The great nation of Atlantis suffers beneath a winter that seemingly never ends. The world is dying and now, at the worst possible time, political instability threatens the last bastion of civilisation remaining for humankind. With the future of the throne hanging in the balance, Captain Rayke Albrihn rides back from Talos, a column of refugees in tow. But they will not find the peace they seek in Atlas, the Great City by the Sea, only death and betrayal.
The Age of Man is falling into chaos: the Age of War is set to begin.
The rain fell in continuous sheets from a deep grey sky. The sun hadn’t shone upon Atlas in weeks, and the streets had turned to rivers of foul-smelling muck. In the more impoverished quarters with the oldest infrastructure, the sewers had already been overwhelmed. Whole sections of the city had been all but abandoned as the people fled pestilence by heading uphill to huddle in covered marketplaces or under makeshift tents in plazas. They were like refugees in their own home. The docks had been battered by storm after storm, with waves higher than buildings crashing over the quay, smashing wooden piers to splinters and scuppering half the fishing fleet. The city of Atlas, jewel of Atlantis, was drowning, and everywhere people looked to the Imperial Enclave and called out for their Emperor to save them. He did not hear their cries. He had heard nothing since the rains began, for with them had come an ague that no balm or poultice could shift.
Vion, his daughter, heir to the throne of Atlantis, watched the skies, feeling numb. Her diaphanous silks were covered with a heavy robe to protect her against the chill. It was winter, but Atlas had never known such cold. Winters were mild in this part of Atlantis, and though rain came and went, it was never as bad as this, never so constant, never so destructive to both body and spirit. Her father, before the end, had predicted a new age of the world – he claimed he had consulted with wise men who were knowledgeable in the rhythms of nature and that they had confirmed his suspicions. For reasons unknown, the world was growing colder. The icy north – nothing more than a tale to most Atlantians – was no longer content to squat on the roof of creation, but was advancing, inexorably, cataclysmically, and what could humanity do but retreat before it?
She turned. The physician in her pale robes bowed her head slightly as she met her eyes and stepped back. Vion moved away from the balcony, stepping into her chambers. It was always cold. The palace that was at the heart of the Enclave was built almost entirely of white marble, an exquisite construction of fluted columns, curving linked balconies, intricately joined roofs of irregular shape and pitch and great halls and staircases open to the outside world. In late spring, with the trees in flower, it was as if the whole building was garlanded in living branches and blossom rained down on every porch and courtyard. Birds whistled in the trees and the warm air from the plains inland was tempered by the sea breeze. In summer one could sit at a table overlooking one of the dozens of gardens, picking ripe juicy plums from overhanging boughs while the distant sound of music from the city’s plazas drifted over the high white walls of the Enclave and the sun dipped low over the sea.
All that seemed a distant memory now. The palace was nothing more than a grey skeleton clinging to a terraced hill. The gardens were filled with dying plants and the lawns had turned to mud, or even flooded altogether. In every room, braziers were stoked hourly in a desperate attempt to retain some warmth. Most of the lords and ladies who made this place their home had retreated into the depths, as far from the grim reality of the outside world as they could. Vion would not turn her face away though.
“How is he?” she asked the physician as she held her hands up to the guttering flame closest to her bed. Dry firewood was getting harder to come by. They had never kept great stores, and the land for miles around was just as damp from the continuous deluge. Whatever fuel they’d found for this brazier gave off an acrid stink.
“My lady…I fear…” The woman faltered.
Vion looked at her sharply. “Speak.”
“I fear the Emperor will not recover from this latest malady. He has been delirious for more than a week now. The fever will not break. I’ve seen this before.”
“Here, and other places. It isn’t unusual when a patient is old and infirm. A fever takes hold, and the body no longer has the strength to fight it.”
Vion looked back into the flames. They flickered a sickly green and the smell made her wrinkle her nose involuntarily. Her father had already been old by the standards of common folk when she was born, though still hale and strong. He’d never been any kind of warrior, but he was a commanding presence and a just ruler. He was the Emperor. For as long as she had been alive, he was that first and her father second. That was how it must be. When a man or woman took up rule of Atlantis, they put aside all that they had been before, even their names. To be Emperor or Empress was to be the nation itself; to stand for all people of this, the greatest civilisation in the world.
