Saturday, 29 December 2012

Chapter 7 - Part C

She hadn’t slept, but anyone who didn’t know her wouldn’t be able to tell.  After much painful deliberation and frustration, anger and some tears she’d chosen her gown.  It was simple, elegant, and she hadn’t needed any help getting into it.  She hadn’t wanted any of the other serving girls to see her like this, so Anya stayed and took care of the details herself.  The simple square necked gown  had short cropped shoulders, was silver-grey and gathered across her chest.  A large, black, she’d decided, ribbon tied under her bust, and left two long tails down the voluminous back of her dress. The gown hung loosely to the floor. She had gathered her hair around a tiara that her mother had worn, and in defiance of Andoran Grey and his new supposed rule over her Empire, she’d raided the vault until she’d found the Klein Hadar, the royal sash, decorated with symbols of her empire, a large velvet choker for her throat bearing the Talerian sapphire, on both gloved wrists large, heavy jeweled bracelets and finally in her left hand the large gold and platinum scepter, the gold and platinum were wound together from the bottom representative of the voice of the people and the strength of the monarch.  She watched the large mahogany doors, waiting.  Andoran would not miss the meaning of her small, quiet rebellion, by choosing to be shown to the people wearing the symbols of her power;  She would never appear to him nor to her people as weak.  After what seemed like forever, without knock or pronouncement, as if it was assumed one wasn’t needed, the large door on the left side opened without a sound.  Andoran stepped inside.  At the sight of her, he breathed an audible sigh of relief and almost smiled.
    “It’s good to see you, my Lady...” He started.
    “Alive? Yes, well, you can’t rid yourself of me that easily, Andoran.  If you plan to rule my empire then I will stick as close to your side as a thorn from the briar patch.” She announced more confidently than she felt.  
    Andoran caught her meaning, and his smile melted into a sneer.  He looked her up and down.  Squaring his jaw he chose to ignore her outright protest, parading herself around in the Klien Hadar would only legitimize his claim before the people.  She was squaring off against him, and something about it made him feel the challenge all the way down to his bones.  He would beat it from her eventually, whether that meant physically or emotionally he wasn’t sure, but eventually she would be as complicit as she was in his deepest of fantasies.  It wouldn’t be too hard to get used to the idea that he was finally her superior.  He offered her his arm.  It was important to keep up pretenses for the time being; or she might not actually marry him.  The morning announcement was set, at least better prepared than the execution.  He hadn’t wanted to go through with that, and it looked like she wasn’t going to make him.  He led her into the same chambers she’d banished him from not so long ago.  She could see the same group of advisers from the night before gathered on the balcony.  They would announce to the people that Andoran was the saviour of Khal Manar, that Atlantis had not only offered to marry him, but had also insisted upon a full transfer of power, so that he would be her regent.  
    The crowd they had gathered at the balcony was small.  Three-hundred at the most.  Atlantis supposed that in these times it was hard to bring out the masses.  Sure enough the word would spread.  Even through all the chaos she could see the lights and cameras of the news reporters.  They would bring a report to the people.  As Andoran stepped into the early morning spotlight, polite cheers and applause mostly of recognition rose from the crowd.  As Atlantis stepped forward the cheer strengthened.  She smiled at the people and even offered a wave.  Before they’d stepped onto the balcony, Atlantis had been told that she would be making the announcement to the people.  She could feel her hands shaking more than when she’d first spoken from this balcony to the people.  Her stomach rolled over, and for a moment she wondered if she was going to be sick.  Andoran had told her that they had an insurance policy.  She would deliver his speech as it was written or she would suffer the consequences.  It had briefly entered her mind to defy them anyway.  Better to die a martyr than live as a prisoner, but as Atlantis stepped up to the podium, something over her shoulder caught her eye.   Hiding behind a curtain, just in Atlantis’ peripheral vision a large man was standing with a woman pressed up against his chest.  A long blade was positioned up at her throat.  She was trembling and tears were dripping down her cheeks.  It was Anya.  Atlantis’ stomach dropped even further.  The message was clear.  If she didn’t deliver the speech exactly as Andoran had prepared, Anya would die.  They wouldn’t harm Atlantis, she was too important in their plan for success, but they would isolate her and murder each and every supporter she had one at a time.  Strengthening her resolve, she faced the waiting faces of the crowd below.
