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.
“Go ahead Dr. Brandon.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.