Culmination, Part 22

“What do you mean, ‘it never should have happened’?” Kryla asked carefully. “I read the reports about Phumelenin. Are you saying that something was falsified?”

“No, of course not!” Alaia replied quickly, shocked. “I just meant, I was never supposed to be in the Captain’s chair on Majestic Falcon. I had no idea what I was doing. I just happened to be the most senior officer left alive. I took command because I had to, and I just acted on instinct. I didn’t have any grand scheme. I just did stuff and it happened to work.”

Kryla eyed Alaia thoughtfully for a moment, and then, much to Alaia’s surprise, she started chuckling. “Commander Farlen,” she said, her tone a mixture of amusement and sternness, “do you think it’s different for any of us?”

“Well, I…,” Alaia began uncertainly. “When you’re in the Captain’s chair, sir, you just have such poise, such an air of command. Surely you know exactly what you’re doing at all times.” Kryla just started laughing even harder at this.

“I sure do have you fooled, don’t I?” she said with a smirk, and then laughed even harder at the bemused look on Alaia’s face. “I apologize, Commander,” she said once her mirth died down. “I don’t mean to make fun of you. I just find it surprising that you’ve advanced as far as you have without learning the ‘secret of command’.”

“The ‘secret of command’?” Alaia said, her puzzlement deepening. “What’s that?”

Kryla leaned forward and whispered, “None of us know what in Nerzaga we’re doing.” She leaned back, her expression perfectly serious for a moment, and then a wide grin split her face in two. “It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. You think I know exactly what I’m doing every moment I sit in that chair? You think every decision I make is the absolute best decision I could have made at that moment? Every commander in this fleet, and in every other fleet in the galaxy, is just acting on instinct. Instinct is the best weapon we have, Alaia! And from the results you got at Phumelenin, I think your instincts are pretty damn good.”

“It just…it just seems like there should be more,” muttered Alaia.

“Maybe it does,” Kryla said, her smile growing warmer. “Heck, maybe there are people who have such command of the battlefield that they can just see every move they need to make at every moment. But if there are, I’ve never met any. I’m certainly not one.”

“But you plan your moves several steps in advance, don’t you?” Alaia asked, her brow furrowed.

“I try to,” Kryla said with a shrug. “You need to try and anticipate what your enemy will do, of course. But it just happens. You don’t think to yourself, ‘oh, well, they’re going to do this, so I’m going to do this’. You just do it.”

“That…does basically sound like what I did at Phumelenin,” Alaia admitted.

“You see?” Kryla said with a smile. “You already know how to command. You just need to work on your confidence.” She leaned forward and fixed Alaia with an intense gaze. “And you don’t need to be afraid of me. Don’t worry about what happens during battle drills. Failing during a battle drill is meaningless. Take any mistakes you make and learn from them. That’s what they’re for.”

“I’ll try to do better, Admiral,” Alaia said, bashful.

“Don’t just try, Commander,” Kryla said, her voice and expression growing hard. “Do better.”

“Yes, sir!” Alaia replied, blushing and sitting up straighter. “I will, sir!” Kryla eyed her for a moment, and then her expression softened again.

“I know you will,” Kryla said in an encouraging voice. “Dismissed, Commander.” Alaia nodded, and then stood up, saluted sharply, and left Kryla’s office.

Well, thought Kryla in satisfaction, that went better than I expected. Of course, there was no guarantee that Kryla’s little pep talk would actually change anything. Maybe Alaia was right, and her performance at Phumelenin had been an accident. Maybe next time she was in command, she would freeze up and get everyone under her command killed. But there was no sense in dwelling on such possibilities. Alaia Farlen had the potential to be a great officer. All she needed was some confidence.

An alert sounded, telling Kryla that someone was trying to contact her, and she pressed the button to answer the call. “Yes?”

“Admiral Zomulin, General Hemetal has arrived,” said the voice of one of her aides.

“Excellent,” Kryla replied. “Show him into my office.” A few minutes later, the aide arrived, followed by Lord Hemetal and two of his aides.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Kryla said as she stood up and saluted.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor said, returning her salute. “How are your preparations going?”

“Everything is progressing as smoothly as possible, General,” Kryla replied, and they both sat down on opposite sides of her desk.

“Good,” Belfamor said, nodding sharply, “because in two days, the fleet departs for Trisitania.”

“That soon?” Kryla asked, her eyes widening. “I thought I’d have at least two more weeks to prepare! I haven’t fully integrated my units yet. Just this morning, you sent me a note that you’re adding 15 more ships to my fleet! They haven’t even arrived yet, and you’re saying that we’re leaving in two days?”

