Albrihn took a seat at the table by the entrance to the balcony. Like most of the architecture in the palace, it took the form of a great sweeping arch, decorated with exquisite carved marble details. Above his head, fey creatures from ancient legends – horned children, creatures with goats’ heads and both male and female parts, some surprisingly cheerful Cyclopes – gambolled and played in leaves that were thin and delicate enough to look as if they should be fluttering in the wind. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the breeze on his bare skin. It was warmer today, and he saw clear sky. Atlas still shivered, but compared to the frozen wastes of Talos from which he’d just returned it was like a summer’s day. If he didn’t look too hard, he could pretend the city was just how he remembered it and that this was a glorious golden morning. Petals would drift from the vines twining their way around the columns beside him and brightly-feathered birds would spread their wings on the green lawns, preening in the sunshine.
But it was just a fantasy. How many times, during his years across the sea in the mainlands, had he dreamed of coming back here and being in Vion’s arms again? He remembered the long months spent crossing a vast and arid wasteland in the distant west in which the enormous bones of creatures best forgotten by history were bleached bright white by the unforgiving sun. The people there covered their faces in veils to keep out the relentless dust storms that could scour skin from flesh and lived in densely packed cities huddled around the few muddy oases in the thousand-mile desert, more like warrens than true settlements, with homes of sun-baked mud bricks piled high atop one another. Inside the air was foetid and close and disease was rife. The nights they had spent in that foul place were things he never planned to speak of again, and all the time he had imagined this moment. The wine he would drink, the food he would eat, the love he would make.
He opened his eyes. The sky was pale blue, and the wind pulled the clouds in from the sea, teasing them apart like cotton. His skin was prickled by goosebumps. Sighing, he reached for the pitcher of wine on the table in front of him. Last night it had been warm. Now, far from the braziers that made the open room habitable, it had chilled considerably. He filled a goblet anyway and took a sip. The cold made him wince – it was a dark wine from the vineyards of Hyperion and was supposed to be served steaming hot. But even when they’d been drinking it as it should be, he’d found the taste lacking. There had been no harvest in Atlantis for at least two years now. The wine, stored for decades or centuries, would of course have been depleted in the absence of seasonal alternatives, and the cellars of the palace were empty of the best vintages now. It suited his mood. He took another swallow and put the cup back down.
“You look troubled.” He turned to Vion who was lying belly-down on the bed. The trunk at the foot held a bowl of candied fruit and she popped a date into her mouth and smiled at him.
“I am,” he said.
He looked out at Atlas. They were high in the palace, with a view over the Enclave’s encircling wall down through the streets of the city. It looked drab and smoky. Fires burned in improvised hearths in almost every building now. The most beautiful city in the world was turning into another squalid den of humanity, like the miserable places he’d visited in the mainlands. The cliffs that encircled the bay were supposed to be studded with impenetrable defences, but even from here he could see the ruin. He’d noticed it on his way in when he’d first returned, but their decay seemed to have accelerated in just a few months. “I can’t do this, Vion.”
He met her questioning gaze again. “I can’t marry you.”
“Why not?” She was still smiling, thinking he was joking.
“Just a soldier?” Her face had changed now, clouding over as she pushed herself up and sat on the bed, legs crossed underneath her. “You didn’t seem to mind last night or this morning. Where were your scruples when you were fucking me?”
“You know that’s not the same. It never was.”
“Do you remember how we met, Rayke?” Her head was tilted and her full lips slightly parted, like an innocent girl playing a game, but the glint in her eyes told him it was more serious than that.
“Of course I do. The fields outside Elysium.”
“Hm.” She stared into the distance for a second. “Elysium. What a day that was.”
He nodded, remembering it. “The fiftieth year of your father’s rule. A grand tour of Atlantis, culminating in the greatest military pageant in three generations.”
“You, a young cavalry officer…”
“You, a haughty princess.” He grinned.
“Are we so different now?”
“I am.” He could see the banners snapping in the wind now. Elysium was a smaller city than Atlas, but just as beautiful, a jumble of sandstone rising from a sparkling blue bay, surrounded by low rolling hills. And assembled on those hills, a vast army – not there to conquer, but to celebrate. Tens of thousands of men and women descended on the little city and showered it in gold and glory. The fields were filled with tents, and a thousand songs drifted through the air. Food and drink from every corner of Atlantis could be bought at stalls and happily screaming children scampered underfoot.
