Ciena pried her gaze from Cladius and examined the guardsmen behind him. Some carried steel sabres at their belts while others had holstered pistols. Fear flashed in their eyes as she approached. Steelbreaker’s glow painted the scene with shades of crimson, from the lacquered wooden table to the towering glass windows
Still, despite their fear, they hadn’t drawn their weapons. Why not? What sort of guardsman kept his blade sheathed at a time like this?
To her left, the windows revealed a familiar scene of the Highbridge skyline. Pools of light shone from half-a-hundred windows around the city. No doubt they’d heard the bells and gunshots. Terrifying enough during peaceful nights—far worse for a city under siege.
The room held its breath for several heartbeats. Like the calm before a battle, the silence was worse than battlecries. Stranger still, the unarmed guards felt more threatening than facing another Justicar.
“Dismiss your men,” Ciena told her uncle. “Or I’ll slice them up like a cake.”
“I’d do it if I were you,” Elias said. “She’s not exaggerating.”
“It’s alright.” Cladius raised a hand, turning toward the guards. “Leave us alone.”
The guards formed a neat line and filed out of the room without complaint. Still, Ciena didn’t release the tension from her muscles. Cladius was luring them into a false sense of safety. He couldn’t best them in battle, so he played a more subtle game.
Her brother turned back to Hankrim, gesturing for the mercenaries to shut the heavy oaken doors. “Wait outside,” he said, “but keep your ears open.”
What if Cladius wants us alive? she wondered. Their uncle had already embraced his half-human side when he betrayed them to the Templars. Perhaps he’d turned his cloak a second time and embraced his half-Aeon side. He must have known Trelidor’s army would take the city eventually—why not make a deal with him?
Her eyes darted furiously around the room, searching for traps or spyholes. What would happen if they forced her to breathe poisonous gas? Justicars had no defense for that. If she fell unconscious, all they had to do was slip Trelidor’s ring on her finger, and she’d be back in his grasp.
Elias is here, she reminded herself. His competence was annoying at times, but she felt much safer with him at her side.
The door closed as the last of the guards passed through. Silence reigned a second time. Her heart thundered like a war drum, and the sound seemed to echo off the high-vaulted ceiling.
Elias stepped around the left of the table, and Ciena took the right. Cladius returned to his chair at the head. There used to be two chairs in that spot—one for her father, and one for her mother. Now there was one, and it looked decidedly out of place.
“What do you want?” her brother asked.
Their uncle raised a glass of red wine to his lips. His hand almost looked like it was shaking. Good.
“As I said in my letter—I only want to talk.”
“Brave of you to face us alone,” Ciena said. “Far braver than trying to murder us in our sleep.”
“If we are alone,” Elias said. Like her, he hadn’t stopped scanning the walls.
“We are,” Cladius said, “to the best of my knowledge.” He lowered his spectacles and turned his gaze to Ciena, taking in the sight of her with his dark eyes. “And ... I never tried to have you killed.”
“You’re denying it now?” Ciena closed the distance between them with two more strides, raising Steelbreaker to her uncle’s throat. “That’s your bloody plan?”
To his credit, he didn’t flinch or break her gaze. “I helped the Templars take Raidenwood, yes. In exchange, they let me rule. I’ll admit that.”
Ciena pulled the sword back several inches, only because she didn’t trust her left hand to stay steady.
“But I did not order your deaths,” Cladius continued. “Nor did I blindside your parents.”
Elias sheathed his own blade and crossed his arms. “I suppose you’re going to say there’s two sides to every story?”
Her uncle took a deep breath. “Knight Commander Saul Mason offered me a deal before the Templars attacked. I met with him in Thornhaven, and I explained how neither you nor your parents were Ethermancers. I asked Mason to spare you if you left the city. He accepted my terms, and I brought the deal to your parents when I returned. They refused.”
Cladius glanced back and forth between them. “I told Lindilus and Casella that the Templars would attack soon, one way or another. I begged them to flee,—to at least get you two somewhere safe. Still, they refused. Your parents wanted to believe the Templar Revolution wouldn’t spread to Raidenwood—that their own human populations wouldn’t betray them.”
Ciena considered that for a moment. “You’re lying.”
“I have to agree,” Elias said. “Our parents never mentioned this.”
Cladius raised the glass to his lips. “I doubt they meant to deceive you. More likely, they were trying to convince themselves. A week after I met with Mason, he struck deals with the city guard and snuck his men inside the palace. I knew what was happening. I also knew that if I warned your parents again, they would make a last stand there rather than flee. They would refuse to believe their army betrayed them until it was too late.”
