Age of War (Part XII)

Things had not turned out how Jonis had expected. An hour ago, the last place she expected to be was being escorted through the gates of the Imperial Enclave by two armoured guards who both stared straight ahead and couldn’t be induced to share any information with her about why she was being taken through the high gates in the pale walls that encircled the city within a city. At least she wasn’t in chains or anything. When that light had descended slowly towards them in the Archive, she, Calam and Calad had known the game was up. There was no escape from that great dark pit, and so they simply waited. Jonis had spent that time staring intently at the circular marble floor, memorising the symbols they’d discovered and their positions. She had a feeling it would be important. When she closed her eyes, she could still see them floating there. Unfortunately, dwelling on that memory also caused her to replay the conversation with the Matriarch that had come a few minutes later. She remembered the woman’s stern, tattooed face, lit by her own flickering torch, staring balefully at her from the foot of the spiral stairs. Of course she’d come herself to find her. Of course she was furious. But to send her to the palace? Jonis didn’t understand that. The Cyclops Keepers had their own hierarchy: they served Atlantis, but they didn’t answer to its Empress. There was no precedent for sending a misbehaving Keeper to explain herself to the throne.

No, there was something else. Some other reason she’d been summoned, and the fact that she was in a place she manifestly shouldn’t be was just a very unfortunate coincidence. The Matriarch would punish her more severely this time. There was every chance she might have her Cyclops taken away from her. That would hurt Jonin as well, but that was the way of things. Twinned Keepers were supposed to share responsibility for one another’s actions. They were supposed to be two halves of a whole. Jonis had never felt that applied to her and Jonin particularly. The idea of being stripped of her Cyclops gave her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach though. There weren’t enough Cyclopes for all of the Keepers in the stables to have their own. Earning the right to care for and train one on a permanent basis was an honour – one she might never regain if it was lost. It would be the end of her career. She would be reduced to mucking out the pits, helping with feeding, filing down claws and brushing parasites from scales. Busywork.

Another troubling thought was the fate of Calam and Calad. They had earned a great deal of leeway in their years of exemplary service, but they were caught red-handed helping her to break the rules. They’d been relying on the sequence of events being muddled, and on being out of the city when the blame started being assigned. Now, they’d bear the full brunt of the Matriarch’s wrath. They wouldn’t lose their Cyclops, not while it was in musth and there was a chance of a successful breeding, but there were other ways of punishing them, and the Matriarch’s memory was long. One way or another, they’d pay for their part in her disobedience.

She sighed, loudly enough for one of the soldiers to turn her head slightly, and tried to concentrate on her surroundings instead of dwelling on possible futures. She’d never been inside the Enclave before. Even Keepers, as honoured as they were, weren’t nobility. Their world lay beneath the city, not in its most fabulous environs. The walls were thick – they looked as delicate as confectionary from the outside – but she was interested to see that underneath the white marble were layers of thick granite. Above her head as they went through the passage between the outer gate with its tall ornate gates and thick iron portcullis and the less severe inner gate were murder holes and arrow slits. This place was designed to withstand a siege. They passed through the gate to the interior of the Enclave, a pointed arch that opened onto a wide, paved plaza. It was the middle of the night, and the sky was clouded over with a cutting wind that made Jonis shiver. The plaza must have been beguiling in the daytime, or even by moonlight, but under these oppressive clouds it seemed a sombre place. It was a wide circle surrounded by walls that emerged seamlessly from the outer battlement. Buildings seemed to grow from the edges organically, and the space was overlooked by many windows and balconies. There was a round fountain in the centre with a complex decorative centrepiece that was composed of multiple figures. It was hard to tell whether they were fighting, having sex or doing something else entirely. She’d have liked to take a closer look, but the soldiers led her away from it, towards another gateway to her left. The fountain wasn’t running at the moment, perhaps because it was night. There was no one else around. She glanced up at the walls, but they were too high and too thick for her to see whether the battlements were manned. Everything was still and quiet. It was disconcerting after walking through the streets of Atlas, which even at night were busy with the sounds of voices and music rising from every tavern and brothel. This really was another world.

The guards led her through a maze of passages and open-air avenues. There seemed to be no delineation between indoors and outdoors within the Enclave, and they would head down a narrow corridor intermittently lit by wall sconces that would not have been out of place in the Keepers’ stable complex, only to turn a corner and find themselves in another fetching courtyard. There was a vague sense of different buildings with different uses. She knew, from pictures and descriptions, what some of the most famous looked like. As they crossed one open space, this time with several statues on high plinths scattered around, she caught sight of the imposing Chamber of Ministers, a squat behemoth of a building with a pointed roof and high towers on each of its front corners. They were topped with slender minarets, but torches were lit below them, reflecting from the bronze cladding so that they seemed to be lit by two mighty flames that pierced the gloomy night.

