Age of War (Part XL)

The ride back to the Enclave was carried out in complete silence. Albrihn, leading the way, had no desire for conversation, not even with Morrow. He glanced at her once as they trotted through the deserted streets, but her blank expression told him she needed time to process what they’d just seen. He realised that they’d both been clinging to a private hope that Hasprit had somehow survived, maybe taken prisoner, perhaps just injured and lost in Ixion, slowly making his way home. They both surely knew better, and yet seeing him like that, knowing his body had been mutilated by that barbarian, was still a shock. Albrihn couldn’t recall ever feeling this kind of cold anger before. The gates of the Enclave opened up to welcome them, and they dismounted in the wide plaza within. He strode off abruptly, heedless of the voice calling for him. It was Aethlan. He had no time though. Saffrey would attack tomorrow – if that wasn’t some gambit too – and he had to talk to Vion. To his wife. How quickly that thrill had dissipated now the lightness in the pit of his stomach had been replaced with this fury.

“Peace, Albrihn,” someone said close by.

He turned to see Rykall beside him, matching his stride, eyes full of sympathy. “Peace? This is no age for peace…”

“There’s no enemy before you now though. Save it for tomorrow. No one will get in your way. You’ll make that white bastard pay.”

Albrihn considered that. “No. I don’t care.”

“What?”

He shook his head. “I don’t need to kill him myself. Not this time.”

Rykall caught his arm and they drew up in an avenue lined with skeletal trees. “What do you mean?”

“Inside every man is a beast,” Albrihn said. It sounded like a proverb, but if it was he’d never heard it before. “Some keep it at bay. But for some, it only takes one twist of their hearts, and they’re not even men anymore.”

“Aye,” Rykall said softly. “You’re better than him.”

“I hope so.” He started walking again. “All that matters to me is he gets put down. He’s a rabid dog, and Saffrey brought him here.”

“Rayke!”

Rykall turned to see Aethlan hurrying up the avenue, holding the hem of her robe above her ankles so she could run freely. Albrihn glanced back and then stopped again as he saw her approach. “Aethlan, I’m a little busy now…”

“Please. We have to talk.” Her cheeks were flushed pink.

“And I have to report back to the Empress.”

Indecision clouded her features, but resolved itself into stubborn determination. “This is more important.”

That intrigued him, but he was adamant. “Aethlan, whatever it is…”

“It is about you, Rayke.”

“Me?”

Rykall took a discreet step backwards. “I can wait out here…”

Albrihn held up a hand to the commander. “There’s no need. Nothing that concerns me can possibly be more important than the fate of Atlantis.”

“You’re the Imperial consort,” Rykall pointed out, “you and Atlantis are intertwined now. You know that.”

Aethlan’s face was still set. The last time he’d seen her like this was in Talos, when an enemy army was bearing down on her city. He looked around. The elaborate marble architecture of the Enclave rose up on either side of them; palaces and airy pavilions, all now covered in snow with bare vegetation shivering beneath it. It had a kind of beauty, but it was nothing compared to how it looked in Spring, or high Summer. He felt a pang of sadness, one he hadn’t allowed himself until now, at the death of the land he loved. Atlas was a part of him. Defeating Saffrey, if that could even be done, would only be the start of the healing. But how could human beings reverse a change this fundamental? Their only option was to try to survive, perhaps by doing as Aethlan had done and leaving behind their homes forever. Maybe it was time to face that harsh reality.

Aethlan led him up a short flight of curving steps into a long covered veranda. The columns that held aloft the peaked roof were sculpted to resemble the trunks and branches of living trees and, but for their unnatural regularity, the effect was remarkably convincing. The tiles on the floor were polished granite, shaped like leaves, and the walkway led down to a lake which was hidden from the main avenue by cunning landscaping. This wasn’t a part of the Enclave to which he’d been before. He took in the scene. Snow blanketed the lake’s banks, but it wasn’t cold enough to have frozen the surface. A bare willow dragged its branches in the dark water. Two delicate boats were on the shore, their hulls muddy, planks rotting, bottoms filled with murky liquid. He took all this in as Aethlan stood in silence, wringing her hands. She was looking anywhere but at him.

“Aethlan?” he said gently.

“Sorry…” She bit her lip.

“I have places I need to be, Aethlan.” The anger hadn’t gone; it was just simmering away. He could feel himself getting frustrated with her.

“I know. But this is a hard thing to say.”

He couldn’t imagine what was causing her this consternation. “Whatever it is, you obviously think it’s something I should know.”

“It is. It is very important.” She gazed about her, almost as if she was searching for some way to escape, and then she took a deep breath. “The Empress is your sister.”

There was a long silence. Albrihn stared at her. “Uh…what?”

“Vion. She is your sister.”

