Age of War (Part LIII)

She hated coming to these chambers. This was where her father had died. They’d always been gloomy, hidden away here in the depths of the palace, but they hadn’t been occupied since his body had been taken away and, with fewer servants thanks to the war, keeping it spick and span wasn’t exactly a priority. It still reeked of death. It wasn’t disease that had claimed the Emperor’s life – just age – so there was no risk of contracting anything, but some deep instinct made Vion shudder at the smell. She still wore black, albeit broken up by silver jewellery now. Officially, the whole of Atlantis was supposed to be in mourning: in the chaos, that was all forgotten. Her father, the greatest statesman of the age, Emperor of Atlantis, was a footnote in the story. She felt like he’d been gone for years already. In reality, it was only a little over a month. How things had changed since then. The whole world seemed to have been turned upside down.

“I did marry him, father,” she told the empty bed. The sheets were still rumpled. She almost imagined the mattress would be warm to the touch, as if he had just been taken from there. “I know you didn’t want me to, and I’m sure I’ll never understand why you thought it was so important, but in a way I think you’d be proud. I’m my own woman. I’m the Empress. No one tells a ruler of Atlantis what they can and can’t do. And I will rule. Even now, my husband defends this city. The traitor Saffrey will be punished for his rebellion. Ordering his execution will be my first official act as Empress.”

“You know that’s bad luck, don’t you?”

She turned, startled, just as Albrihn walked in. “Bad luck? What more bad luck could I possibly have?”

He made a strange face. There was something odd about how he held himself too. Stiffly, formally, like there was some tension in him he was trying to quash. Nerves? From Rayke Albrihn?

“I’ve missed you,” she said.

“What?”

“I haven’t seen you in days, Rayke. You haven’t been sleeping in our chambers.”

“Our chambers…?” he seemed confused by that notion.

She smiled. “Well married couples do tend to live together. Didn’t you know that?”

“Yes…yes of course.” He waved a hand, perhaps a little too quickly. “I’m sorry, I’ve been busy. Planning.”

She glanced at the papers stuffed into his belt. “You don’t normally write your strategies down, do you?”

“What?” He looked down. “Oh…oh that’s nothing. Just some things I thought I should commit to paper before…before I forgot them. It’s easy to get distracted when there’s so much going on.”

“I’m sure.” He hadn’t crossed the floor to her. She’d been expecting an embrace, a kiss, but he stood like a soldier reporting to his commanding officer. She walked over to the mantle and ran a finger through the dust with a frown. “Rayke…”

“Vion…” They spoke over one another. He smiled awkwardly. “You first.”

“Rayke…I know about her.”

“About who?”

“The Keeper. Jonis. I spoke with her after you left for Ixion.”

“Oh…look, Vion, nothing’s going on. I wouldn’t. She wouldn’t. You know that.”

“She’s here though.”

He looked away. Shame? No, something else. What was going on in his head right now? “She’s a good fighter.”

It was a lame excuse and he knew it. He at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. “She helped to defend the walls?”

“She did. A lot of Keepers did.”

“But she was by your side, wasn’t she?”

He nodded. “She was.”

“You trust her.”

“I do.”

“You love her?”

He faltered. “Vion…it’s not like that…”

“Answer the question.”

“I don’t think of her like that…not now…”

“So you did love her?”

He threw up his hands in exasperation. “Vion, please. I was with her before we were married. I haven’t so much as…as held her hand, since!”

“You haven’t had the opportunity, of course.”

His face clouded over. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean…” she started to think she might have gone too far. “I just mean, when you came back from Talos, you went your separate ways. Then she went to find Omega, and now she’s back. She really ought to report back to me,” she added quietly.

“Report back? Why?” He looked genuinely confused.

“She didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“That it was me who sent her there…I’m the one who got her released by the Keepers.”

“She said it was Aethlan’s idea.”

“It was, but I supported her. How else could it have been done?” She was faintly amused that Rayke would think Aethlan, a near-foreigner, would have been able to arrange something like that.

“I didn’t know you were involved. Sorry. I can tell you what she found if you like.”

“I’ll wait for her to come to me.”

“Of course.” He knew as well as she did that Jonis wouldn’t approach Vion of her own volition. Well, it could wait.

“So…you sent her and Huldane to find Omega?”

“Yes.”

His frown deepened. “And you knew they’d find something?”

“I wasn’t sure.”

“But you knew that many people had tried before, didn’t you?”

“I suppose. What are you getting at?”

“Vion: Jonis, Huldane and the soldiers you sent are the only ones who went looking for Omega that ever made it back. It’s a…a death sentence. How could you do that?”

