Age of War (Part X)

Aethlan sat at the table feeling mildly foolish as the servants hovered just outside the light cast by the brazier. The sun had all but set now and the clouds were gathering. She could feel the cold air coming from the sea and she shivered in the thin Atlasian dress. She still had half a goblet of wine left but no appetite for the rich food left on her plate, although it looked like there were several more courses to come. She felt guilty leaving it when she knew there were people out in the city starving. But she didn’t imagine they’d be any more grateful for these rare and heavily-spiced delicacies than she was. She glugged her wine back as quickly as modesty allowed and then rose a little unsteadily from her chair. She nodded to the servants and headed for the door. Outside, the guards were gone. Apparently she wasn’t important enough to require soldiers close to hand. The maid who’d brought her here was also missing. She looked around, seeing if the girl was hiding in some shadowy corner, but it was clear she was alone. She waited uncertainly on the landing, trying to decide whether to risk embarrassment by going back into the Empress’s chambers and sheepishly asking the servants for directions. “This is your home now,” she said to herself under her breath, “you must learn your way around sooner or later.”

There was an open balcony over to her right and she crossed to it, leaning over the balustrade, trying to get her bearings. It was dark outside now and she overlooked a terrace that seemed to back onto a stretch of lawn. Bare branches shuddered in the wind, stark against the high pale walls of the palace. Here and there in the towers were windows and other balconies from which the orange light of braziers shone, but she couldn’t see how she might reach these oases of civilisation in this twisted, baroque anthill of a building. She didn’t even know where her own chambers were from here, if it was even possible to see them. She peered into the gloom, trying to get a fix on the lights of the city, but they were invisible from where she stood. Turning, she attempted to fix in her mind the direction her own balcony faced.

“Towards the city,” she whispered, pointing, “and the Empress’s balcony looks the same way, but it is set further forward…hm…” She looked back at the door to her hostess’s chambers and pictured in her mind where the city must be. “So west must be that way. My chambers look west too but they are lower down and…” She trailed off. It was no good: the palace was simply too labyrinthine. But if she couldn’t work out how to get back with logic, maybe she could try and find some familiar landmarks. She turned back and headed down the corridor she was fairly sure had brought her here. Further along, through a low archway, she saw a twisting staircase that looked familiar. Feeling momentarily elated, she hurried down the shallow steps. There was very little light here, only the occasional sconce lit by low candles, and she hiked her skirt up almost to her knees to avoid tripping over it again in the darkness. She reached the foot of the stairs and looked around, and then realised she didn’t recognise a thing. She was in a sort of circular atrium with a high domed ceiling supported by tall columns. There were wide archways on every side, some leading into more corridors or other airy rooms, others obviously opening onto lawns or plazas. As she stood, once more transfixed by indecision, she heard the sound of voices. From one of the arches stepped two willowy Atlasians, both dark-skinned and beautiful, a man and a woman. She was about to swallow her pride and ask for directions but then noticed how absorbed they were in one another’s company. They were both dressed like nobles, but were carrying on like a page and a scullion while their masters slept, hands delving beneath each other’s silks, giggling and kissing, the man playfully nipping the woman’s ear lobe and then taking a handful of one of her breasts. Embarrassed again, Aethlan stepped back into the shadow of the staircase and let them pass undisturbed. Things were so strange here. The two could have been husband and wife, but they were just as likely to be unmarried, or married to different people altogether. Their affair might be illicit, or done with full knowledge of their spouses. No one seemed to mind such things in Atlas. Maybe people were more demure down in the city – perhaps this Enclave really was a world unto itself, completely isolated from the day-to-day lives of the population. And yet Albrihn had been no different. He was the Empress’s lover, but had bedded Jonis the whole time they’d been in Talos. She’d assumed there was nothing controversial about that relationship, but the way the Empress had reacted…

Aethlan was suddenly frightened that she’d unwittingly blundered into some kind of court intrigue she didn’t understand. What if Jonis and the Empress were enemies? What if this was all some elaborate political gambit by Albrihn? To her he’d seemed a simple soldier; a great warrior and a courageous leader, but ultimately a straightforward man. But what straightforward man could be the lover of a woman like the Empress? Perhaps, beneath his seemingly rough exterior, the incisive mind of a politician was at work, constantly playing the women in his life against one another for his own gain.

