Culmination, Part 27

Shala was nervous but excited as she waited in her quarters for her father to come get her. She couldn’t even quite imagine what having dinner with her father would be like. Of course, she’d “dined” with him in the past, but on those occasions, she’d been expected to wait on him and wasn’t allowed to eat anything but scraps. It wasn’t as if they’d ever actually sat at a table together and eaten and conversed like two normal people.

She was still pacing and pondering when the chime sounded, letting her know that someone was requesting access to her quarters. She glanced at the clock and frowned. 1807. It seemed a little early for her father to be here, but maybe he was just as eager as she was. She shrugged and opened the door, and scowled once it slid open and she saw who was on the other side.

“Jefmin Lakatai,” she said, as if she was describing a dead and decaying slug.

“Now, now,” Lakatai replied in his oily, unctuous voice, “what have we discussed about manners?”

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, still not bothering to hide the disgust she felt towards him.

“Coming to take you to dinner with your father, of course,” he said with a satisfied sneer.

“Why you?” she asked suspiciously. “Why not him?”

“He has a big surprise waiting for you,” Lakatai replied, his sneer deepening. “He wants to be in the room when you see it, so he can see your face.”

“I don’t trust you,” Shala said, a matching sneer appearing on her face.

“You don’t have to trust me,” Lakatai said with a shrug. “But your father trusts me, and you seem to be getting along a lot better with him lately, so I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just come with me.” Shala hesitated, and Lakatai rolled his eyes irritably. “What do you think is going to happen between here and your father’s quarters?”

Shala frowned at this, but then she shrugged. “I suppose you have a point. Very well. Lead the way.” Lakatai gave her an oily smile and an insincere bow, and then turned and walked out of her quarters.

There were twenty heavily armed soldiers outside her quarters, and they made a ring around her as she followed Lakatai down the corridor. Who is my father so afraid for? said a voice in the back of her head, but she didn’t voice that question out loud. She had a sneaking suspicion that Jefmin Lakatai was that person. Then why are you going with him? the voice said again, but she ignored it. Lakatai wouldn’t try anything right now anyway. Not with her father expecting her for dinner. Besides, if Lakatai really was up to something nefarious, he could have removed her from her quarters by force.

Regardless, Shala’s sneaking suspicions of dread grew deeper as they made their way through the corridors of the Imperial Palace, farther and farther away from the Emperor’s quarters. In fact, they seemed to be headed toward the ISS barracks, which did nothing to allay Shala’s fears. As Lakatai was the Master of the ISS, that meant they were headed into the heart of his domain.

“Um, shouldn’t we be going to my father’s quarters?” she asked Lakatai tentatively. He glanced back at her with a dismissive leer.

“Don’t worry, we’re taking the long way,” he said as he turned away from her. “I need to check on something in my office first.”

Shala frowned at Lakatai’s back. It could be true. It also likely wasn’t. Why would he have shown up early to escort her to dinner, only to take her to the ISS barracks first? The ISS barracks were about as far from the Emperor’s quarters as it was possible to get and still be in the Imperial Palace. And what could he possibly have to check before he took her to her father? In any case, it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t like there was much she could do, surrounded by 20 heavily armed soldiers.

Lakatai led her into the ISS barracks, and from there to his office. At the door, he nodded to the soldier leading the escort, and then grabbed Shala by the arm and pulled her into the room. She pulled back in surprise, but he was stronger than her and dragged her past the threshold before he let go. The door slid shut with a snap, leaving her alone with Lakatai.

“What are we doing in here?” she demanded. Her voice was angry, but there was a icy feeling of fear growing in the pit of her stomach.

“Oh, I thought it would be nice to have a little appetizer before dinner,” Lakatai said with a nasty leer.

The icy feeling in Shala’s gut grew exponentially stronger at this, but she managed not to let it show. Instead she sneered, “You really are an idiot, aren’t you? Do you really think my father will allow this to go unpunished?”

“Your father is irrelevant,” Lakatai said in cold satisfaction. “I rule the Empire in all but name, now. He’s spent all of his energy finding and coddling you, and meanwhile, little by little, I’ve taken control of the IAF. Right now, your father is sitting in his quarters waiting for you, and my soldiers are going to make sure he stays there.” He drew closer to her and reached out his hand to stroke her cheek, but she drew back sharply and spat at him. He chuckled nastily, and then casually backhanded her across the face.

“You really are stubborn, aren’t you?” he said, a look of ugly hunger appearing on his face as he gazed at her. “Even here, in the very heart of my power, surrounded by soldiers loyal to me, you insist on defying me. So be it. The more you fight, the more fun this will be.”

Shala stared at him with undisguised loathing, rubbing her cheek where he’d hit her. She’d never thought that she could possibly hate anyone more than her father, but at this moment, she wanted nothing more than to find something long and sharp, and stab it deep into Jefmin Lakatai’s flabby gut.

To be continued…

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