Culmination, Part 31

“What’s our status?” asked Hana Lodimeur, coming into Fluttermask‘s cockpit and sitting down in the empty copilot chair.

“We’re about twenty minutes out from Trisitania,” replied Kyla Vertrane, not taking her eyes from the controls in front of her.

“Good, good,” Hana replied vaguely, staring intently at the kaleidoscope of colors visible on the viewscreen. Kyla glanced over at her, and then turned back to the controls, shaking her head slightly. She’d encountered people who were this obsessed with revenge before, and it never ended well. She was thinking of one person in particular, an old friend named Treben Holkas. Treben’s burning desire for revenge had left him in a shallow grave in one of the outer colonies. Of course, knowing that hadn’t kept Kyla from taking the opportunity to get revenge of her own for Treben’s death, so maybe she sympathized with Hana more than she thought she did.

A beeping sound brought her out of her reveries and back to the present. “Got a report here, Captain,” she said briskly, looking at the text appearing on a display mounted to her left. “You might be in luck. It looks like Valador’s forces haven’t arrived in the Trisitania system yet.”

“That is good news,” Hana said with a sharp nod. “All right, I’m gonna go get my team ready. Let me know when it’s time to deploy.”

“Yes, sir,” Kyla replied. As Hana left the room and Kyla turned her full attention back to flying, she wondered what Treben would have thought if he could see her now.

***

Hana was nearly buzzing with excitement as she walked back through the narrow corridor toward where the other members of Starfengt were waiting, although she didn’t let it show on her face or in her posture. This is it! she thought, This is the moment I’ve been working towards for ten years! No matter what happened today, she would not leave Trisitania until Emperor Neminatrix IV was dead. No matter what it cost her, she would have her vengeance today.

“This is it!” she announced, repeating her earlier thought, as she entered the compartment where Starfengt was waiting. “In a few minutes we’ll be dropping out of subspace, and we’ll be able to commence the operation.” She paused a moment, and took in all of the calm, expectant faces looking her.

“You are the best of the best,” she continued quietly, “and no matter what happens today, you’ve proven yourselves a thousand times over, to me, and more importantly, to each other. I won’t lie and say this is the most important mission we’ve ever had. I know it’s stupid for us to be here when Valador’s forces are supposed to arrive anytime. Maybe we should have just left these two pretenders to duke it out amongst themselves and weaken the Empire further. But killing Neminatrix is something I have to try and do myself. And it means everything to me that all of you were willing to come along with me on a personal vendetta.”

“You’re the best, Cap’n!” called out one of the youngest members of Starfengt, a red-haired, freckled young man named Sholin Ilimace. “Starfengt wouldn’t exist without you, sir! If helping you take care of the man who killed your father will show you how grateful we are to be together, in this unit, then it’s the least we can do!” The rest of the team murmured their agreement and nodded.

Hana looked overwhelmed by this at first. She closed her eyes tightly for a few moments, and then she cleared her throat and her expression was back to normal.

“Thank you, Sholin,” she said, her voice slightly huskier than usual. “And thank you to all of you. Now, let’s go get this bastard.”

***

As soon as Fluttermask dropped out of subspace, Kyla engaged the emissions masker. With the masker running, the only way that anybody in the Trisitania system would notice Fluttermask was if they looked out a window and saw her. Which was always possible, but highly unlikely. Space was a pretty big place, after all. Not for the first time, she prayed to whatever god might be listening, to thank he, she, or it for putting her in the cockpit of this ship. It was a smuggler’s dream. Also not for the first time, she wondered about where the masker had come from. But, that was neither here nor there. At the moment, she had a job to do.

She was just entering orbit around Trisitania when an alarm bell sounded, causing her to look over at her sensor display. What she saw there made her eyes widen, and she swore under her breath. Then she smacked her hand down on her control panel and said, “Captain Lodimeur, you better get back up here. We have a problem.”

A few seconds later, Hana burst into the cockpit. “What is it?” she barked. In response, Kyla pointed to the sensor display. “By the Presence,” Hana breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She was silent for a moment, thinking furiously. “We need to get down to the surface. Now!”

“On it!” Kyla replied. Her hands flew over the controls as Fluttermask pitched forward sharply and screamed into Trisitania’s atmosphere, causing Hana to hold on tightly to the back of the copilot’s chair to avoid falling forward into the viewscreen. A few seconds later, Fluttermask leveled out and Kyla turned to Hana.