She shook her head. It was no use speculating. She was out of her depth. If she had endangered Albrihn’s machinations, it was no fault of hers. If it was important, he should have seen fit to invite her into his confidence. And all this pondering wasn’t getting her any closer to her chambers. Huldane would be worried about her. Huldane. Her face felt hot, even in the cool of the atrium. As repelled as part of her was by the open display of lust by the noble couple who had just passed, part of her wanted to embrace the freedom of this land. Why should she deny herself those pleasures? It was obvious Huldane was willing. If the maid hadn’t interrupted them…

“No. Stop it.” Her voice was louder than she’d meant it to be, and it echoed around the high chamber. She shut her mouth with a squeak. There was no sound from anywhere else. She had no idea how many people lived in this palace or how large it really was. There could be no one nearby except her and the couple. She hurried back into the middle of the atrium, her bare feet prickling on the cold marble floor. She looked this way and that, trying to decide on a route to take. Finally, she simply plumped for the corridor that looked least dark and forged onwards through this maze of a building.

Aethlan didn’t know how long she walked. Full night set in: she occasionally caught glimpses of it when a balcony or gallery opened up to show her another view of some other wing of the palace, an undulating lawn framed with low shrubs, or sometimes even the city of Atlas, with its lights twinkling in the darkness. But she spent little time looking out into the darkness now, for a fierce wind had risen and it buffeted her flimsy gown around her, threatening to destroy even the meagre sense of propriety it offered. She scurried along, always trying to find a room or corridor where there was enough light to navigate by, but they were becoming few and far between. She met no one else. Where was everyone? Probably in their chambers, indulging whatever base desire occurred to them, sipping the hot spiced wine, nibbling on firebloom compote or whatever it was. Didn’t anyone have any work to do? Surely these people owned land, had fiefdoms to govern, estates to manage. She’d seen no sign of any trappings of government in the palace, though there had been allusions to a Chamber of Ministers that was certainly somewhere within the Enclave, if not in the palace itself.

Ahead was another open arch and Aethlan walked through to find herself standing in a narrow octagonal courtyard, looking up at high walls on every side. None of the windows or balconies had any lights. A skeletal tree hung over her, blocking out much of the glowering sky. At least here, enclosed, she was free of the wind, but the cold still caused her skin to pebble and she wrapped her arms around herself. She looked up at the walls. Cold, empty, macabre. The black windows were like the empty eyes of skulls leering down at her. How had she ever thought this place beautiful? It was a ghastly, maddening building, conceived by an insane or sadistic architect. And, she admitted to herself, she was hopelessly lost. She didn’t have the first idea how to even retrace her steps to the Empress’s chambers. Turning back felt like giving in too. Opposite her was another doorway, but the interior was dark. There was no other exit from the courtyard. She sighed and scampered over to it, wincing as twigs snapped beneath her feet. Through the doorway was a short hall which made an abrupt left turn just a few strides later, leading onto a narrow staircase that descended, presumably below ground. She hesitated. There was no light down there that she could see. The bathhouse was underground, so there must be other rooms down there too. The throne room, she’d been told, was somewhere in the deep interior of the palace. Surely it would be relatively easy to navigate her way to somewhere inhabited from there. There would at least be guards, she reasoned. She stepped down into the darkness, feeling her way along the smooth walls.

