Monday, 29 October 2012

Chapter 6 - Part A

The looming threat of war by the Kirlion Empire passed Khal Manar by as it would dark storm clouds that amounted to only a sprinkle of rain.  On the one hand, Atlantis was relieved, and on the other she faced lifetime consequences.  Her engagement to Kale had been announced nearly four weeks ago, and the empire had celebrated.  Such happy news for an empire that had been preparing for war, to be instead informed of a wedding.  She’d even watched the gala fireworks set off at the docks in honor of the new couple, while sitting with Nicolai.  She’d become nervous, as attention by the media rallied to a feverish pitch, and pictures of her were splashed over every news reel from Khal Manar to the borders of Shar Riel.  So far, Nicolai had either not stumbled upon one that showed her face, or he hadn’t recognized her if he did.  As a result, Atlantis had become paranoid about wearing a veil, being sure to have one with her at all times, especially upon leaving the palace.  There were only a few places, even behind the palace walls that she considered safe.  It was making her nervous, how could she trust anyone?  No one would keep a secret of this magnitude. Not only would Kale be upset, but more importantly, Atlantis didn’t want Nicolai to find out that way.  Yet, in all of her encounters with him, it seemed to be getting more and more difficult to tell him the truth.  She promised herself after each time they met, it would be the last, and on their next encounter she would tell him everything.  But, when she would meet Nicolai in his quarters or on his dias, or in the gardens, those determinations melted away as swiftly as they’d set themselves upon her.  With Nicolai, she wasn’t Atlantis Talerian, she was Laina Bayl, and the concerns of an empress wouldn’t be a bother to Laina. 
Atlantis hadn’t even spoken to Marria about Nicolai.  Of course she knew what her friend would say.  At one time she’d considered telling Dawniria, just to have a friend to bear the load with her, but her plans for that had been cut short, as Dawniria grew more and more surly each time she met with Atlantis.  She was aloof, distracted and jumpy.  Only two nights ago, a servant had accidently mixed up her dinner order with someone else’s and Dawniria had been so upset she stormed from the room.  For the time being, Atlantis had decided to leave her alone.  The last thing Atlantis needed now was instability.  
And then, there was the issue of Kale.  Now that they were engaged, Atlantis found herself trying to behave more normally around him, as a woman who was engaged would act.  Unfortunately, that was all it was, an act.  Not only did she find him unattractive, it seemed to be getting worse as the days progressed.  It was more clear to her now than ever that whatever attraction she’d held in the past was now a long gone, forgotten memory.    To keep some of her meetings with Nicolai, she had been forced to excuse herself on the pretence of a headache, or being too tired. But, strangely, Kale didn't demand as much as Atlantis thought.  He was distracted by something that Atlantis couldn't pin down, and alternately, he was obsessed with her to the point that drove Atlantis to want to hide in a dark corner. 
“What are you thinking about?” Nicolai asked, pulling her closer in his arms. “You’ve been so quiet.”
“It was busy today.”
“The wedding?” Any time someone mentioned it the sense of impending doom was nearly too much to bear.
“Yes.  The empress is very particular about things.” Atlantis never liked to go into too much detail.  She didn’t want to trip herself up. 
“Oh, I think you could probably say that about any girl getting married.”
“At least you can also say that any girl getting married is marrying because she’s in love.” Her voice almost sounded like a pout, but the words had come out so quickly.
“You don’t think the Empress is in love?”
“The marriage was practically arranged.  How could she be in love?”Atlantis demanded.
“Well, love is a choice, don’t you think? She’s choosing to love him.” Nicolai countered.
“I think it’s a little more complicated than that.” Atlantis disagreed.
“Well, I expect that some people aren’t as easy to choose to love as others.  Like you, it’s my favourite choice of the day to choose to love you.” Nicolai said easily.  He brought a smile to Atlantis.
