Nicolai had moved back onto the ship before the sun had risen the day after the engagement gala. Though the rest of the crew had observed the move with marked curiosity; only Kuri had been brave enough to ask about the sudden change of residence. Nicolai had mumbled something about being eager to get back in the skies, that the repairs were taking far too long. He was feeling restricted, suffocating, the image of Atlantis Talerian mocked him. It was everywhere; the Empress’ broken engagement falling hard and fast after the first public unveiling of the Empress since she’d been crowned had the press in a ravenous feeding frenzy, and Nicolai was doing his best to stay out of it. He’d read most of the articles citing reasons for the unexpected split of the happy couple, and for the most part the official word was that they had irreconcilable differences in the areas of politics, and couldn’t settle on a marriage agreement. There had been some talk of another man coming between the Empress and Kale Farharad, but any such stories were only run in rumor magazines chalk full of conspiracy theories and gossip. There had been some grainy pictures printed, as if they had been snapped from a great distance. One of the figures could most likely be interpreted as the Empress, and she was with a man, or at least what probably was a man. Nicolai was reasonably sure the picture was not of him. So far, at the very least the press hadn’t come banging down his door, eager for an interview. Nicolai didn’t want to talk with them anyway. The fact that she had ended her relationship with Farharad what seemed like immediately did irk him, but he couldn’t bring himself to go back to the palace. He didn’t want to speak with her or see her. Her photograph staring out at him from the newspaper was enough of a reminder that he could never be with her. No matter what any high-thinking philosopher said, royalty still married only royalty. Besides all that he was busy and hardly needed the distractions. He hadn’t noticed time passing, he’d only desired to fill it as much as possible, so that he wouldn’t have to think about her.
Nicolai liked to be involved with the hands-on preparation of the Nikao before departure, and today that meant a visit to the docks. Their departure date was imminent and Nicolai wanted to be sure everything was ready. He was lining up a cargo allowance for the companies that were demanding the services of the Nikao as they made their way throughout the Empire.
They would be leaving Khal Manar for Shar Riel in the morning, and merchants with cargo had lined up at the docks trying to deposit their goods for transport. Nicolai was trying to read the cargo manifest that had obviously been hand written by a blind monkey with only a vague literacy ability. For the third time in an hour he promised himself he would fire whomever had written this list as soon as he discovered who it was, as he scanned it a second time, looking for the docking number on a crate of tuna. To top it off, the tuna vendor required a translator, and Nicolai was having difficulty trying to get his meaning across. He couldn’t load the tuna until he found that he had a prepared docking number that matched, but, it didn’t make sense for him not to have a docking number as there was both a merchant and a crate of tuna on the docks waiting for him to transport. It was taking forever to confirm, sweat had started to bead on Nicolai’s forehead. Khal Manar in high summer was comfortable only to people who had easy access to the water, which Nicolai did not. Apparently the fat vendor was feeling the heat as well. He was spouting off in his own language, obviously becoming more and more agitated with the entire situation. So, when Kuri arrived with a message that Lady Marria, THE Lady Marria wished to have an audience with him, Nicolai was happy to hand the whole mess to Kuri and meet with Marria, he didn’t try to avoid her, as he might have before. Kuri had her waiting in his receiving room.
“My Lady, this is an unexpected visit.” Nicolai greeted her with a respectful bow. “May I offer you something to drink?” He asked.
“No, thank you.” Marria declined, rigidly sitting on the seat he offered with his hand.
“I appreciate all of the help from the palace work crews. Without them I don’t know that the Nikao would have ever flown again, but she’s looking pretty good from where I sit now. Nearly good as new, we’ve been out on a few test runs, but tomorrow we’ll really extend those new engine couplings and go all the way to Shar Riel.” Nicolai informed his guest. He didn’t know what she wanted, or what warranted this visit, but as he laid eyes on her, he wanted her to leave.
“So, you will be leaving tomorrow?” Marria asked.
“Yes, we leave port at 6am. It’s a long way to Shar Riel.” Nicolai sank into his own chair and folded his hands on his desk top.
“Captain, forgive me for intruding on you under the pretense of business, but this is a personal visit.” Marria clutched her hands in her lap, Nicolai wondered if it was to keep them from shaking.
“Oh?” Nicolai asked, raising his eyebrows in question. He glanced at the two guards stationed just beyond his door.
