A servant told them they’d find the Empress in the council chamber, and when Albrihn and Rykall walked in through the double doors, they found her standing at the head of the table, flanked by Commanders Crale and Shastir, all three of them poring over a map spread out between them. None of them noticed them enter, so absorbed were they in their conversation. Crale was watching with no expression on her gaunt face as Shastir gesticulated wildly and the Empress herself, resplendent even in a simple black gown, spoke calming words to him. It was obvious they were at some kind of impasse. As Albrihn approached he saw the map depicted the western part of Atlantis, showing Atlas and the surrounding Provinces. Scattered across it were worn wooden discs, painted in red, blue or white. For how many decades had they been in use? Most of the paint was chipped or faded, but they served their purpose well enough. Three red ones were piled on the city of Atlas itself, while the others were positioned elsewhere in the surrounding countryside, at towns or strongholds. A tall pile of blue discs was north-east, near the mountains by the Gap of Hephaestus, with others in Chronus behind them, two at the capital, others in major towns. The white discs were in other Provinces, on major cities, some alone, others in small piles. Still unnoticed, he cast his eye over it all. Red was for Atlantis, and therefore Atlas. Blue for its enemies, in this case Saffrey’s Chronusi and their allies. White meant a force with uncertain or undeclared allegiance. Ominously, they were all on the other side of the mountains. If they did intend to honour their oaths to the Empress, they’d have to fight through the attackers. Each disc traditionally represented a force of two-thousand or so troops. Rough estimates only at this scale, but it gave some idea of the force dispositions. Their estimate of Saffrey’s army was too low, he noted. He also saw a red disc beyond the mountains, in the Forest of Ixion. Their reports told them Saffrey had crossed the Titans, but not what had occurred in their battle. No doubt they hoped he and his army were still behind them, intending to catch their rearguard. Time to extinguish that hope.
Wordlessly, he leant across the table. They all gave a start as they noticed him. He picked up the disc in Ixion and tossed it aside. “You need another few here,” he said, pointing at Saffrey’s forces.
The Empress stared at him. “Rayke? What happened?”
He bowed. “Empress.” Rykall echoed the same from behind. “Commanders,” he greeted the others. “I have been told the city is rife with rumours of our defeat at Ixion.”
Crale folded her arms. Her uniform was plain in contrast to Shastir’s which was bedecked with insignia flaunting his status. “No official word reached us,” she said coldly.
“Alas, I was unable to dispatch a message.” He held a hand out to his filthy clothes and battered armour.
The Empress’s face was set, but her eyes radiated concern for him. “Tell me.”
“We were betrayed, Empress,” Rykall broke in, “undone by treason and treachery.”
Her gaze flicked to him for an explanation. “Rayke?”
“Hadrin,” he said simply, “she turned on us and joined with Saffrey’s army.”
“Impossible,” Shastir said, “she’s been a loyal soldier for decades.”
“And Lord Saffrey was a loyal minister for even longer,” the Empress told him, “I’m sure she had her reasons.”
“I’ll bring you her head myself, Empress,” Rykall said in a low voice. “I was with her detachment. Most of my soldiers were killed by her arrows.”
“Only a few hundred returned to Atlas,” Albrihn explained, “most in no shape to fight.”
The Empress’s face was still calm, but her movements betrayed her anxiety as she began to pace at the head of the table, wringing her hands. “Even when our scouts reported the enemy’s vanguard was in the foothills, I’d hoped there might still be a chance…”
“So over a thousand of our troops lie dead in Ixion, is that the size of things?” Crale asked. Her voice was completely flat, telling him nothing about her mood. He didn’t know her well, but her reputation for level-headedness was legendary. Sometimes though, he knew, a placid surface could hide a raging tempest within.
“Yes. I don’t know how many Hadrin took over to Saffrey, but it’s as least as many I would suppose, and his army was already larger than we thought.”
“Perfect,” Shastir said through gritted teeth, placing his fists on the table and staring down at the map.
Crale still watched him. “An infamous defeat, Commander Albrihn. One to add to your tally.”
