As he emerged from the council chamber, Albrihn’s head was spinning. Vion must be out of her mind to do something as ridiculous as this. He had to find her and make her see sense, but he had a sneaking suspicion that if he did so, he wouldn’t find the woman he’d made love to that morning, but the Empress, haughty and serene, expecting her orders to be obeyed without question. The corridors were deserted again and he walked almost aimlessly. He hadn’t thought about how he and Vion had met for years. Back then the world had seemed filled with possibilities, and the idea of sleeping with the heir to the throne of Atlantis had been something that that young, cocksure sergeant had just taken in his stride. He’d never even considered the political implications – and why should he? Vion was beautiful – no less now than she was then – and was known to have many lovers. He’d assumed he’d just be another one; a handsome man (he flattered his younger self) that had caught her attention for a night.
But the dalliance hadn’t ended there. When he returned to Atlas after the siege of Helios, his company was honoured by the Chamber of Ministers, and Vion was there, waiting for him. They picked up right where they’d left off in Elysium. Ever since then, he’d come and gone from the Imperial Enclave as if it was his right to do so, even though one born as low as he should have only been able to gaze upon the white walls in wonder from outside. Becoming an intermittent feature in court life, sharing Vion’s bed, had inevitably drawn him into politics. It had been known across Atlantis that a lowborn captain in the militia had the ear of the Emperor. It wasn’t quite true, but it was true enough to enrage those of a certain bent. That was the reason Vion had to let him go. If she were to marry Saffrey, this senseless war might be averted. Marrying him would only fan the flames.
He stepped out into a small courtyard. Freezing rain fell in a persistent, needling shower, but he just needed somewhere quiet to put his thoughts in order. He found a stone bench under a carved awning on one side and took a seat there. The palace was such a rambling, incoherent structure that he had no idea how many courtyards, gardens, terraces and other open spaces there were hiding inside it. He might have sat here a dozen times before, or never have even laid eyes on it. He was surrounded by high walls with arched windows and balconies in such profusion that it seemed the whole building was made up of threaded columns and lintels, intertwining like the branches of a tree. He could see glimpses of rooms and staircases, and the occasional passing shadow of a servant. High above his head a tower pierced the grey sky and he could just make out the glow of a brazier in one of the windows. How much of this place was even inhabited now? It certainly seemed quieter than he’d ever known it. When Saffrey left, how many of his household went with him? How many of those left living and working in this great marble heap were loyal to him rather than the throne?
He massaged the bridge of his nose. He was a soldier of Atlantis, and he wasn’t reluctant to march to war in service of his Empress, but a battle between militia regiments would be costly for the whole nation when they could least afford it. Peace was the better option for them all, if there was some way Saffrey could be appeased without forcing Vion into a marriage against her choosing. Perhaps, for the good of the realm, she could be persuaded to put aside her personal distaste. Would it be so horrible a crime? He pushed the thought aside. Even if she wasn’t the Empress, no one had any right to dictate such a thing to another. Atlantians would burn the world to the ground before they’d submit to marrying for any reason besides love. Except for the Cyclops Keepers of course. And with that realisation, his thoughts turned to Jonis, and the reason for his refusal of Vion’s offer he’d even been denying to himself. It was madness, but he couldn’t ignore how he’d begun to feel about her during their time in Talos. What fool would refuse a woman who would marry him for the sake of one who couldn’t? A fool in love, perhaps.
The sound of footsteps brought him out of his reverie, and he looked up to see someone emerging from one of the courtyard’s entrances. It took him a second to recognise the man, attired as he was in the clothing of an Atlasian noble, but the broad pink face and light brown hair were unmistakable, as was the short stabbing sword he wore on his belt, in defiance of the Enclave’s laws. “Huldane?”
“Captain Albrihn,” the Talosi said with a grin, “I saw you from above.” He walked towards him.
Albrihn smiled back and the two clasped hands. “Strange,” he said, “it’s only been a day, but is seems an age since I saw you.”
“Life has changed,” Huldane agreed, “I am…a little lost, I admit.”
“Same here.” He sat back down on the bench and Huldane joined him. “It’s Commander Albrihn now, by the way,” he said with a little bitterness in his voice.
“Oh.” Huldane nodded thoughtfully. “I am sorry, my brother, but I am not sure if a commander outranks a captain or not…is it congratulations or…?”
Albrihn laughed. “Sorry. A militia commander is in charge of an entire regiment. Within that regiment are a number of companies, each led by a captain.”
“I see. So it is a promotion? You now command a regiment?”
“It’s…complicated… There are some political issues. I’m actually still trying to figure out if it’s bribery or blackmail.”