It was her turn to show her anger. “How could I do it? I’m the Empress of Atlantis. I don’t need anyone’s permission to give a command. If you must know, I was well aware of the risks, which is why I shielded Aethlan from them. I’d have sent more troops if they could have been spared. Jonis went of her own free will. She was determined to uncover the truth, whatever it might be.”

“Right.” He ran a hand across his face. “I’m sorry. I’m tired. I didn’t mean to imply anything.”

“It’s fine. We have a lot to catch up on.” She started to walk towards him, but he took an inexplicable backward step. When he noticed he’d done it, he moved back like nothing had happened, but Vion stopped, suddenly wary. Was this about Jonis, or something else?

“We should get the servants to clean these rooms out.”

“Yes, well, one thing at a time. When the war’s done…”

“No. Now.”

“Why?”

“Because I want you to stay here.”

She cocked her head. “Excuse me?”

“That’s why I wanted to meet here. I needed to check they were suitable.”

“For what?”

“For you.”

“I’m not sure I’m following, Rayke. Why do you want me to stay in these chambers?”

“For your safety.”

“My safety? What does that mean?”

“Vion…I haven’t told you exactly what I plan to do yet, but there’s an element of risk.”

“To who?”

“To you,” he said carefully, “to everyone in the Enclave really. These chambers are more secure than your own. You have two sturdy doors between this room and the corridor, and they both have good locks. I’ll station a strong guard too. If someone comes looking for you, they’ll have to fight their way down through the entire palace.”

“Why would someone come looking for me? And how? They’d need to get into the Enclave first.” Why was he making these bizarre suggestions? Did he really expect the Empress to hide under her father’s bed like a frightened child?

“The walls won’t matter. Not when I put things into motion. I’m hoping it won’t come be necessary, but, well, it’s a risk.” He shrugged.

Vion blinked a few times. “You know I don’t have to obey you. The Empress commands the militia, ultimately. Even Lord Marshalls salute the supreme commander.”

“I’m not giving an order. I’m making a request.”

“A request? Of the Empress of Atlantis?”

“No. Of my wife.”

She wrinkled her nose. Yes, that was rather nicely done, wasn’t it? All tied up with a little bow, and how could she refuse now? “Fine,” she said with a theatrical sigh. “I’ll round up some servants, if any are left.” She looked around the dim, stuffy room. As cold as it was outside now, she didn’t like being enclosed like this. She preferred her airy balcony with its view of the city and the sea. “How long will I have to stay here?”

“No more than two days.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Yes. One way or the other…two days.”

“One way or the other,” she repeated. “Ever the optimist, Lord Albrihn.”

“I like to prepare for all eventualities.” His hand strayed to the sheets of parchment in his belt, seemingly unconsciously.

She was getting tired of all this innuendo. “Rayke, what’s the matter?”

“Hm?”

“You’re acting like you’re being rebuked. You’ve barely seen me in days. I’m your wife, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I haven’t forgotten.” His voice sounded oddly strained. He looked around the room, eyes lingering on the unmade bed. “He died here,” he said quietly.

“Is that what’s bothering you? Coming here was your idea…”

“I just…I haven’t been here since…”

She was surprised by the way he spoke of her dead father. Popular rumour was that Rayke Albrihn had had the ear of the Emperor, and somehow become his trusted confidant. That wasn’t precisely true, and although by virtue of his relationship with her he’d been present at court when he was home, she wasn’t aware that the two men had shared any real affection for one another. “Did he mean that much to you?”

“He was the Emperor and…” He faltered again. “He was good to me,” he finished weakly.

“Right…well, this is the place. This is where he died. Where he spoke his last words.” Don’t marry him, Vion. It still echoed through her mind. The one piece of information he wanted to impart before death finally claimed him. Why was it so important to him?

He was still staring at the bed. “I should have known him better.”

“What makes you say that?”

His eyes snapped back to her. He looked like a guilty child for a moment. What was going on? “I mean…he would have been my father-in-law…I should have tried harder to win his esteem. I just…I never knew…”

“You didn’t think we’d get married?”

“We never even talked about it before.”

He was right, she realised. The subject had never come up. In fact, they’d never made any explicit commitment to one another in all the years they’d been lovers. He’d come and gone so much and, well, he was a soldier. She wasn’t jealous of other bed-partners he might have had and, for all he knew, she’d been living up to her reputation as a conqueror of suitors. Never mind that she’d done nothing of the sort, and only maintained the impression of promiscuity to further her own ends. “Do you wish we hadn’t? You could have refused, you know.”

He looked hurt by that. “Vion…no…of course I don’t wish that.” He approached her, almost tentatively, and put his strong, rough hands on her shoulders. The skin was bared in this gown, and she tingled at his touch. “I love you.” The words sounded more sincere than anything else he’d said to her today.

