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…

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