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…