“Those 15 ships will be here tomorrow,” Belfamor said calmly. “You will have 24 hours to get them situated, and then the operation begins.”

“Why the rush?” exclaimed Kryla, exasperated. “Did the Emperor figure out what you’re planning?”

“Yes, but that’s not why I moved up the timetable,” Belfamor said, a slight frown appearing on his face. “I’ve looked over your reports. You’re as ready as you need to be, considering the resistance we’ll face on Trisitania.” He handed a tablet to Kryla, who perused its contents quickly, and then let out a low whistle.

“Are you sure this is accurate?” she asked, amazed.

“As sure as it is possible to be,” Belfamor replied. “75 percent of the forces defending Trisitania have been reassigned to other sectors. The capital is virtually defenseless.”

“We will be too, until this battle is over,” Kryla said in a warning tone, but Belfamor waved a hand dismissively.

“We’ll crush Neminatrix’s forces, kill or capture him, and then the rest of his troops will swear allegiance to Valador. What else can they do? There won’t be enough of them left to put up an effective resistance.”

“That’s a pretty big assumption,” Kryla said skeptically.

“That’s not your concern,” Belfamor replied harshly. “Your job is to capture Trisitania. Let me worry about the bigger picture.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 21

Admiral Kryla Zomulin sighed as she tossed a tablet on her desk, and then gazed around at her surroundings. She was sitting in her quarters onboard Decimator, the flagship of the fleet that Lord Hemetal was amassing to invade Trisitania. Decimator had been Kryla’s first command, and she’d always regretted being promoted out of the Captain’s chair. So one of her requests when she’d agreed to join Lord Hemetal’s potentially treasonous crusade had been that she would be reinstated as captain of Decimator, in addition to being in command of the fleet. Lord Hemetal had been happy to oblige. Decimator was no longer the newest ship in the fleet, but it was still one of the fastest and most powerful ships in the Empire. Kryla had served on many ships over the past 13 years, but Decimator would always hold a special place in her heart.

She shook her head and turned her attention back to the report she’d been sighing about. 15 more ships had been added to her fleet. That brought the total to 100, and also meant that she had more than 100,000 ground troops. That was more than half the total strength of the Imperial Fleet. Kryla knew that Trisitania would be a tough nut to crack, but Lord Hemetal was taking a huge risk by stripping the Empire’s defenses so bare. It wouldn’t be all that helpful for the Emperor to control the capital if Fangalin or Midigal seized a big chunk of territory in the meantime. But, that was Lord Hemetal’s problem, not hers. The important thing for her was that she’d gotten her ship back, and if this mission was her last, then at least she would die where she belonged.

She frowned down at the tablet, and then she shook her head, stood up and strode out of her quarters. It was time to run battle drills again. Not that her presence was required for battle drills, but she liked to keep up with what her XO was doing. Her XO was good, but she was still pretty green, and Kryla wanted to make sure that she was there to correct any mistakes. Of course, after 15 years of war, nobody could rise to the rank of Commander and still be truly green. But her XO had either been really lucky or really clever, and had managed to avoid most of the battles that she should have taken part in over the course of her 10 year career.

“Admiral on the bridge!” announced an ensign as Kryla stepped through the door and past the officers sitting in the tactical section.

“At ease, everyone,” Kryla said firmly as people began to stiffen and stand up in response to her presence. “No need to get up, Commander Farlen,” she said, holding out a hand to forestall her XO, who was just rising up out of the Captain’s chair so that she could sit down. “I’m only here as an observer.” Farlen nodded uncertainly and slowly lowered herself back into the chair.

“Helm, change course to heading 4732.9,” Farlen ordered, studiously ignoring Kryla’s presence. Kryla, on the other hand, studied Commander Farlen carefully. Alaia Farlen, graduated 3rd in her class from the Imperial Military Academy in 2159, six years after the war started. Served under Emperor Neminatrix for three years, and then was part of a sizable fleet that defected to Emperor Valador seven years ago. Since then, she had served with distinction but had so far failed to exhibit the exceptionality expected of those who graduated from IMA with high honors. Somehow, she had managed to avoid most of the major battles that Valador’s forces had taken part in, with the exception of one.