“No…she isn’t.”

“Rayke…”

He held up a hand. “What is this?” he asked.

“The truth.”

“Is this a joke? Is this some Talosi tradition I don’t understand? Do you people do this before a battle?”

She stiffened. “You think I would play games with you at this time, and about this?”

“I’m just trying to understand what you’re telling me…”

“Vion. The Empress. She is your…”

“Yes, you keep saying that,” he interrupted, unable to keep the anger from his voice now, “but I don’t know what you mean. My sister? What makes you think something like that?”

“The people who you think of as your parents are not the ones who brought you into the world. Your father is the late Emperor.”

“No. My father was Talin Geshar, a tanner. My mother was Jayla Albrihn, a fisherwoman.”

“No. I mean, yes, they raised you, but…”

He started to walk away. “Aethlan, I don’t have time for this.”

“It is the truth!” she shouted, loud enough that Rykall probably heard her from the path.

He turned slowly. “I don’t know who told you this, but I assure you it’s nonsense. I have three sisters, all older than me. I think if I wasn’t born to my mother, they’d remember it, don’t you?”

“Ask Loban then.”

He was bewildered. “Loban? What does he have to do with this?”

“He is not really called Loban. His real name is Orasten Galev.”

“Galev is dead. He was the Emperor’s Champion, years ago.”

“He is not dead. Just hidden. When you were born, the Emperor bade him place you into hiding, with an ordinary family.”

“Why would he do that?”

“You and Vion are twins.”

Albrihn put his hand on the nearest column. He still didn’t believe it, and didn’t know why she’d be saying these things. Had some enemy tricked her? Or did she have some mysterious agenda of her own? But still, the last piece of information gave him pause. “Twins…?”

“Loban…Galev…he said that, in Atlantis, twins are considered bad luck…”

He nodded dumbly. “No twins have ever been born to the Imperial family.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I’ve never even thought about it before.” But now he did, it struck him as strange.

“This is what happens, Rayke. If twins are in the Imperial line, the younger sibling is hidden. Cared for, but never allowed to know their heritage and confuse the succession.”

“But…no…that’s ridiculous, Aethlan. How could I be Vion’s brother? If the Emperor knew – and he must have – why would he allow our relationship to carry on?”

“How could he stop it without revealing the truth?”

“And what if we’d decided to marry?”

“You did not. Until now.” She looked down at his hand, where the bloodstone ring was visible around his finger. It suddenly felt a lot heavier.

“I can’t believe he wouldn’t have said something…”

“I believe that he did.”

“What? When?”

Aethlan spoke carefully. “The Empress…we have had many conversations in my time here…once, she spoke of her father on his deathbed. Not openly. She does not trust me. But I think he said something…”

“Then why would she ask me to marry her?” He held out his hand almost accusingly, proffering the ring as evidence against her wild theory.

“He only told her not to marry you. Or so I have surmised.”

“I was in the Emperor’s trust. Why would he keep me so close?”

“Did he?”

“Yes, of course! Everyone knows that!”

“He sent you to the mainlands.”

“To learn what was happening in the world! He was a man of wisdom and vision!”

“You were his son.”

Now the anger broke through the surface. He advanced on her, holding out a warning finger. “What’s your purpose here, Aethlan? Are you seeking some political advantage? You proposed marriage to me once – is this an attempt to secure the safety of your homeland? Do you hope to manipulate me into feeling I have some obligation to Talos?”

Her face was completely placid, but her eyes were lit with a fury that matched his own. “As a soldier of Atlantis, the master of its armies no less, do you not already have an obligation to Talos?”

“Answer me!” he roared.

“I have answered you! She is your sister! I did not believe it either, but when I thought about it…”

“Why were you even looking into my past anyway? What right do you have?”

“I was…it was Valcon…the minister, he suggested that…”

He nodded. “I see,” he said, feeling himself become calmer, “you’re being manipulated. Valcon must serve Saffrey. This is all an attempt to discredit Vion. To push through his claim. He’s cunning, Aethlan. You have to understand that.”

“Do you think me a fool?”

“No, but…”

“I have been playing this game since I was a child! I was a female heir to Talos: if there is one thing I understand all too well it is navigating the waters of politics, Lord Albrihn.”

“Yes, I know, but…”

It was her turn to raise a finger. “I considered this same argument you now make. Perhaps you might reach the same conclusion I did, given enough time, but as you say you have places to be so let me aid your comprehension.” Her tone was acid.

“Go on…” he said grudgingly.

“If Saffrey wished to spread a lie about your heritage and thus implicate Vion, why would he bother to plant such evidence? How and why would he convince Loban, a man you have known and trusted since you were a green recruit, to lie to me? He is far too clever to rely on a rumour to achieve his ends. Only the truth would serve his purposes, no?”

