Chapter 1: City of Glass and Light

Chapter 1: City of Glass and Light

"I haven't seen you this aggravated since we planned our wedding." The voice drifted through the doorway of his study, interrupting his thoughts. Anten Larath shifted his gaze to his wife's grinning face.

Even the pleasant smells drifting out of the kitchen did nothing to sooth his frazzled nerves. It was a testament to how well his wife knew him that the slight tightening of his lips and the small twitch of one midnight eyebrow were enough to allow her to catch his frustration.

Why do I even pay attention to these Newsnet broadcasts anymore? It was his duty as a councilor to keep abreast of current events. More than once he'd caught important details, which had slipped past the Council's notice, by paying attention to Newsnet interviews.

There's nothing useful today. These programs are ridiculous, more exhibition than information. With all this spectacle, you'd think the world was ending. Some nets seem to have given up on facts altogether!

He wasn't displeased by his wife's interruption, nor by the hint of mischief in her expression. He graced her with a small smile. He wasn't an expressive person, but he often shared small gestures of affection with his wife in private.

"What makes you certain it was the Newsnet that aggravated me?" he challenged, though it only caused his wife's grin to grow.

"You only flip between nets so rapidly when they've offended your non-too-delicate sensibilities," she teased, interposing herself between his reclining chair and the screen. He cut the feed, abandoning the news in favor of gathering his wife into his lap.

He took a moment to run his fingers through her long, silver curls. She smelled faintly of flowers. No one else so easily relieved his tension. He would be content to spend the rest of the evening sitting with her in silence. Work demanded so much of his time, they rarely had evenings to themselves. Given the amount of time his wife had spent in the kitchen this evening, he doubted luck was with him.

"What's the occasion, Alrayia?" he asked, hesitant to break the comfortable silence. "You've been entrenched in the kitchen so long, you must be expecting an entire legion to dinner."

His wife rewarded him with a radiant smile, but he noted the mischievous glint still shining in her eyes. It made him dread her response.

"Company this evening." Her words were accompanied by a conciliatory pat that did nothing to reassure him. He imagined several of his fellow councilors lounging about his living room, having circumvented him by wheedling dinner invitations out of his wife. They would have him discussing policy until the late hours of early morning.

He opened his mouth to groan when his wife swept to her feet, wagging a finger in front of his face in admonishment.

"It's only Salis," she said, "and it's only for dinner."

That name offered him no comfort. A room full of squabbling politicians would almost be preferable. But because Alrayia was fond of her brother, Anten tried not to let his disappointment show. He was unsuccessful.

"Don't look like you'd rather spend the night in Council!" Alrayia rebuked, hands on her hips. Anten looked duly chastised.

"He's visited quite often lately, Alrayia."

"He shouldn't be alone in that big house so much," Alrayia replied curtly. "It just reminds him Kantis isn't here." Her tone softened. "I have you, my love. Salis's heart is far away. So much lately, it's a wonder he's holding up so well."

Anten felt a sharp stab of guilt. Alrayia had a way of driving her point home poignantly. He was lucky; he saw his wife every day. Most people had close ties to at least one soldier. Technically you do too, he reminded himself. No one felt the impact of the war more keenly than Salis Isrical, husband to one of the Caltaran Empire's most skilled and famous warriors. With Kantis in such high demand, I suppose Salis does spend the bulk of his days alone.

"Who am I to begrudge a man a few hours with his sister?" Anten relented, bowing his head in defeat.

Alrayia flashed him a look which said, who indeed. She smiled a moment later and Anten knew he was forgiven.

"He'll be here in a few minutes," she said, making her way back to the kitchen.

Not a quarter of an hour later, as Alrayia ferried hot bowls from the kitchen counter to the dining room table,  there came a knock on the door. Reluctantly, Anten pulled himself out of his comfortable chair and abandoned his study. Unlike most councilors, he had no household staff; servants were unnecessary. Alrayia was happy to take care of the household chores and he didn't usually find it an imposition to answer his own door.

The greeting he offered his wife's brother was less than warm. Salis's greeting was equally cool. Anten stood aside and Salis swept through the doorway, his bright, colorful robes and long, raven hair trailing behind him. Salis's hair was so long, Anten wondered how he managed to get around without tripping over it. He was tempted to try to catch the last few inches when he closed the door, but he restrained himself.