Huldane looked confused. “I have no head for politics I am afraid,” he said.
“Me neither. All you need to know is, some people have decided I’m more important than I am, and that I’m qualified to lead a force of five-thousand on some foolhardy mission.”
“Of course you are qualified, brother,” Huldane said with a laugh, “you led the defence of my city – there were at least five-thousand under your command then.”
“Yes, and if you recall, I lost.”
Huldane’s face turned grim. “Many died in Talos that day, but never forget that most fell outside the gates, not beyond them. Whatever Lord Wodan gained from his victory, he lost so much more. That is thanks to you, brother.”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” Albrihn asked with a frown.
Huldane looked surprised. “In Talos, when two men have drawn swords together and shed the blood of a single enemy, they consider one another brothers. It is an old tradition, but it has bound us together for a thousand years. Do you not say the same in Atlas?”
“Not really, but I like it.” He clasped Huldane’s forearm again. “Brothers.”
“You go to war?”
“Then I would ride with you. What foe could stand against our two blades drawn in unison?”
“What foe indeed?” Albrihn released his friend’s arm and sighed heavily. “But this isn’t your fight, Huldane. I’m not even sure it’s mine. What happened in Talos is going to happen here soon enough – a rebel lord comes to take the throne by force. I have to stop him.”
“If this city is threatened, my duty is to protect it.”
“This isn’t your city.”
“No, my city is destroyed. But that which was of greatest value within it I was able to bear here to safety. My lady now resides behind these walls. If an enemy rides upon them, my place is in his path.”
Albrihn had to smile at that. For Huldane, life was simple. “You’re right,” he admitted, “but things are tense enough without a stranger by my side. This situation is all about honour, marriage and blood. My unsuitability to be in this position might be one of the causes of this war. For a long time now, Atlantis has been divided between two factions: one which believes our society has become too open and that we’re losing what made us who we are, and the other which thinks we have to change to survive. The late Emperor was an adherent to the latter philosophy. He saw the danger coming from the north – the ice, the Hyen-a-khan – and he knew we couldn’t close ourselves off to influence from the mainlands. If humanity is to survive, we have to look beyond our borders.”
Huldane nodded thoughtfully. “And this new Empress? How does she feel?”
“She knows the truth, but her path isn’t clear. She thinks with her heart and doesn’t listen to advice. But Saffrey, the First Minister…he disagreed with her father. He believes Atlantis must remain pure if it intends to be strong. Talosi in the palace and a lowborn consort will only harden his resolve to take the throne from Vion.”
“I…that’s another story… But your place must be here, by Aethlan’s side. She needs familiarity more than ever.”
“I admit, this is a strange land.” Huldane looked up at the ornate architecture all around them. “I never knew such things could be built by men. Such beauty from stone…”
“Before this endless winter, it was fairer still,” Albrihn told him, “now, the future fills me with fear.”
“You must do your duty.” Huldane stood up and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You will lead your army, and defeat the enemy of your Empress. I will watch over my lady. If you should fall, I will protect her, and avenge you, my brother.”
“I appreciate that,” Albrihn said with a slight smirk.
“But one day soon, we will draw swords together again, yes?”
“One day soon,” Albrihn agreed.
He found the exchange with Huldane oddly heartening, but on leaving the palace and the Imperial Enclave, his dark mood returned. The city of Atlas was more squalid even than he’d left it, and he barely recognised it. The walls were filthy with soot and dirt, and everywhere there was starvation and deprivation. Even around the Enclave, the most prosperous district of the city, there seemed to be very few businesses open. Most shops had their doors and windows shuttered, and the raised voices of hawkers and entertainers he’d usually expect to fill the air were strangely absent. Instead, the people shuffled through the rain, heads down and swaddled in thick robes with hoods that hid their faces. The only traffic going down the hill was a creaking cart pulled by a thin and bedraggled mule. The cart’s back was fully enclosed and firmly bolted shut. Albrihn knew what it contained – even its sturdy timbers couldn’t hide the smell. Bone wagons were normally only seen in the poorer quarters, taking the dead out beyond the city walls for a small fee, to see one so far out from its usual haunts was a sure sign that all was not well. He stepped out of the way, giving it a wide berth. The woman driving it, cloaked as deeply as the other passers-by, gave him a nod of thanks. The mule looked like it would collapse at any moment, straining at its harness. When he looked up and down the street, he saw no other animals. Normally, in this part of Atlas, he’d see dogs and cats and the odd rat scurrying around the entrances to alleyways. But there was nothing. Perhaps they were sheltering from the bad weather, or maybe anything not quick enough to escape a pair of thin, grasping hands was already in the pot. The mule had probably only escaped because people knew they needed the bone wagons, now more than ever.
