Thane opened his eyes and stared up at the painted stone ceiling. Sunlight seeped through the bamboo curtains, casting striped shadows across the floor. The room was cramped by most standards, but the Cultivators were a humble sort. He’d be surprised if the Elders’ own chambers were any larger.
He shifted his head and planted a kiss on Relyn’s hairline. She lay sprawled on top of him, her arm resting on his bare chest, her leg wrapped around his.
“Mmm…” she muttered, snuggling closer between his neck and shoulder.
Slowly, the events of the previous evening came back to him. The Cultivators had rejected their plea for help, but they did offer them a bedchamber for the night. Thane hadn’t been in the mood for sleep or lovemaking after his meeting, but Relyn always had a way of changing his mind. Besides, it was nice to finally get some privacy away from the crew. Those cursed airmen loved their jokes, after all.
“Whose idea was it to put thin walls on the king’s cabin?” Technician Karlo had asked when they first set out for Eastern Valaysia.
“Dunno why you’re complaining,” his brother replied. “At least this means Lady Solidor will be in a good mood this morning.”
And then there was First Mate Vinko last week: “With all due respect, Highlord, I’m not sure the landing gear can withstand much more strain.”
Insubordinate bastards, the lot of them.
He continued to survey the room as his eyes adjusted to the morning light. The bed sat low on the floor, and it seemed like the portable sort you could roll up and store away in a closet. Aside from that, the only furniture was a wide bamboo basket for belongings, a chamberpot, and a small table with a water basin on top.
Relyn propped herself up on her elbow and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “We aren’t very good rulers, are we?”
Thane turned over to face her. “Good morning to you too.”
But she was right, and her comment wasn’t even a jab at him. Before today, she’d done all the talking and translating in these meetings. The other factions didn’t speak Reveran so they had little choice in the matter. She’d blamed herself for their previous failures, but Thane hadn’t fared much better when his turn came. They’d both been trained in persuasive rhetoric, but it was hard to practice that skill when you spent your adult life on battlefields.
To make matters worse, they didn’t even have any proper advisors to fall back on. Those men and women had all sided with Trelidor.
“No,” Thane said after a long pause. “We aren’t.”
He’d never asked for this. On the contrary, he’d once tried to run away with Kira. That should have been his first hint that he wasn’t cut out for the throne.
“What do we do now?” she asked. “Go back home empty-handed?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
Terrible ruler indeed. His father would have anticipated every defeat and had contingency plans in place. Thane’s mind worked that way on a battlefield, but not at a scale this large. He’d thought he was doing the right thing by building alliances rather than facing Trelidor too soon.
Now—after speaking to the Cultivators—he wasn’t so sure.
“Maybe this wasn’t a complete waste,” Relyn said. “What was the last thing Elder Kunchen said to us?”
Thane furrowed his brow, trying to remember. The Elders had gone on at great length, and Thane still couldn’t decide whether those were words of wisdom or the ignorance that comes from isolation.
“They seemed to think we could defeat Trelidor by … taking away his power.”
“Is that possible?” she asked. “To take someone’s Ethermancy?”
“Technically,” Thane said, “if you break his body or his will.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Relyn began slowly. “This part of the world is different from ours—the way they learn Ethermancy. The Cultivators are as powerful as western Aeons, but they have to work harder than us. At least, they think they do.”
Thane nodded. “I’ve gotten a similar impression, and there might be some truth to it. Unlike us, these people aren’t descended from the Archaeons. They have no techniques to inherit, so they’re forced to learn Ethermancy through other means—the way you’ve been learning with Ilsa.”
“It makes you wonder where Ethermancy comes from,” she mused.
Well, there was a hefty question. It was obvious that bloodlines played a role. The Raiders were both Justicars like their ancestor, Raiden. Similarly, everyone in Thane’s family had been a Sanctifier. Relyn’s ancestor, Vashet, was a Justicar. But unlike her older sister, Relyn lacked the potential to become a Justicar herself. If only one sister could learn the techniques, didn’t that prove there was more at work than bloodlines?
The Reveran chapels claimed the Aeons’ power came directly from Aegon. According to them, the Archaeons and their descendants were Aegon’s chosen, and that was that. But the existence of these Cultivators seemed to disprove that theory too.
“Whatever it is,” Relyn continued, “It’s something you have and I don’t. Something that made Ethermancy easy for you to learn.”
“Ethermancy was never easy,” Thane countered. “This took years of training.”
“Easy was the wrong word.” Relyn wrinkled her nose as if considering. “But ... you know when you learn a language, you start with the sounds and the characters. Then you learn the words. Only after all that can you speak in full sentences.”
“Sure,” Thane said. “But how does that relate to this?”
There was a short pause. “When we speak, we don’t think about the sounds or the words anymore. We’ve already learned those, so we do it...”
“Intuitively?” Thane offered.
“Intuitively,” Relyn echoed with a nod. “That’s the word.”
“Right,” Thane said. “Our brains build mental models and shortcuts to help us along. It’s like how a skilled general can look past the armies and see the patterns and connections others can’t.”
“But Ethermancy should be harder than language or battle tactics,” she replied. “You’re controlling energy with your mind, and it comes intuitively for you. It’s like you were born with those ‘models’, and the rest of us had to build them from scratch.”
He hummed in consideration. The sentences in Relyn’s analogy were techniques like Moonfire or Ironblood. Like Thane’s affinity for fire, or the Justicar’s battle trances.
