Age of War (Part III)

Jonis bid farewell to the Seventh in the square outside the city’s southern gates, where she’d first met them what seemed like a lifetime ago. In the time she’d been away, Atlas seemed to have diminished even further. The rain was oppressive and the streets were little better than open sewers. Never the most fragrant city in the world, the miasma of pestilence was now like a headache she couldn’t shift. The soldiers all seemed upbeat as they headed to their barracks or the Whores’ Quarter, but the people watching them from doorways and street corners had hollow cheeks and huge, hungry eyes. It wasn’t a prosperous district, here against the fragmented city walls – the shanty town beyond stretched for miles – but at least here the houses were stone and streets were paved. But there was no sign of industry at all. No shops with their wares on sale, no vendors calling out from their carts, no musicians or performers of any kind. She looked around, feeling suddenly very alone and lost. She’d been born in Atlas, and spent almost every day of her life within it, but she was a breed apart from these people; Cyclops Keepers rarely ventured from the subterranean stable where their monstrous charges resided. She didn’t know this city, not really.

The rain was already starting to soak her, and even her sturdy leather jerkin wouldn’t keep her dry much longer. She shouldered her light pack and turned towards home. Her route took her through narrow, winding streets, but the depressing scenes at the gates were repeated. The walls of the buildings that flanked the dim passages were normally a pale tan colour from the signature stone of the region, but now they were stained with soot and refuse. She noticed flickering fires in every dwelling she passed, and some on street corners where braziers had been dragged out to keep people outside warm. The smoke filled the air and made her cough. It was like being back in Talos with their infernal open hearths everywhere. It wasn’t supposed to be as cold and miserable as this in Atlas – the city just wasn’t designed for it. It was a place of open balconies and wide, bright plazas. Even in winter, only flimsy painted shutters on the windows were required to keep buildings warm enough for habitation.

The Cyclops stables were accessible via a number of entrances at street level. Most gave these dread portals a wide berth, not out of any superstitious feeling, but simply because they knew how dangerous the monsters that had protected Atlantis since time immemorial could be. The street was empty, and there were no shop fronts in sight. Instead it was just blank warehouses backing onto the road and the rear of walled yards. Bare branches shivered in the rain as she passed beneath them. The entrance to the stables was a columned portico, visibly older than the buildings that surrounded it and built of darker stone. The door was black, iron-bound oak, and the pediment above featured a stylised carving of a Cyclops, which looked nothing at all like a real one. Of course, to accurately depict one here on the streets like this would do little to improve the reputation of her people. The true form of a Cyclops was maddeningly grotesque. This fellow was almost cheerful by comparison, a smirking gargoyle with one giant eye in the centre of its forehead, like the children’s story version of the beast. She looked up at it – each door had a different one, but they were all familiar to her, like old friends. Today though it didn’t make her smile. Instead she was struck by the similarity between the design and the symbols of the One-Eyed God that the Talosi worshipped. They’d seen that circular icon everywhere they went during their adventure in the frozen north, and it now carried with it some unhappy associations. It also reminded her that she had questions to ask her superiors upon her return.

She crossed the street at last and placed her hand into the elaborate locking mechanism built into the door. There were no guards at any of these entrances; instead, the secrets of how to open them were known only to the Keepers. It was a metal cylinder that enclosed her hand up to the wrist and within it was a nested series of rings and levers. A wrong move would shred the flesh from her bones, but she’d known the correct motions since before she could read or write. The door yielded to her and opened smoothly thanks to unseen machinery that had worked flawlessly for thousands of years. Inside was a short passage lit by wall sconces and, beyond that, a staircase into the shadowy depths.

Jonis had never been away from home for so long. She didn’t know what to expect from her homecoming. The stables were a labyrinthine network of passages that wormed their way below much of the city, but the vast majority of it was uninhabited and therefore in perpetual darkness. Those black, yawning tunnels that branched off now and then held no fear for her; she’d grown up here, but she was struck for the first time by what an unusual place this was. The stonework was ancient, older than anything else in Atlas, in fact, and the ceilings were high and vaulted. Even the sewers were above them. It was always warm here too. Jonis wondered whether a time might come, if the ice sheet they’d seen in Talos did advance as Rayke believed it would, when the people would have to shelter down here, deep underground. She passed beneath a tall arch watched over by another leering statue and then she was home, into the well-lit passages that brought with them an odd wave of nostalgia. Who else would feel at home here? It was a world of worked stone and artificial light, of close air and strange, echoing sounds. She still saw no one, but she knew she was close to the nexus of the catacombs now – the great open plaza called The Circle. She wouldn’t go there right away. She wanted to visit her chambers first.