“I love you too.” She smiled. “My husband.”

“My wife.” The word caught as he said it, and he cleared his throat conspicuously. “I just…I want you to know that I love you.”

“You just told me you did. How could I forget so quickly?”

“Whatever happens,” he continued, deadly serious, “I love you. I always have. Nothing can change that. Nothing can take away something so beautiful.”

“Rayke, what are you talking about?”

“It’s important, Vion. I have to make you understand.”

“I understand. Really.” She placed her hands on his. “Are you all right? Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”

“Good.” She didn’t believe him, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to tell her, whatever it was. Impulsively, she leant up to kiss him. At first he actually pulled away, and she was about to rebuke him for real this time, but then it changed. She pushed herself against his chest, and he began to kiss her more deeply. Passionately even. It was like a river bursting its banks then. He was hungry for her, ferocious. His stubble scraped against her skin. His arms were around her, running up her back, down onto her rump. He went to cup one of her breasts.

“Rayke…” she managed to extricate herself. “Please. Not here.”

“What?” he looked dazed.

“As you just reminded me, this is the room my father died in.”

“Right…sorry…”

“And the only bed is that one. I don’t think that’s a fitting way to honour my father.”

He shook his head dumbly. “I wasn’t thinking,” he mumbled.

“I could tell.” She rubbed her face where it was sore from being scratched. But she smiled at how light-headed she felt, and at the hardness that had been pressing through his breeches as they’d kissed. She had no way of proving that he loved her and not Jonis, but at least he wanted her.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t mean…” Shame and desire warred on his weathered features.

She put a hand on his arm. “Rayke, you’re my husband. Do you think I mind you kissing me?”

“No, I just…it’s nothing. I’m tired. I need to get some rest.”

“Well,” she said, walking her fingers up his arm towards his shoulder. “Why don’t we go back to my chambers while the servants sort this dump out and then we can see if I can wear you out enough to make sure you sleep soundly? How does that sound?”

“Wonderful,” he said hoarsely, “but I can’t. I have things to attend to.”

“You just said you needed some rest…”

“And I do. But that doesn’t mean I have the luxury of indulging myself. No matter how much I might want to.” His gaze wandered over her, and that hunger in his eyes returned.

“You’re under a lot of strain. What can I do to help?”

“Stay here. Be safe.”

“I will. I’m sorry I can’t fight beside you, but I was never trained to use a sword. After my brother died, I thought maybe my father might have switched his attentions to me and made sure I became a capable warrior. Strange, it was actually you who he ended up treating like the son he’d lost.”

Albrihn’s expression curdled. His face remained fixed, but his eyes were filled with a kind of horror. Vion was quite taken aback by it. She’d never seen him regard anything with that kind of dread before. She was about to ask him what was wrong – for the umpteenth time, it seemed – when he turned away abruptly. “I need to go. I’ll see if I can find servants. You stay here.”

“That’s what you asked me to do. As my husband. But don’t push your luck with that…I’m still your Empress.”

“Until the day I die,” he replied, standing in the doorway and looking back at her. It sounded like he was making a vow.

“I should hope so too.”

He made to walk away, but then stopped. “Vion…”

“Yes?”

“Jonis…she told me about Omega…”

She was annoyed to hear the woman’s name again. “Right.”

“She said that…that Tayne, the captain of the soldiers you sent, had been given orders to kill her.”

“What?”

“She didn’t know who it came from. Her commander just told her.”

“Her commander was a traitor. Rykall killed him.”

“Yes. I know.” He fixed her with a stare. “Vion, did you give that order?”

“Rayke; I didn’t even know such an order existed until this moment. Of course I didn’t give it. I’d never do something so spiteful and petty. I’m hurt you think I could.”

“You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking. Sorry.” She was getting bored of that word now.

“I’m the Empress, not a jealous schoolgirl.”

“But you were the one who sent her to Omega.”

“Yes.”

“And you must have expected her not to return.”

“Didn’t we discuss this already? Jonis is fine. Huldane’s fine.”

“Huldane’s dead.”

“Oh…”

“He was killed at the walls, fighting the mainlander barbarian who butchered Hasprit.”

“Oh, Rayke…I didn’t know…”

“People are dying, Vion. Because of me.”

Was that what this was about? Was he in shock? Was this grief? “They’re dying because of Saffrey,” she told him.

“That’s what I keep telling myself. But by the end of this, I’ll have a lot of blood on my hands.”

“You’re a soldier, fighting to protect Atlantis from a tyrant. This is the price of loyalty.”

“I know that. I just wish it come be some other way.”

“So do I,” she said sadly. “There will be better times though, after this.”

He nodded. “Of course.” That time, she knew he was lying.

 

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