After they were finished he continued to hold her closely, moving his hands across her smooth, dark skin. Her colouring marked the purity of her Atlantian lineage; a sure sign of high Imperial blood, and it came no higher than hers. He kissed her collarbone and murmured her name softly. “Vion…” He breathed in her scent. This was the homecoming he’d been waiting for, truly. The odd disappointment at the docks was wholly forgotten now. “I missed you,” he whispered.
She gave a throaty laugh as she nuzzled against his neck. “Really? Weren’t there any others in the last three years?”
He met her very dark eyes. “Of course. But none like you.”
She smiled as she pulled back from him, rocking backwards and he winced slightly. This was the second time they’d made love this morning. The first time furious and desperate, a whirlwind of barely-contained lust, the second slower and more gently, like the old days. “There’s no one like me, Rayke,” she said. As he looked at her, he was forced to agree.
“And what about you?” he asked with a slight mocking edge to his voice.
“What about me?” She finally clambered off him with an unpleasant sucking noise that reduced them both to helpless giggling for a moment before they flopped down beside each other in the bed. Albrihn pulled the pale silk sheets around himself. His body was hard edges next to her soft curves, threaded with old scars, while she was unmarred perfection. He couldn’t stop staring at her. He hadn’t known how badly he’d wanted her until the moment he’d walked into her chambers. “I half expected to come back and find you married off to some lord or other.”
She propped her head on her hand as she watched him. One delicate finger traced a line down his stomach to his navel, circling it slowly and then resting low on his abdomen. “No. There have been offers, of course.”
He took her hand and drew it up to his lips to kiss her fingertips. “Waiting for me?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Of course not. I won’t marry before I take the throne. Otherwise whatever fool of a husband I take will be just another rival.”
“Ah, of course…”
“Don’t flatter yourself, soldier.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at her forthright attitude. Vion. The Emperor’s daughter, heir to the throne of Atlantis. And, at least for now, she was all his, and he hers. He had dreamed of this moment for a long time, and it hadn’t disappointed. He lay beside her for a moment longer, forgetting his troubles, and then finally forced himself to roll out of bed and climb up to his feet. His muscles ached. It had been a hard three years. He wanted more than anything to rest, to spend some time in the countryside maybe, in a villa he knew on Lake Hera. He could afford to rent it for weeks now. His adventures had made him wealthy, or would as soon as he had the chance to deposit his share of the booty in the Bank of Atlas. He had a lot on his mind. With Vion, he’d been able to ignore it all, but suddenly it came rushing back. He walked to the window and looked out. It was almost noon, and the sky had begun to cloud over. The drapes were tossed by a chill wind coming in off the sea. Beneath the terrace, the Enclave’s gardens stretched out. It was late autumn, and the trees should have blazed with red and yellow finery, but the branches were bare. It looked like midwinter, drab and grey. His journey through the city had likewise left him feeling strangely melancholy. The disrepair of the outer defences and the squalor of the docks were not the end of it. Atlas, it seemed was in decline. Beggars crowded every street corner, and the commoners looked thin and dull-eyed. Many shops had their doors and windows shuttered, seemingly for good, and there was a general sense of hopelessness. It was all too familiar to him.
“What’s wrong?” Vion asked from the bed, where she still luxuriated in amongst the sheets. She had always been able to read his emotions easily.
“Something’s wrong here.”
“In the city.”
She sat up, folding her arms across her knees and cocking her head at him. “What do you mean?”
He held out a hand. “Can’t you see it? Atlas is cold and dark. The people are hungry. There’s something in the air…something bad.”
“Times are hard,” she said simply.
“So I’ve heard. But this is different somehow.”
“There’ve been a few bad winters, and wet summers, that’s all. You’ve been away. You were expecting the light and warmth of summer. Everyone dreams of their home at its finest. But you come home to a waning year. Things are as they ever were, Rayke. You’ll see.”
Maybe she was right. He frowned at the streets that wound their way down to the sea, just a slash of grey-blue iron on the horizon from this distance. This was as bad as he’d ever seen things here. Could a couple of bad harvests account for that? “You can’t see it,” he told her, “but going away and coming back, I see how things have changed.”