The Keepers’ quarters were close to The Circle, a jumble of small rooms and baths like cells in a honeycomb. Getting to hers necessitated going down another flight of stairs and around a narrow corner. There were six doors in the passage ahead of her, space enough for twelve Keepers, though only three others were occupied. She stopped in front of her door. Should she knock? It was her home. But she felt strange just walking in. Eventually she opted to push it open slowly, giving fair warning to anyone inside. She heard some rustling, but when she poked her head around the door, there was only one other occupant.

“Jonis?” her brother asked, sitting up on his cot. The small room was a complete mess, with his possessions strewn all over the floor. Her own cot, set in the alcove opposite his, was piled with more junk.

“Hello, Jonin.” She looked around. “You might have cleaned up…”

“I didn’t know you were coming back.” He was her twin, and looked almost identical to her except for his wider shoulders. His tattoo was the same as hers, but centred on the opposite eye – right instead of left. He was naked under his covers, and she could see the hard muscles of his torso. He was handsome, which was something at least. They’d be married someday, though neither of them were especially thrilled by the idea, Jonin especially. Apart from their physical resemblance they had almost nothing in common.

She stooped down and picked up a shirt she didn’t recognise. “Has Ronnick been staying?”

“Uh…well, yes.” His cheeks had gone slightly pink.

“It’s fine. I don’t care. Just tell him to pick up after himself.” She dropped the shirt and sighed at the mess her bed was in. With only a glance at her indolent brother, she swept it all off and smoothed out her sheets before flopping down and covering her eyes with her hand.

“How are you?”

“Hm?” She looked up. “Oh…fine.”

“How was Talos?”

“Um…” Where to begin with that question? “Cold.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Some Keepers enjoyed close relationships with their twins. They were playmates as children, companions as adolescents and soon enough lovers. Marriage was just a formalisation of a relationship that already existed. That would have been easier. Jonis and Jonin had never been much interested in one another though and being lovers was of course out of the question. She knew Jonin was dreading the day they’d be wed. She wanted to make things as easy as possible for him, but it was still going to be a lot of work. Still, despite their distance, she felt the need to confide in someone about what she’d seen. “There was a war,” she said.

“Huh?”

“In Talos. There was a war. Some of the Talosi started a kind of rebellion. They attacked the capital.”

Jonin had an odd expression on his face. Unlike her, he had no interest in exploring the world. Despite their vocation, he was a timid man who seemed to dislike violence. “What happened?”

“We were besieged. The city was lost and we barely escaped with our lives.”

“Oh.” He obviously didn’t quite know what to say. “I’m glad,” he offered.

She smiled. Her dying would solve a lot of his problems, but create a lot more. A Keeper without their twin, or one that had the misfortune to be born with no sibling, had to follow a different path. “I fought with the Seventh.”

“Including Captain Albrihn?”

“Yes.” There was a silence. Despite Ronnick, and the other lovers he’d had, and the ones she’d taken from time to time, it was still awkward to speak of what they both knew they did. It wasn’t forbidden. In fact it was encouraged, as long as proper care was taken. Jonis’s maidens’ ring wasn’t going anywhere until she and Jonin were joined. No others in Atlantis were compelled to take a particular spouse – liaisons with others were necessary compensation for that particular indignity.

“You’ll have to report to the Matriarch,” Jonin said.

“I know.” She rubbed at her eyes.

“You’re not supposed to put yourself in danger. She’ll be angry.”

“I know,” she snapped.

“Sorry.”

She sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just tired. It’s been a long month or two. I have to get a lot of stuff straight in my head.”

“Like what?”

How much could she tell him? “Like…some of the things I learned in Talos, they made me ask certain questions.”

“About what?”

“About…about us, and the Cylopes, and our history. They knew of us there.”

Jonin was frowning. “How could they?”

“I don’t know, but they have a legend about someone with tattoos like ours, and they worship a god with one eye.”

Her brother snorted. “You shouldn’t pay attention to superstitious savages, Jonis.”

