Thane reclined in the center seat of Villa Solizhan's courtroom. His aunt and uncle filled the seats on his left, while Ashara and his grandfather sat on the right.
Sunlight streamed in from the eastern windows while cobalt banners blew in the morning breeze. Beyond the windows, Thane had a view of white-domed rooftops against the Ember Sea.
The city almost looked calm from this vantage—as if it hadn't almost been flattened by a meteor two days before.
Of course, things were far from calm. The meteors had caused flooding, fires, and landslides throughout the peninsula. The damage left hundreds of people homeless, seeking refuge inside the villa's walls. To make matters worse, dozens of factions fought for control over the fallen Etherite. What was once a priceless resource two days ago now seemed as common as gold or silver.
The wooden doors creaked open at the room's opposite end, and a squad of guards led in the accused.
Ciena Raider was bound hand and foot with a collar of black Etherite around her neck. Unlike most Etherite, this artifact didn't store energy. Rather, it siphoned anything she pulled into her soul, restricting her powers. They'd originally intended to use this relic on Thane's father when they dethroned him, but Ciena was no less dangerous.
The guards led her down the aisle of courtiers and fastened her chains into a sturdy wooden chair.
During the battle, her brown hair had been in two long braids. Now, it fell down her back, knotted in some places, and sticking up in others. She held her head low, not meeting his eyes.
Thane could already guess where his family would side on this matter. His grandfather and uncle would vote in favor of execution. Aunt Avelyn was typically more merciful, but she'd seen the murders with her own eyes.
His sister would lean toward mercy. She and Elias had been the ones to rescue Ciena from the collapsing tower, after all. Ashara had also cauterized her wounds before the villa's healers took over.
The hall grew quiet as Thane's grandfather read her charges. "Ciena of the Clan Raider, you stand accused of murder on twenty-seven accounts." Lord Solizhan gestured to a scribe who went on to list several names, including Ciena's own parents.
Despite the trial's formality, no one knew the exact death toll. Over fifty guards had likely stood in Ciena’s way, but there weren't any corpses to count. Especially not while Dragonshard lay in the enemy's hands.
The scribe finished reading, and his grandfather spoke again, "Do you deny these charges?"
"No," Ciena said, and her voice was hoarse and weary.
"Very well." The older man set aside the paper. "No need for witnesses then. Do you have anything to say in your defense?"
Ciena paused for a moment, then craned her neck as if to examine the crowd behind her.
Elias Raider emerged a second later. "If it pleases the king, I'd like to speak on my sister's behalf." He cleared his throat, "According to Dragonshard's Law of Aeon Rights, Section Nineteen, a defendant may appoint—"
"No need for all that." Thane waved an impatient hand. "You may speak."
Elias had spent the past day either visiting his sister or sitting by Nahlia's bedside. Apparently, he'd squeezed in time to visit the villa’s library as well.
"My sister was under Trelidor's control when these events happened," Elias said. "She didn't know she was killing palace guards or members of the Clansmeet..."
"We know about the illusions," his grandfather broke in. "King Solidor and Lady Avelyn were there. And unless I’m mistaken, Justicars are the most effective Order at resisting mental Ethermancy."
Thane gave a slow nod. Ciena had proven this on top of the tower when she fought Trelidor. She'd resisted his attacks better than all the others combined.
Elias went on to explain how Trelidor's rings created a soulbond between himself and his followers. This made it easier to enforce his will upon them. He also explained how she'd been unable to remove the ring herself, and how he'd broken her free.
"You're saying she had no choice but to attack the Clansmeet?" Avelyn asked.
"I'm saying that Palatine deceived her, just as he deceived all of you."
Thane cleared his throat. "The difference is, none of us murdered a room full of unarmed people."
"And what if you had?" Elias countered. "Would you be executing each other, too?"
Thane rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Do you think I want to do this?” He gestured around him. “Do you think anyone wants more blood? What other choice do we have?"