Ciena gritted her teeth. That part sounded plausible, at least. She would have liked to dismiss the entire story as lies, but her parents never spoke of Cladius or Raidenwood. Usually, it had been Ciena that brought it up over the years. When she did, they’d provided no new information.
“I knew the Templars would kill you if you stayed. The same had already happened to the other rulers in Sunfall, Vauldenport, and Kalendell.”
A common flaw among Aeon rulers, her teachers at Whitecliff had always said. They all think they’re special—that they’ll be the exception to the odds.
Cladius continued, “So I arranged for them to find out after the attacks began—giving you just enough time to escape the palace.”
“But even if it was a losing battle,” Elias said, “you could have left with us. We could have fled together. As a family.”
He was right. Cladius saw this betrayal as some noble act to keep them safe, but he’d never understood the cost. All this time, she’d been unable to trust people—unable to feel safe in her own bed. If it hadn’t been for him, she would have been a different person.
If it hadn’t been for him, her parents might still be alive.
Alexel Trelidor had poured magma into her cracks, re-forging her broken parts and honing them into a weapon for his own use. He’d made her relive those dark memories until she had nothing but rage and vengeance.
A part of her knew it was unfair to blame her uncle for that, but Ciena had taken responsibility for her part in the Clansmeet. Meanwhile, he only made excuses.
Cladius gave a slow nod. “If I had a chance to do things over, I would have left the city with you.”
“Regardless,” Elias said. “Your intentions change nothing. We’ve had a lot of enemies over the years—Templars and Ethermancers alike. Can you guess how many of them had ‘noble intentions’?”
“All of them,” Ciena bit off each word as she spoke. “Give a man twelve years to think, and he can justify anything. You still betrayed us, and you’re still responsible for thousands of dead Aeons.”
“I won’t try to justify what I’ve done,” Cladius said. “I just thought you should know the truth.”
“Is that why we’re here?” She looked around the empty hall. “So you can polish up your conscience before you die? You must want something from us. That’s why you blocked off Raiden’s Tomb, isn’t it? So you could use it as a bloody bargaining chip.”
“No.” He gestured to a brass key on the table near his wine glass. “That key unlocks the door to my left, and that door leads to the walkway beneath Highbridge. I can escort you there personally, or you can go alone. No one will stop you.”
Elias frowned. “How did you know we were going to Raiden’s tomb?”
He nodded to the Etherite sword in Ciena’s hand. “When I heard the rumors that Raiden’s blade resurfaced, I knew you’d return home. Then my men found the evidence you left in the eastern caves...”
Ciena waved that away. “You still haven’t answered my question. What do you want from us?”
He straightened in his chair. “I’d like you to hear me out. After that, you can do with me as you like. Raidenwood is yours, regardless.”
“The hell it is,” Ciena said. “Your people have us surrounded. They already attacked us once tonight.”
Technically, she’d struck the first blow, but Cladius didn’t know that. At least, he probably didn’t.
“They won’t attack you again,” he said. “My officers thought it was Trelidor’s army attacking. They ordered the retreat as soon as they realized it was you.”
That part of the story checked out, at least. But it still didn’t prove it wasn’t part of some larger scheme.
He gestured past the cup and key to several signed papers on the table. “I’ve declared you the rightful rulers of Raidenwood, and my officers have orders to serve you from now on, regardless of what happens to me tonight.”
Ciena narrowed her eyes. “So you do have a death wish. You can’t live with yourself, and you’re looking to die with a taste of sweet forgiveness.”
“I had a death wish once...” Her uncle rose slowly from his chair. “...but no longer.” He turned his head out the window to where the balcony overlooked the skyline. By now, many of the lights had flickered out, and the rooftops shone silver in the moonlight.
His voice was weary when he spoke again. “Six months after I took Raidenwood, I stood at the edge of this bridge. I may have saved you, but I still had blood on my hands. When I made the deal with Mason, I hadn’t realized what it meant. You have to understand—most Templars believed the war would end once we overthrew the Aeon leaders. We only wanted equality, after all. But people like Mason feared Ethermancers too much.”
Cladius drained the rest of his wine glass and put his back to them. “A part of me did want to rule Raidenwood, I’ll admit that. I spent my life living in my brother’s shadow, all because he was a full-blooded Aeon and I wasn’t.”
She remembered that side of him all too well. It was one of the reasons they’d been so close. They both knew how it felt to live restrained in someone’s shadow.