“Nothing changes here, Rayke,” Vion told him, her voice growing a little harder now, “for a hundred centuries, nothing’s changed. You think everything can fall apart in three years? Have you so little faith in us? Do you think we’ll descend into chaos without you to watch over us?”
He turned slightly to look at her. “A princess becomes a whore for a common soldier. What would you call that besides chaos?”
“Is that how you think of me?”
He smiled slightly. “They were your words, Vion. Before I left.”
“I know. And they made you angry. But now it’s different. What happened to you in the mainlands, Rayke? What did you see?”
He looked out across Atlas. What to tell her? “In the north,” he began, “I saw the bones of the Earth scoured raw by frost and wind. I saw mountains reaching up like jagged daggers to pierce the sky’s underbelly. For three weeks, I led my Company across a ridge of ice and stone beneath a thunderstorm that never died. As we marched, the ground creaked and groaned and fissures opened before us. I lost many fine soldiers. I met aged lords in cold, black citadels, their gates barred against the encroaching night. People freezing, starving. Plague, famine and war stalked those lands. Everywhere we went, from the freezing north to the sweltering south, to the western deserts and the great salt-lakes of the heartlands, we saw the same thing.”
Her eyes were wide as she watched him. “What?”
“Desolation. Ruin. The end of days, Vion. And now I return, and see it has taken hold here too. Maybe it was always here. Maybe you’re right that nothing’s changed. But…but…” He ran one hand down the smooth stone of the window frame. The palace at the heart of the Imperial Enclave looked like it had been grown rather than built: sinuous lines of stone, carved in ancient times with arts now long forgotten.
“You’re tired,” she said, standing up from the bed and walking over to him. She put an arm around his waist and held him closer. He could see her skin pebbling as the wind blew cold again. “You’ve been fighting away from home for three years. That takes a toll on anyone. Maybe you should leave the city for a while? We could go away together…”
He took her hand and let her fit her body against his as she leant into him. “I was thinking the same thing.”
“We could rent a villa far away from any towns. Live off the land.”
“That isn’t as fun as you might think you know.”
“Then we’ll bring servants and enough food to survive a siege. Whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want?” He turned to face her and slowly moved her hand down his chest and stomach.
“Within reason,” she smiled.
He leant into kiss her, but then there was a knock at the door and they both stopped. She looked away and he kissed her on the head, burying his face in her hair for a moment.
“Come,” she said shortly. A palace guard entered. His armour was finer than any Albrihn had ever worn, but he could see from the man’s movements that he was no real warrior. A toy soldier, with arms he didn’t deserve to bear. More decay, in the very heart of the Great City. Vion made no move to leave his embrace, and just watched the guardsman passively as he stood there. Albrihn was embarrassed for a second, until he realised he’d spent too long overseas, with their repressed cultural mores. This was Atlas, with its public baths, the Whores Quarter and the Night of Masks, when for one crazed drunken night all imaginable depravity was indulged by commoners and nobles alike. Shame had no place here. He straightened and met the young soldier’s eyes.
“The Emperor requests your presence,” he said eventually.
“That doddering old fool?” Vion asked with undisguised venom. “Why would I grace him with…”
“Not you, my Lady. Captain Albrihn.”
He was as surprised as Vion. “Me? He asked to see me?”
“What would my father want with you?”
He shrugged. “I’ll get dressed and we’ll find out.”
“I’m not coming,” she said as she sauntered back towards the bed. She looked at the guardsman, still standing awkwardly near the door. “Get out of here, boy, unless you’re going to make your staring worth my while.”
“I’m to escort the Captain to…”
“I know the way.” Albrihn grabbed his trousers and began to pull them on. “Tell his highness I’ll be with him presently.”
He doubted very much the young man would have the guts to deliver that message, but it sent him scampering away. As he dressed, Vion pulled him in for one last kiss, and then, tugging on his shirt and grabbing his boots, he reluctantly left her bedchamber.
