Age of War (Part LVII)

Albrihn galloped down the long, straight path towards the haphazard bulk of the palace that sprawled before the greying sky. The trees that had once lined this boulevard had been hacked to pieces to make arrows, and some memory of a time when he and Vion had walked this way beneath a canopy of yellow-green leaves one fading summer came to him suddenly. It wasn’t the destruction of the trees that had brought an end to those days, but they seemed emblematic of what was happening, and what he’d lost. Atlas – and Atlantis – would take a long time to recover from this madness. The palace had no entrance to speak of, rather the terraces and verandas started to creep into the surrounding gardens and then, almost without realising, you found yourself in the airy embrace of the labyrinthine Imperial household. He drew up before a short flight of steps leading into a high rotunda, beyond which was a helical staircase disappearing into the depths of the building. Saffrey’s horse was tied to a pillar, listlessly picking at the brown grass. It was a fine animal, and Albrihn thought it a shame it was overshadowed by its ostentatious gear. He dismounted and allowed his own mount to wander free. He wouldn’t stray far.

Saffrey was long gone. Albrihn jogged up into the rotunda and looked up at the domed ceiling. A scene of orgiastic decadence was picked out in relief as white marble men, women and everything in between cavorted scandalously. The staircase led up to a gallery and a set of four arches opened onto raised corridors that wound in different directions beyond that. There was no sound of footfalls in the distance. He clenched and unclenched his fists, transfixed by indecision. He’d outmanoeuvred Saffrey in this battle, but that had been down to the man’s overconfidence. Now he was pitted against him directly, as surely as if they faced one another over a black and white queens board, and he found he was struggling to anticipate his plans. There was only one reason Saffrey would come to the palace: only one target he could have in mind. Albrihn was exhausted. He hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in days. All his energy had been bent to organising his forces, trying to defend his home, wrapping his head around his rapidly-shifting future, mourning fallen friends. It was all too much.

He knew where Saffrey would go. It was exactly why he’d sent Vion where he had. Could Saffrey second guess even that though? Would he head for the obvious destination? Impossible to say. It was time to roll the dice, as Morrow would have said in one of her pre-battle speeches. He missed having his friends around him; having just a handful of veteran soldiers whom he knew he could rely on absolutely. He missed being part of a band of siblings, adventuring across the world, no concern beyond the next battle. That was over now. The Seventh were almost totally depleted, and their like would never be seen again. Now, he had to protect the other things that he loved. He couldn’t lose any more today.

He walked out of the rotunda. His horse was grazing a little way into one of the terraced lawns, seemingly content. He looked up at the palace with its columns, balconies, roofs, all heaped up on top of one another. How much time had he spent here? Not much, probably, when he thought about it. He could hardly say he knew his way around well enough to never get lost. But he knew how to get to one chamber in particular very well indeed. He couldn’t catch up with Saffrey, but he might be able to get there before the man went searching for his quarry when she wasn’t where he expected her to be. He started to remove his armour, tossing aside the breastplate, unbuckling the greaves and pauldrons, taking off the helmet and dumping it all onto the grass. It felt wrong to do that with something so precious, but he had no time to dally. He shrugged off his mail shirt even, then refastened his sword belt, ensuring his blade was free in its scabbard, an old warrior’s habit. Then, he took a running leap towards the closest wall of the rotunda and grabbed onto a knot of marble decoration. There was no shortage of handholds on the sides of the elaborate structure, and he began to pull himself upwards, rapidly scaling the exterior wall. Beyond that the way was more difficult, but direct. Inside the palace, the halls took a visitor in great sweeping whorls, offering stunning vistas but little opportunity for haste. Up here, there were no such limits. He attained the crown of the rotunda and began to run, heedless of the slippery stone and tiles beneath his boots.

Less than fifteen minutes later, he slid down a steeply pitched roof and stopped himself against a gargoyle at the bottom, bracing his foot in a nook between the twisted creature’s arm and wing. Breathing hard, he hauled himself to his feet and peered over the edge. Below was a stretch of marble floor and a familiar balustrade. A balcony. He crouched, swung himself around the grotesque and dropped down neatly, sword already drawn as he landed. He straightened.

Across the room, sitting calmly on a couch, was Lord Saffrey. He had a goblet of wine in his hand and was leafing through a book. He glanced up. “Ah,” he said, “Lord Albrihn…”

Albrihn advanced, sword levelled at his enemy. “She isn’t here,” he told him.