Things got no better the further down Albrihn walked. Paved streets turned to reeking rivers of filth, and beggars thronged every corner. No children played, and no laughter or song rose from anywhere. All was silent and shivering as the rain continued to fall. By the time he reached the barracks, he wanted nothing more than to sleep, though it was still early afternoon. His regiment’s barracks were out near the edge of the city, close to the walls on its eastern side. It was an old building of sturdy stonework with similar decorative elements to the palace, albeit of a more robust design and with a focus on military exploits. The columns on either side of the open gates were flanked by stern statues of soldiers, one a woman carrying a spear and shield, in stoic defensive stance, the other a man with a bow, in the act of nocking another arrow. Their familiar faces were reassuring, but they too had suffered in the unseasonable weather, with their once-alabaster white features now dirty and stained. A guard in mail saluted him as he passed and Albrihn waved him away. He just wanted to get to his room. He avoided the dining hall and the door that led out to the huge square courtyard around which the rest of the barracks was arranged, instead heading up a narrow back staircase. As a captain, he had his own chamber, but there wasn’t much to it. He pushed open the door and entered the dim, musty room. He’d hardly spent any time here since coming back from the mainlands, and it showed. He had no personal effects to speak of, just his pack which someone had brought up for him and left on the narrow, sagging bed.
He took off his breastplate and let it fall to the floor with a clang. His clothes were disgusting – the same ones he’d rode out of Talos wearing – and he tugged his shirt off with a grimace. The washstand by the window had a small steel mirror perched on the edge and he picked it up to examine the wound on his shoulder. It was healing well enough, but he still didn’t feel like he’d regained the full range of motion. A number of other injuries nagged at him too, but if he investigated them all he’d never get any sleep. He went looking for a candle, but the trunk that took up most of one side of the room only held clothes. He removed a clean shirt and pair of trousers, some boots in better condition than the ones he was wearing – not exactly a lofty goal – and threw them onto the bed with his pack. Then he undressed. He’d bathed in the palace last night, but he felt dirty again from the city’s smoke. There was a pitcher of lukewarm water by the bowl and a bar of soap. He quickly made a lather and rinsed himself off as best he could. The palace’s baths were hot, fed by a natural spring, but here in the barracks the bathhouse was heated by fires, and there didn’t look to be much fuel around at the moment. He imagined the big stone tubs sloshing with icy water and grimaced again.
Eventually feeling a little cleaner, Albrihn went to the shutters and unfastened them, letting a little weak light into the room. Like all the windows, this one looked out over the yard, a sweep of ground that was normally packed dirt, but which had now turned to mud. Nonetheless, soldiers still trained. An entire company of cavalry could perform manoeuvres in that space, but today it was given over to sparring infantry. The familiar clatter of practice swords striking floated up as well as the rhythmic thunk of arrows hitting their targets. In contrast to the rest of the city, there was a more relaxed mood amongst the militia. They were fed from the city’s coffers, of course, and Atlantis had always valued its protectors. There seemed a lot of soldiers down there too – in hard times, recruitment always rose, if only for the bed and the hot meals. He could see a few of his own soldiers down there, attracting gaggles of those who had barely left Atlas in months to hear their stories of the mainlands and Talos both. He smiled. Suddenly cheered, he tugged on his clean clothes, slicked his hair back into its tail and went down to the yard himself.
The ground was even muddier than it looked, and he squelched through the muck as units drilled all around him, marching in time to the beating of drums, reforming at the barked orders of their sergeants, or practicing with swords. He headed for the archery butts. The air was still cold, and he was starting to think better of the thin shirt he was wearing over his still-damp flesh, but the warmth of so many bodies in close proximity, not to mention the horses over in the stables, began to counteract it a little. He approached the butts and found a line of city guard with longbows, all taking aim and loosing their arrows with varying degrees of success. A sergeant with a wooden leg watched them closely and occasionally she would murmur advice. Some of the archers looked more like children to Albrihn. New recruits, fresh-faced and believing they were ready for war. Would they soon be marching out with him, to fight and die at his command? The thought made him uncomfortable. At the far end of the range, something different was happening. A man he knew was sitting on an upturned barrel, smoking a stubby pipe. He saluted lazily as Albrihn approached and winked with his one good eye.
“Hasprit,” he greeted him.
“Actually it’s…never mind…”
Hasprit grinned behind his pipe. Word had obviously spread, and the grizzled sergeant was just trying to nettle him. They’d been through too much for Albrihn to take it personally. “This smoke’s awful,” Hasprit said conversationally, “paid through the fucking nose for it and it’s almost as bad as that mainland shit.”
