The End of All Things – Chapter 2 – City of Glass and Light

The End of All Things – Chapter 2 – City of Glass and Light

Eyes half-closed, Anten Larath sank deeper into his chair, allowing the newsnets’ latest images to wash over him. Figures dashed across the screen between bursts of bright laser fire. If not for the nation markings on the arms of their uniforms, the Ruvalli’s soldiers would have been indistinguishable from their own. Which made Anten wonder why they allowed this war to drag on as long as it had.

The realization also served as a reminder; he would glean no information from public broadcasts that the Council had not already reviewed. His focus would be better spent elsewhere.

Images flickered rapidly across the screen as Anten tapped the arrow buttons on his remote control. Voices tried to speak, managing only clipped syllables before he moved on to the next channel, creating disjointed, incoherent statements. His jaw grew tighter with each headline he scanned, and he slowly ground his top and bottom teeth together.

As a councilor, it was his duty to keep abreast of current events. More than once, newsnet interviews brought important details to his attention. But none of today’s broadcasts were useful. Every program seemed ridiculous, more exhibition than information. Some ‘nets had given up on facts altogether. With all this spectacle, you’d think the world was ending.

“I haven’t seen you this aggravated since we planned our wedding.” The words drifted through the open doorway of Anten’s study.

Startled, Anten shifted his gaze toward his wife’s grinning face. It was a testament to how well she knew him that the slight tightening of his lips allowed her to identify his frustration. Noting a hint of mischief in her crystalline blue eyes, he graced her with a smile.

“What makes you so certain it’s the newsnets that aggravated me?” Today’s Council meeting had been long. Even the pleasant smells drifting from the kitchen did nothing to soothe his frazzled nerves.

“You’re home in time for dinner. And you only flip feeds rapidly when they’ve annoyed you,” Alrayia teased, leaning over his armchair so her face blocked his view of the screen.

“They’re getting to be as bad as the gossip between Council wives,” Anten muttered. He deactivated the device. It faded into an opaque square of grey, little more than a faded glass pane protecting a series of decorative artifacts arrayed on the shelves behind it. Gifts from his fellow councilors and a few mementos he had acquired during his travels.

Their aforementioned wedding photo perched near one corner of Anten’s desk. Alrayia’s face smiled from its center, frozen in a moment of sheer joy — which had certainly made all the trouble worthwhile. She looked resplendent in her flowing gown, a wreath of flowers perched atop her head. Beside the photo’s dark-wood frame waited a half-finished proposal, covered in Anten’s messy notes.

After a cursory glance at both, Anten set the remote aside and gathered his wife into his arms. As she melted into his lap, he ran his fingers through her mass of silver curls, setting them dancing across her shoulders. She smelled of lilac, honeysuckle and a faint trace of dill. 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. But given the amount of time she had spent in the kitchen this afternoon, he doubted luck was with him.

“What’s the occasion, Alrayia? You’ve been cooking so long, you must be expecting an entire legion to dinner.”

Alrayia rewarded him with a radiant smile, that mischievous glint still shining in her eyes. “Company is on the way,” she confirmed with a conciliatory pat to his shoulder.

Anten imagined several of his fellow councilors lounging about his living room, circumventing his desire for privacy by wheedling dinner invitations from his wife, and suppressed a groan. They’d have him discussing policy until the late hours of early morning.

Wagging a finger in front of his face, Alrayia slid to her feet. “It’s only Salis,” she admonished. “And it’s only for dinner.”

A room full of squabbling politicians would be preferable. But because Alrayia was fond of her brother, Anten tried not to let his disappointment show.

“Don’t look like you’d rather spend the night in Council!” Alrayia planted her hands on her hips, but a hint of good humor spoiled her stern demeanor.

“He’s visited a lot lately, you have to admit.”

“He shouldn’t be alone in that big house. It just reminds him Kantis isn’t here. I have you, my love. Salis’s heart is far away.”

A sharp stab of guilt penetrated Anten’s chest and he hung his head, duly chastised. These days, most people had close ties to at least one soldier, but no one felt the impact of the war more keenly than Salis Isrical, husband to the Caltaran Empire’s most skilled and famous warrior. When the fighting was heavy, Kantis spent most of his time on the front lines, and his husband spent most of his days alone. Double the shame, because Anten much preferred Salis in the company of his husband, who somehow managed to mellow his dramatics.

