"It's all here," the dock worker said in Valaysian. Nahlia understood the man far better than she’d understood the guards in Tongshan. No doubt the port cities had more experience talking to foreigners.
The wind blew all around them, catching her hair, and snapping the sails of nearby ships. Gray clouds filled the sky, and it looked like it might rain at any moment.
With half the continent after them, Thane's crew couldn't risk flying the airship near civilization. Instead, they'd landed in the water and floated into harbor like a normal sea vessel. Of course, this still drew crowds of onlookers. Even without those spinning fans on the back, the hull was made of dragonbone, and a glass dome covered the bridge.
But as strange as the airship looked, most folk wouldn't assume it could fly. For one thing, it lacked wings. And the hull looked more like rusted iron from a distance.
Still, she couldn't keep her eyes off the onlookers. Any of them could be an assassin, or a spy for Clan Vassaj. Aegon. She never used to be this skittish. At least not before she lost her powers.
Ilsa nodded to the dockworker as she examined her ledger, comparing her own notes to the receipt he'd given her. While Fang had become the airship's captain, Ilsa took on the roles of cook and quartermaster. Nahlia—determined to make herself useful—had acted as Ilsa's assistant for the past day.
"Thirty pounds of salted meat?" Ilsa called out.
Nahlia found the appropriate barrel and removed the lid. "Here," she called back.
"Fifty pounds of rice?"
She found the next barrel. "Here."
Nahlia already had experience with inventory checks from the Moonstone Inn. However, her father had found it amusing to call out large amounts of perishable items. Such as, "ten barrels of raspberries." Or, "one crate of cooked kale." He'd claimed it was to keep her on her toes.
Thankfully, everyone here worked far more efficiently than that.
"Ninety-nine bottles of Ember Isle Red!" a voice hollered from down the dock.
Nahlia glanced up to see Yimo striding over. His new outfit consisted of a simple white shirt, brown trousers, and a gray cloak that blew in the harbor wind.
"I thought Ilsa gave you five silver moons," Nahlia said. "You only bought one set of clothes?"
"He stopped by the brothel too," Karlo said as he sauntered over. Dark-haired and broad-shouldered, the Maroc brothers were easily twice as tall as Yimo. As usual, they said everything with a straight face and Nahlia could never tell whether they were serious or joking.
"She has a point though." Dario twisted a finger through his short black beard. "Those are the smallest trousers I've ever seen. Should've asked for a discount."
Yimo spun around, taking several steps back to look them in the eyes. "I'll have you know that I'm taller than most Crelans. I was practically a giant back in Crelagon."
"Crelagon?" Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "You just made that up, didn't you?"
He rounded back on her. "First you lot insult my height, now you insult the mystical city of my people?"
Ilsa cleared her throat nearby, killing the conversation. After the inventory count, the crew set to work loading the barrels and crates into the cargo hold. That was another downside to keeping a low profile—they couldn't enlist any of the dockworkers for help.
The hold itself came equipped with various temperature-control sigils, similar to the rooms in Villa Solizhan and Dragonshard. These sigils moved the heat from the food storage chambers and fed the energy back into the ship's power source. This might have meant fewer supply stops, but every pound of extra weight slowed them down. As a result, Ilsa claimed they could barely last a week between stops.
Nahlia tried to lift the barrel of rice, and she barely made it two steps before it brought her to her knees. Meanwhile, Relyn stepped down the ramp and threw an identical barrel over her shoulder. That wouldn't have been so embarrassing if it were Ciena, but Nahlia and Relyn were a similar size. Not to mention Relyn wasn't a Justicar.
Note to self: start exercising again.
Ilsa made no move to help the others, but Nahlia knew she wasn't idle. Her gaze fell on the crowd of onlookers as she worked her mental Ethermancy on them. No doubt she was easing their suspicions, making them believe the airship was simply some sea vessel of foreign design. An interesting sight, but hardly worth mentioning.
Hopefully, that would be enough.
Once they’d loaded the cargo, Nahlia made her way to the front of The Raptor's Claw. The ship rocked on the waves as they left the harbor, and rain pattered against the circular glass windows.
She'd meant to have this talk sooner, but Ilsa had put her to work almost immediately the previous morning. What free time she had, she'd spent catching up with her friends. That was all well and good, but their lives were still in danger here. No amount of running would change that. Nahlia wanted to help the crew if battle struck. To do that, she needed her Ethermancy back in earnest.
