Aethlan blinked as she stepped from the grey twilight outside into the smoky, firelit interior of the dining hall. The snow that had been falling heavily for the last few hours and which had settled on her cloaked head and shoulders was already melting, leaving dark patches on the hard-wearing grey wool. All her clothes were of the same material – stout Talosi garments that she’d borrowed from her maids. She’d taken one look at the weather tonight and realised it was not the time for fine Atlasian gowns. The streets of the city had been almost deserted – further testament to the ill-preparedness of these people for a winter this harsh perhaps – but she’d enjoyed the walk anyway. It was her first time outside the Imperial Enclave and she wanted to see the wonders of Atlas. It probably wasn’t the best time to do it, but she’d been captivated nonetheless. But she wasn’t here to sightsee. She had a very specific aim in mind, and a very specific person she wanted to talk to. From the description she’d been given he’d be hard to miss, and so it proved, for at the end of the hall, sitting at a sturdy table by the smoky hearth was an enormously fat man with the look of a grizzled veteran. One leg ended in a carved wooden stump. He was the only other occupant of the room and he watched her curiously as she approached. She pulled back her hood.
“Ah,” he said, picking up the earthenware mug beside him, “that explains it.”
She stopped before him. “Excuse me?”
He smiled. His teeth were crooked and he was missing more than a few. What hair he had on his head was grey and thin, but his arms – bare to the elbow – were thick and strong, and his dark skin was covered in tattoos. “You’re Lady Aethlan, right?”
“That is correct. And you are Sergeant Loban.”
He inclined his head. “Long time since anyone’s called me sergeant, my lady, but you’re right enough. Won’t you have a seat?” He held out a hand to the bench opposite.
“Thank you.” She took off her cloak and hung it on one of the pegs built into the wall by the hearth, then sat down. On the table was a pot with a lid and a spout from which smoke curled towards the ceiling’s low rafters. Loban refilled his mug from it and watched her.
“Mulled cider,” he explained, “just the thing for a night like this. Shall I get another mug?”
“That would be pleasant, thank you.”
He nodded and heaved himself up from the bench. He stumped around the table and through a door behind her. After a few moments he came back with another mug and two pewter bowls with spoons. He set out everything on the table. “You are the cook here?” she asked.
“Aye, that I am.” There was a blackened pot hanging over the hearth and he took a towel from his apron and removed the lid. “Hungry?”
“What is it?”
“Stew,” he shrugged. “Mostly vegetables I’m afraid. Meat’s not easy to come by right now.”
“It smells delicious.”
“Well it should.” He filled one bowl and then the other and pushed the first over to her. Then he poured her a mug of the steaming cider. “Welcome,” he said, raising his in a salute.
“I expected the barracks to be busier.” She dragged her spoon through the stew. The sauce was thick and creamy, and the vegetables looked tender.
Loban snorted. “Those that haven’t broken their oaths are out patrolling, training, shoring up defences. War’s coming, you know.”
“I do know.” She ate a mouthful of stew. “This is beautiful,” she told him.
He beamed. “Thank you, my lady. Probably not quite what you’re used to…”
“On the contrary: this is much more like what we eat in Talos. The food in the palace is…um…”
He waggled his fingers. “Fancy.”
“Yes. Yes exactly. Lots of things covered in sugar and oil and strange sauces made from plants that grow hundreds of leagues away.”
“Not right is it? I tell you though, the winters we’ve had, we’ll need more of this sort of thing.” He pointed with his spoon. “Root vegetables, hardy leaves, all that.”
“My people who came with me shall be in their element…”
“Aye, they will. And what they know’ll be important too. The things we used to grow around here won’t grow no more, but the way I figure it, if it gets much colder it’ll be just like Talos. So we’ll be relying on your folk to tell us how to plant and harvest the crops.”
Aethlan was surprised. “You know, in all the time I have been in this city, you are the only person to whom I have spoken who gave a thought to the practicalities of the future.”
“Well, I’m a cook: I have a different perspective.”
“Have you been to Talos?” she asked.
“Once, long ago. I recognised the look in you. And your reputation precedes you, meaning no offence.”
“I was not aware I was the subject of gossip in the barracks…”
“You’d be surprised.” He watched her with smiling eyes over his mug as he took another draught.
“I did not come here to talk about food though,” she said, setting aside her spoon.
“I know that.” He put the mug down and leant closer to her. “And since, so far as I know, you and I only have a few acquaintances in common, might I assume you wanted to bring up the subject of our mutual friend Commander Albrihn?”
