It was the first bright day she could remember in a long time. It was still cold, but the wind was not quite so biting as it blew in from the wide bay of Atlas. It almost felt as if spring could be on the way, but Vion knew that wasn’t true. Or at least, if spring did come, it wouldn’t be like the ones she remembered. There wouldn’t be blossoming trees or fledging birds. There would just be more rain, more cold, more mud and misery. How long could they last like this? She sat out on the terrace at a table that overlooked the gardens. Once this spot was beautiful: now it was a dreary place. The flightless birds that had pecked their way across the lawn for centuries were now dead, some to cold, some to hunger, and some to a shipment of diseased grain brought over from the mainlands. There were still places across the sea where the land was fruitful, but they were decreasing with each passing year, at least if her new Mistress of Spies was to be believed. How long until the ice hemmed humanity into just a narrow band of warmth girdling the earth? Or maybe it wouldn’t stop there: maybe it would eventually engulf everything. Maybe there really was no hope. Such dark thoughts were the fashion of this age, it seemed to her. Here, secure in the Enclave, life was more or less unchanged, but out in the streets she knew it was a different story. When this war was done, she’d need to take care of that: take care of her people. She wasn’t much of an Empress to them yet, but she would be. She’d be the greatest in history. Of that, she was certain.
She turned just as her guest arrived and favoured her with a smile and a nod of greeting. The poor girl. At least she was properly covered this time. The gown she’d been wearing during their last meal had been more suited to the bedroom than the dinner table, although that was no fault of her own. Atlantian styles weren’t made for Talosi women. Now Aethlan was wearing a woollen shawl that covered her bare shoulders – it looked like the rough spun work of her own Province – over a dress that was much more demure and opaque. The pale woman smiled back at her as she walked over to the table.
“Sister,” Vion said, rising from her chair. She took Aethlan in a brief embrace and then bade her sit.
“My Empress.” Aethlan waited for her to return to the table before she seated herself opposite. They were at a small table, marble topped, set with a few covered plates. Servants appeared and poured wine into goblets. This time it was white, from the warm vineyards of southern Oceanus, in the far east of Atlantis.
“This is a little game I’m trying,” Vion explained.
“If I pretend it’s spring, maybe I’ll be able to convince myself and it won’t feel so cold.”
“I do not…”
The servants began to uncover their meal. Olives swam in oil flavoured with chilli pepper flakes, glistening mussels were piled in ice and a dressed crab on a bed of rice took pride of place. A year ago she would have thought this a fairly rustic lunch – now it was the finest money could buy. “In spring and summer, we prefer to eat food like this. In better times, this bay would be filled with the sails of fishing boats. One had only to dip a net into the shallow water along the cliffs and a harvest of shellfish would be your reward. Children would play in the rock pools, puling free limpets and mussels,” she gestured to the plate before them, “eating them raw there and then. Paradise.”
“It sounds wonderful. We have nothing like that in Talos.”
“No indeed. Fish is a staple though, if I recall my lessons?”
“In the north they fish for haddock, cod, herring. It is eaten salted and smoked. Nothing like this, Empress.” She cast her pale eyes across the table.
“I thought this would be more familiar to you. Last time I think perhaps you were…overwhelmed…”
“Some of the flavours were…yes…a little much.” She smiled shyly.
“I’m sorry, Aethlan,” Vion said, “for leaving so abruptly. I wanted to make it up to you. We have things to talk about.”
“Yes. Namely, the future of my realm. And yours.”
Aethlan looked away. Was it Vion’s imagination, or did her gaze pull slightly north, as if she was searching for some glimmer of her lost homeland? “I have no realm,” she said after a moment. She looked back to her plate, where a servant was dishing up some of the food.
“Talos still belongs to you. You are the rightful ruler of the Province, in my name.”
“I am in exile, Empress.”
“In Atlantis, we don’t determine right of rule by proximity. Talos was your father’s and it was passed to you, no?”
“Do you plan to return?”