At the bottom was a landing, which turned into another set of steps, this time a little shorter, just taking her down into what seemed to be a porch of some kind. She felt no breath of wind. On she went, down another corridor, almost blind in the dark, trailing a finger on the wall. She walked for long minutes, then jumped as she lost contact with the marble stonework. She pawed desperately at thin air, and then realised it was just a doorway. Everything was black; an absolute, all-enveloping black that could only be found below the earth. A black that stifled sound and turned flesh clammy with fear. She tried to peer through the opening, to make out anything at all, but she might as well have had her eyes closed. She fumbled around for a minute, trying to ascertain the layout of the space in which she’d found herself. Here, by the door, a corner braced with a fluted column. She felt up it until she came to something hard and knobbly at just above head height. She felt it tentatively and then recoiled as she realised it was a statue of some kind – a snarling gargoyle. The thought of it staring at her invisibly made her shudder. She stepped away, across the void, and reached out to find another corner. This too had a column of its own, but she didn’t check for a gargoyle. She moved tentatively across the corridor and was surprised when her hands alighted on a third corner. Already anticipating what she’d discover, she took a few bolder steps onwards to find the fourth corner, opposite the first. So. A four-way intersection. She turned around on the spot, for all the good it did. There was the way she’d come, passages to the left and right, and then one straight ahead. There was no way to know which might lead her to somewhere people could be found and which would only cause her to become even more lost. She looked again in every direction, searching for just a tiny suggestion of light.

“This is madness,” she said aloud. Her voice came out muffled, and yet it seemed to reverberate through the earth. How long had she only had her own breath and heartbeat for company? She didn’t want to be here. She was seized with sudden panic. How long could she wander these corridors, alone and lost, trying to find a way out? What if she fell and hurt herself? The palace was well-maintained, but without more servants than she’d seen so far, they couldn’t pay attention to every inch of such a huge and bewildering structure. There could be shattered staircases, open fissures, collapsed walls down here – anything. She had no choice but to go back the way she’d come, at least get to the surface, and then try and find someone. Even the over-affectionate couple would do at this point.

She turned again and started walking. Only after a few strides did it occur to her that she wasn’t actually sure this was the direction she’d come from. She froze again, a cold shiver working its way up and down her spine. Her mouth felt dry. She was about to try and find the crossway again, but then as she stared into the blackness she thought she could see a slight greying up ahead. Was it her imagination, or was that a light? It could be the bottom of the stairs she’d come down, and that slight paling could be the moon rising from behind the clouds. She could almost feel the wind on her face! She rushed onwards as fast as she dared, once again keeping one finger against the wall. She started to feel relief as it began to get brighter and she could actually make out some of the dim shapes around her. Yes, the walls were definitely now distinct from the way ahead, and she could even see her hand in front of her, albeit merely as a darker shadow. She carried on, all the while blinking as she started to see better and better, then rounded a corner and stopped as she stumbled into another place that was totally new.

Aethlan gaped at what was before her. If she hadn’t known better, she’d have described it as a temple, but the Atlantians kept no gods. It was a long, vaulted room, with black walls in which were set alcoves at regular intervals. The light came from some of those alcoves further down the chamber and from the wan flickering she judged it to be from candles. There was no furniture, just simple black columns and a floor inlaid with tiles of alternating obsidian and white marble. It was deathly quiet, somehow even more so than the black passages, and she could feel even her breathing slow down so it would be as unobtrusive as possible. She walked slowly down the centre of the room, past empty alcoves. They were large, recessed into the walls, each framed by an arch, with lower hemispherical domes serving as a ceiling for each. They were clearly designed to hold something or other. About halfway down the long room, she realised where she was, for she came upon the first occupied alcove. There, illuminated by several dozen white candles, was a statue of a man in pure white marble. At its feet were set two granite flagstones that looked newly laid. She gazed up at the stern stone face of the figure depicted. He was undoubtedly Atlasian; he had the hooked nose, the cruel smile, the high forehead. He was balding and he looked regal and imposing. Proud, but not kindly, not exactly. He seemed familiar too. The statue had no name which, ironically, was when she realised who it was. She took a step backwards and tilted her head. Yes, the resemblance was there. She could see the Empress in this man. It was her late father.

