Albrihn had always found the palace’s throne room to be a grim place, not at all in keeping with the city he remembered growing up in, but now it was more melancholy than ever. The great double doors were open, and beyond was a long, high hall flanked on each side by a row of enormous black columns. There were no windows; the only light was provided by torches set in sconces on the marble walls. Faded banners hung in the rafters, lost in the gloom and discoloured by centuries – perhaps even millennia – of rising smoke. At the far end, on a raised dais, was the obsidian throne of Atlantis, said to have been carved by the hand of Breal the Mason, first of the ancient line of Kings of Atlas. Today it was empty. Instead, set before it was an unadorned slab of grey stone, on which lay a shrunken corpse. He stooped a few strides from it and looked down at what remained of the Emperor. Dressed in simple white burial robes that contrasted with his almost charcoal-black skin, he seemed tiny. Just an old man, with a shrivelled bald head, a face etched with wrinkles, a great Atlasian beak of a nose and hands with paper-thin skin, resting on the hilt of a longsword he would never have had the strength to lift in life. His eyes were shut, and he smelt faintly of lavender.
“He looks smaller, doesn’t he?”
Albrihn looked up. Vion stepped from the shadows on the other side of the slab. In the torch light, her perfect skin took on the appearance of polished mahogany, and she wore a sable robe gathered at the throat. Her jet-black hair was adorned with a fan of ravens’ feathers, reflecting iridescent shades of blue, and she wore a broach of wrought iron and onyx. Only the whites of her shining eyes broke the monotony of her mourning attire.
He stared at her for a moment and then automatically dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Empress,” he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Rayke.” She walked around her father’s body with a swish of silk and lifted him up to his feet. They stood like that for a moment, her looking up at him, as beautiful as she had ever been with her full, soft lips, long nose and dark, slightly tilted eyes. Surely the most desirable woman in all Atlantis, and yet Albrihn felt no lust for her at that moment.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” he told her.
“You couldn’t know how ill he was.” She stepped away, still holding his hands, and looked over her shoulder at the body. “I suppose we thought of him as immortal. He was always there, in our lives.”
He nodded. He’d never known another Emperor or Empress in his lifetime. The notion that this man no longer ruled them was one that hadn’t entirely sunk in yet. “It was a sickness then?”
“A fever, brought on by the cold.”
“Are you certain?” he pressed.
“Yes.” Vion met his gaze. “Very certain. It wasn’t the first time he’d fallen ill. Just the last. I trust the physician who attended him.”
“These are dangerous times, Empress.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s what you are.”
Her brow creased in annoyance, just for a second. “Of course, but you can still call me by my name, Rayke. I don’t call you Captain Albrihn, do I?”
“Perhaps it would be better if you did.” He let go of her and walked around the stone slab, looking down at the Emperor. He seemed at peace now. That was something – if anyone deserved to know rest, it was him.
“What do you mean?”
Albrihn shook his head. “It’s only been two days, from what I hear in the city.”
“How can you be sure he wasn’t poisoned?”
“He was almost a hundred years old, Rayke. There’s nothing suspicious going on. Now tell me what you meant.”
He glanced up. He now stood by the Emperor’s head, between the slab and the throne. “What?”
She looked angry. “What did you mean when you said I should call you Captain Albrihn?”
“Nothing…it’s just…things between us are different now.”
“You’re the Empress.”
“What of it?”
“I didn’t think…I mean…” He shrugged helplessly. “We always knew this day would come, Vion.”
“Apparently I didn’t. Do you think I’m going to cast you aside because I sit on the throne?”
“I think you need a consort, not a lover. I’m sorry, I’ve no right to tell you what to do…”
“No, you don’t,” she said firmly. “Do you no longer wish to share my bed?”
“I’ll share it as long as you’ll have me. You know that.”
“Well then. Let’s put this talk aside.” She folded her arms and let out a hollow laugh. “You sounded like Saffrey.”
“Saffrey?” He didn’t know the First Minister well, but he had a certain reputation, and Vion had never spoken highly of him.
“He wants the throne.”
Albirhn laughed. The sound echoed in the vast hall and sounded strange in the brooding darkness. He let it die away before speaking. “You’re the Empress.”
“He said I must take him as consort, or he’ll kill me and become Emperor himself.”
Albrihn’s jaw tightened. His sword had been taken away from him by the Enclave’s guards, but he found his hand straying to his hip unconsciously, looking for something to draw. “Treason,” he said in a low voice.
“Of the lowest kind,” Vion agreed, “but throwing my First Minister in a dungeon in the wake of my father’s death seems a bit suspicious, doesn’t it? Imagine the intrigue. It’s sickening.”
“He can’t be allowed to threaten you.”
