Ilena Hemetal had been sitting in her bedroom staring at her tablet for at least 15 minutes, trying to read something without having any idea what it said. She was reading to try and distract herself from the activity she knew was happening down the hall from her, but it clearly wasn’t working. She finally took a deep breath, tossed the tablet on her bed, and stood up to stroll over to the window and stare out at the rare sunny, blue sky that was lighting up the city of Heretoral.
She knew that, in many ways, she was incredibly lucky. Born a commoner on a planet dominated by the nobility, her marriage to Lorgad Hemetal had opened up opportunities that she couldn’t have dreamed of as a child. It didn’t hurt that Lorgad himself was a wonderful man, with whom she was deeply in love. But being a noble meant obligations as well as privileges, and one of those obligations was to take advantage of every possible opportunity to enhance the wealth, prestige, and power of one’s house.
For Ilena Hemetal, as for so many others in her situation, that obligation meant sharing her spouse with another. Under Imperial law, a person could only be married to one other person at a time. So in order for House Hemetal to make a marriage alliance with House Votalin, Ilena had been forced to, at least legally, give up her husband. It was a decision that she and Lorgad had made jointly, and up until now, it hadn’t really changed anything. Although a commoner by birth, Ilena’s marriage to Lorgad Hemetal made her officially a member of House Hemetal (which did not change now that she and Lorgad were legally divorced), and so she had an obligation to do whatever she could to benefit the House. It was a sacrifice she had been willing to make, but until now, she had been able to convince herself that Lorgad and Shala wouldn’t necessarily need to consummate their marriage.
Erelesk Votalin’s imminent attack on Endragar changed everything. Every sign indicated that his assault would be successful, and if so, House Votalin would occupy the Imperial Throne in truth. That greatly increased the advantage House Hemetal would gain from their alliance with House Votalin, and as Shala was the heir to the Throne, it was prudent for Hemetal to make sure that Shala got pregnant. Any children that Shala had would also be in line to inherit the Throne, and although such children would be members of House Votalin, not Hemetal, there still would be a connection with Hemetal that would greatly be to their benefit.
Ilena knew all that. She knew it was her duty as the spouse of the head of House Hemetal to sacrifice for the good of the House. She knew Lorgad loved her, not Shala, and she knew that Shala was as much a slave to duty as she was. But none of that made the waiting any easier.
She started as the door to her bedroom opened behind her. Whirling around, she was surprised and pleased to see Lorgad entering the room. If he was back so soon, maybe she had refused him. Just as quickly though, she felt ashamed of her pleasure. Her duty to her House needed to come before her own personal feelings.
“Back so soon?” she said, trying to keep the glee out of her voice.
“So it would seem,” he said wryly. “It turns out that the situation is a bit different than we anticipated, and out plans will have to be altered accordingly.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, puzzled.
“Thanks to the tender care of her father, or rather, the lack thereof, Shala Votalin is unable to have children,” he said, and plopped down in his favorite chair with a heavy sigh. Ilena put her hands up against her mouth in horror.
“Oh, that poor child,” she whispered. And just like that, all of the resentment and jealousy she’d harbored toward Shala Votalin disappeared, to be replaced by sympathy and compassion.
“Undoubtedly,” Lorgad said, rubbing his eyes wearily. “I want to do something to help her, but I don’t know what that could be. I hesitate to do anything that would be construed as defying Erelesk. He is a violent and capricious man, and I do believe he still considers Shala his property. I suspect that he has been coming here without my permission and in secret to continue his abuse, but I have no proof of that, and I dare not confront him without rock solid evidence. Even then, I’m not sure I’d dare, now that he’s on the verge of having the full might of the ISS behind him.”
“We need to do something, though,” Ilena said, arms folded across her chest in determination. “What if it was as simple as moving her quarters? If we did it secretly, not only would she be safe the next time he shows up, but we might even be able to catch him.” Lorgad frowned thoughtfully.
“I agree with the first part of your plan,” he said, “but I hesitate to endorse the second. House Hemetal has thrown its lot in with that of House Votalin wholeheartedly. If it became public knowledge that Emperor Neminatrix IV was an incestuous child molester, it might cause a backlash that would bring down both our houses. Assuming Erelesk lets us live long enough to go public.”
“Hmmm,” Ilena said with a scowl. “I suppose you’re right. I hate to let that pig get away with his crimes, but we’ve kind of boxed ourselves in here, haven’t we?” She sat down next to him with a weary sigh. “By the One, I hate this game we play sometimes.”
“The game of Houses?” Lorgad asked with a smirk. “Well, that’s the price you pay for marrying a noble. Are you saying you regret marrying me?”
“Never,” Ilena said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “I wouldn’t go back to being a commoner for anything. Promise me one thing, though?”
“Anything,” he said with a tender smile.
“Do whatever you can to keep Erelesk Votalin away from his daughter,” she said, gazing at him earnestly.
“In the name of the One, as long as it doesn’t endanger you, our children, or House Hemetal, I will do it,” he replied solemnly.
To be continued…