It was another bright, clear day and, as Aethlan pulled her shawl close around her shoulders, she could almost convince herself it was summer. There would be no meals on the terrace with the Empress this morning though. The palace was quiet. It was always quiet, but now it seemed much more so. She wondered what had convinced her to send Huldane away on this quest into the distant mountains that, from a tower she’d discovered not far from her chamber, she could make out piling up on the horizon, their peaks permanently white with snow. That same chain of mountains reached north into Talos and, if she squinted, she could imagine she was back home looking at the same frozen slopes. But she was not at home, and she’d never felt more alone than she did now. There were other Talosi in the palace – her maids, whom she trusted implicitly – but there was a distance between them. She would always be the lady, and they the servants, even if they weren’t treated as such here. Even though Huldane served her too, there was something different about him. She knew what it was, and that was part of why she’d made him go with Jonis, as much as she might feel incomplete without him by her side. He was an inconvenience, a distraction, and she would do much better to follow the Empress’s advice and seek out an Atlasian lord who could help her restore her homeland. The airy veranda on which she walked opened onto another terrace – there must be hundreds of them nestled in the labyrinthine palace – and the strangeness of the architecture was an acute reminder of lost Talos. Like Huldane, part of her dreamed of returning, of taking back the city and punishing Wodan for his rebellion. She knew it would never happen though. She could raise an army, go crusading across the border, but to what end? The ice would come whatever they did. No, Talos was lost.
She stepped out onto the terrace. The white flagstones were cold, even through the slippers she wore. There was no one around, and this terrace was bordered by high walls on each side. Creeping vines were interwoven with lattices against the pale stonework, now just dead grey sticks, and there were flower beds around the edges that were just empty patches of soil. On the other side was a sloping lawn, dotted with sculptures, but on the edge of the terrace was a curious object. It was a sort of carved pedestal in the same white marble as almost everything else in the Enclave, with two curving benches built into its base on either side as if it were a table. It was far too small for two people to comfortably eat a meal at though, or even share a drink. The top of the table – if that’s what it was – also bore an odd design. It was a grid of small squares, alternating black and white. The white was the same material as the table, the black was veined obsidian. She cocked her head at it and counted the squares on each side. There were sixty-four altogether. She couldn’t imagine the significance.
“Do you play?” a voice asked.
She turned, surprised, to see a man standing in the veranda, leaning casually against a column. He was handsome, with a completely shaved head, a style that was unknown in Talos but which seemed popular here with men and women alike. He was dressed like all the Atlasian nobility, in a loose silk shirt and tight hose. She could see his lean musculature and something about the way he smiled at her made her heartbeat quicken. “Play?” she asked.
He pointed to the pedestal, but when she looked at him uncomprehendingly he laughed and walked over to her. “It’s a game,” he explained, “you don’t have it in Talos?”
“How do you know I am from Talos.”
“You’re the Lady Aethlan. Everyone knows you.”
“Everyone? I hardly ever see anyone in this palace. I thought there would be feasts, balls…”
“Not these days,” the man said, sounding almost sad. “Many have left. War is coming.” He made a show of sniffing the air. “Can’t you tell?”
“I obviously lack your faculties, lord….?”
He smiled easily. “Lord Valcon.”
“I am sorry not to be more familiar with the nobility of Atlas but, as I said, I see very few people it seems.”
“Even if you were familiar, you’re unlikely to have heard of me. I’m a junior member of the Chamber of Ministers, neither wealthy nor powerful.”
“At the moment,” Aethlan said, “but who knows how things will be when this civil war is done?”
“Indeed. It’s a time for opportunistic politicians to make their mark. You’re a perceptive woman, my lady.”
“I held off many rivals back in Talos. Hard to imagine now, but I was once a politician too.”
“I think you may find yourself back in that position sooner than you think.” He looked back down at the pedestal. “Do you want me to teach you?”
“Politics or the game?”
“They’re not as different as you might think.” He reached down and pushed a section just beneath the lip of the pedestal. There was a click and he pulled a drawer open that had been completely invisible before. In it nestled a number of playing pieces in the same marble and obsidian as the board. “Please, sit,” he said, holding out a hand.
She perched herself on one of the benches and he sat down opposite. “Is it a difficult game?”
“The basic principles are very simple,” he said, “but it can be hard to master. Playing is considered an intellectual challenge. The finest players are some of the most intelligent men and women in Atlantis.”
“I doubt I shall be very good then.”