“We’ll be landing in just a few minutes,” she said. “You should go get your team ready to disembark, sir.” Hana nodded sharply and rushed out of the cockpit.

***

“Grab your gear and get ready to move as soon as the hatch opens,” Hana said as she strode into the compartment where the rest of Starfengt was waiting.

“What’s going on, Captain?” Xeliana Merane asked.

“Valador’s fleet is here,” Hana replied, her words clipped. “Over a hundred warships. We need to move faster than we ever have if we want to do this and get out of here alive.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 30

Belfamor Hemetal crouched behind a fallen pillar in the Grand Hall of the Imperial Palace on Trisitania, assault rifle clutched tightly to his chest, his squadmates huddled next to him. They had almost reached Neminatrix, but his bodyguards were putting up a determined resistance, trying to take out as many of Valador’s soldiers as they could before they went down. Belfamor popped up, squeezed off a few shots in the direction of the Throne, and then ducked back down behind the pillar before Neminatrix’s soldiers could return fire. Sweating profusely, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. He also had to urinate badly, but there wasn’t much he could do about that at the moment, so he ignored it.

Suddenly a female voice called out across the battlefield. “Stop this nonsense at once!” it said. Belfamor’s eyes grew wide at the sound of that voice, and he risked a peek over the top of the pillar. Sure enough, his wife was standing in the middle of the Grand Hall, her appearance immaculate, wearing a beautiful green and gold dress, oblivious to the death and destruction surrounding her.

“Shala?” Belfamor whispered, shocked. Somehow, despite the noise of guns firing and men and women yelling and screaming, Shala heard him. She looked right at him, and then starting marching toward him, heedless of the chaos around her. When she got close to him, she planted her fists on her hips, with a firm look on her face.

“Go home, Belfamor,” she said harshly.

“What?” Belfamor replied in shock.

“I said, ‘go home!’” she replied, her voice stern. “I don’t want you to rescue me. I’m going to stay here with Neminatrix. I’m in love with him now, not you.”

“How…how can this be?” Belfamor whispered, his voice barely audible over the sounds of battle still going on around them.

“General, it’s 0600 hours,” Shala replied. “Time to wake up.” Belfamor stared at her in complete bafflement for a moment, and then his eyes snapped open, and he was laying on his bed, in his quarters onboard Decimator.

“General?” said the female voice again.

“I’m here, Ensign,” Belfamor replied groggily. “Thank you for the wake-up call.” He sat up slowly, shaking his head and rubbing his temples. What in Nerzaga was that dream all about? he thought irritably. He’d been having strange dreams like that for a week now, ever since the Emperor had given him the tacit go-ahead for his offensive against Trisitania. He wondered if maybe his subconscious was having second thoughts about this whole plan, but it was too late to back out now. Instead, he got out of bed, relieved himself, and got in the shower.

Today was the day. Today, the fleet was going to drop into subspace, fly to Trisitania, and reclaim the capital in the name of the true Emperor. Once Neminatrix was dead, the Empire would be whole again, at least as whole as it had been ever since the war started. And, perhaps more importantly, Belfamor would have his wife back, and he would never have to worry about her father stealing her away ever again.

Finishing up with his shower, he shaved and then got dressed, and left his quarters for the bridge. Although Admiral Zomulin was in command of this operation, he had still planned it, and he wanted to be there as the operation got underway. The ship was bustling with activity as Belfamor made his way through the narrow corridors, returning the salutes of junior officers every few steps. Decimator was scheduled to drop into subspace in less than twenty minutes, and the crew was rushing to make sure everything was prepared for the drop.

On the bridge, things were outwardly calmer, but there was still an air of heightened anticipation among the bridge crew. Admiral Zomulin was sitting in the command chair, looking, at first glance, out of place with her stylish hair, her immaculate makeup, her painted nails, and the fact that she could somehow make even a military uniform look fashionable. Even at almost 40 years old, she looked like she should be strutting down a trendy street on Cortaris or Endragar, instead of commanding a military vessel. But if you looked closely, there were small clues, like the way she sat in the command chair, or the steely glint in her eye, that made you realize she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“General, good to see you, sir,” Zomulin said respectfully, glancing away from her display for a moment and then going right back to it.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor replied, nodding slightly. “Everything ready?”

