Imperial Affliction

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Chapter 6

As my head lay down on the fluffy pillow filled with soft feathers, I was careful to keep the gash on my head from staining it. The thick dress I wore kept me warm through the shivers, because even though I was beginning to develope a fever, I was freezing.

The temperature had been all over the place lately, as autumn was well on its way out the door, winter fast approaching. The impossible heat the day before had been a bit unusual for this time of year. Scorching heat in the morning and freezing cold by night. Soon enough it would just be frosty in the morning and into the night. Pricolici are rarely bothered by the cold though, as our bodies temperature run higher than that of a human.

When you have a wolf, that is.

So as the shivers kept wracking through me, I pulled the thick quilt over my shoulders and up to my neck.

“You’re still cold, then?” Soren passed through the door way making his way towards the stool that sat near his bed. My teeth chattering, I barely uttered out a pitiful yes, and was relieved when I saw the hot cup of tea in his hand. “For you,” he said, handing me the steaming cup of tea. I gulped it down, wincing as it burned my throat in the process. I was just so cold.

Either reading my mind or the fact that I was visibly shaking, Soren got up to grab a thick wool comforter and draped it over my body. I was so grateful ,that a single tear slipped from my eye as I thanked him.

“It is the least I can do.”

“I-I.. S-shouldn’t stay long, S-soren.” The words coming out choppy through my chattering teeth.

“Nonsense. You can stay until the morning.”

Morning. The day of the Full Moon. I took in a shaky breath and felt the pain in my chest where Father had slashed me with his whip. My mind quickly recalled what happened right after Soren had burst through the dungeons main doors and found me chained to the cold concrete walls.

“Zenobia, I’m so sorry I didn’t realize that they had already told the King through the link, though I should have expected it and dealt with it sooner.”

Anger and regret laced his voice as he crouched to my side, bringing his face level with mine. The patchouli and sandalwood scent that invaded my senses made a sense of security wash over me. I didn’t even flinch as he gingerly unchained my hands and feet. “Can you walk?” He asked me quietly, apparent that he didn’t want to touch me without verbal consent with the condition I was in.

I weakly shook my head, the small action making the pounding in my temples increase. He slowly put his right arm under my knees as his left one supported my back. He lifted me into the air with no resistance, as if I weighed no more than a small stone. Pricolici strength ran deep in his veins.

The blood on my face stained his shirt as he held me close to him, my head right against his heart, the steady beat calming my panic. After Father had left me in the cell, the overwhelming despair of my life engulfed me, sending me into full panic. Until I had seen Soren’s face and the air of safety that surrounds him, I was in my own cruel world. The world where I let what they all say define me. Define the opinion I hold of myself and tear down the strength that I had that remained.

Their opinions do not define me, but instead defines all of them.

As Soren carried me to his living quarters, my eyes drifted to his face, taking in his stoic features. He looked angry but there was something in his face. A tightness that didn’t seem to come from the anger that burned in his slate gray eyes. His brown curls were tied back revealing his strong jaw and cheek bones. He didn’t look down at me as he carried me, and a small fleeting thought crossed my mind as we entered his room.

How did he know where to find me?

My thoughts snapped back to the present when I heard him quietly clear his throat. My gaze met his and I couldn’t understand the emotion that laced his features. He had done so much for me, even risking his life letting me sleep in the safety of his living quarters. I had half a mind to ask him why and get clear answers this time, but something seemed to stop me. Instead, I asked a more dangerous question.

“Soren, w-what do you know about the w-witches?”

I could tell my question caught him off guard as a shocked look crossed his face. Understanding seemed to take its place and I’m sure he knew why I was asking without my having to say. He was thoughtful for a long moment until he finally spoke.

“To be truthful, I do not know much, just from what I have gathered from the soldiers’ lessons. I know that there are Crystal wielding witches and the ones who wield the Onyx Stones. Their powers are expended through the stone and exemplified by the stones’ natural spiritual powers. Very, very rarely have I heard of the witches who can wield the powers of the Black Opal.”

“So their powers are magnified by these special stones... how do they find these stones that grant them such a boost in power?”

“Most of what I have heard is that the stones are passed through generations but some witches can go on a spiritual journey to find ‘their’ stone.”

“What do you mean ‘their’ stone?”

“The stone that speaks to a witches soul. It is said that there is a Soul Stone for every witch, but the journey to find it is a spiritually burdensome one. Some witches have lost their lives trying to seek out their Soul Stone.”

I let the words he spoke sink in while I drank some more of the hot tea. The warmth was starting to return to my fingers and toes, the fever seeming to edge off. Whatever was in this tea was doing wonders for the pounding headache in my temples that was starting to lessen.

“These witches, which of them are the most powerful ones? Where do you find them?”