“Who am I to begrudge a man a few hours with his sister?” Anten relented.

Alrayia flashed him a smirk that seemed to say who indeed? But it was obvious she had already forgiven him. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. I expect you to answer the door.” She cast him a sharp look as she made her way back toward the kitchen.

Accepting her words for the warning they were, Anten reluctantly avoided burying his nose in work. He paged through a weather-worn philosophy book instead, reminding himself that every task left undone would provide an easy excuse later.

A quarter of an hour after their conversation, as Alrayia ferried hot bowls from the kitchen counter to the dining room table, there came a knock on the door. Anten set his book aside, abandoned his comfortable chair and shuffled out of his study. Unlike most councilors, he had no household staff. Alrayia delighted in keeping the place herself, and he experienced no inconvenience from answering his own door.

He opened it only halfway, bracing one arm against the doorframe while he appraised his brother-in-law. Salis was dressed as flamboyantly as ever, his blue and green robes embroidered to mimic the feathers of a peacock. It was appropriate, if not subtle. He had not done his hair — thank goodness. Instead, the long locks cascaded down his back, stopping just short of brushing the floor.

Anten resisted the urge to narrow his eyes. “Fair evening, Salis,” he said, his tone less than warm.

“Fair evening, Anten,” Salis sniffed, his tone equally cool.

Anten stood aside and Salis swept through the doorway, his colorful robes and long, raven hair trailing behind him. How he managed not to trip, Anten couldn’t say. He was tempted to close the door quickly enough to catch the last few inches of Salis’s hair, but he refrained. Alrayia didn’t like when they bickered.

Once inside, Salis paid little attention to his brother-in-law. He intercepted his sister on her way back to the kitchen and pulled her into a warm embrace. “Fair evening, Alrayia, and how do you fare?”

“I’m wonderful,” Alrayia replied, squeezing her brother in return. “How do you fare, dear brother?”

“About as well as can be expected,” Salis replied, his face growing solemn.

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. Alrayia baked it fresh that afternoon, and he doubted either of the chatty siblings would notice if a piece went astray.

When at last Alrayia broke away from her brother, she motioned for him to sit, encouraging both men to dig into their meal. Anten needed no second urging; he spotted his favorite savory meat pie sitting alongside Salis’s favorite bean casserole among the considerable offerings.

Both men ate with vigor, allowing silence to reign for the first half of the meal. It wasn’t until Anten piled a fourth helping onto his plate that they began to chat in earnest.

“I do thank you both for the meal and the company,” Salis said, reaching across the table to squeeze his sister’s hand. “It’s dreadfully lonely holed up in that house while Kantis is away. It may be hard to imagine, but even a large space can feel stifling under the right conditions.”

“Think nothing of it,” Alrayia replied, squeezing her brother’s hand in return. “You’re always welcome here. Think of it as home whenever you need to.”

Anten gritted his teeth to keep from wincing. Much as he despised Salis’s theatrics, he was grateful they were the only effect of the war he ever had to endure personally.

“You should go out more often,” Alrayia continued. “It’d be good for you. And I know at least half a dozen noble households that would gladly host you while your husband is away.”

Salis smiled, but his eyes drifted momentarily in Anten’s direction. He knew Anten didn’t share his wife’s sentiment, but neither man dared comment in Alrayia’s presence unless they wanted to receive a lecture.

“It doesn’t matter what I do.” Salis shrugged as he turned back to his sister. “Everything reminds me of him. It’s been nearly six months. He writes, when he can. I read his letters every day.”

“Don’t fret so much,” Alrayia insisted. “It won’t be long before you see him again.”

Salis straightened his back and lifted his chin. If he had been a cat, his ears would have shot forward and his tail would have stood on end. Even Anten paused, fork halfway to his mouth, one midnight eyebrow arched in question. Caution warned him it was unwise for his wife to make such a baseless assertion. Alrayia knew her brother would hang on her every word, since she had an uncanny knack for good guesses. More than once, she had accurately predicted the birth of a baby to the hour. If she said Sails would soon see his husband again, he was going to view it as truth, not reassurance.

“You think so?” Salis leaned eagerly across the table. “Is this another of your intuitions?”