“We’ll see.” He began to lay out the pieces in front of him, choosing black. First a row of eight identical ones with spherical heads. “The game is called Queens,” Valcon explained as he laid them out, “it’s a game of battle.”
“Extremely abstracted, of course, but the principles should be familiar to any student of war. These fellows are pawns, the ordinary soldiers, the poor bloody infantry. Limited, but essential, as you’ll discover.” Now came the row behind, and these were more varied. On either end, he set out two matching pieces that looked like towers. “The Cyclopes.”
“They look more like castles…”
“As I say, abstract. Although.” He held up one of them. “They say that the true face of a Cyclops is a mass of writhing tentacles. Perhaps that’s what these battlements represent?” His smile was very attractive. He continued, now with two horse-shaped pieces beside the Cyclopes. “The knights, for obvious reasons.” Now two taller pieces with oddly-shaped heads. “The ministers.”
“Oh yes. Two, you see, one on a black square, one on a white.”
“To represent two opposing political factions,” Aethlan guessed.
Valcon nodded. “Just so. And finally, the most important piece of all…” This was the tallest too, and its top was surmounted with a low crown. “The queen.”
“What goes beside her?” She pointed to the empty space.
“Nothing? You have another black queen left in the box.”
“All will become clear,” he said cryptically.
He removed the second queen and passed the box to her. Quickly, she mirrored his layout. “Is this right?”
“Yes. Now, the way this game works is that we each take it in turns to move our pieces around the board according to the rules that govern each of their movements. If you move onto a square occupied by one of your opponent’s pieces, they are captured.”
“Captured? Not killed?”
“We say captured. The point is they take no further part.”
“And the game is over when the other player’s pieces are all captured?”
“Not exactly.” He tapped his finger against the top of his queen. “You lose when your queen is captured.”
“So she should be kept safe.”
“But the queen,” he said with an enigmatic smile, “is the most powerful piece. Here, let me explain.” He pointed to each piece in turn. “The pawns can only march straight forward, one space at a time, except they must capture enemy pieces by moving diagonally.” He demonstrated. “The Cyclopes move in straight lines: left, right, forward or backwards, any number of squares. The knights can jump other pieces, but they have to move like this, in any direction.” He showed her.
“I do not know if I will remember that.”
“Don’t worry; it confuses everyone. Knights are versatile in some ways, but also limited in others.”
“Like the pawns,” Aethlan said.
“Exactly. Now, the ministers move diagonally, like so. Again, as far as they like.”
“Because they are untrustworthy,” she said. “And if they move diagonally, they must always remain on the same colour square. Politicians, entrenched in their positions.”
Valcon laughed. “Indeed. Finally, the queen can move in any direction, any number of squares. Diagonally, to either side, forward and backwards.”
“A powerful weapon. But why is it Queens?”
“What else would it be?”
“Why not Empresses? There are no queens in Atlantis.”
“True. It’s an old game though. No one quite knows its origin. Now,” he continued, “there is one more thing to know.” He let his finger rest atop a pawn. “Should one of these lowly foot soldiers reach the opposite side of the board, they will leave the battlefield and take a message to reinforcements just over the horizon.” He mimed the pawn running away. “And they return…with this…” He placed another queen down in the middle of the board.
“Ah, the spare square. It makes sense now.”
“Precisely. With two queens, it becomes much easier to win.”
“And harder to lose.”
“Not exactly – you see, if either queen is captured, the game ends. So, in some ways, you become more vulnerable.”
“Interesting.” Aethlan frowned down at the board. “Why two queens though?”
“Twins,” Valcon shrugged, “as I say, it’s an ancient game. No one knows why it is as it is. But they say the queens are sisters who reign side by side, and who cannot exist without one another. If one is captured, the other surrenders out of grief.”
“I thought they were captured, not killed?”
“Let’s not examine it too closely, my lady…”
It was Aethlan’s turn to laugh. “You regale me with all this logic for how it works, and then tell me not to examine it?”
“It’s just a game.”
“Clearly it is not. What battle is it based on?”
“Many have asked that question, my lady. None have yet provided a satisfactory answer.”
“How old is it?”
“No one knows. Thousands of years.”
Aethlan considered the man sitting opposite. She had no idea who he was, or whether he was friend or foe. She felt sure there was some subtext to this seemingly innocent flirtation over this odd game, and she resolved to probe him as subtly as she could. “More than a thousand years then.”
