Imperial Affliction

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Chapter 10

Zenobia’s P.O.V.

After the water had turned cold drawing gooseflesh across my exposed skin, I finally pulled myself from the soaking tub and dried off. Remembering I hadn’t brought anything to wear into the wash room, I stepped out with the towel wrapped firmly around me. The room was slightly chilled and I made a mental note to grab some logs for the fire later.

I breathed a sigh of relief though as gratitude washed over me. It wasn’t nearly as cold as the dungeon or my drabby little “room” I had had before.

It’s the little things.

Spotting the wooden wardrobe I took a chance and opened it. To my astonishment, there were several beautiful dresses made of epensive fabrics, ranging in all different textures and colors. A lump formed in my throat, I just couldn’t accept them. Odette had already given me so much and these beautiful dresses were just the icing on the cake. I couldn’t take them as well.

But I didn’t have a choice. It was either wear one or go bare naked.

That certainly was not an option.

Clicking my tongue I searched through the silky smooth fabric of the dresses that hung there together. I finally came across a floor length silk night gown, a deep emerald green. Grabbing it out I slipped the smooth dress over my head, the fabric straining at my breasts. Along the breast line there was a beautiful floral beading that lined the edges. To my relief there were full sleeves attached. Going to the mirror I combed my fingers through my hair, skillfully drawing the scarlet locks into a tight braid, pulling it off to my left shoulder.

Despite all the marks and wounds, I had never felt so beautiful before than I did in this night gown. Most of my wounds had healed and an exceedingly fast rate, although not as fast as a Pricolici whose wolf was present. All that was left were a few scratches from where the larger gashes had been. My eye was only slightly puffy now, no longer swollen shut. And the large gash that had lay on my hair line was now a angry pink scar. To my relief, I was beginning to look normal again.

Whatever that meant.

A light knock at the door brought me out of my staring and sent my heart into a slight frenzy. I hadn’t been expecting anyone.

Slowly making my way to the door, my body still weak from the beatings, I hesitantly turned the knob and pushed. The lump returned as I saw a sullen Odette standing at my door, arm clutching one of her ladies for support and the other clutching her stomach.

Her lady looked at me.

“I am sorry to disturb you, but she insisted she come to your new sleeping quarters herself to make sure you were settling in alright.”

Rushing to grab her other arm I led her into my room and helped her sit down on the bed. Her lady remained closely by her side, concern written all over her face. Odette looked up at me with gratitude, eyes brimming with tears. I couldn’t swallow the lump.

“How are your injuries, how are you healing?” I inquired, genuinely curious to know if she was mending well.

She took a deep breath, wincing from the simple action.

“The gash in my stomach has closed and scarring but the area around it is rather sore. Breathing is still slightly difficult.” She gave me a small, rueful smile. And then continued, “Zenobia I just wanted to say thank you. For saving my life, pulling me from the smoke. Had you left me, surely I wouldn’t have survived.” She paused, taking in another painful breath before continuing. “And although I know it was difficult for you, thank you for not telling me until after. About Aurelia.”

It dawned on me in that moment how truly mature she was for such a young age. The sorrow in her eyes seemed to have aged her more in the past day than I had seen over the course of years. Losing her twin, part of her soul, must have truly cracked her. I wasn’t sure how she was still sane.

I knew I wouldn’t be.

Trying to swallow past the lump I tried to speak. “I only did what anyone would have done, my lady. You were wounded and in need of assistance. I can’t accept all of this. It’s too much,” I gestured around me with my hand. She smiled at me and just shook her head.

“You deserve it and it is the only way I know to thank you so please, please accept it. I will be forever grateful for what you did. It may seem like it was a simple deed but one that saved my life.”

She took another breath and smiled a bit more when she saw the dress I was wearing. “That is a beautiful color on you. Truly brings out your.... eyes.” She stumbled on the last bit, nervousness leaking into her voice.

I shifted uncomfortably for a moment before I spoke. “You don’t have a reason to be afraid of me. Even with my eyes, I don’t understand them myself. But I wouldn’t hurt you Princess Odette.”