    “I know that these last few days have been difficult.  I admire you for your strength and perseverance.  Thank you for giving this government time to recuperate and bring aid to each of you.  I’m sure that you have heard the reports.  We were attacked last week by an unknown enemy.  I can assure you that the army is strong and will be pursuing any leads and bolstering our forces.  Through this most recent upheaval, I have been under good council, and I have decided that the best thing for the Empire is to join forces with Lord Andoran Grey.  He has saved us from certain destruction, and this makes him an excellent candidate for leadership.  We are close, we have been for years, friends who have grown to love.  I have decided to accept Lord Grey’s offer of marriage.  He and I will be wed in the near future and I will be granting him power of Empire.  He will sit over Khal Manar as high Emperor, and I will be honoured to be his wife.”  Atlantis finished and turned abruptly from the podium.  The cheer that had risen from the crowd on the pronouncement of her marriage had dulled somewhat in confusion at the mention of Atlantis’ transfer of power.  She was away from the podium so quickly and back in the confines of the great chamber she could barely hear the crowds anymore.  Isolated again.  Andoran left her, busy with matters of state.  She was ushered back to her quarters. It wasn’t pressed upon her to stay in her quarters, but it seemed to be expected.  The usual guard on Atlantis’ quarters had doubled.  She could still explore her gardens, but couldn’t wander freely, without escort, beyond that.  
    As the hours passed, Atlantis found small ways of busying herself.  She wanted to keep herself occupied, if she didn’t she would drive herself crazy trying to think of ways to get herself out of the palace.  To raise her army.  All seemed lost.  She was completely alone.  She didn’t know who to trust beyond Anya, and they seemed to be watching her.  Not to mention, Atlantis had only seen Anya a handful of times after the blade had been held at her throat.  Anya was not to linger with the Empress long.  There was nothing to do but wait.  So far all of her meals had been brought to her by various servants, each not very willing to discuss what was going on in the outside world let alone the palace.  She tried asking a few questions, different each time, one to test the waters then others following that were supposed to glean some information.  She didn’t get very far.  She was just about to get ready for bed, reaching for the clasp at the back of her dress when she heard the door to her chamber open.  Relieved, she called out a greeting to Anya.
    “I'm in the changing room.  I need help with this clasp, I’m so glad you’re here, it’s been quiet all day...” The words died in her throat as she stepped out of the door into the main room.  Andoran was inside her chambers engrossed in a document in his hand.  He was scowling.  Atlantis paused.
    “What?” He asked, giving her his full, focused, intense attention as he dropped the paper onto the small coffee table in her living room.  She shook her head.  Her heart pounded erratically and sweat broke out across her brow.  She felt her hands trembling and brought them down from the back of her neck, leaving the clasp for the time being.  
    “Nothing.” She said, after finding her voice again. “It was nothing.”  Her throat felt suddenly parched.  She put her arm up against the door frame.  There was something dangerous about him being in her quarters, that she'd never acknowledged before and it unnerved her.  Of course he’d been in her chambers dozens of times, more than she could count, but that was when she’d held the power.  When the army backed her, and when everything made sense.  Instinctively her defenses went up, and she felt guarded.  “I...uh...I was just waiting for my girl, Anya.  She will help me with this dress so I can go to bed.” Atlantis said softly, hoping the excuse would give her the opportunity to shrink into the confines of the closet and into the further security of her bed chamber.  
    “I instructed her not to come tonight.” Andoran said, his gaze holding on her face like he was trying to read her reaction to the news.  Atlantis’ squared her jaw in annoyance.
    “Andoran, despite what we currently are to each other, you may not order my ladies about.  I need them when I need them and that decision is too far reaching for you.” Atlantis replied stubbornly.  He could control her empire, but she would hold fast to the only ounce of power she had left, particularly when it had to do with her closet.  
    “You won’t need her tonight.” Andoran replied smoothly.  “I’m here.”  He stepped toward her, Atlantis took equal steps back.  
    “What does that mean? You’re here?” Atlantis demanded quickly, placing the rounded couch in the center of her change room between them.
    “I will take care of you.” Andoran smiled back at her, he looked like a tiger, crouching to spring at its prey.  Atlantis was cornered.
    “You are not insinuating that you will be spending the night here in my quarters.  I can remember that you threatened to hang Kale yourself dozens of times if he even attempted such dishonor.” Atlantis fumbled around in her mind searching for a reason, anything that might deter him.  But it seemed that this time nothing would stand in his way.  Atlantis stumbled backward on a small stool she’d forgotten was there, and in an instant he caught her.  Steadying her, he pulled her closer.  