Two years ago, Valador’s forces had struck at Phumelenin, a province held by Fangalin, far beyond Valador’s borders. The objective had not been to seize the planet, but rather to destroy a munitions plant located there. Unfortunately, Valador’s intelligence about the forces stationed at Phumelenin had been faulty, and there were nearly three times more ships in orbit than had been expected. The commander of the mission, Captain Lodech Nermaia, had made the decision to go ahead with the operation, but was killed almost immediately after the battle began. Several other officers fell soon after, and then-Lt. Commander Alaia Farlen had been the highest ranking officer on the lead ship, an Imperial cruiser called Majestic Falcon. She had taken command of Majestic Falcon, and the operation, and she managed to destroy the munitions plant and escape with a minimum of casualties. It had been a brilliant display of cunning and courage, and it had led Kryla to request Alaia as her XO, hoping that it hadn’t been just a one-time thing.

“Target coming into range, sir,” announced the tactical officer.

“Open fire,” Alaia ordered. There was a moment of silence as the computer simulation calculated the effects of Decimator‘s actions.

“No good, sir,” said the tactical officer. “We missed them.”

“Target is dropping into subspace!” announced the sensor officer next.

“Damn it!” snarled Alaia, pounding her fist on the arm of the Captain’s chair.

“Careful, Commander,” Kryla said quietly, standing just to Alaia’s left. “That’s my chair you’re abusing.”

“Y-yes, Admiral,” Alaia said nervously, her fury evaporating immediately. “S-sorry, Admiral.” Kryla watched her thoughtfully for a moment.

“Come with me for a moment, Commander,” she said calmly.

“Y-yes, sir,” Alaia replied, practically leaping out of the Captain’s chair.

“Commander Verallen, you’re in charge,” Kryla announced as she and Alaia left the bridge. They walked a short way down the corridor, and came to Kryla’s office. Once they entered, Kryla sat down behind her desk and gestured for Alaia to sit across from her.

“Talk to me, Commander,” Kryla said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, sir,” Alaia replied, avoiding Kryla’s eyes.

“Yes, you do,” Kryla said firmly. “You’re making foolish mistakes, losing your temper, and you seem to think that I’m a venomous calrach who’s going to crush your neck if you make one false move.” Alaia eyed Kryla for a moment, and then she let out a deep sigh.

“Everyone expects me to be a genius, to repeat what I did at Phumelenin,” she replied wearily, “but it’s just not going to happen.”

“Why?” Kryla asked quietly.

“Because Phumelenin was an accident,” Alaia said defiantly, meeting Kryla’s eyes now. “It never should have happened.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 20

General Lord Belfamor Hemetal bowed low to the ground as he approached the Imperial Throne. It wasn’t the real Throne, of course. It was just a chair that Valador Mifalis had found in the Revellian governor’s mansion. It was a very nice chair, yet still just a chair. But if Belfamor had his way, the Emperor would soon be sitting in the real Imperial Throne, and this pseudo-Throne could go back to whatever closet Valador had pulled it out of.

“Your Majesty,” Belfamor said as he bowed. “What can I do for you?”

“Rise, Lord Hemetal,” the Emperor intoned. “I require a status report on your latest operation.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said smoothly as he straightened, hiding the sudden apprehension he felt. As far as the Emperor knew, his latest operation was an invasion of Grafllionis, a province controlled by Neminatrix on the edge of Valador’s territory. In reality, his latest operation was a full-scale invasion of Trisitania that had not been authorized either by the Emperor or by Emelien Fanas, Belfamor’s direct superior.

“I have assigned 15 ships under the command of Admiral Kryla Zomulin to the invasion of Grafllionis,” Belfamor continued. “In addition, there are 15,000 IA troops assigned to the operation as ground forces.”

“Seems like a solid allocation,” the Emperor replied musingly. “Not bad, General.” He perused something on a tablet for a few moments while Belfamor watched him with a carefully neutral expression. “Two battleships, four cruisers, and nine destroyers, correct?”

“That is correct, Your Majesty,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly

“Yes, that will do nicely for this operation,” the Emperor said calmly. Then, continuing on in that same calm voice, he said, “So why am I hearing that you have assembled 85 ships and nearly 100,000 troops near Epikalia?”

Belfamor froze. How could Valador have learned of his preparations? He’d been so quiet, so careful. Maybe Valador was just guessing. Maybe he could still bluff his way out of this. So he said, in a very nonchalant voice, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Your Majesty.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” the Emperor replied with an amused smirk. “There’s no need to act all coy about this, Lord Hemetal. I know exactly what you’re doing. You’re going ahead with your plan to assault Trisitania even though General Fanas denied you permission.”

