia backtracked, “What war? The one between Revera and Palavar?’
Her mother leaned over the railing, gazing out at the two moons over the Ember Sea. “This is merely a front for another war. A war for ascension. A war between Aeons looking to achieve their full potential, and those who would keep us suppressed.”
That sounded too much like Thane’s father. Nahlia had suspected this for a while now, but she’d hoped she was wrong. “You want to join with Palatine and the invaders.”
Her mother drew in a breath. “There is no—”
“I know,” Nahlia interjected. “I’ve heard that theory already, but I don’t believe it. Someone is controlling all of this. I know because I’ve seen him.”
“There is someone,” Lyraina said. “But he’s not our enemy. He’s the furthest thing from it.”
Mara stepped closer to Cole, lowering her voice. “This is where the Etherite falls, and this is where the strongest Ethermancers live. This realm has always been bountiful, while Palatine’s was barren.”
Cole narrowed his eyes. “How long have you had this theory?”
“A while ,” she admitted. “But I don’t have any evidence beyond my own speculation. Besides, our goal is to make peace with the Reverian Aeons. How can we do that if we’re accusing them of being foreign tyrants in disguise?”
Cole nodded. “It’s the same paranoia as before—hunting down Aeons because of what they might do to us.”
“Exactly,” she said. “If Palatine started sowing that distrust before, there’s no reason to think he should stop now.”
Cole leaned against the table, rubbing the bridge of his nose.”So, who do you think it is?”
“If it’s not someone in King Solidor’s court, I’d suspect one of the enclave leaders.”
Cole recalled the various leaders they’d met with over the past few months. The Spymaster was right. Every one of them could inflict more damage than a foreigner across the sea, especially if he had all the same resources as an emperor.
“So you think that Palatine himself will be here at the Clansmeet?” Cole asked. Even if Lyraina didn’t know the specifics ... she knew something dangerous might happen.
That was why she’d warned him to stay away.
“After tonight,” Lyraina said, “our realm will have a true leader. His name is Alexel Trelidor. He’s a Redeemer—a descendent of Treluwyn, like us. He found me soon after the Templars killed me, and he brought me back from the dead. Now, he leads his own enclave of Aeons, and he has awakened Ethermancy in hundreds across the continent.”
Nahlia gaped as she struggled to process everything at once. Back when Thane first told her that her mother was alive, he claimed that Nahlia was the one to revive her.
She’d believed him, thinking it was just another memory she’d repressed.
She’d believed him, thinking that Aegon had answered her prayers all those years ago.
She and Elias had come across the name in the Villa Solizhan library. The man had been a Redeemer, just as her mother said, and he’d defeated the former patriarch of Clan Palatine the last time they tried to conquer Revera. The book also claimed that Trelidor was dead, but perhaps he just went missing instead?
“Thane told me you couldn’t dream since you died,” Nahila said. “That’s why you couldn’t talk to me in the Ethereal. I assume that means you can’t do Ethermancy either?”
“Not yet,” her mother said. “My soul was damaged during my revival, but the Etherfall brings healing. There are places in the world where the currents of the Ethereal run strong. Whitecliff was one such place, and Dragonshard is another. Meteors fell here centuries ago, and they left a nexus of Etherite deep beneath the palace. When the comet passes over us, I’ll be able to heal my damaged soul and regain my Ethermancy.”
“How?” Nahlia asked. “How can you seize the comet’s power?” She already knew the answer of course. She just hoped to Aegon she was wrong.
“With Palatine’s Codex,” her mother said. “The one you retrieved from Whitecliff.”
She’d been braced to hear it, but the statement hit her like a bullet in her chest.
“My companions have been inside the Codex,” Nahlia said, her own voice rising. “Even if what you say is true—it does a whole lot more than healing, doesn’t it?”
“The Codex is knowledge,” her mother said. “But knowledge is nothing unless it’s wedded to action. Alexel Trelidor can make the right choices, and he has the power to wield the Codex.”
“Good intentions won’t matter,” Nahlia said. “You understand what the Codex does, don’t you?”
