With the help of a burly pair of her soldiers, Hadrin had been helped up into the saddle of a new horse. Her ankle still throbbed, and she was starting to worry it might be broken. No time to give it any more thought than that: it was the least of her problems. She guided the unfamiliar horse across the wreckage of the battlefield; the churned mud, the broken bodies, the shattered swords and shields. The army was forming up anew, giving a good account of themselves, but even from here she could see the battering her forces had taken. The low walls of the city were empty now, and no arrows fell from the sky, but still she remained uneasy. They’d arrived at Atlas with almost a hundred-thousand soldiers. She estimated they had less than half that now. Oh, they weren’t all dead: many were injured or incoherent, a liability to their comrades now. There were a fair few deserters too. The levies, despite their oaths to the lords who had raised them from the fields for this campaign, had in some cases turned tail en masse, throwing down their weapons and fleeing into the countryside, most likely never to return. Conscripts, in Hadrin’s estimation, were always more trouble than they were worth and she’d have sooner left them back in Chronus. But they weren’t the only ones who’d apparently been dismayed by the sudden swings of fortune in this conflict: their allies from other Provinces, those drawn here by Saffrey’s promises of revolution, had slipped away when the fires went up, or so her fellow commanders told her. They were little better than mercenaries and, like any sellswords, they’d weigh up their chances of coming out on top with every minute that passed. Eventually, it was just too much of a gamble for them. Worse than all that though, Hadrin thought as she cast her eyes across the ranks, were those units who had been decimated in the fires or by Rykall’s unexpected charge. Whole command structures had been annihilated, leaving broken companies without officers, and officers without companies. Units were being amalgamated, reorganised, hammered into some sort of fighting shape, like a blade snapped in two. But like that blade, they’d never be as strong as when they were newly-forged. A body of troops was effective only as long as they were familiar with one another, and with the tactics their leader favoured. This wasn’t an army now: it was simply a horde, a rabble. It would have to be enough.
There was a commotion further down the road, and Hadrin wheeled around to watch the approach of Saffrey and his retinue. As she’d predicted earlier, his horse was adorned with gilded tack, and there wasn’t a speck of dirt on his fine, expensive clothes. A faint smile hovered on his face, and she noted well how his eyes slid over the many corpses that littered the ground. He trotted towards her. His horse was very fine, and Hadrin felt a renewed pang of grief for her slain mount. There was something perverse about how that had affected her more than all the people who had lost their lives in this desperate assault. Saffrey’s cold eyes met hers. “Report, commander,” he said calmly.
Where to begin? She looked around. “The walls are ours, whenever you wish to take them, lord.”
He frowned up at the battlements. “The defenders?”
“Good.” He scanned the city, and she sidled her horse towards his and followed his gaze. She could see, through the smoke and the rain, lines of soldiers making their way up the hills through the zig-zagging streets, up towards the Enclave. “We have them on the run.”
“We should. We paid a high enough price.”
“For Atlantis itself, no price is too great.”
She wanted to snap off a sardonic reply. Maybe suggest he tell that to the families’ of those men and women who were now lying unburied in the mud, or beneath blackened timbers out in the shanty town somewhere, or on the walls with a sword or an arrow through the chest. Saffrey wasn’t the one paying any price, was he? He’d been safe outside the city. But she didn’t say any of that. She just nodded. It was far, far too late to question her decision to join this madness now. And besides, she was fairly sure Saffrey would only smile and reply with something awfully clever that would make her feel like a child. Hadrin realised, perhaps for the first time, how intensely she disliked this arrogant lord.
“Now we enter the endgame,” Saffrey continued. He almost sounded gleeful. She could imagine him rubbing his hands together, but he’d never besmirch his dignity by displaying his emotions so openly. “They run to the Enclave to make their last stand. It was a valiant effort to repel us. If things were different…ahh…”
“Albrihn has fought well, don’t you agree?”
She grimaced. “He has achieved more in these conditions than I would have thought possible. And he was in the mêlée on the walls, beside his troops.” She’d seen him up there, fighting like a demon.
“Such a shame,” Saffrey sighed. “If only things could be different.”
“He has a knack for surviving, you know. He may surrender before the end.”
“Even if he does, he can’t be allowed to live.” She wasn’t sure he’d meant to say that. His eyes looked faraway, and he spoke as if musing aloud.
“He was only doing his duty, he…”
“He dies,” Saffrey snapped suddenly. “Along with Vion. You and I both know how this ends.” He pointed. “You take the queen. That’s the only way to win. Surround the Enclave.”
“Those walls are high and strong, lord,” she said hesitantly. “It’ll be a bitter siege.”
“Not as much as you might think.” His enigmatic smile returned. “Albrihn has crowded a million people behind those high, strong walls. A million filthy, reeking commoners. All the thieves, murderers and whores, all the labourers and vagabonds, the tavern workers, the dockers and the sailors. Think of it. Think of this rats’ nest of a city, piled up on top of itself in those gardens, terraces and palaces. Think of them squatting in their own filth in the marble plazas, pissing in the fountains, fouling the lakes. There are springs, and supplies enough for a banquet or three, but how long can an entire city survive penned in like that? No, the walls will fall – but it will be most likely from the inside.”
