Age of War (Part XIII)

Jonis knocked smartly on the door and was surprised when it was flung open immediately by a worried-looking Huldane. He stared at her for a few moments. “Lady Jonis,” he eventually managed, “what are you doing here?”

“I should ask you the same thing, Huldane. A servant told me these were Aethlan’s chambers…”

“They are. And also mine.”

Jonis raised her eyebrows. “Oh I see.” She forced a grin. “And is the Lady Aethlan home? And if she is, is she decent?”

Huldane’s pale cheeks had gone bright red. He was a handsome man, in a sort of rough Talosi way, but the Atlasian clothes he was wearing didn’t suit him at all. He was a soldier, not a nobleman, and his broad shoulders and hairy chest belonged strapped in mail, not draped with coloured silks. “I…she left a few hours ago…I do not know where she is.” He stepped aside and gestured for her to enter. She walked into the room and looked around, impressed by the scale and magnificence of their quarters. The cell she shared with Jonin would have fitted into this space over a dozen times and the quality of the furnishings was obvious even to her untutored eye. It was cold though. A brazier was stoked near a couch, but the whole room was open on one side to an enormous stretch of balcony overlooking one of the gardens, the wall of the Enclave and, beyond that, the orange lights of the city itself. She hadn’t realised the palace offered such fine views.

“You don’t know where she is?” she asked. “Is everything all right?”

“I hope so.” His voice sounded strained, as if he was struggling to control himself. He walked past and she could see the way he was clenching and unclenching his fists. Oh yes, a soldier to the bone this one, not happy when he couldn’t just leap into action and solve a problem with violence.

“Where did she go?”

He slumped down on the couch by the brazier, looking like a lost puppy. She knew about his feelings for Aethlan, and so did she. Jonis strongly suspected she returned them too, but propriety had preventing them acting upon their urges in Talos. Was it different for them here? Old habits were hard to break, and that might be enough to scupper any chance they had of a functional relationship. “She went to dinner with the Empress.”

“Really?” What a strange coincidence that was. Or maybe not such a coincidence, now she thought about it. Rayke obviously hadn’t told the Empress about her, so she must have heard it from someone else. And who better to blunder into a potential political scandal than an outsider with little understanding of her hosts’ ways? Jonis had no wish to implicate Aethlan in anything, nor to revisit her own mortifying encounter with the Empress, so she resolved to reveal nothing of her own purpose here. “Have you looked for her?”

“I thought it best to stay here, in case she returned.” He looked a little sheepish. “Also…I was worried I might get lost myself…”

Jonis smiled at him. “It’s a confusing place, isn’t it? The directions I got were hard to follow. I’m sure Aethlan’s fine though. Perhaps we could send a maid to look for her?”

“I am not sure how far I trust the servants here, Lady Jonis.”

Jonis was just examining an elaborate tapestry on one wall, but now she turned to Huldane with a frown. “You don’t trust them? Why not? What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” He stood up and began to pace across the room. “A few days ago I met Commander Albrihn in a courtyard here.”

“So he really did get promoted? Good for him…” Again, she had to hold her tongue. Her first instinct was to ask how Rayke was, to quiz Huldane on every little bit of information he might have about what he was doing, where he was going, but if she’d taken anything from her meeting with the Empress, it was that she had to ignore whatever feelings she had for the rugged soldier.

“Yes. He did not seem too happy about it though.” He leant on one of the twisted columns at the boundary with the balcony and looked out across Atlas. In the distance, the sea was a strip of darker black against the night sky. “Once, Lady Jonis,” he said in a quiet voice, “I understood all that I needed to. I had my duty, and that was enough. Not for me the cut and thrust of politics. It gave me a headache.”

“You aren’t the only one,” Jonis offered gently.

“But now, what am I? A jarl? A soldier? Thousands of warriors guard this mighty city. What is my sword next to all their spears and bows and wondrous engines? Aethlan has no need of me.”

“You and I both know that’s not true, Huldane.”

“Perhaps. But now,” he tugged at his shirt resentfully, “they call me lord and treat me like I am a ruler in exile. I tried to tell them I am just a soldier in service to his lady, but they will not have it. To the people here, all of us are honoured guests, from the commoners to Lady Aethlan herself. Where do we fit into this world, Jonis?”

