“An ... airship?” The handmaid glanced back and forth between them.
Thane couldn’t blame her skepticism. Airships were the sort of thing you read about in stories. Like Ethersmithing, the Archaeons, or the lands across the Western Ocean. Sure, most folk believed in them, but only as a curiosity from ancient times.
They weren’t discussed in secret meetings, and you certainly didn’t announce you were stealing one.
“They’re real.” Ashara reclined on the nearest leather sofa. “We’ve known how to build them since before the Purge. This one was a joint effort between the Solidors and the Imperial family. It can transport dozens of people, and fly three times faster than a dragon without tiring.”
Thane took a seat beside his sister. “As far as getting it airborne, the problem has always been energy. It would have taken Sunfall’s entire vault of Etherite to power this thing.”
“Twice that much if you wanted to stay in the air,” Ashara added.
Lucia gave a slow nod as she lowered herself into the opposite seat. “And this is not a problem anymore?”
“Not since the Etherfall,” Ashara said. “We have enough Etherite to fly. But first, we need to know where the ship’s being kept.”
The handmaid’s eyes widened further. “So you’ve never actually seen it.”
“I’ve seen it,” Ashara replied. “But I was this big at the time.” She held up her hand to her shoulder. “I just remember it was somewhere on the peninsula.”
In truth, his sister had been thirteen at the time, and she hadn’t gotten much taller since then. However, becoming a dragonrider had done wonders for her sense of direction.
“Even if I remembered all the details, we can’t discount the possibility that they’ve moved it.” Ashara pulled out a brass key from her satchel and placed it on the lacquered wooden table between them. “The location is kept in the restricted section of the archives, filed under The Revenant Project. We can’t get it without drawing attention. You can.”
Lucia picked up the key and seemed to consider things for a moment. “So, if you find this airship, does that mean you won’t go north as a hostage?”
Ashara lowered her eyes. “We’re playing the long game here. It might be years before we fight back again. My brother won’t make a move on the hangar until after I’m gone.”
“Then why not search the archives after Trelidor leaves?”
“Because,” Thane replied, “there’s a chance Trelidor already knows about the airship, including its current location. We’ll know more after we’ve seen the documents for ourselves.”
Thankfully, the risk of Trelidor knowing about it seemed low. Thane’s father wouldn’t have revealed the secret. Even during their short alliance, he’d made it clear that Trelidor was still their enemy. Then again, there were others who might know about the project—scheming opportunists looking to gain their new emperor’s favor.
The handmaid turned the key around in her fingers. “How soon do you need this?”
“Tonight would be best,” Ashara replied. “But only if you can get it without being seen. If Trelidor’s people are watching the library, you might have better luck tomorrow during the wedding.”
“Alright,” Lucia said, “then I better get started.”
At that, the three of them rose to their feet. The girl hugged Ashara again and disappeared out the door.
Thane avoided stating the obvious: If Trelidor interrogates her, this is all over. They would be declared traitors before the ink on their contracts was even dry.
At least Trellidor and his foreigners wouldn’t recognize the princess’s handmaids on sight. With a simple change of clothing, any of their retainers could blend in as easily as a messenger boy or a kitchen girl.
Speaking of retainers, Thane would need to find some of his own. He’d lost his old squire and guardcaptain during the siege before he traveled north to Whitecliff. He’d even lost his street informant—Joron—back in Raidenwood. Things had been hectic these past couple of years, but he couldn’t rely on Ashara’s people forever. Especially not when she was heading north in two days.
His sister plopped back down on the opposite sofa, spreading her arms along the back. “So, have you shared this plan with your bride-to-be?”
Thane shook his head. “I figured it was safer not to.”
She pursed her lips. “You know, Relyn could have told us what he knows.”
“Her family’s not even speaking to her,” Thane said. “They want her to marry me because it puts their grandchild on the throne someday. Doesn’t mean they trust her.”
Ashara raised her dark eyebrows. “And what about you?
“What about me?”
She tilted her head from side to side. “You trusted her with the Codex.”
Technically, Relyn had given the Codex to their enemies and then fled the villa with them, which was easily the worst possible outcome in that scenario. Elias and his sister both agreed she didn’t have a choice. Even so ... she wasn’t making things easy. Especially not for someone who had a history of turning her cloak.
“And you trusted her enough to come here,” Ashara continued.
“I trust her not to betray us,” Thane said. “But things are more complicated than that. We haven’t discussed fighting back. For all I know, she’s trying to lay low and regain her family’s trust.”
“Maybe you should talk to her,” Ashara said. “I mean—for all you know, she thinks the same thing about you.”
“How about tonight?”
Thane waved that away. “Not tonight. There’s too much to do.”
“Really?” She narrowed her eyes, looking even more skeptical than Lucia had earlier. “Like what?”
“We have a nation to run,” Thane deadpanned, “and you think I’m bluffing?”
