In Talos, good mirrors were a rare and precious commodity. Even lords and ladies made do with polished steel, and the glass one Aethlan had used in the castle had been bought in Atlas several hundred years ago, carefully maintained down the generations. As she examined her reflection in her chambers in the palace, she wondered idly what had become of that prized heirloom. Had it been smashed in the ransack of her home, or did Lord Wodan preen before it in her old chambers even now? The idea of losing it would once have broken her heart, but such things were commonplace here, it seemed. Every chamber had a full-length mirror, and even servants seemed to have them on their washstands. It was another reminder of how strange this city and its people were. Things she thought of as valuable were here taken for granted – not least the exquisite gown she was now modelling. The clothes she’d worn on her flight from Talos had been taken away and scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, and were now laid out on the couch. But they looked so drab and uninteresting, and the cloth felt rough on her hands. She was instead making use of the wardrobe she’d been given without even asking. The fashions in Atlas were…perplexing. She turned slightly as she tried to smooth the silk over her hips and regarded the effect with a frown. In Talos she’d been beautiful. Here she felt like a scullion. All the dresses were designed for slim, tall Atlasian women, the kind who wafted through the palace. Dark skin like polished teak, oiled black hair, high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Even the servants put her to shame with their grace and beauty.
Talosi garments – even for women – tended towards stout wool and rough linen. Silk and lace were ornamental except for the most extravagant gowns. Dresses also accentuated the bust and hid the hips beneath wider skirts, while cinching in waists with laced bodices. It suited the natural shape of Talosi women; buxom and broad hipped. The Atlasian styles, on the other hand, were loose and diaphanous, hanging down like drapes. Aethlan felt dangerously unsupported wearing them, but this was the best she’d managed to find. It had a halter neck and there was no back to it to speak of. It was also made for a taller woman so some of the silk pooled around her feet. She’d thought of asking her maids to take it up, but she didn’t want to have them desecrate a dress that could be worth more than anything she’d ever owned herself – even the lost mirror. She swished when she walked and had to concentrate every moment to stop herself tripping up or exposing something she shouldn’t. She had no idea how Atlasian women coped with it.
At least she was clean now, she thought as she stared at herself critically in the mirror. She’d managed to conquer her fear of the public baths in the palace’s basement by creeping down in the dead of night. She’d wallowed in the warm water by candlelight, trying to enjoy the sensation, but always on edge in case someone was about to walk in and see her. She’d scrambled out after just ten minutes and barely towelled herself down before shoving on her clothes and running back upstairs. It was all so…undignified. She frowned at her skin. It looked pink and blotchy to her. In Atlas, being pale was a sign of low birth and frailty. Even the lightest-skinned peasant was expected to sport a healthy sheen of bronze from a life spent largely outdoors in this usually favourable clime. If Aethlan spent too long in the sun, she just turned bright red and was sore for days. Her hair too was problematic: red-blonde, sleek and shiny, but completely different from Atlasian hair which was usually straight black or tightly curled. She’d also been shocked to see how many of the noblewomen in the palace wore their hair shaved near to the scalp or alternatively in wiry masses that seemed to explode from their scalps. She’d tried to do something clever with hers, but in the end had settled for an ordinary Talosi braid that at least kept it out of her face. It looked odd against the pale green gown, which she compulsively picked at again where it strained unflatteringly against her hips.
“My lady,” Huldane’s voice came from the adjoining chamber he used. She heard the curtain being pushed aside as he stepped through the doorway. “I wonder if…”
She was still turning this way and that in front of the mirror and barely noticed him trailing off. “Do you think this is suitable for dinner with an Empress, Huldane?”
She turned. “Huldane?”
The jarl was staring at her with an expression on his face like a stunned deer. His mouth was slightly parted. “Uh…that is…I…”
“Are you all right?”
He snapped back to reality, but his face had turned bright red. “Of course. Forgive me, my lady. I was just…uh…I was just surprised.”
“By what?” She looked down at herself in confusion.
“Nothing.” He sat down heavily on the couch. He’d averted his gaze carefully and was now seemingly fixated on the world beyond the balcony. For once, the sky was relatively clear and the sun was shining, though it was still cold. For his part, her bodyguard had managed to obtain clothing more suitable for a soldier than the noble’s silks he’d originally been given. He wore a high-collared woollen jacket in the Atlasian fashion and tight breeches that rather showed off his calves. She thought it made him look handsome, but he was obviously uncomfortable. He was also sticking stubbornly with his beard instead of going with the clean shaven style favoured by Atlasian men.
