"You can't be serious," the Spymaster said. "You want to stay here?"
As if that wasn't obvious by now. The Clansmeet started in less than an hour. It would take Cole longer than that to walk across the city.
"What's our alternative?" he retorted. "Spring a deathtrap for a lost cause?"
"It's far from a lost cause. Besides, this whole meeting was our idea."
"Was it?" Cole raised an eyebrow. Mara may have suggested the Clansmeet, but Trelidor had steered the conversation there from the beginning.
"Alexel Trelidor never cared about our offer," Cole said "It's our connections he wanted. He used us to get to them."
Mara gave a slow nod. "Let's say you're right—he never wanted us here." She leaned over the map, snatched up the moon figurines and grouped them in with Palatine's fleet. She did the same with the black dragons which represented Clan Solidor.
"These two factions won't listen to us," Mara said. "But the others might."
Cole shot a glance at the red sword figurines. The Raiders just lost their enclave to the Templars five months ago. How much convincing would they need to side with Palatine? The rural clans of Dragonshard might be potential allies, but even that idea was a long shot. Expressing disagreement in their king's decisions was a far cry from rebellion.
He could always call a meeting of his senior officers and get their opinions. Then again, they'd made their stance clear from the start. Most would prefer to fight Palavar from a place of strength rather than put their faith in this Clansmeet.
"We already tried reasoning with the other factions," Cole noted. "The Templars have caused too much damage. The Chancellor had a nice plan, but it's not working. Palatine outplayed us."
Mara cleared her throat. "May I speak bluntly, Knight Commander?"
Cole waved a hand. "We both know you don't answer to me."
"Very bluntly," she emphasized.
He eyed her and took a long drink of his ale. "Aye, might as well."
Mara drew in a breath, stepping around the table to his side of the tent. "You weren't so quick to give up before. Not until you received that letter. Do you truly believe your wife cares so much for your wellbeing? What if this is Palatine's way of keeping you away?"
He'd wondered that himself. Lyraina claimed she didn't know they were alive. That was a reasonable excuse, but it didn't fit with his wife's personality. She could be utterly determined when she wanted something, bordering on obsession. If her life's goal had been to find him and Nahlia, she'd have found them years ago.
Another question rose to his lips then. He'd been so caught up in everything else that he almost forgot to ask. "Do you know where my daughter is?"
"The Onyx Company split up two days ago," Mara said, undaunted by the tangent. "Some stayed behind in Villa Solizhan while most continued to Dragonshard."
"So she's likely in the palace," Cole muttered. Mara didn't think to mention that before? Then again, it might have looked self-serving if she did. Obviously, he would try to find Nahlia, even if it defied all reason.
With that in mind, the Spymaster might still be leading him toward Dragonshard.
"You don't trust me," Mara said as if responding to his thoughts. "You don't trust your own officers, or your soldiers. But you trust her. A woman you haven't seen in ten years"
Was it really that simple? Of course it wasn't. Even so, some of Nathanial Mason's advice came back to him.
War is like Cruscendo. You play the person, not the game. If you can predict his next move, the game is half won. To do that, you need to figure out what he wants most—what he cares about.
What did Lyraina care about most of all? The answer came to him far too quickly.
It should have been family or love, but that wasn't her way. He'd always admired the passion that burned within her, but Ethermancy was always her one true obsession.
There were times in Cole's life when he'd craved power too. Moments of helplessness, and desperation. Moments when his friends or family were in danger, and he knew strength could save them. Like so many others, he'd become a Templar because he'd seen the high Aeon lords abuse those beneath them.
For Cole, that feeling had eventually faded. By the time he'd married Lyraina, he would have been content with a simple life. But Lyraina couldn't bear the thought of a world full of mysteries.
Even if every word of her letter was true, why wait until now to send it?
Because it was never about me, Cole realized. Because Palatine isn't invincible, and a united realm might still stand against him.
And with that, he knew what he had to do.
Ciena followed Alexel through the palace, shouldering her way past crowds of gossiping courtiers and white-clad servants. Fountains misted around them, glowing white in the dimly lit ballrooms. Strings of lights draped through the domed ceilings like trailing starlight.
A little heavy-handed with the comet symbolism, aren't we? Then again, Ciena was hardly one to talk about subtlety.
Her eyes darted from one couple to the next, searching for a familiar face. Easier said than done. She'd never seen so many Aeons in one place before now. Whitecliff had a population of two-hundred before the battle, and Alexel's enclave wasn't much larger. This crowd could swallow both enclaves whole, the way a street urchin vanished in a crowded market.
Thankfully, most of these courtiers had darker complexions. If her parents were here, they'd stick out like snow foxes in a desert.
They passed under an arched doorway into the palace's main vestibule. Tall glass windows surrounded the main entryway, at least three stories high.
Well, if this place is ever attacked, those things will be the first to go.
Indoor plants and waterfalls lined the edges of the room. Apparently, the Solidors liked to pretend they were outside without actually leaving their palace. Sure, her parents had a greenhouse back in Dresten, but they grew useful things there like Voidcap and Yuchani. These all felt like useless decorations.
Ciena continued to scan the crowd as more visitors filtered in through the entryway, up the stairs, and toward the throne room.
Then she saw them.