Aethlan looked conflicted. She picked up her fork and prodded the crab uncertainly. “Huldane…that is, my jarl…he speaks of it. I know he wishes things to be as they were.”
“And what do you wish?”
“I wish for nothing. But I know it is simpler to break a glass than to put one back together. What is done is done.”
Vion took a sip of her wine. It was too cold for the day’s chill, really, but she ignored that. “Atlantis must be whole. This, I know. Twelve Provinces must stand united, or what hope do we have to weather this doom?”
“Talos may already be lost to that doom, Empress.”
“I won’t yield it without a fight.”
Aethlan’s face changed, her eyes hardeneing and her jaw sticking out petulantly. “There was a fight, Empress.”
“Of course. But once this is over…once I’ve defeated Saffrey’s rebellion…I mean to return to Talos and drive back those who usurped you.”
“That…is generous, Empress…”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“I want…” she looked away again. Her food remained untouched. “I do not know what I want, truly. Things have changed so much.”
“Of course. But we can’t afford to rest on our laurels.” She popped an olive into her mouth. They were small and shrivelled compared to previous year’s crops, but tasty enough.
“I’ve already started one war without the say-so of my Chamber of Ministers. They’re unlikely to let me start another.”
Vion didn’t think she did, but she smiled anyway. “If we wish to recapture Talos from your enemies, we will need…political leverage. At the moment, you’re just a noblewoman from a far off Province, a beggar queen.”
Aethlan’s lips twisted. “If I impose…”
“That’s not how I see you, but it’s how you appear to others who know less of the story. If you come before the Chamber and ask them to send an army across the mountains to take back a land most of them have never seen, let alone have any emotional investment in, they’ll laugh you out of the door. Well,” she paused, “they’ll actually flatter you with nonsense and tell you to come back next month. They’ll talk a lot about the treasury and the cost of mounting such an expedition, and how there are currently other crises closer to home and you’ll go away thinking you might wear them down if you just keep asking. But then next month, it’ll be something else. You have no power, Lady Aethlan.”
“Of that,” Aethlan said, pushing an olive around her plate, “I am acutely aware, Empress.”
“Don’t worry, sister. There is a simple solution.” She sat back in her chair and sipped on her wine, watching Aethlan over the rim.
She glanced up. The cold was making her pale cheeks turn pink. Such odd people, these Talosi. Their round faces showed absolutely no sign of suspicion or guile. Politics in their country must have been awfully dull. “A solution?”
“Yes.” Vion put her goblet down. “There are some lands in the north of Atlas, not far from the Talosi border, in the mountains.”
“It would be just like home…”
Aethlan frowned. “Empress, I do not understand…”
“Until very recently, these lands were the seat of Lord Carrick, the patriarch of a very old and very noble line, with strong ties to the throne. He was once the terror of the Chamber of Ministers, but he has been sick for a long time now and last month he finally lost his battle. He spent little time in his estates in Atlas, but his heir, by contrast, has never left them. He is a young man, mostly interested in books by all accounts. A sickly lad through his childhood with no knack for swordplay or horse riding. Traditionally, such a weak successor to a powerful title is a disaster. It was expected that all Carrick had achieved would be squandered. Some of his rivals positively relished the thought.”
“I see, Empress.” Did she see, or was she just trying to look as if she belonged here?
“I need strength by my side. Carrick was one of my father’s closest allies in the Chamber: a strong, pragmatic voice. His loss will be keenly felt, and his son is no replacement. And so, I must find a way to shore up my eroding power base. I must hold onto what was Carrick’s, for the sake of Atlantis’s stability.”
“You wish me to marry this boy, Empress?”
Vion tilted her head. “Very astute, Aethlan. That would solve a number of problems. You would be a strong influence on such a weak lord. In time, you may even take his hereditary place in the Chamber. You would become a powerful force in Atlantian politics.”
“I see…” She didn’t sound too enthusiastic about the idea.
