"Sleep well, little one." Aurora swayed as she held Prince Colvyr her arms. The nursery had just been filled with the sound of woman's favorite lullaby. Now she stared into the blue-flecked eyes of her child.
"Mama," the little prince squished his mother's face between his palms. She laughed lightly.
"I love you." The Empress leaned forward and kissed the child on the forehead.
In response, the one year old planted his mouth on his mother's cheek in a sloppy, open smack. The child then blew air against her face, making a sound that would cause a lady to blush.
After such a display, anyone but a parent would have thoroughly wiped the slobber from their face. Aurora just smiled.
"I think you are going to miss it when he stops doing that," Devrim said as he embraced the pair.
The Empress nodded. "Then I see no other option. We will just have to find a way to keep him small forever," Aurora stated firmly. "For my evening is not complete without this little person's love."
"Little boys have a nasty habit of growing up. So do little girls for that matter," Nanny mused as she eyed the Empress and Emperor from her rocking chair. She had known Aurora since the day she was born and Devrim since he was twelve. "Funny how the children grow older, but I never seem to age a day," the old woman joked.
"And I hope you never will. Colvyr's children will need your care someday also," The Empress cooed.
"You went from our child never growing up to giving him his own children in the blink of an eye." Devrim laughed.
"I'm a complicated person," the fiery-haired woman answered as she tilted her nose into the air defiantly.
"Trust me, I know," the Emperor teased with a wink.
The Empress glared at her husband as she pulled herself out of his arms. She strode elegantly over to the old woman and handed Nanny the little prince after giving him one last night time blessing.
"I think I shall head to bed myself." Aurora arched her brow. Devrim was suddenly very interested.
"Would you care to join me in my room?" he asked with a lopsided grin.
Aurora scrunched her face in confusion. "I never sleep in your room. We always go to mine."
"I know, but once in a while, we can be different. It will throw my male attendants into a frenzy." The Emperor's eyes danced with mischief.
Devrim had heard his attendants complain behind his back about how bored they were. He reveled in how they would scramble to accommodate his whim.
Tapping her chin softly, the Empress cut her eyes toward her husband. "Your room? Hm. Are you sure you can deal with someone so complicated?"
Devrim saluted, seeing victory close on the horizon. "I am up for the challenge, Your Majesty!" He offered his arm. "It is something new. It will be like a vacation," he added with a winsome smile.
With a flush, Aurora hooked onto his elbow. "I know how much you love a good vacation."
Looking deep into one another's eyes, the royal couple left Nanny and Colvyr behind in the nursery. The old woman bounced the baby on her knee and looked at him seriously.
"Well, no one can doubt their love for each other. If they keep carrying on like they do, you will be a big brother before your second birthday."
Colvyr screeched loudly, though whether it was from fear or joy was anyone's guess.
Aurora woke from a deep sleep suddenly in need of the privvy. Disoriented, she groped for her robe and draped it over her shoulders. Having no desire to be interrupted accidentally by one of Devrim's male attendants, she slipped surreptitiously into the hidden tunnels that connected her room to her husband's bedchamber.
The tunnels that had not been destroyed by the dragons still gave off the faint light of the original glowstone, and this area provided enough luminescence for Aurora to pass through without a candle. That was good; she had no time to light one anyway.
Exiting the other side into her suite with a fair amount of urgency, the Empress rushed to relieve herself. When the refreshed woman completed her task, she found that now she was very thirsty.
'When it isn't one thing it is another,' she bemoaned silently.
Not wanting to wake her ladies-in-waiting, the Empress decided to search for the pitcher of water that usually awaited her by her bed.
Taking a final step toward the nightstand, Aurora's slippers splashed in a puddle. The ground was wet and slick. "That's strange," she mumbled.
Reaching for the small bedside table, the Empress lit a candle with the waiting ember stick. A small circle of light surrounded the Empress, and Aurora could see the metal pitcher on the ground. She picked it up and went to set it back on the small table when her eyes caught something that made her heart stop.
The sheets of the Empress's bed were ripped to shreds, and the soft mattress below was split into pieces with feathers spilling in every direction. Deep parallel slashes ran the length of the bed.
'A knife didn't do this,' Aurora thought quickly. 'It was done by claws.'
A low growl rumbled from the darkness.
'It's still here.'
The Empress tensed. Her hand gripped the pitcher and scanned feverishly to discover the source of the snarl.
In answer to her search, two large yellow eyes flashed as they reflected the small light beside her. The eyes were menacing and sickly, quickly joined in the darkness by sharp, white teeth.