“You were so proper,” Vion said.
“I was in the presence of nobility.” There were games and tourneys, like in the old stories, and he’d been victorious in one of the smaller mêlées, besting another regiment’s champion to win some laurels and a nominal purse. But he’d had his moment on the champion’s dais, and that’s where he’d caught the eye of the most ravishing woman in the world. The rest was like some strange dream.
“What happened to that nervous sergeant?”
“I don’t remember being nervous,” Albrihn told her with mock sincerity, “but whatever I was…I changed.”
“Has life treated you so harshly, Rayke Albrihn?”
“Not really,” he admitted. Here he was, sitting with the Empress herself, annoyed because his wine was cold and inferior, while she offered him the chance to become the most powerful man in the world and nibbled on treats.
“So why do you brood like this?”
“You know why.”
“Is being my husband such an objectionable idea?” she asked him acidly.
“You don’t want me for your consort.”
“Who are you to tell me what I want or don’t want?” She got up from the bed and took her robe from the back of a couch. She wrapped it around herself and walked over to the table, taking the seat opposite. She filled her goblet too.
“You can’t force me to marry you, Vion.”
“Do you think I want to? If you don’t want me…”
“It isn’t like that and you know it.”
“Then what is it like?” Her eyes sparked again.
“I’m not highborn. I’m an ordinary citizen, raised in a house down there, near the docks.” He gestured towards the city. “Soldiering is all I know how to do. I joined as soon as I could and I’ve done nothing but serve ever since. A more unsuitable husband would be hard to find.”
“My father trusted you.”
“I never knew why.”
“Because of your loyalty. He hated politics.”
“So do I. And, even if you try to shelter me from it, you know that raising me to nobility would only endanger your position. I’d be embroiled in court intrigue. You don’t want me in that situation.”
“What? Someone I trust? Someone I love?”
“Exactly. What happens when some assassin slips poison into my wine? What happens when I become another pawn for one of your rivals? I could never outmanoeuvre some power-hungry lord. I’d be used against you, somehow. All I do is fight. I’m not suited for these games. Give me a sword and I’ll run it through every politician who stands in your way, but you don’t want blood on these floors, Vion. You might think you do, but you don’t.”
“I told you not to tell me what I want.” She got up and stood before him. He looked up at her. She planted her hands on his shoulders and then straddled him. She reached down and took a firm grip, biting her lip as she eased herself forward slightly. His body responded to her and he hardened in her hand. She pushed her robe aside with her other hand and raised herself slightly, but he took her shoulders and stopped her.
“That time in the mainlands and Talos has turned you into a prude.” She untangled herself and walked away, stopping only to grab her goblet. “There isn’t another man in this city who wouldn’t do what I’m asking you to do, Rayke.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I’ve given you my reasons.”
She spun around and smiled brightly. “You have indeed. Your loyalty does you credit, captain.”
He leant back in the chair. “Don’t make this difficult. For either of us.”
“You’ll kill and die for me, but you won’t love or marry me. Don’t you think that’s odd?”
“We all have our callings.”
“You may get the chance to indulge yours sooner than you think.”
He frowned. “How do you mean?”
“I had a message from my Mistress of Spies late last night while you slept.”
Vion laughed. “That old hag? No. She was my father’s whisperer, not mine.”
“You’ve moved fast.”
“I’ve had a long time to prepare.”
“So who’s your spymistress?”
“Ah,” Vion returned to the bed and curled up at the head. “An Empress must have some secrets. Perhaps if you were my consort…”
“A joke.” She waved her hand, accidentally splashing a few drops of wine on the pale sheets. “Don’t you want to know what the message said?”
“If I’m allowed so deep into your confidences.”
“Saffrey is planning a revolt.”
“He wouldn’t dare.”
“My Mistress of Spies trusts her sources, and I trust her.”
Albrihn rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “At least that narrows down the possibilities. I can’t think of anyone you truly trust.”
“So my secret is safe. Saffrey has already called his banners. The Chronusi regiments have answered. He’s been making his plans for some time.”
“Saffrey is much too clever to risk a civil war.”
“He’s too clever to not risk it. What other option does he have?”
