Rhia Vassaj stepped inside the emperor’s study. As always, this room was in desperate need of some curtains. The windows faced southeast away from the setting sun, but the skyline glowed like a forest fire.
Alexel Trelidor stood facing the window with his arms clasped behind his back. He wasn’t one for small talk, so Rhia got straight to the point.
“They captured Varion.”
“Captured?” He turned around to face her. His voice sounded surprised, but not at his son’s defeat. It was more like ... relief?
“You thought he was dead.”
Alexel gave a slow nod. “Our soulbond was impeded. But if you’re sure your information is good.”
“It’s good. Solidor held him hostage in Vauldenport and forced his officers to surrender. Raidenwood’s army just moved in from the north, and now they control the whole city.”
Alexel stepped over to his map of Revera and began rearranging several of the wooden pieces. Two months ago, the Imperial army had controlled all the land west of Raidenwood. Now they’d lost half of it. More than half, if you counted Dragonshard. Dazen was supposed to be their insurance there if Solidor rebelled, but he’d betrayed them too. Just like Relyn and Ciena.
“Who defeated him?” Alexel asked in a deliberately calm tone.
“Eight Ethermancers entered the palace,” Rhia said. “Varion killed the first four. Aside from Solidor and my sister, the other survivors were Elias Raider and Nahlia Cole.”
“Still no word of Ciena then?”
“No. Our spies in Raidenwood claim she rarely leaves the palace. It’s been years since anyone’s seen her fight.”
“She’s training,” he mused.
Of course she was. And to be honest, that was a terrifying thought. Ciena had trained for less than a week to beat Zidane, but she’d done it with unnatural determination. She’d spent every waking moment improving herself, and it paid off.
Rhia had never fought Ciena for real, but she’d come close during the Battle of Dragonshard. One look into those sharp golden eyes and she knew she wouldn’t win.
Shiban. What could Ciena Raider do with a Codex? Not to mention Ethersmithing. No one had predicted that discovery.
Alexel continued surveying the map. Rhia was no tactician, but she’d sat on the last war council. They’d all agreed Vauldenport was a critical location. That—combined with Dragonshard’s navy and air support—meant their enemy could launch attacks from the south as well as the east. Tregarde would be the next major city to fall, then their enemies would control the entire southern coast.
Alexel continued leaning over the table. “I told Varion to bring reinforcements to that fight. As usual, the boy ignored me.”
Rhia knew better than to comment on that, so she changed the topic, “They might offer to trade him for Ashara.”
Alexel shook his head. Was he saying he didn’t expect an offer, or that he planned to refuse them? Maybe both.
“Regardless, we have no choice but to go through with our plan.” He looked up and met her eyes, “How many Sile’zhar do you command?”
“Forty-eight,” Rhia said at once. “Five are inside Raidenwood already.”
“Good. We’ll divide the fleet as planned. You and the others will join the assault in Raidenwood. Retrieve Varion, along with the last two Codices. The latter takes priority, of course.”
“And the enemy Ethermancers?”
“Deal with them as you see fit. Avoid them, or kill them separately. Just don’t repeat my son’s mistakes.”
He didn’t have to tell her twice. Sile’zhar avoided any fight they couldn’t win. She’d already lost to Thane, and that was before his side discovered Ethersmithing. Not to mention their group synergy in battle. The reports had described them stampeding through Vauldenport, trampling hundreds of soldiers beneath their boots.
Rhia understood the war council’s decision. They had to hit Raidenwood hard. Their only other option was to commit more soldiers and Ethermancers in a drawn-out war along the southern coast. The Palavans might have a larger army, but time favored the enemy. Every day they had Raiden’s Codex, they got closer to unlocking the secret.
And yet ... something bothered her. No one had voiced a single concern about the planned tactics in the next assault. It hadn’t been Alexel’s idea, but he hadn’t opposed it. Neither had her parents.
It hadn’t been Rhia’s place to speak up then. Even so, Vashet’s words echoed inside her head. “Civilization is a choice we make every day. If you want to measure it, then look no further than the way you treat your enemies.”
Varion had already used black powder against Raidenwood, but that was different. Varion was one general, and he didn’t speak for their entire faction.
“Something’s bothering you,” Alexel said, “you might as well say it.”
Rhia drew in a deep breath and considered. No one liked to oppose the emperor in public, but he’d never punished those who spoke against him. If anything, he’d rewarded Ciena for her boldness.
“It’s this plan,” she said, “What happened to our moral code? If we do what the council decided, then what makes us better than our enemies?”
He considered that for a moment. “Is this assault so different from the Etherfall?”
“The Etherfall was a force of nature,” she replied. “We just used it to our advantage. But we know what the Testaments say about black powder.”
“If left unchecked,” Alexel quoted, “it will bring the end of civilization.”
“Exactly. All this time, I thought we were fighting to preserve civilization. To make this world better.”
Alexel strode over to a mat on the floor and lowered himself into a cross-legged position. “I told you I was once Lyraina Trelian’s student.”
“I remember,” Rhia said. A year ago, the older woman had entered this very palace, knocking Rhia unconscious with a wave of her hand. She’d demanded an explanation after that.
“I was already a strong Ethermancer when I met her. Strong, but ultimately powerless. I lacked the will to act. I forged chains in my mind—chains of doubt and belief.”
Rhia stiffened. She’d never heard Alexel mention his own weakness before. Not once. Not even regarding the distant past.
“A code is admirable,” he continued. “But when you surrender yourself to a code, that code can rule over you. We become slaves—fighting to preserve what we have rather than reaching for more. This is why Varion lost tonight. He chose to fight his enemies alone. He chose pride and honor over victory. As if the world would reward him for such choices.”
She frowned. “So everything you said before—about the humans and black powder— it was all a lie? Propaganda for your followers?”
“A lie?” He shook his head. “No. In this case, I agree with the Testaments. Such a weapon puts power in the hands of the weak. Power they haven’t earned. For most Ethermancers, this restriction forces them to rely on their own strength. It forces critical moments where they must choose between growth or death.”
Alexel had given her a similar lecture the day she returned from Valaysia. Thane Solidor had defeated her because of her weakness in the Ashmount prison. Rhia had a chance to kill her sister in the corridor, but she’d hesitated. As a result, Thane had entered the fight with a calm and clear head.
But if she’d killed Relyn, she would have defeated Thane too.
“You know that I reject Aegon,” Alexel continued. “If he’s real, then it’s his power that lets him declare right from wrong. If he’s not real, then power is all that matters in this world. This is why we use black powder now, and that is why we’re going to win this war. Because civilization isn’t an end. Rather, it’s a means to elevate the exceptional. People like you and me.”
Her heart leapt at his last words, and a warm sensation spread through her. It was the closest thing to praise he’d given her since her failure in Tongshan. Now, she had a chance to redeem herself in his eyes, and she couldn’t fail.
Rhia pressed her fists together and bowed. “We’ll leave for Raidenwood tomorrow.”