Golden Age (The Shifting Tides, #1)
Roaring thunder crackled and boomed, rippling across the waters of the Maltherean Sea, bouncing from isle to isle. The sound climbed the cliffs skirting the shore of a heavy landmass. Arriving at a city nestled in the curve of a harbor, it rolled over the signs of civilization: mud-brick houses and towering temples of stone.
In unison, tens of thousands of people woke gasping with fear. The rumble was louder than any storm experienced in living memory. The heavens themselves were breaking; the sky would soon come raining down in pieces.
At a proud villa crowning a hill near the city’s center, the thunder shattered the slumber of a young dark-haired woman.
Chloe’s eyes shot open, her heart pounding in her chest. Lying on her back on her bed pallet, her gaze darted to the stone window where a thin curtain billowed in the breeze.
The window revealed a starry night sky, with not a single cloud in sight to obscure the firmament. This time of year, early summer, it rarely rained, and when she’d bid her father goodnight there hadn’t been any sign of a storm. With the fading of the thunder she now wondered if she’d heard it at all. Perhaps the gods had visited her dreams and sent her a message to wake, for the cobwebs of sleep were now entirely banished.
Silence ensued. Chloe rolled out of bed and stood, her pulse still racing. Barefoot and naked on such a warm night, she rummaged in her clothing chest and swiftly wrapped a plain white chiton around her body, folding the diaphanous garment and fastening it with a copper pin. She exited her bedchamber, one of the many rooms in her father’s sprawling villa, and walked down the hall to check on her younger sister. Having just woken, Chloe’s long flowing hair was unkempt and she tucked a stray lock behind her ear.
Sophia lay on her pallet, wide-eyed and terrified. Just eleven, she was eight years younger than her sister.
‘Chloe?’ Sophia said hesitantly. ‘I’m scared.’
‘Hush,’ she soothed. ‘I’m just going to go and see. I’ll come straight back.’
Evidently, despite the cloudless sky, the thunder was real. Frowning, Chloe went back through the wide hallway, stone-walled on both sides, and through the reception, the main communal space, with marble statues in the corners and low tables and stools scattered about. Exiting the reception and passing the kitchen, she finally reached the terrace, where a decorated rail framed a wide paved area. The villa comprised of two levels: an upper story for the family and a smaller, lower floor for the servant’s quarters. The view from the terrace was unrivaled among all the homes in the city.
Finally, as she stood out in the open air, Chloe looked up at the sky.
Swathes of glittering stars returned her stare: the night was as clear as it had been when she’d retired. Bringing her gaze down, she saw a sliver of golden moon just above the horizon, the curling waves of the midnight sea revealed in its glow. She wondered if it appeared a little rougher than could be attributed to the breeze alone.
Chloe’s brow furrowed as she turned her attention to the city below.
Her home, the villa of her father, Aristocles, First Consul of Phalesia, occupied a hill only a few hundred paces from the agora, the city’s main market square and gathering place. Near the terrace where she stood, a stairway bordered by flowering shrubs descended to the cobbled stones of the streets below. From her vantage point Chloe could see the four temples that clustered around the agora, while two more grand structures nearby were the library, where the records were kept, and the lyceum, where the Assembly of Consuls met to administer the city.
Warm light glowed from braziers that rested against the temple columns. At this hour the agora would usually be deserted, but Chloe could see at least a dozen men, arms waving as they spoke frantically, but too far away for her to see much more.
Chloe’s gaze swept past the agora and traveled upwards, to a place near the sea where a jagged cliff rose from the harbor’s edge. At the summit, the highest point for miles, a large circular space could be seen from all quarters of the upper city. She felt comforted when she saw that the eternal flame burned brightly, reflecting from the tall marble columns of the surrounding temple. The huge torch on its pedestal cast flickering light on a golden chest the size of a large table, located half a dozen paces away, at the center of the paved plateau. The Ark of Revelation looked like nothing so much as an altar, which, in a way, it was.
An unusually large wave splashed against the shore, sending spray high into the air and drawing Chloe’s attention once more to the harbor. The next wave was bigger still. It struck the small fishing boats lined up on the crescent shoreline and even threatened to drag at the bigger naval galleys. Fishermen and soldiers alike scurried down to the shore. Soon they were hauling vessels as high as they could above the tide line. Still more men, who’d barely taken time to dress, called to one another as they ran through the agora to the embankment, a sloped defensive bastion above the shore, where a diagonal stairway gave them access to the harbor below. Together they worked to save Phalesia’s fleet from this strange thunder without clouds and waves without wind.
Chloe glanced inland to the densely populated township, and wondered where her father was. While the agora, temples, and villas of the wealthy were on raised ground above the harbor, the bulk of the citizenry lived below, within the walls guarding Phalesia’s landward boundary. Her father had departed in the evening for a symposium hosted by one of the consuls who lived in the lower city. The rowdy symposiums always went until late, with wine consumed in quantity, but Chloe knew her father. He would come running at the first sign of trouble.