"What about the dragons?" Thane asked as they walked down the airship’s corridor. The ramp had just closed behind him, and he kept a hand on the wooden rail to steady himself.
"They're decorating rooftops now," Dario said.
Thane glared at the technician.
His grin faded, and he cleared his throat. "Should I call for the medic, Highlord?"
"I'm fine," Thane said with a dismissive wave. His ribs still ached from the fight, but nothing felt out of place. He shot a glance at Relyn.
"So am I," she said. "And if someone heals us, it should be Nahlia. Aegon knows she owes us for this."
Thane gritted his teeth. "Nahlia's not the one who owes us.” After all, Nahlia wasn't the one who sent that vague message from halfway across the continent.
The floor rocked beneath them as they walked, and Ilsa met them with a stack of towels. Thane accepted one and wiped the water from his face and hair. Relyn wrapped hers around her shoulders like a blanket.
"Now," Thane said, "can someone give me a real report?"
"Three dragons dead," Ilsa replied. "All shot with harpoons. No injuries, and no damage to the ship. Fang is taking us south into the mountains, unless you object?"
"South is good." Thane glanced out the small, circular window to his right. Tongshan was already a speck on the horizon, and grassy farmlands dominated the scene below. "How's the power supply?"
"Less than five percent," Dario said.
Thane grimaced, but he shouldn't have been surprised. Not after he drained it to open the Ashmount's outer wall. Not to mention that skirmish with the dragons. They'd be lucky to fly ten miles before they had to set down and recharge. And if Tongshan sent more riders, that could mean another fight.
Aegon ... he'd feel a lot better if they hadn't spared Rhia. Still, he understood Relyn's reluctance to pull the trigger. If that had been Ashara, he might have felt likewise.
The ship’s common area stretched all the way from port to starboard. Like most of the ship's interior, the floor and walls were covered in lacquered oak. Circular windows lined both sides, and orange crystal lamps shone from recessed holes in the ceiling.
Nahlia sat beside her mother on a curved leather sofa across the room. Their Crelan friend sat in a plush armchair with his feet on the nearby table. On an ordinary-sized man, the position might have looked relaxed. On him, it just looked awkward.
Nahlia and the Crelan still wore their gray prison uniforms with their hair in disarray. Lyraina, by contrast, didn't look the least bit disheveled.
Thane glared at her as he stepped inside the room. "Explain yourself."
Lyraina remained calm with both hands in her lap. "Excuse me?”
"You never mentioned you were in the cell with Nahlia."
"Yes,” she replied, “and I suspect we’d still be there if it weren’t for you.”
Thane pointed a finger back to the city. "Rhia Vassaj was coming to execute her. You mean to say she would have succeeded if not for us?"
"I was there as a precaution only." Lyraina said. "While staging a prison break is beyond my skill, I was more than capable of handling the Vassaj child." She turned to face Nahlia who was still sitting beside her. "Your life was never in any real danger."
"No," Thane said, "Relyn and I were the ones in danger. We were prepared to risk our lives for Nahlia, but not for your games."
"This decision was still your own," Lyraina said with a raised eyebrow. "Your friend was in trouble, and you came to help her. Do you regret it?"
"Don't even try," Thane snapped. "We both know you set this up. You wanted us to confront Rhia Vassaj. You knew she'd tell Trelidor what she saw, and you knew the result would be war."
"You've been at war for two years," Lyraina spoke as if talking to a daft child. "Yet somehow, you've managed to avoid any fighting. Instead, you've been ... sightseeing?"
"Building alliances," Relyn retorted. "Kind of like how you spent years in Dragonshard when you should have been looking for your daughter."
Thane loved her for that. Relyn usually remained quiet at times like this. But when she spoke up, she never sailed around the storm.
"And let's not forget," Thane added, "you're the one who got us into this mess. You're the one who convinced my father to side with Trelidor and the Palavan army. Now he knows we're working against him, and he has no reason to keep my sister alive."
"Nor will he gain anything by killing her," Lyraina said. "And you chose to spare Rhia Vassaj today."
"It didn't matter. The guards already heard my name."
"Then you chose to spare the guards as well. Sometimes mercy is admirable, but it always comes with a price."
Thane closed his eyes and let out a long breath. “I should throw you off this ship right now.”
"Indeed?" Lyraina inclined her head. "Would that make you feel more like a king? To punish those who dare speak against you? To cower before your true enemies, and take out your anger on—"
"Mother." Nahlia rose from the sofa, speaking for the first time. "Stop. Thane's right, isn't he? You told me to go to Tongshan when I could have gone in the opposite direction."