“If you say so, lord.” Hadrin wasn’t as certain as him. There was something strange going on here, and she didn’t put it past Albrihn to have another surprise up his sleeve.
“I do say so. I have pawns everywhere. Vion has no idea.”
Their forces were already moving towards the walls. From elsewhere in the city there were sounds of fighting. A messenger said they’d broken through in some places, including at a large gap further north. That was fine. Until they reached the Enclave there was little need to enforce discipline. Let them run riot. Let them find the enemy if they still lurked in amongst the buildings. It was done now. She had led an attack on Atlas, her own city. She wondered, as the bombardment from the artillery began again, how history would remember her.
There were hardly any guards left in the palace; most of them had gone out to fight on the walls. Vion found it faintly unnerving. She’d lived in this great rambling structure her entire life and the stern, armoured figures were like part of the furniture. The place looked naked without them. She’d never been scared here though, and that was about more than the presence of the guards. This was her home. She knew every corridor and chamber, every intersection and hidden courtyard. She’d stood in every window and leant on every balustrade. And yet she felt a strange sense of melancholy as she returned from the baths, striding through the draughty, pale halls, her silk robe trailing behind her. Out there, her people were dying. If she was a warrior, maybe she’d have been out there, leading them. Many of her ancestors had been great battlefield commanders, and many had been cunning politicians. Few had been both. She’d chosen her path long ago. But then, she’d never supposed she’d come to the throne in such an age of war. Maybe she should have shown more interest in swords. Too late now.
The door to her chambers was ajar. She slowed her pace. No one was out on the landing. If there were guards anywhere, it would be here, yet none were in evidence. Was that a bad sign? She felt her heart quicken. She clenched her fists, slowed to a halt, and waited, straining to hear anything from within. It was probably just the wind. The palace was horrific at the moment, letting the rain and sleet in through its wide windows and open balconies, and braziers burned in every chamber. Eventually, rationalising that it was foolish to be frightened in her own home, she resumed her imperious stride and pushed open her doors.
A man waited on one of her couches, legs crossed, an open booked propped on his knee. He looked up at her and smiled. “Empress.”
“It’s customary to bow to your liege, Lord Valcon,” she told him sharply.
He put the book aside and rose smoothly to his feet. He sketched a bow. “My apologies. There are so few of us remaining here now that it seemed rather silly to be formal. But you are the Empress, and your word is law.”
“Indeed.” She refused to give him the satisfaction of being rattled by his presence in her rooms. She crossed over to a dresser by one wall where a covered jug of wine was waiting for her. It was cold, but she poured two goblets anyway and brought them to the table across from her unexpected guest.
“Waited upon by an Empress,” he said with a chuckle, “what a day.”
“Yes. What a day.” She took a seat and rearranged her gown around her slender legs. He was walking towards her. “Strange to think of what’s happening out there.”
“Such savagery.” He shook his head sadly and sat down opposite her, leaning back casually in the chair.
“Hm. I suppose so.” She took a sip of the cold wine. Valcon hadn’t touched his. “You don’t wear a sword.”
“No. Just a dagger.”
“Scared you might get attacked?” She watched him over her goblet.
“It’s for opening letters.” He folded his hands before him. “I was wondering, Empress…”
“I’m sorry. I can’t allow anyone to send birds from the Enclave.”
His face told her she’d hit the mark, but he recovered quickly. “I have a nephew…”
“I’m sure you do. I knew your sister.”
He stared at her and, after a second, laughed loudly. “Yes…yes…but I mean to say that I need to get word to…”
“No.” Her tone was firm. She imbued it with all the authority of her breeding. “You know why.”
“I would never betray you, Empress.” There was something distinctly oily about his faux-sincerity. Vion was growing bored.
She looked him in the eye. “I know what you are.”
Another momentary lapse of control. She saw the raw fury he was trying to hide, the desperation in him, the frustration. His smile returned, but it was fixed, waxy. “I don’t know what you mean, Empress.”
“Do you really think I’d have kept you in the Enclave if I didn’t know exactly whom you served? I know you’re one of Saffrey’s pawns.”
“I’m not a pawn…”
“Nobody ever thinks they are.”
His hands clenched on the arms of the chair. He was working so hard to stay calm. It was almost endearing. “If you think I’m working against you, you should have killed me shouldn’t you?” He took the goblet and gulped down a mouthful of wine, cringing at the temperature.
“You’re not working against me. You just think you are. You’re out of your depth, Valcon. You’re nobody.”
His face contorted into a sneer. “Nobody, am I? Well, we’ll see who I am when all this is over.”
“You’re nobody,” she repeated, “a jumped-up country bumpkin who rode into the Chamber of Ministers on his father’s coattails. Your father was a fat, bumbling oaf, from an obscure and thoroughly undistinguished branch of the nobility. Your mother was a rich merchant’s daughter, who made up for her lack of breeding and pox-scarred face with an inheritance that impressed a backward country squire. The only thing he’ll go down in history for is stuffing his face with more meat and pastry than any lord of Atlantis in living memory and whelping an ungrateful, treasonous son.”