“I don’t know.” She walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder a little awkwardly. The hard muscle beneath the silk shirt was so tense it felt like solid granite. After a lifetime of repressed longing, he and Aethlan would have quite the night together when they finally gave into their feelings. Jonis was almost jealous. “Remember, Huldane, you’ve never left Talos before. This was never going to be easy.”

He shook his head. “I do not want a life of ease. I do not want a life of peace. I want a life where…where if there is a problem, I can swing my sword at it and it will go away!”

That made Jonis laugh. “Typical man,” she said, then softened her voice at the hurt look he gave her. “Look, you’re going through a transition. This is hard. You’re far from home, you don’t know if you’ll ever go back…”

“We will go back,” he said. His tone brooked no argument and his fist clenched against the column.

“I hope so. But until then, you need to find a new path. I’m sure there’s a place for you in the militia if you want. Talk to Rayke, I think he’ll…”

The door burst open and they both turned to see a frazzled Aethlan standing in the doorway. Huldane rushed straight over to her, but stopped short of taking her in his arms. He was obviously about to, and she knew he wanted to – they both wanted him too – but still they were standoffish with one another, awkward and shy. It was adorable, in a way. “My lady,” Huldane said, “I feared for your safety.”

“I am fine. I just lost my way in the palace.” She looked over his shoulder and blinked in surprise at the sight of Jonis. “Lady Jonis…I was just thinking about you…”

“And I came here to find you. Life’s funny that way.”

“I suppose so.” She stepped around Huldane and smoothed her gown across her hips. Jonis was impressed – unlike her jarl, who looked like a duck wearing rainboots, she was stunning in her Atlasian dress. It certainly wasn’t intended for someone with so full a figure, but it wouldn’t have been nearly so ravishing on one of the waifish nobles here. Jonis admired her confidence, wearing something like that in public.

“Sorry to just drop in on you like this,” Jonis said, “but I have something important to ask you and the way things are going at the moment, I don’t think I’ll have many more opportunities to do so.”

“I have questions for you too. Maybe we could exchange notes.” She took a seat on the couch, arranging her diaphanous skirts around her legs.

“Good idea. Speaking of which…” She looked around the room and saw a writing desk against one wall, with ink and parchment. She walked over and worked quickly with the quill, hoping she still remembered the shapes right. “All right,” she said, returning to Aethlan, “do these look familiar to you at all?”

Aethlan took the proffered parchment and frowned down at it. Huldane craned his neck to see. “I do not know this word,” she said.

“It’s not a word – they’re symbols.”

She glanced up with a confused expression on her face. “You mean the letters?”

“Yes, sorry, forget the order they’re in – I just drew them as best I could remember – I just want to know about the letters.”

“They are Old Talosi.”

“That’s what I thought. Now what do they mean?”

“They are just…letters…” She was holding the parchment out to Jonis.

She took it and cocked her head. “Just letters? No particular meaning?”

“No more than any letter in an alphabet. The first one you wrote is A, the next P, then K and Þ…”

“Thorn?”

“Yes.”

“We don’t have that letter.”

“It is th,” Huldane supplied.

“Oh, okay.”

“Where did you see these letters?” Aethlan asked. “I was not aware they were used outside Talos.”

“They aren’t. I found them carved into the floor of the Archive. That’s…uh…like a library, with all of our ancient texts. The Cyclops Keepers’, I mean.”

Huldane took the parchment now. “Thirteen Old Talosi letters,” he mused, “on a floor in Atlas?”

“And not just on a floor,” Jonis continued, “I think some of the Cyclopes have them branded into their flesh.”

“Why would someone brand a Cyclops with a Talosi mark?” Huldane asked.

“I don’t know. That’s what I was hoping you might be able to help me figure out.”

“Why not just ask whoever did the branding?” Aethlan suggested.

Jonis smiled, but then realised she wasn’t making a joke. “Oh, sorry…um…Cyclopes are immortal. They’re thousands of years old. Whoever branded them would be long dead.”

Aethlan raised her eyebrows. “Immortal monsters? Atlas is more wondrous than even I knew. How old are they exactly?”

“Well we don’t know. Records are a little…um…” she thought back to the mouldering volumes in the depths of the Archive, and its abrupt end at only a fraction of the depth down they’d been expecting “…fragmented.”

“I am sure that they are,” Aethlan said in an odd voice. “So, thousands of years ago, someone in Atlas used Talosi runes?”

“Yes.”

“When Talos was only settled by my people a thousand years ago?”