“He has power and influence. He’d make a good match, don’t you think?”
Albrihn stared at her in disbelief. “You’d marry a man who threatened to kill you?”
“I wouldn’t have married him anyway, Rayke. He suggested it to my father years ago. He hungers for power. First Minister was never enough for him.”
“When your father is buried,” Albrihn said, “he’ll pay for this. I’ll take his head myself.”
Now it was Vion’s turn to laugh. “My darling Rayke. Always the valiant protector. Sadly, Saffrey has escaped your brand of justice. He left Atlas yesterday.”
“Where did he go?”
“He didn’t furnish me with an itinerary, but I imagine he’s gone back to his seat in Chronus to bide his time.”
“You’re not safe while he lives.”
“He has a lot of support in the Chambers. I won’t have my first act as Empress be starting a civil war.”
Albrihn rubbed his forehead and, forgetting himself for a moment, leant on the slab that held the Emperor. He was exhausted and filthy. He needed sleep, food and wine. He didn’t need politics. “Vion…”
“What did you find in Talos?” she asked.
He grimaced. “Wolves, winter and war.”
“Now isn’t the time…”
She peered at him. “You’re hurt.”
“It’s nothing.” But she was right: his shoulder still ached from the wound he’d sustained weeks ago in Svartburg, and a dozen other injuries from the battle they’d only narrowly escaped were nagging at him.
“There was fighting?”
“A little.” He straightened and swallowed. “Empress, it is my sad duty to report that Talos is lost.”
She blinked. “Lost? What does that mean?”
“The Province’s capital has been overrun by rebel forces. A faction of Talosi from another settlement to the north have taken it by force.”
“But isn’t the city of Talos protected by a wall and a chasm? It was an Atlantian outpost. How did it fall to a few barbarians?”
“Eight-thousand, Vion. It’s…a long story.” One he had no wish to tell her about now.
“Then there was a siege?”
“And you fought with the loyal Talosi?”
“I…I led them, Empress. In your father’s name. I wasn’t able to hold the city for you, but I escaped with the Lady Aethlan who governs the Province and some of her household and guards. We brought a few hundred refugees out with us too. I’ll submit a formal report to my superior once I…”
She waved a hand, cutting him off. “My father sent you and your depleted company to Talos to investigate rumours of this eternal winter he believes is coming, and you found yourself embroiled in a war? And you raised his banners and fought for the rightful rulers of Talos, alone against eight-thousand savages?”
“I am a soldier of the Atlantian militia. I do my duty. I defend that which is yours.”
She walked around the slab until she stood before him. She placed a hand against his battered breastplate. “What is mine,” she whispered, “remember, that includes you, Captain Albrihn. You could have left them to die. No one would have thought less of you.”
“I would. And so would you.” He took her soft hand in his own and held it close.
“You are a true son of Atlas, Rayke Albrihn.”
“I always was, my lady.”
“I don’t want Saffrey for a husband. I want you. I want to marry you and make you the Imperial Consort.”
Albrihn said nothing. She rested her head against his chest and put her free hand on his shoulder so they stood together in an embrace before the throne, lit only by the flickering torches.
Aethlan ascended the curving staircase, following the bobbing, liveried servant in a kind of daze. She felt dirty and disgusting, in the only clothes she’d escaped Talos wearing, which were now filthy from the road. Even the servant was better dressed, and beautiful, with walnut-brown skin and a willowy figure that made Aethlan conscious of her wide hips and bust. She felt flustered and pink and almost tripped over her own skirts in her effort to keep pace with the slender girl. Huldane was there though, strong as oak, helping her up the steps and allowing her to keep her dignity intact as he supported her weight. She smiled at him gratefully. He was handsome, and their long journey to this place had put them in closer proximity than she was used to. She had harboured feelings for him for as long as she could remember, but she’d never allowed them to surface and interfere with her duty as a noblewoman of Talos. Now, she wasn’t even sure what her duty was supposed to be.
“Lady Aethlan, Lord Huldane,” the serving girl said as they reached the landing at the top of the stairs at last. “Your chambers. I apologise that they haven’t been prepared. Had we known you were coming…”
“It is fine,” Aethlan said hastily.
“I am not a lord, child,” Huldane told her, “I am a jarl.”
“A…jarl?” She pronounced the word oddly, in that characteristic Atlasian lilt.
