Vion walked slowly through the Imperial Enclave’s White Garden. Each of the gardens, arranged in a series of nested terraces that climbed up the flanks of Mount Atlas, were named for a different colour and this, the eighth and highest, was the most spectacular of all. At least, it had been in the past. As she walked down a winding path of white pebbles, overhung by bare, brown branches that should have been laden with the first of the silvery winterblossom, she pondered Rayke’s words the previous evening. Had she simply not noticed how things had changed? She had a thick robe pulled tightly around her against the chill wind that blew across the city from the sea. The sky was dark and grey, and she knew she wouldn’t notice the arrival of dusk. It smelt of frost, something almost unknown at this time of year, so close to the coast. She remembered the summer, but now that she thought back to it, had the leaves even turned green? Had the flowers blossomed in the gardens? It was so easy to miss these things when there was so much else going on. The changing of the seasons was a never-ending dance in the background of human lives and, just as at any glittering ball, it took a little while to notice when the music stopped.
She shivered as she reached the edge of one of the wide curving lawns. The fountains were silent in the gloom and she watched, thinking, trying to remember. She was alone, or at least as alone as she ever was. The firstborn daughter of the Emperor, she was used to be surrounded by shadowy figures. Most were friends, or at least servants loyal enough that they needn’t be watched – not all the time anyway. But some were something else altogether. Enemies was too strong a word. This was Atlas, the Great City by the Sea. Her dynasty had ruled here for over a millennium. True rebellion was unthinkable. The courtly intrigue of the palace, the jockeying for power and influence, for wealth and infamy, had continued unabated for untold centuries, but it was like the sparring of the soldiers in the barracks: practice for a war that would likely never come. And so she tolerated spies and would-be assassins, knowing that that she was in no real danger, that every whispered rumour and poisoned dart was nothing more than a gentle warning that the Imperial House should always watch its step. There were rivals waiting in the wings; though they had waited for nigh on a thousand years.
As Vion began a slow circumnavigation of the lawn, trailing one dark hand through the dry, brown fronds that overhung the dead flower beds, she was aware of a deeper shadow joining her, quite different from those that lurked constantly in the corner of her vision. She turned just slightly and inclined her head. “Lord Saffrey.”
“My Lady Vion.” Saffrey was a lean, handsome man, with the dark skin of the high nobility and the bearing to match. He wore a sword at his hip and had served as a commander in the militia some years before, but his true calling was politics. He was the First Minister of the Upper Chamber. “It’s a cold day for the gardens,” he told her mildly.
“Perhaps, but I find the fresh air agreeable.”
“It’s fresh indeed.” Their path took them through an arch in the bower that surrounded the lawn through which they were both obliged to duck. Beyond was a wider stretch of grass. Here, fowl of various kinds pecked at the ground. A trough set at waist height was filled with seed and Vion absently took a handful and scattered it around. The birds turned and approached her, moving like obsequious courtiers. Saffrey watched them feed at her feet. “I heard that Captain Albrihn returned from the mainlands yesterday.”
“He did,” she answered, betraying nothing.
“I expected him to still be in the city, but I’m informed he left this morning in command of two companies of militia.”
“On a vital mission, yes.” She turned to the Minister. “I would have thought you of all people would know all about it, Lord.”
“Your father does not deign to inform me of all the comings and goings of his many armies. I am quite certain the good captain will return to us soon though, covered in yet more glory.”
“He has no interest in glory. Only gold.”
“Not only gold, Lady.” His hand was on her wrist, applying gentle pressure. His smile was warm, but his eyes much less so.
Firmly, with a thin smile of her own, she extricated herself and stepped away, tossing a little more seed on the ground for the birds. Saffrey fell in beside her again. “Lord Saffrey, if you were a lesser man, I’d think you jealous.”
“Jealous? Of Albrihn? He would hardly be the only man to share your bed.”