“Lady Vion,” the physician said quietly, “I believe he will die very soon.”
She nodded. “Take me to him.”
Her father’s chambers were further inside the palace. His great throne room – a vast, lofty hall, of towering obsidian columns, black and foreboding in stark contrast to the building’s gleaming exterior – was at the heart of it, and he kept his rooms close by. For ten-thousand years, successive generations of Emperors and Empresses, their family, their courts and their servants had dwelt in this rambling edifice, and it was the nature of Atlantians in general, and their rulers in particular, to be free with both life and love. There was no formal space allotted to the Emperor; mostly they remained in the chambers they had grown up in and formed attachments to, but their whims might take them elsewhere for a time, to some unoccupied corner of the palace, or into the bed of another, and since it had been designed such that each room had its charms, and the view from each balcony something to recommend it, it was all handled in an egalitarian fashion. But Vion had never known anyone, least of all an Emperor, to choose these dismal rooms. They were more fitting for a servant than the most powerful man in the world.
The bed was absurdly oversized, not just for the room, but for its occupant. Silk sheets, thick furs and cushions were piled all around, and braziers burned in each corner, filling the room with dim yellow light. Even with them, it still felt cold somehow. The marble beneath Vion’s bare feet was like ice. The physician stood back as she approached the huge bed. Nestled in the middle, shrunken to an almost comical degree, lay her father. His head was tiny, wrinkled and bald. His dark skin was clammy with sweat, but from the way his gnarled fingers unconsciously clutched at his coverlet, she knew he must feel the cold. His eyes were glazed and unfocused, his lips gummy and slightly parted. A few thin snatches of words, nothing she could make any sense of, escaped now and then. His breathing was laboured. He had never been affectionate towards her. She was her mother’s daughter, wild and free, contemptuous of any attempt to rein in her behaviour. He hadn’t disapproved. She was of Atlantis, and the women of their country were beautiful and fierce. She was an exemplar of her race, just as he had been an exemplar of Atlantian manhood – strong and wise, cruel to his enemies but just to those who earned his respect. She placed a gentle hand on his forehead. His skin was very hot to the touch. “Father,” she whispered.
For a moment, it seemed as if he’d heard her. His murmuring ceased and he turned his head very slightly towards her. But his eyes saw nothing, and after a moment they flickered shut and his breathing steadied. He was asleep for now.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” the physician said, suddenly at her elbow. Vion almost jumped; she hadn’t heard the woman approach.
“It’s fine. You and your nurses have worked tirelessly. Not just through this illness, but all of them. As you say, he is old. This is hardly unexpected.”
“No,” she agreed, “but nonetheless. He is your father.”
“He is the Emperor,” Vion said, looking down at the wizened old man, so small and fragile now, “he is a father to all of us. We will mourn as one.”
“You are his heir, lady. His only daughter…”
“I’m aware of that.”
“It’s just…it will not be long now. He suffers…”
“For the time being. But he will wake. You’ve been spared the worst of his fits. He cries out in agony and calls names I don’t know. Valia. Gelbret.”
“Valia was my mother. Gelbret…my brother, dead of pox at five-years-old.”
“Does he call my name?”
The physician looked uncomfortable. “I haven’t been here at all hours, my lady…”
Vion smiled slightly. “Never mind. Perhaps he knows, somewhere inside his fevered mind, that I’m still here and that I come to watch over him now and then. He only calls for those he’s lost.”
She stroked her father’s head again. “He wasn’t a soldier, but he fought for his throne and won an age of prosperity unknown for generations. He lived in peace, but was forged by war. This is his last battle.”
“It’s one he’ll almost certainly lose, my lady.”
“If he survives the night,” Vion said, “you may administer whatever mercy you see fit. But even I, his daughter, cannot summon the will to deny an Emperor of Atlantis his final victory. Not yet.”
“As you wish. We will do all we can.”
“I know.” Vion reached out and the physician took her hand a little nervously, then smiled as she squeezed. “Thank you.”
“It is my honour to serve you, Lady Vion. And the Emperor of course.”