“You could set up a court of Talos in exile. Your enemy, this Lord Wodan, would find a foe’s stronghold on his doorstep. You could make a mere ceremonial seat into a home. I have no doubt your jarl could step up local recruitment. Noble houses have command of their own guards, and such a force would go a long way to making the recapture of Talos seem feasible.”
“My jarl.” Aethlan looked stricken. So was that the way of it? These Talosi were so easy to read. That would be a problem.
“I can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to,” Vion said. She picked up a mussel and prised open the shell with her thumb, exposing the pale, wobbling mollusc inside. “In Atlantis, women chose their own husbands.”
“In Talos, we marry for our families. For alliances. For politics.”
“And you think this would be the same thing?”
Aethlan met her eyes. “Is it not?”
“Of course it is. Politics is politics. We have our morals, but surely our duty is to the greater good?”
“As you say, Empress.” She dropped her eyes again. She’d still barely touched her food.
There was something she wasn’t saying. “What is it? You object?”
“You speak of the greater good, Empress…and yet…”
She raised an eyebrow. “And yet?”
“Do you not send men and women to die in battle because you chose love over duty, Empress? Meaning…meaning no disrespect…”
Vion let the moment hang, then put the opened mussel back down on her plate. Maybe this one wouldn’t be so pliant after all. “It’s an illusion, Aethlan, did you know that?”
“This freedom. This beauty. All an illusion.” She picked up her goblet and upended it, swallowing the last of the wine in one gulp. “We pride ourselves on being the greatest civilisation in the world,” she continued, “but who are we really? I love Albrihn. I’ve loved him since the moment I saw him. But that’s not why I’ll marry him. I’ll marry him because he’s strong. You know him. You know what he’s capable of. He knew almost nothing of your people, but he risked his life to protect your city. He’s a leader. But it would take him years to rise to where he needs to be to save our people – I’m playing the same game my father was. Rayke is just a playing piece on the board, and now I move him into position. Even if I didn’t look at him and see the other half of myself, I’d marry him. I have no more choice than if my father chose a powerful lord like Saffrey for my husband. The choice I do have is whether to be a player or a pawn, but that has no relation to the choices I make as a woman, as an Atlantian.”
Aethlan said nothing, just looked demurely down at her plate. Her long eyelashes hid her gaze from view, but Vion looked hard at her, willing her to raise her head and show wide liquid eyes and a trembling lower lip. “An illusion, you say.”
She looked up, and there were no wide eyes, no trembling lip, just steel. “And just how far does that go, Empress?” She gestured to the food. “Who starves so we can eat?” She looked out across the city. “Who dies so we can live?”
“It’s an illusion all the way down, Aethlan. But what would you have me do?”
“I do not know. You see much further than I. I have no hope that I will be able to walk a path of my own in this city, or any certainty that I desire to do so at all. I have merely survived, and this is where I find myself, eating shellfish and olives with the Empress of Atlantis. Some might call me fortunate. Perhaps I have an opportunity.”
“An opportunity indeed. To become powerful.”
“To survive. That may be all any of us can do in the coming days. I have seen the end of hope in fire and snow; I have seen the madness of men driven to desperation; I have seen the beginning of this age of ruin.” She had reached beneath her shawl and now she brought out a piece of folded parchment. She opened it and pushed her still-full plate aside to spread it on the table. Vion frowned at it. It looked like a scrawled map of Atlantis, just a doodle in ink, a little smudged, and on it were some symbols.
“What is that?”
“Hope.” Aethlan pushed it towards her. “Places marked on a map of Atlantis using Old Talosi letters.”
Vion picked the parchment up and examined it more closely. “Something from your home?”
“No, something from yours. Do you know what that symbol near the centre is?”
She saw the one she meant. The others all corresponded roughly to the capitals of each Province, twelve in all, but the thirteenth was somewhere in the Titans. “No,” she said calmly.
“It is the symbol of the god of my country.”
“What of it?”
“This was found somewhere in this city. The original version, anyway.”
“Do you not think that strange?”
Vion tossed the parchment back across the table. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What does this have to do with anything?”
“What happened a thousand years ago?”
