Chapter Fifty Three
Atlas, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,847
“What is it?” She shifted on the couch, fidgeting beneath his gaze. He’d suddenly gone vacant of expression; as if he’d been shut down without warning.
Little toy soldier, she thought, and wondered at the source of the concept.
“That Oaken woman is on her way,” he said, snapping out of his trance and slipping his hands into his pockets.
“You should leave,” Atlas said, rising from the cushions. She straightened her dress absentmindedly.
“Are you sure?”
It was a simple question, even expected, but it struck her oddly. There was something in his tone, some quiet warning he wouldn’t vocalize. She met his gaze.
“Phaedos, my darling,” Lady Oaken was saying, just beyond the curtain. Atlas bristled at the flirtatious tone, and she was certain Pilot noticed. Lady Oaken continued, “I wish to see Her Majesty.”
Under her breath, Atlas said, “Stay, but disappear.”
Beyond the curtain, Phaedos was saying, “The Queen does not wish to be disturbed.”
Pilot bowed slightly and took a single step back. The shadows gobbled him up. As Atlas watched, the shadows grew lighter – less dense, and she realized it was because the fire was dwindling.
“Phaedos, it’s just me. I’m no threat and will not hold the Queen any longer than she wishes,” her tone was sickeningly sweet. Atlas felt a single, brief pulse of rage.
It did not last as, immediately, Phaedos’ voice came through the curtain – and Atlas recognized the first hints of anger beneath the vowels. “Even so, her orders were clear. And –“
Atlas spoke up, stepping across the distance to the curtain quickly.
“Phaedos,” she said, her fingertips just beginning to lift the curtain. Already, a polite smile graced her lips. “Let her pass.”
Atlas followed the flicker of jealousy in Elve’s eyes until it was gone. She did not trust this woman. Without warning, Atlas found herself thinking ‘You can’t allow me into my own home.’
Curious, thought Atlas, filing the instance away in her memory.
“Your Majesty, forgive me; I just wished to see you after so many days.” The woman’s voice was, as she had heard her father say, once, thick with the shit she had to move around to get the words out.
He’d been drunk, and she’d snuck down to sit outside of the banquet hall.
Automatically, Atlas smiled again, “Of course, Lady Oaken.” Midway through her niceties, she realized something. Attempting to keep the smirk from her lips, she continued, “Please, come in; this is still your home, after all.”
Elve’s eyes were as readable as the faint lines around them. So you do still remember.
Lady Oaken was speaking again, and Atlas found it difficult to tolerate already. The echoes of her voice were so loud it almost hurt. “Only if it takes up none of your valuable time.”
Atlas thought, if you would kindly get to the point then we could discuss not wasting my time.
Suddenly Atlas was thinking of a wolf, surrounded by a blizzard, with blood on it’s snout. He was baring his teeth.
Then, she thought of Elseron. The cool blues of his eyes.
She shook it off and stepped aside, opening her arms in a welcome as false as the woman’s smile.
She turned her back on Elve, though her instincts told her not to, in order to tend the fire. She prodded the coals gently and soon the fireplace was roaring again. The shadows darkened.
She let herself fall onto the fainting sofa and crossed her legs. “Please, sit, Lady Oaken,” she said.
For agonizingly long moments, they conversed with hollow words; exchanging them as currency – the way Atlas had watched the other women of the court do in Atlantis. Speaking without purpose or meaning; speaking for the sake of speaking.
Atlas found herself imitating the mannerisms she’d seen as a child; politely interested eyes, lips at the ready to speak in an instant, shifting her position only when her guest did. Her mouth was saying, “Which is why I am all the more grateful to you.”
At one time Atlas would have meant those words; she would have felt the stab of sympathetic pain upon the recollection of information. As it was, looking into Elve’s empty eyes with her tight-lipped smile, Atlas felt nothing.
Elve’s lips formed the words and her eyes said she was surprised; but there was too much practiced control in the movements of her tongue. “Elseron didn’t tell you before?”
Atlas shifted in her seat, re-settling herself into the environment, re-connecting to the conversation. Real words were crossing the gap, then, and she wanted to be paying attention. She said, “No.”
“Oh, I see.”
Atlas wanted to slap the smugness right from Elve’s face. Instead, she gave the woman what she wanted. She configured her features to portray a certain sense of self-questioning hidden behind indignance. “Elseron is a very private man.”
There it was, as she had expected; the flash of victory in the woman’s emerald green eyes. “Yes,” she said, “Elseron has many secrets. I don’t even think I know them all.”
Atlas narrowed her eyes. “Secrets?”
“Well, not secrets per say,” Elve corrected, “But he is very reluctant to talk of the past.”