“I have heard,” she said, “that Atlantian history is something of a mystery that far back, even to scholars.”
“Quite so, Lady Aethlan. A thousand years is many lifetimes. Who can say whether anything we know of earlier ages is true? Perhaps it was all invented?” His gaze was intent.
“Perhaps. So, shall we play?”
“Of course. I’ll go easy on you.”
“Please do not.”
“I’m quite adept…”
“Maybe I am too. We do not know yet.” She looked at the board. “Who should go first?”
“White moves first.”
He shrugged. “Just the way the game is played. Tradition I suppose.”
“All right then.” She picked up a knight and moved it over the pawns. “Is that right?”
“It’s exactly right. You know,” he said, moving a pawn a step forward, “most people tend to move pawns first.”
“I put my trust in knights.”
“Ah. Yes, I should have guessed.”
“Why is that, Lord Valcon?” She moved the other knight forward.
“Your affiliation with a certain…dashing horseman…is well known.” Another of his obsidian pawns joined the fray.
“You mean Commander Albrihn?” She finally moved one of her own pawns.
“I do. He saved your life, or so the rumour goes.” A way was clear for one of his ministers, and now that piece advanced, moving right out to the right hand edge of the board.
“He led the defence of my city. He helped me and my people to escape. I owe him a great deal.”
“I hear he’s a fine soldier.”
“Do you not know him?” She considered her next move, and went for another pawn.
“I haven’t had the pleasure. I’d very much like to make his acquaintance though, should he return from his mission.” His other minister took up position opposite the first.
“I have absolute faith in the commander.”
“Is that all?”
“Excuse me?” Her hand hovered over one of her knights.
“There are rumours,” he said.
“Commander Albrihn is entirely chivalrous.”
“It’s said he intends to marry the Empress.”
It was Aethlan’s turn to give a knowing smile as she repositioned the knight. “I am afraid I would not be party to such information.”
“They say you dine with the Empress regularly.”
Was that what this was all about then? A search for information? “I have had the pleasure of sharing her table, but we are hardly gossiping washerwomen. If the Empress has a consort in mind, she has not shared her designs with me.”
“I suppose not.” He moved his minister. Unbeknownst to Aethlan, she’d left a hole in her defences, and he placed it in the square beside her queen.
“Where did he come from?”
“You know those ministers,” Valcon said, “very sneaky.”
“Indeed.” Aethlan wasted no time in moving her queen to capture the intrusive politician. “But subterfuge is no match for strength.”
“No?” Valcon picked up his other minister, and too late Aethlan saw his plan. It swooped in, following the mirror image of the route his fallen brother had just taken, and now captured her queen. “Sorry,” Valcon said as he removed her queen from the board, “game over. That’s a well-known gambit.”
“Not well-known to me.”
“Well, you are a novice.”
“So it appears.” She regarded the board with dismay. All over in a handful of moves. “You are cunning, Lord Valcon,” she admitted.
“Thank you, Lady Aethlan. Another game?”
She shook her head. “I think not. I am not so easily fooled as my queen. I see your subterfuge.”
He raised his eyebrows. “My lady?”
“What is it you want from me, Valcon?”
“Not as much as you might think.”
“I wish to talk about Rayke Albrihn.”
“I told you, I know nothing of his plans.”
“I think you’re lying, but no matter. I already know more than you do about him. A lot more.”
“So why bring him up?”
“Because there are things I don’t know that you are in a unique position to uncover.”
She looked at him curiously. “Uncover? What are you talking about?”
“Since you came here to Atlas, you’ve already demonstrated that you have a keen, enquiring mind.”
“Have I indeed?”
“For example, your trip to the Chamber of Memories…”
Valcon smiled slightly. “You know. There’s no need for games.”
Aethlan held out a hand to the board. “Apart from Queens?”
“Your companion, the soldier,” he continued, “has left the city with a Keeper because of what you discovered.”
“Do you know what is down there?”
“I do, as do many others.”
“So why am I the first to want to do anything about it?”
“Because it hasn’t been in anyone’s interest to pull at that particular thread.” He was playing idly with her queen that he’d captured, rolling it between his slender brown fingers.
Aethlan considered the ministers, now all clustered on her side of the board. Each slaved to a different colour, each inflexible even as they were unpredictable. “Whose side are you on, Lord Valcon?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Do you support the Empress or this Lord Saffrey?”
“I support Atlantis. I support the stability of the realm. As long as the throne is strong, the arse that occupies it is irrelevant.”
