The Gap of Hephaestus was a rocky, windswept plateau dotted with a few scrubby trees, permanently leaning away from the fierce wind that blew down from the mountains to the north. Now, that wind carried a heavy and unexpected snowfall. The stony ground was already dusted white and more was certain to come. Commander Hadrin tugged at the reins of her horse as she picked her way along the ridge that ran down from the foothills, at the top of which was the compact fortress in which the garrison had, until very recently, been stationed. She’d half expected that they’d have a fight on their hands when they arrived here – there would be survivors from the army they’d defeated in Ixion and Rykall for one would have been foolish enough to try to make a stand. That the castle was deserted told her something very important: Rykall didn’t have the command. That meant Albrihn was alive. She didn’t know if she was relieved or disappointed. Now, Saffrey’s banner had been raised over the squat stone keep, but he hadn’t actually occupied it – it was a drafty, bleak building, not at all suitable for the First Minister of Atlantis. Or the Emperor. At least he hadn’t been fool enough to formally declare himself ruler yet. That would be much too risky for someone as careful and controlled as him. Instead, Saffrey was still quartered in his elaborate tent, but it was set near the walls of the fortress, cunningly sheltered from the bad weather. The rest of the vast, sprawling camp – now reinforced with the troops she had brought over to this side as well as a number of other contingents that had joined them from elsewhere in Chronus and even other Provinces, fulfilling bargains made with Saffrey before all this had begun – was spread across the Gap, shivering in the bitter cold.
She dismounted and handed the reins over to a groom. It was dusk, but the sky was already dark with heavy clouds. In the distance, to their west, she could see the lights of towns and villages, glimmering faintly through the falling snow. Atlas itself wasn’t visible yet, but if tomorrow’s weather was fine it should be a dark smudge on the horizon. She had been born and raised in that city; how did she feel about marching on it at the head of an army? The guards outside the tent, elite Chronusi cataphracts in gleaming scale mail, uncrossed their spears and allowed her to enter without a word. She ducked through the entrance and came upon Saffrey sitting nonchalantly at a wooden table. Two handsome servants waited on him, one with wine, the other with a bowl of glazed dates. As soon as the lord took a sip from his goblet, it was refilled. The dark wine steamed, even in the heat from the braziers at each corner of this receiving room. Draped doors led off to other chambers within the fabulous pavilion. It was larger than most houses in Atlas.
“Commander,” Saffrey said with a smile.
She watched him for a moment and then, as if it were nothing, threw a lazy salute. However, instead of clenching her fist, her forefinger and little finger remained extended. Saffrey lifted his chin slightly and then wordlessly returned the strange gesture. Immediately he waved a hand, dismissing his servants. They walked past her, moving with a swish of silk and leaving the scent of perfume in their wake. She cocked her head. On the table, besides the wine, was a sheaf of papers – she recognised even from this distance the look of military reports – and, before him, a wooden queens board laid out. He was halfway through a game. Next to it was a folded letter that he occasionally glanced at.
She approached the table. “Queens?”
“Do you play?”
“A little. Not well.”
“Everyone says that. Have a seat, commander.” He gestured to one of the folding camp stools.
She pulled the closest towards the table and sat down opposite him. “You’re playing yourself?”
He chuckled. “No.” He held up the letter. It was covered in dense, spidery script. “A friend. We play by correspondence.”
“This particular game has been going on for…” He looked up at the ceiling, calculating. “Three years? Four?”
“Indeed. It’s a pretext for our keeping in touch, I suppose. She is a dear friend. A minor noble in Tethys. We were playmates as children.”
“I see.” Saffrey’s preferences were well known, but so was his cunning. Everything he was telling her could be a lie. “Forgive me, lord, but is now the best time for a board game? We may be on the eve of the greatest battle of our age…”
“It hones my mind, commander. When one masters queens, one has mastered all military matters.”
“Again, meaning no disrespect, but there is more to warfare than wooden pieces on a board of squares.”
“And more to it than laying siege to a city.” His finger was poised on the knight. He had his eyes firmly on the board, as if he were playing his opponent there and then, with them waiting on him to make this tense move. It might be months until his friend received word of whatever he eventually chose to do, and yet to Saffrey it made no difference. She had heard that his mind was like a razor blade: that he could concentrate so fully on a single task that no skill eluded him. He was said to be a master swordsman, a talented artist, a superb lover. Or maybe it was all lies.
“My lord,” she said, “if I am to command your army, I would know your mind. How do you wish to proceed?”
