Imperial Affliction

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Chapter 2

I awoke from sleep on my small, lumpy mattress that was tossed carelessly into the corner of the cramped room. It was not yet dawn outside, that I was sure of from the simple fact that no light escaped the miniscule cracks that decorated the large concrete wall facing east. My body was heavy with exhaustion, so desperately trying to heal itself from all the beatings of yesterday.

I took my fingers and raked them through my knotted scarlet curls, trying to dig out the rats nest that had taken residence on my head. It was of no use though, as my hair still had clumps of dirt from my attempted escape. The tattered rags that wrapped around my body were thin and ripped in several areas.

My hand found its way towards my jaw that was still swollen and throbbing with pain. The dent sloped my jaw bone on the left of my face, making the right jut out from my skin. I was sure it was a grotesque sight. Internally wincing and preparing myself, I gripped both side of my jaw as firmly as I could. Taking a deep breath, I snapped it back into place.

Nearly blacking out in the process.

After the painful throbbing started to subside, which seemed to have taken longer from having to rebreak my already broken jaw, my mind drifted back to the cold eyes that would always haunt me, always make my stomach turn. He would never let me leave of my own free will. He would torture me and keep me as his personal thorn in his side, just to remind me of it with his own two hands.

Softly sighing, I slid to the hard and cold concrete floor, towards my wash basin. My stiff hands went to work, scrubbing my exposed skin with the bar of soap that lay next to the thick metal bowl. The soap always stung when it hit my skin, whether it was because there were so many scratches and tears in my skin or if it was because this soap was used to clean the linens, I could never be sure. Come to think of it, it was probably a little of both.

Most of my skin was covered in some type of marking; either from a bruise or a wound, so I found some clothing that covered most of my skin. The fabric was thick and heavy, the material scratching my already snesitive skin. I continued to work through my knatted hair until it was mostly clean and wrapped it into a tight bun on the top of my head.

Winter was quickly approaching as the trees had lost their leaves, making way for the decay to replenish the earth in spring once more, as it had always done. The beautiful cycle was never ending, like life and death. Reliable. Inevitable. Absolute.

The room was frigid as the concrete walls with their infinite cracks held no warmth. I grabbed my worn boots and stood, letting the blood rush to my feet, making me slightly woozy in the process. Catching my breath from the intense pain that shot through my chest I made my way to the kitchen to help prepare the meals for the day.

The first of my daily chores consisted of prepping and cooking the meals for the King and the royal family, the other nobles who currently resided in the castle, and all the other servants. Today’s supper consisted of pork and beef rolls and fresh bread. Most of the time supper revolved around the same food choices with fresh fruit and vegetables out of the castle’s garden always a staple at the Royal table. I quickly grabbed vegetables and let my calloused hands get to work as my mind drifted to my father as it often did while doing the grunt work with the other servants.

My father, the King, has been ruler for over 7 decades. He is claimed to be the most cold-hearted and ruthless King to have sit upon the throne in centuries. He kills without cause or hesitation. His torture is merciless to those who defy him. He once slaughtered a whole village on the rumor that they were going to rise against him in an attempt to overthrow the throne. The village was completely decimated, no woman or child was left breathing that day. This was before I was born, but I have no doubt in my mind that every word of it was truth.

His wife, Queen Miriana, is a very reserved woman; barely involved in her husbands affairs. She is only present and dutiful to her king in the way every wife is to her husband. She speaks only when spoken to and has very little power but she is still blindly respected. Of course she is absolutely beautiful though, with long golden locks and stormy gray eyes. Together they have three children, my brother and two sisters; Garridan, Odete, and Aurelia. I knew my siblings, and I’ve watched them grow up from a distance. They do not know me, they do not know who I am to them.

Father treats them much different than he does me. They don’t receive any beatings, nor must they complete any chores. They receive all the privileges that royalty is entitled to from birth. Golden spoons and nothing to want for.

I couldn’t understand why I was locked away in a small and cold, cramped room away from them or why Father takes his anger out on me so cruelly. I couldn’t recall even one memory of father looking at me or treating me as he does Garridan, Odete, or Aurelia. Never with the softness around his eyes that would often be seen when he was surrounded by his three younger children.