Her parents stood at the top of the staircase. Her mother's golden hair sat in a braid around her shoulders, and her father had his combed back. Both of them wore formal leathers dyed crimson in the color of their clan.
Alexel turned around to regard her, then followed her gaze.
"It's them," she whispered, heart racing in her chest. "My parents."
Surprise flashed across the Grandmaster's face. His blue eyes darted to the landing, then back to her. "No one's there, Ciena."
Ciena blinked, then the two figures vanished. "No ... they were right there. I saw them." She whipped her head from side to side, feeling suddenly light-headed.
"Ciena." Alexel's tone sent a chill down her spine. "You're dreaming right now."
She froze. What? Dreaming? No, that was ridiculous. She hadn't fallen asleep. This was real life.
But when Ciena blinked again, the entire crowd had vanished. The servants, the courtiers, even the musicians in the gallery above. Everyone was gone.
The room was as empty as a town at midnight, and silent enough to hear her own heartbeat. Only Alexel stood before her. A single figure amongst the vast emptiness.
"None of this is real," he told her. "You're in the Ethereal."
And then the darkness closed in. Ciena's legs buckled beneath her, and Alexel caught her just before she hit the ground.
Thane sat by his father's side at the round table. An hour had passed since the Clansmeet began, and they were no closer to an agreement. He’d also heard some disturbing reports from the guards before the meeting . Apparently, the southern towers had spotted a fleet of ships on the distant horizon.
The king had promised to wait until after the Clansmeet. At the very least, he'd promised to listen to the others' arguments. Now, it seemed that Dragonshard would be overrun in a matter of hours, regardless of the council's decisions.
Should have taken him out when you had the chance, the cold, logical part of Thane’s mind said.
No doubt the others agreed. Thane's grandfather hadn't been pleased when Thane chose to wait. And what had Thane expected, anyway? For his father to have a change of heart?
He glanced around the table which was positioned in the center of the throne room. Obsidian pillars surrounded them on all sides, vanishing into the natural stone ceiling. The windows behind the throne offered a view of dark sea, and the horizon glowed faintly white as the comet drew closer.
Alexel Trelidor's seat lay empty as he paced around the room, arguing in favor of Palavar.
When they started this meeting, the enclave leader had feigned naturally, graciously listening to everyone's else's perspective.
He listened when Thane's aunt Avelyn expressed her desire to keep Dragonshard independent.
He listened when Casella and Lindilus Raider expressed their reluctance for a foreign alliance.
He even listened when Kenato Maridon—a cleric of the Fallen Moon chapel—suggested making peace with the Templars.
But that was an hour ago. As Trelidor's own allies spoke, the veil slowly lifted, and his intentions became clear.
Thane's father described their own experience fighting the Templars, and how this city was nearly lost in the siege. He argued that no peace with the humans would last, and how an alliance with Palavar was his kingdom’s only chance to rebuild.
Lord and Lady Vassaj—Relyn's parents—described their current alliance with Palatine and how the foreign ruler had kept his promises. He said he would give them Ethermancy, and now their older daughter was an apprentice Justicar.
Thane's respect for Relyn rose as he realized what she'd left behind. Sometimes, It seemed like she would give anything to learn Ethermancy. He'd almost forgotten that she turned it down once before
Aside from Trelidor's chair, two more seats sat empty.
Aaron Cole hadn't shown up, and neither had the Republic's Spymaster. A surprise, considering this entire meeting was their idea. Had something happened to them? Their army sat camped out just behind the Searingthrorn jungle, so they shouldn’t have—
Thane felt a tug on his consciousness.
Technically, either of them could use their bonded pendants to pull the other into the Ethereal, but they'd agreed it was too dangerous. Even walking down a staircase might be lethal if you suddenly passed out. But Nahlia's pull was soft and subtle. He might have even missed it if he'd been a more active participant in the talks.
Strange. He'd heard of Aeons who could step halfway into the Ethereal and communicate without leaving their bodies behind. But of course, neither he nor Nahlia possessed that level of skill.
Even so, they were doing it now. Thane still felt the cushioned chair beneath him, and he heard the surrounding voices, but he also felt the Ethereal.
The comet? His sister believed it would interact with the nexus beneath Dragonshard, blurring the lines between the physical and dream realms. Perhaps this was only the first glimpse of its power.
'Nahlia?' Thane spoke in his mind, without moving his mouth.
'Thane.' Her voice sounded panicked in his head. 'Where are you? Are you in the Clansmeet?'
'I am,' Thane said.
'Listen to me. Palatine is there—with you—right now. He's using the name Alexel Trelidor.'
'What?' Thane stole a glimpse at the silver-haired man who was still speaking. 'How do you know that?'
'My mother practically confirmed it.'
Thane kept his face carefully natural as he surveyed the table. 'Where are you now?'
'I'm still on Lastlight. And none of the lifts are working.'
Aegon. From that high up, she had at least eighty flights of stairs to climb down. It wasn't uncommon for one lift to break, but all four at once? That screamed of sabotage. Between that, and the fleet on the horizon, Dragonshard might already be under attack.
But why? Why would Palatine betray his strongest ally so soon? Whatever the reason, Thane couldn't help now. Better to focus on the present.
He tried to reply to Nahlia, but the connection had already been severed. Damnit. This was up to him now.
If Nahlia was right, then she’d given him a small advantage. Now … how could he use it before it was too late?