Shala smiled as she admired her new hairdo in the mirror. The Imperial Palace’s stylists really were quite good. Her thick, brown hair was notoriously hard to manage, but the women sent to her quarters by the Emperor had done an admirable job taming it. The smile on her face felt odd but natural, and the fact that it felt natural at all was itself odd. She wasn’t sure she’d ever smiled while in the same building as her father before, but something had changed about him. He was still utterly insane, but his insanity no longer took the form of raping and beating her. Instead, he lavished gifts and attention on her. It was still disconcerting, as Neminatrix was obviously convinced that Shala was his deceased wife, but it was definitely an improvement.
Her smile faded as she looked down at the clothes she was wearing. Actually, to call them clothes was something of an exaggeration. She wouldn’t have been much more exposed if she’d been naked. And it wasn’t even as if this ridiculous lingerie was in any way flattering. Shala had never been one who people considered pretty, and carrying a child plus the normal aging process had done nothing to improve her figure. She didn’t feel sexy or beautiful or anything like that in these outfits. Instead, she felt more like a particularly lumpy potato with scraps of lacy silk attached. She’d asked her father several more times for some decent clothing, but every time he’d smiled and told her that, since she couldn’t leave her quarters, she had no use for normal clothing. Which was better than being beaten for asking, but still frustrating.
Even so, all things considered, being on Trisitania was at least a thousand times less horrible than she’d expected it to be, especially considering how the first week had gone. There was still a nagging fear in the back of her mind that at some point, something would snap in Neminatrix’s head, and he’d go back to being the evil bastard that she remembered, but for the first time in her life, Shala felt like maybe there was hope that she could teach her father how to be a real father. She just needed to convince him that she was really his daughter, not his wife.
A chime sounded, and a second later, the door slid open and her father entered the room. That in and of itself was a change. As a child, and even as an adult until recently, there was no way that Neminatrix would have announced himself at all. He would have just barged in without any warning. Before she’d married Belfamor, Shala had never had any idea what it was like to have privacy.
“Ah, there’s my rosebud,” Neminatrix said warmly, a broad smile spreading across his face at the sight of her. He was carrying a package under his arm, and he reached out and handed it to her as he approached. “I brought you something.”
“Another present?” Shala asked, feigning irritation. “Your Majesty, if you keep lavishing gifts on me, there won’t be any room in these quarters for me to walk!”
“Oh, well, if you don’t want it, I can certainly take it away,” he said with a shrug, “but I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. I have a feeling that you’ll really regret it if you don’t accept it.” He made as if to leave, but his eyes were twinkling.
“Oh, give me that,” Shala said, snatching the package from him. Pretending to be annoyed, but with an eager smile on her face, she unwrapped the package and opened it up, and then gasped at what was inside.
“Oh my goodness,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful!” She reached in, pulled it out, and held it up. It was the most magnificent dress she had ever seen. It was red with gold accents, sparkling with jewels that were somehow tasteful, not gaudy. And, perhaps most exciting of all, it had a floor-length skirt and a high neckline.
“Do you like it?” Neminatrix asked with a slightly nervous smile.
“I love it!” Shala exclaimed, her face beaming. “But, why? You’ve refused me modest clothes for weeks now. Why the change of heart all of a sudden?”
“Well, I realized that if I’m going to convince you that I’ve changed, forcing you to wear lingerie all the time might not be the best way to go about it,” he said, his cheeks turning slightly pink.
“Thank you,” she said shyly, and then, impulsively, she rose from her seat and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Neminatrix’s cheeks turned bright red then, and his smile grew even broader.
“Well? Go try it on!” he exclaimed, waving her towards the bathroom. “I want to make sure it fits!” Shala bowed her head, gathered up the dress, and made her way to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she emerged in the dress, a radiant smile on her face. She even twirled like a little girl pretending to be a princess as she crossed the bedroom back to her father. For the first time in her life, she felt like a princess, and even better, like a little girl whose daddy loved her.
“It’s gorgeous,” she said in a shy, excited voice, and there were tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke.
“It certainly is,” Neminatrix replied, and there were tears starting to appear in his eyes as well. “Would you…would you like to have dinner with me tonight? In my quarters?” Shala stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment.
“You mean…leave my quarters?” she said hesitantly. “I thought you didn’t trust your men.”
“I don’t,” Neminatrix replied with a small frown. “At least not all of them. But I think I can muster together an escort of trustworthy guards to take you from here to my quarters. That is, if you would like to come?”
“I would love it,” Shala said, grinning eagerly.
“Excellent!” Neminatrix said brightly, clapping his hands together. “I will be here at 1830 to get you. Make sure you’re ready!” He hesitated, as if he wanted to say or do something else, but then he shook his head slightly and left her quarters.
To be continued…