She gave me a small nervous smile and nodded her head.

“I know and that is another thing I wanted to speak with you about. Would you consider becoming one of my ladies? Since the attack, I have lost more than just my family. You have already proven your loyalty.”

Shock coursed through my body and I went to deny her request when a sudden thought crossed my mind. If I could get close to Odette, I could get closer to the parts of the castle that were off limits to lowly servants like me. I would be able to attend meetings without rising suspicion. I would be able to get inside information and strategically make my moves instead of blind ambition like I had done in the past. Each time I had failed. With this opportunity I would have endless resources at my fingertips.

Reigning in my shock and carefully masking my emotions, I gave her a wide, gentle smile.

“I would be honored, my lady.”

Odette stayed for a short while longer until her lady, Miss Gabriella, had suggested she go lie down and rest. I went to do the same until I had heard the crackling of a fire outside of my window. I walked carefully to it, and sorrow filled me as I saw the pyre filled with all of the people who had fallen from the attack.

I caught sight of Soren standing behind my father but my mind was too occupied by the tangible grief that seemed to cloud the air as the smoke did, to really focus on him. A few more tears slipped from my eyes as I looked at all the families who had lost someone. After a short while I looked to find Soren again but realized he was no longer there. Making my way back to my bed I slipped under the thick wonderfully soft comforter and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

***************

When my eyes opened the room was dark. A long yawn broke through my lips and a loud grumble ripped through my stomach. Stiffly sliding out from under the comforter, I made my way out of my room and towards the kitchen.

It was apparent that dinner had been over hours ago, but I was thankful there was still leftover vegetable stew and fresh baked bread. Scarfing it down and chugging a glass of water, and then another in a quite uneasy like manner. I felt so full that my stomach hurt.

Deciding I needed to walk off the discomfort, I made my way to my favorite place.

The garden.

As the moon light shone down across the beautiful buds that had remained strong during the temperature drops, a sigh of contenment left my lips. There was a peacefulness that overcame me whenever I was surrounded by the beautiful plants in the small garden outside of the kitchen. Walking to one of my favorite plants I inhaled deeply.

“Well, I figured you to be a lavender kind of girl...”

A suprised shriek erupted from my chest as I spun around to see a tall dark shadow leaning against the wall. Backing up I grabbed the closest thing I could see.

The watering can.

Dammit. What are going you to do? Sprinkle him to death?!

Heart racing I lifted the watering can, readying to attack.

“Who the hell are you?!”

“...but then again, honeysuckle would be fitting as well.” He didn’t move an inch, and he didn’t answer me either.

"Who are you?!”

“Calm down, I mean you no harm. I was just leaving a meeting and found myself a need for some tea.”

It was then I became painfully aware of the thin night gown I was still wearing that had little in the way of proper coverage of my chest. The cold air caressing my skin through the silk fabric, making my breasts peak.

Of all the luck...

Chest heaving from the adrenaline pumping through my veins I wasn’t sure whether to still hit him or stay frozen.

So I threw the watering can at his face.

Before the can could hit him in the chin his hand shot up and caught it. My mouth dropped open at his incredible reflexes. He stepped out from under the shadows into the moon light and I was speechless.

He was incredibly tall. So much taller than any of the men around here, well most aside from maybe my father. He had a sharp jaw that was cleanly shaved and the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen. I was nearly mesmerized by them. His deep auburn hair looked brown under the dim light of the moon.

Remembering my mouth still hung open I fished around until I remembered how to close it.

“You have a good arm. I’m impressed,” he cocked his head to the side. “I am Neculaias. And who might you be? ” He asked me with a sly smile.

Still stunned by his obvious beauty it took me a few moments to answer him.

“Z-Zenobia.”

He looked me over, taking in my features before he settled on my eyes and proceeded to ask me, “So which is it?”

“Huh?” Which was what?

He chuckled lightly with a glint in his eyes. “Which is your favorite flower?”

Oh, right...