Ah, Atlas thought to herself. She wondered if Elve really believed the “bait and switch” tactic would work on her. This game was nearly too easy, she thought. “I have noticed that.”
“But he has had a hard life; I wouldn’t want to look back over the things he has been through. He hasn’t told you?” Lady Oaken leaned in with all the grace and prowess of a woman who’d made it far in the ancient court.
Memories of the old court rotted like forgotten fruit in Atlas’ mind.
Elve said, “What do you know about him?”
There was a challenge in her tone that Atlas did her best to ignore. When she responded, she fumbled for words intentionally. “Well, he was appointed High Commander after my birth, and… Um,” she trailed off, focusing on keeping a rigid hold on her expressions. Elve laughed once and brushed hair from her face.
“My dear,” began Elve, and her tone was self-righteous and accusing and proud. “It would seem to a stranger that you hardly know him at all!”
Faced with such an accusation, knowing that the venom roaring to life in her veins would do her no good in furthering her advancement in this woman’s manipulative game, Atlas allowed her face to fall vacant. She reminded herself of her father, of the stoic emptiness he had taught her to push into her eyes. To keep her upper hand.
But her pride was too fiercely affronted; she took too much offense to the claim that she did not know her own Guardian, even if it had been her intention to let the woman believe such lies. “That’s not true!” She snapped, spitting the words out as if they burned her tongue.
She hoped the outburst would successfully convince Elve that she was being honest.
Calmly, Elve said, “Relax, your Majesty. I mean no insult. Elseron doesn’t share his life with just anybody.”
A shadow passed through Elvernoi’s eyes and Atlas knew it upon sight. She’d had her fair share of experience with it among other female Atlanteans. How pitiful that this woman saw Atlas as a direct threat to Elseron’s affections.
So insecure, thought Atlas, that she’d blame a child for the decay of her own relationship.
“Well then, please, Lady Oaken, indulge me.”
Successful conquest was written all over Elve’s face. Behind her green eyes Atlas could see the wheels turning; she wondered what stratagem the woman was piecing together - though she had her guesses.
She began to spout off details of Elseron’s life; so foolishly believing that Atlas was truly ignorant to his history. Arrogance became clearer and clearer in her tone as she went on. Towards the end of her first wave of chatter, Elve chewed on her lower lip, giggling, as she very obviously recalled the man she had been in love with. Her tone held traces of a twitter-pated young woman.
“Every woman in Atlantis wished to be the bride of the Stalwart Shield when he was entered into the Royal Knights, and that was going to be me…” The pause fed the tension already festering between the women. Elve met Atlas’ gaze and the first clear spark of animosity lit behind the Queen’s eyes. “Until, well…”
Exhausted of this dialog and ready to move on with her night, Atlas rose from her seat. Her words came out as more of a sharp, defensive bark, than she’d originally intended. “Lady Oaken, I must please ask you to leave now.” She let out a quick breath and added, “Your petty games are, quite frankly, a waste of my time.”
Stunned for but an instant, Elve replied, “I am merely telling you –“
“No, Lady Oaken,” Atlas spat, no longer attempting to conceal her anger. “You are trying to shake my confidence in my Guardian and make me feel guilty for breaking off your engagement in the hopes that I will somehow dismiss him and you can then win him back into your arms; but understand me when I say this,” she said, pausing as she took a single, pointed step closer to her visitor.
Cutting in before Atlas could continue, Elve spoke, warning clear in her tone, “Choose your next words carefully, your Majesty.”
When Atlas opened her mouth, the words tumbled out unbidden. The longer she went on, the more spiteful she felt. She had let this woman under her skin, though only for the briefest of moments, and it was a weakness.
She found her self saying “Well, now listen very carefully Lady Oaken because I choose these words with great care. I love Elseron just as much as you do; he loves me like his own flesh and blood but he has never, ever been forced or ordered to care for me. He could have left any time in the last century so if you and he were so close I think he would have left to find you by now, don’t you?”
She saw the sudden swell of words about to leave Elve’s mouth but the voice that shattered the tension in the room was not Elve’s.
“What is going on here?”
Atlas did not need to look to Elseron with wide, frightened eyes the way Elve did. Atlas knew the fury, knew the heat of anger that pressed into the room. She was familiar with it. She could feel his steps vibrating up from the floor boards into the soles of her feet. They locked eyes and Atlas nodded. They said nothing out loud.
Turning away from Elve to move toward her Guardian, Atlas said, “Nothing, Elseron; Lady Oaken was just leaving.” Over Elseron’s shoulder, Atlas met with virid green eyes in the shadows beyond the light of the fireplace.
Lady Oaken left, and on her heels was a shadow with a flash of gleaming teeth and a certain madness in his eyes.