“So, you’re saying you have to choose to love me? That doesn’t sound very romantic at all. You weren’t struck by a lightning bolt or anything like that?” Atlantis teased, and Nicolai laughed, drawing her closer to him.  It was dusk, and they were beneath a tree on a hill that looked out over the bay.  In the distance, some of the lights from Khal Manar could be seen reflected in the waters.  It was cool and peaceful, and Atlantis had once again pushed down the urge to tell Nicolai the truth.  He was strong, and warm, and he smelled wonderful and Atlantis didn’t want to move.
“Laina, I have to go away.” Nicolai said after a while.  Atlantis was surprised, he hadn’t brought this up before.  As the Empress she was frequently kept apprised of the work on the Nikao.
“You’re leaving? When?”
“Tomorrow, for just a week.  I’m going with a friend to Barsera, we have to pick up a part for the Nikao.”
“All the way to Barsera for a part? Why not just have it sent?” Atlantis protested.
“Well, it’s a little more delicate than that.  But, I promise not longer than a week.” Nicolai assured her.
“Is it dangerous?”
“No, of course not.” Nicolai laughed softly. “Come with me.” Atlantis turned to stare at him, and Nicolai raised his eyebrows in expectation. 
“I would really like that.” She said, from the bottom of her heart. 
“So you’ll come?”
“I’m so sorry, but I can’t.” Atlantis replied, almost laughing at the absurdity of the idea, the Empress of Khal Manar just leaving weeks before her own wedding with an unknown man.  There would be pandemonium.  She smiled in spite of herself.
“You mean the Empress can’t spare you?”
“Not now, especially not with the gala coming up.” Atlantis chose the best excuse that she could think of.
“The gala?”
“The engagement gala, four days from now.”
“Well, I guess I’ll surrender to the will of the Empress.  But, not for much longer, you know.” Nicolai traced his fingers over hers, linking their hands together. 
“Oh, no?” Atlantis asked, her tone playful. 
“No, I don’t think so.” Nicolai laced his fingers into her hair and pulled her close.  He kissed her and made Atlantis forget.

Marria held the three pieces of paper in her hand.  She hadn’t been snooping, not really.  She’d been cleaning, organizing, and it wasn’t her fault that she’d happened upon them, and to be honest she was happy that she had.  They sure went a long way to explain what was going on in the palace at Dalik Noir, perhaps now the sleepless nights could come to an end.  Of course several mysteries remained just that, for example, why was Dawniria acting like she'd been the latest victim of a personality abduction, what exactly was Kale up to, and why was it that meatloaf was only served on Thursdays? Of course she couldn't answer the cosmic questions of the universe, and so the meatloaf would remain a mystery.   She’d seen the change in Atlantis, and in fact had likely been the first person to notice it.  Atlantis Talerian was in love.  That wasn’t exactly the hard part to figure out, she had a great many tells that long ago had Marria conclude that the Empress would not be a good poker player.  She smiled far too often, and traipsed around her dressing chambers humming to herself, she was nearly giddy at times, and then at others would be lost in the rose petal laden corridors of her thoughts sitting with nothing but a dreamy look on her face.  The mystery of course came when Marria considered the gentleman in question.  Kale Farharad.  Atlantis had, several times expressed her general ambivalence toward him, and knowing that the Empress typically did not speak one thing and do another, Marria began to get curious.   
The letters in her hand explained much more.  Either that, or the Empress had somehow intercepted and broken the mail laws by reading correspondence addressed to a Miss Laina Bayl.  They were interesting letters, of course, very well written, and the name on the bottom rang a little bell, but Marria couldn’t place it.  He wasn’t a member of the court, nor was he in service to the empress, and so, what it came down to was a confrontation.  It wasn’t as if that prospect bothered her.  She’d done it before, and she’d do it again.  She knocked on Atlantis’ door, fully expecting her to be absent, as had been her habit over the past few weeks.  As she pushed into the chambers, she was surprised to see Atlantis curled up on the corner of the large couch in her sitting room.
            “You’re here.” Marria exclaimed, not bothering to hide her surprise.  Atlantis glanced around before answering.
            “Yes.” She replied slowly, as if she didn’t know about the curious absences of the Empress of late.