“Anything to do with the Cyclopes?”
“You’d need to ask the Keepers, Aethlan.”
“It was a Keeper that brought me this information. It was carved in marble at the bottom of their ancient record hall.”
“I still don’t follow…”
“I believe Atlantis’s past may not be as straightforward as you believe.”
Vion laughed. “There’s nothing straightforward about Atlantis’s past.”
“Does that symbol, or that location mean anything to you? I believe it could be important…”
“For whom?” But she picked up the parchment again. The symbol did look familiar now she gave it more thought. An old memory tickled at the back of her mind. “There is a story…”
“A myth,” she shrugged, “long forgotten. Now only recorded in some ancient texts. I remember it from my childhood.”
“I did not think myths were told in Atlas.”
“That’s why it’s long forgotten. It’s just the legend of the Thirteenth Province. It’s said that there were once the twelve that we know, and another that was somehow destroyed in a cataclysm. Its name was Omega.”
Aethlan licked her lips. “That letter is the Old Talosi for ‘o’, Empress. The others likewise correspond to the names of the other Provinces.”
“I see…” What could this mean? The woman was obviously invested in this little mystery, but Vion failed to see any significance.
“I know you believe us to be superstitious savages, Empress, but it appears that many of the myths that we Talosi tell are also told in Atlas, albeit in a different form. We have prophecies…histories…the fate of Atlantis may be…” She fell silent. “It is hard to explain,” she admitted.
“What do you want me to do about this, Aethlan?”
“I…I believe the location on that map may hold some truth about…about what is happening.”
“About what’s happening where?”
She looked out to sea. “Everywhere.”
“So what? You want to go there? If this map is to be believed, the object of your quest lies in the highest peaks of the Titan Mountains. They’re inaccessible.”
“To one who is determined enough, no mountain is a barrier.”
“Would that be you, Aethlan?”
Vion considered. “Others have tried,” she said.
“Omega. Others have tried to find it. Centuries ago. Some even went to this place.” She tapped her finger on the ‘o’ symbol on the map. “Perhaps they made the same discoveries you did. Needless to say, they were not successful.”
“What happened to them?”
“They did not return. I don’t use the term inaccessible lightly.”
“So you will not give me permission to leave? Am I a prisoner here?” That steel in her eyes was back again.
“Of course not. You are my guest. But you’re a very important guest, and what kind of host would allow someone like that to leave their care to go off on a foolish jaunt to the most inhospitable region of Atlantis? I’d be a poor friend indeed, would I not?” She tapped a finger against her goblet, and a servant appeared to refill it. He offered the decanter to Aethlan but she waved him away. Her goblet was still full.
“Another illusion then. A prisoner, but not in name.”
“If you chose to see it that way. That is the choice we have: we are all pushed in different directions, all we can do is decide whether to push back or to follow the path set out for us unresistingly. Will you push back, Aethlan?” She raised her goblet to her lips, but didn’t drink from it. Her eyes stayed on Aethlan’s face.
“It is not in me to defy the will of my liege lord.”
“But I cannot let this rest. Not if there is a chance to save the world.”
Vion put her wine down. “Perhaps,” she said, adopting an innocent tone, “you could send another in your place? Someone loyal to you, and brave. A warrior.”
“Huldane would go,” Aethlan said.
“Huldane, yes. What a good idea. And did you say a Keeper brought this to you?” She pointed to the parchment on the table.
“Keeper Jonis. I…I spoke of her before…”
“Yes. Yes you did. I think it would be best if she went too, if this is indeed her discovery.”
“That…makes sense, Empress. Thank you.”
“I’ll send word to the Matriarch. I’ll give them a company of city guard too, for their own protection.”
“You are kind, Empress.”
“Think of it as a favour.”
“Favours are repaid.”
“Indeed they are, Aethlan. Indeed they are.” She lifted the goblet again and smiled to herself behind it. A shrewder player than she’d thought, perhaps, but not quite shrewd enough. She almost felt sorry for the poor girl.