“So I see.” They were in Vion’s chambers, where he knew Saffrey would come. What he hadn’t expected was to find him waiting for him like this. Did he imagine she’d be coming back? “Did you hide her with the rest of the population?” Saffrey asked.

“You really think I’d tell you that?”

He put his book aside. “Come now,” he smiled, “what use is there in keeping secrets now? We both know this battle is done. I must say, you made it all look very easy. A fine military mind indeed.” He raised his goblet in mock salute.

“What is this?” Albrihn growled.

“This? Just two sons of Atlas, having a friendly conversation. Two men of stature. Two men with noble blood.” He looked at him, searching. Albrihn said nothing. After a moment, Saffrey leant forward and picked up a piece of armour from the low table before him. He lifted it up. “I must say, you surprised me, showing up wearing this.”

It was a vambrace from the suit of armour he’d taken off outside. The Emperor’s armour. “It seemed appropriate,” he said.

Saffrey laughed. “In more ways than one, Albrihn. But,” he paused and sat back again, “you know that, don’t you?”

Albrihn licked his lips. “You knew?”

“I suspected. It took someone closer to you to confirm it though. I wonder, does it change how you feel about this encounter, knowing we’re cousins?”

“Distant cousins.”

“It’s all relative.” He realised his own joke and laughed again. “Still,” he added, “rather tempting fate dressing up as your father, don’t you think?”

“Atlas needed a symbol.”

“I’m sure.” Finally, Saffrey stood up. He tossed the vambrace back onto the table with a clatter. “I expect you want to know why I’m here.”

“You came for Vion.”

“No. I came for you.”

Albrihn narrowed his eyes. “I was out there, in the plaza.”

“Not very private though, is it? We can be more frank in here.”

“I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“That’s no problem – I have plenty to say to you.”

“Make it quick then.”

Saffrey smirked. “What’s the hurry?”

“Hard to speak without a head on your shoulders…”

“Now now…I have noble blood. You can’t kill me like a common criminal.”

“I’d hang a common criminal. But you won’t be martyred before a crowd. You’ll die here, now.”

“Hasn’t there been enough violence today, Rayke? It’s not even dawn yet.”

“I promise not to kill anybody else after I’m done with you.”

Saffrey laughed loudly at that. “So charming…just like your father. He had a reputation as a shrewd politician, but by the gods was he blunt.”

“I remember.”

“So you’ll kill me. What then?”

“Then it ends.”

He shook his head slowly. “It doesn’t end, Rayke. Don’t you understand yet? This was never about me. It was never even about Vion. It was about you.”

He lowered his sword fractionally. “What are you talking about, Saffrey?”

“Why do you think I’m here talking to you? Why do you think I’m not looking for your wife? You’re the one who matters.”

“What? Why?”

“You’re his son.”

“Vion is the Empress.”

“But you’re the one holding the sword. Here we are,” he said, gesturing to Albrihn and then himself, “the knight and the minister. Fighting on the battlefield, while the queen waits to see the outcome. In the end, it’s always about the soldiers, not their mistress. A queen can’t win a war by herself.”

“You’re saying this was all because of me?”

“Oh yes. You’re the threat, Rayke. You’re the one we have to destroy.”

“I’m just a soldier.”

“You’re the son of the Emperor,” Saffrey spat, “one with the strength to continue his legacy. A leader even more dangerous than he was. Yes, blunt like he was, but just as intelligent, and the finest natural warrior in Atlantis. We’ve been watching you, Albrihn, watching you very closely indeed.”

“The Recidivists?” He knew nothing about them beyond their name. Who were they? What did they truly want?

“Indeed. We who seek to preserve Atlantis and her glory.”

“You do that by attacking its capital?”

“There is nothing we won’t sacrifice to achieve our ends,” Saffrey spat, his voice suddenly filled with venom, face contorted in fury. “From the moment you were born, we knew you were a threat we could ill-afford.”

“Why me? Why not Vion?”

“Because you would have been his pride and joy. You would have been his heir.”

“Am I…am I the eldest…?” The thought filled him with dread.

“No. If you had been, we never would have been able to persuade him to send you away.”

Albrihn’s eyes opened wide. “You…you persuaded him?”

“That’s right,” Saffrey said, not bothering to disguise his glee, “it was us. We convinced him you’d be a threat, that Atlantis couldn’t bear the consequences of twin heirs. The old superstitions still had power. It broke his heart, but we had him hide you…but not so far that you might not find your way back eventually…”

The whole conspiracy began to fall into place for Albrihn then. “You…you engineered it all, didn’t you?”