Without warning the creature's hideous features surged toward her with blinding speed.
Aurora swung the metallic pitcher with all her might at the terrifying beast. She could feel its hot breath on her face as the makeshift weapon collided with the creature's giant maw. Her cheek and arm stung as teeth and claws grazed her skin.
Barely missing a more catastrophic injury, the fiery-haired woman shifted to one side, her hip bumping into the nightstand.
Gripping the candle with one and and bracing for another impact with the other, Aurora lit the sconce on the wall above her bed. What she saw caused the scream stuck in her throat to pierce the air.
"Help! Guards! Monster!"
Before her, a large wolf stood completely erect. However, everything about the creature was wrong. His head was too round with ears pinned down to the misshapen skull. The snout was too short, and as he teetered up on its two hind feet, she noticed the joints on the back legs bent the wrong direction. His black fur was patchy and uneven, plagued with bald spots.
His thick chest rippled as it wheezed in a low raspy murmur. Through the missing fur, the muscles of his stomach were firm and defined, exuding strength. All in all the misshapen creature was unlike anything Aurora had seen or read about.
Blinded by the sudden flood of light, the wolf blocked its golden eyes with its front paws for a moment. The Empress saw her chance. Along the top of the torn bed, Aurora ran feverishly, sending a shower of disturbed feathers through the air.
Quickly sensing the movement, the wolf lunged, catching the woman's wet slipper with the edge of its claw. Aurora fell forward onto the bed, losing the candle to the floor and having the pitcher bounce on the padding beside her. She pulled her foot free of the captured shoe and tossed the second slipper as hard as she could at the creature's snout. The monster snarled at the attack.
Scrambling on her stomach, Aurora groped and found the hidden knife beneath her mattress. She felt a sting on her left calf as the claws of the monster tried to stop her escape and pin her lower body down. In a moment, she would be finished.
Acting instinctually, the Empress plunged the blade into the wolf's front paw--which she now saw had an opposable thumb--forcing the beast to release her leg. The freedom was only temporary. She needed to hurry.
With her remaining energy, the fiery-haired woman limped fanatically toward the hidden tunnel.
She did not get far. A shadow towered over her and then passed by as the determined wolf cut off her escape. He loomed over Aurora on his hind paws. The strange yellow eyes were intelligent, mocking her for her attempt to leave.
On the other side of the bedchamber, the door burst open as Candela and three soldiers barreled inside the room. The lady-in-waiting screamed, drawing the attention of the monster from his prey.
The Empress moved swiftly to stab the creature in the chest, but the wolf's reflexes were faster. He grabbed her wrist with his hand-like paw, and easily knocked the weapon away.
Then he lifted her off the ground by her arm, and prepared to deal a fatal blow. The soldiers rushed forward, but there was no way they would make it in time.
Aurora kicked at the air, hitting the stomach of the beast. However her strikes were barely more powerful than insect bites with her bare feet. The beast's mouth seemed to curve into a malicious grin.
He was the last sight she would ever see, Aurora realized with horror. This was not how things were supposed to be.
The claws of the wolf began their downward motion when they suddenly stopped. The monster roared as his grip on the Empress's arm slackened. Aurora fell to the floor.
The creature's yellow eyes faded and rolled up into its head. Collapsing to one side, the wolf landed on the polished marble and went still.
Behind him, Devrim, in his nightshirt, stood heaving with a bloody sword in his hand.
Releasing the weapon, he swept his wife up in his arms and carried her away from the monster's body. "Secure it however you can and make sure there are no more of them hiding," he ordered the guards. "Get the doctor," he told Candela.
In the sitting room, the lamps were lit and the room secured. "Are you alright?" Devrim asked as he examined his wife's body for injuries. Her leg, arm and face were bleeding, but only the leg wound seemed very deep.
"I am fine," Aurora assured him. "How did that...thing...get in here?"
"I don't know."
"Your Majesty? YOUR MAJESTY!" Nurlan entered, half awake and only slightly more dressed. He had been off duty for the night when he was roused. The general saw the blood on the Empress's face and nightdress. "What happened?" he blurted, forgetting why he had interrupted them.
"Aurora was attacked." Devrim said shortly, looking with worry at his wife.
"By a wolf?" Nurlan asked, surprising both of the royals. Their expressions told them all her needed to know. "I was woken by a report from a servant that he had seen two wolves roaming the palace. I am so sorry not to have alerted you sooner!"
"Two wolves?" Aurora asked, her face tense. "But we have only found one." The royal leapt from the couch.