“With what, commander?”
“With…with taking Atlas…” What game was he playing here, besides the one in front of him?
“I am hoping,” he said, still concentrating on the board, “that it will not be necessary to take it at all.”
He finally looked up. His eyes were very dark and his gaze intent. She understood then where the rumours came from. “As you know, Atlas cannot be defended.”
“True enough. The slums stretch a mile beyond the walls, which are in a state of complete disrepair.”
“Precisely – all its defences look towards the sea. From land, it is completely vulnerable.”
“So you’re hoping they surrender?”
“I’m hoping for negotiation. I’d like to not have to demolish my own capital if it can be avoided.” His hand moved to one of the ministers and hovered there. “But there is one problem.”
“Cyclopes,” she guessed.
“Very good, commander.” He tapped a finger against the one Cyclops piece of his that remained on the board. “They are Atlas’s greatest weapon. No force in the world can stand against them.”
“You see now why I asked what you have planned.”
“Cyclopes are limited. Not everyone knows this. After they unleash the terrible, arcane force that makes them so deadly, they cannot be used again for weeks or even months.”
Hadrin couldn’t hide her surprise. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“It’s a closely guarded secret. If Vion is foolish enough to deploy the Cyclopes, they can only destroy so many of our soldiers. And that is why we have the levies. I will send them into the city first.”
Hadrin grimaced at his brutal calculation. “That is…”
“An unpleasant thought? I agree. But I don’t believe it will come to that. The Cyclopes are a terror weapon. Neither side wishes to see them used. The effect on the defenders’ morale would make the advantage meagre indeed. No, Cyclopes need not worry us. The difficulty is in fighting in the streets.”
“It’s hard to coordinate an army in those conditions. But the same is true of the Empress’s…uh, that is, Lady Vion’s forces…”
“Quite. So, again, I believe this is an unlikely eventuality. No, if it comes to battle, they will force us to lay siege to them.”
“But the city can’t be held…”
“Not the city, no.” He tapped the top of his queen. “But the Enclave’s walls are high and strong. They will fall back there, to the centre of Atlas. There is space for much of the population inside, natural springs and they are well provisioned.”
“Sounds like a fight we don’t want to start.”
“In theory they could hide in there for years. In practice, they will not. I have agents in Atlas. They will undermine the defences and, by some means or other, we will break the siege.”
Hadrin nodded. “So we have nothing to fear?”
“We have one thing to fear.” Back to the knight.
“Albrihn,” she guessed. “That’s why you have that savage here.”
“Why is he so important?”
“Why indeed?” He steepled his fingers and watched her very carefully, leaning back in his chair. It was ostentatious and polished to a bright reflective shine, just short of being a throne. “I’m glad I understand why you joined us,” he said.
“Well…we all have our political leanings…” He was talking about that innocuous salute earlier. She’d taken a risk performing that openly, but she’d been fairly certain he was sympathetic to the ancient cause.
“Yes. And some of us take our beliefs even more seriously than mere…leanings.”
“Would it surprise you to learn that, amongst those who share our philosophy, there are some who have taken steps to organise ourselves into something more formal?”
“Not particularly,” she admitted, “but I didn’t know of it until now.”
“Good. Let me explain: for a long time, the upper echelons of government in Atlantis have been infiltrated by members of our organisation. We are cross-faction – most belong to my own Conformists, but there are a good number of Reformers too. We have lords and ladies, soldiers, courtiers, favourites and stodgy nobles in isolated dominions. We are powerful.”
“I can well believe it.”
“And our knowledge is deep.”
She wasn’t sure what he was getting at. He seemed to take pleasure in letting this business out in dribs and drabs, stringing her along for his own amusement. “I’m sure you are all very wise…”
That made him laugh. He sat back and watched her again, his eyes dancing in the flames of the braziers. “Torla Hadrin,” he said suddenly, “Commander of the Twelfth Regiment, Atlasian Militia. Resident of a rather pleasant villa on Cobbler’s Row. I believe there is a lovely view of the Bronze Plaza from the terrace.”
Hadrin narrowed her eyes. “That’s common enough knowledge, Lord Saffrey.”
“You are unmarried, but you have an…arrangement…with a master armourer, a widower, whose shop is a few streets away on Lily Walk. His name is Gorvund and he has a young daughter, upon whom you dote. She was named Milda, after her mother, but everyone calls her Mimi.”
Her nostrils flared. “What is the point of this?”
