The journey back to Hibellia was a somber affair. Everyone onboard the transport ship felt the weight of what had happened on Trisitania. Even Shala, who was almost giddy at the thought of escaping from her father for good, couldn’t help but feel subdued at the thought that Ilena and her daughters were still trapped in the Imperial Palace. She knew it was irrational, but she still felt like everything that had happened to the Hemetal family was her fault. If she’d just gone to Trisitania with Lorgad in the first place, he would still be alive, and Ilena and her daughters would still be living their lives in peace on Infanalis. She wanted to talk to Belfamor, and have him tell her that she was being foolish, but he was in no mood to talk. She wasn’t sure she would have believed him anyway.
As for Belfamor, he felt like a complete and utter failure. This had been the first operation that he had planned and led on his own, and it had been a disaster. On one level, he knew that casualties happened during war, and that military operations very rarely went perfectly. He also knew that removing Shala from Neminatrix’s clutches was a huge victory, both personally and for the Emperor that he now served. But he couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that he’d failed to rescue his mother and sisters, and two of the soldiers under his command had died in the process.
As for Captain Vondric and the other soldiers, they were thoroughly infected by their commander’s bleak mood. Losing comrades in battle was never easy to deal with, but the war had been going long enough that every single soldier in the transport ship had experienced it at least once. And kidnapping a rival emperor’s daughter was certainly a great victory, especially since she’d already shown a willingness to denounce her father’s rule. But it was hard to feel good about the operation when it was obvious that their commander was so depressed about it.
So it was that they arrived on Hibellia. Vondric and the other soldiers returned to their regular units, and Belfamor escorted Shala to her quarters in the IAF Command Complex. They made their way through the corridors without a word, and as the door to her quarters slid open and she stepped inside, she wondered for a moment if he was ever going to speak to her again. But he stepped inside as well, and the door slid shut behind him as he stood there with a worried frown on his face.
“Shala, I…,” he began, and stopped. He paused for a moment, while she looked at him expectantly, and then he spoke again. “I’m sorry. I know you think that everything that’s happened is your fault, and I haven’t done a very good job of addressing that.” The frown on his face disappeared, and he gazed at her intently. “I want to be as clear as I possibly can: you are not to blame for anything that happened. You are a victim here, even more so than my mother and sisters. Everything that has happened, happened because your father is a monster. You cannot blame yourself for his twisted desires.”
She stared at him with a gaze as intent as his for a long time, and then she let out a deep sigh and collapsed on the couch. As soon as she hit the couch, she immediately began sobbing. “Why did he do this, Belfamor?” she said between sobs. “Why does he hate me so much? I’ve tried so hard my whole life to get him to love me, to show him that I’m a good girl, someone he can be proud of! Why isn’t it good enough?”
As soon as she began sobbing, Belfamor sat down on the couch and wrapped his arms tightly around her. “I don’t know,” he said soothingly, his voice hoarse. “I don’t know what’s wrong with your father. But I do know this. You are not the reason. There’s nothing you could have done differently. You are a beautiful, wonderful woman, who deserves to be treated with love and respect, and the fact that your father has treated you so horribly, only proves that he is a monster. It says nothing about your worth as a person.” She buried her face deeply in his chest, and sobbed even harder.
For a long time, they sat like that, with her sobbing and him stroking her hair gently and holding her close to him. Finally, her sobs started to slow, and she looked up at him wonderingly, with tear stains on her cheeks and red-rimmed eyes. “What is wrong with you?” she said, half accusing and half wondering.
“What do you mean?” Belfamor asked with a confused smile.
“Why are you so wonderful to me?” she said, closing her eyes and shaking her head with a bemused smile. “I keep thinking that there must be something horribly wrong with you, because it’s so hard for me to imagine that you really are who you seem to be and that you treat me with so much kindness and love. I’m so used to being neglected and abused that it’s normal for me. That’s how normal people act, in my mind. But you don’t. Therefore, you must not be normal.” She looked up at him with a crooked grin, but it didn’t hide the pain in her eyes. He looked back at her tenderly, and caressed her hair gently.
“I don’t know if I’m normal or not,” he said with a warm smile, “but I do know I’m not faking how I feel about you. And, I know that the way you’ve been treated is not normal. Nobody deserves the abuse you’ve experienced, and if I have my way, you will never experience it again.”
Once again, she buried her face in his chest and snuggled tightly against him. “Thank you, Belfamor,” she said, her voice muffled. “I will never forget anything you’ve done for me.”
To be continued…