Salis paid little attention to his brother-in-law. He intercepted his sister, pulled her into a warm embrace and inquired after her well-being. While they were otherwise occupied, Anten slipped into his usual place at the head of the table and took it upon himself to sample the sweet bread; the pair were far too absorbed in each other's company to notice a piece had gone astray.

When Alrayia broke away from her brother, she motioned for him to sit, encouraging both men to dig into the meal while she settled into her chair. Anten needed no second urging. He noticed Salis's favorite dish alongside his among the considerable fare. Alrayia knew their appetites and had planned accordingly.

Both men ate with vigor. Silence reigned for the first half of the meal while both men politely stuffed themselves. It wasn't until Anten piled a fourth helping onto his plate that they began to chat in earnest.

"I do thank you for both the meal and the company, Alrayia," Salis said, reaching across the table to give his sister's hand a soft squeeze. "It can be dreadfully lonely holed up in that house while Kantis is away. It may be hard to imagine, but even such a big place can seem stifling."

Alrayia squeezed her brother's hand in return, then made a dismissive gesture. "Think nothing of it. You're always welcome here, Salis. Think of it as home whenever you need to." Anten grit his teeth to keep from wincing over the invitation. "Besides," Alrayia went on, "you should go out more often. It'd be good for you."

Salis smiled, but his eyes drifted momentarily in Anten's direction. Anten forced his expression to remain neutral. He suspected Salis knew he didn't share Alrayia's sentiment, but neither of them commented. Instead, Salis turned back to his sister, his expression melancholy.

"It doesn't matter what I do," he said with a shrug. "Everything reminds me of him. It's been nearly six months since he last set out."

"Don't fret so much, Salis. It won't be long before you'll see him again," Alrayia replied.

Her words caused Salis to perk up instantly. Even Anten paused, fork half way to his mouth, to give his wife a significant look, one midnight eyebrow arched in question. Alrayia didn't throw these kinds of pronouncements around lightly. She knew, as he did, her brother would hang on her every word. Caution told Anten it was unwise for her to make such baseless assertions, but she did have an uncanny knack for good guesses. More than once, she had accurately predicted the birth of a baby to the hour. If she was reassuring Salis he would see his husband again soon, she must have reason to believe he would, even if Anten couldn't fathom it. A feeling? Not at all scientific.

"You really think so?" Salis asked eagerly, leaning forward across the table. "Is this another one of your intuitions?" Salis strongly believed his sister had a mystical ability which allowed her to catch glimpses of the future. Anten had tried, on several occasions, to free him of those delusions. If Alrayia could see the future, she would have joined the Oracles at a young age. Oracles are forbidden from marrying outside their order. They're encouraged not to marry at all; multiple unions are more likely to produce offspring which share their abilities. Not that Anten put a lot of stock their abilities to predict future events; esoteric claptrap if you ask me. The fact remained that anyone with even a hint of the so-called talent was snatched up to serve as state advisers before they could form families of their own.

Never-the-less, whenever his sister made one of her predictions, Salis waited with bated breath for its fulfillment. He's going to spend the next several days staring out the window at the High Road.

Before Anten could voice his opinion, Alrayia shrugged. "Yes, I think you'll see him again soon. They can't keep soldiers out in the field forever, Salis. Even the great Kantis needs to rest at some point. God touched he may be, but a god he is not."

It was a reasonable assumption, but Anten thought her reason lacking. Six months was hardly long for a soldier to be away. She had no information on how heavy the fighting was or what action Kantis's Legion was currently involved in.

Sails, on the other hand, looked poised to spring to the window to check if Kantis were marching home right this moment. He turned his head slowly in Anten's direction, an inquisitive look in his eyes. Bursting with anticipation, he was searching for iron clad facts to back up his sister's apparent premonition. As a member of the High Council, Anten was his most ready source of military knowledge.

Anten sighed. It wasn't his habit to discuss Council business outside of his peers; not to mention the fact that it was illegal. Somehow that never stops Salis from trying to wheedle information out of me. I'd better give him something to keep him from going mad. If Alrayia catches him staring forlornly out the window every day for the next week, she'll blame me.

"Things seem to be going well..." he started, regretting his words when Salis leaned forward like an eager wild cat anticipating something to pounce. "Well enough the Council is willing to hear other matters. Though you'd never know it the way the fools on the Newsnet carry on."

It was a minuscule bit of information, but Salis grinned triumphantly. There's just no reasoning with that man.