“Oh, uh lavender... but how did you...?” I stopped suddenly as it dawned on me. “Wait, Neculaias? As in Sir Neculai from the Ilele?” My voice jumped an octave higher and my heart started racing once more.

“Yes. The very same.” He took a step towards me.

“Do not come closer,” I warned him.

He threw his hands up in a sign of peace. I eyed the hand shovel that was off to my left a few feet, contemplating if I could reach it quickly if he decided to advance on me once more.

“How did you sustain your injuries, the one on your face?”

Confused as to why he was asking me in the first place, the lies came off my tongue so effortlessly, so natural to me now in an attempt to keep the abuse a secret.

“From the attack a few nights ago, on the Full Moon...”

His cobalt eyes flashed as they met mine, stunning me into silence.

“Do not lie to me, princess.”

Dread filled my belly and ice clutched my heart.

Princess.

“I’m no princess, and it was not a lie.”

Liar.

“Well, princess, you see, I have a sort of.... hmm,” he paused. “... gift you could say. I know when I am being lied to. I can see it in your eyes.”

I was at a loss for words.

Shifting uncomfortably I went for the hand shovel, darting quickly. Turning to face him once more, he was gone. Warily I looked for him, trying to listen for any sounds that would give him away.

A few moments passed and I turned to set the little shovel back down when a large, warm hand caught my neck, brushing the braid off my shoulder.

My heart thudded against my breast bone when I felt his breath on my shoulder.

“You are special, Miss Zenobia. I feel it humming in your blood.”

I bristled, anger bubbling inside me. I retorted back to him in a haughty voice, “You are about to feel something all right if you do not remove your hand from me.”

“You are quite feisty, I rather enjoy that. It is refreshing. So many of our women are too desperate, just throwing themselves at me.”

“Oh, I’m sure they all love your cockiness, you misogynistic brute!”

He chuckled and his breath tickled my neck, fanning a heat that spread to a place low in my belly.

“You should be careful with what you say, little princess. Speaking so freely of my cockiness is quite brave of you.” I felt the rumble of his chest against my back as a deep blush burned my cheeks, running down to my neck.

“I can feel your heart beating, am I frightening you?”

Swallowing the lump in my throat I tried to calm the haphazard beating of my heart.

“No, I am quite angry that you won’t leave me the hell alone. Are you always this damned annoying or did I just catch you on a bad day? I’ve had a rather long one myself and would like to go back to my room.”

His hand gently released my neck and with it, I felt as if I could finally take a steadying breath. A tingling sensation lightly burned my skin where his hand had been. Neculai side stepped in from of me, pulling something out from behind him. He then leaned forward with a sly smile on his lips, bringing his face level to mine.

“Should you ever require anything please, call for me. I will come to your aide. You have nothing to fear from me, little princess.”

He then slipped a smooth golden feather into my hand, caressing my skin so softly as it shimmered in the moonlight. Neculai turned to leave and then stopped, looking back at me out of the corner of his eye. “Oh, and it is certainly only to a beautiful little princess with fiery hair.” He gave me a wink.

My wide eyes dropped to the beautiful golden feather that was about the length of my hand, and I looked up to ask him what exactly it was, and where it came from.

But he was gone.

Again.

I stood as still as a statue, waiting for what could be another trick, my heart hammering in my chest. When minutes passed and nothing happened I let out a shaky breath and quickly made my way back to my room, locking the door behind me in my haste.

Clutching the golden feather in one hand, my other reached up to my neck, holding where his hand had been, still feeling the light tingle. I had not expected the turn of events this late evening had brought.

I should have stayed in my room.

Damned stomach.

The least of all I would have imagined was the feeling his presence had evoked. I had never met this man in my life. He had snuck up on me, frightened me, and even called me princess; making me wonder if he knew who I really was. Brushing the thought aside as it was highly unlikely.

No one knew.

But the thing I had expected least of as was that I had felt no fear when he touched me. Even as his large hand had wrapped around my throat, fingers nearly wrapping completely around it. The oddest sensation had flooded my body.