"No," Lyraina said. "Rhia Vassaj had already followed you here. By the time you reached Valaysian shores, there was nowhere else to run. This airship was our only escape."
Nahlia narrowed her eyes, looking just as skeptical as Thane felt. "Still, you could have met us in the mountains and stopped me from getting captured at all."
"There's an idea." The Crelan raised a glass of brown liquid that Thane hadn't noticed before. Apparently, he'd helped himself to the bar.
"Thane could have met us somewhere safe," Nahlia continued. "Instead, you let me go to that place." She glanced around as if she wanted to storm off, but couldn’t decide which way to go.
Relyn stepped forward and took her by the hand. "Come on. Let's find you something better to wear."
Nahlia gave a silent nod of thanks and followed Relyn toward the king's cabin.
Once they were gone, Thane glanced over his shoulder. "Dario."
The technician stepped forward. "Highlord?"
"Show Lady Trelian to her chambers."
Lyraina rose from her seat, and Thane turned back to face her. "You're confined there for the rest of the trip. If you don't like it, you can get off when we land."
Nahlia tip-toed through the halls of The Raptor's Claw. They'd set down in the mountains several hours ago, and the city's dragonriders hadn't given chase. By now, the others had gone to sleep in their cabins— all but First Mate Vinko who stood watch on the bridge.
Aegon, this place is amazing.
Thane and Relyn had apparently stolen the ship on their wedding night, but Nahlia had been comatose at the time. When she finally woke six months later, they were trying to keep a low profile. In other words, they'd never offered her a ride until today.
As far as she could tell, the ship had three distinct levels. The main floor had space for living and dining, along with various cabins and bunks toward the front. The top floor was dedicated to the bridge, and the bottom level was reserved for the cargo hold.
There were also trapdoors in the cabin floors that led to closed off sections of the cargo hold. Relyn had shown her one of these earlier when she was picking out a change of clothes. The trap door was subtle enough that she could have walked by a hundred times and never noticed it.
Not a bad place to hide if the ship is ever attacked.
After making a full round of the main level, Nahlia returned to the common area where she'd made a nest of blankets on the sofa. It was far softer than anywhere else she'd slept for the past few weeks. In fact, this vessel was surprisingly luxurious for a warship. Not only was there a fully stocked bar in the common area, there was even running water in the bathrooms.
Nahlia snuggled back under the blankets and tried to get comfortable. A few minutes passed, then footsteps sounded from the nearby corridor. She cracked open her eyes to see Thane standing in the doorway wearing a black night robe. He turned a dial on the wall, and the glowcrystals brightened.
Thane paused when he saw her. "Sorry, I didn't realize you were out here."
"That's alright." Nahlia squinted as she sat up. "Couldn't sleep anyway."
"We have remedies for that, if you’re interested." Thane stepped behind the bar and placed a kettle on what she assumed was a heating element. After a short silence, he met her eyes again. "What are you doing out here? I thought I told Dario to find you a cabin."
"He found me one," she replied, "but my mother was in there too. " She trailed off, letting the implication sink in.
"Ah." Thane ran a hand through his hair. "That makes sense. The rest of the crew are all men aside from Ilsa and Relyn. Of course … we could always put Lyraina in the cargo hold."
Nahlia suppressed a grin. "It doesn't matter. I've slept in worse places lately."
A few minutes passed, then a whistle erupted from the kettle. Thane poured the steaming water in two mugs over bags of leaves. He walked over and passed one to her.
Nahlia wrinkled her nose as she inhaled the sweet-smelling steam.
Thane sat in the nearby leather chair. "Something wrong?"
"No," she said. "It just reminds me of nightshade."
He chuckled. "I wondered what you and Relyn talked about all evening. Should’ve known it was poisons."
"An assassin gave me some poisoned rice on the train ride to Tongshan," Nahlia explained. "Not a pleasant experience."
He gave a slow nod. "Well, this one's called rivershade, and it's safe in larger doses. I drink it all the time when I can't sleep."
She remembered that about him from their travels. Elias had always been early to bed and early to rise. Relyn—true to her assassin persona—had preferred to stay awake half the night and sleep until noon. Meanwhile, Thane seemed like he never slept at all. Apparently, some things never changed.
She brought the mug to her lips and took a small sip. It was sweet on her tongue, and some of the tension left her muscles.
"Thanks for coming to save me today," she murmured into her mug. "And I'm sorry—I didn't even know my mother sent you that message."