“Oh yes. Of course. We arranged for you to be at that tourney. We positioned you close enough for Vion to see you and be drawn to you. We planned it all, Rayke. We pushed you into the Emperor’s inner-circle, and by the time he realised who you were, it was too late. You see, by distancing you from the throne, we turned you from a liability…into a weapon. We used you to support our plans: destabilising Provinces who might cause us problems in years to come, unleashing you and your band of brigands against the mainlands, sending you to Talos to accelerate its fall. Everything you’ve done, everything you are, is a testament to our efforts. And now here we are.”

“Now you die,” Albrihn said in a low voice.

“And what then, Rayke? What then?”

“Then nothing,” he shouted, “you’ll be dead!”

“And what happens after that? You clean up this mess, you rebuild your city, you try to make sense of what your Keeper bitch found in Omega, and you stay with Vion? Your own sister?”

“No…”

“No.” Saffrey’s tone was flat. “You know as well as I do that that can’t happen. Stay with her and, sooner or later, the truth comes out. Believe me, my allies will see to that. Vion’s reputation isn’t all her own doing either. The people of Atlantis are ready to believe any scandalous rumour about her. When it emerges her long-time lover, and now her consort, is her own flesh and blood…well…this business here will look like a border skirmish.”

“Do you really expect me to let you live in either case?”

“I’m sure you have no other thought in your thick skull, Rayke. But listen to me: you’ve already lost. You lost the moment you were born. Vion lost. The Emperor lost. He was always doomed. We never intended for him to rule for so long. He was just there to depose the previous dynasty, to usher in a more…stable…administration. But he was smart, and he lived. We poisoned his second son, ensured his wife had that nasty fall, but even grief didn’t finish him off. He was always so…vital. So full of new ideas. And suspicions. He and my predecessors fought their clandestine war for decades, and I took their places when they fell. He was a worthy opponent, Rayke. That was precisely the problem.”

Albrihn shook his head despairingly. “He wanted to save the world, and for that you killed him?”

“You think revolution saves the world?” Saffrey snarled, “You think change is what’s needed?”

“We can’t just stand back and let it happen.”

“How can human beings stop the world dying? All we can do is preserve Atlantis’s glory for as long as possible. We did it a thousand years ago. You know that now, I’m sure. All that matters is the continuity of our civilisation. We will not be undone by magical cataclysms, by dynastic wars, by ambitious Emperors, by the very death of all life in an age of war, winter and wolves…we are Atlantis. To oppose us is madness.”

“You can’t decide who lives and who dies. You can’t control everything.”

“Here and now, I control more than you imagine.” He drew his weapon. It was a thin, flexible duelling sword with an elaborate basket hilt. He took up a fighting stance. Immediately, just from how he moved, Albrihn could see he knew what he was doing. Well then.

“So it’s me or you.”

“Yes. In the end, it had to be decided this way, didn’t it?” Saffrey was smiling, but his eyes were as cold as ever. “The two of us, the players of this great game, just two pieces remaining. One must live, and one must die.”

“That’s how these things normally end,” Albrihn shrugged.

Saffrey began to circle, moving with catlike grace. He looked like he was dancing. Albrihn matched his movements, studying him closely. He had the training, that much was certain. “Do you know who taught me the sword, Rayke?”

“I have no idea.”

“Orasten Galev. Does that name mean anything to you?”

Albrihn almost burst out laughing. It was too perfect. Saffrey didn’t know everything it seemed. “It means more to me than you might imagine.”

“The finest warrior of his generation. The Emperor’s Champion. And I was trained by him.” He lunged even as he spoke, coming at Albrihn with a controlled slash, clearly designed only to test his defences.

Albrihn feigned surprise then, when the blade was just inches away, raised his own sword, blocking the swing without so much as shifting his weight. He looked into Saffrey’s eyes. “Who wasn’t?” he asked with a small smile.

Saffrey danced back, but he had a look of consternation on his face now. He circled again. Albrihn let him come to him. He parried another blow, then responded with one of his own, and another as Saffrey dodged, this time coming from the opposite side. He turned the pommel of his sword easily in his hand, letting the steps flow naturally into one another. Saffrey parried, but only just.

“Do you know who trained me?” he asked casually.

“I admit that I don’t.”

“Lady Wenhall. You remember her?”

Saffrey licked his lips. “I remember.”

“The Lady of the Blades. You ought to be familiar with her, since she was on the opposite side to the Emperor and your father all those years ago. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.”

“Just stories. Stories can be fabricated.”

“They can. But a wooden leg? That’s a bit harder. Galev was never the same afterwards. Or so I’m told.”