And then there was the way I looked, my appearance. My siblings all inherited our father’s dark hair and silvery eyes, with a mixture of their mothers stormy gray ones darkening their irises so they weren’t as striking as Father’s are. There was no denying that they were his offspring though.

I on the other hand had my long scarlet curls that stopped at the middle of my back; wild and unruly, which was usually no problem unless they were caked in blood and dried dirt. Then combing them took a little more time and effort. I had little dark specks that decorated the bridge of my nose and apples of my cheeks. I was always told that these little speckles were hideous and a sign that I was an invaluable person. I thought they made my eyes pop.

My eyes.

Oh my eyes, how they were nothing like anyone had ever seen. My left eye was an icy blue, while my right eye was a striking silver. Everyone whom I come to know or speak with either avoids looking me in my eyes or can’t stop staring between the two colors, trying to pick an eye. Holding a conversation with anyone is quite difficult because of the distraction my eyes caused. It’s quite a lonely and isolating side effect. So as much as I can, I keep my eyes glued to the floor.

How my eyes are two different colors are a mystery to me, but I know that it angers Father whenever he looks into them. His eyes immediately darken whenever I meet his gaze, and it seems that when he is in the middle of a beating, his silver eyes are burning me alive with their molten rage.

It should have been more difficult to peel the potatoes and chop the vegetables needed for the daily stew for the servants, as the dimmed light from the fireplace was not enough to illuminate the entire kitchen quarters. But for my Pricolici eyesight, the dim light was not an inconvenience. I was able to clearly see how my hand worked over all the food with ease as well as tend to the pot over the fire. My favorite thing to prepare was the bread. I always found that kneading the bread is so therapeutic, an escape that I needed from my daunting thoughts of escaping my Father.

My ears picked up footsteps making their way towards the kitchen quarters and I knew the other servants were arriving to assemble the breakfast trays for the nobles. Breakfast was swift and simple enough to make that making it after supper prep cut my cooking duties greatly.

After washing my hands in the rinse basin near the fire place, I quickly grabbed the King’s tray and scurried up the stairwell and to the banquet room. It was without question that I must serve his food to him personally. I entered the room, quietly bowing and placing the food off the tray onto the long wooden table in front of the King. Around my Father sat his wife and my half siblings. I wasn’t required to personally serve them, unless he demanded it so.

After placing the feast in front of my Father, I quickly took several steps back and waited until I was dismissed.

My stomach growled and I shifted anxiously, hoping that it would go unnoticed. Thankfully the topic of this morning was enough to keep Father’s attention away from me.

“Garridan, have you had any fever? Painful gums?” The King asked.

My younger half brother was only fifteen years old yet he already stood to about six foot now. His dark chestnut brown hair lay in waves around his face that was slowly losing its youth and becoming more man-like. His stormy gray eyes, more like his mothers, flickered to Father.

“Yes Father. My gums have become increasingly painful, but no fever has set in yet. How long after the fever sets in until my first Shift?” While observing him more closely, I started to notice how he only ate the softer food on his plate, and he winced slightly the longer he spoke.

“Not long, my son, three to four days at most. We must ready your chambers for the Shift. You will then start your Alpha training sessions.” His deep voice was saturated with authority.

“A-Alpha training?”

“Yes, son. Alpha training. You are my first born, therefore the Pricolici throne will be yours someday. We must ready you for the day you take the crown.”

At the mention of “firstborn,” I made extreme effort to make sure my body showed no reaction, not even the slightest flinch. Garridan swallowed a lump in his throat and noticeably straightened up in his seat.

“Yes, Father.”

The First Shift was the beginning of the first, most vital transformation for the Pricolici, or, werewolves. When the full moon hung high in the midnight sky, our human bodies transformed and allowed our wolves to come forth. We are born with our wolves but until we complete our first shift, we can’t communicate with them. So essentially we feel incomplete. The First Shift is not without great risk though, as there have been many Pricolici that have died going through the transformation. Other than the physical strain it places on the body, some speculate that the reason one does not successfully complete the change, is that their human soul has rejected their wolf. It is rare, but it has happened before.

After we complete our First Shift, our already heightened senses intensify. We are also able to mind-link with other wolves in the pack.

Only after our first shift can we find our mates.