His grandfather grunted his agreement. "Villa Solizhan can't hold prisoners in the long term. Not in times like this. If Palatine attacks us here, we might be forced to abandon this city and flee. In such a case, your sister could end up back in the enemy's hands."
"You could use her against Palatine," Elias suggested. Then he turned to Thane, "Ciena already saved your life once. Let her fight for us. Let her share the knowledge she's gained after spending half a year in Palatine's enclave."
"And ignore what happened at the Clansmeet?" Thane said. "I don't deny she's a powerful Ethermancer, but how could anyone trust her after what happened?"
Elias inclined his head. "Are my sister's crimes any worse than yours?"
Thane grimaced. It’s been a while since he brought that up. Whether he was referring to Elveron's death, or Thane's alliance with the Templars, Thane couldn't say. Probably both.
"My family imprisoned you in the north," Elias reminded him. “You escaped justice there when you broke free.”
Thane shot a glance at the small crowd before meeting the other man's eyes. He considered ending this conversation—he was well within his rights to do so. Then again, no one was ever allowed to question his father either. If he wanted to be a better king, he had to start today.
"I've made mistakes," Thane said. "And I'm trying to make up for them now. But I'm not the one on trial here. Your sister is."
"I understand," Elias said with a nod. "We're in your nation now, and the choice is yours. All I ask is that you show her the same mercy you show yourself."
Ciena shifted in her chair while the judges determined her fate. The first portion of the trial was over, and the five of them had left for a private talk behind closed doors.
Most steel manacles were designed for people with two hands, so her captors had to get creative. Instead of securing her hands at the wrists, they’d secured her forearms together and attached those to her waist.
As if she could fight her way out of here with only one hand. As if she would want to.
But what sort of hypocrite would she be if she insisted on serving justice to Alexel, then refused to hold herself to the same standards?
Nahlia's mother—Lyraina Trelian—had already tried and failed to heal her missing hand. The best she could do was regrow the skin around her wrist, leaving a stump in its place.
The loss was permanent, just as she'd feared.
Her right hand. Her sword hand. Over a decade of practice, lost forever. Fighting was all she was good for, and now Alexel had taken that away too.
Meanwhile, he’d walked away from the fight without a scratch.
Lady Trelian's healing didn't even stop the pain. Ciena didn't just feel her missing hand, she felt her fingers and her knuckles too. Sometimes her wrist would itch but there was no skin to scratch. Other times, her fingers felt cold and numb as if someone were stabbing them with a thousand small icicles.
The sensation was maddening—almost as bad as being under Alexel's control back in Dragonshard. What's more, they'd stuck her in a dark cell, chained to the floor for almost two days. Unable to run, unable to dream with this cursed collar around her neck.
Without her brother here, she truly would have gone mad.
At least Elias had made a good speech during her trial. They'd agreed beforehand that he should do all the talking. Not just because he was the better diplomat, either. Ciena would sooner have let them execute her before she made excuses, much less begged for mercy.
A door opened at the end of the hall. The crowd rose as Thane Solidor and the others stepped back inside.
Elias had been pacing in circles around her chair, but he paused when the five judges returned to their seats.
"Ciena of Clan Raider," Lord Solizhan spoke once the crowd had settled back in their seats.
She raised her chin to meet the old man’s eyes.
“In exchange for the lives you took, you will give fifteen years of combat service to King Solidor of Dragonshard. If you swear your allegiance to him, you will be released today. Your crimes will be forgiven, and you will be treated with the respect as befits your rank and skill.”
Ciena let out a long breath of relief, and she sank back in the wooden chair.
“Do you agree to these terms?"
She turned to her brother who nodded. But even without his input, she knew it was still a good deal. She needed a purpose—something to fight for.
“I accept,” Ciena said.
The guards removed the chains from around her wrists and ankles. Once she was free to move, Thane Solidor himself stepped forward and removed the Etherite collar from around her neck.
More formalities followed. Oaths were sworn, and papers were signed. Fortunately, the judges seemed eager to hurry things along. No doubt they had bigger messes to clean than this.