“Seems that way, sir.” A fat bag of coins was resting on his knee.
“Who’s the smart money on?”
“Couldn’t say, sir,” Hasprit said, blowing out a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke, “but there’s a lot riding on it. Wouldn’t say it was smart exactly.”
Albrihn folded his arms as he watched two of his soldiers – Morrow and Gena – line up in front of a target each. The big straw bales were a good fifty strides away. Beside each of the women was a basket bristling with dozens of arrows. They were both finding their marks and then, with a curt exchange of nods, they began. They nocked arrows and let fly. Even before they hit the painted targets, they’d reached for another and that too was on its way. The first arrows both hit the dead centre of the butt with a thud, swiftly followed by another barely a hair’s breadth away in both cases. They carried on like that, firing arrow after arrow, their arms and hands like blurs. Every single arrow found its mark, until the bullseyes were a forest of fletching. Some shots splintered ones that were already embedded, and there was a continuous burst of straw as, slowly but surely, the butts began to erode under the relentless hail of fire. Some of the youngsters practicing further down had stopped to watch now, and they were aghast at both the rate and accuracy of the women’s shots.
Albrihn smiled. This was a game the two of them had been playing for years, testing their marksmanship against one another until both were flawless archers. They could shoot this well from a moving horse too. Morrow and Gena were both sweating now, but their movements never slowed and they never took their eyes from their respective targets. With each shot loosed, they stooped for another arrow, grabbing it confidently from the basket and setting it straight to the bow. Again and again they let fly, the arrows whistling as they streaked through the air, then hitting hard. Each shot buried the points deeper and deeper into the packed straw that was gradually being eaten away. Broken arrows littered the ground now too, as subsequent shots smashed those already in place. Little of the paintwork in the centre was left on either of the targets now. And still the volleys continued until, as Morrow released once more, the whole of the butt shuddered and at last collapsed in on itself. A second arrow clanged off the stonework behind. A second later, Gena’s target too gave up and collapsed into the mud.
Morrow threw her hands up and whooped in triumph. Everyone watching clapped, including Albrihn and Hasprit. Gena flopped down onto the floor, heedless of the muck and laughed. She was sweating and panting, but her grin was wide and genuine. “Fucking hell! I almost had you then!”
“Almost,” Morrow said, bending over and resting her hands on her knees as she sucked in air. She straightened and rolled her shoulder. “That was a bastard. I’m out of practice.”
“Out of practice, but in the money,” Hasprit said, tossing her the bag of coins. She caught it deftly out of the air. “Thank you kindly.” She turned to Albrihn now. “Back so soon, captain? Or should I say…”
He lifted a hand to stop her. “No, you shouldn’t. It’s all a mistake. How did you all find out anyway?”
“Some of the Third Regiment are quartered here,” Hasprit explained, “their commander rode in a little while ago. What’s his name again? Big cunt with the moustache?”
“Rykall. Look, I’ll get this straightened out before anything happens.” He beckoned Morrow over to him and the two walked a little apart from the others. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
“You look angry.”
“I am angry.”
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Just girl problems.”
“Oh. I know the feeling.”
She gave him a sly look. “Oh?”
He sighed and folded his arms again. “You think this commander shit is a big deal? Guess what else Vion fucking asked me…”
“She didn’t?” Morrow’s mouth was a wide ‘o’ of astonishment. “Did you accept?”
“Of course I bloody didn’t! It’s ridiculous!”
“You were given the chance to be Imperial Consort and you said no?” Morrow’s tone was incredulous. “Fucking hell, I’ll do it if you won’t. Send her my way.”
“You know it’s not as simple as just saying yes. This is politics.”
“Right. And Jonis has nothing to do with it, I suppose?”
He ran his hands through his hair. “I wish there was an easy solution.”
“Um…there is, Captain. See, two beautiful women are in love with you. One can’t marry you because she’s promised to her brother, and one absolutely can and wants you to. So you should marry the one you can. Problem solved.”
“I can’t marry an Empress.”
“Because,” he tugged at his wet shirt, “just look at me. I’m a soldier.”
“You’re a commander now.”
“Look, this isn’t what I want to talk about. We’re riding out soon. It looks like civil war could be brewing. Vion wants me to command, but there’s no way I can…” He trailed off as he looked over Morrow’s shoulder and saw a broad, swaggering shape emerge from the direction of the dining hall. He and the two soldiers that flanked him all wore plate armour and he was licking grease from one fat thumb. His eyes fixed on Albrihn and he smiled widely, menacingly. It was Rykall.