She’d spent the past two years training with Ilsa, and her efforts were just now bearing small fruits. Meanwhile, people like Nahlia and Ciena Raider had seen greater results in a fraction of the time. They still had to train, but they started with an advantage others lacked.
If the Cultivators were all ‘starting from scratch’ as Relyn put it, then he could see their perspective. The Aeons of the west gained powers without truly earning them, and the result was an endless cycle of war.
Which brought them back to the original question: what made the western Aeons different from their eastern counterparts? And could the source of that power be taken away?
Thane was still mulling that over when someone knocked on the door.
Relyn narrowed her eyes at the offending sound. “They’re kicking us out already?”
Thane groaned as he moved the blankets aside. “And here I was hoping you’d ordered us room service.”
She shook her head, then hollered in Valaysian, “Who is it?”
A young man replied from outside. Thane wasn’t sure, but it sounded like...
“A messenger?” he asked.
Relyn shrugged her bare shoulders. “Either that or an assassin. They’re practically the same word in this dialect.”
“With our luck, it’s not hard to guess which it will be.” The morning air was cold against his skin as he climbed out of bed, and his legs were stiff from climbing all those stairs yesterday.
He dressed quickly and washed his face in the nearby basin. There were no mirrors in here, so he had to feel through his hair and make sure it wasn’t sticking up in some unkingly manner. Finally, he grabbed the handle of the bamboo door and slid it open.
The morning sun flooded the room like a river. Thane squinted through half-open eyes to see a young Cultivator standing on the outer walkway. Like the other sect members, he wore simple brown robes in a martial style, and his black hair was tied back in a simple knot. The boy bowed low at the waist and spoke in accented Reveran, “Highlord Solidor.”
Aegon. Did everyone here know his name?
“I bring a message to you.”
Well, it better be from the airship. No one else was supposed to know he was here.
The messenger’s eyes widened as he straightened from his bow. Thane glanced over his shoulder to see Relyn still laying in bed with a blanket covering her chest. Barely. She waved at the boy, looking entirely too pleased with herself.
Thane cleared his throat, shifting his body to obstruct the view. “A message?”
“Yes.” the boy shook his head as if to clear it. “Nahlia Cole has been captured by members of Clan Vassaj. They’re taking her to Tongshan, and she needs your help.”
Thane blinked. “Wait ... what?” He hadn’t heard a word from Nahlia ever since she went into her self-imposed exile last year.
“Was that the whole message?” Thane asked the confused-looking boy.
“Yes, Highlord. Shall I repeat it to you?”
Thane waved that away. “I’d rather know who sent it.”
“The message came from her mother, Lyraina of Clan Trelian.”
That only complicated things more. Nahlia’s mother was technically their ally now, but that didn’t make her anything less than a loose cannon. That is, if this message even came from her in the first place. He needed more information.
“You spoke to Lady Trelian personally?” Thane asked.
“No, Highlord. She spoke with another sect member in Tongshan.”
“And when was that?”
“Last night, Highlord.”
He gave a slow nod. Tongshan was several days away by airship, which meant it would take months through normal means.
“I wasn’t aware Cultivators served as a courier service,” Thane noted.
“The sect is happy to serve our realm through peaceful means,” he replied.
“They also expect large donations in return,” Relyn hollered from the bed behind him.
Well, that explained that. Ethereal communication was cheap in theory, but a strong network required multiple Aeons to be dreaming at any given time. Such services couldn’t be open to just anyone.
“And you’re absolutely certain this message came from her?” Thane asked the boy.
He hesitated. “Lady Trelian has been in contact with members of our sect in Tongshan for some time. If this woman is not her, she at least fits her description.”
Well, if nothing else, the Cultivators had proven themselves to be well informed about the outside world. If they said Lyraina Trelian was in Tongshan, they were probably right. Still, even if it was her...
“Do you have any evidence this message is true?” Thane asked
“That Nahlia Cole has actually been captured by Clan Vassaj.”
There was a longer pause this time. “No evidence, Highlord. The sect has no eyes inside Clan Vassaj.”
Neither did he, unfortunately. They also had no way of contacting Nahlia and confirming the story for themselves.
The boy cleared his throat. “If there is nothing else, Highlord—”
“Of course,” Thane interrupted. “Thanks for the message.”
The boy bowed again. To his credit, he didn’t sneak any more glances over Thane’s shoulder before he left.
Thane slid the door shut and turned around. Relyn was already slipping into her own tunic.
“Could be a trap,” he said.
“Probably,” she agreed. “But Nahlia is family, true?”
He wouldn’t have expected that sentiment from Relyn, but he found he agreed. If there was even a chance the story was true, they’d been through too much together not to go. Ironically enough, they might have to fight Relyn’s actual family to do so.
“The trip to Tongshan will take several days,” Thane said. “If we leave now, we won’t get another meeting with the Elders. It also means exposing ourselves to Trelidor’s allies.”
“But we’ve tried being careful this past year,” she said, “and where has it gotten us?”
“Right back where we started,” Thane muttered in agreement. And for all he knew, their enemy had already pinpointed the airship’s theft on them. Thane wouldn’t know for sure until his next scheduled meeting with Ashara, and that was months away.
Even so, Ashara had gone to Sunfall to give them a fighting chance. What good was that chance if they didn’t use it? What good was having the only airship in the world if they didn’t turn it against their enemy?
Thane could confer with the crew and get their opinions, but he could already guess the answer. Fang and the airmen were itching for a proper fight as much as he was.
“Alright,” Thane finally said. “Let’s go to Tongshan and spring this trap.”