Imperial Affliction

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Chapter 13

Zenobia’s POV

“Does the gown not suit your liking?”

Lifting my eyes from the marbled floor, I met Odette’s large stormy eyes that were trained on me. I tried to muster an encouraging smile to hide the anger and disappointment from my earlier encounter with Soren.

“Oh it is more than I could have ever asked for, my lady. It’s all so much and I am eternally grateful.” I bowed my head to further excentuate my gratitude.

“What has you so troubled, then?” Sounding wiser beyond her years, Odette waited patiently for me to answer her. Her long dirty blonde curls were set into a fishtail braid that came to the middle of her back. Her deep navy blue dress was so thickly woven on her body it was a wonder she could stand upright.

The first frost had blanketed the ground this morning, bringing about the talk of winter preparations. On top of everything else that was taking place, the tension and stress was nearly palpable in the air.

Clicking my tongue against my cheek in a rather non ladylike manner, I looked Odette in the eyes. “I’ve just been having a rough time with the adjustment to these finer things. I am not used to such... treatment.” And it was true. Part of me felt completely out of place here in the Royal chambers of the castle.

“Please don’t be afraid to tell me anything. I know I may seem fragile at the moment, but I need to keep myself occupied. Thinking of my family.... I-it’s just too much,” the sadness in her voice made my throat thicken. “Your company is truly more priceless than you can imagine.”

Tucking a loose curl behind my ear, I gave Odette a small smile. She was so young but so strong and much wiser than I had ever thought possible. But of course, she had always been the quieter of the twins. Her observatory nature gave her the upper hand. She would know most all the facts before ever having to involve herself in many matters. A skill that would serve her well one day.

Walking towards Odette, I gathered up her books as we made our way out of her chamber and to the study. Even with her sister gone and her mother and brother both missing, Odette insisted on continuing her studies. In a way, I deeply admired her. On the outside she looked strong and unfazed. But on the inside I knew her heart must be heavy with grief. She certainly had the makings of an excellent queen should the opportunity present itself.

I could feel the excitement bubble up in my chest as we entered the extravagant study that only the nobility had access to. Never before had I set a foot in this large, ornate room. Deep purple drapery hung the windows as a golden trim accented the stained glass. A peak in the center of the ceiling held beautiful artwork to rival that of a prestigious cathedral. Nearly every other inch of the room was scattered with books of all different sizes and colors. Some so old, it was a wonder the spines were even still attached at all.

In absolute awe, I stood there gawking at the magnificent sight before me. Odette had made her way to her usual table that had many different books scattered across it. She looked at me and must have seen the look of reverance on my face as she asked, “Would you like to take a look around?”

I simply nodded, not sure I was capable of making coherent conversation at the moment.

I started at the far end of the room at what looked to be the older books. Nearly falling apart and tattered, the condition some of the books were in almost made me sad. So much knowledge lost in the crumblings of these pages.

Running my fingers across the spines I found a rather large leather bound book that, although it was quite old, was still in fairly decent shape. Pulling the large novel from the shelf, I ran my finger across the symbol engraved into the cover.

“Did you find any that interest you?” Odette’s voice came from behind me as she was exchanging the book in her hand for another off the shelf adjacent to where I stood.

“I, uh... ” I stumbled, not sure how to get the words out. My cheeks burned as I finally forced the words from my lips. “I don’t know how to read.”

Her hand paused on the book that she had reached for. “You don’t know how to read?” She sounded almost as if she had expected it, most likely from the fact that just two days ago I had been a lowly servant in her eyes, instead of the prisoner I was. “That is a shame,” she continued. “I suppose that means we should start your lessons as well.”

Startled, I fished around in my head for a response. “Lessons?”

“Well yes. You are a Lady to the Princess. You have to be properly educated and trained as such. And one of the most important of these is presence and knowledge. You must hold yourself to a higher standard. After all, you keep the company of royalty.” She gave me a wide smile and grabbed a veriety of books from a higher shelf.

We settled at the little table and went over the material for hours until my head began to throb with the amount of knowledge I was trying to esponge. Looking to Odette I interrupted her study, “I think now would be as good a time as any to go for our noon meal, my Lady.” Closing her book she looked at me with a smile on her face, a low growling from her end of the table seemed to echo as if on cue.

“Let’s go to the dining hall.”

