It was an icy wind that carried them into the sprawl of hovels that clustered for a mile outside Atlas’s ancient walls. They and their mounts were both exhausted, and every muscle in Albrihn’s back and limbs cried out in agony. But he forced himself to keep his back straight and his chin raised as he trotted through the slushy streets of the shanty town. The city proper rose up before him, but the Imperial Enclave was lost in low-hanging clouds blown in from the sea. It was ominously silent all around and only a few faces peered out from windows and doorways, sunken eyes impassively watching their bedraggled column move by. On the road from Hephaestus, they’d met a lot of traffic coming the other way: the people of Atlas, their worldly goods piled up in rickety hand carts, trying to find somewhere they might be safe. That had told him that, somehow, rumour of their defeat had raced ahead of them, and now the city expected an attack. There was no sign of any defences being mobilised though, which could mean a number of things. He’d certainly sent no bird, not least because their master and his noisy cages hadn’t emerged from Ixion to rejoin them. Saffrey though would have had plenty of opportunity to send word. Which told Albrihn he still had friends in Atlas, and that those same friends were happy to help his cause by spreading word of what had happened in Chronus in the taverns and public baths. Would the story have reached the palace yet?
They made a sorry procession as they headed for the barracks, just a few hundred battered soldiers, now reinforced by the hastily evacuated garrison at Hephaestus. They’d lost more to festering wounds on the road too, and there had been a number of desertions. He could hardly blame them for their pessimism, knowing what they faced. He had his duty though, and he would fulfil it even if it meant his death – he was growing more and more sure it would. He also couldn’t blame the citizens of Atlas for fleeing either. Some, those without relatives in the towns along the coast, or who had more faith in even a flimsy wooden roof than the open skies of the wilderness, would stay, but for most the outcome of this latest strife was only relevant in as much as it threatened their lives and the lives of their children. To most of Atlas’s people, one ruler was much the same as another. They would go on as before whether Vion or Saffrey sat the throne, and their concerns were whether the harvests would improve so there’d be enough bread to eat next year. Not for the first time, Albrihn wondered why he was fighting this war when there was so much else at stake. Already thousands of good soldiers lay dead in the undergrowth of Ixion; men and women who could have made all the difference against the hyen-a-khan when they eventually came boiling down from the frozen north.
His mind heavy and his mood black, he rode through the gates of the barracks. No guards barred his way, and the muddy courtyard was as still and empty as the streets outside. He dismounted, and finally a pair of grooms poked their heads out of a stable door, looked startled at the sight of all the horses coming in, and called for their fellows. In a short time, the place was bustling with activity as wounded soldiers were helped from their saddles and weary horses finally divested of their tack. Albrihn almost stumbled as he took a step towards the dining hall, and his head spun alarmingly. Sleet had begun to dribble from the leaden sky, but his blurred vision was down to more than that. Morrow was at his side, supporting him. “You need to eat.”
“We all do.”
“Have you slept at all?”
He shook his head. They’d ridden through the night, taking only short breaks when they found sufficient cover. Saffrey could easily have sent outriders after them, and they were in no shape to fight. But even in those quiet hours here and there, sleep had eluded him. He was troubled by strange thoughts and, whenever he did close his eyes, they turned into vivid dreams of horror and ruin. So he’d stayed awake, lying on his bedroll, staring into nothing, or sitting and trying desperately to formulate some strategy that would allow them to hold this great, sprawling city against invaders. Only one solution had presented itself in every scenario he’d imagined, and it was one he was loathe to use. But it might come to it. It just might.
He and Morrow walked into the dining hall. It was warm in there with the fire blazing merrily away at one end. No one was at the benches, and for the first time he could recall, there was no pot on the table by the hearth. Muffled curses behind them told Albrihn that Rykall had caught them up. The broad man was as tired and hungry as the rest of them and it hadn’t improved his usual belligerence. Despite their reconciliation after the battle, Rykall remained irritable and outspoken, complaining loudly all the way about the discomforts of their journey. Now he eyed the empty table and growled something under his breath. “Loban!” he roared suddenly, “There’s folk here need feeding!”
There was the sound of someone hobbling from kitchen, and the door flew open revealing the stout shape of Loban, who frowned at them in confusion. “What’s all this?”
“Food, now,” Rykall said as he sat down heavily on the closest bench. “Took all my fucking strength not to take a bite out of my horse. Bring ale too, if it’s to be had.”
Loban was wiping his fat hands on his apron and he looked at Albrihn. “I heard you were dead,” he said quietly.
“Not quite.” Albrihn didn’t sit, but he pulled free of Morrow and steadied himself against the table. She took a seat beside Rykall. She was quieter than he’d ever known her, and seemed distant and withdrawn. They’d hardly spoken a word since they’d crossed the mountains.
“There’s talk all over town that things went ill. What happened?”
“Betrayal,” Rykall spat, “that cunt Hadrin.”