“That’s absurd, Your Majesty,” Belfamor said calmly, although inwardly he was sweating bullets. “I would never so flagrantly disobey orders.”

“Of course you would,” the Emperor said, rolling his eyes. “I would do the same thing in your position. Here’s the thing. Officially, I condemn your actions and warn you of grave consequences if you continue on your current path, yada yada yada. But unofficially? I say, go for it.”

“I don’t understand,” Belfamor said with a puzzled look.

“Here’s the thing, Belfamor,” the Emperor said, all pretense at formality dropped. “I need you, desperately. Well, technically, I need your money, although your brain is useful too. Without the backing of House Hemetal, your father-in-law probably would have ground me to dust five years ago. So it’s in my best interests to keep you happy. Because if I court-martialed you and locked you up, you could just transfer the House headship to your son and send him off to Neminatrix, which is where, I gather, he would prefer to be anyway. And even if I could force you to give me access to your sizable bank accounts, that’s not my style anyway. I’d rather you help me because you want to.”

“I see,” said Belfamor with a frown. “What happens if I’m wrong, and the invasion is crushed?”

“Ah, that’s best part,” the Emperor replied with a twisted grin. “If you lose, I’m finished. Which means I won’t need your money anymore, which means that I’ll either be satisfied at your death in battle, or I get the enjoyment of having you court-martialed and executed.”

“And what happens if I win?” Belfamor asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Then you will be a hero, Lord Hemetal,” the Emperor replied, his grin widening. “Off the record, of course. Officially, I’ll have you court-martialed either way. But,” he added with a wink, “I bet you’ll beat the court martial if you come back victorious.”

Belfamor considered all of this for a moment before he responded. Finally he looked up at the Emperor with a grim frown, although there was a slight twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “It would have been nice to know this in the first place,” he said.

“If I had authorized this invasion, Emelien would have never let me hear the end of it,” the Emperor said wryly. “I’m not supposed to give you preferential treatment, after all.”

“At least one of us will be happy once this is over with,” Belfamor said, a small, sardonic smile appearing on his face.

“I don’t understand why you’re so convinced that Emelien hates you,” the Emperor said, rolling his eyes again.

“Do we really need to talk about this right now?” Belfamor snapped, his smile quickly turning to a scowl.

“We need to talk about it sometime,” the Emperor said firmly. “The One knows that I’m not going to be around too much longer. The last thing I want is for you and Emelien to start a new civil war after I’m dead.”

“Once we get the capital back, a new Senate will finally be elected, and whoever the Senate chooses to replace you, I will be loyal to them,” Belfamor replied just as firmly.

“Even if the Senate chooses Emelien Fanas?” the Emperor asked, quirking one eyebrow.

“If the Senate elects Emelien Fanas to be the next Emperor, then I will have serious doubts about the intelligence of the citizens of the Empire,” Belfamor said wryly, “but yes, I will pledge my loyalty to him.”

“I certainly hope so,” the Emperor said doubtfully, “because one way or another, this civil war will be over soon, thanks to you. And it would be a terrible black mark on your legacy if you started another one in a few years.”

“That will not happen,” Belfamor said firmly. “I promise.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 19

What a mess this is becoming, Shala thought to herself as she watched the tears running down her father’s face. All of her life, she’d thought of her father as a heartless monster. She’d always thought that he abused her because he was devoid of human emotions. Suddenly, she realized the truth. He had a heart. It was just deeply, deeply twisted.

“Don’t worry, my dear,” Neminatrix said, dabbing at his eyes with a lace handkerchief. “I don’t blame you for any of this. I realize that I took you for granted for many, many years, and I’ve decided that I will no longer make that mistake. I will prove to you the depths of my feelings for you, I promise you that.”

“Okay,” Shala said hesitantly, deeply unsure about how to proceed at this point. “Um…would it be alright if I requested some decent clothes? The things you’ve provided me are very, um, lovely, but I wouldn’t want to walk around in the halls in them.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Neminatrix replied, a coy smile spreading across his face. “I think it would be best if you stayed in your rooms for the time being. You see, I don’t really trust my men anymore, and I’m not sure how well I can control them. You will be safer here.” Shala opened her mouth to protest, and he cut her off. “Don’t worry, I will see to it that everything you need is provided to you here. You will want for nothing, I assure you.”

“If you insist,” Shala said, lowering her eyes. For a brief moment, she considered saying something about Lakatai’s treatment of her, but she dismissed that thought quickly. She didn’t trust this new loving, sentimental version of her father. The brutal tyrant could reemerge again at any moment.