Besides, as angry as she might have been, Lyraina was still her mother. Two years ago, Nahlia had traveled across Revera for a chance to reunite with her. Things hadn’t turned out the way she’d planned, but she couldn’t give up that easily.
Nahlia took a deep breath and knocked on the cabin door.
"Come in," Lyraina's voice answered from the other side.
Nahlia slid open the bamboo door. The room was cramped, with one bed stacked on top of the other like a military barracks. Aside from that, there wasn't much in the way of furniture. In fact, the space was even smaller than their cell in the Ashmount.
Her mother sat cross-legged on the floor, which made sense considering the bed's limited head room. She rose to her feet as Nahlia stepped inside. They stared at each other for several heartbeats, and it was clear that Nahlia would be speaking first.
Well then. Guess I'm not getting an apology.
"You seem to know how I lost my power," Nahlia began slowly, "and how I can get it back."
If Lyraina thought this was too direct, she didn't show it. Instead, she returned to her cross-legged position on the floor and gestured for Nahlia to do the same. The hardwood floor dug into Nahllia’s ankles as she sat, and she felt like her elbows would hit the walls.
"You've already begun the process of restoring your power," Lyraina said.
"I figured as much, but how?”
She raised an eyebrow. "How do you think?"
Nahlia groaned. "Riddles now?"
Lyraina shook her head. "Don't mistake this for a game. You've made it clear you don't trust me. If that's true, then why would you accept my freely given explanations?"
Fair enough. Besides, she’d already made some guesses of her own. "My powers returned when my life was in danger."
"True," Lyraina said. "We need struggles and conflicts to grow. Without them, we will erode away, just as you grew weaker in your exile. But it was more than that. For every Ethermancer who heals herself in desperation, scores more perish."
She was right about that. The poison on the train was hardly her first life-and-death struggle since Dragonshard.
"I think it has something to do with our soulbond," Nahlia said.
"Ah, yes." Lyraina gave a knowing smile. "Aeon souls don't exist on solitary islands. They're made through the bonds we forge with others. When a building collapses, you can't remake it from the rubble. You can however bring in new parts to replace those that were broken."
If nothing else, that fit with what she'd learned before. An Aeon soul was like a crystal. When you formed a bond with someone else, the patterns within that crystal changed to match the other person's. You didn't lose a part of yourself in this process. Instead, the patterns became denser—filling space that was otherwise empty.
Or fixing a piece that was broken.
"If that's true," she said, "then I should be forging bonds with as many people as possible."
"More or less," Lyraina said. "An Aeon can forge bonds with six or seven people at most. Any more, and your existing bonds would deteriorate to make room for the new ones. But yes. At the very least, you should have done this with Thane and Relyn while you traveled to Dragonshard.”
Nahlia winced. She and Thane had already shared bonded pendants back then, so a soulbond had seemed redundant. What's more, they'd been distracted with other matters. But her mother was right again—six months of traveling with her friends, and she had little to show for it.
"Alexel never understood this lesson." Lyraina said his name as if he were a stubborn student. As if he didn't rule half the known world. "The path to power can not be walked alone. Alexel commands many followers, but he refuses to form connections. To forge a bond is to open yourself to others—to expose yourself—and that gives them power over you in turn."
"He used a bonded ring when he controlled Ciena," Nahlia noted. "Isn't that ... sort of like a soulbond?"
"It’s not the same thing." Lyraina reached beneath her tunic, pulling out her own crescent-shaped pendant. Like Nahlia's, a silver casing hid the Etherite beneath. "This can form a conduit for your thoughts, but it's not a soulbond. When you bond with someone, that person becomes a part of you."
Well, it sounded even more intimate when phrased that way. Then again, her mother had literally seen the world through her eyes.
"I suppose he wouldn't trust anyone that way," Nahlia said. “Especially not with how he treats his followers.”
Lyraina nodded to herself with distant eyes. "Yes ... Alexel has learned much of power, but little of true leadership. He rules, but he rules alone, with no one to keep his power in check."
It wasn't hard to read between those lines. Her mother had always meant for Alexel Trelidor to rule, but she meant to stand by his side.
"You can see his mistakes with Ciena Raider," she continued. "He thought he could enslave her through mere strength of will, but he underestimated her bond with her brother. It is the same at a larger scale. If you force people into a corner with nothing to lose, they will rebel."