“I need a decent shift underneath this,” she mused.
“As you say, my lady.” Still not looking at her.
“I feel like I am going to flop out at any moment.”
Huldane made an odd strangled noise and tried to disguise it with a cough. “Yes. Yes, my lady.”
“I will send one of the maids out to a market in the city tomorrow. They should be able to buy something, or at least material to make it with.”
Huldane finally looked at her again, but couldn’t keep the blush from rising on his cheeks as he did so. “They should not go alone, my lady.”
“Why not? This is Atlas, and they can protect themselves if it comes to it.”
He glanced back towards the balcony, to the great city with its heaped roofs, towers and domes all the way down to the sea. “Perhaps,” he said, “in better times, but the people are hungry and desperate. I would not send a wealthy woman into those streets alone.”
“Should I send you to buy it then? Do you wish to buy a woman’s shift at the market? Here, I will write down my measurements…” She gave him a small smile.
“In this city, my lady,” Huldane said with a wry smile of his own, “I should not be embarrassed to buy such a thing. I have heard that there are men here who choose to live as women, and the other way around too. Or prefer to be thought of as neither or both. To us it seems strange, I know, but the Atlantians accept it. They are an unfathomable people.”
“Perhaps they are just more accepting of differences than us.” She fidgeted with the gown again as she cocked her head at her reflection. “I hope so anyway, for our sake.”
“Are you sure I should not accompany you this evening?”
“How would it look for me to turn up to dinner with a bodyguard? We are guests. The Empress invited only me.” She turned around again. “You never told me what you thought of this dress, Huldane.” She pulled the silk skirts out slightly and looked at him questioningly.
The jarl’s eyes darted around again, seemingly determined to look at anything but her. “I…I have not the words, my lady. I am no poet.”
She frowned. “Poet?”
“It is not my place,” he mumbled, a little unconvincingly she thought.
“But do you think it is all right?”
“My lady, you are incomparable.”
She looked at the mirror uncertainly. “Perhaps I should just wear my old gown.” She laughed at the sight of herself, a dumpy, fair-skinned savage trying to dress like some great lady. A child in her mother’s clothes. “In my homeland,” she said sadly, “I was told I was beautiful. Men from across the realm desired my hand in marriage. I was accounted the fairest maiden for a hundred leagues, but now I have travelled that far I see how wrong they were. A goat might be the handsomest of his herd, but put him next to a prize stallion and you see him for what he is. A handsome goat, but a goat nonetheless.”
Huldane stood up. His expression was anguished. “My lady, do not speak so!”
“It is true, Huldane. We are in exile now, barbarians in the midst of the greatest civilisation in history, surrounded by beauty that shames us. Remember our castle, with its stinking hearths, blackened walls and filthy rushes? Remember the food we served Captain Albrihn and his officers? How they must have laughed at us in private… Compare our home to this palace, our food to what is served here.” She looked at herself bleakly. “Me, to the Empress and her glittering court.”
Huldane was silent for a moment, but then he began to speak, hesitantly at first but gathering pace. “My lady, I do not believe you have ever been to Volkheim, but there is a pale and delicate flower that grows high in the mountains there. It can withstand wind, rain, frost and snow. It grows in such abundance that, on a spring day, the slopes are completely covered and it looks like fresh-fallen snow. But, as hardy as it is, if taken from its native soil, it will almost certainly wither and die in days. There are gardeners in that region who work every hour the gods send to nurture and protect these flowers, but only a very small number can be cultivated and made to grow in a courtyard.”
He stepped towards her and Athelan met his grey eyes. He wasn’t blushing now. “Go on…” she said.
“Each of those flowers is more beautiful than you can imagine. They come in a thousand colours, but each is tinted so delicately it is as if it were painted with the lightest stroke of a brush. Their petals are shaped like teardrops and they smell like the sweetest perfume. You would never imagine they could bear the elements, but they can. But, as beautiful as each flower is, when you see them cover an entire mountain, it is hard to appreciate them. You might tread on dozens and think nothing of it, for there are always more.” He was standing close to her now, and he gently brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “It is only in the courtyards, when you see one of their blossoms in exile that you truly understand their beauty and their strength. In their millions they are breathtaking but commonplace: alone, they are rare jewels, as bright as sapphire but as hard as diamond.”