At least, it was him as he was in his prime, surely. She’d been told he was very old when he died, just a few short days ago. This man stood tall and straight, and though his face was lined, he certainly wasn’t aged. He was a slight figure though, with sunken shoulders. Strange that the sculptor wouldn’t flatter his lord and master more. In Talos, all great lords were depicted as mighty warriors, like characters from the sagas brought to life. The Emperor though was more statesman than warrior. In one hand, cradled against his chest, was a book, and in the other a sceptre crowned with a laurel wreath. She tried to remember her father’s lessons about Atlantian customs. A book symbolised wisdom, a sceptre justice. The laurels indicated victory in battle. That fit what she knew of this man. He had been a politician, not a soldier. Aethlan’s gaze drifted down to the flagstones at her feet. They could mean only one thing: this was the late Emperor’s tomb. She decided she ought to leave, but her eyes were drawn to the next alcove. There was a statue there too, also lit with candles – though they were fewer in number – and it was the same all the way down the room on both sides. Statues of all the Emperors and Empresses of Atlantis, and of course their tombs, going back down the ages. She couldn’t help herself from taking this journey into the past.

Beside the last Emperor was another man. He was taller, broader, and he most certainly was a warrior. He had a similar likeness, though he was young and strikingly handsome. More than anyone, he reminded her of Albrihn. He wore his hair in the same fashion. He carried a sword in his hand – the meaning of that was no mystery – but its point was thrust downwards into the pedestal beneath his feet. A sword at rest: a warrior, but one who died in battle. At the feet of the statue, where the flagstones were in the other alcove, was a second image, this one recumbent, laid out so his feet were closest to the standing version, as if it were his shadow. This one was wrought in veined black marble. She twisted her head around. The same man, certainly, and not much older. His eyes were closed and his sword was now laid across his breast with his hands folded peacefully at the hilt. So, this was how the Imperial family remembered their ancestors: a great standing image of them in their prime, and another as they were when they died. It was a solemn place, very much like a temple as she’d first supposed. The Atlantians worshipped no gods, but they surely held their rulers in high enough esteem for it to amount to the same thing.

She continued on down the room, looking into each alcove in turn. On the base of each statue were the years of each Emperor or Empress’s reign. She didn’t know her Atlantian dates well, but she got the jist of it. No names, of course. When an heir took the throne, they became known only as Emperor or Empress and their name was never uttered again, at least officially. It was even struck from all official records, as if the current holder was somehow eternal. It was an odd custom, and from what she remembered of trying to decipher Atlantian history, it led to a great deal of confusion. One could never tell who anyone was in any given history and only through inference and looking at the names of the previous ruler’s sons and daughters could you make an educated guess at who had taken the throne. It was an odd paradox, that these people would maintain a shrine to their past like this, and yet also cloud it with so much confusion.

There were many, many statues. As many women as men, and all sporting their own symbolic accoutrements. Here a woman, wearing plate armour and holding a sword aloft. A great warrior, forged in battle, but died peacefully. She wore her wreath of laurels on her head, as a crown. An old man in loose robes, wizened and bent with age, carrying an hourglass that he seemed to be looking at sadly. The black prone version of him looked much the same. This Emperor had come to the throne late in life, it seemed. Beside him, a young girl, slender and beautiful with long, flowing hair. She held a rose in her hand, exquisitely carved with petals as thin as paper. Aethlan had to restrain herself from touching it: they looked like they might shed if she did so, stone or not. She didn’t know what the flower meant, but her recumbent effigy looked almost the same age. She’d died young then, and perhaps the man with the hourglass who’d followed was a distant cousin, already ancient, who’d never imagined he’d be called upon to rule. No wonder he looked so sad about the passage of time.