Though Anten had tried on several occasions to disabuse his brother-in-law of the notion, Salis strongly believed his sister possessed some mystical ability to glimpse the future. If she could, the Order of Oracles would have claimed her at a young age. Their outside contact was limited, and they were forbidden from marrying outside their order, which would rather impede this entire conversation. Not that Anten put much stock in their abilities. It was all a load of esoteric claptrap as far as he was concerned.

Never-the-less, when his sister made a prediction, Salis waited with bated breath for its fulfillment. He’d probably spend the next several days staring out the window at the High Road, expecting Kantis to appear unannounced.

“Of course,” Alrayia said before Anten could voice his objections. “They can’t keep him in the field forever. Even the great Kantis needs to rest at some point. God-touched he may be, but god he is not.”

It was a reasonable assumption, but not enough to convince Anten. Six months was hardly a long time for a soldier to be away. Others had been three years or more without leave. Alrayia had no idea how heavy the fighting was or what orders Kantis’s Legion had been given.

Yet Salis poised like a coiled spring as he turned his head slowly in Anten’s direction, silent anticipation bursting from his eyes. He wanted facts to back up his sister’s premonition and, as a member of the High Council, Anten was the most ready source.

Anten sighed. He wasn’t in the habit of discussing Council business outside of his peers. And sharing military secrets was expressly forbidden, though that never stopped Salis from trying to wheedle information out of his brother-in-law. I’d better give him something to keep him from staring forlornly out the window every day for the next week. If Alrayia catches him, she’ll blame me.

“Things have been going well enough that the Council has heard other matters,” he admitted. “Though the way those fools on the newsnets carry on, you’d never know.”

It was a miniscule bit of information, easy to find if you knew where to look, but Salis grinned as though he had just single-handedly won the war. “I trust your intuition, Alrayia. You’re almost always right when it comes to this sort of thing.”

Alrayia flicked a wrist in dismissal, and the conversation moved on to other things. Luckily, dinner didn’t last much longer and, when Alrayia flitted to the kitchen to start cleaning, Salis followed, still bubbling with joy.

Anten retreated to his study, to the worn old armchair nestled between brimming bookcases. He wasn’t trying to avoid cleaning duty, though he wouldn’t mind avoiding his brother-in-law. If he lingered, he was bound to upset the man sooner or later. Anten found Salis irrational, illogical and flighty, while Salis found Anten’s logic cold and uncompromising. Salis’s opinion didn’t bother Anten, but Anten’s assessment apparently offended Salis. And if Anten lost track of his tongue, Alrayia would be cross.

Eventually, he drifted to his desk and the half-finished proposal, losing himself in plans and cross-references. Anten was a solitary man, content to spend the evening catching up on delayed projects, crunching numbers and preparing for tomorrow’s agenda.

Wanting to be a good host, he reappeared to see his brother-in-law to the door but, as usual, Salis lingered half an hour after declaring he would depart. Anten was ready to push him out the door by the time he left.

“Weather the night well, Salis,” Anten said as he inched the door closed. “And fair morrow to you.”

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

~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Alrayia woke curled in a fading spot of warmth on the wrong side of the bed. Most mornings, her husband slipped silently out of the house, so as not to disturb her. She was grateful for his consideration, unable to manage his late nights and early mornings. The sun had set most days before Anten returned, but Alrayia didn’t resent the amount of time he spent working. Instead, she made the most of the time they had.

Humming to herself, she slipped from beneath the silken covers, remade the bed and retreated to the bathing room. She soaked until her fingers wrinkled like prunes, trying not to imagine her husband stuck in boring Council meetings. After taming her mass of silver curls, Alrayia ate breakfast perched on the window seat in the kitchen, peering at the city below.

Altaris, capital of the Caltaran Empire, was built in two levels. The house Alrayia shared with her husband occupied the Skyway, built to mirror the city’s main street below. From her vantage, the people hurrying down the High Road looked like ants scurrying toward various tasks. The Central Council Chambers in the heart of the city dominated her view, a dome of white marble which glittered in the sunlight. Open markets, shopping malls and office buildings dotted the district surrounding it. Green gardens and shimmering fountains stood out against the metropolitan background, often as choked with crowds as the walkways and grand plazas.

The Skyway wound its way around this central quarter, resting atop the buildings below, supported by a series of outdoor liftfshafts and stairways. In the beginning, few councilors had been interested in living on the Skyway, despite its convenient location. Most preferred lavish mansions with expansive gardens, a mark of their rank. Up here, there was less room for yards. But Anten had no attachment to the extravagance often granted by his status, nor did he plan to have children. And Alrayia liked the view, especially at night when the city was lit by lanterns.