“The Empress doesn’t know that I’m here. She believes that it is necessary to suffer her loss in silence, and to let what she had slip away with no hope to the contrary. She is either too proud, too stubborn or to afraid to speak to you, and so I am here to speak with you.” Marria said pointedly. Surprisingly, her words didn’t catch Nicolai off guard. He believed the earnest gaze on Marria’s face that she was acting of her own volition, but in the grand scheme of things it hardly mattered.
“I believe you are referring to my relationship with the Empress.” Nicolai said, after a while. He watched her straighten the turquoise scarf she was wearing, and sit up in the chair.
“Yes, I am.”
“With all due respect, my Lady, I don’t know what Laina...the Empress told you about what happened but, I don’t think that it’s something easily put back together.” Nicolai spoke slowly, trying to use an appropriate turn of phrase.
“She told me that she lied to you. That she didn’t want to tell you the truth and wanted the lie to last as long as possible. Regardless of that She told me that she loved you, as she’d never loved anyone else before. She wants to run after you, Captain, but the restraints of her station don’t allow her that freedom.” Marria said emphatically.
“That’s just it, my Lady. The restraints of her station are enormous. I don’t believe that I actually got to know her. I feel like the whole thing was just a lie. I’m not sure what she hoped to gain from it all, but a lie never-the-less.” The words tasted like acid on his tongue. He hated feeling like he’d been used, all of the feelings he’d put before her only a game.
“She loves you. That’s not a lie.”
“So, I am the reason that she called off her engagement?” The words tumbled out quickly, but they’d been burning inside Nicolai ever since he’d seen the first headline. The pause on Marria’s face was answer enough. Anger built in Nicolai’s chest, he clenched his jaw and willed himself to remain polite.
“I wish it was that simple, Captain, but it’s not. Let my Lady explain herself to you. Perhaps there would be a method of repairing this.” Marria pleaded.
“She wasn’t willing to end her relationship with Kale Farharad to be with me. It’s as simple as that. So, by some fortuitous chance she is now free of him and she is afraid of being alone. I understand that completely.” It was hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “I’m not royalty, my Lady. In fact, far from it. Even if she wanted to marry me, there would be no guarantee. I never intended to have to ask permission from a council who would practically have to pass a new law to allow the current leader to marry a commoner. I can’t wait around for that.” Nicolai replied dismissively. He was anxious to have the Lady Marria on her way. Out of his way. He didn’t need to be reminded that Atlantis was alone now. The truth of it was, how was he supposed to relate to an Empress? The most powerful woman on the planet; he knew that there had to be some sort of special protocol that he’d already decimated. Beyond that, it would be strange now, getting used to her one way then having to do it again with all of the ceremony that was expected, and Nicolai was irritated. Marria was quiet, she was staring at her hands. Nicolai shifted uncomfortably, perhaps he’d spoken to harshly.
“Captain, I see that you are very busy and that you have a lot to do. I can see now that what happened between you and my Lady was even deeper than what I imagined. I can see that what you need is a lot more time.” Marria got to her feet. “Thank you for your time, Captain.” She said quietly. Nicolai’s polite but sharp response was cut short by the rumble of an explosion in the distance. He paused, glancing toward the window.
“What was that?” Marria asked quickly, turning toward the window. Black smoke billowed up into the bright morning sky. The breath caught in her throat in a gasp. “That looks like the palace.” The first explosion was followed quickly by a second one, then a third. A cry of desperation escaped from Marria, as she hurried toward the door. Nicolai called after her, following her out of the ship. The explosions were increasing one after another. He couldn’t tell how much damage they were doing, but chaos had ensued. Black smoke poured from the corners of the city that had been hit, but from what he could tell the majority of the smoke came from the palace. His heart climbed into his throat, and on impulse ran toward it. He didn’t get far, he was following Marria, flanked by frantic guards as she weaved her way through a panicked crowd. Another explosion was close, deafening, it exploded almost in front of him, throwing him backward. He lost consciousness for a minute, maybe two, but when he opened his eyes to a harried ringing in his ears, he squinted toward the blast. Beneath a scattering of rubble, he caught a glimpse of a turquoise shall, the one Marria had been wearing. He inched forward a short distance, and from behind a pile of rubble, he could see a hand, outstretched, spattered with blood and still. Nicolai called out for Marria.