It went on. Warriors, politicians, even musicians with carved harps. For a time there was nothing but cheerful looking young men and women dressed in comfortable silks, playing instruments or drinking from goblets. One memorable Emperor was depicted surrounded by equally beautiful men, apparently in the act of undressing him. Clearly, Atlantians had odd ideas about what their rulers should be remembered for. These youngsters’ deceased versions were invariably old and seemed to be sleeping peacefully. It seemed then that for a long time, Atlantis had known a period of peace and stability, in which its Emperors and Empresses knew no strife. And then, for a while, just the opposite. Aethlan crossed from one side of the room to the other, following the line backwards now through a time of terrible war. The men were brutes in plate mail, swords thrust downwards, faces defiant and angry. One held the carved head of an enemy in his hand and his sword was sculpted so it appeared to be awash with blood. Gratifyingly, the face of the statue lying at his feet was identical, and even his sword still dripped. This one then had had a mercifully short reign. There were warrior women too, but most were now young girls, beautiful but unimposing. They carried nothing to symbolise the lives they’d led. Some had died old, some young, but the meaning behind these bland statues became clear as she passed by more savage Emperors. These women had been Empresses in name only, taken as wives by one or other of these warlords during whatever intense period of conflict had marred this remote age to give them – and their offspring – claim to the empire. What vile stories did these sterile images hide?

Aethlan began to grow numb to the faces she saw, losing track of how far back she’d come and letting them all blur into one. Here was a fat man with a rooster perched on his shoulder. She couldn’t guess at the meaning of that. Now a woman holding an infant in swaddling. An Empress depicted as a mother? No, because the sarcophagus was tiny, the same child, not much older. A babe had been perched atop that throne in ages past then, at least for a little while. So much grief bound up in these ancient stones. So much forgotten history. There were hardly any candles lighting the statues now – most had only one or two. Some servant must come here regularly to light them all, an observance that must have lasted many centuries, but the more remote in time the subject, the less important it was to remember them. The Emperors and Empresses she now passed were probably no more closely related to the current Empress than they were to her. Their histories would be recorded only in some mouldering book on a forgotten shelf somewhere. Aethlan was overwhelmed with the sadness of it suddenly, and resolved to carry on for as long as she could, looking into the face of each of these people who had once been as mighty as gods, and whose deeds were now lost to the march of time.

Old, young, fat, thin, tall, short, man or woman, soldier or statesman, glutton or murderer, the whole spectrum of humanity was represented in these statues. And now, finally, she came to the end of the room. It stopped abruptly in an alcove that, unlike the others, was directly ahead of her. Only one candle burned at the base of this statue, and it was really only a nub of pale wax. This time, there was no statue lying on the floor, only one standing, resplendent and singular. A woman wearing armour. Unlike any others she had seen, she carried two swords, held aloft and crossed over her head. Aethlan stepped as close as she dared, trying to look into the face of this, the ultimate ancestor of the greatest dynasty the world had ever known. Who was this Empress? Had she forged Atlantis? She was not particularly beautiful; rather her face was hard-edged and spiky. Her hair was short. She looked a fighter, not a ruler. Much of the effigy was lost in shadow. Aethlan stooped and worked the candle free where the wax had melted onto the stone floor and held it up so she could get a better look. She waved the flickering flame beneath the woman’s nose, trying to see her face properly as had become her ritual. Someone had to remember this remarkable Empress, whoever she was.

She stopped as her candle caught something below the statue’s eye. There was something odd carved there. She stretched up onto her tip-toes and held the flame close to the white carving now. Yes, there is was: faded with age but unmistakable. Around this woman’s eye, was the tattoo of a Cyclops Keeper, just like Jonis’s. Aethlan stumbled backwards and dropped the candle. It stayed lit but rolled to a stop at the base of the statue where its light spilled onto the dates of this Empress’s reign. As Aethlan stooped down to retrieve the candle, she glanced at the numbers. To think this woman had ruled Atlantis ten-thousand years ago…

“No, wait, that is not right,” she murmured as she straightened. She moved the candle down again to study the numbers more closely. She’d read it wrong. These dates were just over a thousand years ago. Certainly no more than that. She looked back down the room with a frown. Yes, that made sense: there was no way these statues and tombs, as many as there were, accounted for ten millennia of history. Could there be more rooms like this elsewhere in the palace, one for each thousand years of Atlantian rulers? It seemed a bizarre thought. Maybe they hadn’t kept the custom before this mysterious Empress. And yet… Aethlan turned back, looking at the woman’s face again. A Cyclops Keeper. Something strange was going on here. The tale of Atlantis, she began to suspect, was more complex than even those who claimed to know it believed.

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