“Would we be ten minutes from drop if it weren’t?” Zomulin asked wryly. She paused, and then glanced up at him, her cheeks reddening slightly. “My apologies, sir.”

“Not at all, Admiral,” Belfamor replied with a small smile. “It was a stupid question.” Kryla gave him a small smile in return, and turned her attention back to the display attached to the command chair.

Belfamor found his seat at the back of the bridge and observed the crew as they prepared for the drop. Unlike everyone else in the fleet, he had absolutely nothing left to do. His job had been to plan for this operation. Now that the planning phase was done and it was about to commence, there wasn’t anything else for him to do. In fact, he probably should have stayed behind on Revellia, but he was too personally invested in this mission to sit around and wait for the outcome. Besides, he did have one more task he intended to accomplish.

“Drop in ten seconds!” announced the navigation officer, interrupting Belfamor’s musings. A few seconds later, there was the familiar shudder and kaleidoscope effect, and Decimator and the rest of the fleet were on their way. Belfamor sighed in satisfaction as he watched the mesmerizing colors on the viewscreen. There was no turning back now.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 29

“No, Father,” Shala said gently. “There was a hovercar accident when I was eight, but it was Mother who died, not me.” She was proud of how steady her voice was. Deep down inside, she was screaming at herself to stop, yelling that she should take the love her father had already shown her and be happy with it, even if it was directed toward a woman who’d been dead for 30 years. But she couldn’t do that. Now that she knew her father was capable of showing love, she needed to know that he could love her for who she was.

“I…I don’t understand,” Neminatrix said, a small frown creasing his forehead. “How can you be Shala? I…I love you. I…desire you! But…you’re my daughter? How can that be?”

“I know it’s difficult to understand, Father,” Shala began gently, but Neminatrix cut her off.

“Stop calling me that!” he yelled, pushing her away roughly and clutching his head. “You…you’re wrong! You’re not Shala! Shala is dead! Shala is dead, and I killed her!” There was a silence as Shala stared at him, comprehension dawning on her face.

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” she said quietly. “All these years, you’ve blamed yourself for Mother’s death, and instead of dealing with your grief, you took it out on me.”

“Don’t…don’t be ridiculous,” Neminatrix stammered, looking away from her. “Why would I blame myself? Shala needed to die!”

“Why?” Shala moved so that she was facing him again, staring at him intently. “What did Shala do?”

“She…she…,” Neminatrix hesitated, a look of intense anguish appearing on his face, and he seemed to be battling with himself about whatever he was thinking of saying. Finally he screamed, “IT WAS HER FAULT THAT TRINIA DIED!”

Shala’s eyes widened, but she refused to relent. She needed to get to the bottom of this. “How was it Shala’s fault?” she asked in a quiet, intense voice.

“If it…if it hadn’t been for Shala,” Neminatrix began, breathing heavily, staring off into the distance, every word seeming as if it was being wrenched from deep in his soul, “Trinia…she would never have been…in that hovercar! She was…she was going to meet with a new tutor for Shala. If Shala had never been born, the accident would never have happened!”

“I see,” Shala said softly. She was silent for a moment, and then she said in the same soft voice, “Did you know that I blamed you for Mother’s death?” Neminatrix started and stared at her with wide eyes. “Yes,” Shala said. “You were such a monster to me, that I thought for sure that you must have had Mother murdered because she was the only obstacle keeping you away from me.” Shala continued to speak very quietly, but a fire blazed in her eyes as she spoke.

“I…I loved your mother, with all of my heart,” Neminatrix rasped hoarsely. “I would never have done anything to hurt her.” He stared blankly off into space for a moment, and then his eyes slowly focused on Shala. “You really are Shala, aren’t you?” Shala nodded. He stared blankly at her for a moment, and then a look of utter horror crept across his face. “By the One,” he whispered, “what have I done?” And then, so suddenly it made Shala jump, he let a howl of pain and rage and sorrow all mixed together.

“WHAT HAVE I DONE!?” he screamed, falling to his knees and raising his hands beseechingly toward the ceiling.

“Father!” shouted Shala, taken aback. “What is wrong?”

“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix said, his voice breaking and a look of such sorrow appearing on his face that Shala almost burst into tears at the sight of it. “How can you say that? I’ve spent almost your entire life treating you like trash, and you ask me what’s wrong? How can you be so innocent after all I’ve done to you?”

