No one spoke until they were back on the shuttle headed for Decimator. Commander Venrel looked more worried than Neska had ever seen him before, and her aunt looked like she was trying to decide who she was going to murder first. As for Neska herself, she didn’t know what to feel. She had been nervous about making a fool of herself. She had so desperately wanted Lord Hemetal to notice her! And oh, how he had. Neska should have been pleased with how the evening went, but instead she felt…dirty. She couldn’t figure out why. She certainly hadn’t done anything. She’d barely said a word before Hemetal laid eyes on her. But the way he’d looked at her…like she was a trophy just waiting to be claimed. She couldn’t wait to get back to Decimator and take a long, hot shower.
“Commander, I’m going to need a secure link to General Fanas as soon as we get on board,” Kryla said once the shuttle was airborne.
“Aye-aye, sir,” Venrel said. For a few minutes, the shuttle flew on in silence, and then Neska couldn’t take it anymore.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said in a small voice. Kryla turned her diamond-hard look on her niece and frowned.
“For what?” she replied.
“For…messing up your meeting,” Neska said, her voice growing even smaller. Kryla’s look softened ever so slightly, and she turned to Venrel.
“Commander, would you excuse us for a moment?” she asked.
“Of course, sir,” Venrel replied, and went into the cockpit.
Once he was gone, Kryla’s expression softened even more, to the point where Neska almost forgot that Kryla was her commanding officer and not just her aunt.
“Oh, Neska,” Kryla said sadly. “Oh, my little Neska. If I’d had any idea what was going to happen tonight, I never would have brought you.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” Neska said, hanging her head and feeling like she was five years old and her aunt had caught her sneaking a piece of cake before supper.
“No,” Kryla said firmly. “Do not apologize. Never apologize for being who you are. What happened tonight was not your fault. None of it.”
“Then why do I feel so horrible!?” Neska wailed suddenly. “Why do I feel like I did something wrong!?”
“How can powerful men treat women like objects and make them feel like it’s their fault?” Kryla asked wryly. “I’ve always wondered that myself. I have no idea. But I do know that they’re wrong. It is not your fault. You are not a prize to be won. You are a human being, and you need to remember that. Because as long as you do, you have a weapon that cannot be beaten, and men like Belfamor Hemetal can never overcome you.”
“Oh, Auntie,” Neska said with a sigh. “This is so much more complicated than I wanted it to be.”
“Isn’t everything?” Kryla murmured.
“How can you support a man like that?” Neska asked. “Why would you want someone like him to be Emperor?”
“Did I say I wanted him to be Emperor?” Kryla replied with one eyebrow raised.
“You said you would support him in front of the Senate!” Neska cried.
“No, I said I would support him,” Kryla replied, smiling slightly. “But I never said how or where.” Kryla winked, and a look of comprehension slowly crept across Neska’s face.
“You lied!” Neska gasped.
“I did not!” Kryla said in faux indignation. “It’s not my fault if Belfamor heard what he wanted to hear, rather than what I said.” Kryla grinned suddenly, and Neska felt like she was right back in her parents’ house on the evening of Festival, listening to her aunt tell stories of her adventures as a Captain in the Imperial Fleet. She wanted to just embrace that feeling of joy, but she still felt somewhat sick to her stomach about what had happened in Lord Hemetal’s manor.
“How can you support that man at all?” Neska said, partially in anger and partially in sadness. “He…he scared me.”
“He scared me too, my little Neska,” Kryla replied in a soft voice, all trace of mirth gone from her tone. “And that’s why I need to support him, because the Belfamor Hemetal you met tonight is not the Belfamor Hemetal I’ve known for four years. Something happened to him, and that something changed him. I need to find out what happened, and I need to help him, if I can. He’s my friend, and I always stand by my friends.”
“If you say so, Auntie,” Neska said doubtfully. “If he’s your friend, I’d hate to meet your enemies.” Kryla smiled and even chuckled a little.
“Enemies are no big deal,” Kryla said lightly. “Like Belfamor said, it’s friends who are best positioned to stab you in the back. They’re the ones you need to keep an eye on.”
“I guess so,” Neska replied. She was silent for a moment, and then she remembered something. “What was it you said to him right before we left, that made him so mad?”
“Oh, that,” Kryla said with a frown. “I just reminded him that he’s a married man, and he has an obligation to his wife. As you can see, he didn’t take too kindly to that reminder.”
“I feel bad for Shala,” Neska said mournfully.
“You should,” Kryla replied. “She’s had an exceptionally hard life. You would think being a princess and the heir to a powerful noble house would mean you get to live in luxury and ease, but I wouldn’t swap places with her for anything. She’s a tough woman, though, and smart. If anyone can snap Belfamor out of whatever’s wrong with him, it’s her.”
“I hope she can do something,” Neska said with a shudder. “I hate to think what would happen if Lord Hemetal became Emperor in his present state.”
“Don’t worry, Neska,” Kryla said. “I will do whatever is in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Either Belfamor won’t attain the Throne, or he will be his old self again when he does. I promise you that.”
To be continued…