She looked deep into his eyes. His gaze was steady. It was her turn to blush and look away. “I think you would make a better poet than you imagine, Jarl Huldane.”
“Perhaps I will become a man of peace in this city, my lady.”
“Perhaps.” She rested a hand on his chest. She could feel his heartbeat, and how it quickened at her touch. Would it be such a bad thing after all they’d been through to surrender to her desires at last? She had no land to rule, no expectations to fulfil. Did she not deserve to be happy now? She leant in to him, ever so subtly. He tensed, his hands hovering inches from her shoulders.
“What is that flower called, Huldane?”
“I do not know, my lady, but I have given it a name of my own.” He bent his head down towards hers. The world held its breath.
“Lady Aethlan?” She spun around to see a maid hovering at the door. The girl smiled. “The Empress awaits you, my lady.”
She gaped. “I…could she not wait a little…” she composed herself, compulsively straightening her gown for what felt like the hundredth time. “Forgive me. I will attend her now.”
The maid bowed, but not before shooting Huldane a roughish smile. Aethlan didn’t dare look back, she just hurried to the door and followed after the girl.
Even after almost a week here, the palace was still confusing to her. It followed no order she could see and seemed to have just grown over the millennia to encompass every possible architectural feature. The closest thing to a central hall was the great throne room somewhere near the bottom, but besides that corridors and walkways seemed to just sprout off at random, curling around gardens and courtyards. From above it must look like a burst of white flowers, with the passages as stems and the plazas and so forth as blossom. That reminded her of what Huldane had said about the flowers and she could feel her face turning hot again. She shook her head to dismiss the thought – this was not the time for girlish notions of romance – and as she did so caught her foot in her skirts and nearly tripped over, letting out a high-pitched yelp.
“My lady?” the maid asked, stopping and turning as Aethlan steadied herself against a carved marble balustrade overlooking an enclosed atrium.
“I am fine.” She waved her away. They resumed walking and she made herself think about the palace again. It wasn’t such a strange idea that it would have been added to over the long years, but what was odd was that no part of it seemed older than the rest. It was all incredibly ancient, of course, but it was almost as if it had actually been designed in this maddening way, or somehow grown from the ground like it really was a flower. It made her dizzy when she walked up a staircase and found that it wound its way over and under two others which connected floating galleries or balconies the size of banqueting halls, all invisible from any other part of the building, framed in arches and columns, roofed with delicate domes or dense webs of branches that surely in spring would be bursting with life and colour. Living here must be very odd she thought, and only afterwards realised that in fact she did live here now.
After following some unknowable path through the surreal architecture of the palace, they reached an area Aethlan had not been before – or which she certainly didn’t recognise, which was not precisely the same thing – and before them was a door flanked by two guards. Both of them were women, another peculiar feature of Atlas that Aethlan had trouble adjusting to, and they stood smartly to attention. They had polished breastplates, visored helms, elaborately slashed sleeves and shiny boots that had probably never seen so much as a parade ground. These weren’t soldiers like the ones she knew, and yet there was an ease to the way they held their spears, and she noted the leather on the hilts of the swords they wore in scabbards at their belts was well-worn. A war was coming. She had to remember that.
The maid stepped between the guards and opened the door without knocking. No one seemed to have much interest in privacy here. Aethlan followed her through into a chamber not unlike her own, except that it was more lavishly decorated. The room-spanning entrance to the balcony was framed by silk drapes that billowed in the wind, and all the upholstery on the furniture was in the same shade of delicate rose-pink. A table was set out on the balcony beside a crackling brazier and a woman was seated at it, attended by two servants, one pouring wine, the other laying out covered bowls. The woman was dressed in black silk clasped at only one shoulder with a brooch that sparkled with precious stones. She leant casually with her chin resting on her hand, apparently fixated on the sun as it sank down over the sea. Aethlan waited expectantly, unsure of the protocol. Finally she turned to them, and Aethlan saw her face for the first time. She was stunning beyond words with liquid black eyes, full lips, high, prominent cheekbones and skin the colour of mahogany. Her hair was so dark it seemed more like iridescent blue and it spilled in great waves down her back. She began to wonder at what kind of man Captain Albrihn really was if this was indeed the woman with whom he shared a bed.