    “That was when you were the Empress.  You’re not the Empress anymore, you’re just a lady of the court, engaged to a man whose power is beyond your reach.  It would do you well to satisfy me, Atlantis.” His voice was steady, calm, he didn’t fight like Kale, he never had and Atlantis barely knew how to react.  She pushed her hands against his chest, but he was strong, much stronger than she remembered, and she couldn’t release herself from his grasp.  He wrapped his arms tightly around her, encompassing her small back.  He pressed his lips to the nape of her neck, breathing her in.  Atlantis’ sense of danger had turned to impending doom.  Fear clawed at her throat like she’d never experienced before.  She knew Kale, she understood how he operated and she could read him like a book.  Andoran on the other hand was different.  He presented so calm to her that she didn’t know how to react or where to push him.  She gave a small, desperate, cry which he mistook for pleasure, and pressed himself closer to her.  His kissed her fervently and moved from the smooth curve of her throat to her face, and finally to her lips.  Her stomach sank to its very pit, and she could feel the bile in her throat.  Nothing had changed for her, pressed against her, his passion was cold.  She felt nothing for him, only a strangling panic that demanded she get away from him.  He finally broke the kiss when she pushed hard against him, gasping for breath.  He released her suddenly and she stumbled backward into her bedchamber.  “You don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do that.” He said, huskily, following her as if she'd invited him.  Atlantis pressed her hand to her throat, and leaned on the high posts above her head at the corner of her bed.  She clung to the silken fabric draped over it.  
    “Andoran, please.  You must give me time.  I am unaccustomed to your attention.  I need to get used to it.  It has been difficult to make so many adjustments.” Atlantis pleaded with him.  To her horror, He loosened the tie at his throat, and began to unbutton his shirt.  
    “You adjusted to that pompous fool, Kale, it's about time you shared your bed with a real man.  I will not be denied access to what he had, Atlantis.  Be sure of that.” Andoran stepped forward again.  Atlantis stifled a scream, she was suddenly aware of how very alone they were.  If he had told her ladies, and the others to leave them be, they would.  She didn’t want to cry in front of him, but tears were threatening.  Instead she gave a half strangled laugh.
    “Kale and I were never lovers, Andoran.  Not like that.  You know that, it wasn’t right.”
    “You still expect me to believe those lies? I’m not stupid.” His tone made Atlantis' nerves raw.  He wasn’t shouting, but she could feel his anger, his passion, seething just beneath his skin.  It made her sick to her stomach. “I’ve wanted you for so long, Atlantis, you’ll never know. From the time you curled your hair in perfect ringlets, and even as you cried on my shoulder for the heart of another man, I loved you.”
    “Andoran, please.” She begged. “Please don’t do this. This is not love. I will come to you as your wife, but not like this.”  He reached for her again, and this time, it was the large bed that stopped her retreat.  
    “You will not whore for every other man, and neglect me.” He grabbed her, hard, and pulled her into an embrace.  He kissed her again, long and demanding, wrapping his fingers into the ribbons at the back of her dress.  She pushed against him again, struggling to be free of his grip.  She gasped and cried out as she heard the satin ribbons rip away from the fabric of the dress.  Andoran pushed her down hard onto the bed, pinning her beneath him.  He kissed her neck feverishly as her fight intensified.  The harder she fought, the harder he held on, pressing himself against her.  “You lie even to yourself Atlantis.  I feel your passion, your desire. Tell me, sister.  Tell your brother of your love.” He whispered through his kisses.  Atlantis cried out, Andoran smothered her with another kiss.  Above the frantic chaos of her mind, Atlantis heard the door to her chamber open.
    “My Lord Andoran.” The voice spoke.  
    “I told you not to disturb me.” Andoran growled, the anger in his voice evident for the first time.
    “There are pressing matters of state, my Lord.”
    “They will wait until tomorrow.” Andoran barked.
    “They will not, or I would not be here.” Tryst replied evenly.  Atlantis could feel him surveying the situation, but he spoke as if he were blind to it.  Andoran released his grip on her, Atlantis gulped for a deep breath, the terror residing for a brief moment; that this attack may be over.  She scurried as far away from him as she could, trying to stop the tears, unbidden from falling down her cheeks.  Andoran’s anger was focused on Tryst now, he was arguing about something.  His voice was raised but Atlantis could barely comprehend the words.  Re-buttoning his shirt, he turned to her.
    “I’ll be back later.  I will send Anya to you.” He said, gruffly before he stormed from the room.  Atlantis was shaking and crying.  Her gown had been torn in several places, and with the sun sinking deeper behind the horizon, her comfortable room had grown dark and ominous.  Try as she might she couldn’t calm the pounding of her heart.  His words haunted her.  Tell your brother of your love. He’d been mocking her.  She sat in the corner of her bed, arms wrapped around her knees rocking back and forth. Ohar. Ohar. Ohar. Ohar. She was speaking his name over and over, out loud or just in the frantic silence of her mind she wasn’t sure. She didn’t move until she felt Anya’s steady arms around her shoulders.  She was whispering words of comfort, they weren’t enough for Atlantis but, she held to them desperately.  How had things gone so terribly terribly wrong?  She was lost now, everything was lost now.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Christmas Quiet