Valcon was livid. He bared his teeth, savagely. Oh, she knew exactly what he was. She could see it all too well – but she could also see the sweat that was starting to trickle down his brow, despite the freezing air. “You fucking whore!” he spat at her. “You and your soldier, that Albrihn thug. Oh, just you wait…just you wait until Saffrey gets here. He’ll teach you respect. And he’ll show the whole world what you are.”
“Will he now?”
“Oh yes.” He nodded, and his head lolled slightly. His eyes were beginning to glaze over. “I…” he took a breath and tried to gather himself. “I’ll make you pay!” His voice came out hoarse, and he put a hand to his throat.
Vion smiled coldly at him. “How? Are you going to kill me? Is that what you came here to do?”
“You think…you think I won’t…?” He tried to stand up, but stumbled. His gaze was unfocussed and he shook his head, as if to clear the muzz from it. He fumbled at his belt. “I’ll…fucking…fucking gut you…slut…”
She laughed at him. Loudly, cruelly.
He tried to round on her, lost his balance, almost fell, but caught himself on the table. He had his dagger in his hand and tried to wave it in his limp grip. It fell from rapidly numbing fingers and clattered onto the marble flagstones. His hand went to his throat again. “What…what did you do…?”
She looked pointedly at the wine. “Maybe it was something you drank?” She smiled mischievously as she took a sip from her goblet.
“You’re…you’re drinking it too…” His voice was just a thin rasp now.
“Hm. How odd.” She put the goblet down and frowned in mock consternation. Then she snapped her fingers. “Oh, of course! I quite forgot! This wine is laced with manbane!”
He licked his lips. His tongue was swollen and dry. A shudder ran through him. “Manbane?” he wheezed.
“Hm. Have you heard of it? It’s a common enough herb, not used much these days, except in quite rural regions. You see, its efficacy is much less than a maiden’s ring.”
His eyes widened. He was scrabbling at the surface of the table now. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He was shaking and sweating profusely.
“Manbane has been a tried and true method used by women to prevent conception for years. Mix it just so, take a good dose of it every day, and it’s really quite reliable. You see,” she said, leaning towards him, “it destroys the essence of a man in a woman’s body. Even as it takes root, the herb poisons it, eradicates it. That’s why they call it manbane. What is less well known is that it can have other effects. For women, it’s useful. For men: deadly.” Her smile was wicked as she watched him struggling to breathe. “It attacks men. That’s how it works. Normally, the only thing that feels its wrath is the little deposit you leave behind. Unless you’re foolish enough to drink it. Then…well…”
Valcon’s face was purple and his eyes bulged out of their sockets. She knew he couldn’t even see her now. He clawed desperately at his collar, even tried to reach for his wine, knocked the goblet over, spilling the contents across the table (Vion scraped her chair backwards and tutted), then turned around. He fell to his knees, slumped face-first onto the floor, and then was quite, quite still.
“It also rather ruins the taste of a good vintage,” she told the corpse as she swirled her goblet. “Not that a glorified swineherd like you would have even noticed.” She finished off the last mouthful.
Vion surveyed the room. Obviously Valcon, in his arrogance, had come alone. She wondered what he’d even hoped to achieve. Was he going to stab her? Very inelegant. She looked at the knife, still lying on the floor where it had fallen. She bent over and picked it up, then noticed the blade. She held it up, angling it towards the pale grey light from the balcony. There was blood. She dabbed a finger against it. Sticky. Fresh. Obviously he’d wiped it, but had missed a spot near the hilt. Sloppy, her treacherous mind noted. She gave Valcon’s body a stern look. “You might have at least had the decency to confess to this before dying,” she told it. Who could Valcon have killed? Who, besides her, would Saffrey want dead? There were hardly any nobles left in the palace now, and certainly no powerful enemies of his. They were all down on the walls. Albrihn and Rykall and the Matriarch and that Talosi brute Huldane…
She stopped, staring at the smear of dark blood. Aethlan. She jumped from her chair, nearly tripped over her silks, and raced to the bell pull for the servants. It was long, agonizing minutes until a liveried boy poked his head around the door. “Empre…” his words died on his lips as he stared at the body lying in the middle of the room.
“Listen,” she said, “Lady Aethlan is in danger.”
He stared. “Em…Empress?”
“Lady Aethlan? You know, the Talosi woman?”
“I…yes…yes, of course…”
“She’s somewhere in the palace, probably badly hurt. Rouse the entire household. I want everyone searching every inch of this building for her, do you understand?”
He still looked terrified, but he nodded and bowed, then ran off as fast as he could. Vion turned back to the chamber. Valcon was still lying just where she’d left him. Maybe she should have asked the servant to bring someone to take him away? No. Let him lie there. She planned to move out of these chambers soon anyway. They were spacious and opulent, but there were cosier places for a married couple to make a home in the palace. She shook her head as she realised she was thinking about the future: a future that may yet never happen. She waved the dagger at Valcon. “You tried to be clever. Tried to be someone important. But in the end, you were just a pawn after all: and queens take pawns.”