"I trust your intuition, Alrayia" he declared. "You're almost always right when it comes to these sorts of things."

Luckily, dinner didn't last much longer. Alrayia flitted off to the kitchen to start cleaning and Salis followed, still bubbling with joy.

Anten retreated to his study. He didn't mean to avoid the cleanup or even his brother-in-law, though the latter had crossed his mind. He wanted to give Salis a chance to enjoy his sister's company. Anten knew if he lingered, he was bound to say something that would upset the man sooner or later. They simply had opposing views of most things. Anten found Salis irrational, illogical and flighty, while Salis found Anten's logic cold and uncompromising. Anten wasn’t bothered by Salis's opinion, but the other man often seemed offended by Anten's assessment of him.  If I lose track of my tongue, Alrayia will be cross with me.

Anten was a solitary man; he passed the evening alone in his study, content to catch up on long delayed projects. Wanting to be a good host, he reappeared to see his brother-in-law off. As usual, however, Salis lingered half an hour after declaring he would depart, unnecessarily drawing out the farewells. Anten was ready to push him out the door by the time he left.

The moment he was gone, Anten stole his wife away from the last of the cleaning, determined to enjoy her company now that they were finally alone.

~ ~ ~ ~

Alrayia woke to find herself curled in a fading warm spot on the wrong side of the bed. With a pang of regret, she realized she was alone. This was not unusual. She awoke most mornings to discover her husband had slipped silently out of bed, and out of the house, so as not to disturb her. She was grateful for his consideration; she often tried to keep his late night, early morning hours, but she was ill suited to them. She wasn't sure how he managed with so little sleep.

Still, it disappointed her to discover her husband missing. Being a member of the High Council demanded much of his time. It was dark most days before she saw him. All the more reason to want to see his face in the morning, before he departs. Alrayia didn't resent the amount of time Anten spent working; she just wanted to make the most of the time she got with him.

I'll try harder to keep his hours, she resolved as she slid out from beneath the silken covers to begin her day.

She kept no real schedule, but started most of her days with the same routine. Humming to herself, she remade the bed, then retreated to the bathing room for a hot bath. Some days she soaked awhile, trying not to imagine her husband stuck in boring Council meetings. After taming her curls for the day, Alrayia ate breakfast perched on the window seat, watching the city below.

The capital was built in two levels; the house Alrayia shared with her husband was on the second, high above ground. From her vantage, the people hurrying down the High Road looked like ants scurrying toward their various tasks. The view was dominated by the Central Council Chambers in the heart of the city, a dome of white marble which glittered in the sunlight. Open markets, shopping malls and office buildings filled the district surrounding it. Gardens and fountains dotted the quarter, often as crowded as the plazas.

The Skyway had been built to mirror the city's main street, the High Road, as it wound its way around the central quarter. Resting on the buildings below, supported by outdoor liftshafts and a series of large staircases, the Skyway and the buildings that ringed it, formed the city's second level. Houses on the Skyway were reserved for members of the High Council, though anyone could walk the boulevard and visit the businesses which operated along it.

In the beginning, few councilors had been interested in houses on the Skyway despite their convenient location.  Most councilors considered owning lavish mansions, including expansive gardens, a mark of their rank. Up here, there was less room for yards or gardens. Anten chose to live on the Skyway because he had no attachment to the extravagance often granted by his status, nor did he plan on having children. Alrayia was fond of the view, especially at night when the city was lit by thousands of lanterns.

Caltarans were fond of curves. Instead of harsh squares, they favored graceful domes, arches and spiral staircases. They arranged their buildings in clusters, rather than rows, with winding cobblestone streets to connect them. To leave room for parks, gardens, fountains and memorials, Caltarans tended to build their cities upward rather than outward. Architecture was their most enduring art form. From the windows of her house, the city seemed a patchwork of colored metal, glittering glass and twisting spires; a stained glass mosaic, a grand sculpture of glass and light, the combined work of a thousand eager artists.

Impressive a view as it was, Alrayia didn't linger. Watching the wind whipping at the hair of those on the Skyway made her eager to experience the crisp morning. The sun was bright and the breeze refreshing when she made her way out the front door, shopping basket in hand. There was a stairway not far from the house which led to the lower level. From the ground, the city assumed a new dimension, artful but maze-like.

She bypassed the Central Market in favor of a smaller one located in a common district, near the outskirts of the city. She'd grown up in that area and knew it well. The produce was fresher, the people nicer and the shop keepers more knowledgeable. The merchants of the Central Market bought their produce at premium then hiked the prices. The nobility paid for convenience, not quality.