“Manipulation? He’s already First Minister. A few bribes and promises to the right people and he could circumvent your rule entirely. Failing that…a knife in the dark.”
“Saffrey will settle for nothing less than the throne. I know him, Rayke. And assassination? He’d be the first person anyone would suspect. His only option is to rise up openly. Discredit me. Make my rule look insecure.”
“By starting a civil war, he fulfils his own prophecy.”
“Exactly.” Vion looked to the side and took a long sip from her goblet. She looked deep in thought. “My father’s body is barely cold, and we’re already picking over the corpse of his empire.”
“Atlantis isn’t dead yet.”
“It’s dying, Rayke.” She fixed her gaze on him and her dark eyes were sharp as flint. “What happened in Talos is proof of that.”
Albrihn shook his head. “Your father sent me there to help preserve what his and your ancestors built. That was what he wanted.”
“His dying wish,” Vion said, adopting her little-girl face again. “How lovely.”
“He was a great man.”
“Of course he was. He was an Emperor of Atlantis.” She drained the last of her wine. “I don’t want to tear this country apart, but what can I do? Yield? Let Saffrey take control?”
“You’re the rightful Empress.”
“But what if he’d make a better Emperor?” He thought she was joking again, but her face was earnest. He’d never known her to doubt herself, but then she’d always had her father’s authority to fall back on. Now she was alone, and relying on him – a simple soldier – to advise her.
“Perhaps he would, but he won’t prove it by marching on Atlas.”
“Then you’ll fight for me?”
“I’m a captain in the Atlantian Militia. You’re the rightful Empress.”
“Good.” She put the goblet down and stood up again, smoothing down her robe. She noticed the flecks of wine on the bed sheets for the first time and her brow momentarily creased in annoyance. “I’ve asked the Commanders of all the regiments in the city to attend a council this morning.”
“I understand. I’ll return to the barracks.” He made to stand up.
“No. I want you there.”
He paused, hands on the arms of the chair, eyebrows raised. “Me? Why?”
“You understand what’s happening in Atlantis better than almost anyone.”
“I’ve been away for over three years, Vion.”
“You’ve been to Talos. You know what’s coming.”
“Yes,” he acknowledged, “but still. My place is with my troops. I’ll have orders. They may take me away from Saffrey and this war.”
“I can assure you they won’t.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just get dressed, Rayke. We meet in an hour.” She left the chamber in a swish of silk, through the low arch that led to her dressing room. Albrihn stared after her for a second before standing up and casting around for his clothes.
The curving corridors of the palace were as cold as the open-air chambers on the outside: the braziers were rarely in use here. Albrihn was still in his travel-stained uniform and dented breastplate, but at least he’d been allowed to have his sword back. He hurried along, conscious of the dishevelled figure he must cut, and wondering when he started caring about such things. He rounded a corner and almost walked into a small woman in a smart uniform and well-shined boots. She looked him up and down. He gaped for a moment and then saluted, fist across his breast. “Commander…”
Commander Hadrin of the Twelfth Regiment smiled faintly and inclined her head. “Captain Albrihn. It’s been some time. I was beginning to wonder if we even had a Seventh Company.”
She clapped him on the shoulder. “Relax, captain. I’ve heard interesting stories about your adventures. You’ve brought us great honour.”
“I’ve served the Emperor, commander.”
“And now you serve the Empress. As do we all. Come.” She led him along the hallway to a double door flanked by two guards standing to attention. Beyond was a great vaulted room with a long black table in the centre surrounded by high-backed ornate wooden chairs. Braziers burned in each corner, filling the air with acrid smoke. The only windows were high and narrow, and there was only a little natural light. The good weather early that morning had given way to an impenetrable blanket of steel-grey clouds. Sitting around the table, in uniforms similar to Hadrin’s, but with subtle differences only a student of the military would recognise, were half a dozen other militia Commanders. They greeted Hadrin with nods, and looked askance at Albrihn. He seated himself across from a thick-necked man with a curving moustache and a receding hairline that did nothing to discourage him from wearing what remained of his hair in a warrior’s tail, much like Albrihn’s own. He had more armour than the others, with pauldrons and vambraces worn over his uniform. He watched Albrihn seat himself.
“Commander,” he said.
“You must be the famous Captain Albrihn,” the commander smiled.
