“No, Father,” Shala said gently. “There was a hovercar accident when I was eight, but it was Mother who died, not me.” She was proud of how steady her voice was. Deep down inside, she was screaming at herself to stop, yelling that she should take the love her father had already shown her and be happy with it, even if it was directed toward a woman who’d been dead for 30 years. But she couldn’t do that. Now that she knew her father was capable of showing love, she needed to know that he could love her for who she was.
“I…I don’t understand,” Neminatrix said, a small frown creasing his forehead. “How can you be Shala? I…I love you. I…desire you! But…you’re my daughter? How can that be?”
“I know it’s difficult to understand, Father,” Shala began gently, but Neminatrix cut her off.
“Stop calling me that!” he yelled, pushing her away roughly and clutching his head. “You…you’re wrong! You’re not Shala! Shala is dead! Shala is dead, and I killed her!” There was a silence as Shala stared at him, comprehension dawning on her face.
“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” she said quietly. “All these years, you’ve blamed yourself for Mother’s death, and instead of dealing with your grief, you took it out on me.”
“Don’t…don’t be ridiculous,” Neminatrix stammered, looking away from her. “Why would I blame myself? Shala needed to die!”
“Why?” Shala moved so that she was facing him again, staring at him intently. “What did Shala do?”
“She…she…,” Neminatrix hesitated, a look of intense anguish appearing on his face, and he seemed to be battling with himself about whatever he was thinking of saying. Finally he screamed, “IT WAS HER FAULT THAT TRINIA DIED!”
Shala’s eyes widened, but she refused to relent. She needed to get to the bottom of this. “How was it Shala’s fault?” she asked in a quiet, intense voice.
“If it…if it hadn’t been for Shala,” Neminatrix began, breathing heavily, staring off into the distance, every word seeming as if it was being wrenched from deep in his soul, “Trinia…she would never have been…in that hovercar! She was…she was going to meet with a new tutor for Shala. If Shala had never been born, the accident would never have happened!”
“I see,” Shala said softly. She was silent for a moment, and then she said in the same soft voice, “Did you know that I blamed you for Mother’s death?” Neminatrix started and stared at her with wide eyes. “Yes,” Shala said. “You were such a monster to me, that I thought for sure that you must have had Mother murdered because she was the only obstacle keeping you away from me.” Shala continued to speak very quietly, but a fire blazed in her eyes as she spoke.
“I…I loved your mother, with all of my heart,” Neminatrix rasped hoarsely. “I would never have done anything to hurt her.” He stared blankly off into space for a moment, and then his eyes slowly focused on Shala. “You really are Shala, aren’t you?” Shala nodded. He stared blankly at her for a moment, and then a look of utter horror crept across his face. “By the One,” he whispered, “what have I done?” And then, so suddenly it made Shala jump, he let a howl of pain and rage and sorrow all mixed together.
“WHAT HAVE I DONE!?” he screamed, falling to his knees and raising his hands beseechingly toward the ceiling.
“Father!” shouted Shala, taken aback. “What is wrong?”
“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix said, his voice breaking and a look of such sorrow appearing on his face that Shala almost burst into tears at the sight of it. “How can you say that? I’ve spent almost your entire life treating you like trash, and you ask me what’s wrong? How can you be so innocent after all I’ve done to you?”
“Oh, Father,” Shala said softly.
“When your mother died, it broke me,” Neminatrix whispered. “I blamed you for her death, but I also thought I could use you as a replacement. I hated you and loved you at the same time. But when Belfamor stole you away, it shattered what little grasp on reality I had left. I became convinced that you had died and that Trinia had lived, but that Belfamor Hemetal had kidnapped her. And now… Now there’s only one thing I can do.”
He stood up slowly, wavering slightly as he did so. He glanced around vaguely for a moment, and then his gaze hardened and he strode forward, toward the soldier holding his sword. He gestured for it, and the soldier handed it to him with a slight frown.
“Father,” Shala began in a worried voice, “what are you-” and then she broke off suddenly and screamed, “NO!” because her father had turned the point of the sword toward his own stomach and was about to plunge it in. She leapt up and grabbed his arms before he could do so, struggling with all her might to keep him from ending his life.
“What are you doing, Shala?” he yelled, his voice straining as he fought against her. “This is the only way! I don’t deserve to live!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Shala yelled back, angry and terrified. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything else is for my father to love me! Don’t take that away from me now, when I know it’s possible! If you want to atone for your sins, then live! Killing yourself now would just be the last and greatest brutality you could afflict me with.” Slowly, the import of Shala’s words sunk into Neminatrix’s brain, and he gradually stopped struggling, allowing Shala to wrest the sword away from him and hand it back to the soldier, who looked utterly bemused by the whole scene.
“Oh, Shala,” Neminatrix sighed, and suddenly he began to weep. “My poor, little Shala. How can you ever forgive me for the torment I’ve put you through?”
“I don’t know, Father,” Shala murmured, wrapping her arms around him and stroking his hair. “But I do. Oh, I do.”
To be continued…