“That is right.” She sipped at her cider. It was hot and richly spiced. The aroma filled her nostrils with old memories of home and for a moment she was quite dizzy with nostalgia.
Loban set his great thumb against the surface of the table and idly turned it back and forth while he looked off into the distance. “Some topics,” he said in a low voice, “are more dangerous than they appear.”
“Is Commander Albrihn all he seems? You have known him longer than anyone, or so I understand.”
“That much is true. I was his drill sergeant. Trained him from the first day he walked in here.”
“You have been a mentor to him.”
“One of many. He’s been lucky in his life to have people watching out for him.”
“He does seem to have a talent for accruing allies.”
“Not least yourself,” he pointed with the spoon he’d just picked up before scooping up another mouthful of stew with it.
“I believe he is danger.”
“He’s been in danger for far longer than you’ve known him, Lady Aethlan.”
“He has enemies. Powerful enemies who believe he is the key to the future of this city. Maybe all of Atlantis.”
“They just might be right.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What do you know, Loban?”
“I know many things. How to get the best out of some squishy onions and rotten potatoes, how to butcher a goat, how to swing a sword and turn a skinny stripling into the finest soldier of his generation.”
“And what about Albrihn?”
“I was talking about Albrihn.”
“So you are responsible for him being who he is, is that what you are saying?”
He got a strange, wistful look in his eyes. “I’m responsible, aye.”
“It has been suggested to me that he is not all he appears.”
“Who of us are?” He scraped the last of the stew from the bottom of the bowl.
“Is he really the common soldier he claims to be?”
“Nothing common about him, but you know that.”
Aethlan began to get frustrated by his evasive answers. “He is from an ordinary family. Even in these lands, it is rare for the son of commoners to rise so high.”
“Rare, but not unknown.”
“How could he accomplish so much by talent alone? The world is not so just.”
“He’s earned everything he’s got,” Loban said, giving her a steely look, “I won’t hear rumours about him here.”
“Oh, they say he bedded his way to command, they say he courted the Emperor’s daughter just so he could ride her influence to glory, they say he prefers men anyway and it’s all just for show, that they’re manipulating Atlantian politics to usher in…I don’t know what.”
“How does an ordinary man catch the eye of a princess?”
“Same as anyone else. She liked the look of him I suppose. He’s handsome enough, or so they say.”
“Handsome is not sufficient reason to draw two people together like iron to a lodestone, Loban. Who is Rayke Albrihn?”
“He’s a boy from a neighbourhood by the docks who made something of himself.” He picked up his bowl and took hers as well when she indicated she was finished. He began to stand. “Leave this, Aethlan. You shouldn’t get yourself involved in politics.”
“I am scared for Rayke.”
He looked down at her. “Do you love him?”
She blushed at the question. “No, my heart belongs to another.”
“Good. I don’t think I could bear it if he had three beautiful women running around after him. There’s lucky and there’s taking the piss.”
“You said he grew up near the docks…”
“Aye.” He was taking the pot off the fire now, not looking at her.
“Are any of his family still in the city?”
“One of his sisters.”
“Do you know where I might find her?”
He looked at her sharply. “I told you to leave this.”
“You do not command me, sergeant.”
“I suppose I don’t at that.” He set the pot down on the hearth’s stones and wiped his fat fingers on his stained apron. “She’s the captain of a fishing boat, the Jayla, not hard to find.”
“Thank you.” She stood up and reached for her cloak.
“Best time to find her is at first light when they set sail.”
He looked at her. “If you insist on speaking with her about Rayke, you should go see her tomorrow morning, soon as you can. You’re being watched for sure.”
“I am aware of that.” She swung her cloak onto her shoulders and headed for the door. Before stepping outside she turned back to Loban. “Thank you for dinner. It was wonderful.”
“A pleasure, my lady,” he said with a small bow and a genuine smile, “I hope we can do it again, in better days.”
“Me too.” She stepped out into the cold, pondering her next move.