Loban’s eyebrows threatened to leap off the top of his head. “What? I don’t believe that…”
“Believe it. Food!” he bellowed again.
The cook showed no sign of being intimidated and he eyeballed Rykall. “I’ve got a pot simmering on the stove. Not been much call for hot food around here recently.”
“Why not?” Albrihn asked.
“Every fighting man and woman is out patrolling or training, those that haven’t deserted. Everyone knows war’s coming.”
“War’s come.” Albrihn looked out of the window at the courtyard with the soldiers, horses and grooms still milling around, churning up the mud and ice and shit.
Loban called through the door and, after a few moments, the kitchen hands came out with a pot of stew and bowls and spoons. They began distributing them to the soldiers who now crowded into the dining hall. Rykall snatched a bowl first and bade a lad ladle some stew for him. Then he began to devour it hungrily. Morrow waved him away.
Loban came to stand beside Albrihn and followed his gaze outside. “How many lost?” he asked.
“All but what you see here. More, actually. We brought the Hephaestus garrison with us too.”
“Fates help us.”
“Do they know what happened in the palace yet?”
Loban shrugged. “How would I know?”
“I just wondered if any word had come down. Any sign of defences being readied and so forth.”
He shook his head. “No, Rayke. Not that I’ve seen. No word at all.”
“Saffrey has his claws in this city. There could be something wrong.” He turned and tapped Rykall on the shoulder. “We have to go.”
“With all due respect, Albrihn, fuck off.” His moustache was dripping with gravy and he didn’t look up from his meal. The other soldiers were equally ravenous, and the pot was soon emptied. The helpers ran back to the kitchen to get more.
“We have to speak to the Empress, give our report of what happened.”
“She can wait.”
“No. Saffrey could be less than a day away.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “He can’t move an army that fast.”
Rykall peered up at Albrihn from beneath his heavy brow. He flung the spoon down. “Fine.”
She stared at him and shook her head mutely. He didn’t press it. Instinctively he turned to where he assumed Hasprit would be, then faltered. Loban read his movements. “Oh, Rayke…”
“He might still be alive,” Morrow said.
“Aye,” Loban nodded, “stranger things have happened.” There was an awkward silence as Rykall heaved himself up and tried to sort out his gear. “Wait a moment,” Loban said, and stumped off back to the kitchen. He returned a short while later with two parcels. “Here, just some bread and cheese. Eat in the saddle. No use having an audience with an Empress on an empty stomach now, is there?”
It wasn’t until he felt the reassuring weight of Loban’s cooking in his hands that Albrihn realised how grateful he was for it. He smiled. “Thank you, old friend.”
“Hey now. Don’t mention it.” Loban put a hand on his shoulder and looked at him strangely. “That Talosi noblewoman…”
“Aye. Call in and see her when you’re up there.”
He frowned. “Have you even met her?”
“We’ve…crossed paths. Just…just speak with her.”
“All right then.” He was bemused by the notion that his lumbering old drill sergeant would have had anything to do with Lady Aethlan while he was gone, but it was probably a good idea for him to talk to her and Huldane anyway. He’d need every capable hand and mind with him in the coming days. He’d have to see Jonis too. She could help him do what needed to be done, if it came to that. If no one had any better ideas.
The two commanders walked out of the dining hall into the sludge and sleet. Rykall had already torn open his pack and was crunching his way through a loaf of hard dark bread. “What are you going to say to her?” he asked, spraying crumbs everywhere.
“I don’t know yet.” He signalled to a groom to bring them fresh horses, and in minutes a pair of lanky greys were led out, saddled and bridled. Albrihn mounted up quickly, ignoring the whine in his knees and back. The groom handed him the parcel of food. Rykall was almost done with his, and he pocketed the last heel of bread before hefting himself up.
“One thing’s for sure, Albrihn, I’d not want to be in your boots.”
Albrihn looked at him askance. “What does that mean?”
“Explaining to an Empress how you got most of her army killed is one thing,” he grinned, “explaining to your wife…quite another…”
“She isn’t my wife yet.” He snapped the reins and led the way back into the streets.
The city within the walls was little better than that without. The same glum silence hung over everything, with the few people on the streets swaddled against the cold with thick, hooded robes. They kept their heads bowed and hurried on their way without so much as a glance at the two horsemen riding by. There were no carts carrying wares to and from the markets, no hawkers with laden trays shouting for trade, no musicians or tumblers on the corners. Strangest of all, though it took Albrihn a while to put his finger on it, was the lack of children. Normally there would be gangs of bare-footed urchins racing around, threatening to get themselves killed beneath his horse’s hooves, intent on some mischief or other. Today though, all the upper windows looking over the streets were shuttered, and the shops were closed up. Anyone left in Atlas was staying hidden indoors. “Never thought I’d see a place grimmer than that swamp,” Rykall said.