“Oh, Father,” Shala said softly.

“When your mother died, it broke me,” Neminatrix whispered. “I blamed you for her death, but I also thought I could use you as a replacement. I hated you and loved you at the same time. But when Belfamor stole you away, it shattered what little grasp on reality I had left. I became convinced that you had died and that Trinia had lived, but that Belfamor Hemetal had kidnapped her. And now… Now there’s only one thing I can do.”

He stood up slowly, wavering slightly as he did so. He glanced around vaguely for a moment, and then his gaze hardened and he strode forward, toward the soldier holding his sword. He gestured for it, and the soldier handed it to him with a slight frown.

“Father,” Shala began in a worried voice, “what are you-” and then she broke off suddenly and screamed, “NO!” because her father had turned the point of the sword toward his own stomach and was about to plunge it in. She leapt up and grabbed his arms before he could do so, struggling with all her might to keep him from ending his life.

“What are you doing, Shala?” he yelled, his voice straining as he fought against her. “This is the only way! I don’t deserve to live!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Shala yelled back, angry and terrified. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything else is for my father to love me! Don’t take that away from me now, when I know it’s possible! If you want to atone for your sins, then live! Killing yourself now would just be the last and greatest brutality you could afflict me with.” Slowly, the import of Shala’s words sunk into Neminatrix’s brain, and he gradually stopped struggling, allowing Shala to wrest the sword away from him and hand it back to the soldier, who looked utterly bemused by the whole scene.

“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix sighed, and suddenly he began to weep. “My poor, little Shala. How can you ever forgive me for the torment I’ve put you through?”

“I don’t know, Father,” Shala murmured, wrapping her arms around him and stroking his hair. “But I do. Oh, I do.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 28

Fear and loathing waged war in Shala’s heart as Jefmin Lakatai reached for her. She tried to pull away, but he grabbed her shoulders tightly and wouldn’t let her move. She struggled for all she was worth, but it was no use. He was just too strong for her. He bent down and kissed her roughly on the mouth. She struggled mightily to escape his grasp, but there was simply nothing he could do. Panic began to well up inside her. Wasn’t it bad enough that she’d spent most of her life being raped by her father? Was she going to have to suffer through being raped by this pig, as well?

Suddenly, the door to Lakatai’s office slid open. Lakatai growled and let go of Shala brusquely. “I gave strict orders not to be disturbed!” he yelled sourly. “What is going-,” but as he looked up, Shala saw all the color drain from his face, and she quickly turned around to see who it was.

Her father.

“This can’t be!” Lakatai whispered, his eyes bulging out of his head.

“Oh, but it can,” Neminatrix replied in a cold, hard voice. He stepped into the room, and Shala could see that he was carrying a long, slightly curved sword in his right hand

“Who betrayed me?” Lakatai hissed, fear and anger warring for supremacy in his voice.

“Betrayed you?” Neminatrix bellowed, astounded. “You are talking about my soldiers! They were never loyal to you!” Then he threw back his head and laughed, a harsh, grating laugh with no mirth in it whatsoever. “You thought you had me fooled. You thought you were taking advantage of my weakness. But you were blinded by your ambition. All along, I’m the one who’s been fooling you! I made you think that you were slowly grasping control of the IAF away from me, but in reality, this whole time I’ve been feeding you the rope that you just hung yourself with.” As he spoke, he advanced menacingly on Lakatai, sword held extended to his side.

“Your Majesty,” Lakatai began, and he dropped to his knees as he spoke. It was clear the gravity of his situation had hit him, if a few minutes too late. “I beg your forgiveness. Please, I meant her no harm. I just brought her down here for a friendly chat. I didn’t even touch her!” Shala’s eyes widened at this blatant lie, and she opened her mouth to speak, but her father beat her to it.

“Liar,” Neminatrix hissed, spitting on Lakatai’s face. “How stupid do you think I am? I can see the mark of your hand on her face. You were kissing her when I walked in the door!” He advanced closer, until he was looming menacingly over Lakatai’s trembling body. He was silent for a moment, glaring down at Lakatai with a look of pure disgust and furious rage. In this brief lull, Shala glanced over at the door of Lakatai’s office, and saw that the corridor beyond was filled with soldiers, dressed in full battle armor, clutching assault rifles, and watching the proceedings in the ISS Master’s office with great interest. With a shiver, Shala hoped they really were as loyal to her father as he thought they were.