It was almost fully dark now, and snowflakes still floated down from the sky, though now they twirled slowly, their beauty striking before they reached the ground and joined the muddy slush that covered the streets. This cold snap had arrived suddenly that afternoon, and no one had any explanation for it. But then, no one had any explanation for anything that was happening now. Aethlan left the barracks, intending to go back to the Enclave and try to find Albrihn’s sister tomorrow, but then a thought occurred to her: it wasn’t so late yet. The sky was cloudy which made things seem darker, but surely the boats would only just be putting in on the docks. It was easy to find her way too – she just headed downhill and followed the smell of the sea. A short while later she found herself in a rougher quarter of the city than she’d visited so far. There were people here, finally, but they looked like commoners, all wearing patched clothes and with weathered faces and stooped backs. They seemed cheerful enough in their way though, and women moved unmolested through the crowds. A market was still running, lit by many torches, and food and other wares were on sale. Either the stalls had been stripped bare by the day’s trade or things were even worse than Loban had intimated, as there wasn’t much to look at just then. She pulled her cloak closer and kept her hood up as she walked past. Most of the people here had skin much darker than hers, and she’d stand out amongst them. She didn’t wish to be remembered tonight. Her route took her through narrow, twisting streets overlooked only by blank walls. It was bitterly cold, even surrounded by so much stone. She ducked beneath an arch and then she found herself on the docks. Taverns and brothels lit up the night, and there were big, low warehouses too. They’d be open just as late with workers processing the day’s catch ready for tomorrow’s market. Aethlan knew little of the sea, but the sound of the shushing waves and the smell of the briny air filled her heart with gladness. Her people had come to Talos from across this very ocean. In some small way, it called her home.
The docks were well-lit with torches set at intervals along the cobbles and deckhands and merchants were still busy at work, unloading and perusing, shouting and haggling. The heaving dark shapes of boats bobbed up and down at their moorings and she began to walk up the docks, looking for the name on each to find the one that Albrihn’s sister apparently captained. Most didn’t have one, and they looked in bad shape as well. The reek of tar and rotting wood threatened to overwhelm the pleasant smell of the sea, but then she saw one vessel that looked better kept than the rest. It was a stout little cog with high gunwales, sporting an incongruous figurehead carved to resemble a woman just as rotund as her ship. Aethlan stood on the dockside looking up at it. There was a gangplank set down and burly men and women rolled barrels down it before stacking them up near a cart. Another woman oversaw it all, tapping her foot impatiently and muttering curses at what were evidently her crew. “It’s a poor enough catch as it is without you letting it rot in the hold for hours…damned weather…”
“Excuse me,” Aethlan said. A young girl – perhaps eleven or twelve – scampered past her and tugged at the woman’s sleeve before Aethlan could get her attention.
“Mam, word in The Merman is Captain Nessar found a good haul a few leagues off Cape Bosk.”
“Mainlands waters,” she growled back, “do I look like I want my damn ship sized by pirates?”
“They say they’re the biggest cod’s been seen in months.” She held her skinny arms out to demonstrate.
“Fisherman always things they’ve the biggest catch. You know that, girl.” She ruffled her daughter’s hair and then finally turned her attention to Aethlan. “Can I help you, stranger?” She was a broad, short woman with a mass of dark hair shot through with grey and pulled into a rough ponytail. Her skin was unusually fair for Atlas.
“Perhaps.” Aethlan pulled back her hood. “My name is Lady Aethlan.”
The captain frowned. “A mainlander?”
“Ah. That makes sense. Heard some of you were in town, come down from the north.”
The girl – Aethlan saw she had the same colouring as her mother – looked up at her with wide eyes. “Is it true all the cities in Talos got destroyed by dogmen?”
“Rall,” the captain chided. “Don’t mind her, my lady. She’s a head for tall tales is all.”
“I do not mind.” She smiled down at her. “Talos only has one city, in truth, and it was still standing when I left, albeit in the hands of enemies. But they were ordinary men, not monsters.”
“That was with Rayke, wasn’t it?” the captain asked. She’d fixed Aethlan with a piercing stare.
“Yes it was. Am I to assume this ship is the Jayla then?”
“My name is Dannar Albrihn. Captain Albrihn. As I always say, not to be confused with the one with the ugly scar.”
“He is Commander Albrihn now.”
“I’d heard that.” She glanced over her shoulder where her crew were still unloading. “Perhaps we should talk in private.” She patted Rall’s head. “Here,” she said, handing her a coin from the purse at her belt, “go on to The Widow’s Head and see if you can find out any more about Nessar and his catch. I’ll warrant it’s all talk, but it’d be good to know.”
“Can I help with the gutting later?”
“Girl, you’re the first person I’ve ever known who liked gutting fish. Be off with you now.” She ran away, dirty bare fleet slapping against the cobbles.
“A fine girl.”
“My youngest,” Dannar shrugged, “she wants to be a fisherwoman so she comes along with us, helping out where she can. Can you believe it? A young girl wanting nothing so much in life as the open sea and the stink of fish. But I suppose it takes all sorts.” She was walking up the gangplank and Aethlan followed, a little unsteadily. Her boots were already slippery from the slush in the streets, and the plank was smooth and wet from the waves. She hiked her skirts up a little and proceeded with tiny, shuffling steps. Dannar watched her with amusement from the deck as she clambered on board. “Not a sailor then, eh?”