Caltaran architects were fond of curves. Instead of harsh square corners, they favored graceful domes, arches and spiral staircases. They arranged buildings in clusters, rather than rows, with winding stone 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 Alrayia’s 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.

But Alrayia didn’t linger over the view. Watching the wind whip through the hair of the Skyway pedestrians made her eager to experience the 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 her house, but she was in no hurry. She enjoyed the wind’s soft caress as she descended to the lower level.

Taking no pre-planned path, Alrayia meandered toward the city’s edge, bypassing the central market in favor of a smaller fair near the outskirts of the city. From the ground, Altaris assumed a maze-like quality. As she moved away from the city’s center, the architecture grew simpler and the crowds larger. The streets showed more signs of wear, and the buildings ceased to tower overhead. Many people considered this part of the city less beautiful than the high-class districts where the rich made their homes, but 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 and trimmed hedges. Of course, Alrayia possessed certain biases since she had been raised in this portion of the city.

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

Here, the produce was fresher, the people nicer and the shop keepers more knowledgeable. The merchants of the central market bought their produce from the common merchants at premium and hiked the prices; the nobility paid for convenience, not quality.

Two hours after her departure, Alrayia came around a sharp corner into the heart of a busy market plaza, her favorite place to buy fruits and vegetables. She perched next to the brimming produce stands and waited for the other shoppers to uncover items 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. If only other insights came to her as readily and proved as easy to interpret.

When her basket was half-full, Alrayia overpaid and slipped away before the stand owner could protest. She was supposed to meet a friend for lunch in a few minutes in a cafe across town. She couldn’t possibly make it on time. Yet the sensation gnawing at the back of her mind contained no hint of concern. Instead, she felt a confusing sense of non-urgency, an intuition she had learned to trust.

Perhaps she should stop at her favorite fish market.

The decision made, Alrayia headed to the nearby docks, which straddled the mouth of the river that divided the city almost in two. In her youth, she spent hours watching the dock workers sort the fish delivered by incoming ships. Every morning, carts carried seafood to the city’s other markets, but there was no time to ensure only the best stock was included. It was only by the riverside that one could acquire the best seafood in the city, cold-packed so it would keep. Most people loathed the constant crowd choking the docks, but it never bothered Alrayia.

By the time her basket was full, that sense of insignificance had shifted to one of sharp warning. It was time to meet her friend. She didn’t know what might happen if she turned up late, but she got the impression she didn’t want to find out.

Alrayia took one of the rail transit cars back toward the city’s center to traverse the distance quickly. These high-speed trains wove through the city’s inner workings — both above and below ground — allowing people to hop between the city’s hubs within minutes.

Still, she was hours late for the original meeting by the time she arrived at the sidewalk cafe. If her intuition was wrong, she had kept a friend waiting far longer than was polite. She scanned the crowd but saw no sign of the other woman.

Settling into her favorite table near the decorative planters, Alrayia tucked her basket underneath her seat to keep it out of the way. Initially, she sensed only that her friend would be late. Now she suspected there was a significant reason for the delay. She ordered a chilled fruit blend to drink and watched the crowd pass while she waited.

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

“Fair day, Alrayia. I’m terribly sorry,” she gasped. “I hope you weren’t waiting all afternoon! I thought you’d be gone by n-”

Alrayia waved a hand to cut her off and pushed her drink across the table for her friend to take while she ordered herself another. “Fair day to you, Onale, and it’s quite all right. I only just arrived myself. I was held up at the dock plaza this morning. There was a huge crowd. It was dreadful.”

Onale shot her a skeptical look. Anten wasn’t the only one aware of Alrayia’s good guesses, but Onale’s curiosity was infinitely easier to thwart. Alrayia responded with a wide-eyed, innocent blink and, after a moment, Onale shook her head.

“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 a knowing smile, but didn’t interrupt. She had a good idea what her friend was trying to say.

“And I am! I mean…” Onale’s face lit up. “We’re having a baby! Isn’t it exciting?”

Alrayia grinned. “Congratulations, Onale! This is fair news, indeed. Does Borak know?”

“Yes, he came with me. I really am sorry, Alrayia. We got caught up at the clinic, and Borak insisted on extra 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.”