Cladius continued, “I never imagined that ruling meant killing more Aeons. Not just Ethermancers, but children. Anyone with bright eyes, hints of power, or hints of noble blood. I couldn’t live with that, so I decided to jump. It was a fitting end, I thought. Our ancestor, Raiden, betrayed his family too. He saw no escape but to take his own life. If that end was good enough for the Archaeon, then why not me?”
A chill swept down Ciena’s neck as memories of Dragonshard rose to the surface of her mind.
“I must have stood there for hours,” he said. “I tried to convince myself that my death would make a better world. But I knew that was a lie. The Templars I led were mad dogs waiting to be set loose. One of them would lead Raidenwood in my stead, and the killings would continue.”
Her eyes burned as she remembered standing on the balcony in Dragonshard. Her fingers clenched Steelbreaker tighter as she fought back waves of pain.
“I had nothing left to lose, so I did the one thing no one expected.” Cladius turned around to face them again. “That night, I vowed that I would save my next victims. I would declare them dead and make them disappear. That was eleven years ago, and I haven’t killed a single Aeon since.”
“No,” Ciena finally spoke. “I don’t believe a word of this. More Aeons have died here than anywhere else in the realm. I don’t care if you ordered their deaths or not. You’re still responsible.”
“They aren’t dead,” Cladius retorted. “I helped them escape. All of them.”
She took another step closer, and her voice rose, “Then where the hell are they?”
“The walkway beneath the palace,” Elias broke in “It’s not just a way into Raiden’s tomb, is it? You built another way out of the city.”
Cladius nodded. “I collapsed the first tunnel to prevent anyone from finding it.”
Ciena rounded on her brother. “Don’t tell me you believe this. That tunnel leads to the western side. There’s nowhere for them to go.”
“I didn’t abandon the Aeons I rescued,” Cladius said. “I built an Aeon sanctuary in the mountains north of here. The residents call it Redcliff Enclave. It started with only a few families. Now it’s grown into the hundreds. Even the survivors of Whitecliff live there now.”
“We’ve never heard of this,” Elias said, “not even rumors.”
“That’s because he’s lying,” Ciena snapped. Her eyes burned like hot coals, and her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths. “People would have noticed if he built a bloody enclave here. It’s not possible.” She pointed to her brother. “And you—you passed through Raidenwood two years ago. Nahlia was almost killed here.”
“I tried to tell your parents about this,” Cladius spoke up to be heard, “but they didn’t believe me. I couldn’t trust the secret to anyone else outside my inner circle. If the Templars found out, it was over.”
The Rage Trance came back to her like a familiar lover’s embrace. It urged her to move, and to kill. Ciena strode forward. Her uncle took a step back.
“I know you,” she said. “Everything you’ve done, you’ve done for yourself.”
For Aegon’s sake, he’d just compared himself to Raiden. He knew that no matter what happened, history would forever see him as the first human to rule this city, just as their ancestor was among the first Aeons.
After everything he’d done, Cladius wanted to be seen as a tragic hero who played both sides of the war. A man who sacrificed himself to save hundreds. She wouldn’t let him. She would end this now, and history would see nothing but the traitor he was.
Sweat glistened on Cladius’s forehead as she raised Steelbreaker once again. Killing him would bring her nothing. Even so, some primal part of her craved it, and she saw no reason not to give in.
Her uncle drew in a deep breath, taking several long seconds to find his words. “I am sorry, Ciena. I’m so sorry for everything that’s happened to you.”
“I don’t care.” The words left her mouth in a broken whisper.
She saw her brother watching her from the corner of her eye. “You’re not gonna try to stop me?”
“No,” Elias said with a slow shake of his head. “I trust you.”
Ciena screwed her eyes shut. Aegon curse him, but he knew her far too well. He knew that if he argued with her, she would double down on her resolve.
But she also knew her brother. If this were up to him, he would choose mercy, just as he’d advocated for her after the Battle of Dragonshard. Her uncle’s hands may have been stained with blood, but so were hers. They’d both done terrible things, and now they both sought redemption.
Elias would also want to keep Cladius alive as a resource. If they were going to rule this city and end the siege, they would need his knowledge and connections.
Ciena let out a long breath and withdrew her blade. Her uncle may be dangerous, but he’d never been a master manipulator. And for all his faults, he wasn’t Alexel.
“Fine,” Ciena said after a long pause. The tip of her blade hit the floor as the tension finally left her muscles. “If this enclave of yours is real, then prove it.”
Cladius nodded. “I can take you there tonight.”