Safety.

I knew the moment his skin met mine that he was not a danger to me.

And then the odd sensation his words had sparked inside me, pooling deep in my belly. Things I had little to no experience with....

Who the hell did he think he was, touching me in the first place and then speaking to me in that manner. I don’t care if he is the fearsome commander of the Ilele.

My mind was screaming that I had finally lost it. All the head wounds had finally done me in and I had started losing my mind.

But my heart was firm. He was no threat.

And then there was the feather. Why would he give me this feather and tell me that if I needed anything he would be there? Why? How the hell did the feather work? Was I supposed to talk to it?

Yes, it was certainly all the head trauma I had sustained. It was the only logical explanation.

Staring at the feather, I walked to the wash room and laid in next to the white opal necklace. And for a split second, I felt a terrible ache in my heart. I wasnt sure where it came from.

Shaking everything from my mind I once again slipped under the thick comforter and waited for sleep to take me.

But I couldn’t shake his face from my mind.

*****************

Opening my eyes again, the room was brightly lit from the breaking of dawn over the horizon. The events of last night came rushing back into my mind and a part of me wondered if I hadn’t dreamt the whole thing.

Unfortunately as I made my way into the washroom, I spotted the shimmery golden feather on the window sill and I huffed in exasperation.

It had happened.

Mortification and fury made me blush fiercely as I returned to the wooden wardrobe to find a suitable dress to wear. It was my first day as Princess Odette’s new Lady. Running my hand over the fabrics, I landed on a plush mauve linen gown that was elegant but simple enough still.

Wearing anything more extravagant in front of prying eyes just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t like to draw anymore attention to myself.

Pushing my anger aside I ran my fingers through the plaits of my braid, roughly undoing it. Once my curls cascaded down my back and chest I took a long look at myself.

“... only to a beautiful little princess with fiery hair....”

I pursed my lips and bullheadedly threw my hair back into a tight bun on my head. It had certainly looked more fire like when it swayed down my shoulders.

Turning on my heels I made my way out of my room and towards Aurelia and Odette’s sleeping quaters.

As I passed the main hall I spotted Soren who stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me. I gave him a small smile.

His eyes drank in my appearance, lingering a moment longer on the bodice of my gown before gluing to my face. Heat rose to my cheeks, a feat that I was quickly becoming all to familiar with. He said a few words to the soldier beside him before he made his way over to me.

Gulping down a bundle of nerves I greated him.

“Good morning, Soren. How are the repairs for the east wing coming?” I asked casually, feeling anything but.

“Well we finally have all of it assessed and the plans have started but it is going to take some time to gather all the materials needed, and the manpower. But with Sir Neculai and his men here, we will have more of our own men to be able to stay here and protect the castle as well as help rebuild it. Neculai’s men will help us in recovering Queen Miriana and Prince Garridan.”

At the mention of Neculai’s name anger washed over me and my face flushed.

It caught Soren’s attention.

“Have you.... have you met Sir Neculai? Do you know him?” His face was a bit accusing which only confused me and further angered me.

“I only just met him last night after I had a late supper,” I defended myself. “He’s a dimwitted prick who gets his thrills sneaking up on unsuspecting women. And what would it matter if I had known him? How would I, when I have never left this damned castle!” I whisper yelled back to him, acutely aware that we were not alone.

He stared at me, shocked at my sudden outburst.

“And another thing, it is none of your concern if anyone speaks to me. I am thankful for all the kindness you have shown me. But where were you all those years? You saw but you never did anything. So excuse me if other people start befriending me.” I purposefully left out the part where Neculai was a bit too friendly.

Anger, mirroring my own, sudden sparked in his eyes. His jaw clenched as he suddenly turned away from me and walked off.

A few servants who were standing by dropped their eyes as I started making my way towards Odette’s quarters once again. My anger slowly diffused and was quickly replaced by despair.

Soren had never once been angry with me before, and I had never seen that look on his face.

Had I just lost my only friend?

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