“You failed to hold Talos.”
“I had fewer than forty soldiers…”
“A good commander would not allow themselves to start a battle with such poor odds.”
“I didn’t start anything, I…”
Rykall pushed past him and levelled a thick finger at Crale. “Listen to me: without Commander Albrihn’s leadership, neither he nor I would be here now to tell you of this. Many more would be dead in that forest, and you’d know nothing of it. Saffrey’s army would come down on you before you even knew they were on the doorstep. And we’re not beaten yet.”
“How long do you imagine we can…”
“Enough,” the Empress said, turning around to face them all. Her voice reminded him so much of her father’s then that he had to suppress a smile. “You are my generals, for better or worse. I need your advice, not your petty rivalries.”
Crale was blunt. “The city can’t be held. Parley is our only option.”
“No walls,” Shastir agreed, “can’t fight a siege with no walls.”
“There are walls,” Albrihn said, “even a starving commoner knows that.”
“The walls are in ruins. There are stretches half a mile long that are nothing but rubble, built over with homes and businesses that have stood for decades or more. All our defences look seaward and you can’t possibly expect to…”
Albrihn stared at the commander until he fell silent, wilting beneath his scrutiny. “Not those walls,” he said, a little acidly, “the ones around the Enclave. They’re high and strong.”
They all stared at him like he’d just suggested they mount their defence of Atlas from the moon. “You’d leave the population of the city outside to face an attacking force?” Crale asked.
“No, I’d bring them inside.”
“But we can’t just…” Shastir began.
He hammered his fist onto the table, making the coloured discs jump. “Outside the gates is a crowd of people asking to be let inside.” He pointed at the other man. “Soldiers from your regiment are trying to hold them back, but they have no commanders on the ground. What’s happened to the military hierarchy? Why aren’t we building defences, calling in the regiments, trying to do something to protect this city? Empress, surely the Chamber of Ministers can vote in emergency measures to…”
“Rayke,” she said, leaning towards him, “perhaps you don’t fully comprehend the situation here. Our forces are out of position. They had orders dating from weeks ago to be out on manoeuvres across the Province. Messenger birds are being shot down, and horsemen never return. The Chamber of Ministers is emptied. All the lords and ladies with any substantial holdings left days ago, ostensibly to look after their lands and weather this crisis. There aren’t enough members of any party present to pass a single vote. We’re on our own.”
“You try keeping a city with half of its population running for the hills under control,” Shastir added.
“Even if you manage to shelter everyone in Atlas in here,” Crale said, “if this situation demonstrates anything it’s that Lord Saffrey has been planning this coup for a long time and that he most likely still has agents here in the city. Probably in the Enclave itself. How can we hold the walls with enemies behind them?” She addressed the Empress now. “Perhaps it would be best to open negotiations, Empress.”
“I won’t marry him.”
“As you say, however…”
“What then?” she snapped. “Just cede my father’s throne to a pretender? Flee Atlantis and go and live with the barbarians in the mainlands?”
Crale had no answer for that, but Albrihn did. He’d been thinking about it since they’d escaped the massacre at Ixion. “Giving up the fight against Saffrey gains us nothing. So we win peace, let him call himself Emperor, find a way to ignore the fact that a more legitimate heir still lives. Then what? A day will come when Saffrey’s hold on the throne wavers. Perhaps age will take his wits, or some other politician will undermine him when he becomes complacent in his rule. One way or another, if we surrender, others will see the throne is weak. Atlantis will appear ripe for anyone with strength and cunning enough to pluck. Giving Saffrey what he wants will not end this war: it’ll just delay it for a few years. Sooner or later, someone will try again. All Saffrey offers us is a perpetual conflict. For the stability of the realm, we must win this war now.”
“Moving everyone behind the walls of the Enclave is the most obvious solution,” Shastir admitted.
“And that’s why we mustn’t do it.” The Empress looked at each of them as they straightened. “Saffrey will know what we plan, and will have already planned for that in turn, at least if I know him as well as I believe I have the misfortune to.”