            “What did you do tonight?” Marria continued in her line of questioning, obscure at first, as to not raise the empress’ alarm.
            “I had dinner with Kale.  He broke a bottle of rose wine on the balcony floor when we got into an argument over where he should spend the night, but I’m fairly sure he’ll get over it.” Atlantis replied blankly. 
            “Seems a little strange that the only thing you two ever do is argue.” Marria pointed out.
            “Oh you know, pre-wedding jitters.” Atlantis flashed Marria a smile.  It was about as fake as her answer. 
            “Being the only one in this room who has ever been married, yes, I understand pre-wedding jitters.  However, I don’t think I could diagnose you with that.” Marria said, causing Atlantis to close the book and put it down.  Her eyebrows were narrowed, it was becoming clear that Marria wanted something.
            “Are you on your way home for the night?” Now Atlantis was fishing, she wanted to get to the point to why Marria was there, and give her what she wanted so that she could be on her way.
            “I am.” Marria confirmed.  She began toward the door, then paused, turning on her heal. “Before I go, I have a question for you.”
“Where have you been sneaking off to?”
“I beg your pardon, but I would hardly call my daily activities sneaking.” Atlantis voice carried a reprimand that Marria chose to ignore.
“You once promised me, Atlantis Talerian that you and I would always speak the truth so that our heads could stay screwed on straight.  Where have you been sneaking off to?” Marria repeated the question.
“It doesn’t matter.” Atlantis insisted.
            “It does matter when I’ve got an irate prince on MY doorstep at four in the morning because he can’t find you.” Marria returned evenly.
            “I’ll speak to Kale.  He won’t do it again.”
            “Though I appreciate that courtesy, I’m also curious.  Where are you at four in the morning, if not asleep in your chambers?”
            “I probably was asleep in my chambers, that’s why I didn’t hear him.” Atlantis shrugged, as if it excused her behaviour entirely.
            “You weren’t Atlantis.  I checked. Where were you?” Marria questioned.  There was a long pause, and then a sigh, and for a moment Marria thought she might refuse to answer altogether.
            “I was with someone.”
            “A friend.”
            “Oh please, the only friend that I have, that would have me out at four in the morning is either a criminal or a lover.  So, nice try, thank you for being so utterly transparent.  Suppose this friend has a name?”
            “Of course he has a name.” Atlantis defended, standing from the couch and returning the book she was reading to the shelf.
            “Atlantis Talerian, you are with a MAN at four in the morning?” It wasn’t that Marria was so utterly shocked, she had her own evidence, but to hear her theories as truth were somewhat bothersome.
            “For someone who has it all figured out, you sure don’t. It’s not like that, Marria.” Atlantis insisted.
            “It’s not like what? Explain to me, please.”
            “We like to talk, sometimes I lose track of the time, that’s all.”
            “What is his name?”
            “It doesn’t matter.”
            “It does matter.  Kale Farharad has been on my case twenty-four hours a day because of this.  If you want me to protect you, then you have to help me understand this, Atlantis.” Marria crossed her arms stubbornly.
            “It’s Nicolai.” Atlantis revealed, staring down at her shoes. She fiddled with a small piece of cloth in her robe.  As she spoke his name, it clicked, and Marria remembered.
            “Nicolai? Nicolai...Ryder?  The star-ship Captain?”
            “The very same.” Atlantis confirmed.
            “What on earth are you talking about with a star-ship Captain until four in the morning?”
            “We click.  That’s all, we just make sense to each other.” Atlantis replied, snapping her fingers as if to emphasize the point.
            “I suppose he would have a lot in common with an Empress.” Marria didn’t mean it, but she couldn’t keep the sarcastic tone from her voice.
            “He doesn’t know.”
            “He doesn’t know that I’m the Empress.” Marria shook her head at Atlantis’ confession.  It was too bizarre to be real.
            “Oh, come on, how could he not know?”
            “I haven’t told him, and it’s not like my picture is posted everywhere.” She had a point there.  Marria supposed it wouldn’t be too difficult, if he wasn’t looking for an Empress, why would he see one? She was just a young woman.