“As you say. If you need me…” her gaze returned to her father, who was now shivering and jerking fitfully in his sleep, “if anything changes…send a servant to find me. I would like to be here when…” She trailed off, suddenly finding the words hard to say.
“I understand, my lady.”
She took her leave, striding from the grim chamber while she still had her dignity intact. She had never imagined herself weeping for her father. She had wept for her mother, but then she was only a girl when she died. The Emperor had shed tears too, the first time she’d ever seen him show any kind of vulnerability. But he’d always been there in her life, in all of their lives, and without him, she didn’t know what would happen. It was the worst possible time for political instability too. Successive bad years had led to deprivation across every Province of Atlantis. There was starvation even in the city of Atlas itself. Stocks had been depleted two years ago. Now much of their food was brought over from the mainlands, with all the danger that implied, but the harvests had been no better there. If the world really was coming to an end, did she have the strength to stand against this winter that might never end? Was she fit to be Empress of a dying land?
“My lady,” someone called out behind her as she walked down the corridor back to her own chambers. She spun around to see Lord Saffrey walking towards her. He was a handsome, slender man, dressed stylishly in sumptuous fabrics. He wore a sword at his hip, a reminder of his brief military career, but he was no soldier now. His eyes were bright and his skin as dark as hers.
“Lord Saffrey,” she said, inclining her head slightly. She wasn’t Empress yet.
“Have you come from your father’s chambers?”
She lifted an eyebrow slightly as he approached. “The Emperor’s chambers, yes.”
He didn’t appear to notice her slight correction. “What news?”
“There is little change.” She turned and continued on her way. Saffrey walked with her.
“I’ve heard rumours…”
“Yes?” Her tone was neutral.
“They say he is unlikely to recover. This illness may prove…” he cleared his throat, “…fatal.”
“Perhaps. Fevers can be fickle things.”
“Indeed. He may yet survive.”
“Still,” Vion said as they entered a courtyard. A twisted tree took up much of the space and should have provided some shelter, but its branches were sparse and drooping and puddles were forming across the paving slabs. Vion walked on heedlessly, merely clutching her furs a little closer. Saffrey too ignored the inclement weather.
“Still?” he probed.
“He is old.”
“Older than any Emperor or Empress in history,” Saffrey said.
“I didn’t know that.”
“He has won by a full ten years,” he told her with a smile.
“Well, he might yet add another ten to that total. It’s best to have a good lead, don’t you think?” They’d stopped by the trunk of the tree. The rain had slackened off slightly now, and they had some measure of protection from the tree here. The courtyard was surrounded by columned porticos and balconies overlooking it, but all the doors and windows were dark, and no other soul was anywhere to be seen. The only sound was the pattering of the raindrops and the rustling of the tree’s branches in the wind. Somewhere in the distance, from the direction of the city, a bell chimed sonorously.
Saffrey smiled. He had a way of doing it so that it didn’t touch his eyes, which remained as sharp and cold as flint. “We both know what’s going to happen, Vion.”
“If it isn’t this fever, it’ll be the next one. He’s ancient.”
“So you said.”
“He’ll die soon.”
“No. There’s no perhaps.” His icy calm seemed to break for a moment and there was a flash of anger in his eyes, but he recovered quickly. “We have to discuss the future of Atlantis.”
Vion looked up at the cheerless sky. “Are you sure it has one?”
“Whatever plans the gods have for us, we must go on, must we not?”
“Of course. There must be an Empress.”
“Or an Emperor.”
It was Vion’s turn to smile coldly. “The Emperor has no sons. Only a daughter.”
Saffrey looked around and then rubbed his jaw. Then he stepped forward and she instinctively backed away, only to find herself up against the tree. Her hands felt the smooth bark and she forced herself to stay as relaxed and composed as possible. Saffrey’s face was close to hers now. “This doesn’t have to be difficult.”
“I agree. I am the heir to the throne. When my father dies, I’ll become Empress.”
“You can’t be naïve enough to think it’s that simple, Vion.”