“Exactly. It doesn’t add up, does it?”

“No, it does not.” She gestured for the parchment again and then peered at the letters when Jonis handed it back to her. “I do not see any significance to these particular letters. They are just thirteen random letters. You say they were carved into a floor? Were there any symbols missing? Might someone have been worn down over time?”

“No, that was all there was. They were quite legible. Oh, but I forgot…” She took the parchment and returned to the desk and, taking a fresh sheet, carefully rewrote them, but this time not all in a row. “I think this is right,” she said as she returned, “they were spaced at odd intervals. The floor was circular, and that’s where they were in the circle. I don’t know if that means anything.”

She’d sketched a crude circle on the page and the Old Talosi letters were dotted around. She was pretty sure she’d put them in the correct places. Aethlan was frowning again. “I think…I think I have seen this before…”

“That one in the middle is the symbol of the One-Eyed God, isn’t it?”

Aethlan nodded. “Yes. O. It is the last letter of the Old Talosi alphabet. It is used for him not only to represent his single eye, but also to remind us that he is the end of all things.”

“Well, it’s also branded into the thigh of my friend’s Cyclops.”

“Interesting…” Huldane said, although he didn’t sound convinced. If politics gave him a headache, this was unlikely to be much better.

“Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?” Jonis asked. “You have your god with one eye, we have our monsters with the same, and one of the oldest has your god’s symbol burnt into his flesh. Plus there’s your story about the sorceress with my tattoos…”

Aethlan was looking at her strangely. “I feel we may be fumbling towards some fundamental truth about our peoples, Lady Jonis.”

“Me too. So do the letters mean anything to you?”

Aethlan looked back down at the page in her hands. “I…there is something…a memory of an old book or…” She closed her eyes and moved her lips soundlessly, obviously trying to recall where she’d seen this set of symbols in this particular configuration before. Jonis was certain it must be significant. Her eyes snapped open. “I know!”

“You do?” Despite everything going on in her life, Jonis felt excited suddenly. If she had something definite, not only could she solve this mystery that was nagging at her, but it might go some way to getting her back into the Matriarch’s good graces.

“Yes.” Aethlan stood up and now she crossed over to the desk. She took the quill and began scrawling something.

Jonis and Huldane both followed and looked over her shoulder at what she was writing. In fact, she was drawing. Within Jonis’s circle, but around the edges of the letters, she was scratching a rough outline in a familiar shape. It took a moment for Jonis to see it, but when she did her eyes went wide. “That’s Atlantis! It’s a map!”

Aethlan nodded. “Yes. One of my father’s books had one like this – better drawn of course – but the Provinces were marked with only their initials. See,” she pointed with the quill, “T for Talos, A for Atlas, K for Chronus, P for Prometheus…”

It all made sense now, and Jonis was annoyed with herself for not having seen it before. “Of course. The Archive probably had the coastline carved in too, but we didn’t clear all of the dust before we were…uh…that is, before we had to leave.”

“Does this answer your question, Lady Jonis?”

“I think so.” Something was missing somehow, but this felt like a significant step towards solving this mystery. “Talos was called that before the Talosi came. You took your name from the Province.”

“Indeed,” Aethlan agreed.

“So all it was, was an ancient map of Atlantis. The letters are the twelve Provinces. I don’t know why it was Old Talosi, but maybe your ancient language came from some obscure Atlantian script.” She wasn’t sure that explanation held water, but it seemed to fit a certain logic.

“There are thirteen letters,” Huldane said.

“What?”

He pointed. “On the map. Not twelve.”

Jonis peered down. “You’re right…what does the O mean?”

Aethlan shrugged. “I do not know.”

Twelve Provinces of Atlantis. It had been that way for ten millennia. But here was apparently a thirteenth, given equal weight on a map carved in marble that dated back to the dawn of their civilisation. “It’s just mountains there. The Titans.”

“It could be the Heart of Winter,” Huldane suggested.

Aethlan shot him a look. “I do not think Jonis is troubled by some old Talosi story…”

“What’s the Heart of Winter?”

“It is nothing,” Aethlan said hurriedly. “A legend.”

“It is the dwelling place of the One-Eyed God,” Huldane explained, “a castle of ice and bones in the midst of the mountains. It is so high that it is always winter. It is whence all blizzards descend, and where the first wolves were whelped.”