“So you are of neither faction?”
“I’m of a faction. A faction that has existed for a long, long time.”
“And what faction is this, Valcon?”
He leant back on the marble bench and crossed his arms. “A faction that concerns itself with secrets.”
“Atlas seems full of secrets.”
“It is. We have an old saying here: ‘Even the secrets of the Empress have secrets of their own’.”
“What about Emperors?”
“The saying changes depending on the sex of the current ruler. The point is…”
“That Atlas is a city built on secrets,” she interrupted.
“And is your faction in the business of maintaining secrets or exposing them, Valcon?”
“Some we maintain, others we expose. It depends on the secret. For example,” he said in a low voice as he leant forward again, “the secret your friends are trying to find the root of? That is a very dangerous secret indeed.”
“Do you know the truth then? About the true history of Atlantis?”
“No. And I don’t wish to. Neither would you if you understood what was at stake.”
“I know exactly what is at stake,” she said a little harshly, “I saw my city burn, just as the prophecies of my people predicted. Prophecies written a thousand years ago. Atlas may have forgotten its past, but if it wants to survive it would do well to reacquaint itself with it.”
“Some things are better forgotten. But others…”
Valcon picked up one of his knights and held it before him. “Rayke Albrihn. The knight. You put your faith in him. I do not. We do not.”
“He may surprise you.”
“That’s what we’re afraid of.” He put the knight back down in the centre of the board. “He comes from nowhere, an ordinary soldier, and now the fate of Atlantis may reside with him. For politicians, such things are…sources of consternation.”
“Why? You said you wanted the throne to be strong. Albrihn is nothing if not strong.”
“But he isn’t on the throne, is he?” Valcon smiled, but now it seemed more predatory than charming. Aethlan realised she’d fallen into a trap.
“As a commander in the militia…”
“A commander. A week ago he was a mere captain. Now he leads armies, defends cities, speaks of marrying Empresses. Who is Rayke Albrihn?”
“You must know more than I do of his origins.”
“I know what his record says.”
Aethlan narrowed her eyes. “You think the record is false?”
“We have certain…suspicions.”
“This is all fascinating,” Aethlan sighed, “but I have no interest in politics.” She made to stand.
“You have no choice, Lady Aethlan. You’re here, in the palace, a noble from another land, with friends in very high places indeed. Politics has an interest in you, and the future of Atlantis is at stake.”
“I will not do anything to hurt Commander Albrihn.” She rose. “Thank you for the game,” she said stiffly. “It was…educational.”
“My associates and I are few in number,” Valcon said, “our attempts to find the truth have met resistance in the past from those more powerful than us. Now, everything is in flux. Half the Chamber of Ministers has deserted the city. The First Minister himself is in open rebellion against the throne. These are dangerous days for those of us who immerse ourselves in the governance of a nation. Our group is at risk of being exposed if we pry too obviously into matters regarding the good commander. Before, the threat was mere disgrace and exile. Now, our lives may be at risk. With Atlantis approaching civil war, victory will go to those who are most ruthless, not most deserving.”
“What can I, a woman from what might as well be a foreign land, do that a minister could not?”
“Make enquiries without suspicion. Go wherever you please. You are watched by few, Lady Aethlan. Most don’t understand what a threat you are to them.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “A threat? Me?”
“Indeed. You may be the second-most dangerous woman in Atlas.”
“You know who the first is…”
“Yes, but I think she’s with Commander Albrihn.”
Valcon frowned. “What?”
“Seems you do not know everything.” She turned and began to walk away.
“He isn’t who he appears to be,” Valcon called after her, “we know that much. An ordinary man does not rise so meteorically through the hierarchy of Atlantis. Until we understand him, he will remain a danger.”
“That is not my problem, Lord Valcon.”
“I suppose not.” He was standing too now, and she turned back around at the veranda. He walked towards her. “You have nothing to be concerned about. What is Atlantis to you, really?”
“I do not fear Rayke.”
“No. But we do. And the things we fear, we remove. If he remains a mystery, he remains a danger to the stability of the realm.”
“What are you saying?”
“If you care for Commander Albrihn,” he said, taking hold of her upper arm and moving his face very close to hers, “you will do all you can to find the truth of his origins. If you fail…we will take the only course of action open to us to save Atlantis. He will be removed.”
Sne raised an eyebrow. “Captured?” she challenged.
“The choice is yours, Lady Aethlan.” He brushed past her and strode away.