“You were a useful tool, Lakatai,” Neminatrix said, his voice dripping with contempt and hatred. “Without you, I would have had a much harder time ousting my predecessors. But a tool is all you ever were. And when a tool has outlived its usefulness, then it can only be destroyed.”

“No! Wait!” Lakatai screamed desperately as Neminatrix raised the sword over his head, but before he could say anything else, Neminatrix swiftly brought the sword down and severed Lakatai’s head from his body. The head rolled toward Shala as blood spurted out of Lakatai’s neck, and Shala gave it a look of satisfied loathing before she kicked it away.

“Good riddance,” she spat, and then a broad smile split her face. “You showed up just in the nick of time,” she said to her father. Her father looked at her, and a matching smile appeared on his face.

“Did you really think I would ever let anything bad happen to you?” he said cheerfully, but there was an undercurrent of pain in his voice. Shala’s smile faded slightly, and she held her arms out for a hug. Neminatrix’s smile grew warmer, and he handed his sword to a nearby soldier before he wrapped his arms around her.

“I love you, Trinia,” he said quietly.

“I love you, too,” she replied, and then, before she could stop herself, she added, “Father.”

She could feel his body freeze against hers, and then he slowly pulled away from her with a very strange look on his face. “What did you say?” he asked quietly. Shala froze for a moment, horror filling her soul. Did she really want to go through with this? He’d just protected her, maybe even saved her life. He’d proved that he cared about her, but then he didn’t even know who she really was. In his mind, he’d just saved his wife from being raped, not his daughter. What if she convinced him that she wasn’t Trinia, only for him to go back to beating and raping her? Could she live with that? Was it worth the risk?

“I said, I love you, Father,” she said softly, deciding that it was, indeed, worth the risk. If her father was going to love her, he needed to love her as a father, not as a husband, for his own good as much as hers.

“Why are you calling me that?” Neminatrix asked with a worried chuckle. “I’m your husband, not your father. I know I haven’t been a very good husband, but that’s still a pretty bizarre joke.”

“It’s not a joke, Father,” Shala said, shaking her head slightly. “I am not Trinia. I’m Shala. Your daughter.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Neminatrix said with a tremulous smile. “Shala is dead. She died in a hovercar accident when she was eight years old.”

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 27

Shala was nervous but excited as she waited in her quarters for her father to come get her. She couldn’t even quite imagine what having dinner with her father would be like. Of course, she’d “dined” with him in the past, but on those occasions, she’d been expected to wait on him and wasn’t allowed to eat anything but scraps. It wasn’t as if they’d ever actually sat at a table together and eaten and conversed like two normal people.

She was still pacing and pondering when the chime sounded, letting her know that someone was requesting access to her quarters. She glanced at the clock and frowned. 1807. It seemed a little early for her father to be here, but maybe he was just as eager as she was. She shrugged and opened the door, and scowled once it slid open and she saw who was on the other side.

“Jefmin Lakatai,” she said, as if she was describing a dead and decaying slug.

“Now, now,” Lakatai replied in his oily, unctuous voice, “what have we discussed about manners?”

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, still not bothering to hide the disgust she felt towards him.

“Coming to take you to dinner with your father, of course,” he said with a satisfied sneer.

“Why you?” she asked suspiciously. “Why not him?”

“He has a big surprise waiting for you,” Lakatai replied, his sneer deepening. “He wants to be in the room when you see it, so he can see your face.”

“I don’t trust you,” Shala said, a matching sneer appearing on her face.

“You don’t have to trust me,” Lakatai said with a shrug. “But your father trusts me, and you seem to be getting along a lot better with him lately, so I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just come with me.” Shala hesitated, and Lakatai rolled his eyes irritably. “What do you think is going to happen between here and your father’s quarters?”

Shala frowned at this, but then she shrugged. “I suppose you have a point. Very well. Lead the way.” Lakatai gave her an oily smile and an insincere bow, and then turned and walked out of her quarters.