The maid dipped a low curtsey. “The Lady Aethlan of Talos, Empress,” she announced.
Aethlan hesitated, then gave a curtsey of her own and bowed her head. “Empress,” she murmured, “I am honoured that…”
“Oh don’t be so ridiculous.” There was a rustle of silk and Aethlan was surprised to see the Empress striding towards her. She lifted her up and took her in a warm embrace before kissing her on both cheeks. Aethlan was too stunned to speak as she was lead to the table and the maid wordlessly left. The servants too withdrew, leaving them in relative privacy. “Aethlan, you are not my subject. We are sisters, you and I.”
“Empress, I…I am but the exiled ruler of a Province in your empire…”
“Hm. That’s one way of thinking about it.” She removed the lid from the bowl in front of her revealing an odd, jelly-like dish that gave off a scent like summer blossom. “Promethean terrine,” she said.
“Let’s not lie to one another, Aethlan,” the Empress continued as she picked up one of the several forks laid before her. Aethlan did likewise, watching her hostess surreptitiously. “Talos has always been with Atlantis but not of it. For all intents and purposes, you have reigned as a queen.”
“I suppose so, Empress.” She tried the terrine. It was made of some kind of vegetable she couldn’t identify, crunchy and a little tart, but with a refreshing taste. The dish was served ice-cold. She wasn’t sure whether she liked it or not.
“So, you rule your land as I rule mine. Our stories are similar, or so I’m told.”
“My father was lord of Talos before me, Empress.”
“Indeed.” The Empress watched her as she ate, and Aethlan began to feel self-conscious. Was she doing something wrong? “How are your chambers?”
“They are more than enough for our needs.”
“Yes, you’re staying with your bodyguard, aren’t you? The Talosi soldier? You know there’s really no need – it’s quite impossible for anyone to enter the Enclave, let alone the palace. You’re quite safe here.”
“Ah.” There was that knowing look again that she was starting to think was a permanent feature of every Atlasian’s face. “And what about the rest of your people?”
Aethlan shifted in her seat. There was a glass of steaming wine beside her, dark purple and giving off the rich smell of cloves. She knew it would go to her head, so left it alone for now. “They are well, Empress. My maids are a little…lost…you have provided servants of their own and they are not sure what to do with themselves.”
“You’d prefer your own staff to attend you?”
The Empress smiled as she picked up her own goblet and took a sip. “All of the Talosi refugees, from highest to lowest, are to be treated as honoured guests during their stay. Those were my orders.”
“Then I would not dream of countermanding them, Empress.” She drank some of her wine at last and, as she’d expected, the pungent taste immediately made her head swim. Why did everything have to be spiced so extravagantly here? When their meals were served, Huldane would wait until the servant’s back was turned and scrape the sauce off the meat. He disliked anything too hot. She was developing a taste for it herself, but was still mystified by most of what they were given – including this terrine.
“You’re so formal, Aethlan,” the Empress laughed, “I hope it isn’t on my account.”
“I am a stranger in your court, Empress. I am already humbled by your generosity in allowing us to stay here in this palace. For the clothes, the food, for everything.”
“Atlantis rewards its loyal servants.”
“Even when they come to you as beggars?” Aethlan decided she’d had enough of the terrine, so pushed the bowl away slightly. Immediately a servant appeared and took it away and, at a nod from the Empress, did the same with hers.
“I have nothing, Empress. No wealth to speak of. All I had was in Talos.”
“And as that Province’s rightful ruler, your wealth is incalculable.”
“There is little enough to rule now, Empress. I am sure you have heard…”
The Empress ran her finger around the rim of her goblet. More food was appearing, this time slices of a kind of doughy loaf studded with dried fruit. The platter had a lump of some condiment on the side that looked like jam. “I have heard,” the Empress said.
“Then you know how I have failed you.”
“Nonsense.” The Empress took a knife and spread a little of the jam over a slice of the fruit bread. Aethlan did likewise.
“Talos has fallen.”
“And but for your courage, it would have done so without a fight, no? And you would be dead or worse, the armies of your enemy would be just as strong as they were when they marched on your gates and Atlantis would know nothing of what had occurred. You have saved what could be saved. You are a heroine of your people.”
Aethlan blinked. “Me? But I did nothing…”
“You protected your people. Captain Albrihn told me you watched over them in the castle and when you were betrayed, fought your way to safety.”