“I never met a noble that was.” She beckoned her towards the boat’s prow, where the figurehead rose above the gunwales. She took out a flask and offered it to Aethlan.
“No, thank you.” When they reached the front, Dannar put one leg up on the side and looked out across the bustling dock. A mist was falling over the sea. Night had come at last. “Not many of these boats seem to have names,” Aethlan observed.
“Time was this one didn’t either.”
She patted the figurehead affectionately. “Named for my mother. This is her – more or less.”
“Aye. She came on as a deckhand. When she retired, she was first mate. When she died, I named it after her and commissioned this. I was captain by then, see. Not many fishing cogs have a figurehead you know.”
“I did not know your mother was dead. I am sorry.”
“For what?” Dannar took another swig from the flask.
“Nothing…if you do not mind me asking, how did she die?”
“Age. She was eighty-seven.”
“Now, what was it you wanted to talk about?”
“Thought as much.” She folded her arms. “Truth is though, you probably know him better than I do.”
“I doubt that very much.”
“He’s not had much time for family, not since he joined the militia. Not that I can blame him, we were never that close.”
Dannar grinned. “He’s ten years younger than me, and I was the youngest besides him. Oh we loved our little brother, but we’d moved out by the time he grew into a man. I can’t honestly say that I know him now, not really.”
“That is sad.”
“I have my own family.”
Aethlan looked at this woman. She had a wide, round face and a short, stubby nose. She looked nothing at all like her brother. Likewise, the woman depicted on the figurehead didn’t resemble the tall, broad-shouldered warrior she knew. But perhaps he simply favoured his father. “I am worried he is danger,” she said.
“Well, if he will run off to war…”
“It is more than that. There seem to be some who believe he is important in a way that goes beyond his prowess in battle.”
“Can’t say I know anything about that.”
“Was there anything…unusual about him? I mean, as a child?”
“Not really.” Dannar looked around. “Listen. I have a lot of work to do this evening…”
“Of course. I am sorry for wasting your time. I am just concerned for your brother.”
“Hey, you’re not this princess he’s fu…uh…sleeping with, are you?”
“No, that is the Empress…”
“Oh right.” She laughed. “Shows how much attention I pay. Rayke and an Empress, eh? Who’d have ever thought that would happen?”
“That is what I was wondering.”
“I am sorry, I will leave you to your work.”
“Aye. Nice to make your acquaintance Lady Athlan.”
“Sorry, yeah.” She waved her flask and grinned lopsidedly. Her teeth were yellow and crooked.
Aethlan made her way slowly down the gangplank, more confused than ever. Dannar was likeable enough, but she didn’t possess the same charisma her brother seemed to. She commanded a ship of her own, but besides that there was no hint of ambition. Unlike Albrihn – Commander Albrihn, she reminded herself – she seemed content with her lot in life. It was hard to imagine they’d been born of the same mother. She looked up at the figurehead of Jayla Albrihn as she passed. A smiling, round woman with the same messy hair as her youngest daughter. The paint was worn, but she looked light-skinned too. Lighter than her son, for certain. She frowned. “Eighty-seven,” she murmured to herself. How old was Commander Albrihn? Certainly no older than forty. And when had his mother died? Something didn’t add up here…
She was getting tired. She needed to get back to her chambers and sleep on all this. She’d begun looking into Albrihn’s past on a kind of whim. The charming Lord Valcon had set her on this path, perhaps realising how his intimations would needle at her. He’d said that someone already close to Albrihn stood more chance of getting answers to questions. Well, all she’d got were more questions. What if there was nothing to find after all? What if it was all rumours and hearsay, like the stories Rall repeated? She was amused by the idea of Albrihn as an uncle. It was a shame he wasn’t closer to his family. As she walked back through the streets, thinking on such things brought her mind around to her own family. She’d had no siblings, and her father had been dead for years, but she’d had uncles and aunts and cousins. Dozens of them, some living with them in the castle, trusted advisors or stalwart comrades in arms, others nobles from other places in Talos. But slowly they’d seemed to disappear, succumbing to age or ailments, falling in battle, choking on food. She’d thought nothing of it at the time, except to feel aching sadness with each passing, but now it occurred to her that Wodan, her usurper, may have engineered them all. He had cunningly manoeuvred his way into power beneath her very nose, and now Talos was his. She took a certain grim satisfaction in the knowledge that his prize was a poisoned chalice – the ice he’d fled would be upon him soon enough, and with it would come those wargs, what the Atlasians called dogmen. Rall was not as wrong as Aethlan had let her think. Talos was lost, and now she had to make a life for herself here, in this strange city.