“The law is clear. By what right would you dispute the claim of the last Emperor’s only surviving child to the throne that was his?” She couldn’t keep the indignation out of her voice as she spoke. She’d been readying herself for this conversation for a long time, but she hadn’t pictured Saffrey showing this kind of disregard for protocol. She’d given him far more credit than that.
“Atlantis is weak. You know that. I am First Minister of the realm and have ruled in your father’s stead for a long time now. As his infirmities have taken him away from government, I have taken his place as best I could. I have maintained stability.”
“Stability.” She laughed lightly. “How can we be stable in a dying world?”
“Stable is all we can be,” he said, and there was no hiding his anger now. His eyes were lit with it. “Time and again you have refused me, Vion. I have no interest in you as a woman, you know that, but I must protect Atlantis. I must ensure that our civilisation endures. An Empress must have a consort.”
“Indeed she must.” She met his gaze. “Would you be content with that, Saffrey? Content to be a father to Emperors only?”
“My only concern is the realm…”
“Is it?” She stepped around him at last, moving away from the tree and out into the courtyard. The rain was still falling, and it began to bead on her furs and soak her hair to her scalp. She refused to acknowledge her discomfort. “I know you want the throne.”
He turned. For a moment he looked as if he was about to deny it, but then he simply shrugged. “What man doesn’t?”
“It isn’t yours.”
“It wasn’t you fathers, not until he won it. Remember, he fought a war of succession to be acknowledged as Emperor.”
“A few skirmishes. There was never any real risk of him not emerging the victor.”
“No,” Saffrey said, “but there were other claimants, some with imperial blood as pure as his.”
She knew where he was going with this. “Oh?” she asked innocently.
“My father,” he said, advancing on her again, “had a claim as strong as yours. But they were boyhood friends, and later comrades in arms. My father swore an oath to yours that he would step aside. That he would support his rule, as he believed he was better suited to it. He might have been his biggest threat – instead, he was his staunchest ally.”
“Interesting, but what of it?”
“If my father had an equal claim to be Emperor, then I too have a claim as strong as yours. Our mothers were cousins of equal standing.”
Vion shook her head. “What an amusing notion. In Atlantis, rule is judged by who is most closely related to the last Emperor or Empress, not who is most closely related to a man who might have been Emperor. Your father’s claim is meaningless now.”
“Only while you live, Vion.”
She looked at him. Silence filled the courtyard. Even the rain seemed to have stopped. “Is that a threat?” she asked in a low voice.
“Yes. Marry me and take me as your consort, ensuring the unison of our two houses and cementing of the imperial line – our children’s claims will be indisputable – and the throne will be safe for many generations to come.”
“Or,” he growled, “I will take the throne by force, and step over your body to do so.”
She curled her lip. “I thought you a man of better manners, Saffrey. To insult the future Empress like this in her own home…”
He bared his teeth. “You stupid bitch; do you think this is about you? Atlantis will crumble unless we act, unless we meet the coming evil with strength. We can’t afford to let this nation destroy itself in another civil war. We must be whole. We must be stable.”
“Then let me rule as is my right according to all the laws of Atlantis.”
“I will. If you make me your consort.”
“You need someone to father your heirs.”
“I’m aware of that.”
Saffrey snorted. “Then who? Your soldier? If he even lives. I heard the Emperor sent him to Talos.”
“The man – or woman – I choose to rule by my side is none of your concern.”
“On the contrary, I am the First Minister of Atlantis. Few things concern me more.”
“You just told me you mean to step over my corpse to steal my throne,” Vion laughed, “do you really think I’ll let you continue to run my government?”
“I don’t give a fuck what you think,” Saffrey said, walking towards her and raising a warning finger, “but Rayke Albrihn isn’t going to be here to save you when the walls of this Enclave get torn down stone by stone. When the starving people in your own city finally rise up, or when the dogmen descend from the hills to burn you in your beds, there won’t be any militia left to lift their spears in your defence. They’ll have fled their posts long ago, knowing they were commanded by a vain slut with no more idea of how to run a nation than my fucking horse.”
“Maybe you should marry your horse instead then?” she suggested with a sneer.