“Don’t be sad, my beloved,” Neminatrix said softly, laying his fingers on her chin and lifting her face tenderly. The look in his eyes was warmer and gentler than anything she’d ever seen before, even from her husband. “I know you’re scared of me. I’ve treated you horribly in the past. But I will make it up to you. I promise.” He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips, and gazed deep into her eyes. “I love you, Trinia,” he whispered, and then he turned and left her rooms.

For several minutes, Shala stood and stared at the door, poleaxed. Everything about that exchange had startled her, but nothing had shocked her more than that very last statement. Trinia. He’d called her Trinia. How could that be? Why would he call her that? Had she heard him right?

If she had, it changed everything.

Trinia was her mother’s name.

For the first time in twenty years, Shala thought about her mother. An amazing woman, Trinia Melforia had been a true princess, a princess by birth, unlike Shala, who was called a princess simply because her father claimed the Imperial Throne. Trinia had been a great-granddaughter of the Emperor Preclonus IV. Emella II, the Old Empress, had been her aunt. Trinia Melforia had married Erelesk Votalin as part of a political alliance between House Melforia and House Votalin.

For a time, Trinia had softened Erelesk’s rough edges, and had been the only one who dared stand up to him. Protected by her membership of the Imperial House, she had been safe from his cruelty and madness, and she, in turn, had protected Shala from her father. But when Shala was eight years old, her mother had died in a hovercar accident, and after that, no one had even attempted to stand up for Shala, at least until she’d married Lorgad Hemetal, and then his son, Belfamor.

Shala had always believed that Trinia’s death was no accident, that her mother had been murdered by her father so that he could get to Shala. But what if she’d been wrong? What if Trinia’s death really had been an accident, and Erelesk had fallen in love with Shala instead, because she was the closest thing to his beloved wife? What her father had done to her wouldn’t be any less despicable if that were the case, but it would make it more…sympathetic.

The real question was, what would Shala do about it? Could she use her father’s feelings to her advantage? That was an interesting possibility. Could she even maybe convince her father that the best way to honor her mother’s memory was to treat her like a daughter, not as a replacement for her mother? That would be a spectacular feat, for sure, but maybe it would be possible, now that she actually understood her father’s frame of mind.

Finally, she whispered to herself, “What do I do now?” She still hated her father, both for what he’d done to her, and for what he’d done to the Empire. Five minutes of apologies and tenderness couldn’t change that. And it wasn’t even as if he was showing tenderness as a father to his daughter. No, he saw her as a lover, a thought that made Shala want to vomit all over a big pile of lacy underwear.

And yet, for the first time in her life, Shala saw her father as a human being. A deeply flawed and broken human being, yes, but a real person, nonetheless. Which wouldn’t matter, except that it made killing him much more problematic in her mind. Killing a heartless monster was easy, and she would have done it years ago if she’d had the opportunity. But killing a mentally ill person, even a dangerously mentally ill person? Somehow that thought made Shala’s resolve start to waver.

And if she could change his heart, make him see her as Shala, not as Trinia, would she want to kill him? For the first time in her life, she would have a father. Of course, there would be complications even if she succeeded. Shala had already pledged her loyalty to Emperor Valador, and she had no intention of rescinding that oath. Shala needed to teach Erelesk Votalin to be a father, AND get him to abdicate. That would be no easy task.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 18

Jefmin Lakatai accompanied Shala all the way to her old quarters. Even though it had been ten years since Belfamor had spirited her away, she still remembered the way there, although she suspected Lakatai wasn’t there just to guide her. As if she’d attempt to escape the Palace at this moment. Her father seemed determined to remind her at every turn that she was never going to escape his grasp again. Little did he know that Shala had no intention of trying to escape yet. She would not leave the Palace again until her father was dead.

They arrived at her quarters, and once the door slid open and she stepped inside, a gasp escaped from her lips. When she had stayed in these rooms a decade ago, they had been functional at best. Now, the only word that could describe them was…lavish. Shala had never seen such a collection of rich decorations, and she was married to one of the richest men in the galaxy. It was as if her father had stripped the galaxy bare, or at least the part of it he controlled, just to decorate this one suite of rooms. It was truly spectacular, and surprisingly tasteful, but there was also something a little off about it.

“Well, I think you’ll be plenty comfy in here,” Lakatai said sourly. Clearly he would have preferred Shala to remain in the dungeon. Shala was extremely grateful that the decision was not up to him.