"That’s basic political theory," Nahlia said with a frown. “How does he not realize it?"
"Indeed." Lyraina's lips curled up at the edges. "He understands the theory as well as any man. But that's the nature of arrogance. He believes himself to be so powerful that the rules no longer apply to him." She trailed off, then met Nahlia's eyes. "Do you remember the first time we met?"
Nahlia raised an eyebrow. "The day you gave birth to me?"
She cracked another smile and shook her head. "A poorly worded question. I meant in Dragonshard, the night of the Etherfall."
"Sure," Nahlia said. "I walked into your bedchamber."
"My maid, Sabine, tried to stop you that night. If she had used physical force, you might have overpowered her with Ethermancy or martial prowess. You understand the rules of social etiquette, but those rules didn't stop you."
Nahlia winced at the memory. She'd done the same thing with the palace guardsmen. Multiple times, in fact.
"It wasn't irrational of you,” Lyraina said. “You could walk past my maid without consequence, and you knew it. It's the same with Alexel. He ignores the laws of war and politics because he can. This is a man who can't be shot, poisoned, or stabbed. A man who can face armies and emerge victorious. That sort of power changes a person."
"Mastery over others comes at the expense of one's self," Nahlia quoted from her mother's journal. She'd long forgotten the original source, but the words themselves had stuck with her.
"Indeed," Lyraina said. "Very often, those who sit on thrones are slaves to themselves—slaves to their own whims and desires. And this is why power is not about thrones or armies. True power is to see your own ideals reflected in the world around you. Not because you force people to follow you, but because they know—in their hearts—that you’re right."
Was that why Lyraina had trained Alexel? Was this about proving to the world that a Redeemer could rule? In that case, why choose a Palatine? That bloodline was the reason all Redeemers were feared, and Alexel had become everything his ancestors were.
If her mother had trained Alexel to prove a point, then she'd only succeeded in proving its opposite.
But there were still gaps in that particular story. Before Lyraina died, she had only a theoretical understanding of Ethermancy. And yet, when she woke, she'd been knowledgeable enough to train the most powerful Ethermancer alive? Where had she gained that sort of knowledge and power?
But those were tangents. As interesting as the story might be, it wasn't the reason she'd come here today.
So her mother had been gradually reaching out to her, and their bond had crystalized on the train to Tongshan. Somehow, that had 'repaired' enough of her soul to perform Ethermancy again. Nahlia could accept all of that, though she intended to confirm her mother's claims. Either with Thane, or with whatever personal library he'd brought along on the ship.
Still, one important question remained.
Nahlia leaned forward. "Can you tell me how I lost my power in the first place?"
"Not as of yet," Lyraina said after a short pause. "I can only speculate."
She frowned. "You acted like you knew before."
"I told you what it was not," Lyraina said. "This isn't a loss of faith as Thane Solidor believed. Nor is this some side-effect of your death or resurrection. The Etherfall would have healed you if that were the case."
Aegon. They finally had time to talk—just the two of them—and the answers still eluded her. But this wasn't a simple deduction on her mother's part. She seemed too sure of herself for that.
"You know something," Nahlia said. "I can tell."
Lyraina spread out her open palms. "As I said, I can only speculate. Ethermancy follows many rules. Some, we’re aware of. But many are unknown to us. Perhap we will discover the truth with time."
"What good is more time?"
"That night in Dragonshard, you did what no Redeemer has ever done before. You seized control of the Etherfall, and you did it without the use of the Codex. I suspect that may have had … unforeseen consequences."
Nahlia considered that. In truth, that moment was a blur. It wasn't as though she'd blocked out the memories. More like ... they were all a rush of raw emotion. Things too large to fit inside her head, much less form into words. Looking at the memories now was like staring directly into the sun.
Then again, there were other ways to re-live painful memories in the Ethereal. That much she knew from experience.
"I know you don't trust me," Lyraina said. "And perhaps I deserve that. But all I want now is to see you succeed. To become the Ethermancer you were born to be."
"So you can help me?" Nahlia asked. "You can show me how to use my power again?"
Lyraina nodded once. "As I said, we've already begun."
Thane entered the common area to find the others waiting for him. Nahlia, Ilsa, and Fang sat on the leather sofa while Yimo lounged in the chair beside them. The rest of the crew sat on the half-dozen stools around the bar.
He stepped up beside Relyn and gave her a nod.
"We received a message last night," she began, "from Elias Raider.”
