Thane sat on his bed in the palace, trying and failing to become an Ethersmith.
The others had all achieved some manner of success by now. Ciena had a head start with Steelbreaker, and now she could reshape the blade into a dozen different weapons. Elias had Bloodsong, and Relyn had a crystal-tipped arrow she could pull back from her targets. Nahlia wasn’t interested in weapons, but even she’d managed to move and reshape her pendant.
Thane had no such luck. Today, a white crystal shard sat on the bed, no bigger than a silver penny. He reached out to it, pulling both the energy and the physical crystal into his soul. This part was straightforward enough. Like the others, he’d mastered it within a month of practice.
Unfortunately, his progress ended there. Once the crystal was in his soul, it fought against him.
He’d asked Relyn about this, and she’d described the pressure as a coiled spring, forcing her soul to expand. After a few weeks, the pressure had subsided until she forced in a larger amount. Nahlia and the Raider twins had described almost-identical feelings.
Thane could barely hold the energy for a full heartbeat. While the others felt a light pressure, he felt like he’d trapped a storm in a bottle. It was more than just pressure. This was a tempest of fire and lightning that threatened to rip him apart. His body shook with fear. Adrenaline kicked in, and everything else went numb.
When he released the energy back to its original state, it wasn’t a conscious choice. It was more like self-preservation, the way he would pull his hand back from a hot stove.
Was Ethersmithing different for Sanctifiers somehow?
According to Ilsa, Justicars made the worst empaths because they only knew how to affect the energy in their own bodies. This also made them the best suited for resisting empathy.
Thane suspected there was something similar at work here. Ethersmithing was an act of creation after all, and Sanctifiers only destroyed.
“Thane!” Relyn shouted his name from the common room.
Thane sprang off the bed, pulling a burst of power from the shard. He raced down the hall only to find Relyn standing over the table with a note in her hand.
The fire left his body once he saw that she was in no immediate danger. “What is it?”
Her hand shook as she held out the note—a single piece of paper with a broken seal. “You should read this.”
Thane accepted the note and read.
Thane and Relyn Solidor,
Today, on the 17th of Argomon, Raidenwood and Villa Solizhan will be destroyed by black powder. This will happen before nightfall. Only Highbridge will be spared. You need to evacuate both cities as soon as possible.
Thane’s heart raced as he flipped the note over in his hand, but the other side was empty. No name, and no signature. Even the seal was blank. He glanced up at Relyn, but she looked as shocked as he felt.
“Who wrote this?”
She gave a helpless shrug and gestured down to the wooden table. “I just found it here a minute ago.”
Aegon. Thane read the note over again and began pacing, a hundred possibilities running through his mind.
Could they even destroy two cities with that? Maybe ... if the caches were large enough and placed in the right spots. In Raidenwood’s case, destroying the stone supports would collapse the bridges. But how? Was the powder already in the city? Could the spies have smuggled it in?
“I was only outside for two hours,” Relyn said.
Thane nodded as he stepped down the hall, opening the bedroom doors one at a time and checking for broken windows. Everything seemed intact. “Who else has access to this apartment?”
“Ciena’s patrolling the western wall,” she replied, “And Elias, Nahlia, and Yimo left for Redcliff before I got back.”
“And Fang and Ilsa are running supplies from Thornhaven,” Thane mused. “Along with the rest of the airship’s crew.” It felt strange to rule out their friends, but it was also reassuring. At least this way, they didn’t have to suspect any of them.
“That leaves the Onyx Guard,” Relyn said. “And the palace staff.”
“Hankrim’s guarding the outer door,” Thane began. “We could ask him who’s been in here. But...”
“If he’s the spy,” she finished, “he can lead us any way he wants.”
Damnit, but that was true. The Onyx Guard were all experienced criminals before they entered Thane’s service. If one of them had done this, they would have predicted Thane’s next move and put a scapegoat in place.
Thane continued pacing. Why would someone leave this note? Maybe it was a spy with a guilty conscience? Someone who wanted money, but who didn’t want to see innocents die?
But then ... why would the spy’s handler tell him about the invasion, explosions, or whatever the hell this was? And what if the enemy wanted Thane to find this note? What if they were misleading him somehow?
’Highbridge will be spared,’ it said. Highbridge could be the real target, and this could be a ploy to put the entire population in one place. The eastern gates were the next most obvious spot to evacuate. Once again, that could be the actual target.
“We need to find out who wrote this,” Thane said. “This isn’t much to go on otherwise.”