I have truly enjoyed this Christmas season, the family and activities, Christmas and particularly this week between Christmas and New Years, but resting in the peace that God brings to us at this time of year isn't always easy. 

Just two weeks ago upon hearing that twenty six precious lives had been stolen by an evil that one can barely digest, let alone comprehend - I found myself feeling fears again. As for most people, the news of this shooting struck my core. My own classroom is a place where I tell my students that they are safe, and secure - mostly from internal disturbances like bullying or other negative influences, as conjuring a scenario where lives were at stake was unthinkable.  I still don't know what to say, nor do I know the answers, but asked God over and over, "what good can come of this?".  I'm still not sure that I even know the answer to that, as the anguish is so harsh, and so real. But, these events have forced me to pause, slow down, consider more carefully how I answer my children when they are demanding my attention, how I treat others - not being too proud to apologize when I do things wrong, allowing a little extra time for cuddles and love, looking beyond what I want all the time to focus on being thankful for what I have and appreciating each moment for what it is instead of focusing on some future promise down the road.  

I heard someone say recently, "If God gave you children, he'll give you the wisdom that you need to raise them." It makes sense, but in the midst of the chaos it's easy to think that you've already missed the mark, and that some things aren't easily corrected. But, know that it's never too late to say, I'm sorry, to give a hug, to sit and play, and enjoy each moment.

Blessings to you in 2013. 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Dear God,

It's here.
Again.
The season of swirling colors and lights and carols,
It's supposed to be all about Him
But, you can't get your mind off of the fact that there's a list,
Longer than what's manageable, 
further than your arms can reach.
Your brain turns it over while you're sleeping - 
and helpfully wakes you up at 3am to remind you...
that the stove is probably on. Or, the iron and
What day is the Christmas party?
Where is it again?
And girl, you're not wearing THAT dress.
The primping
The planning
The painting
Will there be time, this weekend,
for the kids you've barely seen all week?
What will they do,
While you're
Prepping and
Polishing
Watch TV?
Wasn't it you who said, "I won't let the television raise my kids."
But there are things that need to be done. Like...
Spray the cat who's in the tree again,
knocking around those decorations you just replaced.
And muddle over the cost of groceries for the week,
Bruises are showing from the pennies a' pinching.
At work there's
A sea of marking,
meetings and 
general pre-holiday mayhem.
Stir crazy students like 
Snow piles at every turn. 
And that quiet place, 
for friends,
for family, 
for fun, and 
for Him,
is pushed
and replaced and sent 
to the back 
of a very loud and demanding line.
Like the one you dread standing in,
holding armfuls of gifts, you're not SURE
are exactly right.
Because isn't it that Christmas comes from a store? 
If you love, you'll spend more! more! MORE!
How is it, God, that I am so forgetful?
So willing,
to forget,
about the very precious gift,
the only important gift,
the one that came for free?
Peace, be still.
Silent Night,
Holy Night,
Remember the Joy,
Share Jesus with the world.  Help me, Father.
To know that you 
Hold this world.
That your gracious gift to me, is love. 
No matter what - love. 
And He came on Christmas morning.