“It is not important,” Aethlan said. The door before them was carved with strange, flowing shapes that called to mind the branches of a willow. In fact, the whole building looked like it had been grown rather than built. The marble was joined seamlessly, and it was as smooth as glass. Every corner they turned brought some new architectural wonder that left her and her bodyguard speechless. The staircase they’d climbed had had no visible means of support – it had just hung in the air, a fluid arc of stone, seemingly all of one piece. No mason in Talos could have even attempted something like that. The servant opened the door and Aethlan was ushered through into an immense suite. The walls curved around the doorway to enclose a great sweep of balcony that looked over terraced gardens leading down to the interior wall of this Imperial Enclave, as Captain Albrihn had called it. Beyond, she could see the roofs and towers of the city, and the grey sea behind them. It was raining, but only fitfully. She walked straight to the balcony’s balustrade, a sinuous lattice of marble interwoven with twisting branches, now dead but still with an austere beauty. As far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon, was the city of Atlas. She had never imagined human habitation on such a scale.
“I’m sorry it’s cold, my lady,” the servant said, “we only lit the braziers an hour ago. It’s difficult keeping the palace warm in this terrible weather.”
“It is quite all right,” she murmured, still transfixed by the view.
Huldane looked around at the furniture, with its unfamiliar Atlantian design. There were couches, carpets strewn here and there, cushions around a low table set with a bowl of fruit he didn’t recognise. On a higher table by the wall was a jug of wine that steamed in the cold and two pewter goblets. There was only one bed, a huge thing standing freely in the middle of the room, hung with silk drapes. Everything seemed to be contained in this one space. Most of the exterior wall was balcony, with the roof supported only by thin, fluted columns. He felt oddly exposed. “Where are my rooms?”
“Uh…” the servant looked around. “There is a side chamber through there,” she said, gesturing to a low doorway hung with a thin curtain that served as the only partition. “It’s really just for a maid though. You wouldn’t be comfortable in…”
“It is sufficient. You have my thanks.”
The servant looked a little startled, but then bobbed her head. “Yes…ah, as you say, my lo…uh…my…jarl…”
Aethlan turned on the balcony. “I would like to bathe. I am dirty and tired from my long journey across the mountains.” She hesitated and her face coloured very slightly. “I am afraid I do not know how things are done here in Atlas. Should I summon maids to bring a tub and draw me a bath?”
The servant smiled, on firmer ground now. “No need, my lady – the palace has its own bath-house below ground. It’s fed by a hot spring from the hilltop. Probably the only warm place in the city right now, to be honest, so you’ll be in good company with the other lords and ladies. They seem to spend most of the day down there. Shall I show you the way?”
Aethlan’s face had gone from having a slight pink glow about her cheeks to bright crimson. “I…I will find my own way, thank you,” she managed, “that will be all.”
The girl bowed. “Very well, my lady. Use the bell pull if you require anything.” She turned and left, closing the door behind them so they were at last alone. Aethlan let out a sigh and crossed the room. She sat down heavily on a couch and rested her hand on her head.
“My lady?” Huldane’s voice sounded concerned.
“I am fine. Just tired and smelly and hungry and ugly and alone.” She laughed shortly.
Huldane walked over to the couch and then knelt down beside her. He took her hand. “Not alone, my lady, and never ugly.”
“Even in this place?” She looked into his earnest face. “Even surrounded by all this beauty? Am I still as lovely as I was in Talos, squatting in the mud?”
“Even lovelier.” He kissed her hand gently.
“Huldane,” she said, pulling her hand away, “sit beside me. Whatever our stations once were, surely we can forget them now. You are as much a lord now as I am a lady.”
He took a seat beside her awkwardly. “You are still the rightful ruler of Talos.”
“What do you imagine is left of Talos now, Huldane? The city was burning, and Wodan is lord of the ashes. The rest is ice and frost and wargs. Hunger and deprivation. I am a ruler in exile, but the land I rule is one no one would ever want to return to. And yet…” She looked out from the open balcony at the great city spread out below them, a place of wonder and magic about which she’d heard stories since she was a child. A place that, like Talos, was perhaps fading from the world forever. She’d dreamed of coming here, but not as a refugee.
“My lady?” Huldane said.
“I miss my home, Huldane,” she said, turning back to him, “I miss Talos. I hate Wodan for what he has done.”
“We will return one day, I swear it to you. I will speak with Captain Albrihn. Together, he and I will lead an army back across the mountains and drive Wodan’s brutes back to Svartburg. I will kill him myself, and bring back his head for you.”
“No,” she said, “I do not want his head. I am so tired of blood and warfare. I am so tired of watching men kill and be killed. One battle for my home was enough. Talos is lost.”
“But, my lady, I am sworn to protect you.”
“There are other ways to protect me, Huldane. No more killing. Not for now.” She leant her head on his shoulder. He sat stiffly for a moment and then, hesitating slightly, he encircled her in his arms and held her close. Gradually her breathing slowed to a steady rhythm. He let her sleep while he watched dusk fall outside.