Saffrey roared and charged again. His sword was flexible, and it moved quicker than Albrihn’s longsword. He parried, stepping backwards, but the blade flicked past his guard once, nicking him just below the eye. He replied with a slice at head-height that Saffrey only just managed to lean back to avoid. “You know the problem, Albrihn? You know why you won’t win this?” Saffrey still sounded confident, but he was breathing hard now.

“I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”

“You’re a professional.”

“Is that supposed to make sense?”

Saffrey was circling again, eyes never leaving his opponent. “You learned your skills out of necessity. You haven’t mastered the art of swordsmanship as I have.”

“Swordsmanship isn’t an art.”

“Spoken like a true boor. You hack at a tree like a woodsman while I carve exquisite sculptures.”

“Wood’s for burning.”

“And swords are just for killing? How reductive.”

“I’m a straightforward man, Saffrey.” He proved his point with a charge of his own. Saffrey moved to block him, but he’d feinted and he brought his sword low on the opposite side, raking it across his calf. Saffrey howled, but even as he staggered away he lashed out with his own weapon and caught Albrihn across the ribs. They separated, swords levelled, both moving warily now.

“Straightforward, yes,” Saffrey nodded. He favoured his injured leg. “You mean to butcher me like an animal.”

“I’d never treat an animal so cruelly.”

They clashed again. Albrihn was stronger and his sword heavier, but Saffrey was as skilled as he’d boasted, and he was a canny foe. Each strike Albrihn attempted was parried or sidestepped, and he began to find himself flagging. His exhaustion was catching up with him, and he was tired from the fight in the plaza, as swiftly as it had been concluded. As Saffrey began to press his advantage, a look of sadistic pleasure came across his face, an unwholesome hunger in his eyes. Steel clattered and then Saffrey struck low, catching Albrihn across the stomach. It was only a shallow gash, but it sent him stumbling backwards. The low table by the couch was directly behind him and he hadn’t spotted it: he tripped and fell backwards, rolling right across it. Saffrey let out a hoot of triumph and jumped onto the table so he stood above him. He went to impale him, but Albrihn, sprawled between couch and table, hooked his boot beneath the vambrace Saffrey had been examining earlier. He flicked it up and it struck his adversary on the jaw. Saffrey lost his balance and fell sideways, only just managing to stay on his feet as he landed on his injured leg. Albrihn scrambled up. He slashed Saffrey across his sword arm and then spun around, smashing him in the back of the head with the pommel. Saffrey yelped and fell to his knees. Albrihn swung, intending to strike his head off. Saffrey leant backwards at the last possible moment and the sword flashed a hair’s breadth above his face. Albrihn had put all his strength into the swing and when it missed he was unbalanced. Saffrey’s sword leapt up and the point drove into his gut. It ripped into the existing wound, only penetrating a short way before he jumped backwards, but the blood flowed, quickly staining his uniform. He held a hand to his stomach.

Saffrey rose, a triumphant expression on his face. “Not so good as your reputation suggested,” he said with a smirk.

Albrihn moved much slower now, the blood loss and burning agony in his abdomen taking their toll quickly. Saffrey might have pierced something vital. He wouldn’t last much longer. Time to end this. He lifted his sword and ran straight for his enemy, as if overcome by rage. Saffrey looked momentarily shocked, but recovered in time to exploit the obvious opening. His sword rammed into Albrihn’s midsection again, this time driving deeply, the bloody blade emerging from his back. Saffrey met his eyes. A smile slowly spread across his face. “You fool,” he whispered.

Albrihn grabbed his wrist, making sure he kept his grip on the sword’s hilt. Then he dropped his own sword. “This is over then,” he said. He could taste blood on his lips.

“Over…yes.” Saffrey laughed, a little manically. “You were never going to win,” he said.

“No. But I never meant to.”

“What…?”

He yanked his dagger from its sheath on the right side of his belt. Before Saffrey could react, he drove it into his neck, right to the hilt. His eyes went wide, blood poured from the deadly wound. “You were right,” he said, his face close to Saffrey’s, “there’s no winning this, not for me. But you…you can lose. And that’s what’s important.”

He couldn’t reply. The dagger had made a ruin of his throat. He took a shaky step backwards as Albrihn released his hand. He tugged feebly at the weapon lodged in his flesh, but he had no strength left and, as his eyes rolled back in his head, he collapsed to the floor, dead. Albrihn looked down at his fallen foe as a pool of blood spread around him.

“Done.” He whispered. He dropped to his knees and surrendered himself to darkness and, at long last, peace.

 

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