Taking no preplanned path, Alrayia meandered her way toward the city's edge. The further she got from the center, the larger the crowds and less grand the architecture. The streets reverted from cobblestone to gravel. Many people thought this part of the city less beautiful than the high-class districts where the rich made their homes. Alrayia disagreed. There was beauty of a different kind in the common quarters, no less lovingly tended. Instead of statues, murals and carvings, commoners decorated their districts with flowers; gardens, trimmed hedges and various arrangements.

Less concerned with her chore than enjoying the day and the city, Alrayia paused often, inhaling delectable scents drifting through bakery doors and admiring expertly trimmed hedge sculptures. She loved this city. She had learned these streets, not as a child growing up, but as a woman. Her marriage to Anten left her with a great deal of free time. She could get from one end of the city to the other in pitch darkness if she needed to. She would need that knowledge someday, of that she was certain.

Two hours after her departure, Alrayia came around a sharp corner into the heart of a busy market plaza, her favorite place to buy fruit and vegetables. She perched herself next to the brimming produce stands and waited for the other shoppers to uncover pieces which caught her eye. Her method may have seemed lackluster, but she had a knack for spotting the best stock without needing to press her fingers against every item. When her basket was half-full, and she was satisfied her stock would last a week, she over paid and slipped off before the owner could protest.

She paused a moment to check her chronometer; she was supposed to meet a friend for lunch in a few minutes at a café across town. She couldn't make the meeting on time. It doesn't matter. She's going to be late. Significantly late. Late enough I can stop at my favorite fish market on the way.

Altering her course, Alrayia made her way to the docks nearby. In her youth, she often watched dock workers sort fish with fascination as incoming ships were unloaded. Every morning, carts carried seafood to the other city markets, but there was no time to ensure only the best fish were included. By the riverside, where they had the proper equipment, they sold the best seafood cold packed so it would keep.

Most people loathed the constant crowd at the dock plaza, but it never bothered Alrayia. Her basket was full when she finished and she deemed it was time to meet her friend. She hurried back toward the city center, this time choosing a direct path.

She was hours late for the original meeting by the time she arrived at the sidewalk café. If her intuition was wrong, she'd kept a friend waiting far longer than was polite. There was no sign of the other woman. Alrayia settled into her favorite table in the corner, tucking her basket underneath to keep it out of the way. Initially, she'd felt only that her friend would be late. Now she suspected there was a significant reason for the delay. She ordered herself a chilled fruit blend to drink while she watched the crowds pass.

Alrayia had barely sipped from her delightful treat when a blonde haired woman hurried up the cobblestone street, waving vigorously to catch her attention. She was out of breath by the time she slumped into the chair across from Alrayia.

"I'm terribly sorry!" she gasped, "I hope you weren't waiting all afternoon! I thought you'd be gone by-"

Alrayia waved a hand to cut her off, pushing her drink across the table for her friend to take while she ordered herself another.

"It's alright, Onale, I only just got here myself. I was held up at the dock plaza this morning. Large crowd, it was dreadful."

Onale shot her a skeptical look; Anten wasn't the only one aware of her 'good guesses.' After a moment, the woman shook her head and flashed Alrayia a grin.

"It was a sudden thing, really. I wasn't feeling well this morning. Borak insisted I see a doctor. We've been trying, after all, and you know how he is."

Alrayia smiled knowingly but didn't interrupt. She had a good idea what her friend was trying to say.

"And I am! I mean..." Her face lit up. "We're having a baby! Isn't it exciting?"

Alrayia grinned, overjoyed at the news. "Congratulations, Onale! Does Borak know?"

"Yes, he came with me. I really am sorry, Alrayia. We got caught up at the clinic and Borak insisted on tests to make certain everything is going well. It took awhile for the doctor to convince him we don't need to do anything serious."

"You've been trying a long time now," Alrayia replied, waving her hand again. "I'm sure you both worried."

"It is something of a relief," Onale admitted. "But I feel horrible making you wait-"

"I already told you; you didn't keep me waiting," Alrayia cut her off. "But I am famished. I haven't eaten much today and, I suspect, neither have you. You've got to be careful now, Onale. You're eating for two."