It wasn’t until we had stepped right to the doors that led into the dining hall that I felt the hairs on the nape of my neck stand straight. It was like a heat wave rushing over my body and made me freeze, all at the same time. Looking around, I tried to find the source of whatever caused the reaction. There were a few servants in the hall rushing back and forth with trays of food.

But nothing out of the ordinary.

Skeptical, I brushed it aside.

Following behind Odette, I kept my gaze cast downward as we entered the large dining hall. Four seats remained empty.

One of which was late.

Two of which were missing.

And one that would never join the table again.

I watched as Odette sat down for her lunch, the servants eyeing me as they brought her tray. A sense of panic arised in my chest. I truly loathed being the source of anyone’s attention.

But what did I expect being the remaining princess’ replacement help?

She was always watched.

Odette looked over to me, a hint of confusion in her eyes and then recognition. She patted the seat to her right. “Come, sit. You must be famished.”

“A-are you sure, my Lady? Won’t His Majesty mind?” I nervously looked around as if he would appear at any moment and expose his favorite pasttime; beating me.

“Nonsense. You are my Lady now and I would rather enjoy some company.” She paused. “It is too quiet.”

Simply nodding my head I sat next to her as a servant retrieved a tray for me. Casting a sideways glance, I looked at my little half sister. She was welcoming me with open arms and showing me kindness that I wasn’t sure would ever be extended to me.

She was giving me a real chance.

And for the first time in my life, I had a real meal at a real dining table, with a real friend.

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

Yawning deeply into my hand, I looked over to Odette whose eyes had grown weary. I glanced out the huge ornate window to see the sun was setting on the horizon. “Shall we call it a day, Miss? It should be supper time soon and we have been studying for many hours. Perhaps we should go and stretch our limbs before the meal time?”

She simply smiled at me and pulled her braid to the front of her, starting to undo the plaits. “I think that would be wonderful. I may see if one of the guards would accompany me to the fields so I may groom my horse. It always relaxes me after a long day of studies.”

Knowing how much she loved her mare, I nodded back to her. “Sounds delightful. I will see you soon, then.” And with that I headed towards the door with a few books gathered in my hands.

“Oh, Zenobia?”

I turned my head to look at her.

“Thank you for today. I really needed it.”

Feeling a strange feeling in my chest I could only smile at her when I said, “Me too.”

After leaving Odette and the study I made my way back towards my room.

My room. How foreign those words felt in my head.

I reached the doors and was about to open them when I felt the strange feeling pass over my body once more...

I quickly looked around the hall and found no one. No servants, no other residents or guests... Just no one.

An eery silence filled the hall. I was sure you could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet.

I quickly opened the door to my room and slammed it shut behind me, my breathing now coming in frantic little pants as I locked the door.

Taking a few steadying breaths I almost felt like I was being watched. Making my way to the windows in the washroom and bedroom, I quickly drew the drapes. I lit several candles that were scattered across the room, creating a sort of ambience that I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with quite yet.

As the moments passed, the strange feeling subsided and I felt like I could breathe again.

Deciding that a hot bath would help ease the stress and help lift the terrible tension from my body, I walked into the washroom and started filling the basin. The water nearly so hot it burned filled the tub almost to the rim. As I turn the spicket off and started stripping the layers from my body, a glimmer caught my eye.

Walking towards the window sill, my eyes fell onto the Opal necklace. I reached into my thigh belt and plucked the feather. Running my fingers over the silky golden texture I laid it next to the necklace.

“Why am I suddenly getting so popular with the men these days? It’s probably my hair.” I reasoned into the silence.

Two strange but equally beautiful gifts from two handsome men who couldn’t be more different than the other. One who was someone I considered a very close friend. Strong, sure, and steady. I knew that he cared for me. Someone who, up until recently, was one of the only people I could even remotely trust. And the other a complete stranger. Dark, seductive, and... Unknown. I didn’t know the first thing about him.

Brushing off the thoughts of the two ridiculous men, I sunk into the near boiling water and let it burn away my troubling thoughts.

As I emerged from the black water, not a drop of it remained on my skin. The wind swept my curls up like a dancing fire. I looked up into the sky to see the stars were speckled to the edge in every direction. Staring in awe, the planets were in complete alignment on the horizon.

A tingling sensation spread across the surface of every inch of my skin. Looking down at my hands a bright golden glow laced up and down my fingers, disappearing up my sleeve. I quickly pulled it up to see the swirls continued up my arms. Lifting the edge of my skirt a gasp escaped my lips as the same golden design laced up from my toes disappering under my skirt.