“I protected them, yes,” she said, “as was my duty. I expected to die with them.”
“Courage.” The Empress raised her glass and took another sip of wine.
Aethlan smiled demurely. She tried some of the fruit bread and almost recoiled as she tasted the jam – it was peppery and so hot it physically hurt her mouth. She tried to cover her discomfort and dabbed at her lips with the napkin.
“Sorry, I should have warned you. Firebell compote is something of an acquired taste.” The Empress was smiling as she spoke, as if it were a joke.
“It is quite all right.” Aethlan took a larger swig of the wine, trying to wash the taste out of her mouth, but the burning spice didn’t do much to calm it.
“Is Talosi cuisine so different from this?”
“We do not use so many spices,” she replied.
“Ah. I could ask the kitchen to prepare something more…bland?”
“That is quite all right. I know what to expect now.”
“It must have been scary.”
“Empress?” Aethlan was delicately nibbling on some of the bread, minus the compote.
“The siege of your home city. I can’t even imagine.”
“Thankfully I was not present for much of the actual fighting. Captain Albrihn is the one who deserves credit for our escape.”
“Commander Albirhn now.”
Aethlan seemed to remember Huldane saying something about a promotion, but the titles meant nothing to her and she had a lot else to concern herself with. “Commander, yes.”
“He has made Atlantis proud with his actions,” the Empress said, “he too is a hero of his people.”
“Without doubt. He is a mighty warrior.”
“Yes he is. But you must have some skill with a sword yourself, or how did you escape the castle?”
“I…I have a little talent with a blade, Empress, but girls are not trained to fight in Talos.”
“So it was your bodyguard? Huldane, is it?”
“No, he fought on the walls, with Cap…Commander Albrihn. Lady Jonis was with us. She is quite formidable.”
The Empress frowned. “Lady Jonis? I don’t know that name. Is she a Talosi noblewoman?”
“No…she is a Cyclops Keeper. Of Atlas. I suppose I should not call her ‘lady’, but all those who came from here seemed like lords and ladies to us.”
“A Keeper?” The Empress was leaning forward across the table now, her meal forgotten. “And she was with Rayke and the others?”
Aethlan wondered if there was something she was missing. “Yes. She was a close companion of theirs. I assumed…I assumed you would know of her, Empress…”
“A close companion, and yet Rayke has never mentioned her to me once.” She sat back. “And she saved you, did she?”
“She…yes…Commander Albrihn sent her to watch over me and the women and children.”
“But he didn’t know you were going to be betrayed. Why would he send such a ‘formidable’ woman from the walls?”
The mood in the chambers had changed now. The sun was low on the horizon, just a slash of red visible behind gathering clouds. “You would have to ask him yourself, Empress.”
“He isn’t here. He rode off this morning to kill my enemies. I’m asking you. Why do you think he sent her to protect you?”
“I do not know, Empress.” Aethlan’s voice was quiet and she looked down at her half-eaten meal. No servant arrived to whisk it away now.
“Would you care to hazard a guess?” The Empress’s tone was steely.
“She was his companion. I suppose he wanted to make sure she would be safe.”
“This is Atlantis. The safest place for a woman in battle is by your side. Was he fucking her?”
Aethlan looked away. “Empress, please, I do not wish to…”
“Never mind.” Her tone changed, and as Aethlan looked up she was smiling brightly. Her eyes though still possessed the same hard edge as before. She upended her wine goblet. “I must apologise, Lady Aethlan – I fear I’ve quite lost my appetite. Do feel free to finish without me. I’m going to get some air.” She stood up and strode from the room, leaving Aethlan sitting alone and bewildered at the table. She looked down at the unfinished food. She’d lost her appetite too.
Outside the door, Vion stooped and looked for the maid. The girl appeared after a moment from around a corner and bowed her head. “How may I serve you, Empress?”
“Send a runner to the Matriarch.”
“Of the Keepers, you idiot. The Cyclops Keepers.”
The girl’s face paled slightly. “Yes…yes of course, Empress. What message will he carry?”
“Tell her that the Empress of Atlantis wishes an audience with a Keeper named Jonis.”
“As you command, Empress.” She ran off, leaving Vion to fume silently between the two stone-faced guards at the door. After a moment, she stalked off, unconsiouscly clenching and unclenching her fists.