            “You’re Laina Bayl.”
            “These letters, I found these letters in your desk.  They are addressed to Laina Bayl.”
            “You found the letters?” Atlantis reached for them, cradling them as if she’d found her missing coin.
            “Are you in love with him?” Marria asked after a pause.
            “Atlantis tell me right this second, are you in love with him?”
            “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”
            “Does he love you?”
            “Yes.” Atlantis replied, softly. 
            “And he doesn’t know who you really are?”
            “That about sums it up.” There was pain in her voice, Marria could hear it.  She wanted to reach out and comfort her friend, but now was not the time. 
            “This is either the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard, or the most stupid.” Practicality had always had a way of entangling itself with bluntness for Marria.  At least Atlantis could appreciate that.
            “It’s not like I meant for this to happen, I accidently met him one night, and I am so tired of the awkward looks people give me and how they play with their hands once they know who I am, so I just decided I wouldn’t be who I am, I would be someone else.” Atlantis shrugged, and in a way Marria believed her.  It had been an accident, without Nicolai, she would probably be talking herself into marrying Kale Farharad, and being happy about the whole affair.
            “How long have you been seeing him?”
            “Don’t say it like that, Marria, it sounds so common.”
            “That’s what it is, Atlantis, common or not.”
            “A few months, I suppose.”
            “So, this is it.  This is why you are disappearing all the time, why you couldn’t care less about your own wedding and why you and Kale can’t be in the same room with one another for more than two seconds before having a fight because you don’t want to move forward with him, you want something else.” Marria surmised.
            “Yes, I am marrying a man I can barely stand to be close to, let alone love, and I am lying to the only man who I’ve ever loved and the only man who will probably ever love me for who I am, until he finds out who I am.” Atlantis said, tragedy seeping into her voice.
            “This is exactly why you should never pretend to be someone you’re not.” Marria, once again the beacon of practicality.
            “Thank you, Marria.  That was refreshing, now how about some advice I can use?” Atlantis fired back.
            “You have to tell the truth.”
            “To who? To Kale? He’ll start a war.” She was sitting now, her face buried in her hands as if she’d been finally defeated.
            “To Nicolai, Atlantis.  He deserves to know the truth.”
            “Why is he expendable?”
            “He’s not.  But, you’re also not engaged to be married to him either.”
            “I’ll lose him, Marria.”
            “There is much to lose, Atlantis.  The engagement gala for you and Kale is in two days.  Now, I’m not saying that anything with Kale is set in stone, this is not a small problem to fix and it’s going to take some time.  First, Nicolai deserves to know who you are.”
            “Do you really think so?”
            “I really think so.”
            “Thank you, Marria.”
            “For what?”
            “Bringing me back.”
            “Trust me, it’s not a happy job.” Marria shook her head.
            “I’ll tell Nicolai when he gets back.”
            “Ah, that’s why you’re in tonight.”
            “Yes, that’s why.”

It was the stress of it all.  It had to be.  Dawniria gulped another breath of cool morning air as she braced herself against her balcony railing.  Why did it feel like the entire palace was on a sailing ship, continually bobbing up and down?  The very thought of it turned her green to the tip of her toes.  It was the flu that came and went, then came back again.  She’d been sick for nearly a week now, off and on at first, the smell of food, followed by the sight of it.  It had to be the stress. What else could it be? Not many people had to deal with arranging every last detail of a wedding between their lover, and a friend.  The wedding seemed to be going forward as planned.  Every time she saw Kale she hoped it would be the moment when he realized it wasn’t Atlantis that he wanted to marry after all, it was her.  That he would renounce his engagement and carry her off into the sunset.  A fresh wave of nausea washed over her, and she nearly buckled against the railing.  She hadn’t seen Kale in nearly three days, she couldn’t.  Not like this.  Oh how she wanted to be well again, to be stable, and on her feet.  She couldn’t entice him like this.  What was this? What was this sickness? No one else seemed to have it. In fact, everyone else was appeared to be at the pinnacle of physical health.  Dawniria reached for a tiny compact mirror she kept in a pocket in her gown.  Her face was ashen, and her eyes were rimmed with dark circles.  The makeup she’d painstakingly applied that morning was doing absolutely nothing to help her.  She snapped the tiny mirror closed as if it had betrayed her.  She did look as bad as she felt. 