“It also lends the power of destruction,” her mother said simply. “But the Etherfalls have always destroyed. That makes them cruel, yes. But does it make them evil?” She shook her head. “No more than a storm, a hurricane, or an earthquake. Aegon created the Etherfalls. He made them as a gift to us. More often than not, Aegon’s gifts come in the form of challenges.”
Lyraina met her eyes again. “I know you’re an Ethermancer. And I’m so proud of you for that. And yet, most of the world would try to stop you. Even kill you. Kill you, for expressing the gifts Aegon gave you. Is that right?”
Nahlia remained silent. It was too much to take in all at once.
“The Etherfall is merely the purest form of all Ethermancy. Yes, there will be destruction. But look at the world you’ve crossed to get here. Look at what the humans have made. Black powder weapons, canons, explosives.”
Memories flashed in her mind’s eye—sights and sounds that had once made her freeze.
“What did you see when you crossed Raidenwood?” Lyraina asked. “Aeons and Aeon sympathizers hanging off the bridges? Children put in cages and sold into slavery?”
“I’ve seen just as much violence from Aeons,” Nahlia said. “You said it yourself—actions matter most. And I can’t be a part of letting thousands die.”
“No one’s asking you to do anything,” her mother said. “This is happening, regardless. I only want you to understand. By harnessing the Etherfall, we can bring redemption to this world. A world where we can be safe. Safe enough to be a family again.”
Aegon. She was going to cry. This was the woman who had tucked her into bed every night, reading her stories about the Redeemers who sought to end wars and violence.
Now she was casually discussing the murder of thousands—even justifying it.
Nahlia drew in a burst of energy from her pendant. It didn’t strengthen her—not in any practical way, but it reminded her of the Ethermancer she was now, not the girl she used to be.
When she spoke again, her voice came out unbroken with steel in her tone. “I won’t allow it. As a Redeemer, it’s my job to prevent this very thing from happening.”
Her mother gave a sad, sympathetic smile. “Like the stories I read you when you were young? Those stories romanticized pacifism, painting it as an ideal way of living. Such stories are meant as an introduction to philosophy, providing a foundation for your moral code. They shouldn’t be the extent of it.”
“You think I’ve read nothing else since then?” Nahlia shot back. “Just because I disagree with you doesn’t prove that I’m less educated than you.” But of course, the words sounded childish and petulant as they left her mouth.
“On the contrary,” her mother said, “You’ve clearly become quite competent and intelligent. That’s why I’m telling you the truth right now. There’s a time and a place for that kind of thinking, but it’s not now. Not now, when our race is on the brink of extinction. We need to fight back. We need to strike hard at the humans. If we do this right, we can secure our future for centuries to come. Once we re-balance the scales, Aeondom as a whole will be stronger for it.”
Now her mother sounded like the presence Thane had described inside the Codex. Palatine had been a Redeemer too, but he was nothing like their own ancestor, Treluwyn.
“You said Alexel Trelidor can wield the Codex. How can that be, when it only responds to a descendent of Palatine?”
Her mother remained silent and stone-still. If not for Ilsa’s training, Nahlia would have missed the lie blooming in her eyes, threatening to emerge from her lips.
She knows something.
History said that Alexel Trelidor had fought and defeated Palatine. Too little information to form a proper theory. Even so...
Alexel Trelidor wanted the Codex, and apparently he had the means to use it.
What if he’d also been the one to send those Sile’zhar after them? What if her mother knew this all along, and that was the reason they wouldn’t kill Nahlia?
Everyone claimed that Palatine would try to turn the great Aeon clans against one another, attacking with subtlety rather than outright conquest. Relyn had already witnessed this when he came to her home in Valaysia and recruited her parents.
Palatine offered Relyn’s family Ethermancy, the thing they wanted most. Just as he offered Thane’s father independence and freedom. Just as Alexel Trelidor offered to repair her mother’s damaged soul.
What if Alexel Trelidor had never defeated Palatine all those years ago? What if they were the same person all along?