Relyn bit her lip as she considered. “When we first hired the palace staff, we had them sign contracts. Those contracts are still in the palace archives.”
“So, what? You’re going to compare the signatures with the letter?”
“It’s a start,” she said.
Thane raked a hand through his hair, feeling his heart pound against his ribcage. They’d known their enemy would retaliate after Vauldenport, but he’d also expected more of a warning. His army controlled all the land within a hundred miles of Raidenwood. It wasn’t like the Palavans could just sneak in without being seen.
No ... this was something different.
“I’ll contact my grandfather,” Thane said. “Until we know more, he can decide what to do in Villa Solizhan. As for Raidenwood, I’ll have Cladius prepare the defenses.”
When Relyn returned, she already had a prisoner in custody. Hankrim and another Onyx Guard carried a limp young woman into the apartment’s common area. A hood covered her face, but she wore a dark gray uniform that marked her as a member of the palace staff. Steel manacles bound her wrists and ankles.
“Her name is Kalia,” Relyn explained as the guards set her down on the sofa. “The handwriting is a perfect match. She didn’t even try to hide it.”
Hankrim cleared his throat from nearby. “She was the only maid to enter the apartment after Lady Solidor left. And she was in here for less than two minutes.”
“Kalia,” Thane tasted the familiar name. “Is she the same one who Nahlia saved?”
“The last time we were in Raidenwood?” Relyn nodded. “She asked Elias for a job in the palace last month. Apparently, her family used to work for his back in Dresten. A family which is now missing.”
Thane grimaced as he glanced back at the sofa. “And why’s she unconscious?”
“She tried to run,” Relyn said with a shrug. “I found her halfway to the eastern gate.”
Aegon. If Relyn hadn’t worked so quickly, the girl would have actually escaped. Thane let out a long breath. “Well, that’s one problem solved. Unfortunately, finding our spy was the easy part...”
Relyn removed the hood to reveal Kalia’s face. She couldn’t have been much older than fourteen, and her blonde hair was pulled back in a tight braid. Relyn leaned forward and tickled her lashes with the back of her hand. Her golden eyes shot open a second later, and she sprang up with a surprising show of energy.
Hankrim and the other guard reached for their blades, but Relyn only put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Easy,” she said. “We need to talk about that note.”
“I...” Kalia’s gaze darted back and forth between them. Her eyes glistened, but she didn’t deny it.
“Who told you Raidenwood would be destroyed?” Thane asked.
Silence followed as the girl stared at her lap.
“We can’t evacuate if we don’t know,” Relyn said. “We might do more harm than good that way.”
“You’re a spy.” Thane ignored his instincts to shout and tried to match his wife’s calm tone. “You already know what happens to spies during wartime. But if you help us, we can make a deal.”
That got her attention. “You’ll let me go?”
Thane hesitated. Time was of the essence, but even Saul Mason hadn’t made deals he didn’t intend to honor.
“You’ll be imprisoned,” he said. “At least until the war is over. But you have my word, you’ll be treated fairly until then.” He held up the piece of paper. “Now, who told you to write this?”
“She didn’t tell me her name,” Kalia said.
“Then tell us what she looks like. Leave nothing out.”
“She wore ... black silk. Like what Lady Solidor wears to battle.”
“Nightsilk?” Relyn asked.
“Yeah. It covered everything but her eyes.”
“What color were her eyes?”
“Green … I think. They were shaped kind of like yours too. I think she was Valaysian maybe?”
“And her voice?” Relyn asked. “Did she have an accent like mine?”
The girl considered for a moment. “It was more subtle than yours. Harsher, but more confident.”
“Young or old?”
“Um ... young?”
Well, he already knew someone who fit that description. No doubt Relyn was thinking the same.
“What have you told her?” Thane asked. “And how long have you been in contact?”
“Um…” Kalia swallowed several times. “They took my family hostage more than a year ago. That’s when I came to Redcliff. I ... I told her that Varion is being held in the palace. I told her about Raiden’s Codex, and Treluwyn’s. And Ethersmithing.” She swallowed again and continued. “I told her about the palace layout, the number of guards...” She stared down at her lap again. “I meant to keep Redcliff a secret, but...”
Thane’s palms grew hot with the first hints of flame. They’d been prepared for spies, but he’d imagined Sile’zhar hiding in the shadows, sharing vague reports from a distance. Now, it was clear their enemy meant to rescue Varion and steal the Codices. For all he knew, this note about black powder was only a distraction.
