Nahlia lay awake as the airship sailed through the night sky. They'd been flying since sunset, and several hours had passed since she'd first crawled into bed. Ciena breathed softly in the bunk above, and Shera—a member of the Onyx Guard—snored more loudly on the floor.
Whenever Nahlia closed her eyes, images of Redcliff flashed like daggers at the edge of her vision. Elveron and Vaulden trying to destroy her soul, Marwyn—who had once been her teacher—luring her into a trap.
They'd all turned on her. To them, her destiny as a Palatine was sealed—she was ruled by her ambition. She had the power to break others' wills, to awaken others' power, and dominate them.
And what if they were right?
Everything had happened at once after that. Her mother fighting the Council, Trelidor's airships bombing Raidenwood, and his assassins stealing the Codices. It was all too much to fit inside her head.
And when she tried to sleep, her mind raced through all the possibilities and questions. What could she have done differently? Did she deserve what happened? Where was Lyraina now? Why hadn't she tried to contact her? Did she know Raidenwood would be destroyed? Did she know Nahlia still would have died if it hadn't been for Elias and Yimo?
Each question sent a wave of heat racing through her veins, and she threw the blankets aside. Her heart thundered in her chest, and her bunk felt as cramped as a coffin. When she tried opening her eyes, both moons cast their light through the small circular window, making the room far too bright.
Finally, Nahlia abandoned the idea of sleep and crawled out of bed. Her father used to do this back in the Moonstone. He'd claimed that a change of scenery would help calm his thoughts. Some nights, she would hear the creaking floorboards as he paced up and down the stairs. He’d even walked the streets if the weather was warm enough.
Nahlia's bare feet found the hard oaken floor, and she threw on a fleece robe over her shirt and sleep shorts. After that, she tiptoed toward the door, careful not to trip over the sleeping guard.
It was well past midnight now, but voices still echoed from the ship's common room. She recognized one of them as Yimo, and some deeper voices that might be the Maroc brothers. Metallic coins clattered against a wooden table—probably another card game. The cheering that followed only confirmed this theory.
Not wanting to join in, Nahlia made her way to the back of the ship and descended the winding staircase toward the cargo hold. She crossed her arms over her chest as she walked, and the metal floor stung her bare feet.
She should have put on her boots, as silly as that might've looked.
Crates and barrels filled the main hold, and she moved in figure-eights around them. A few minutes passed, then the door to the Etherite vault slid open. Elias took a single step out before leaning on the frame. "Can't sleep?"
Nahlia shook her head. "You'd think an Ethermancer would be better at calming her mind."
"I'd blame the beds," he said with the same easy smile he always wore. "Seems like they made them with Crelans in mind."
Her eyes fell to Elias's open shirt, then back to his head. It was true—he was far taller than anyone else in their crew. Nahlia opened her mouth to say something suitably witty, but her teeth chattered instead.
"Come on." Elias slid the door open farther and gestured her inside. "It's a lot warmer in here."
She followed him into the bow where the metal floor became twice-tough glass. She'd walked through here in the daytime, and the rolling scenery always made her dizzy.
Now, she stood over a void of utter blackness. Perhaps if she squinted long enough, she would make out lights or details. But for now, the glass floor reflected the faint orange light of the crystal lamps. The Etherite vault loomed in the room's center, stretching all the way up into the rafters. Dozens of pipes and cords connected it to other parts of the airship, pumping the energy through its veins.
Beyond the vault was a closed iron pipe that functioned as a cannon for Sanctifiers. Thane had stood there during the First Battle of Raidenwood, raining fire on the undead army.
Elias collapsed in a pile of blankets and pillows, and she joined him at once, taking one of the smaller blankets and wrapping it around her shoulders. She leaned closer to Elias, sharing in his warmth, clinging to any distraction from her thoughts.
A few seconds passed as she gave her surroundings a more thorough investigation. Blankets? Pillows?
"You're sleeping down here?"
"They offered me a bunk," Elias said, "but like I said—"
"They're all Crelan-sized." she finished with a nod. After a pause, she ducked her head. "Sorry if my pacing woke you."
"I'm a light sleeper." He waved a dismissive hand. "And I've woken to far worse company."
"Wait..." Her eyes widened, and she glanced downward again. "Did you just lure me into your bed? Under the pretense of warming me up?"
Elias grinned. "It worked, didn't it?"
She let out a mock huff of annoyance. "All those years as a barmaid—I thought I knew every trick in the book."
But this wasn't a trick, of course. Elias was the least manipulative, and most earnest person she'd ever met.
"The best ideas are simple," he said with a wise nod. "It's all about proper execution."
Still, Nahlia narrowed her eyes at him. "I suppose I should shed my clothing too, huh? That way, we can share body heat more efficiently."
He shrugged a shoulder "Your idea, not mine." A short pause followed, and he moved as if to stand. "Seriously though, we should probably have a chaperone in here. I'll see if Yimo's free..."
"Very funny." Nahlia grabbed his forearm and held him in place. "As if we've never been alone before."
Elias's arm was warm beneath her fingers, and her breath hitched as he took her right hand and warmed it between his own. It reminded her of that night in Villa Solizhan. Had that really been two years ago?
A tear rolled down her cheek, although she couldn't say why. Nahlia grimaced and flicked it away.