Monday, 3 December 2012

Chapter 7 - Part B



Atlantis pulled open her heavy eyelids, and tried to bring the room into focus.  She heard someone moan, but, realized it had come from her.  She was disoriented and confused, not sure where she was or what had happened.  She could remember the explosions, and running and screaming, but she couldn’t remember if that had been real or a dream.  She was partially sitting, because someone pressed a cold glass to her lips, she drank water.  Her vision was slowly coming in to focus, and her head was clearing. The water stung her lips, her face hurt.
            “Sit up dear.  Sit up.  Clear your head, you need to focus now.” The whisper was strained.  Atlantis finally recognized it as Anya. 
            “Where am I?” Her voice cracked.
            “You’re in your chambers.  They want to speak with you.”
            “Who? What time is it? How long...?”
            “You’ve been asleep for nearly three hours.  The sun is setting.  You need to wake up.” Anya spoke softly, quickly.  “They want to see you.  Can you stand up?”  Atlantis nodded, remembering that she had been able to stand at one time.  But, with Anya’s support she got to her feet.  She could feel the fear from Anya, like Atlantis wasn’t big enough to deal with whatever was in the next room.  Atlantis tried to maintain some appearance of authority.
            “How do I look?” She whispered to Anya.
            “Terrible, my Lady.”
            “Ok.” Her voice cracked. Atlantis tried to stand straighter and on her own, as Anya ushered her into her own reception room.  She glanced out of the large open air windows on her right, she could still see the smoke, portions of the city were still burning, but the fires seemed to be under control.  The room was quiet.  A man stood at the fireplace on the far wall, his back was turned.  As he turned, Atlantis froze. 
            “Calaharen, it’s good to finally see you again.”


“Andoran.” Confusion clouded her mind.  He knew she’d expected the big bad wolf, the mighty conqueror, not an old friend. “What are you doing here?”
            “I came to save you.  Isn’t that obvious?  I came to save you from making the biggest mistake of your life.” Andoran smiled, confidently.  Atlantis’ eyes darted out over the city.
            “You saved us from the attack?” She asked, slowly, the pieces not fitting together in her brain. 
            “Your people don’t need to know your sins.  You’ve extended your reach too far, Atlantis.  You have left Khal Manar open and vulnerable to attack.  Your people will now see your ambitions to reach out for friends outside this Empire as dangerous.  Look, after all, what they did to Dalik Noir.” Andoran raised his glass to Atlantis.  She squared her jaw.  “If we hadn’t been here the loss of life would have been far greater than what it was.”
            “Who was it?  Who began the attack, and for what reason?” Atlantis demanded to know.  In her mind she tried to narrow down which empire it could have been.  From what she was aware, she had a good relationship with all empires in dealings with Khal Manar at the moment.  They had done nothing to warrant an attack.
            “No one has claimed responsibility.” Andoran shook his head. 
            “I don’t understand...”
            “It could have been Kale Farharad.  I understand you gave him quite the shock of his life when you sent him packing.”
            “It wasn’t quite like that.  Believe it or not, but Kale left on good terms.  He wouldn’t have done this.”  Atlantis shook her head stubbornly.  It didn’t make sense. 
            “I’m not sure what you heard about the extent of the fighting, but your army was immobilized in the streets.  They were unprepared for such an attack.  I was able to send in my men, who brought the fighting around to victory, but it was close, Atlantis.  Very close.” Andoran said gravely.  Doubt sprang into Atlantis’ mind.  There was something wrong here, something that didn’t make sense.
            “How are you so well informed, that a man banished has had the time not only to raise an army but to be exactly in the right place at the right time?”  Atlantis asked, eyes narrowed.
            “Call it a bit of luck, I suppose.”  She knew him well enough to know that he was holding back.  There was something sinister in the way he watched her.  Uneasily, Atlantis allowed Andoran to remain.  There seemed to be some truth to his story that a so-far un-named group had attacked the city of Dalik Noir, killing nearly two-hundred civilians.  Atlantis’ army had been unprepared as they had been away on training exercises, and had not had the chance to respond to the attack until it was too late.  For some undisclosed reason Andoran had been practically waiting on her doorstep with an army to defend the city against its un-named unprovoked attackers.  Twenty-three of Atlantis’ personal staff had died in attacks on the palace itself – she’d recognized each name, each one a staunch supporter of her work and her empire, and if that hadn’t broken Atlantis deep to the core, on the day she learned that Marria was among the missing, presumed dead, she’d cried for an entire day.  Her people, in a great show of strength pulled together, and began to rebuild the city within a week of when the explosions began.  People seemed to be pulling their lives back together, recovering for the most part, but life in the palace only got stranger.  Because of the debris, Atlantis’ army had initially been blocked from reaching the city.  It took the majority of the army nearly a full week to be back in Dalik Noir.  So, the members of Andoran’s army reported only to him.  Atlantis wasn’t always privy to updates and reports, and after a while it began to feel as if everyone were reporting to Andoran, rather than to her.  It was almost not a shock at all, when the first cries for Andoran to sit on the throne of the Emperor reached Atlantis at the palace.  She became frightened when soon after reports of riots and unrest from the people as a demand Andoran take the throne from Atlantis began to stir in the streets.  Things were falling apart, and Atlantis could look nowhere for support or control.
            She should have expected what came next, but it was so far beyond her comprehension that it hadn’t even crossed her mind.  She was sitting in her receiving room, trying to absorb the news reports that were running as rampant through the city as the very rioters, and desperately praying for an answer of how to reach her people.  She wanted to make things right, she had to make them right.  There was a pronouncement outside her door, and she looked up in time to see Andoran, followed by Tryst, his personal servant and advisor, along with the general of his own army, the general of Atlantis’ army, and the head of Atlantis’ council.  She stood quickly to her feet.