The throne room was much as he remembered it but he wondered, again, whether just being away for so long made him see it with fresh eyes. The vaulted ceiling was hung with mouldering banners bearing the heraldry of nations ground into dust centuries ago. The great black marble columns echoed loudly with his sound of his boots and the long chamber was cold and draughty. A tomb. The faces of dead Emperors and Empresses watched him from alcoves, even as the dried blood of dead soldiers floated above his head. He saw, for the first time, how this place was a temple to death. The history of his nation was built on the bones of enemies and the names of dynastic rulers stretching back into the dim past. The city itself was laid upon a foundation of its own ruins, and in the mausoleums and crypts of the Black Quarter graves were piled atop one another, into the depths of the earth. People had lived here for a long, long time. There was nothing in the mainlands like this. Nothing so venerable. Nothing so noble. Nothing so grim, at least not wrought by the hands of men.
“So glad you could make it,” a dry voice cackled from the end of the great chamber. An obsidian throne was set upon a high dais and, in it, a diminutive figure in black furs was huddled. A pair of guards flanked him in the shadows on either side, but apart from that they were alone.
“My ship only came in this morning, sire,” Albrihn said as he sank smoothly to one knee and bowed his head.
“Rise, son of Atlas.”
He stood stiffly. His hand instinctively moved to where the pommel of his sword should be, but no one besides the guards and the highest nobles could wear a weapon within the Enclave. He held his hands behind his back instead. “What is your will, sire?”
“My will?” The Emperor, as dark as his daughter, but now so old and frail that his skin had turned sallow, almost descended into a coughing fit as he tried to laugh. “My will is that you stop fucking my daughter.”
“That isn’t her will, sire.”
“The Gods know why, but so be it. You came in this morning, you say?”
“And your venture was…” he smacked his lips grotesquely. “…productive?”
“Half my Company have been left buried in the mainlands, but yes. We won glory and gold.”
“Soldiers die,” the Emperor said flatly, “that is their purpose.”
“The purpose of the soldiers of Atlantis is to be victorious. At least, that’s what I was always told. Sire.”
“Yes. Yes indeed.” The old man fell silent, and Albrihn wondered if he’d nodded off. He was only a common soldier, the Captain of a small, if renowned, Company of outriders. But his relationship with Vion had, over the years, propelled him into higher circles. He had no official standing, no place in court, and yet it was known that he had the ear of the Emperor. And a rather different part of his daughter. And so that was how he found himself here, secretly wondering why he had been summoned. He wanted to leave, to take Vion to that villa in Hera and spend all day and all night fucking, until all the cares of his journeys abroad left him. He wanted to forget about Atlas and his sour homecoming. He wanted to be what he was – a man, with a man’s appetites and a man’s simple needs. But he had a feeling the Emperor had something else in mind for him.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”
“I serve at your pleasure, sire,” Albrihn said, as if there hadn’t been almost a minute of awkward silence.
“I have a troubling report from the borders of the Province.”
“Villages burnt to the ground.”
“Bandits, sire? So close to the city?” He was surprised at that, but then, it fit with everything else he’d seen since arriving.
“That’s what you will find out for me.”
More surprises. “Me? Why me?” There were thousands of soldiers in the city, hundreds of Captains just as experienced as him, who hadn’t just returned from a long campaign overseas. Who hadn’t earned the reward of a few weeks leave.
“Your reputation has only grown since you left, Captain Albrihn.” The Emperor smiled from within the thick furs of his robes. A toothless grin in a wizened, black face. “Word reached us of your exploits. I trust no one else with this.”
“Is it that important?”
“I believe so.”
Albrihn narrowed his eyes. What was going on here? What did the old man know that he wasn’t telling him? “I’ll round up my Company. It won’t be easy though – they’ll be well into their cups by now, I should think.”
“You leave tomorrow. Let them enjoy their night.”
He inclined his head. “You are most generous, sire.”
“Indeed I am. I’ll be sending a Company of the city guard with you too.”
“Two companies? To investigate a little banditry?”
“And a Cyclops from the pens.”
“What are you expecting us to find, sire?” Albrihn’s voice was low now.
“Death, Albrihn,” the Emperor said slowly, “I expect you to find death. He rides openly abroad in these lands now. Don’t tell me you can’t smell his rancid reek. This is but the first canker of the blight that is beginning to take hold. You came home not a moment too soon.”
“So it seems,” he replied quietly, “so it seems.”