“Thank you, Lord Lakatai, for accompanying me to my quarters,” Shala said, nodding her head respectfully to Lakatai. If he wanted manners, then manners was what he was going to get. He gave her an irritated scowl, and then turned on his heel and stalked out of her quarters. Presumably her father had given him clear boundaries around when he was allowed to beat her. A small smile appeared on her face. She could play her father’s game. If only she was certain as to what all the rules were.

These quarters, for example. If someone didn’t know better, they might think that this was a sign of affection from a doting father toward a beloved daughter. Shala recognized some of the paintings on her walls. They were priceless masterpieces that had been hanging in the Imperial Museum until recently. A few of them were a thousand years old! Shala was having difficulty reconciling such sumptuousness with the harsh treatment she had experienced in the Palace until now.

There was something strange about it all, though. A few pieces that didn’t quite add up. Shala inspected an assortment of bottles artfully arranged on the dresser, and discovered that they were all expensive perfumes and massage oils. Well, perhaps her father wanted her to feel pampered. Unlikely, but the man was insane, so anything was possible. Then she opened the drawers of the dresser. All of them were full of lacy bras and panties. Shala frowned. She preferred practical underwear, but some women felt pretty in things like this. Did she really need so much of it, though?

She went to the closet, and started going through the things hanging it. This made her frown deepen. There were no decent clothes in this closet, only skimpy negligees and other forms of lingerie, some of them so scanty she would have been embarrassed to wear them in front of her husband! She couldn’t wear these outside of her quarters! She didn’t even want to wear them in her quarters!

Suddenly it dawned on her. These were not the rooms of a beloved daughter. These were the rooms of a favored courtesan. Which made sense, in a way. But Shala still couldn’t figure out how to reconcile these rooms with the brutal treatment she’d received in the Palace dungeon.

Before she could ponder this mystery any further, a chime sounded, informing her that somebody was requesting access to her quarters. A puzzled frown appeared on her face. Who in the Imperial Palace would ask to come into her quarters?

“Come,” she said, still puzzled. Her frown only deepened when her father entered her sitting room, but she quickly wiped it off her face and replaced it with a look of serene servitude. “What can I do for you, Your Majesty?” she asked, bowing low.

“Come now, my dear,” Neminatrix said, spreading his arms magnanimously. “You need not stand on ceremony with me.” This only puzzled Shala further, but she rose from her bow and looked expectantly at her father. “I only stopped by to see how you were enjoying the redecoration I requested for your quarters.”

“It is quite lovely, Your Majesty,” Shala replied, bowing again. “Thank you so much for your consideration.”

“Shala, my dear,” Neminatrix said warmly, taking her hands in his. “How many times will you make me repeat myself? You need not be so formal with me. Call me Ere.” It was all Shala could do to contain her shock. ‘Ere’ was an affectionate nickname, a shortening of the name ‘Erelesk’, which had been her father’s name before his ascension to the Throne. Never in her entire life had she heard anyone be so intimate with her father, least of all herself. She had always been expected to call him ‘sir’, or ‘General’, or ‘my Lord’. Just how deep did his insanity run, if he was asking her to call him Ere?

“If…if you insist…Ere,” she said hesitantly. Neminatrix beamed.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” he said. He smiled broadly at her, and then he began pacing around the room, gesturing animatedly as he talked. “I admit, things have been difficult between us in the past. When you left me, I was angry for a long time. I thought about all the brutal and vicious ways I would get revenge on Belfamor for stealing you from me. But the longer our separation lasted, the more I began to realize that, maybe the problem was me. Maybe I hadn’t treated you as well as I should.” He turned to face her, and she was startled to realize that he was crying. “I love you, Shala. You are everything to me. You complete me. Without you, I could barely function. I need you, and I need you to realize how important you are to me.”

“I…I’m sorry, Ere,” she whispered, and she was shocked to realize that she truly was. “I had no idea.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 17

It was over a week before Shala was finally released from her prison cell. In that time she experienced no human contact. Her food and water were shoved through a slot in the bottom of the door once a day, and the empty tray mysteriously disappeared every night while she was asleep. By the time the ear-splitting buzz came that signified the opening of the door, she would have been happy to see anyone, even her father. Fortunately, it wasn’t her father. Unfortunately, it was someone almost as bad.

“Well, fancy meeting you here, Princess Shala,” Jefmin Lakatai said with a sneer and a leer as he strolled into her cell. Shala just stared at him stonily as she sat on the bench with her knees drawn up under chin and her arms wrapped around her legs. “Don’t have much to say, huh?” Lakatai chortled. “Well, I’m sure that’ll change once I tell you why I’m here. You might even throw yourself at my feet, although I’d have to stop you, of course. Your father wouldn’t be too pleased with me if I took advantage of that offer!” His leer deepened and he chuckled nastily as he leaned forward and looked her up and down, but Shala just narrowed her eyes slightly.