There were twenty heavily armed soldiers outside her quarters, and they made a ring around her as she followed Lakatai down the corridor. Who is my father so afraid for? said a voice in the back of her head, but she didn’t voice that question out loud. She had a sneaking suspicion that Jefmin Lakatai was that person. Then why are you going with him? the voice said again, but she ignored it. Lakatai wouldn’t try anything right now anyway. Not with her father expecting her for dinner. Besides, if Lakatai really was up to something nefarious, he could have removed her from her quarters by force.

Regardless, Shala’s sneaking suspicions of dread grew deeper as they made their way through the corridors of the Imperial Palace, farther and farther away from the Emperor’s quarters. In fact, they seemed to be headed toward the ISS barracks, which did nothing to allay Shala’s fears. As Lakatai was the Master of the ISS, that meant they were headed into the heart of his domain.

“Um, shouldn’t we be going to my father’s quarters?” she asked Lakatai tentatively. He glanced back at her with a dismissive leer.

“Don’t worry, we’re taking the long way,” he said as he turned away from her. “I need to check on something in my office first.”

Shala frowned at Lakatai’s back. It could be true. It also likely wasn’t. Why would he have shown up early to escort her to dinner, only to take her to the ISS barracks first? The ISS barracks were about as far from the Emperor’s quarters as it was possible to get and still be in the Imperial Palace. And what could he possibly have to check before he took her to her father? In any case, it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t like there was much she could do, surrounded by 20 heavily armed soldiers.

Lakatai led her into the ISS barracks, and from there to his office. At the door, he nodded to the soldier leading the escort, and then grabbed Shala by the arm and pulled her into the room. She pulled back in surprise, but he was stronger than her and dragged her past the threshold before he let go. The door slid shut with a snap, leaving her alone with Lakatai.

“What are we doing in here?” she demanded. Her voice was angry, but there was a icy feeling of fear growing in the pit of her stomach.

“Oh, I thought it would be nice to have a little appetizer before dinner,” Lakatai said with a nasty leer.

The icy feeling in Shala’s gut grew exponentially stronger at this, but she managed not to let it show. Instead she sneered, “You really are an idiot, aren’t you? Do you really think my father will allow this to go unpunished?”

“Your father is irrelevant,” Lakatai said in cold satisfaction. “I rule the Empire in all but name, now. He’s spent all of his energy finding and coddling you, and meanwhile, little by little, I’ve taken control of the IAF. Right now, your father is sitting in his quarters waiting for you, and my soldiers are going to make sure he stays there.” He drew closer to her and reached out his hand to stroke her cheek, but she drew back sharply and spat at him. He chuckled nastily, and then casually backhanded her across the face.

“You really are stubborn, aren’t you?” he said, a look of ugly hunger appearing on his face as he gazed at her. “Even here, in the very heart of my power, surrounded by soldiers loyal to me, you insist on defying me. So be it. The more you fight, the more fun this will be.”

Shala stared at him with undisguised loathing, rubbing her cheek where he’d hit her. She’d never thought that she could possibly hate anyone more than her father, but at this moment, she wanted nothing more than to find something long and sharp, and stab it deep into Jefmin Lakatai’s flabby gut.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 26

Shala smiled as she admired her new hairdo in the mirror. The Imperial Palace’s stylists really were quite good. Her thick, brown hair was notoriously hard to manage, but the women sent to her quarters by the Emperor had done an admirable job taming it. The smile on her face felt odd but natural, and the fact that it felt natural at all was itself odd. She wasn’t sure she’d ever smiled while in the same building as her father before, but something had changed about him. He was still utterly insane, but his insanity no longer took the form of raping and beating her. Instead, he lavished gifts and attention on her. It was still disconcerting, as Neminatrix was obviously convinced that Shala was his deceased wife, but it was definitely an improvement.

Her smile faded as she looked down at the clothes she was wearing. Actually, to call them clothes was something of an exaggeration. She wouldn’t have been much more exposed if she’d been naked. And it wasn’t even as if this ridiculous lingerie was in any way flattering. Shala had never been one who people considered pretty, and carrying a child plus the normal aging process had done nothing to improve her figure. She didn’t feel sexy or beautiful or anything like that in these outfits. Instead, she felt more like a particularly lumpy potato with scraps of lacy silk attached. She’d asked her father several more times for some decent clothing, but every time he’d smiled and told her that, since she couldn’t leave her quarters, she had no use for normal clothing. Which was better than being beaten for asking, but still frustrating.