            “Good morning, my Lady.” It was Cari, Dawniria’s handmaiden. She gulped another deep breath, and turned.   She tried to look normal, at the very least, shoot for normal.  “Are you well, my Lady?” Cari asked immediately, setting down the tray laden with delicacies from the kitchen.
            “I’m quite well, Cari.  Thank you.” Dawniria attempted a smile, and moved toward the table where the meal was set.  Cari watched her closely, she’d been away for a week, vacationing with her family and so Dawniria’s strange illness had been easy to cover up, as a variety of servants had taken turns serving her.  Cari would be with her almost continuously, and that would be harder to hide. 
            “I’ve brought your favourite breakfast dishes up from the kitchen.  We have bacon, eggs, potatoes, fresh fruit, yogurt and fresh milk.  What would you like?” Her voice was sweet, as she presented each dish to Dawniria.
            “Water, if you don’t mind Cari.  Please, just water.” Dawniria pushed the silver tray away and turned in her chair so she couldn’t smell it.
            “You are ill, my Lady.”
           “I believe I am.” Dawniria agreed, moving away from the table. Cari stopped her, and made her sit again.  She pressed her hand to Dawniria’s  forehead and frowned.
            “You are not feverish.” She knitted her eyebrows together, considering the possibilities. “How long have you been feeling like this?”
            “Since just before you left.  It wasn’t so strong then, but it seems to have gotten worse over the past few days.  I could eat bits of this and that before, but now my stomach will hold nothing but water, some juices, and a slice of bread or perhaps a few crackers.  That’s it.”
            “You’ve felt this way over a week? Have you seen a doctor?”
            “No, I was sure it would pass.” Dawniria insisted.
            “Pass? My Lady, you need to take care of yourself.  You’ve been too stressed, lie down, I’ll call the doctor.” Dawniria opened up her mouth to protest, but a fresh wave of nausea washed over her, and she crumpled onto the table.  By the time the doctor arrived, Dawniria had crawled back into bed.  The doctor was thorough, he hummed and hawed, and crumpled his face, and gnawed on the back of his pen for an appropriate amount of time.  There was the expected barrage of questions, which Dawniria answered to the very best of her ability.  She was too tired to avoid it anymore, she wanted whatever drug the doctor could give her to feel better.
            There was no doubt about it.  The doctor told her, but she still barely believed him.  She couldn’t be pregnant.  She couldn’t.  She wasn’t an idiot.  She’d taken precautions.  No one told her that they might not be as effective as she hoped.  So, she had brought this mysterious illness on herself.  She pressed her hands against her flat stomach.  How could it be that another human being was in there? It didn’t make sense, it couldn’t make sense.  She was sure that the doctor was mistaken except for the small fact that as he listed her possible symptoms, she’d began to worry that the man must be spying on her.  He’d known everything, right down to the overwhelming exhaustion that had her barely able to stay awake.  Momentarily she worried.  This kind of gossip was explosive.  She wondered how long it would be before the servants heard, and they began to put two and two together.  She knew she could trust Cari with her life, but not necessarily any of the others.  Not that they wanted to harm her in any way, but it was good gossip.  The publicly unattached Prime Minister, pregnant.  Speculation would be only the beginning of her problems.  At the very least she had to speak with Kale.  He would know what to do.   A small hope nagged at her heart.  Perhaps now he would see that she was meant to be with him.  They were going to have a baby, the next heir of the Farharad throne.  Dawniria wasn’t royalty, but she was close enough to it.  The gala was that very night.  Maybe she would get a chance to speak to him then.  She was already two months pregnant by the doctor’s best guess.  She couldn’t wait forever.

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