“We go around in circles,” Rykall said, “all I know is that I saw good men and women slaughtered like animals at his command. Whatever is decided, I won’t bow to him, and I won’t serve in a militia that fights in his name.”
The Empress nodded. “Few have any love for Saffrey. It’s what he represents that they follow: a raft in a stormy sea, flimsy though it is. People are scared, and when people get scared, they look to their rulers to protect them.”
“So we must fight,” Crale said with a heavy sigh.
“But not on his terms,” said Albrihn, “there is another solution. The people must be protected, but if it comes to it, you all know what we must do.”
Silence fell over the room. The Empress met his eyes again and he saw for a moment, beneath the mask of the ruler, the woman he had loved all these long years. She needed him by her side. He had no plans to leave again. “That’s a dangerous suggestion, Rayke,” she said softly.
“Yes. And I wouldn’t advise it if we had another choice. They are the only weapon in our arsenal that we can be certain will stop Saffrey.”
“At what cost?” she asked.
“What are you talking about?” Shastir demanded, looking from one to the other.
“Cyclopes,” Crale said, and even her voice wavered a touch. “But that has to be a last resort. I’ve seen them used in battle before.”
“A last resort,” Albrihn agreed.
Rykall stepped up to the table. “There is one more thing to decide.”
“What?” the Empress asked with a frown.
“A battle cannot be co-ordinated without an overall commander. One amongst us must be appointed.”
Albrihn shrugged. “Crale has seniority.”
“No offence, commander,” Rykall said, holding up a hand to her, “but the last time we trusted the most experienced to lead, we were betrayed.”
“Do you doubt my loyalty?” Still not a hint of emotion.
“Yes. I doubt everyone’s loyalty, and you’d be wise to do the same.”
Shastir folded his arms and smirked. “So if no one trusts anyone, how can we decide?”
“There’s only one militia commander whose loyalty to Atlas and the Empress is beyond doubt.” He placed a hand on Albrihn’s shoulder. “He’s proved himself to me.”
“It should be put to a vote,” Shastir insisted.
“Fine then. You all vote for yourselves, and I vote for Albrihn. So Albrihn wins.”
“I vote for Crale,” Albrihn said quietly.
“And I vote for you,” the Empress said.
“That still makes it a tie!”
“Would that this were a democracy,” Crale told him, “but it isn’t, and the will of the Empress is clear. If it matters to you, I follow her lead, and cast my vote for Albrihn.” At that, she turned and walked towards the doors. As she passed Albrihn, she put a hand against his breastplate and leaned close. “I hope you know what you’re doing, commander” she said.
He had no answer to that that wasn’t flippant, so he just held his tongue and nodded.
It was evening by the time Albrihn made his way through the labyrinthine halls of the palace. It was even quieter than it had been when he last here, and bitter cold. The airy verandas and terraces which made it such an agreeable place in the temperatures Atlas was more used to now seemed to render it near-uninhabitable. Wind blasted through every intersection, and frost even clung to shadowed corners. When he reached his destination he knocked smartly on the door of the chamber and had to stamp his feet to keep warm. He still hadn’t eaten and it was only when he stopped moving, when he didn’t have something to occupy his mind that he noticed his stomach rumbling. He was also so tired he could have curled up on the stone floor and slept outside the door like a faithful hound. He was running on adrenaline alone now. A voice bade him enter from the other side of the door and he walked in. A blast of cold wind hit him and he squinted at the great expanse of open balcony, shielding his eyes with a hand. The room was empty and much of the tiled floor was awash with ice and water. He looked around, trying to see where the room’s occupant was. His eyes alighted on the side chamber, separated from the main room by a patterned curtain. Ruddy light shone through the fabric. He walked over and pushed it aside. Inside the cramped room was most of the furniture from outside, squashed in wherever it would fit. Against one wall was a couch covered in furs and blankets and, beneath them, the pale shape of Lady Aethlan peeped out. She was dressed in a thick wool robe. Next to her, the brazier burned away. It was sweltering.
“Commander Albrihn!” she sat up.