Even so, all things considered, being on Trisitania was at least a thousand times less horrible than she’d expected it to be, especially considering how the first week had gone. There was still a nagging fear in the back of her mind that at some point, something would snap in Neminatrix’s head, and he’d go back to being the evil bastard that she remembered, but for the first time in her life, Shala felt like maybe there was hope that she could teach her father how to be a real father. She just needed to convince him that she was really his daughter, not his wife.

A chime sounded, and a second later, the door slid open and her father entered the room. That in and of itself was a change. As a child, and even as an adult until recently, there was no way that Neminatrix would have announced himself at all. He would have just barged in without any warning. Before she’d married Belfamor, Shala had never had any idea what it was like to have privacy.

“Ah, there’s my rosebud,” Neminatrix said warmly, a broad smile spreading across his face at the sight of her. He was carrying a package under his arm, and he reached out and handed it to her as he approached. “I brought you something.”

“Another present?” Shala asked, feigning irritation. “Your Majesty, if you keep lavishing gifts on me, there won’t be any room in these quarters for me to walk!”

“Oh, well, if you don’t want it, I can certainly take it away,” he said with a shrug, “but I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. I have a feeling that you’ll really regret it if you don’t accept it.” He made as if to leave, but his eyes were twinkling.

“Oh, give me that,” Shala said, snatching the package from him. Pretending to be annoyed, but with an eager smile on her face, she unwrapped the package and opened it up, and then gasped at what was inside.

“Oh my goodness,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful!” She reached in, pulled it out, and held it up. It was the most magnificent dress she had ever seen. It was red with gold accents, sparkling with jewels that were somehow tasteful, not gaudy. And, perhaps most exciting of all, it had a floor-length skirt and a high neckline.

“Do you like it?” Neminatrix asked with a slightly nervous smile.

“I love it!” Shala exclaimed, her face beaming. “But, why? You’ve refused me modest clothes for weeks now. Why the change of heart all of a sudden?”

“Well, I realized that if I’m going to convince you that I’ve changed, forcing you to wear lingerie all the time might not be the best way to go about it,” he said, his cheeks turning slightly pink.

“Thank you,” she said shyly, and then, impulsively, she rose from her seat and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Neminatrix’s cheeks turned bright red then, and his smile grew even broader.

“Well? Go try it on!” he exclaimed, waving her towards the bathroom. “I want to make sure it fits!” Shala bowed her head, gathered up the dress, and made her way to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she emerged in the dress, a radiant smile on her face. She even twirled like a little girl pretending to be a princess as she crossed the bedroom back to her father. For the first time in her life, she felt like a princess, and even better, like a little girl whose daddy loved her.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said in a shy, excited voice, and there were tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke.

“It certainly is,” Neminatrix replied, and there were tears starting to appear in his eyes as well. “Would you…would you like to have dinner with me tonight? In my quarters?” Shala stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment.

“You mean…leave my quarters?” she said hesitantly. “I thought you didn’t trust your men.”

“I don’t,” Neminatrix replied with a small frown. “At least not all of them. But I think I can muster together an escort of trustworthy guards to take you from here to my quarters. That is, if you would like to come?”

“I would love it,” Shala said, grinning eagerly.

“Excellent!” Neminatrix said brightly, clapping his hands together. “I will be here at 1830 to get you. Make sure you’re ready!” He hesitated, as if he wanted to say or do something else, but then he shook his head slightly and left her quarters.

To be continued…

Culmination, Part 25

“You’re kidding me,” Arcten said, his voice flat with disbelief.

“No, I’m not,” Hana replied firmly. “This is what Starfengt exists for. I built the best teams of assassins in the galaxy so I would have the opportunity to hunt Neminatrix down and punish him for what he did to my father. I am NOT going to let this opportunity pass me by just because it might be a little dangerous!” Her eyes were ablaze as she spoke, and she kept creeping closer and closer to Arcten, so by the time she finished, she was standing practically toe-to-toe with him. Arcten stared at her impassively, huge arms folded across his broad chest, and once she finished, he just continued staring silently.

“Xeliana!” Hana barked, not taking her eyes off of Arcten. “Contact the rest of the team. Tell them to break off their exercises and assemble here immediately. We depart for Trisitania in one hour.” Xeliana saluted sharply and ran off, leaving Hana and Arcten to their staring contest.