“I’m not surprised. You’ve been trying a long time. I’m sure you both worried.”

“It’s something of a relief,” Onale admitted. “But I feel horrible making you wait-”

“I already told you, you didn’t. But I am famished. I haven’t eaten much today and neither, I suspect, have you.”

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 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 solider than a councilor. Borak didn’t hold much sway in the Council so, unless he abdicated his seat to his son, he wouldn’t be able to prevent his conscription. Secretly, Alrayia hoped her friend would have a girl. While no law forbade women from serving in the military, they couldn’t be drafted.

But while she skirted the uncomfortable truth, Alrayia enjoyed the conversation. Onale was a good friend who, like herself, was often snubbed by the other Council wives, making it difficult for the woman to find a friendly ear. Onale had come from a humble upper-class family whose fortune was on its last legs when Councilor Borak proposed. Perhaps it gave her a unique sympathy toward Alrayia, who was common born. Most of the Council wives looked down their noses at Alrayia, refusing to interact with her unless forced. They were bitter, she supposed, that Anten abolished the frivolous law which forbade noblemen from marrying common women so that he could take her as his wife. A particularly petty bit of nonsense; there was no such thing as pure blood anymore, but that didn’t stop the Council wives from disdaining her.

For the most part, Alrayia ignored them. She preferred to find her friends among those less concerned with status anyway.

The sun inched across the sky as the friends spoke of weather, fashion and baking tips, but never the war. 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 if I let his pregnant wife wander the city alone after dark?” Alrayia teased, knowing full well they inhabited the city’s safest district. She retrieved her basket from underneath her chair, tossed a few extra coins onto the table, and fell into step beside her friend. She allowed her mind to drift, checking for any more of those unbidden sensations. But the warning edge that tinged her last intuition had vanished. If something bad was supposed to happen, she had evidently diverted it by intercepting Onale.

Onale and her husband lived in one of the mansions beneath the Skyway. It took less than ten minutes to reach an area where the crowds thinned, and it was a short clip from there to Onale’s doorstep. Alrayia paused to offer 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 would be waiting at home; if he hadn’t been held up after the session.

No sooner had Alrayia opened the door than did Anten emerge from his study. She set her basket on the table and threw her arms around his neck, 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 her basket from the table and darted to the kitchen to put her purchases away. Cold-packing only kept food fresh for so long.

“I’m aware,” Anten replied, following in her wake. “He was late for today’s session. How did you know?”

Alrayia paused when she noted the peculiar, probing look on her husband’s face. He’s wondering if this is another of my intuitions. She laughed. “I had lunch with Onale this afternoon. I just got back from her place.”

For a moment, she was sure Anten looked relieved. Silently, he helped unpack the shopping basket. After she returned it to the closet, he pulled her into his embrace. She relaxed, content to be close, until she caught him eyeing her sideways again.

“What?” she demanded, frowning as she drew away. “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”

“They made the announcement today.”

Alrayia furrowed her brows. “What announcement?”

“About Kantis,” Anten clarified, still eyeing her suspiciously. “They’ve decided to recall him and his legion from the field.”

“That’s wonderful!” Alrayia squealed, throwing her arms around Anten’s neck again. “Salis will be thrilled!”

“Yes,” Anten agreed, though his tone was flat. He reached up to grab her shoulders as he took a step back, putting space between them. “How did you know, Alrayia?”

She smiled innocently. “Know what?”

“Don’t play games. 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 the result like a puppy waiting for its master to throw a stick. How did you know Kantis is coming home?”

A lesser woman would have been offended by that question. Some councilors didn’t trust their wives. Knowledge was power, and most noblewomen considered it their right to snoop through their husband’s files for information that would benefit them. Anten knew she would never steal Council secrets. But he had a severe aversion to anything that couldn’t be explained. He wanted to know how she guessed. And while she enjoyed watching her stoic husband squirm sometimes, she didn’t want to upset him.

“I really didn’t,” she insisted, grinning. She never knew for sure, anyway, until the event took place. “Lucky guess, wasn’t it?”

Anten gave her a long, searching look before he sighed. He was an intelligent man with a firm grasp of how the world was meant to work. Whenever she appeared to break those rules, it set him on edge.

“Someday, you’re going to have to explain to me how you acquired all this good luck,” he insisted.

“Someday,” she agreed, laying her cheek against his chest. But not today.

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