“In your dreams,” she rasped, her voice hoarse from disuse. Lakatai straightened up and chortled nastily some more, and then out of nowhere, backhanded her roughly across the face, knocking her into the wall to her left. For a moment, Shala was completely disoriented, unable to comprehend what had happened. Her father had always abused her, as far back as she could remember, but he had always forbidden anyone else to lay a hand on her. If that had changed, if he was allowing his cronies to beat her now, then she was in even more trouble than she’d thought.

“Does…does my father know what you’re doing?” Shala croaked, struggling to stand up.

“Of course he does,” Lakatai sneered, eyeing Shala like she was a particularly stupid child. “Do you think I would dare lay a hand on His Glorious Majesty’s daughter without his permission?”

“I don’t know,” Shala wheezed, putting her hands on the walls to steady herself as she stood. “You always were one of my father’s dumbest buddies.” Lakatai’s sneer changed from amused to malicious, and he suddenly balled up his fist and slammed it hard into her stomach.

“His Glorious Majesty has decided that you need some lessons on how a princess is to behave,” Lakatai said harshly as Shala groaned in a heap on the floor. “Perhaps a few bruises will teach you to shape up that smart mouth of yours.” Shala glared up at him malevolently, but she swallowed her cutting reply and kept her mouth shut. Lakatai’s round face twisted into a sneering grin. “I see you’ve already learned your first lesson. Good for you. Now, get up. His Glorious Majesty has decreed that you are to be released from the dungeon and taken to your old quarters.”

Shala moaned miserably as Lakatai grabbed her by the arm and roughly hauled her up to her feet. She swayed slightly as she tried to gain her bearings, but Lakatai shoved her out the door before she could fully do so. As a result, she ended up face-down on the ground, arms and legs akimbo. Lakatai snorted rudely behind her.

“One week in a cell and you forget how to walk?” he snickered unpleasantly. “You really are pathetic.” Shala pushed herself up off the ground as quickly as she could, which wasn’t very quick at all, considering how weak she was from a lack of food, water, and exercise, gave Lakatai a hateful glare, and then set off unsteadily down the corridor. Lakatai gave an ugly snort, and followed closely behind her.

“So, if I’m supposed to be learning manners, it would be beneficial if I knew how you wanted me to address you,” Shala said deferentially, but without looking at Lakatai.

“You may call me ‘Lord Lakatai’,” he said smugly, a very self-satisfied look on his face.

“I see,” Shala replied, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. “Congratulations.” The smug look on Lakatai’s face only grew more smug. “That’s quite an honor, to be raised to the nobility. I believe it’s been over 400 years since a new noble house was created.”

“476 years, to be exact,” Lakatai said, the expression on his face halfway between a smile and a sneer. Clearly, he had been practicing the look that he believed a noble should have. “But it’s no more than I deserve, of course. No one has been more loyal to His Glorious Majesty than myself. No one has done more to advance his cause than me.”

Lakatai rambled on in this manner for some time, which gave Shala ample opportunity to ignore him and inspect the halls of the Imperial Palace. What she saw both depressed and inspired her. The Palace was in disrepair. The halls were dirty and strewn with debris. Wall hangings and paintings were torn and smudged with filth. Here and there whole chunks of the floor had been torn up. She even saw large holes in the walls in a few places.

Growing up, Shala hadn’t cared about the Empire. She’d had her own survival to worry about. Anything outside of trying to keep her father’s hands off of her was irrelevant. But these past ten years, living with Belfamor, had taught her about things larger than herself. The Empire meant something to her now, and she yearned to fight for it. And to see the very Imperial Palace itself, the heart of the Empire, reduced to such a pitiful state, nearly broke her heart. But at the same time, it provided possibilities. Her father neglecting the Imperial Palace so badly, combined with his granting nobility to a lackey like Jefmin Lakatai and the alcohol she’d smelled on his breath, told her that her father was weak. And she would use that weakness to do something she’d dreamed about her whole life. She would destroy her father.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 16

Shala woke up slowly, her eyes opening gradually and then snapping back shut to block out the harsh light that shone in. She groaned and tried to turn over, but found that she couldn’t move at all. Where am I?, she thought groggily. Slowly, very slowly, she opened her eyes again and tried to accustom them to the light. She realized that she was in a very small room with four gray, metal walls. A cell, she thought in despair. He’s stuck me in a prison cell!