An hour later, Ciena emerged from the bathhouse with her hair freshly braided and her body smelling far too sweet.
Her brother was waiting for her in the corridor outside, and she followed him to his private chambers. There, several plates of food sat waiting for them on the covered balcony—fish, fruits, cheese, and flatbreads.
They sat in cushioned chairs on opposite sides of the table and devoured everything in sight. It seemed like most people struggled to eat when they were stressed or grieving. Ciena and her brother were the opposite.
Spices danced in her mouth, hot enough to leave her lips on fire. The Ember Isle Red was sweet and fruity, but still strong enough to numb her pain.
As they ate, Elias filled her in on recent events. Thane Solidor had sent the Onyx Company out salvaging for Etherite in the countryside, along with several hundred Solizhan guards.
Trelidor might still have them outnumbered ten to one, but his army didn't know this land like they did.
"I could have finished him," Ciena murmured into her wineglass. "I was so close."
"You only started learning Ethermancy five months ago," Elias told her. "Next time, he might not be so lucky."
"If there is a next time." Ciena glanced down at the stump where her right hand used to be.
Aegon. She'd need to get something to cover that. It still made her shudder to look at it.
"There will be," Elias said. "You're not the first Justicar to lose a hand. How many of Raiden's descendants have suffered crippling injuries, only to return stronger than ever?"
Ciena shrugged. Some stories were nice, but they were just stories. Only a fool would believe she was stronger without her sword hand.
"We'll get through this," Elias told her. After a pause, he added, "I can feel the Ethereal again."
Ciena raised an eyebrow. He'd already explained how he'd lost that ability in Whitecliff. That was why he couldn’t contact her before.
"It happened during the Etherfall," Elias said. "It ... healed me somehow. Whatever skills you learned, I can learn them too. Next time we fight Palatine, I'll be by your side. He'll have to face two Justicars instead of one.”
"Still," Ciena said. "He can bring backup just as easily. If we want to beat him, we'll need something more."
“I know, and I've been looking at that sword you brought back."
"They let you have it?" Ciena glanced back inside the bedchamber, half-expecting to see Steelbreaker leaning against a wall somewhere
Elias shook his head. "The Solizhans have it locked away, but they did let me see it for a few minutes."
Ciena tilted her head to the side. “Found something interesting, I take it?”
Elias leaned closer and met her eyes. "I think that sword is the key to finding Raiden's Codex."
Aaron Cole sat next to his daughter's bed on the top floor of Villa Solizhan. Her eyes were closed, her breathing was steady, and her dark red hair fanned out around her white pillows.
Cole knew he had an army to command, but he didn’t care right now. He'd spent the past five months playing Knight Commander, and it had made no difference in the end. He wouldn't leave Nahlia alone again.
The chair across from him lay empty. Elias Raider usually sat there holding Nahlia’s hand, but he'd taken a break to attend his sister's trial in the main hall.
Apparently, Nahlia had resurrected the boy during the Battle of Whitecliff. When that happened, the two of them had fallen unconscious for the better part of a day.
Cole had hoped it would be the same for Nahlia. Everyone expected her to be awake by now. The villa's physicians even claimed she was perfectly healthy.
Now, almost two whole days had passed. Even when the physicians fed her and cleaned her, she didn't move.
Lyraina suspected this coma had to do with her own use of Ethermancy rather than her injuries or resurrection. After all, she'd destroyed two Etherite meteors from miles away. That was something no living Aeon had ever done. Not even Trelidor.
Cole reached out and took his daughter's hand.
"You'll be fine," he told her for the hundredth time. This was Nahlia, the girl who hadn’t gotten so much as a cold in the past decade.
"If anyone can recover from this, it's you."
Cole only hoped it would be soon. Things were getting more complicated by the day.
"This villa is no fortress," Thane's grandfather said as he placed a wooden figurine on the map. "We can't risk open war."
Thane and the rest of his family had gathered in the war room once again. With all pressing matters seen to, it was time to discuss the future. Most notably, the fact that Palatine's army might conquer this city in a matter of days.