“They’ve a right to be.” He shook his head. “I should have gone straight home.”
“Yes. We live on Water Street, overlooking the Jeweller’s Quarter.”
“I know it.” It was a fine street lined with old stone villas, all with columned porticos and sunny terraces. He realised that he was completely ignorant of Rykall’s private life. “Sorry…I just…I didn’t know you had a family.”
“My wife’s a magistrate. We have two daughters and a son.” There was a fondness in his voice that Albrihn hadn’t heard before.
“My youngest daughter is five. The boy’s next, eleven, and my eldest is sixteen already.”
“Does she have a trade picked out? If she’s of a mind to see the world, my sister has a ship. She might take her on as a deckhand, make a sailor of her.”
Rykall laughed. “Thank you,” he said, and it sounded genuine, “but all her life she’s wanted nothing more than to be a soldier. She’ll follow me into the militia.”
“No. Not a good idea.” He gave Albrihn a sidelong glance. “Maybe yours though…”
“I don’t have a regiment.”
“Hadrin isn’t commander of the Twelfth now, is she? Who else for the job?”
“If I live through this,” he said, “I’ll make her the bannerwoman of my own company. You have my word.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Albrihn. Hey now, what’s all this?” They’d arrived at the wide plaza outside the gates of the Imperial Enclave. There was a mob of a few hundred people, all shouting and clamouring, held back by a thin line of armoured city guards who didn’t look entirely up to the job.
Albrihn and Rykall both drew up. “What’s happening?” he asked no one in particular.
An older man on the periphery of the crowd turned around and looked the two commanders up and down. They must have looked unimpressive in their dirty, rumpled clothes and dented armour, because he obviously didn’t take them for militia. “We wants to go inside,” he snarled.
“Inside?” Rykall boomed, “that’s the Imperial Enclave! The whole point of it is to keep you lot outside!”
“Why should they be safe behind their walls when we’s out here?” a woman asked in a shrill voice. She held a child in the air, a scrawny thing in tattered clothes. “Why should we die over their quarrels, eh?”
“We should clear this lot,” Rykall said under his breath, leaning close to Albrihn.
“You want more bloodshed?”
“Not really. What do you think we should do though?”
“Let’s find out who’s in charge here, if anyone.” He nosed his horse into the crowd, and they parted as he and Rykall pushed their way through. Some of the people’s ire began to be directed at them as they realised they weren’t just two ordinary passersby. A rock flew through the air and clanged against Rykall’s helmet. He made to swing his horse around, face black with fury, but Albrihn grabbed his reins and pulled him back. “Leave it. Fighting back is the worst thing we can do.”
“Don’t they know who protects them? If they kill us, Saffrey’s army will take this city without a fight!”
“Maybe that’s what they want…” They finally reached the front of the plaza, where the guards stood before the gates. One of them obviously recognised them and gave a sharp salute. Her face betrayed her worry though. “Who has command here?”
“I do, sir,” she said, “Lieutenant Polik.”
“Lieutenant? Where’s your captain?”
“Not in the city, sir, and the chain of command is a little…fragmented right now…”
“Not in the city at a time like this?” Rykall asked incredulously. “What the fuck is going on?”
Albrihn recognised the company markings on Polik’s sleeve. “You’re one of Captain Tayne’s, aren’t you?”
“And she’s left the city? Deserted?”
“No, sir. On a mission, sir. Wasn’t party to all the information. Told it was of vital importance.”
Rykall sneered. “More vital than stopping this rabble breaking their way into the Enclave?”
“Couldn’t say, sir, begging your pardon. She’s been gone more’n a week now though.”
“All right, never mind.” Albrihn looked over his shoulder at the mob, which wasn’t getting any happier about the situation. “I need to speak to someone about this. For now, make sure they’re fed. They look hungry.”
She goggled at him. “Sir?”
“Send someone to a kitchen in there,” he said, pointing at the gates, “and tell them to bring out some bread and meat. Then find something to make a shelter for them.”
“You want us to make them comfortable?” She looked like her brain was about to explode.
“They aren’t going anywhere, lieutenant. Better they’re dry and fed if they intend to stay out here, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I…I suppose so, sir.”
“Doesn’t matter what you suppose, lieutenant. It’s an order. The chain of command is back in town, understood?”
She was on firmer ground now and gave another salute. “Yes, sir.” She began carrying out his orders, sending two young men through the wicket gate to scrounge up what they could inside.
Albrihn took out the parcel of food Loban had given him. “Here, this is a start anyway.” The woman with the skinny child held aloft had worked her way to the front in their wake, and he passed it to her. She looked at it suspiciously as she took it. “Feed your son, goodwife. Whatever happens, you won’t come to harm, I promise you that.”
“An’ who’re you anyway?” she spat back.
“He’s Commander Rayke Albrihn, Son of Atlas,” Rykall said behind him with a laugh, “He’s in charge now.”