“Gentlemen!” Her eyes darted from one to the other.  “How can I help you?” She asked, trying not to betray the surprise in her voice. 
            “There has been a change, my Lady.” It was the voice of Darian, in the wake of this crisis, and with the death of so many council members, he was the current leader of Atlantis’ high council.  In her history she’d never seen eye to eye with Almardo Darian.  He was a ruthless man, often in opposition of the council, but Atlantis not only recognized his power but also his importance.  The people who voiced opposition needed to be heard.
            “A change?”  Atlantis asked.  She felt alone in the world staring into the faces of the men she knew opposed her. 
            “The high council does not believe that you are within the jurisdiction of your Grandfather’s wishes, and therefore the throne has passed from your hand.  As it is demanded by the people, the council has convened and concluded that the house of Talerian is dead, and the house of Grey will stand to take its place.” He sneered.  Words failed Atlantis, the papers she had been holding in her hand fluttered to the floor.  “Though we have cautioned his royal majesty, Emperor Grey against allowing you to live, the Emperor believes that to be in bad taste.”  Atlantis’ eyes darted to where Andoran stood.  Her stomach flipped, and she felt nauseous.
            “Thank you, Lord Darian.” Andoran held up his hand to silence the man.  He bowed, and stepped back to join rank with the men who had invaded her quarters.  “Make a proclamation to the people at first light.  I will speak to Lady Atlantis alone, now.” The men each bowed in turn and left.  Atlantis was frozen, it was as if she couldn’t move because all of a sudden she could see the whole train of events from beginning to now coming into clear focus.  Andoran had planned this all along.  He’d seen the attack as his first opportunity at isolation, showing the empress unprepared for battle.  He’d taken over all of her responsibilities, subtly, directing all communications to go through him, from there, he’d won the council and the army.  It had been easy.  He’d been well liked at court previously, it was no surprise that he had friends willing to back him in his ambitions. 
            “Andoran...I...”She shook her head.  Could an Empire really be snatched away as easily as that?
            “You will bow, Lady, in the presence of your Emperor.” Atlantis felt the tears well up behind her eyes, she pressed her hand to her chest and fell to her knees.  It was as if the world had crumbled away beneath her, everything ripped away, not that she felt the need to grovel before this man.  Andoran stretched out his hand to her and she took it; looking up into his face for some kind of recognition that something crazy had happened giving way to this form of chaos.  But, she found nothing there.  He helped her to her feet.
            “As much as they argued against it, Atlantis, I told them that if I were to assume the throne, then you would have the offer of becoming my wife.  The Empire has lost faith in you, but I, despite my better judgements continue to love you.”
            “I know that you feel that way, Andoran.  I care deeply for you, but I don’t love you like that.  You and I could never be married, not after this.”  Atlantis turned from him, sank to the couch and buried her face in her hands.  His hands were on her shoulders, and his face buried in her neck.  He let her cry for a few minutes before responding.
            “I understand that you have suffered a great loss today, but hear me now, Atlantis.  Don’t let your words be hasty.  If you refuse to marry me, the council has demanded your execution.  They consider you to be a traitor to the people.  If you make things right by marrying me, you may yet be forgiven.  But if you refuse, your death is assured – and by connection death to anyone who continues to support you.” Andoran whispered into her hair, stroking it back from her ear. “Your execution would be a public and gory affair.  But, you have a choice.” The clink of a glass bottle being set on the table beside her caught her attention and she glanced up.  The clear liquid in the bottle was immediately recognizable. She gasped.
            “Polmeria?” She asked, indicating the glass bottle as containing one of the most lethal poisons in all of Khal Manar.
            “Yes.  The council doesn’t know I have given it to you.  If tomorrow morning, I return and you are dressed for our public engagement announcement, then I will know that you have made the better of the two choices that lie before you.  If not, then it will be with a heavy heart that I assume the throne, grieving for my bride to be, cut off in the flower of her youth.” He whispered in her ear. 
            “You can’t do this.” Atlantis pulled away from him. 
            “But, Calharen, I already have.” With that he stood to his feet, and made his way out of her chambers.  She watched after him in stunned silence.  She sucked in her breath staring at the offensive vile of Polmeria.  She gritted her teeth.  She could remember the words of her Grandfather, that suicide was only for cowards.  She needed to be strong, she knew that Andoran was speaking only half truths, it was essential for her to discover what she could believe.  So, he had used isolation and manipulation to gain what he’d wanted.  It had worked for now.  She couldn’t believe that the people’s hearts were so easily turned.  At last reports they had been frustrated with her choice to end her engagement with Kale Farharad, but nothing that demanded a change in leadership.  It occurred to her that Andoran was hoping for her not to call his bluff.  She wondered if the people would really react favourably to a gory execution of the Lady Empress.  She couldn’t take that chance, of course.  Squaring her jaw, Atlantis made her way to her closet to find something that might do for a dress.
            After an hour of searching, she was on the floor of her closet in a pile of gowns and a lake of tears.  She hadn’t been able to find a single thing that she thought might even possibly be suitable.  When she heard the sound of humming coming from the outer area of her closets she paused.  The humming grew louder, and Anya stepped in to the room.  She gave a small shriek of surprise, whether it was seeing the Empress on the floor, drowning in tears amidst on ocean of gowns, or if it was just coming upon the Empress in the closet, Atlantis would never know.
            “My Lady, are you alright?” She asked, her hand pressed against her chest.  Atlantis started to nod, but the nod slowly turned into a shake of her head.
            “I need to find a gown before the morning, Anya.  I can’t find anything suitable.” She cried.
            “Now, my Lady.” Anya spoke soothingly, like a mother. “I’m sure there’s something here that you’ll be able to wear.  Let me help you find it.” She offered Atlantis a hand, pulling her up from the mess on the floor.  It suddenly occurred to Atlantis that Anya would be the one to straighten up the mess that she’d made. 
            “I’m so sorry.” She apologized, with a fresh wave of tears.  “So sorry for all of this.”
            “No, no, no!” Anya shook her off. “It is just a few dresses, my Lady.  We will make it alright.” Anya promised squeezing Atlantis’ shoulders.  She led her to the seat in the center of her change room and sat Atlantis down, offering her a drink of water.
 