"No arguments there," Thane muttered. "We tried fighting Palatine once. We had him weakened, surrounded, and outnumbered. For all that, we still lost."
"Then we retreat?" Aunt Avelyn asked. "Abandon our home?"
Thane considered as he raised his coffee cup to his lips. He'd barely slept the previous night, and this was the only thing keeping him awake.
"There might be a third option," he said, "but I doubt anyone here will like it."
They all stared at him for a moment, but his grandfather was the first to catch his meaning. "Dragonshard bows to no one. Your father understood that in his final hour."
"And my father died for a just cause," Thane said. "But he never would have done it if he'd realized the extent of Trelidor's power. The fact is, our enemy is stronger than all of us combined. We need to wait. We need to bide our time and gather our strength before we can attack him again."
"What are you thinking?" his sister asked.
Thane turned to face her. "What if you and I returned to Dragonshard together. We bend the knee to Trelidor, letting him know that Villa Solizhan and the Raiders stand with us."
"You’d be marching to your deaths," his grandfather said. "If I were Trelidor, I'd kill you both and remove my biggest threats."
"I'm not so sure," Aunt Avelyn spoke up. "From what we saw at the Clansmeet, Trelidor wants his rule to be legitimate. And Dragonshard was never his true objective."
"Exactly," Thane said. "He'll go after Sunfall next and declare himself emperor. When he does, he'll want to leave a southern ruler behind. Someone loyal to him."
"He has Dazen.” Lord Solizhan ran a finger through his short white beard. This time, he didn't hide his uncertainty. Dazen was only seventh in line for the throne and relatively unknown in the capital. What's more, he brought no land or allies to the table.
"Even if Trelidor accepts this arrangement," Avelyn said, "it will come with a cost." She glanced between Thane and Ashara. "I suspect one or both of you will have to marry someone from Trelidor's faction. And he only needs one of you to rule Dragonshard. The other, he can take to Sunfall as a hostage."
Thane nodded as he took another drink of his coffee. They'd interrogated Ciena after her trial, and she'd divulged a great deal about Alexel's enclave, including the clans who served him.
"Rhia Vassaj would be the most obvious marriage candidate for me," he said. "She's the oldest unmarried daughter in her clan, and her parents are some of Trelidor's most loyal followers."
“I guess that makes me the hostage,” Ashara said.
Thane turned to face her, but she spoke first, "I know what you’re going to say, but you went north with the Templars last year.”
"That's different," Thane said. "The Templars were predictable. We don't know what Trelidor might do to you."
"The stakes are higher than before," Ashara agreed. "But that's true no matter where I go. If this is the best way to fight back, then I'll do it."
Thane leaned over the table and the map of the peninsula. He'd always known he would have to marry for an alliance someday, but he'd imagined his father would force him into it. With his father gone, Thane was his own matchmaker, but freedom eluded him just as before.
Still, if Ashara was willing to sacrifice something, then so was he.
"I fail to see how this puts us in a better position," Thane's grandfather said. "One of you could end up as a hostage, and the other will have Trelidor's people watching your every move. Trelidor won't stop there, either. He'll demand that Villa Solizhan hands over its resources, especially the Etherite we've salvaged."
"That might still happen if we fight or retreat," Thane said. "You said it yourself—we can't beat the enemy in an open war. We need to play the long game and fight from the shadows. To do that, we need people, resources, and land. If we run, we have nothing, and we leave the people of Dragonshard to their fate.”
"Thane’s right," Ashara said. "With all this new Etherite, we're entering an age that will put our technology centuries into the future. Cities will glow in the dead of night. Airships will take to the skies again. We can’t take advantage of this change if we’re running for our lives."
The older man considered that for a moment. "You make valid points, but Trelidor has deceived us once. We can't rely on him making the most logical choice, even if it benefits him.” He gestured two fingers across the table. “ Once he has you two in Dragonshard, what’s stopping him from murdering you both? It could be the Clansmeet all over again.”
"It's a risk," Thane said. "But not as much as you might think."