“And you’re Commander Rykall. Third Regiment.”
“The Emperor’s Own,” Rykall said with a fierce grin that showed off straight white teeth.
“The Empress’s Own,” Hadrin corrected, taking the seat next to Albrihn.
“Indeed.” Rykall leant back and idly adjusted his vambraces. His fingers were thick and powerful. Albrihn had never met the man before, but he had a fearsome reputation. He had led a company of heavy cavalry for decades before his promotion, and he was said to still favour horse charges in battle. The stories of him rarely mentioned qualities of leadership or tactical ingenuity, but they were unanimous in praising his ferocity and courage in the mêlée. He was sometimes known as the Emperor’s Headsman, but there was no sign of his famous blade, a two-handed sword as tall as a grown man.
“I thought this was a council of Commanders,” a woman to Rykall’s left said. She wore the colours of the Eighteenth Regiment on her slashed sleeves, and she had grey hair and a thin, pinched face. She was Commander Crale, one of the longest-serving regimental commanders in Atlantis. In contrast to Rykall, she was an astute strategist and accomplished diplomat, but she’d never distinguished herself as a warrior so far as he knew.
“Albrihn is here on special invitation,” Rykall said with a lascivious grin.
“Oh, I can guess who that was from…”
“Yes, it was from me,” a voice announced from the doorway, and Vion swept in. Albrihn barely recognised her as the same woman he’d bandied words with that morning. She was still wearing long robes of mourning black, but now she had accented it with silver jewellery and amethyst and her hair was elaborately arranged in oiled curls. He could hardly believe it had only taken her an hour to go from lying naked on her bed to looking like this. The Commanders and Albrihn all stood up and bowed their heads, with murmurs of “Empress…” In the mainlands, there were traditions of kings being crowned in lengthy and tedious ceremonies, but in Atlantis this was not considered necessary. It was enough that the previous incumbent had died. Vion ruled here, no matter what happened elsewhere in other Provinces of her realm.
She took her seat at the head of the table and everyone else did likewise. Servants appeared from the shadowy corners of the room and began pouring steaming wine into goblets. Hadrin and Crale both waved them away, but Rykall bade them to fill his almost to the brim, and he took a long draught as soon as it was poured, smacking his lips appreciatively afterwards. “Let’s be done with this then.”
Vion gave him a cool look. Her face was a mask of regal composure. “Let’s be done with what, commander?”
“We all know what we’re here to discuss. Rebellion! Revolt! Treason and civil war!”
“I don’t think things have quite gone that far,” a broad man further down the table said. He was relatively young, with bronze skin and unusual pale hair. Albirhn recognised him as Commander Shastir of the Twenty-First Regiment, a reserve unit for the most part, more used to keeping peace on the streets of Atlantis’s cities than open warfare against trained soldiers. Tayne, a captain he knew who served in Atlas’s city guard, commanded one of his infantry companies.
“On the contrary,” Crale said mildly, “I have received reports from elements of my regiment returning from Chronus that the forces there are being mobilised as we speak.”
“My agents say likewise,” Vion said. “Saffrey’s intentions are quite clear.”
“There is a feeling he will make an open declaration against you, Empress,” Crale continued, “and denounce your claim.”
“How can he do that?” Albrihn asked incredulously. “She’s the only living child of the last Emperor!”
Crale’s look in his direction was withering. “Saffrey is First Minister of Atlantis, Captain Albrihn, and if he has reason to believe that the authority of the throne is insufficient to pacify uprisings, he is paradoxically within his rights to oppose it. He will make himself Emperor by force.”
“He told me as much,” Vion said, “I thought it was an idle boast, but it seems I credited him with too much intelligence.”
Rykall laughed. “He’s a fool.” He slammed his fist into the table, making the goblets jump. “We descend on him in one swift, decisive attack! The full might of Atlantis!”
“Rykall,” Hadrin said, “one does not crack a nut with a hammer.”
“One does if one wants to smash the nut into very small pieces.” He grinned evilly and swigged more wine.
“While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Commander Rykall,” Vion said with a slight smile, “I take Commander Hadrin’s point that a more…subtle…response is called for.”
“I’m all for subtlety,” Crale agreed, “but my officers tell me Saffrey already has three regiments who’ve sworn fealty to him directly. Five-thousand soldiers at least. If he discredits your rule, more will flock to his banners. There is unrest across Atlantis.”