            The last few days had been a tangled mess with too little food and not near enough sleep.  Nicolai was the worst of the lot.  Ever since he’d been transported back on board he’d barked orders at nearly every one of his staff, hounded the medical wing, terrorized his navigator and sent Commander Kuri on several fact finding missions.  The information she’d gathered was sketchy at best.  With a few news reports finally trickling in, they were able to make some sense of what happened.  Kuri sat across his desk, her hands folded, her face grim.
            “From what we understand, Sir, Dalik Noir was attacked.  The attack was specifically centralized at the palace, and a few other specific locations.  They seemed to target all of the city’s weak points.  Unfortunately for the Empress and her defences, the city had been left with skeleton military personnel and the city was falling quickly under the attack.  In some turn of luck, an old acquaintance of the Empress happened to be standing by, and saved the city from attack.” Kuri reported carefully.  “Casualties were heavy, but it appears that the Empress is still alive.”
            “Has anyone claimed responsibility for the attack?”
            “So far, no one.  The city is on high alert.  All port traffic is being re-routed through the Benari Corridor and being sent through high security to various different docks.”
            “Any help from home?”
            “The official position is that we will support any extra needs the Empire has, but we will not be sending fighters to support.  Strangely enough, the government of Dalik Noir has rejected help, not just from earth, but all help.”
            “Any word from the medical officer?” Nicolai asked, rubbing his forehead.
            “Lady Marria has stabilized, her injuries were serious but the doctor is hopeful for a complete recovery.” Kuri reported gently. 
            “Is she still asleep?”
            “As far as I know.”
            “Thank you Kuri.  Go and get some rest.”
            “You too, Captain.  I have a feeling this has barely begun.”  Nicolai nodded in dismissal.  Nicolai leaned back in his chair and rested his feet on his desk, crossing them at the ankles.  He closed his eyes, willing his body to rest.  His intercom alarm buzzed.  Nicolai groaned. 
            “Yes?”
            “Captain,”
            “Go ahead Dr. Brandon.”
            “She’s awake.”
            “I’ll be right there Luke.”  Immediately Nicolai was on his feet.  The trip to the medical wing was short.  Nicolai’s medical staff wasn’t large but they were the best in the fleet as far as he was concerned.  The doctor was leaning over the Lady when he walked through the door.  He was speaking gently to her.  Nicolai waited until they had finished.
            “How is she?” He asked when Luke paused nearby.
            “Hurting, but alright.  She’s worried about what’s going on at home.”
            “Understandable.”
            “Try not to hit her with too much at once, Captain.” Luke warned, wiping his hands. 
            “I’ll keep that in mind.” Nicolai promised.  He approached the bed slowly.  Marria’s eyes were closed.  At least she looked comfortable.  The bandages wound over her head were clean, no longer soaked in blood, and the bruises on her face had begun to heal.  She opened her eyes slowly.
            “Captain Ryder.”
            “My Lady, how are you?”
            “I think I’ll be alright.” She tried to adjust herself to a better sitting position but cringed when her joints protested her sudden movement.  Her voice was breathy, she was trying to balance the pain with her speech.  “I understand there’s news, Captain.” She said, expectantly. 