“Lady Aethlan. What…what are you doing in here?”
Her face was already flushed from the heat, but she blushed visibly anyway. “It is freezing out there…”
“Atlas wasn’t built for this kind of weather.”
“I suppose not.” She disentangled herself from all her blankets. Her dress was a simple Talosi design he now saw. “Let us go outside, I need some fresh air.”
“Agreed. But I suggest we bring the brazier.” They lifted it together and took it out into the freezing expanse of the main chamber. There were still chairs and a table remaining against one wall, and they took the brazier over to them. Aethlan lit some candles as well, casting them in a cheerful yellow light.
“When did you return?” she asked as they sat.
She looked at his armour appraisingly. “Can I assume things did not go to plan?”
“I am sorry, commander.” She squeezed his arm. The contact was oddly reassuring. Aethlan was a beautiful woman and, when they’d first met she’d even suggested a political marriage between them, but his feelings for her extended only to respect and admiration. He felt that he needed a friend tonight: not a grudging ally like Rykall, or a lover like Vion, but just someone who could hear him speak of what had happened, and the people he’d lost.
“We were betrayed,” he said.
“Hadrin. My own commander. She’s joined Saffrey.” He shook his head. Just saying it aloud brought back that renewed sense of disbelief. The idea of the woman to whom he’d answered throughout most of his career breaking her oaths was…unimaginable.
“All will be well.”
“I hope so.”
“Do you think there will be an attack?”
“The Empress will not parley?”
“There’s no parley to be had. She cannot yield the throne, not without causing more trouble.”
“I understand.” And he thought she did. She was no stranger to rule.
He looked up suddenly. “Where’s Huldane?”
“You do not know?”
“He has left the city.”
“He and Jonis have…”
“Jonis?” He blinked. “What’s been happening since I left?”
“It…would take time to explain…”
“Where did they go?”
“Omega?” He gave a short laugh. “That doesn’t make any sense…”
“Jonis believes it holds the secret to Atlantis’s past.”
“Its past? What does that have to do with anything?”
Aethlan shifted in her chair. “It is a complicated tale. You see, Jonis and I found that there was only a thousand years of recorded history and…”
He waved a hand. “I’m sorry – you’re telling me she and Huldane went off to chase a fairy tale? Now, of all times?”
“As I say…”
He rose. “There’s an army coming here! They’ll arrive in a matter of days! And Jonis and Huldane – two people who, above all others, I would want by my side at a time like this, are wasting their time on…on…archaeology?”
“You said yourself that this war is about more than one battle. The fate of Atlantis, maybe the whole world, hangs in the balance.”
“Of course…of course. It’s just…this battle is happening here and now. This should be their priority.”
“They are not your troops to command, Rayke.”
He rounded on her. “I need every sword for this battle, Aethlan. I’ve been given command of the defence. It rests on me and me alone. The fate of this city, this very nation. And Atlas can’t be defended against an enemy force, even if we did have enough troops to properly garrison its walls.”
“You are the right man for this job.”
“I need Jonis to be here.”
“I know. You love her.”
“No,” he snapped, “not because of that. She’s a Cyclops Keeper. I need a voice there. We may need to use them.”
“I do not think Jonis could have helped you anyway,” Aethlan said, “she is in disgrace.”
“Disgrace?” He closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Life goes on. Of course it does. You’re all wrapped up in this, just as I am. You have your own battles to fight in this war.”
“We do. And whatever you may think, Jonis and Huldane’s quest is a part of this. They would not leave unless they thought it wise.”
“You’re right.” He was swaying on his feet.
“Rayke, you are exhausted.”
“It’s been a long few days…”
“Sleep here. You are in no fit state to make your way to your barracks.”
“Vion’s chambers are…” he couldn’t even finish the thought.
“Here would be best.” Her voice was surprisingly firm.
“That would be…yes…thank you…” He was dead on his feet as she led him to the small chamber and settled him on the couch. His eyes closed and he only saw Aethlan turn at the doorway as if she was about to say something before he drifted off into a dreamless sleep.