Some of the other Commanders nodded sagely. “People are hungry,” one Albrihn didn’t know said.
“The world is changing,” Vion told them, “my father saw this. Captain Albrihn has just returned from Talos, where civil strife has sundered them from our rule.”
Rykall narrowed his eyes. “Is that so?”
Albrihn shifted in his seat. “The capital is now under the rule of a renegade lord from the north. We tried to hold it, but his forces outmatched ours and we fled the city with the legitimate ruler, her household and some of the commoners.”
“I believe I saw them,” Crale said. “Pale people. They looked unhealthy to me.”
“That’s all Saffrey needs to know,” Rykall growled, “Talosi refugees? Atlantis fractured so early in your rule? If a whole province is lost…”
“Talos was only nominally part of Atlantis anyway,” Hadrin interrupted, “this news changes nothing, but it may serve as a warning. What did you find, captain?”
“Death and ice,” he said slowly, “in the far north, the ocean was covered by a vast sheet of ice, like an endless white waste. It had receded in summer for a time, but not in the past few years. Thanks to that ice, which forms a bridge to the mainlands, the region is overrun by Hyen-a-khan.”
“Stories,” Shashtir smirked.
“No.” It was Vion who spoke. “You all saw what Captain Albrihn brought back from the village of Priam. These…dogmen…are already loose in our lands, and more will follow from Talos if the climate continues to worsen. There has never been a worse time for us to be divided. That is why I wish to put down this rebellion of Saffrey’s as soon as possible.”
“So why show him mercy?” Rykall asked.
“There will be no mercy, not for him. But the soldiers who follow him I can ill-afford to lose should we face an attack from the north against an implacable and savage enemy. I want to cut the head off this rebellion. I want to cut the head off Saffrey.” Her composure slipped for just a moment as she gave a fierce grin.
“An assassin?” Crale asked.
“No. He will be too well protected. He must be brought to battle, but before he reaches our walls. My spies believe he will march from Chronus within the week. I intend to send a small force to intercept them and end this revolt before it truly begins.”
Rykall frowned. “How small a force?”
“Five-thousand. Fast moving, to take him by surprise. I’ve no doubt Saffrey has spies in Atlas too. I want this army to outpace any agents he may have reporting back to him. Our swords will reach him long before their wicked words.”
“Cavalry,” Rykall said with an approving nod, “the Third will ride out in your name, Empress. Give me command, and I will bring you back the traitor’s head.”
“Another has already promised to do that, commander,” Vion said, “Captain Albrihn will lead this force.”
The table fell silent. Albrihn stared at her. “Vi…Empress…that’s not…”
“He’s the captain of a light cavalry company,” Rykall said, “outriders. Scouts. He’s never commanded more than a hundred troops.”
“He fought across the mainlands in the name of the Emperor. He saved Lady Aethlan of Talos and led the defence of her city.”
“The unsuccessful defence, by his own account…”
“Empress,” Albrihn said, “I cannot command your army. I’m only a captain. Everyone in this room with the possible exception of the servants outranks me.”
“Do you countermand my orders, captain?” Her eyebrow was arched.
“You know that’s not what I mean…”
“Empress,” Hadrin said, “the captain is under my command. It isn’t appropriate for him to lead such a large detachment at his present rank. If you wish him part of the force, that can be arranged, but the ultimate decision lies with me. In military matters, I have authority over all those who serve in my Regiment.”
Vion looked angry now. “If a captain can’t command, then I’ll just promote him to commander.”
“Commander of what?” Crale asked.
“Of whatever I tell him to command!” she snapped. “It is done! Commander Albrihn will lead five-thousand troops of his own choosing and he will bring Saffrey to battle with the objective of killing him and returning to me his head. Is that clear?” She stood up, planting her hands on the table. Everyone murmured their assent. She made to leave, but Albrihn was on his feet, reaching out a hand for her.
“Is there something else, commander?” she asked him.
She left the hall, leaving the stunned Commanders staring after her. Hadrin looked at Albrihn. “Congratulations,” she said. “We’ll await your orders.” They stood up and filed out, leaving him standing bewildered and alone. Rykall was last. He gave Albrihn an unreadable look as he passed, then turned his back with a snort of contempt.