“No, no.” She made a placating gesture. “I believe you. For all Father’s faults, he was a master of paperwork and planning.”
“He also knew how to delegate,” Thane said. “The problem is, we don’t know who to trust around here.” Everyone on the king’s council had been in favor of the Palavar alliance, so that didn’t bode well for them. Even if the previous council was a bunch of sycophants as his grandfather seemed to think.
“I’ll get you a list for the new council,” Ashara said. Then, after a short pause, she added, “And a second list of people who may have untimely accidents.”
Her eyes danced as if it wasn’t a serious idea. But then ... how else was Thane supposed to deal with Trelidor’s spies? He couldn’t just imprison them for treason—not when he himself was supposedly loyal to this new empire.
“I’d appreciate that,” Thane said.
“Good.” Ashara leaned forward. “Now back to the important things. How long has it been since you and your betrothed spent time together?”
“It hasn’t been that long.”
“The Ethereal doesn’t count,” she said. “It’s a proven fact—you need pheromones to fall in love. We can’t replicate those in our dreams.”
“Aegon have mercy.” Thane raked a hand through his hair. “Now I’m getting romantic advice from my unmarried, little sister.”
“I’m trying to be your wingwoman,” she protested.
“I have no idea what that means.”
“It’s a dragonrider metaphor.”
“Well,” Thane said, “we’ll save the ‘dragon riding’ until after the wedding.”
“Gross. I meant actual dragons!”
Thane grimaced. “What do actual dragons have to do with anything?”
Ashara shook her head. “Look—never mind the dragons. I mean, I’m trying to help you. You’re marrying Relyn tomorrow, so you might as well make the best of it.”
“I know,” Thane said. “But you realize we’re just friends, right? I’ve been honest with her about that.”
“And you realize love takes work, right? I’m assuming you don’t want to stay ‘friends’ forever.” Her lips curled up at the edges. “That might make for some awkward—”
“If you say ‘dragon riding’ again,” Thane broke in, “I’m going to throw you off the balcony. Besides, It’s not like I’m the first king to marry for political reasons.”
“Of course not,” she said. “But Mother and Father were engaged for years. You and Relyn will barely be engaged for a single day. That’s unheard of, even for a political marriage.”
“We’ll have time to figure things out,” Thane said. “After the wedding. For now, we have a kingdom to run.”
Thane woke with a start when someone rapped on his door. Aegon.He’d fallen asleep at his desk? Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise considered he’d spent the last few hours pouring over paperwork.
I really need to delegate these things in the future.
Thunder rumbled outside, and rain pattered against the glass windows. Thane had left his balcony door wide open, and puddles of water gathered around the stone floor.
“Coming!” Thane pushed the chair away from his desk and headed for the foyer.
Had his father ever answered his own door? Probably not ... at least not that Thane could recall. Of course, his father had a proper office, and that office was now sitting sideways in the street.
Still, it was hard not to feel like an imposter this way. As if bowing to a foreign ruler wasn’t bad enough.
He opened the door to see a short-haired runner boy carrying a half-open envelope.
Thane opened the envelope and pulled out a piece of thick white paper with a black border. Courtiers used these cards all throughout the palace to set up appointments with one another. Strangely enough, this one already had a note scribbled at the bottom
Dear Thane, I accept your invitation and I look forward to seeing you tonight.
Thane rubbed the sleep from his face as his mind struggled to make sense of the note. His eyes jumped back to the top of the card. Apparently, he had invited Relyn to join him in his chambers at ninth bell. The handwriting was a poor imitation of Thane’s. But then again, Relyn had never seen Thane’s handwriting so she wouldn’t know any better.
“Ashara.” Thane narrowed his eyes. “Aegon curse you and your meddling.”
The runner boy glanced left and right as if he couldn’t decide whether he was the one in trouble.
“Sorry,” Thane said, “not you. What time is it now?”
The boy pulled out a bronze pocket watch. “Quarter-past eighth bell, Highlord.”
Thane reached into his coinpurse and pulled out a silver penny. “Here—run down to the kitchens and pick up some Ember Isle Red. Be quick about it.”
The boy bowed at the waist, then turned to leave.
“Wait,” Thane hollered.
He froze, pivoting back on his foot. “Highlord?”
I should probably get something to eat too. But then ... what did Relyn even like? If he’d been courting her for even a fraction of their travels, he would have actually paid attention.
“Tell the cooks to send up some food.”
The boy hesitated. “Food, Highlord?”
Thane shrugged. “I’m meeting Lady Vassaj in half an hour. Specifics are their problem, not mine.”
After another moment, Thane reached into his purse and handed him two more silver pennies. The boy jogged off, and Thane closed the door. A swarm of small dragons soared around his stomach, and the cursed things weren’t gentle. He forced out a long breath and set to work putting his apartments back in order.