And now another arresting sight reared up. The Enclave was huge – so huge that it incorporated gardens, groves of trees, bubbling streams and even low hills. The palace itself, the residence of the Imperial family, was in the centre of the Enclave at the highest point, and all the buildings immediately adjacent were only a few storeys tall so as not to detract from its magnificence. Again, Jonis knew roughly what it looked like by simple cultural osmosis, but nothing prepared her for the sight of it. It was an enormous edifice, impossible to make sense of at a glance. At night, its shapes were particularly indistinct with towers, walls, roofs, slender bridges and covered walkways arranged seemingly at random. It wasn’t even truly one building, but rather a great warren of disparate constructions, linked haphazardly, following no conceivable order. They marched straight for it, down a straight paved roadway lined with tall evergreen trees. On either side were lawns, and more monuments were scattered here and there in dells and delicate pavilions. The gardens were cunningly terraced so they seemed to melt into the buildings that abutted them, and the whole scene gave Jonis a headache as she tried to take it in. She’d still seen no one else since they’d entered either. It was like a mausoleum.

The gates of the palace itself were magnificent. They stood open, each six times the height of a man or more, decorated with intricate carvings in silver, gold and electrum. She had no time to examine the scenes they depicted, and could only gaze around in wonder at the white marble walls in which no gap or seam was evident. The whole building seemed to be off one piece, as if cast in some monstrous mold the size of a mountain. The entrance hall was oval, and two intertwining staircases led up to a gallery that seemed to float in thin air. Branches wound their way around every column and through every balustrade, and in spring – if such a season was ever to come again – it must have been a truly magnificent sight. Instead, Jonis had to content herself with the cold austere beauty of this draughty, winter manse.

Her mind was thoroughly scrambled by the time she was led into the depths of the palace, at last truly inside as she understood it, and the guards gestured for her to pass through another set of carved double doors. Here the walls were not pale and airily becoming, but instead dark and brooding, their carved surfaces sharp and severe, and the air was gloomy and oppressive. She walked alone into a great vaulted chamber, with its ceiling lost in smoke from the torches that were set on titanic black marble columns all along the sides. There was a great aisle along the centre and, as she craned her neck upwards, she could discern the dim shapes of banners hanging in the rafters. So. She would be meeting the Empress formally. She’d hoped for something a little less one-sided. There was no one else in the room, not even guards. Of course she had no weapon with her, and even if she had, she’d have been made to relinquish it at the entrance to the Enclave. She checked herself – was she really thinking about hurting the Empress? Where had that thought come from? She didn’t even know the woman, except by reputation.

And what a reputation. For as long as Jonis had been alive, she’d just been Lady Vion, the Princess of Atlas, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Hard, cruel, befittingly imperious, a true daughter of Atlantis. But also, most pertinently to her, the lover of Rayke Albrihn. Like her. At least for a time anyway. And it dawned on her that perhaps the reason for her summons was more mundane. Maybe this was all about Rayke? But that seemed absurd. She hadn’t wronged the Empress. Albrihn was not hers: he’d made that quite clear. No, this must be something else. She feared it somehow related to the discoveries she’d just begun to make. Was there some conspiracy at the heart of Atlantian history, despite Calad finding the idea so risible?

At the end of the aisle was a stepped dais, and set upon it a throne carved from a single block of gleaming obsidian. A woman sat calmly in it, dwarfed by the tall back and the high, curving arms on either side, but nonetheless seeming to fit perfectly where she was. She was looking down at her, and Jonis had only a second to take in her appearance before she bowed her head and dropped to one knee. She crossed her fist across her breast. “Empress,” she said. Her voice echoed in the enormous throne room.

“Rise, Keeper Jonis.” Her voice was calm, measured, completely toneless.

She did as she was bidden, finally getting a good look at the ruler of the world’s greatest civilisation. She was a striking woman. Her skin was as dark as all the Imperial family’s, and she wore black too. Of course, her father had died only a week or so ago; she would still be in mourning. Despite the colour though, there was nothing demure about her gown. It covered her from throat to heel, but clung tightly to her generous curves. Her black hair was sleek enough to reflect the light of the torches and precious jewels gleamed amongst her tresses. It was her face though that confirmed to Jonis that all she’d heard of the woman was true. Liquid black eyes, skin as smooth and glowing as mahogany, full lips and a high, proud brow. She watched Jonis with an expression that she read as mild amusement. The silence stretched.