"What's done is done," Thane said with a dismissive wave. "I haven't even spoken with Ashara in months. There's a chance Trelidor already knew about our rebellion."
“Months? Why so long?"
"My sister and I never developed a proper soulbond," he said. "So we communicate with a pair of bonded rings. Ashara's captors give her the ring on scheduled dates. Our next meeting is the thirty-fifth of Zimon.”
Nahlia nodded as she took another sip. Her father was also in Sunfall, and she hadn’t seen him in almost a full year.
"Speaking of which," Thane reached into his pocket and pulled out her moon-shaped pendant. "I thought you might want this back."
Nahlia accepted the pendant and squeezed it between her fingers. The silver-casing was new—but she sensed the Etherite beneath. She used to squeeze this for strength back in Whitecliff. It had reminded her of her mother then. Now, it reminded her of the Ethermancer she used to be.
"Relyn told me you had your powers back." Thane's tone held no surprise, but why would it? When she first woke from her coma, Thane had been convinced the problem was in her head—something she could overcome with time and soul-searching.
But he'd been wrong about her then, and he was still wrong now. Nahlia hadn't regained her power. Not the way Thane had. This wasn't some mental block she could overcome.
"What were you doing in Valaysia, anyway?" Thane asked after a short pause.
"I thought it was obvious," she said. "I was running away." The words tasted like sarcasm in her mouth, but they were the truth.
Thane's lips twisted in confusion. "That ... doesn't sound like you."
"And what does sound like me? Fighting a war we can't win? Watching people die while I’m helpless to stop it?”
Thane made a placating gesture. "What about your assignment from Treluwyn?"
She brought her mug to her lips. "You never believed me about that in the first place."
He hesitated. "I was skeptical at first, but I never doubted you were telling the truth."
"Well, you were right the first time. I could have imagined the whole thing for all I know."
"You really have changed," he said. "What happened to the paragon of faith?"
"She died. Quite literally."
"I get it," Thane said. "Things were hard for you..."
"Not only did I die," she continued, "I woke up as useless as a newborn cub."
"I remember," he said. "And I understand taking a break, but I still don't get why you came all the way here."
Nahlia shrugged again. There were other reasons, but none she could put into words just yet.
"Elias still believes in you," Thane said. "The last time I saw him, he and Ciena were looking for Raiden's Codex like you told us to. He thinks you left for a reason, and he defends you whenever someone says otherwise."
Nahlia winced at that. She really didn't deserve him. She'd already felt guilty for leaving, knowing that he'd sat by her side for six months while she was asleep.
Thane took another drink. "Imagine how surprised he'd be to find you here, wallowing in self-pity."
"Thanks." Nahlia narrowed her eyes at him. "Is this how I treated you when you lost your power?”
"I still did my job. I took you to Dragonshard like I promised, and I kept fighting along the way. What have you done this past year?"
Nahlia gazed up at the ceiling. "You know, sleeping in my mother's cabin is sounding pretty good. At least you've lectured both of us tonight, so we have that in common."
Thane looked like he wanted to say something else, but he bit back his retort. They sat in silence for several long moments.
“Look," Thane finally said, "I'm sorry for the lecture. I just want to understand."
"Well, you're right about one thing," she replied. "It was childish to run away. It didn't solve anything."
"Did you ever find out how you lost your Ethermancy in the first place?" he asked.
Nahlia shook her head. "It wasn't like what happened to you though."
"You sure about that?"
"I'm sure. Whatever happened to me isn't fixed yet. I've done Ethermancy a few times this past week—when I was desperate—but I can't do it consistently."
"At least it's coming back," Thane said. "That's a start."
Silence reigned between them after that. Eventually, they said their goodnights, and Thane left her alone with her thoughts.
Nahlia set aside her empty mug and curled her fingers around her pendant. No more running. No more feeling useless.
She'd missed being with her friends this past year, not to mention her father who was still leading a rebellion back home. More than anything, she wanted to fight beside them again.
Even if it hurts.
She stretched out with her mental senses, trying to feel the energy inside her pendant. The power was there, but she couldn't control it. It felt even farther than it had before—like a storm on a distant horizon.
But why? She'd healed herself on the train without Etherite. This should have been easier.
Did it only work when she was desperate? Unlikely. Such things happened with the young and inexperienced, but she was neither. Not so long ago, she’d stood at the top of Dragonshard and commanded the Etherfall itself.
And somehow, that had left her soul broken.
Only her mother seemed to understand what was wrong. Perhaps it had something to do with their soulbond?
Regardless, she needed answers. Answers she would only get from her mother.