            “Well, what we have isn’t reliable at best, but we believe that Dalik Noir was attacked.  The attack was stopped, unfortunately the casualties were heavy, but an army led by a man called Grey, was available to help the civilians.” Nicolai reported.  Marria’s eyes narrowed as if she didn’t know if the confusion she was experiencing was a symptom of her injuries, of if she was actually hearing the captain correctly.
            “An army let by a man named Grey?” She repeated, sorting the facts in her mind. “Andoran Grey?”
            “That’s possible, I’m not really sure.  Communications have been up and down, and news reports have been conflicting at best.  At least the Empress is safe for now.”
            “I’m sorry to say, Captain, but if she was saved by Andoran Grey, she is far from safe.  I’d been hearing rumours and reports about an army, coming together near Shar Riel.  I had only just learned that Andoran was behind it all when everything between you and Atlantis and Kale began to fell apart.  I put it in the back of my mind hoping to deal with the current crisis.  I was about to bring it to Atlantis’ attention.  I was too late.” The chastisement in her voice was obvious.  Nicolai shook his head.
            “Don’t blame yourself.  You couldn’t have known this would happen.  Who is Andoran Grey?”  Nicolai asked, pulling a chair up beside the bed.
            “One of Atlantis’ most trusted advisors.  He was with her Grandfather before he was assigned to her, he’s about eight or nine years older, and Atlantis grew up with him around. Even though Atlantis knew of Andoran’s differing opinions in regards to trade and expansion outside of the Empire, Atlantis kept him in her inner circle.  She appreciated his differences in opinion and said he often brought a new perspective up for consideration.  Atlantis has never been threatened by people with opposing viewpoints.  She sees it as an opportunity to grow and learn.  So, she stayed close to Andoran.  Recently, within the last five years or so, Andoran fell in love with Atlantis.  I can remember her having a small crush on him, but it didn’t last long.  But, for Andoran it was more than that.  After Kale returned this year, and proposed marriage to Atlantis again, Andoran also took the opportunity to put his name in.  The way I understand it, Andoran overestimated his relationship with Atlantis, he had a man assassinated to prove a point to her.  Not only did Atlantis reject his proposal, but she banished him from Khal Manar.  She was forced to agree to marry Kale, and in exchange he put a stop to the war that was threatened over the assassination.  Like I said, Captain, if Andoran Grey is back, it can’t be good.” Marria reached for a plastic cup filled with water and took a long drink, resting her head back on the pillow, she watched Nicolai absorb the abridged history.
            “What kind of trouble do you think he’ll cause for Atlantis?” Nicolai asked.
            “At this point, I can’t be sure.  But, she needs help.”
            “My people will continue to collect information, my Lady.  Once we have some substantiated news, we will formulate a plan.” Nicolai promised.
            “Thank you, Captain.  I appreciate that.  I have one small request, Sir.  I understand that people were injured and some killed at the palace.  My husband is there.” Her voice cracked, and her eyes blinked back tears.
            “I will find out all I can.” Nicolai promised.  Marria nodded, and forced a smile.
            “Thank you.” She said, meaning it with all her heart.


The Search for Light, on the Darkest Day of My Life

It's never easy to tell someone that they have cancer. That's what the thoracic surgeon said. I wanted to assure him in that ...