Atlas, then Phaedos, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,403
She opened her eyes.
Immediately, as if it was in the very air she was breathing, fear seeped into her entire body and took over. She was on her knees in a small, dank chamber – below ground, if she were to judge by the crumbling cement walls and compacted mud floor. Her shoulders cried in pain and she wondered how long ago her wrists had been chained above her head. She wore an unfamiliar once-white men’s tank top and a pair of underwear she didn’t recognize as her own but which fit her as if they were. Her entire body was covered in mud as if she’d been thrown around on the floor. Her muscles were sore and stiff. She could feel bruises and scrapes littering her body, some visible; what frightened her most was the steady, throbbing aches she could trace to sections of bone. Her ankle, for one, and at least three ribs.
She wanted to cry, if she were honest with herself; big, blubbering tears that would wrack her body violently until she could no longer remain awake – but she knew if she did, it would be giving in. It would be her last, whimpering surrender.
She knew deep down that she was not ready to raise the white flag. Not yet. Not for herself or her city.
It was the thought of her city, of her people beneath the sea that waited, staring up at the shield as if they could watch for her return on the non-existent horizon, which gave her the strength to pull herself up. It was discouraging to discover that her legs would not straighten or provide any resistance against gravity; instead, she used her arms. Wrapping her fingers into the chains, she hoisted herself up with every iota of strength in her entire body. Her muscles burned with the fire of exertion beyond the limits of her tolerance and tore a broken, thunderous howl from her throat. Her vision swam on the edges and she worried she would lose consciousness before she got herself onto her feet.
She hated to admit it but her arms could not support her weight. With a strangled grunt of effort, she fought the pull of gravity on her body until her muscles released without her command. She crumpled back onto the mud floor.
Once the numbness faded from her arms, she tried again; and again after the second attempt failed.
Atlas opened her eyes with a gasp, covered in sweat and breathing heavily, to discover she was in her bed, tucked away as she always was. Surrounded by pillows and shadows, in a room she was familiar with.
Elseron sat in the reclining chair beside her bed, one hand resting on the hilt of his axe as the other held open the pages of a book. He lifted his eyes to her sudden movement, and said, “Princess? Everything all right?”
“I do not know, Elseron; I fear the worst.” She tossed the sheets to the side and placed her feet on the cool hardwood floor. She wondered if she was really awake, or if this was the dream.
“What did you see, Princess?”
She paused, keeping her eyes downcast so as not to look into his, and sighed. The dream felt like a murky pool in her mind; she could remember it, distantly, but it was as if she were seeing it through fog and an inky darkness. She didn’t understand it herself, how could she explain it to someone else?
“I do not know, yet, Elseron; but I am worried that it is not far off for us.” She let her hand rest on his wrist for a moment, as if in comfort or consolation, and shook her head before he could ask her any further questions. “I am going to find Phaedos; there is something I wish to discuss with him.” She added, “Alone, if you do not mind.” It was less of a question than it was a statement that he would keep his concerns to himself.
She ignored the disapproving expression that configured itself upon Elseron’s features, pulled on a robe, and went into the bathroom to change clothes.
He studied her for a long moment, taking in the determined set to her jaw, the subtle flickers of desire in her eyes, the firmness to her stance. She really wanted this. He shook his head lightly, “I do not know, Atlas; shouldn’t you ask Elseron?”
She frowned as if his answer was exactly what she had predicted. “Elseron has been caring for me for one hundred years, Phaedos; what he has taught me is all he will teach me. He does not want me in battle, he does not want me in danger.” She paused, gathering her thoughts and strategic arguments, “But I am in danger, Phaedos. This entire world is a danger to me. Everywhere I turn, I am under attack. I cannot even sleep in peace!” She took a breath to calm herself before continuing. “This world is a danger to me; I intend to be a danger in return. I need help, and whether I get it from you or someone else, I will get it.”
Sometimes she looked so young to him, so naive; but the woman he saw before him was not a child, not even a woman anymore – she was a Queen and she stood with a proud posture that said she had earned her place as Queen. It said that she would continue to earn it, whether she was terrified or not.
“Fine,” he said, pushing the word through his teeth before he could reconsider. He did not want to think about Elseron’s reaction to this.
“Can we start now?”
He glanced at the clock on his bedside table. “Right now? It’s four in the morning, Atlas.”
Her expression carried no pressure, no demand; but the way her eyes met his said, I don’t know what you plan to do, but I certainly won’t be going back to sleep.
He sighed and pushed the blankets off. “All right,” he said, sitting up. He realized then, for the first time, that he was still in bed and he slept in nothing but his boxer shorts. He was not certain, but he thought he saw her eyes flick down once before returning to his. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I should put on some clothes.”
“What happened in this dream, Atlas?”
The question caught her off guard and she almost spat out the water she was drinking. Her entire body was covered in sweat and her muscles burned with a brilliant, stinging exertion. It was not like the dream. She felt alive, she felt powerful. They had been boxing for over two hours, and had spent just as much time practicing disarming methods beforehand. She toweled off her face and shrugged, not wanting to answer him.
Phaedos sat on a chair beside her, holding his own water bottle in his hand, untouched. Small droplets of perspiration lingered along his hairline but nowhere else. His ultramarine eyes bored into her soul.
“What matters is that I can change it, Phaedos; and I am, so why must we discuss it?”
“You know, with certainty, that you can and are changing it?”
She scowled at him, then, angry that he would pinpoint and target the weakness in her words. “Nothing is certain in this world,” she snapped, and took another swig from her water bottle.
“There are some things that are,” he clarified, rolling his shoulders as if his statement was subject to personal interpretation. “There is something in your eyes that scares me for you, I just want to know what you’re fighting against.”
“Everything,” she said, and the truth of it struck her after she spoke. She stared out at the open floor of the unused dance hall. She wondered how old the house was that it still had a room strictly made for large gatherings for celebrations.
He was silent for a long time.
Finally, he rose from his seat and said, “All right, Atlas; I think we have done enough for one day. I am going to go check if Elseron needs me for anything.”
“Wait,” she said, and her voice was urgent. He turned to her.
“Yes?” He kept his expression neutral.
“I’m afraid to be alone,” she admitted, her words wavering and cracking.