Albrihn’s jaw tightened. “What did Loban tell you?”

“He told me…he told me there is a group. A faction. They are called the Recidivists.”

“That’s an old conspiracy theory…” he began, shaking his head again.

“No. They are a powerful organisation, existing in the shadows, who have worked for untold centuries to control the history of Atlantis. They are wholly dedicated to maintaining its stability.”

“If Saffrey shares such a philosophy, how does accusing the Empress of…of this…keep Atlantis stable?”

“By ensuring he gains the throne. It is another front in his war. Even if he loses this battle, it will be a simple matter to accuse Vion of perversion and lay waste to all your achievements.”

Saffrey’s words at the parley came back to him. His comments had been so strange when he saw the ring, and he alone had been completely calm. Almost as if he knew. Almost as if it was all planned. But that hardly lent credence to the theory – if anything it made it even more likely Aethlan was being manipulated. “Why would he get you involved in this plan?” he asked quietly.

“Because only someone you trusted could unearth the truth that has been hidden for so many years. Those few who know the secret have been protecting you your entire life, making sure you remain above suspicion. But the blood wins out, Rayke. Look at you: Marshall of Atlas.”

“I’m an ordinary soldier,” he insisted, but his words rang hollow now.

“No. You are the son of the Emperor. You were always destined to rise thus.”

“We don’t believe in destiny in Atlantis.”

“Nonetheless, here you are.”

They stood looking at one another, saying nothing. Albrihn’s emotions warred inside him. Outrage at the very suggestion of this impropriety; fresh anger at the idea of Saffrey pulling strings before so much as a blow was struck in this battle; grief over Hasprit, still raw and ragged at the heart of him; hatred of Jatharik, who wore his friend’s head as a trophy; love…love for Vion, love for Jonis. And, beneath it all, a black well of despair, slowly growing. Twins, they said, were drawn to one another. They shared a soul. He had always felt complete when he was with Vion. No matter what else had happened, he had always returned to her embrace. Even if they beat Saffrey, even if Atlas was saved, none of it would mean a thing. Their victory would turn to ashes. To marry his sister was a perversion of the basest kind. It would annihilate Vion’s already fraught standing in her subjects’ eyes. Even though Atlantians loved freely, he’d heard the gossip about her alleged debauchery. It mattered not that it was all fabricated: they saw her as a vacuous sensualist. An incestuous marriage would only feed even more rebellion, even if they dissolved it quickly. Even if he paid for the crime with his life.

“I have been awake three nights thinking of how to tell you this,” Aethlan told him, her voice gentle. “When you came back, you were exhausted. I tried to tell you then…”

“You told me not to go to Vion’s chambers.”

“Yes. And then I did not see you until today.”

“I was busy.”

“I would have told you. I wanted to. You surprised me when you told Saffrey you had already married her.” She placed a hand against his cheek, trying to offer some comfort. He felt as cold as ice.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know. It is just a thing that happened.”

“No.” His voice hardened. “This is Saffrey’s doing.”

“Saffrey did not know.”

“But he must have suspected. He just needed you to confirm it.”

“Would you rather not have known?”

He looked at her incredulously. “I would have happily gone to my grave not knowing this, Aethlan!”

“And what then? What if your children were sickly, or feeble-minded? Such things are common when siblings marry, or so I have read.”

“The throne would be weak.”

“And Saffrey, or another like him, would take it just the same.”

He stood absolutely still. He felt no emotion now. All was cold and silent as stone. “Whatever the outcome of the battle tomorrow, I will lose.”

“Rayke…”

He drew himself up. “Thank you for this information, Lady Aethlan. I will try to be guided by it.”

“Rayke, please…I did not mean to…”

“What is done is done. As you say, this was my destiny. I am a soldier of Atlantis and, tainted though it may be, the Imperial consort. I have my duty.” He began to walk away.

“You need to talk to Vion about this.”

He whirled. “No! No…and you’ll tell her nothing. Not now.”

She nodded. “I understand.”

“Good.” He stalked away. His whole body felt tense, every muscle stiff, and he realised his fists were clenched so tightly his knuckles had turned white. He didn’t relax. He refused to relax. He had a battle to win, and that was all that mattered now. His resolve hardened into an icy calm. His boots crunched in the snow as he returned to the path, where Rykall awaited him.

“Ho, Rayke. I heard raised voices, is everything well?”

“Send a message to the Matriarch,” he said shortly.

“What?” Rykall was smiling as if there was some joke he was missing, but it faded when he saw the expression in Albrihn’s eyes. “A message? What message?”

“Tell her to deploy the Cyclopes.” He didn’t wait for Rykall’s reply, he just kept on walking towards the palace, gaze fixed ahead. Now was not the time for compromise.

 

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