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…