“If I have a concern, it is merely for the continuity of rule in this city, and in Atlantis as a whole. And, indeed, the stability of the world itself.”
From where they strolled, Vion could look over the walls of the Enclave, across Atlas and out to sea, though it was almost lost in the lowering gloom. “When have we ever cared about the world?”
“Perhaps you should ask your friend the captain. He’s spent the last three years exploring it.”
“Hm. Continuity is a powerful force, Lord Saffrey.”
“I quite agree. And, as I say, it concerns me greatly.”
“As it does all of us.”
She could sense the exasperation in his tone as he spoke again after a few moments. “You are the heir to the throne of Atlantis, Vion.”
“I know. I am the eldest child of the reigning Emperor. What else could I be? It is as much a part of my identity as my eyes, my face, my body and, if you believe in such things, my soul. Did you come here for a purpose, Saffrey, or merely to tell me things I’ve known since I was a tiny child?”
“You are of an age to bear children, my Lady,” he said, now almost angry or at least as angry as he ever seemed to get. She knew that he possessed a towering rage, though she’d never seen it herself. He would never be so careless around someone of higher rank.
“A girl of nine might be of an age to bear children, though she would be unlikely to survive the process. What does it matter?”
“The survival of Atlas matters. The stability…”
“Yes yes,” she interrupted, “stop this dance, Saffrey. I’m a straightforward woman, and have no interest in innuendo and insinuation. What would you have me do?”
“Marry and birth heirs. Future Emperors and Empresses.”
“Of course. You think I don’t know my own destiny?”
“End this dalliance with the solider. Take out your maiden’s ring and find a suitable match.”
“I was not aware your interest bent in the direction of women, Saffrey.”
“It doesn’t,” he said with a slight twitch of his cheeks that might have been a smile in better light, “but I may be willing to make an exception. For the good of Atlantis, you understand.”
“For the good of Atlantis…” She crouched down. One of the fowl, a bird with a spectacularly coloured tail, strutted close to her and she petted it delicately. It was as tame as any lapdog. Again her thoughts turned to Rayke’s words and his observations on the state of the city and the land. “I am not some mainlands woman to be given away like a slave by her father. That is not how things are done here. You know that.”
“And you know that our freedoms are hard won. That they depend on the stability of the realm. Stability it is our duty – your duty – to see maintained.”
“Your talk of stability is an illusion, Saffrey.”
“We rule the great city of Atlas and the great island of Atlantis and, indirectly, the vastness of the world itself. What would happen to us if that were to crumble beneath our feet? What would our noble blood avail us then?”
“These things have stood unchanged for ten-thousand years.”
“So why all this fear, Saffrey?” She looked at him pointedly.
“It is by the efforts of men like me that it is so, Vion.”
She turned back to the bird, pecking around her bare feet. “Do you know the story of this garden’s birds, First Minister?”
“It is said that as long as they remain here, the city of Atlas will never fall.”
“Indeed. And they will remain here forever, because all of them are flightless.”
He smiled. “Exactly.”
She dusted off her hands as she stood up. “An illusion, do you understand? The prophecy is meaningless.”
“It’s just an old saying.”
“Indeed.” She examined her hands critically. “This seed feels different. It’s grittier. I don’t like it.”
“Imported, my Lady. The harvests have been poor of late. It would not be a sensible use of good grain to feed it to the palace’s birds.”
“No indeed.” The fowl didn’t seem to notice as they worked their way through the grass, deftly picking up the seed with their beaks.
“Allow me to accompany you back to your chambers, Lady Vion,” Saffrey said, holding out his arm, “night is falling upon us.”
“I fear it is indeed,” she replied slowly, looking out to sea again and feeling an involuntary shiver run down her spine. But she took his arm and they returned to the palace together.
It was barely dusk, but it was as dark as if night had fallen save for a slash of red in the western sky, like dying embers spread across the horizon where the clouds had parted. The wind stirred Albrihn’s hair as he stalked back and forth, his hands working the pommel of his sword. It smelled of frost and smoke from the burnt village. He’d ordered no fires be lit and Tayne had no plans to countermand it tonight. Everyone watched him, waiting for him to answer the question he’d been posed.