She had come back to the narrow streets now, and in the dark it was an unpleasant place to be. For the first time she felt fear and instinctively pulled her cloak tightly around her. The snow had turned into miserable sleet, and the ground beneath her feet was muddy. She tramped listlessly through puddles, squinting in the darkness. The only light came from windows high above her head. She stopped to look around, and that was when she heard something. A rhythmic set of footsteps, somewhere behind her. She turned, only just in time to see a tall, broad shadow descend upon her. She could feel a thick arm wrapping itself around her throat, turning her around, and then she saw the faint gleam of steel as a knife was brandished before her eyes.
“You can’t fool me,” a hoarse voice said, muffled against her hair.
“Let me go!” she shouted.
“They sent you, didn’t they? They sent you to find out information, because they knew you’d be trusted.”
“I do not know what you are talking about!”
“Do you think I’m an idiot, woman?”
“You are an idiot.” It wasn’t Aethlan who spoke, but another woman behind her. She felt the assailant’s grip slacken, and she tore herself away. A Talosi sword was held to his throat and he lifted his hands, dropping his knife. The narrow alley was filled with five other women, all cloaked like Aethlan, all pale-skinned Talosi.
Aethlan rubbed her throat. “Somebody told me that it was safe to walk alone in Atlas. When I went to borrow some clothes from my maids, I told them this. They were not convinced though, and insisted on accompanying me. At a discreet distance, of course…”
The heavy figure shook his head. He was a big man with large, meaty hands. “I could disarm you all, but not without hurting some of you.”
“You would not get far without your weapon,” the maid holding the sword said.
“That? That’s just cutlery.” With surprising speed, he reached into his cloak and whipped out a long, shining sword. With a deft flick of his wrist, he knocked the maid’s sword out of her hand. He spun just as another went to draw hers and expertly parried it, sending the woman stumbling back with a yell. That’s when Aethlan noticed something unusual about him – one of his legs was wooden.
He stopped and straightened. Then, with a sigh, tossed back his hood and turned to her. It was indeed the man she’d left in the dining hall less than two hours ago, but he looked different. Taller, more noble somehow. He was clearly at ease with the sword he carried. “I have to admit,” he said, now in his normal voice, “I didn’t expect you to have bodyguards…”
“I am not the only one who is full of surprises. Why did you attack me?”
“To stop you reporting back whatever you’d found to your masters.”
She was baffled. “My masters? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t have time for these games. A lot’s at stake. I hoped I’d be able to get to Dannar in time to warn her, but you went and found her right away, not even waiting for morning. That’s when I knew who you were working for.”
“You followed me?”
“Of course I did! I couldn’t let you go back to the Recidivists with whatever you’d discovered!”
Aethlan exchanged confused glances with her maids. “The who?”
Loban narrowed his eyes at her .She returned his look flatly. He blinked. “You really have no idea what I’m saying, do you?”
“I thought I had made that clear!”
“Then…” He rubbed his head. “This is all a terrible mistake…”
“Who are these…Recidivists?”
“They’re…look, it’s difficult to explain. And the less you know the better now.”
She held up a warning finger. “No. You are going to tell me everything. Are you an enemy of Rayke’s? Do you mean to hurt him?”
“Hurt him? No, I’m protecting him! I have done since the day he was born…”
“What? Who are you?”
Loban looked around at the maids, then sighed and sheathed his sword. “My name isn’t Loban. It’s Orasten Galev. Once, I was known as the Emperor’s Champion.”
Aethlan frowned at that. “What does that mean? You were a commander in his armies?”
“No. Sometimes, an Emperor or Empress not known for their skill at arms will choose a Champion to represent them in battle. There’s an old tradition that a conflict can be settled by single combat. That was what the Emperor’s Champion was for. They would take their place. Later, that is in my day, it was more like I was a bodyguard.”
“So…you are not just a fat cook?”
He looked a little put out by that. “No. But when I lost my leg, it was decided I couldn’t carry on representing the Emperor. But I’d made so many enemies…”
“They gave you a new identity,” Aethlan guessed.
“Exactly. But even then, I was still the Emperor’s man. He trusted me with his life, and with all the things that were precious to him.” He paused. “Including his son.”