"What's wrong?" He gave her time to answer, but she couldn't find the words. Finally, he asked again, "Redcliff? "
"Your Ethermancy, is it—"
"No, my power's fine." She’d worried about that last night, but she'd tested her Moonfire and Moonshard since then, and those still worked as expected. And if those worked, there was no reason to think she couldn't dream as well.
"Elveron told me something," she began, "last night, when I found out my real bloodline."
Elias gave her an encouraging nod.
Nahlia hesitated. These thoughts had raced through her head for the past few hours, but it still felt embarrassing to say them aloud. "I know you say you care about me. And ... I feel the same way. But how do you know your feelings are real? What if I'm manipulating you with Ethermancy? Ever since I've met you, I've worried that..." She trailed off, but Elias just squeezed her hand.
She stared down at her knees, blinking back a sudden heat in her eyes. "You say I'm one of you, but I'm..."
Aegon. It sounded so stupid when she forced the feeling into words, but the words echoed in her mind all the same. "Palatine broke peoples' wills. He made people follow him—even love him—despite the things he did. So how do I know I'm not doing that to you now? How do we know this is real?"
Elias furrowed his brow as if considering his next words. "You lost your Ethermancy in the Battle of Dragonshard. So who made me sit by your bed for six months while you were unconscious? Who made Thane and Relyn come for you in Tongshan? Who made me miss you when you were half-a-world away?"
She knotted her shirt in her hands, squeezing it in her fist. "Feelings can linger for years."
"And they can change in a single day. Relyn and Ciena both turned on Trelidor when they realized what he was. So did your mother, and Thane's cousin Dazen."
"Some people," she muttered. "But he's still ruling two continents, and he keeps his true colors a secret to most of the world."
"But you're not him." Elias said those words with such weight and resolve, and she almost believed them beyond all doubt.
"And no," he continued, "not everything can be proven. That's when we need to have faith."
"You make it sound so simple."
"It's not simple," Elias said. "I know there's a chance I'm wrong. Maybe we are trapped in an endless cycle that keeps repeating and punishing us for our mistakes. Kalazhan was a warrior who killed his own wife in a moment of violent passion. Vashet was a social outcast who could never find her place. Thane and Relyn once walked in their footsteps, but then they found each other."
Nahlia remained silent as she pressed her head to the wall behind her, listening to the hum of the ship as it soared through the clouds.
"My sister almost jumped off the Dragonshard palace—just like Raiden fell on his own sword to be free of Palatine—but she didn't go through with it." He leaned forward, squeezing her hand again. "We can fight this. If there's some invisible force steering us one way, we can choose to beat it."
Still holding her hand, Elias shifted on the blanket until they sat across from each other. "And I choose to believe in you. I know I do. Not because of your bloodline or your powers, but because you're Nahlia Cole."
Her heart quickened as he spoke, and a warmth spread through her chest. She met his eyes, and the flecks of gold reflecting the lamplight. A smile formed on her lips before she looked down again, strands of red hair falling into her face.
Elias reached out and pushed the strands aside. His thumb lingered on her cheek. "You're someone who holds herself to an impossible standard. Someone who always strives to be better. You fight when you have to—but you do it for us. Sometimes, you fail to be the person you want to be. But that's not because of your ancestors. It's because you're as human as the rest of us."
"You really believe that?" she asked.
"I choose to," he said. "And I choose to believe that I love you."
Nahlia threw her arms around his shoulders and pulled him close. His scent filled her nostrils—like leather and citrus. His muscular arms wrapped around her waist, and his racing heart matched her own.
Still, a small part of her hesitated, whispering how this was all a lie. Not just this, but her vision of Treluwyn, and everything she fought for.
Nahlia shook her head and pushed the feeling away. Elias was right—she might never get the answers she wanted, but faith and freedom were choices she could make today.
She raised her chin, and his lips found hers. It happened as naturally as taking a breath. As if they'd never been apart in those years after Dragonshard. Her body melted against his as he pulled her closer, and the sensation ignited something deep within her. The heat spread between her legs, urging her to move. It was something as primal as Ethermancy itself. Nahlia shrugged out of her robe, and her hands found their way beneath his shirt, tracing the muscles of his lower back.
They continued to kiss, and his hands moved to her waist. He rolled up her shirt inch by inch, and a draft of cold air grazed her stomach. She raised her arms skyward, and he removed the shirt and shift in one swift motion.
Even as the fabric hit the ground, his eyes didn't leave hers. Nahlia tried to kiss him again, but he pulled away. "Are you sure?"
She gave a brisk nod and leaned back into him. Her lips traced the line of his cheekbone before settling on his ear. Finally, she whispered, "I love you too."
They fell back into the nest of blankets. The threads of their soulbond tightened, and she felt the sharp awareness of his Serenity Trance—heightening every physical sensation, slowing time, and prolonging every second. His skin burned as he flared his Ironblood. Her own muscles grew stronger as she wrapped her legs around his back and pulled him against her—inside of her.
She lay there in his arms afterward, memorizing every detail of the moment—the way his bare chest felt against her cheek, the feeling of his strong arms around her slender frame. Nahlia burnt every scent, sight, and sensation into her mind until they were clearer than any memory she possessed.
Now, even if she died in the coming battle, this moment would be the last thing she remembered.