“What are you going to do, Arcten?” Hana whispered, never taking her eyes off of Arcten’s.

“I will follow you to the deepest depths of Nerzaga,” Arcten whispered back. “You know that.”

“Do I?” Hana replied, and the tone of her voice almost made Arcten’s heart break, although he didn’t show it on his face. “You just punched me so hard it knocked me unconscious.”

“I had to do that,” Arcten said, his face unchanged but his voice cracking slightly. “You were trying to do something that I knew you would regret later. I had to stop you, for your own sake.”

“You knocked me out me for my own sake?” Hana asked, a small smirk appearing on her face.

“Everything I do is for your sake,” Arcten replied, his expression unchanged. Hana’s smirk disappeared, and she sighed deeply.

“I know,” she said, her expression a mix between sorrow and affection. “Believe me, I know.” She turned away and folded her arms across her chest.

“Hana,” said Arcten suddenly, and she turned back to him. “Please reconsider this decision.”

“I can’t, Arcten,” she whispered, tears appearing in her eyes. “You know I can’t.” She shook her head and turned away again. Arcten regarded her in silence for a few moments, and then he stood up straight and saluted.

“Very well, sir!” he barked. “I will prepare the team for departure immediately.” Then he strode out of the holding cell area, leaving Hana alone with dark thoughts.

***

Forty-five minutes later, the team had assembled and was ready for departure. Hana smiled inwardly as she looked over the 11 of them, lined up and waiting to load up into Fluttermask. They really were the best troops in the galaxy. To go from training and thinking they had weeks left to prepare, to being ready to depart and fight in less than hour, was a feat that no regular soldiers could match.

“Listen up!” she barked in her best “commander” voice, striding back and forth in front of her troops. “I know that we weren’t scheduled to depart for Trisitania for a few more weeks, but the Empire’s civil war has forced our hand. We’ve received reports the so-called Emperor, Valador, has dispatched a fleet to invade Trisitania and put an end to our target, the other so-called Emperor, Neminatrix. So if we want to be the ones to kill Neminatrix, then we need to move now!” She fell silent, and fixed each one of the Starfengt members with a piercing stare.

“You might be wondering why we’re even bothering,” she continued in a firm voice. “If Valador is going to invade Trisitania, why don’t we just let Valador take care of Neminatrix?” She fell silent again, and once again made sure to look all 11 assassins in the eye. “Because we are Starfengt. Because we are the best, and we are not going to just let the Empire do our work for us. It is our job to strike fear in the hearts of Fangalin’s enemies, and what better way to do that then by killing an emperor in the middle of a war zone?” Her striding back and forth became more energized now, her speech becoming faster and louder. “We will send a message to Valador, and to all the leaders of all the nations that oppose us! You are not safe from us! We will find you, even in the heart of your most fortified refuge, and we will break you! And when you think you are about to win a great victory, we will slip in under your nose and steal it from you!”

She stopped and fell silent once more, a fire raging in her eyes. “We are the best soldiers that have ever lived,” she said in a quiet, intense voice, “and we will prove it.” She paused again, and then she thrust her right fist into the air. “To victory!” she bellowed.

“To victory!” came the response from 11 men and women, their right fists thrust into the air as well. Hana nodded sharply, and 10 of them rushed up the ramp into the ship. Arcten, however, approached Hana as she was about to follow them.

“Gonna try and change my mind again, Arcten?” Hana asked skeptically.

“Of course not,” Arcten replied. “I know when I’ve lost. I just wanted to tell you something.”

“What?” asked Hana, one eyebrow raised quizzically. Arcten took her by the arms and gazed deep into her eyes.

“I’m proud of you,” he said quietly.

“Proud of me?” Hana said, her puzzlement deepening. “Why?”

“Because nobody thought you would ever come to this point,” he replied. “Nobody believed that you could build the finest team of assassins in the galaxy. Nobody but me. And you proved them all wrong. Starfengt is feared by all of Fangalin’s enemies, and if we pull this off, that reputation will only become greater. We’re on the verge of accomplishing what you set out to do 10 years ago, and I couldn’t be happier to have been by your side every step of the way.”

“Thank you, Arcten,” Hana replied, and her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “That means everything to me. And we WILL pull this off. I promise you. Our victory over the Empire will be a thing that future generations will tell stories about for a thousand years.”

To be continued…