They ordered lunch. Onale spent most of the meal bubbling about plans for her baby, wondering if she would have a boy or a girl, and speculating on what each might become. Alrayia didn't have the heart to remind her they were in the middle of a war. If Onale gave birth to a boy, he was more likely to become a soldier than a councilor. Borak didn't hold much sway in the Council. Unless he abdicated his seat to his son, he wouldn't be able to prevent him from being conscripted. Alrayia hoped her friend would have a girl. While no law forbid women from serving in the military, they couldn't be drafted.

She enjoyed the conversation. Onale was a good friend. Alrayia suspected that, like herself, Onale was often snubbed by the other Council wives and would have a hard time finding a friendly ear elsewhere. Onale had come from a humble upper class family whose fortune was on its last legs when Councilor Borak proposed to her. Perhaps it gave her a unique sympathy toward those who, like Alrayia, were common born. Most of the Council wives looked down their noses at Alrayia, refusing to interact with her unless forced. Bitter that Anten abolished the frivolous law that forbid noblemen from marrying common women so that he could take me as his wife. Petty nonsense; there's no such thing as pure blood anymore.

That didn't stop the other Council wives from disdaining her, but Alrayia chose not to let their behavior bother her.

When the sun began to sink below the horizon, Onale slid to her feet. "I should get home. You know how Borak worries."

"I'll walk with you. What would Borak do to me if I let his pregnant wife wander the city alone after dark?" Alrayia teased as she retrieved her basket from under the table.

Onale and her husband lived in one of the mansions beneath the Skyway. Alrayia offered congratulations to Borak before bidding her friend farewell. She took one of the lifts to the boulevard above and hurried home. If Borak had already returned from Council, chances were good Anten was home too. She hoped he hadn't been held up after the session.

Anten emerged from his study when she arrived. She set down her basket and threw herself into his arms, laying a kiss on his lips.

"Councilor Borak and his wife are having a baby!" she announced with a grin. Ignoring the stunned look on her husband's face, she snatched up her basket and darted off to the kitchen to put her purchases away. The cold packing kept everything fresh, but only within the time limit.

"I know," Anten replied, following in her wake. "He was late for today's session. How did you know?"

Alrayia was confused until she saw the look on his face. He's wondering if this is another of my intuitions. He doesn't like anything which isn't explainable, provable or traceable. She laughed, enjoying his consternation.

"I had lunch with Onale this afternoon. I just got back from her place."

For a moment, Alrayia was sure he looked relieved. Silently, he helped unpack the shopping basket. After she returned it to the closet, he caught her in his arms and pulled her into his embrace. She relaxed, content to be close, until she caught him giving her another of those probing looks.

"What?" she demanded, frowning as she pulled away. "Why do you keep looking at me that way?"

"They made the announcement today," he said tentatively.

Alrayia's confusion was genuine. "What announcement?"

"About Kantis," Anten clarified, still eying her as if she already knew the answer. "They're recalling him, and his legion, from the field."

"That's wonderful!" Alrayia exclaimed, thrusting herself back into her husband's embrace. She gave him all the credit, even if he had no say in the military's decision. "Salis will be thrilled!"

"Yes," Anten agreed, though his tone was flat. He didn't return her embrace, instead taking a step back. "How did you know, Alrayia?" he demanded.

She smiled innocently. "How did I know what, dear?"

"Don't play games, Alrayia. You know as well as I do, you wouldn't give your brother false hope. Every time you make some sort of prediction he waits for it to happen like a puppy waiting for you to throw a stick. How did you know Kantis is coming home?"

Anyone else would have been offended by that kind of question. Some councilors didn't trust their wives. Knowledge was power and most noblewomen considered it their right snoop through their husband's files to gain information that would benefit them. He trusts I would never steal Council secrets. That's not what he's asking. He wants to know how I guessed.

"I really didn't," she insisted with a shrug. She wasn't playing games. She may have enjoyed watching her stoic husband squirm every now and then, but she wasn't trying to upset him. She rarely knew for sure until the event actually took place.

"To offer that kind of reassurance the night before-"

"Lucky guess, wasn't it?" she interrupted, flashing him a mischievous grin. Her husband was an intelligent man with a firm grasp of how the world was supposed to work. She constantly seemed to be breaking those rules. That put him on edge.

He gave her a long, searching look, then sighed.

"Someday," he murmured, pulling her close and resting his cheek on the top of her head, "you're going to have to explain to me how you acquired all this good luck."

"Someday," she agreed. "But not today."

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