She lay back on her cot. “I didn’t have a lot of choice.” She closed her eyes. She desperately wanted to sleep, but she had a feeling she couldn’t leave things until the morning. Her body screamed in protest, but she forced herself into a sitting position. “I’ll go and find the Matriarch. Is she in the Circle?”

Jonin shrugged. “How should I know?”

“Fine.” She stood up and her knees cracked. She headed for the door.

“Jonis?”

She turned. “Hm?”

“It…it was strange without you here.” His face was surprisingly earnest.

“You had Ronnick for company.”

“No…not like that. I just…I’ve never been away from you for that long. I…I missed you. And I’m glad you’re back.”

She made herself smile. “I missed you too, Jonin. I’ll be back soon.” She opened the door and turned so he couldn’t see her face before stepping out into the dim passage. The truth was, she’d barely given a thought to him in all the time she’d been away, and had relished the freedom she’d enjoyed. Although this place and her task here was inextricably entwined with her very being, part of her hadn’t wanted to come back. Pushing that to the back of her mind, and still ignoring her complaining joints, she headed back towards The Circle.

*

Pale light filtered through the gaps in the wooden shutters as Morrow rolled over in the bed. She was cold and instinctively snuggled up to the warm shape beside her. Her head was pounding. It was no time to be awake. She’d get up in time for lunch, probably, then she could drink off the hangover. There was a murmur from her other side and then a muttered, “What is that?”

“Go back to sleep,” Morrow said without opening her eyes. “It’s still night.”

“It’s banging,” the lump of covers she had her arm thrown over complained.

“That was last night, honey.”

“No, someone’s banging,” the first voice insisted, sounding wide awake now.

“What?” Morrow cracked an eyelid again. “That isn’t just inside my brain?” As she came to her senses, she realised someone was hammering loudly somewhere outside. “Fucking hell,” she said, “is some bastard putting up a bloody sign at this time in the morning? What happened to common decency?”

“No one works at this time around here,” one of her companions said.

“I know, that’s what I’m saying…”

“It’s the door.”

“You’re closed for business.”

“I should check who it is.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Morrow pulled herself up. Her mouth was dry and her vision was blurry. She needed at least a few more hours sleep. The sleepier girl she’d been cuddling just rolled over and buried her head under the covers. The other one rubbed her shoulder and entwined her fingers in her hair. “I’m sure it’s nothing important,” she said. “Yanae will send them away.”

Morrow nodded. Ralla was one of her favourites, as dusky as a highborn but with far fewer scruples. The other was younger and paler, with blonde hair. She was called Daen – or something like that anyway – and Morrow hadn’t had her before. She reminded her of those Talosi girls she’d seen on her trip, and she was endearingly shy about some things. It was an intoxicating combination. No wonder she was so tired, although the empty flagon of wine on the chest might have something to do with it too. “I’ll go and look,” she said.

She scrambled from the bed and found her undershirt near her muddy boots. She tugged it on, reeking with sweat though it was, and went to the window. She opened the shutters and looked down at the brothel’s entrance. A woman was standing there, a redhead, and she was pounding on the door with her fist. Morrow’s eyes were still a little bleary, but she was sure she recognised her from somewhere…

“I know you’re in there!” the woman yelled.

Some instinct made Morrow shrink back out of sight. Whenever people came knocking angrily at places she was staying, it usually meant bad news.

“Who is it?” Ralla called out.

“Shhh!” Morrow hissed.

The woman looked up and as soon as Morrow caught sight of her face all her worst fears were confirmed. “Fuck fuck fuck!” she said, diving away from the window.

“What is it?” Ralla asked.

Daen was sitting up too now, pulling the covers across her chest. No fun at all, this one, not without a bit of liquid courage. “What’s happening?”

“It’s…um…” she tried to remember the name. “Tayne! Captain Tayne!”

Ralla tilted her head. “One of your company?” She was very beautiful with black hair shaved close to her scalp. If Morrow hadn’t been a regular, she’d never have been able to afford her services.

“No. A city guard. Infantry. She and I…uh…well, you know.”

“You almost look embarrassed.” Ralla’s eyes were twinkling mischievously.

“It’s not that. She’s just a little…um…prudish, you know? I think she’s got some mainlander blood in her.”

“Invite her up,” Ralla said, stretching out and lying back down in the bed, encircling Daen in one arm. “We’ve got room enough for one more in here.”