My Father’s mate, the Queen wasn’t found until after I was born. It was shortly after I had reached my first birthday when my Father had found Miriana. He had marked her and she became our Luna, and a short while later, Garridan was born. My theory is that my Father was so angry I was born from a woman aside from his true mate, that he cast me aside and made me apart of the shadows, so that Queen Miriana would not be distraught.

It was nearly impossible for a child to be born from someone other than your true mate.

My Father told me when I was young that my mother abandoned me after I was born because she could not stand my eyes. She had thought that I was cursed, and did not want to deal with whatever suffering it would bring upon her. The pain of my mother’s abandonment had slowly diminished over the years, but every so often I found myself wondering... Would she have been different than Father? Would she have beaten me too? Or would she have saved me?

Immediately I pushed the thoughts from my head as to not let any emotions show on my face. I dare not shed a tear in the King’s presence.

“Zenobia.”

My head snapped up and my eyes darted to the King, to my Father. I quickly lowered my gaze. “Yes, Your Majesty?” I replied, my voice breaking slightly.

“Take Odete and Aurelia to the stables for their riding lesson. Do not let them leave your sight. I want them back here for their other lessons promptly afterward.” He almost sneered at me, but held it back as to not show any exceptional rage towards me in front of his family. He didn’t want questions asked.

Didn’t want his secret out.

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

I quickly and quietly led my younger sisters out of the banquet room and towards the west wing of the castle, where the stables were kept. Odete and Aurelia were identical twins, a rare occurrence for Pricolici, as we are so unique with having a wolf as part of our identity already, that to have a twin who is like you in almost every way, their wolves would be identical too. The two girls already share a mind-link because they are identical, even though they have not shifted and bonded to their wolves yet. At the age of only thirteen, my sisters had a while to go before their First Shift.

As I helped Odete and Aurelia settle onto their beautiful horses, they took off in the huge field to practice their riding skills. I leaned back against the stable and sighed, rubbing my temples where a headache was slowly forming. My stomach growled again and I remembered suddenly that I didn’t have time to grab anything to eat after serving the King his breakfast. All a part of his plan to hurt me without lifting a finger.

Someone cleared their throat behind me.

“Oh!” I squeaked out when I saw the tall figure but then relief quickly flooded me when I saw Soren step out from around the stable wall, chuckling his deep throaty laugh.

“Oh Zenobia, you are always so easily startled.” He smiled at me with his crooked grin.

“Well I wouldn’t be so jittery if some creep wouldn’t sneak around the stables, watching me like a pervert!”

“Pervert...?”

He stood there for a moment and then busted into another fit of laughter.

“I’m so glad that my frantic heart is such a joke to you!” I playfully smacked him on the shoulder.

“Awe come on Zen, you know I was only playing, don’t take it so hard.”

He was right, I knew that his joking was utterly harmless, but I didn’t know it was him. Father’s guards tend to take me for punishment without warning. I was always anxious, always on edge waiting for the next ambush and beating to come. And then wait for it to be over again.

Soren stood there leaning back into the wall of the stables with his dark springy curls coming to the back of his neck and framing his face. He stood so tall, around six foot three, if I had to take a guess. He had his First Shift at 15 and has since then been nothing but pure muscle and wolf. His slate gray eyes were full of mischief but in them I could also see his concern for me. He was one of the only people in the castle that didn’t quickly avoid their gazes when they looked into my eyes.

“So how did the mission go, looking for the rogues that neared the castle wall? There haven’t been rogues that close in almost ten years,” I said quickly, trying to change the subject.

If he caught my apprehensiveness, he didn’t let it show on his face.

“We followed the trail to the north but it cut off into the river. We circled around from the east side, but when we reached the border we turned around. I believe the King has ordered another run tomorrow night, to be sure there is nothing that was overlooked. Especially since the full moon is in just a few nights. I can already feel my wolf’s agitation.”

He spoke of his wolf with a hint of annoyance as well as fondness. We can never stay truly upset with our wolves.

I felt a sudden wave of envy bubble in my chest, and then longing as I thought about my wolf. I wasn’t born with one, and although I had hoped she would have made herself known as I got older, there was silence. I have long since speculated that the reason my Father treated me so differently is not so much the difference in my hair... my eyes... but the lacking presence of my wolf. I couldn’t lead a kingdom let alone a Pricolici pack without my wolf.