A ripping sensation made me choke on a scream. Clawing at my back, I tried to find the source of the pain.

Nothing.

The tears escaped my eyes as the pain ripped through me once more.

And then the pain abruptly changed.

Every single joint in my body started burning and aching as if being stretched and pulled, twisted in the wrong direction. I broke into a sweat as my body felg like it was on fire.

I gurgled out another scream that seemed to strangle me as I tasted blood in my mouth. With shaking hands I felt for the wound only to find one long canine had pierced through my gums. A cracking sound followed by a white hot pain nearly made me black out. My breaths came in shallow pants as the pain stopped.

Gone. Just like that.

Frantically searching my body I found no golden designs, no blood.... No sign of any injuries.

And then I felt it.

The water rippled up to me on either side. Looking to my left was the large silver wolf. The coat so silky smooth it nearly shimmered in the moonlight as he moved closer. His slate grey eyes were lined with long lashed that watched my every move. There was a message in those eyes.

One I just couldn’t read.

Casting my gaze to the right I saw the bright golden figure slowly coasting towards me. Shielding my eyes, I squinted trying to see through the glow. Cobalt blue eyes stared right back at me.

A scorching fire started emanating in my chest as they each took a step closer towards me.

The fire inside me got hotter and hotter with each step.

Just as they were nearly a foot from me the fire peaked and I felt as if I were about to be engulfed in flames and ripped in half.....

Screaming myself awake, water splashed out of the basin and onto the floor. The water was barely lukewarm as I pulled the drain and stepped out. I looked into the mirror for any marks.

“It was just a dream.”

Trying to steady my rapid breathing, I reached for my towel. It was already dark outside that much I was positive. I slipped on another tight fitting night gown and somehow remembered to don a cover this time as well.

The heat from the bath had pretty well frizzed out my hair but at the moment I was more concerned with my stomach.

I think it was eating itself.

Is that possible?

Making my way towards the dining room, I saw the the table was being completely empty. A young male servant was turning the corner with linens when I stopped him

“E-excuse me, did Princess Odette eat her supper yet?”

“No ma’am,” I didn’t miss that he looked anywhere but into my eyes. “She went straight to her chambers after visiting her mare. Said no supper tonight, she is not feeling well.”

I thanked him and he quickly walked away. Sitting at the table, in the spot I had sat in next to Odetter earlier in the day I wondered...

How would things have been different had my father accepted me? Would the loss of my siblings effect me the way they do Odette? Would I be as strong as she is being? To continue on with a world of grief, to keep pressing forward trying not to look back...

I was so lost in thought that I hadn’t heard the approaching footsteps until I felt the hard blow to my skull. I felt myself falling out of the chair, but my world went dark before I hit the ground.

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

Opening my eyes, my vision was blurred.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I was still alive.

The pain told me that much.

I tried to make out the room but I couldn’t see.

Why can’t I see?!

The room smelled of thick incense, so much so I actually coughed a few times. It was sickly sweet and left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was also too warm in here, sweat beads were forming on my exposed skin.

I heard a creaking sound and my head instantly snapped in the direction it came from. “Whose there?” The words came out choppy, my throat feeling dry.

Apparently I had been out for awhile.

There was no reply but I could sense the change in the air and practically hear whoever it was evenly breathing as they took a few steps towards me. Panic fluttered in my chest at all the possibilities of who could be my capturer.

“Please just tell me who you are!”

Extending my claws I tried to slice through whatever had my hands bound at the small of my back. But for whatever reason I couldn’t feel what kept my hands in place.

“I know circumstances of how you got here were rather unpleasant. And for that I deeply apologize.” I felt a pressure lift from my face as I regained my vision only to meet a dark haired and fair skinned woman.

With white eyes.

I tried not to let the shock consume me as I stared at her face.

This blind woman catpured me?!

Trying to pull my hands in front of me I still met resistance. “Oh yes, of course my dear, truly sorry.” My hands instantly fell to my sides and I brought them to my face to inspect them. There were no physical evidence they had been bound.

“W-who are you and what do you want with me?” I asked again.

Her pale white eyes seemed as if they were trained on me when a grave smile formed on her face.

“My dear, I am Yovonna, daughter of Shemina, witch of the Fourth Sector of Vandela. And I believe I just saved your life.”

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