“I’m not bloody paying her way.” She was nervously dancing from one foot to the other as the banging outside continued.

“Morrow! I know you’re in there! Come out and speak to me!”

“What does she want?” Daen asked, her blue eyes very wide in her pale, pretty face.

“She’s mad I guess.”

“Why?”

“Well, you know, I think she’s gotten a bit attached. I think she thought I’d see her when I came back to the city.”

“What makes you think that?” Ralla said.

“The note she left for me at the barracks that said it.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

The pounding finally stopped and Morrow heard the sound of the door opening. The voice of Yanae, the brothel’s mistress, floated up through the open window. “What do you want? We’re closed.”

“Is Lieutenant Morrow staying here, madam?” Tayne’s voice had changed to her usual stiff politeness.

“I’m not about to reveal information about my clients, Captain…?”

“I know she’s in there. Her sergeant with the eye patch told me. She comes here all the time.”

“She’s right about that,” Ralla giggled.

Morrow chanced a quick glance out of the window again. “You’re not helping,” she told the girl.

“I know she’s up there. I can hear voices.”

“A lot of people are availing themselves of my establishment’s services.”

“Look, I only want to talk to her. She’s my…that is we’re…”

“We’re bloody not!” Morrow said before she could stop herself.

“I just heard her! That’s her, isn’t it? Let me in!”

“No, you can’t possibly…”

There was the sound of a scuffle and then Yanae shouting. Morrow could hear someone in the hall below, and then footsteps on the stairs. “Oh fuck!” She hurled herself towards the bed and dived under the covers. “I’m not here!” she told Ralla and Daen.

“Hey now,” Ralla said sternly, “have you made a commitment to this woman?”

“No! Not in so many words! I mean, I said maybe we could spend some time together when I was back, but I certainly never…”

The door burst open. Morrow ducked down and was as still as she could manage to be. “Morrow! I know you’re there; I can see you!”

“I think the game’s up, darling.” Ralla tugged back the covers with a tinkling laugh.

Morrow rolled over and looked up at the furious face of Tayne, standing in the doorway. “Oh, Tayne. What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? What are you doing here?”

“Um…is it not obvious?”

“How could you do this to me?”

“It wasn’t you I was doing stuff to…”

Tayne’s mouth opened and closed again. “Typical bloody cavalry,” she said after a moment. “Whoring around.”

“Well…you’re a soldier too. What’s the problem?”

“You’ve been in the city an entire night. Didn’t you get my message?”

“Sure…but I’ve been…you know…busy…”

“Busy?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah. Busy. Up to my eyeballs in quim if you must know. Look, hey, come and join us. It’ll be fun.”

“No thank you,” Tayne said primly, “I just wanted to let you know how disappointed I am. If you wanted to do this kind of thing,” she waved a hand at Ralla and Daen, “you could have come to me.”

“Why, have you got a friend?”

Tayne threw up her hands. “You’re impossible! Why am I wasting my time on you?”

“How the fuck should I know?!”

Tayne looked shocked at Morrow’s tone. “Forget it.” She spun on her heel and stormed back out of the room. Her boots clattered on the wooden stairs.

“She must really like you,” Daen said.

“Fuck. Apparently.” She flopped back onto the bed and put a hand to her head. “Someone bring me some wine.”

“Isn’t it a bit early for that?” Ralla chided her.

“I’m not paying you for fucking dietary advice. I’ve got a powerful hangover to work through, and I need wine and cunt to wash the taste of it out of my mouth.”

Ralla gave her a flat look. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing. Why won’t everyone just get off my back?”

“What happened to you in Talos, Morrow?”

“Nothing happened! Earn your fucking money and get me some fucking wine!”

The room fell silent. Ralla’s face was completely unreadable. “Fine,” she said slowly. She slipped out of the bed and pulled on a loose robe then left the room without a backward glance.

Morrow turned to Daen, who was looking frightened. “I come to places like this to forget my troubles, not find new ones, all right?”

“As you say,” Daen nodded.

“All right then. Let’s forget about all this.” She pulled her closer. Daen seemed to resist for a moment, but then settled in and returned Morrow’s kiss. The wine, the girls, it was all to forget that cold, bleak place and the barbarians living there. Civilisation was the only cure, although Morrow’s definition of it might not have suited everyone.

 

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