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.”

“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. 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,” 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,” 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 relatives, 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,” 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 him 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…