“How did you contact your handler?” Relyn asked.
Thane glanced at the girl’s fingers, but they were free of rings. Relyn had probably done a more thorough search already.
“I contact my sister, Emre, every Vashedal evening. When I do, the woman in black intercepts those meetings.”
Clever. ... give the ring to the hostage rather than the spy. That way, no one could take the handler by surprise. They also couldn’t stop Kalia from talking to her again, even after they stuck her in a cell.
“And how are they destroying the city?” Thane demanded.
“I don’t know. She only said black powder.”
“Is the black powder already in the city, or are they attacking?”
“I don’t know!” she repeated, eyes glistening with fresh tears.
Thane let out a breath and held up the note. “Did she tell you anything else about this attack? Anything you didn’t write down?”
“No.” Her manacles clinked together as she wiped at her eyes.. “I wrote it all down word for word. She told me to wait until today, then leave it out where you could see it. That’s all.”
“If it was word for word,” Relyn said, “then repeat it to us.”
“Tell us what you wrote down.”
After wiping at her eyes some more, Kalia rattled off the words. Thane read the letter as she spoke, and it was a verbatim recitation. Oh well, it had still been a good idea.
Thane shot Relyn a questioning glance, and she shook her head. No more questions. They would interrogate the girl more thoroughly later on. For now, they had a city to defend.
The guards escorted Kalia out of the apartment, and Thane lowered himself on the sofa. “You think it’s your sister?”
“The description fits,” Relyn said. “If she’s telling the truth.”
“You’re the empath,” he noted.
“Ilsa’s better at this than me.” Her lips made a thin line. “But no, it didn’t seem like she was lying. She’s the worst spy I’ve ever seen.”
“Well, this terrible spy knew about Treluwyn’s Codex before we did.” But that was a tangent. “Fine. Let’s assume Rhia’s her handler then.”
“That’s a lot to assume. All Sile’zhar are Valaysian, and twenty percent of them are female.”
“And how many of those are in Trelidor’s inner circle?”
Relyn nodded as if conceding the point.
“Now for the real question,” Thane said, “are they really destroying the city, or is this a distraction while they take the Codecies and free Varion?”
Her frown deepened. “My sister tried to kill me back in Tongshan.”
“That was the middle of a fight,” Thane said.
“As if that makes it better.”
“I’m not saying it’s a good excuse. I’m saying that Ethermancy can mess with your head. Attacking someone in the heat of battle isn’t the same as premeditated murder.”
“Either way—what’s your point?”
“If Rhia had a spy here in the palace, that lets her follow Trelidor’s orders and attack the city without putting thousands of deaths on her conscience.”
“Playing both sides at once,” she murmured.
Thane nodded. “Sounds like someone else I know.”
“That note might still be a distraction,” she said.
“If it is, we have soldiers on both walls. We’ve tripled the guards around the palace, and the Raider twins are on their way back.”
“And the evacuation?”
He paused. “You know Rhia better than I do. Do you honestly think she would deceive us in order to kill more innocents?”
“Of course not,” Relyn said with a quick shake of her head. “But we’re not sure this note came from her. It could be Trelidor himself, making an illusion of my sister in case Kalia got caught.”
She wasn’t wrong. It sounded paranoid, but Trelidor had woven elaborate plans like this before. Then again, what did he really have to gain by making them evacuate? Especially in Villa Solizhan. That city barely had any walls.
“I can live with a mistake,” Thane said. “if we fell for the enemy’s scheme, at least I’ll know we tried. But I can’t watch the city burn knowing we could have saved it. I say we talk to Cladius and move the people into the caves.”
The following hours were pure chaos as they attempted to evacuate all nine bridges. Raidenwood had been designed to make mobility difficult for potential invaders, and the same held true now. Freebridge offered a wide thoroughfare between the east and west, but the other bridges were labyrinths of narrow streets and alleyways. Not to mention the limited staircases and mechanical lifts between them.
Thane wasn’t involved in the details—he left that to Cladius and the city guard. However, one thing was clear: half-a-day wasn’t nearly enough time to get everyone out. Crowds of people clogged every street, moving like a river of molasses. Some tried to bring more possessions than they needed, while others refused to leave their homes at all.
Sunset came, and the bells rang all throughout Highbridge, announcing the enemy’s arrival. Thane stood on the western wall and pointed his spyglass toward the Iron Fords.
There, five airships loomed on the horizon.