“Religion,” Aethlan sighed, almost apologetically, “I know you think us backward, Keeper Jonis…”

“No,” she murmured, “no it’s fine. That’s how this started, right?” She walked away from the desk, deep in thought. She moved through the room, trying to get everything straight in her head. “The whole reason I went down into the Archive was to find some evidence that the story you told me in Talos had a grain of truth. You said a sorceress, with the markings of a Cyclops Keeper, was part of your history and part of your prophecy. In Svartburg, I spoke with a priest who told me your legends, of how you wrested control of Talos from the servants of the One-Eyed God. He said a…a…host of abominations…came forth at the behest of a witch, but they defeated them. I assumed he was talking about Cyclopes, so I went looking for proof.”

“And what did you find?” Aethlan asked. She had turned in the chair at the desk, and both she and Huldane were looking at her curiously.

“Nothing,” she said numbly.

“Nothing?” Huldane looked confused.

“I had a book, in Talos. Just something I brought with me. I suppose it’s lost in the castle now. It was just something I thought might help me sleep on dull nights. Well, we didn’t have many of those, but I did read it once. It was a history book, a very, very abridged account of the last few thousand years of Atlantian history. When Talos was settled, the realm was in the midst of a generation-long war of succession. It was called the Cthonian Wars. A lot of records from around that time were lost, and histories were rewritten by the victors – almost literally. Somewhere in all that, I suspected, was the story of Cyclopes in Talos.”

“So you went back to the original source,” Aethlan surmised.

“Right. To the Archive. But…” she trailed off.

“There were no records from a thousand years ago?” Huldane said. “Someone had destroyed them?”

“No…more than that…there were no records that far back at all. The Archive is supposed to hold our entire history, going back to the dawn of Atlantis, but there was nothing older than a thousand years. The room wasn’t even big enough to hold ten millennia of texts. It’s as if our past is somehow…truncated…like we’ve been lied to all our lives about our own history…”

Aethlan had a curious look on her face. “What do the histories you have read say of these Cthonian Wars, Lady Jonis?”

“Nothing particularly interesting. Just a dynastic struggle for the throne. It’s happened dozens of times, all in much the same way. Some family or other thinks they have a better claim because of some ancestor whose own claim was deferred at the time for whatever reason, and they have a war to decide. One emerges the victor and a new dynasty begins. All the noble houses in Atlantis are linked by blood ties going back thousands of years. It’d send you crazy to try to make sense of it all. In a way, there probably isn’t a highborn lord or lady in the Provinces who doesn’t have some claim to be Emperor or Empress.”

“So it is the same story told over and over?”

“More or less. Names and places change, but since by the end everyone is just Empress or Emperor…” She trailed off, suddenly realising what she was saying. The words of Valgia, the old priest in Svartburg, came back to her. Legends, told and retold, all who lived them long dead. Who was to say what was real and what was manufactured? All of her homeland’s history could have been dreamed up for all she knew. She felt lost all of a sudden, her one anchor to reality no longer attached. She dropped down onto the couch.

“Lady Jonis,” Aethlan said, standing up, “I too have made a similar discovery this night. I found a long hall in which were the tombs and statues of the Emperors and Empresses that ruled Atlantis in years passed.”

“The Chamber of Memory,” Jonis nodded, “the Imperial crypt. No one is supposed to go there.” She swallowed. “Just like the Archive.”

“I did not intend to trespass. But like you, I found that my understanding of Atlantian history did not measure up to scrutiny.” She walked to the couch and sat down beside Jonis. She still held the sheet of parchment in her hand. “What should have been a history stretching back ten-thousand years was but a fraction of that. The statues of long dead men and women ended with just one, standing defiant at the dawn of a history that has been lost for centuries.”

“We have no idea what’s really true anymore…”

“I know this, Lady Jonis: that first Empress was no ordinary woman. She was a Cyclops Keeper. She ruled a thousand years ago, when my homeland was first settled by my ancestors. You mentioned coincidences before. I do not think this is one.”

Jonis was stunned. Aethlan was right – a legend of a Keeper in Talos, a history ten times shorter than it should be, and one of her people alongside the rulers of Atlantis… “Something happened,” she said, “a thousand years ago. In Talos. Something that no one wanted anyone to remember.”

“So it seems.” Aethlan looked down at the parchment in her hand with its crudely-sketched map. “And I think we may discover the truth of it in the place that bears my god’s symbol, somewhere in your Titan Mountains.”

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