Eventually, the Empress spoke. “This is your first time in the Enclave.”

It wasn’t a question, but Jonis answered anyway. “Yes, Empress.”

“Does it impress you?”

Jonis tried to decide how best to respond to that. “It is the glory of Atlantis made manifest, Empress. A jewel in your crown.”

“Atlantis has no crown. We rulers ascend to the throne. We do not wear gaudy hats like mainlanders.” Her forehead was creased in annoyance. She was a touchy woman, apparently.

“I…it was just a figure of speech, Empress…”

“Indeed.” The Empress leaned on one hand and gave Jonis an appraising look. She felt self-conscious under that piercing gaze. It was late at night, but the Empress seemed bright-eyed and alert. Jonis had been trying to ignore her exhaustion and the ache in her muscles from her days spent shifting dung. She felt dirty and sweaty and, looking at this woman seated before her, she didn’t feel she compared favourably. Things like that had never bothered her before, but there was something about the cold assessment in the Empress’s eyes that made her examine herself at the same time. “Keeper Jonis,” the Empress said after a while, seeming to turn her name over in her mouth, “a simple Cyclops Keeper.”

There was nothing simple about her station, but she inclined her head anyway. “As you say, Empress.”

“And until recently, just one of hundreds of your kind, with no connection or interest in politics. Is that right?”

“I’m…I’m not sure what you’re asking me, Empress…”

She leant forward in her throne. Her wry smile had returned. “Less than two months ago, you were assigned to a small expedition to a burnt village in the highlands of the Province, you and your Cyclops.”

“And my brother, Empress.”

She waved a hand. “Yes, yes. An ordinary mission. And yet…now you stand before the Empress of Atlantis. It’s strange, the paths upon which life takes us, don’t you think?”

Jonis was feeling more unsure of herself with every passing moment. “Empress, I go where I’m sent.”

“Were you sent to Talos?” Steel had entered her voice.

“No.”

She arched one exquisite eyebrow. “No?”

“I went to Talos of my own free will, Empress. I was allowed a reprieve from my duties. It isn’t unusual…”

“Why did you go to Talos of all places?” Her gaze was intent, steady. “I hear it’s a desolate, frozen wasteland.”

“It is, Empress.”

“So why go? What made you decide to do it?”

She felt like a mouse being toyed with by a particularly sadistic cat. What was she expected to say? Was she going to drag it out of her? “I had become close to Captain Albrihn on the mission to Priam.”

The Empress leant back. Her smile was cold, and her eyes glinted in the torchlight. “So you followed him, like a loyal dog.”

“I went with him and the Seventh. I’d never been to Talos. I thought it would be interesting. It was.”

“But if Rayke hadn’t been going, you would have stayed in Atlas. That’s right, isn’t it?”

Jonis frowned. “I suppose so. I told you, we became close…”

“How close?”

She licked her lips. Could this really be all about Rayke? What was this woman trying to prove? “We were lovers.” There was no shame in admitting that. So why did she feel like she was confessing to a crime?

“Were, or are?”

“I…I don’t know…I haven’t seen him since we returned…”

“Do you plan to see him again?”

“I don’t know. I thought I might. I like him.”

“Like him or love him?”

She shook her head. “I’m a Cyclops Keeper. I’m already betrothed to my brother.”

The Empress’s face took on a look of distaste. “Yes, that’s how your people do things, isn’t it?”

“Our line must be pure,” Jonis said, sticking out her chin defiantly, “it’s our way.”

“So you have no designs on Rayke? You have no thoughts of a future with him?”

“That’s impossible. We both knew that.”

“Good.” The Empress smiled. “You should know,” she went on, “that I plan to make him my consort.”

That surprised her. Albrihn, for all his courage and prowess, wasn’t highborn. The few times they’d spoken of his relationship with this woman, he’d dismissed the notion that it was anything but a dalliance. “He’s…a fine choice, Empress,” she replied diplomatically.

“I think so. So you understand, your relationship with him must come to an end.”

“I have no relationship with him, Empress. We just found pleasure in one another’s company for a time. It was my understanding that you and he…that is…the two of you had a…uh…a similar arrangement.”

“We were free to seek other lovers, yes. We never spoke of commitment.”

“Well then…”

“Of course, there were things unspoken between us. An…understanding…”

Jonis wasn’t aware of any such agreement, unspoken or otherwise, but she just bobbed her head. “As you say, Empress.”

“We were more than just lovers. We were connected, even when he was across the ocean.”

Another brief nod. She resolved to just keep her mouth shut and let this wash over her.

“So I’m surprised he found…pleasure…in your arms, Keeper Jonis. I thought he had more loyalty to me.”