“We fought them perhaps half a dozen times across the sea. In the northern lands. They’re scavengers. Creatures of the frozen wastes.”
“Like wolves,” Morrow filled in. Fully sobered up now, she was crouched near the other cavalrymen, arms held close to her body, rubbing them reflexively. “But, Captain – the Hyen-a-khan never cross open water. Remember how we defeated them at Fratzberg? We forded the river and just shot at them until they ran away.”
“I know,” he said grimly, “but they’re here. Somehow.”
“I don’t understand,” Tayne said. She and her company stood apart from the Seventh. “Are they men or beasts?”
Albrihn shrugged “Who knows? Maybe their forebears were like us and some spell or curse turned them into what they are. Or maybe they were once wolves and they somehow learned the ways of humankind. In either case, they are a plague. A race of murderers that destroy everything in their path. We saw whole regions turned to ash in their wake. Where they go, desolation follows.”
Tayne looked sick. “And now they’re in Atlantis.”
“It can’t be more than one band,” Hasprit said.
“One band is enough if their victims aren’t prepared.” He held out a hand to the destroyed village, just a cluster of dark shapes a little way down the hill. No one wanted to stay too close to the still-smouldering ruins. “And Atlantis is not prepared. When was the last time war came to these shores? Real war?”
“It’s not a war,” Tayne said, “it’s just a few burnt villages…”
“It will spread, unless they’re stopped.”
“We should go back to Atlas,” she said, “warn the Emperor.”
Morrow looked at her. “Do you know how fast these things are? They can move in darkness too. They’ll already be halfway there.”
“We don’t even know they’re heading to Atlas! Would a band of these…these…wolfmen…even attack a city of that size? How many of them could there be?”
Albrihn rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. He was still pacing back and forth, considering the possibilities. There were no cities to speak of in the regions they’d encountered the Hyen-a-khan in the mainlands. Just walled towns more like large strongholds, well used to marauders of all kinds. The dogmen never attacked such settlements, even if they lacked a moat for protection. But Atlas was different – he thought of the miles of slums outside the walls, and how vulnerable the wooden hovels might be to fire. He thought of all the children hiding in those flimsy homes. He’d seen these beasts running rampant before. He’d seen the carnage they could inflict first-hand.
“We’ve fought them before,” he said, finally, “we know how to track them.”
“And then what?” Tayne asked.
“We destroy them.”
“We came here to investigate bandits…”
“We came here to find out who was destroying villages,” Morrow said, “and now we know.”
Tayne turned to Jonis and Jonin, standing between the two groups of soldiers before the looming black shape of their Cyclops, now resting with its massive fists against the ground. “We’re not equipped for a battle.”
“We’re soldiers,” Albrihn roared.
“We should report back! Get more troops!”
“By then it’ll be too late!”
“There’s nothing our Cyclops can’t handle,” Jonis said softly, “we vote for pursuit.”
Tayne’s nostrils flared and she seemed about to say something else, but then spread her arms. “Fine. You say you’ve fought whatever these…these things are before, Albrihn. You tell us what to do.”
“They move at night,” he said, “they’re no more than a day ahead of us. We camp here, then hunt them down at dawn.”
“What if they attack us while we sleep?”
“We’ll post a strong watch. But they don’t know we’re here. They won’t be back.”
“Won’t they know something’s gone wrong when their scout doesn’t return?”
“They care nothing for their own kind,” Hasprit said darkly.
“Where do they come from?” one of Tayne’s soldiers asked, shaking her head.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Albrihn said, “but they’ll find no foothold on Atlantis. Not while I still have strength to ride.” He looked pointedly around the group. “No fires. I’ll take no risks. Get what sleep you can. You’ll need all your strength tomorrow.”