“I’m starting to think I’d enjoy it more.” He stopped just two strides from her, hand resting on the pommel of his sword, face contorted in hate. “You’ve heard my terms. Submit to the only logical course of action and ensure the safety of Atlantis for decades to come, or resist and be destroyed. You can usher an age of glory or an age of war, Vion. The destiny of our people rests in your hands.”
“I’m glad we agree on something.”
Saffrey leant towards her. “Let’s just hope your father recovers from his malady, and perhaps you can carry on being a frivolous child, dancing through these gardens, feeding the birds without a care in the world for a little while longer.”
“The birds are dead.”
“And if you’re wise, you won’t join them.” Without giving her chance to reply, he spun away and stalked across the courtyard through one of the decorated arches. Vion watched him go and clenched her fists ineffectually, trying to control her fury. She was soaked to the skin now, and she knew she it’d take her hours to feel dry and warm again. She was about to turn to leave herself, when a servant appeared at the door to the palace. His face was grey and his eyes very wide.
Two days later, a battered column of riders made its way down from the hills to the north of the city. A number of bedraggled people walked along beside them, pale-faced, ragged, footsore and tired. They crested a high rocky slope and looked down on the great plains of Atlas. The city sprawled just a few miles away, a huge conglomeration of buildings between them and the sea, and in the midst of it a rising hill topped by a white wall with dozens of turrets and minarets peering over the bright ramparts. The sky was dark, with black clouds building up on the horizon. The land was brown and dead, and the farmsteads that had once dotted it looked abandoned. The green forests that climbed up the sides of the mountains to the south were dull brown, and the ice on the peaks reached further down than they once had. Rayke Albrihn, Captain of the Seventh Light Cavalry of the Atlantian militia shielded his eyes with his hand and looked down at the ruins of his homeland. He’d been away for three years, been back for little more than a week, and then he was gone again, gone to the benighted Province of Talos, that shivered under a blanket of snow, and was now little more than bones being picked clean by barbarians and the repulsive dogmen, the Hyen-a-khan. To return to this was dispiriting. He was so weary, and he longed for nothing but a comfortable bed and a hot meal in a good tavern.
“That is it then,” Lady Aethlan said beside him. She patted her mare’s neck as she looked out in wonder at the landscape. “Atlas. It is as beautiful as I had imagined.”
Albrihn looked at her. “Beautiful?”
Huldane rode up to them. He too seemed awed. “I have never seen a city so huge. How many live there?”
“I’ve no idea,” Albrihn shrugged. He had to remember that the pale-skinned Talosi refugees had never been out of their provincial realm, with its wattle-and-daub houses built on the ruins his own people had left behind centuries ago. As noble as he’d found these two and those who followed them to be, they were still relative savages. Even in this state of decay, Atlas would seem like paradise to them.
“Strange,” Aethlan said after a moment, “but it seems a sombre place.”
“It’s not normally this barren,” Lieutenant Morrow said. “It’s supposed to be green.” She looked as eager to be back in the city as the captain, and her horse moved skittishly beneath her.
“No, it is not that.” She was frowning down at Atlas. “I expected more…colour.”
“Well, like I said…”
“She doesn’t mean the land.” Jonis was behind the group. Almost as pale as a Talosi, but with the tattoos that marked her out as a Cyclops Keeper and therefore outside the normal hierarchies of Atlantian society, she had proved herself far more than a skilled fighter and erstwhile companion on their journey north. Albrihn didn’t quite know what he’d do without her when they went back to their ordinary lives.
“What do you mean?” he asked her.
“The banners,” she said with a nod. “Look at them.”
Albrihn had to squint to make them out, but once he saw them he realised why they’d been so hard to spot. From every tower, from every wall, from every banner pole in the city, flags of a single colour flapped in the wind.
“They are all black,” Huldane said, “what does that signify? I thought red was the colour of Atlas…”
“They’re sable,” Albrihn said, a sinking feeling in his stomach. “And they signify mourning.”
“Who has died?” Aethlan asked with a frown.
“With every flag in the city changed,” Morrow said grimly, “there’s only one man it could be.” She glanced at Albrihn.
“We have no time to lose,” he said. He kicked his horse’s flanks, and galloped off down the hill towards his home city.