Soren gave me a sideways glance and then looked outside his window into the midnight sky. His dark brown hair coyld pass for jet black in the poor lighting and his slate grey eyes looked much darker as well, but something in his eyes told me it wasn’t just the lack of good lighting.

“The witches who possess a Soul Stone are the most powerful witches of course, because the stones they wield are connected directly to their souls. And I have no idea how to find one. They are incredibly rare. Why, is there a reason you need to find one?” He turned to look at me with an eyebrow slightly raised.

I softly shook my head no while the recent events came flooding into my mind. The golden light shooting from my hands, and the golden laced patterns that had appeared on my fingers that seemed a hallucination.

And the dream. The dream I had of the shrouded figure in the lake and the wolf. I needed to find answers, the kind only a witch with the powers to see the things to come could help with.

“Except...” Soren started. Getting up from his stool he walked out of the room, only to return a few moments later with a small wooden box in his hand. He sat back down on the stool, caressing the intricately carved design and opened the box. As he pulled it out, a short breath hitched in my lungs. A delicate gold chain with a large red Opal hanging from the beautiful chain. Being about the size of my thumb nail, the gem was quite the beauty. Soren gently placed the necklace into my hand and closed my fingers into a fist around the precious stone.

“It was my mother’s, something that was passed from her mother and so on. It was left to me when she became ill, I remember her looking so pale and beautiful even as she lay dying. She told me this stone would lead me to great power but I never put much thought into until now. Maybe it can help you with whatever you are seeking.”

Caught up his story about his mother and the stone, I opened my fist and brought the beautiful firery stone with golden flecks closer to my face. I could feel something when I held the stone, like an invisible weight. But I didn’t mention it to Soren.

Maybe it can help you with whatever you are seeking.

Oh no.

“Soren, I can not take this, it was your mother’s, I couldn’t possibly-”

“You can and you will Zenobia. You need it more than I do. I trust you will keep it safe for me.” He gave me a crooked smile and I closed my hand around the precious stone and gold chain once more.

Soren stood from his stool and walked towards the door. Turning his head back, he gave me a long look and then bid me a good night. After he disappeared into the darkness, I found my mind reeling at the things he told me and the things I knew.

I needed to find a witch, not just any witch, a Soul Stone wielding witch.

I did not know where to find them, or how to escape.

The glowing golden light from my hands hadn’t happened since that night I killed the guard but I feel as though something has changed.

I had stood up to my Father for once, for the first time in my life. I had seen emotions in his eye I didn’t think he held for me.

And my mother. He had spoken of my mother.

Something was changing. I was changing.

Still clutching the beautiful necklace of Soren’s mother, eventually my tired mind slipped into unconciousness.

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

I awoke to a grey light coming through the windows, my body slightly chilled, despite the two thick quilts that lay tucked around me. Groaning, I kept my eyes shut, hoping I could disappear into the soft down of the mattress. Reality set in when the suns rays spilled into room.

It was time to get up. To get moving.

I sat up and realized that I still had the necklace clutched in my closed fist. Reaching up with my free hand, I ran my fingers along the now mostly healed gash at my hairline. It would form into a small thin scar as time wore on, but jt was still rather gruesome. Somehow, my scarlet mane made it stand out like a sore thumb, rather than doing anything to conceal it.

Slowly standing to my feet, I made my way towards to wash room. There was a pale blue dress laid next to a brush as well as clean towels and a small soap bar. I walked forward and picked up the little bar of soap and took a deep breath. Lavender and honey. It smelled absolutely divine. For a moment I wondered if Soren knew my favorite scent was Lavender.

I carefully set the beautiful opal and gold necklace on a stand next to the wash basin. I took a few moments to untangle my hair while a bath was running hot into the large tub. Looking into my eyes I tried to take calming breaths.

My nerves were fraying.

Slowly sinking my body into the hot water, I could feel the freshly healed skin on my stomach tingle where the water touched. I grabbed the soap and started lathering my hair and face, careful to work gingerly near my fresh wound. The sweet scent fragranced the entire room until it was thick with steam. I rinsed my body and then stood to wrap the towel around me. With the Full Moon tonight, I was going to escape.

I quickly put a series of intricate braids into my still damp curls, wrapping them around my head. Slipping the pale blue dress on, I swiped a pair of trousers from Soren’s clean linen basket, rolling them up at the waist and ankles. I took the excess and tied it in a knot at my waist so they wouldn’t slip off.

If I was going to run, I couldn’t let a dress slow me down. Not this time.

Grabbing the soap I had used, I tore a piece of my bloodied dress off and tightly wrapped the soap in it and secured it to my waist under my dress. Hoping the scent of my blood would be enough to conceal it.

Taking a glance at myself in the small oval mirror, I looked presentable but my eyes were frantic. Needing composure, I took several deep breaths and then straightened my spine. Grabbing the opal necklace, I tucked it away into the measly breast band that secured my rather large chest for my small frame. Holding my head high, I walked from Soren’s room towards the kitchen quarters.