Predictably, Nahlia perked up at this.
"He and Ciena have secured Raidenwood and opened their ancestor's sealed tomb. They found what they expected inside, and they claim the information is valuable. More valuable than they thought, even."
"Wait," Yimo spoke up. "Secured Raidenwood? How the hell did they manage that?"
Relyn gave a helpless shrug. "I didn't speak with Elias directly. He had to pass the message through a conduit, so they couldn't be more specific."
"Still," Yimo said, "why all the secrecy? It's not like they can draw any more attention to themselves. I mean, they already have an army on their doorstep."
"Think about it," Thane said. "If there's an army outside the city, that means there are spies inside of it. Those spies will be eager to learn how two Justicars seized control on their own."
Yimo considered that for a moment, then nodded.
"Regardless," Thane said, "Elias and Ciena have completed their mission. They have Raiden's Codex. The question is—can they hold Raidenwood, or should they abandon the city?"
He stepped up to the wooden table in the room's center. Per his request, the others had set up a map of Revera, complete with wooden figurines to show the various factions.
"The Palavan army surrounds Raidenwood on both sides." Thane picked up two handfuls of orange meteorites and placed them to the city's left. "By now, they have at least twenty-thousand troops on the western side, holding various cities along the Iron Fords. The bulk of the skirmishes take place here, along the western walls."
He picked up another figurine and placed it on the opposite side. By now, Fang, Ilsa, and Nahlia had all risen from their seats for a closer look.
"Two thousand more troops are camped around the eastern walls," he said. "Just enough to block supply routes."
"And to stop them from running," Fang muttered. "Raidenwood is probably smuggling food underground. Otherwise the city would have starved to death weeks ago."
Thane nodded. The Onyx Company had always known about the tunnels, but they'd been under Templar control during his time in the city.
"Did Elias say anything else?" Ilsa asked.
Relyn cleared her throat, "He thinks he can hold the city until we get back." She lowered her eyes. "But then ... he also assumed we'd bring help."
"But we're alone in this fight," Thane said. All their attempts to form alliances had failed. And now—after what happened in Tongshan—they couldn't risk showing their faces anywhere else in Valaysia.
He glanced around the room, meeting each of the crew's eyes in turn. They all had their reasons for fighting. Vinko's wife had been an Ethermancer who died at Trelidor's hand. The Marocs had lost their younger sister when a meteor hit their village.
As a human, Fang would never be allowed to captain this ship under Trelidor’s rule, much less command a mercenary company. And Ilsa would never be allowed to marry a human like Fang.
Even so ... this wasn't like any battlefield they'd ever faced. Going up against Trelidor was nothing short of a suicide mission.
"You all know the story from Dragonshard," Thane told them. "A hundred of us climbed the tower to face Trelidor. I was one of the few who made it out alive. Barely. And Trelidor has only gotten stronger since then. His armies control every city between Sunfall and Raidenwood."
"You know where I stand on this," Fang said. "We stole this airship to fight back, and Palatine's army has no defense against it. Even if we can't defeat him yet, we can still make him bleed."
"I agree," Ilsa said. "And we have to start somewhere. If we secure Raidenwood, we control all the lands to the east."
There was a murmur of agreement from Vinko and the Maroc brothers. Thane had expected some disagreements here. But then, why would there be? His crew had wanted to fight from the beginning. Thane had been the one holding them back.
Until now he'd been trying to protect his sister and avoid war for Dragonshard. Perhaps that had always been a mistake. After all, Ashara had gone to Sunfall willingly. She had her battles, and Thane had his.
"I'm not sure I get a vote," Nahlia said, "but running away hasn’t done me any good. I'm ready to go back and fight for our home.”
Her confidence sounded forced, as if she had to convince herself more than anyone else. Still, that was an improvement over two nights ago, and Thane had no doubt she would recover. Treluwyn herself had given Nahlia this task. If an Archaeon believed they could defeat Trelidor, then that was worth something.
Finally, Thane met Relyn’s eyes. They'd already decided to fight; he just didn't want to drag the crew on a potential suicide mission against their will. Especially if it meant following him—a man who had inherited a throne rather than earned it.
Even now, it was a humbling experience to have the loyalty of this small crew. Thane was far from a noble ruler, but they still followed him. It wasn’t an army, but it was the best he had.
"Good," he said. “Then everyone get some rest. We make for Raidenwood tomorrow morning."