I tried to suppress the overwhelming ache in my chest as I tried to recall where we were in our talk. Oh yes, the full moon.

“Have the barracks been prepared for the full moon yet? I am sure there is plenty left to be done before the full moon approaches.”

He tousled his hair and rubbed the stubble on his chin. His thick muscles lightly bulged through the skin whenever he moved.

“I believe the preparations have almost been completed. There should only be the water basins that need to be filled at this point. Do you need a hand?” He flashed another crooked smile at me.

“That would be so helpful, thank you.” I returned his smile with a small one of my own. His kindness is still unusual for me and has taken me much longer to get used to than I could have imagined. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel completely comfortable around him, around anyone. I quickly scouted the field for Odete and Aurelia, waving them forth so that I could help them clean and feed their horses to return them to the stable.

After the twins had returned to the castle to study with their tutors, I quickly made my way back to the stables to the well that was nearby. Grabbing some buckets, I started to slowly lower the rope to fish out the water. When I felt that the bucket was almost too full to lift, I started to tug it up and tied the rope to the wooden pillar that held the little roof above it. Much of the water splashed out as I tried to pull the nearly full bucket to the side to unhitch it.

As I walked to the barracks to fill the water basins, my eyes found Soren, leaning into a small group of the Kings’ soldiers. They were talking quite frantically, so I kept my eyes down as to avoid any unwanted attention. There have always been at least a hundred and fifty soldiers at my Father’s disposal. Every so often after a huge battle my Father would recruit younger, stronger wolves for his army. It seemed like there was a never ending stream of them just lining up to die in the King’s name. The loyalty he received was mostly out of fear, as no one wanted to incur the wrath of the cold-blooded King Avrim.

Tucking back a loose strand of my firery hair behind my ear, I took the bucket and carefully poured it into the water basins in the middle of the barracks. Normally these basins were used as a means for the soldiers to wash from after all the hours they train. But since the full moon is upon us, they have been cleaned and are ready to be used as the drinking basin for all the wolves who shift.

Soren made his way towards me, having grabbed a bucket of his own to help fill the basins. We worked in silence, not really knowing what to say to one another. He was much friendlier towards me than everyone else I had known, but it didn’t mean that we had much in way of conversation. I was a lowly servant and he was a member of my Father’s guard. I am almost positive if the King knew he spoke to me in the way he does, even smiling at me, my Father would severely punish Soren.

After several trips to and from the well, having finished filling the basins, I sat on the dirt path and took a few sips of water. The heat from the blistering sun was making the thick, scratching material stick to my body and rub my skin raw. What was left of the heat from autumn seemed to be going out with a final hoorah. As I wiped my brow and looked up, Soren was reaching a hand down to me.

“Here take this. You look like you haven’t had a bite to eat all day. You must be famished.” He handed me a red apple and half of a loaf of bread, the bread I had made this morning in the kitchen’s quarters. I offered him a gratuitous smile and quickly started into the bread. I tried to remind myself to eat slowly, my stomach protesting slightly at the sudden onslaught of food being forced down. After finishing the bread and apple I felt slightly nauseated but thankful as my headache was starting to ease up.

“Thank you, Soren. I needed that more than I realized.”

“Oh you’re welcome. You can always repay me later.” He gave me a small wink and I was confused. Payment? I didn’t have any money.

“I’m sorry I have no money or means to pay you back, I’m not sure how to repay you...” I trailed off feeling my stomach twist at the thought of what might happen if he becomes angry.

Seeing my panicked expression he quickly responded, “Oh no, Zenobia I didn’t mean you had to pay me. I just meant that I may need a small favor in the future and you can just remember the food. It’s not a big issue, promise.” He flashed his perfect teeth at me and I started to relax slightly, relieved he wasn’t angry.

I heard the crunch of the gravel and looked up to see another guard, higher up in my Father’s army, fast approaching us. I quickly stood to my feet and, dusting off my heavy dress and fixing my hair as well as I could.

"Slujitor, King Avrim has summoned your presence at once.”

Heart pounding, I scanned my mind trying to remember if I had made a mistake somewhere. Had I said or done something wrong in front of Odete or Aurelia? Did I not tidy up the kitchen quarters before leaving? Frantically, I followed the guard with trembling legs. What had I done?

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