“Your family is Atlasian, but your mother – Jessel Hadrin – was a captain in the militia. Your father – Demar Shantil – was a merchant, specialising in fine wines. Captain Hadrin was stationed all over Atlantis, and your father would try to carry out his trading in the same Provinces so you could visit. Thus you and your adorable little brother Gemmat would travel all over the country with him to see your mother. You got a good taste of military life, and it was natural you would succeed. You won your spurs in…”
“Enough.” She held up a hand. “What are you trying to prove, Saffrey?”
“I’m sorry, commander. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I simply wished to demonstrate the extent to which my organisation – our organisation – keeps a close eye on powerful people in Atlantis. We know all that there is to know about our potential allies and enemies.”
“I’d expect nothing less. But what of it?”
“What do you know about Rayke Albrihn?”
Hadrin frowned. “Albrihn? He was born in Atlas. I think his father was…a fuller?”
“Right. And his mother was a fisherwoman if I remember correctly. He has three sisters, all older. He joined up as soon as he came of age. Fought in the Siege of Helios. His first command was in Hades.” She shrugged. “It’s a matter of public record.”
“Indeed it is. Nothing unusual in his background at all.”
“So what then?”
“So I know every secret worth knowing in this great land of ours.” He leant in close. “But I know nothing about Rayke Albrihn.”
“Are you so sure there’s something to know? He’s just a common soldier.”
“I just told you…”
“I do my research, commander. When brilliant individuals enter my orbit – as Albrihn did the moment he began his dalliance with Vion – I take pains to find out all I can about them. I did this as a matter of course. But the agents I sent to question those who knew him found only robust silence and, when they pressed further, death. I probed harder. I followed every lead. There was nothing to be found, except that I began to perceive the shape of that which was hidden. Just as an object might be visible only from its shadow, I saw that Rayke Albrihn’s past was being kept from me. A ring of steel surrounded him. Those I sent to infiltrate his social circle disappeared. I will not even tell you the grisly story of my agents attempts to bribe members of the Seventh to betray him.”
Hadrin shook her head firmly. “There’s nothing strange about Albrihn. He’s just a skilled warrior and a natural leader. It’s not so unusual. There was nothing to find, I’m sure.”
“I disagree, commander. I’ve spent a long time trying to unravel this thread. There were times when I came close, when the glimmer of a rumour led me to clandestine meetings in shadowy places. Always my contacts would turn up dead. Does that sound like there was nothing to find? I confess I became obsessed. But then I approached the problem from a new angle. I began to ponder who had the power to keep such secrets from me, and I came to one inescapable conclusion: only one person in Atlantis has ever been able to match wits with me, and wielded influence sufficient to defeat even my investigations.”
“The Emperor,” Hadrin breathed.
“Just so. For some reason, The Emperor was protecting Albrihn.”
“Affection? She was his daughter’s lover…”
“A match he opposed. Again, that isn’t common knowledge. He tried to send him away. Maybe even get him killed in battle. But his fame and prowess only grew, and Vion and he were always drawn back to one another.”
Hadrin rubbed her head. “I’m not sure I follow all this, lord. Who, or what, do you think Albrihn is?”
He smiled and spread his hands. “I don’t know. I have my theories, as do others in the organisation, but we can confirm nothing. But this much is clear: he was important enough for the most powerful man in Atlantis to expend considerable resources protecting. That makes him dangerous. The existence of such an unknown element is anathema to our philosophy. He must be understood, used if possible, destroyed if not. He must not threaten the stability of Atlantis. His secret, whatever it is, must be very dark indeed.”
“So you hired a mainlands barbarian to slaughter him?”
“War, as you well know, is fought on many fronts. I expect to have to kill Rayke Albrihn. If I can do it with subterfuge, I will, but it may come to Jatharik’s blade in the end. Before that though…I plan to know why.”
“But you said you weren’t able to find out anything about him…”
Saffrey picked up the knight from the board. He was playing white, and he held up the pale playing piece, turning it over in his fingers. “The Emperor is dead. Everything is in chaos. Whatever protection Albrihn had is gone. And yet, those loyal servants who survive must be watching my agents even more closely now. So I must find another way to take advantage of this situation. Those who serve me are well known to my enemies. But there are others in the city. Others who can ask questions without drawing suspicion, and who may be curious about a man to whom they are loyal.” He put the knight back and now took his queen. He held it up to Hadrin. “A pale rider, or a pale queen. One or other will spell Rayke Albrihn’s doom. He is all that stands between me and the throne.”