I prepared the meals for the day as usual, being sure to add more carbs and protein than normal, as the new shifters would surely burn through them in no time. Pricolici take in an exuberant amount of carbs on a daily basis, but when the First Shift occurs, our body has never been through the excruciating process of bones breaking and rebreaking into place. It takes an incredible amount of energy to shift into a new form, therefore an increase of carb intake is required.

After making the trays for the Royal Family, I grabbed my small satchel I had hidden and quickly filled it with food to take with me. Nothing too extravagant, half a loaf of bread, about six strips of jerky, as well as some dried fruits and nuts. I secured the satchel tightly, making sure to wrap it twice so that it made no noise when shuffled around. I hoped that double wrapping it as well as being hidden under my dress would be enough to hide any scent it would give off.

Grabbing the trays, I made my way towards the dining hall. As usual, King Avrim sat at the end of the long wooden table, with Queen Miriam and Odete to his left. On his right side sat Garridan and Aurelia. None of them bothered to look my way as I quietly and routinely sat their breakfasts in front of them.

My heart sped up rapidly in my chest when I wondered how father would react to me being freed from the dungeons without his command. But he gave no notice of me, instead he was focused solely on Garridan. I snuck a peek at Garridan and was slightly taken aback.

His stormy grey eyes looked sunk in, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. The skin around his jaw bone slightly taught from being swollen. His skin was flushed and his dark blonde hair was knatted in several snarls. There were hundreds of tiny beads of prespiration that dotted his skin. He haunched over his meal and quickly ate his food, as if it were his last meal.

Well, it could be.

Not every Pricolici survived the First Shift. Sometimes something went wrong and the body rejects the wolf. But rejecting the wolf inside only meant certain death. No Pricolici could survive without their wolf. It was like the sun without the moon. One couldn’t do without the other.

Except me, I was the exception.

“My son, are you prepared for your shift tonight?”

“Yes, Father.” His voice was barely above a whisper, he was obviously suffering.

“We must have you taking carbs every hour to maintain strength if you are to complete the shift without any injuries or set backs. You will report to the barracks after supper to be secluded for safety. You will have several guards at your door to make sure there are no assassination attempts.”

“Of course Father.” Garridan barely spoke as it was apparent the fever and pain was already too taxing on his body. He quickly go up from the table and made his leave. Odete was speaking with her mother who then gave her husband a concerned look. I kept my eyes averted as she spoke with him.

“Dear, what if he doesn’t complete his First Shift?”

There was a strained tension so thick in the room I was sure I could feel it slither in and out of my lungs as I breathed. Father’s eyes flickered in my direction and then back to his wife and daughters.

“Do not worry, Garridan is a strong young man and will make an even stronger Alpha King someday than I. We have nothing to fear.” He sounded so sure of his words but I wondered if he truly believed it, or said it for their benefit as well as his own.

Gathering up the soiled dishes, my thoughts were interrupted when Aurelia spoke to me.

“Zenobia, would you please help me in the garden after breakfast? I need to find some herbs to make a soothing and calming tea for Garridan. I know it wont help much, but maybe it will take off the edge.”

Surprised by her question I looked at Father for the answer. After a moment hee simply nodded his head once while his eyes bore hatred in them. I quickly answered Aurelia.

“Of course, miss. Let me take these dishes to the kitchen, clean up, and I will be here waiting for you.”

She beamed at me, perfectly ignorant of the way Father was tensed when she smiled my way. I hurried back to the kitchen to tidy the quarters and clean the soiled dishes. Once the area was near spotless, I tucked a strand of hair that had fallen loose from one of my braids behind my ear and went to wait for Aurelia.

As I rounded the corner I bumped into someone.

Not just anyone. One of the guards I had knocked unconscious the night they tried to rape me.

I froze in my place when recognition lit his face but it was then I noticed there was no anger or hatred in his eyes.

There was fear.

I went to open my mouth to speak but no words came to me, I was shocked. Stunned that he recoiled away from me the moment he touched me.

He was afraid of me.

Or rather what I had done. He quickly apologized and backed away from me, going in the opposite direction of where he was headed.

My heart was pounding so hard in my chest I was wondering how it hadn’t broke out of my ribcage. Someone feared me. I had been fearful all my life because of my father and his constant degradation and abuse. Not only from him but his soldiers as well. I had been fearful of any social interaction as a result. Sure plenty of people in the castle were weary of me because of my eyes, something they couldn’t explain.

But not fearful of something I could do.

A sense of power washed over me as I spotted Aurelia rounding the corner from her and Odete’s living quarters, having changed her dress into something less extravagant to go picking through the garden. I couldn’t help the wide grin that spread across my lips.

Things were definitely changing.

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