"Hm. Well unless you have a spy in Trelidor's inner-circle, it won't be enough."
"Better than a spy," Thane said with a smile. "I have a Sile'zhar."
Thane entered the Ethereal later that night. He walked through the gardens of Vassaj Manor, crossing a covered wooden bridge between two pagodas.
Relyn Vash stood on the opposite end of the bridge. She wore a violet dress that came past her knees, and her black hair fell in loose waves down her bare shoulders.
"What's the occasion?" Thane asked. He'd already met with Relyn once after the Battle of Dragonshard. He couldn't remember what she'd been wearing then, but it was definitely more practical than this.
"Oh." Relyn glanced down as if just noticing her own appearance. "Nothing special. I must not have been paying attention."
"Well." Thane spread his arms, feeling the weight of his stiff dragonbone armor. "At least one of us has her mind on something besides war."
Relyn gave a half-smile as she stepped across the bridge. Her hair blew in the misty wind as the waterfall crashed into the river below.
"I'm supposed to meet with Trelidor tomorrow," Thane said after a short pause. "I wanted to make sure it wasn't a trap."
“I know,” she said. "Trelidor intends to honor the arrangement, but there are conditions he'll ask of you."
Thane let out a breath. "I figured as much."
"First, he wants you to help him collect Etherite on the peninsula, and to hand over nine-tenths of what you've found so far."
Well, this was already going better than expected. The others assumed he would demand everything. Then again, maybe Trelidor knew they would keep some for themselves, regardless.
“He’ll also want to bring Ashara as a hostage when he leaves. He'll keep her there until he's satisfied you won't rebel.” A short pause. “I'm sorry, there was nothing I could do about that."
"It's alright," Thane said. "My family and I discussed it already. We knew it was the most likely scenario."
Relyn gave a slow nod, not meeting Thane's eyes.
"There's more," Thane ventured.
"Yes," she confirmed quickly.
When she didn’t explain, Thane took a step closer, "I assume Palatine will want me to marry someone from his faction. Is it your sister?"
"What?" Relyn snapped her head up, eyes wide in surprise. "No. Not Rhia. I mean—I can see why you might have thought that, but no. Rhia prefers women. My parents won't force her into a marriage with you."
"Oh." Ciena Raider hadn't mentioned that bit of information. Then again, they hadn't gotten quite so detailed in their line of questions. "What is it then?"
She was still unable to meet his eye. Aegon. It must have been truly bad news if ... but no, Relyn wasn't one to handle tough talks with velvet gloves. And that wasn't a look of foreboding on her face. Instead, she looked almost ... shy?
"It's me," she finally blurted out. "Trelidor and my parents—they want you to marry me."
For a moment, Thane was speechless, and the only sound was the rushing water below the bridge. Still, he imagined the relief was plain on his face. Marrying a friend was far better than marrying an enemy.
"My parents still don't trust me," she explained, "but my sister thinks that someone else knocked her unconscious to let Ciena through. After I dragged her to the lift and made it downstairs, I poisoned myself too so it wouldn't look suspicious."
Thane nodded, still grasping for something to say.
"Trelidor will still leave a garrison of troops behind," she continued. "Along with your cousin, Dazen, who will report back our every move."
"And ... what do you think about this?" Thane asked her.
"You first," Relyn said with a quick shake of her head. "I already delivered the news. That was hard enough."
Fair enough. For all the time they’d been traveling together, Thane hadn't considered Relyn as any more than a friend. He didn't intend to keep that fact a secret from her, but he also remembered what Nahlia had said back in Dragonshard.
Besides, Relyn Vash was beautiful, capable, and honorable. They had their conflicts and their differences, but the same would be true for anyone.
He smiled and said, "It's the first piece of good news I've heard in days."
Besides, while Dazen might appear loyal to Trelidor, his aunt Avelyn told a different story. He might have returned to the palace, but he hadn’t forgiven the man for nearly killing his mother.
With the three of them ruling Dragonshard, they might have a chance against their enemy.