Once again she attempted to move her body, but her body wouldn’t respond. She didn’t know if she was being restrained in some way, or if the drug that Jefmin Lakatai had given her hadn’t worn off yet. She could feel panic rising in the pit of her stomach, and she stubbornly fought it down. She couldn’t afford to give into panic now. She had to keep her wits about her and keep her mind clear. Her father would be determined to break her once and for all, after she had defied him for almost a decade. If she was going to avoid that fate, she’d need every ounce of her cunning and courage.

Slowly, very slowly, she began to realize that her inability to move was a result of the drug, and gradually that ability began to return to her. She tested one arm, and then the other, and then both her legs, and then she very carefully pushed herself into a sitting position. A wave of nausea washed over her once she sat up, but it passed almost as soon as it arrived. Still, it was enough to make her take a short break before she attempted to stand up.

Before she could make that attempt, though, there was a loud buzzing sound that made her cringe and cover her ears, and the door slid open. For a split second, she thought about making a break for it, but that thought didn’t make it very far before someone entered the room. One look at this person made her gasp in astonishment, but she quickly regained her composure.

“Hello, Shala,” said her father with an arrogant smile as the door slid shut behind him.

Shala just stared at him defiantly. As she did, she studied him closely. He had aged considerably, his muscles having turned to fat and his thick, wavy hair having turned gray and stringy. One thing that hadn’t changed, however, was the malevolent, predatory look in his cold, dark eyes.

“You’ve made life very difficult for me, my beloved daughter,” Neminatrix said with a twisted grin.

“I certainly hope so,” Shala retorted with a sneer, and then her head whipped back as Neminatrix slapped her hard across the face.

“Your time spent with young Belfamor has ruined your manners, I see,” he said with a cruel scowl. “Well, now that you are back home where you belong, we can do something about that.” Shala just glared at him, ignoring the blood that was running down her cheek. Neminatrix’s scowl slowly turned back into a twisted grin as he leered down at her.

“You know, I’m hoping that someday soon, I get a chance to know your son better,” he said conversationally, although a predatory gleam in his eyes had deepened. “A boy should have a chance to spend time with his grandfather, don’t you think?”

“If you so much as think about laying a hand on Vendamil, I’ll rip your heart out with my bare hands,” Shala hissed viciously, but Neminatrix just laughed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, my dear Shala,” Neminatrix said, wiping a tear of mirth from his eyes. “Your son is perfectly safe in my hands. After all, I would never do anything to harm the person who delivered you to me.”

“What?” Shala gasped, feeling all the defiance drain out of her.

“Oh yes,” Neminatrix said with a nasty smile. “You see, he was quite upset that you wouldn’t let him come and study at Imperial University, and he figured that getting rid of you would remove the primary obstacle in his way. Such a clever boy, don’t you think?”

“I…I don’t believe it,” Shala whispered, shaking her head.

“Oh, you’d better believe it,” Neminatrix replied, his twisted grin deepening. “And once he comes here to go to school, I’ll be able to mold him in my image. Once someone as brilliant as him is in charge of House Votalin and the Empire, our power will be absolute!”

“Belfamor will never allow him to come to Trisitania,” Shala said, her voice hoarse.

“Perhaps, for a time,” Neminatrix said dismissively. “But your husband will be coming for you soon, and when he does, I have a little surprise waiting for him this time.”

“I wouldn’t dismiss my husband so easily,” Shala rasped, fear, rage and sorrow warring to make it difficult for her to speak.

“I would,” Neminatrix smirked. “Hemetals are terribly predictable. He’ll come here with a small team of elite operatives, hoping to spirit you out the same way he did ten years ago. But he will find that the Palace’s defenses are much more…formidable, than they were before.” Neminatrix’s smirk deepened, and he leaned forward, putting his face so close to Shala’s that she could smell alcohol on his breath. “I have you now, my dearest daughter, and soon I will have your son and your husband.” He stood up, sneered down at her for a moment, and then turned and left the cell.

Shala just sat and stared at the door for a long time after her father left. To be honest, it wasn’t as if there was anything else to do in the cell, although Shala had too much on her mind to worry about it. The biggest thing, strangely, was the smell of her father’s breath. Her father was many horrible things, but a drunk had never been one of them. Had he really been so distraught at her absence that it had driven him to drink? If so, that was potentially a weakness she could exploit.

To be continued…