Jonis frowned. “Loyalty? But…you had lovers besides him, surely? I mean, you’re Lady Vi…I mean, you’re the Empress…”

“From the moment I saw Rayke, I knew the touch of no other man.”

“Oh…” If Albrihn had known about that, he hadn’t mentioned it.

The Empress stood and walked slowly down the dais’s steps. “I will marry him. You will marry your brother, and all will be well.”

“Yes, Empress.”

“Do you know,” she said as she reached the ground. She was turned away slightly, looking off into the distance, but they stood no more than two strides apart. “When my father, the Emperor, lay dying, what his last words to me were?”

“No, Empress…”

She turned her icy gaze back to Jonis. “He looked at me. His vision was already clouded. I thought he was delirious. By the end, he spoke to phantoms – my mother, my brother, men and women he used to know, his First Minister, his own father, his tutors – so I never knew if it was truly me he was seeing. But then, for a moment, as his breath rattled in his chest, it was me. His lips parted, very slowly, and he said in a voice barely above a whisper: ‘You must not marry him, Vion.’”

Jonis had no idea what she was expected to say to that. Was that what all this was about? A daughter’s petulant disregard for her father’s wishes?

“His last words,” the Empress spat, “to his own daughter. Not that he loved me, not that he wished he’d seen me have children of my own, nothing of that nature. At the end, all he thought of was Rayke, and the relationship he so disapproved of.”

“But…I thought the Emperor liked Rayke?”

The Empress laughed, and it echoed around the room. “Liked him? No. He despised him. Or rather, despised the idea of our relationship. But how could he stop me? He sent Rayke away, on the most dangerous missions, but each time he returned covered in more glory. He proved himself the most able young officer in the militia. My father was a pragmatist. He never let his own feelings override his innate wisdom. Rayke was a problem, but he was also an asset. He brought him into his counsel. He made him an unofficial part of his court, despite the objections of his Ministers.”

“But he still opposed your…relationship?”

“Of course. He was lowborn, I was the heir to the throne. It was scandalous. But this is Atlantis.” She turned her proud gaze up to the vaulted ceiling, with its banners lost in the murk. “In this land, women do as they please.”

“Not all women,” Jonis said softly.

The Empress’s attention snapped back to her. Her eyes were alight with fury, but then it softened. “Of course. But I’m the Empress. I decide whom I take as my consort.”

“Your father’s dying wish was that it be another though…” She didn’t know why she spoke up. After all, it made no difference to her who Rayke married, but it was out of her mouth before she could stop it.

“Indeed…”

“And,” she went on, heedless of the survival instincts screaming at her, “now we’re on the verge of war. Because you won’t marry the First Minister. That’s right, isn’t it? So, by choosing Rayke, aren’t you endangering the lives of thousands of your people?”

The Empress regarded her cooly. “If the women of our lands are not free to choose to whom they give their love, then what use is peace? I, and all my sisters, would lay waste to this land to protect our freedom. These are not the backward mainlands. This is Atlantis. If we must fight to preserve what we are, then so be it.” She looked away from Jonis and then strode past her without another word.

“Empress,” Jonis said.

She stopped and turned. “Yes?”

“Your father was a pragmatist; that’s what you said. Even if he disapproved of Rayke’s low birth, surely he understood that marrying him would make you happy, and that he’d make a good consort.”

“What’s your point, Keeper?”

“With his last breath, he told you not to marry him. That’s a lot of conviction for something so seemingly trivial, don’t you think?”

“I told you, he always opposed it.”

“But to make it his dying wish? It must have obsessed him. Why did he want it so badly? Why did he think it was such a bad idea?”

The Empress stared hard at her. “You’d have to ask him yourself,” she replied icily, “but you may find he’s no longer as communicative as he once was.” She spun away and continued on, gradually dwindling down the long aisle.

Jonis stood alone before the throne of Atlantis, her brain scrambled by the conversation she’d just endured. She hadn’t looked to find herself the target of a jealous Empress. The idea was farcical. She rubbed her forehead. With everything going on, that damned Albrihn was the last thing on her mind. She had the Matriarch to think about, first and foremost. She’d get no reprieve from that because of this meeting. And then there was the mystery of the Archive and the history of the Keepers, not that she’d have any opportunity to investigate that now. If only she could find a way to interpret the symbols. If only there was someone who could at least point her in the right direction and…

She blinked. “Aethlan,” she said to herself. She looked around. This was the Imperial palace. Where else would the Talosi nobility have been brought? She must have chambers here somewhere. It was the only chance she’d get, and she knew it. She headed back towards the doorway, hoping against hope that her guards would have left her to make her own way out.

 

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