"You may leave us."
Her voice was steel, cold and resolute, and the servants who busied about the room tumbled over themselves in a scramble for the door. All except for one. The grey haired man, short but powerfully built, was standing next to the young prince, still clad in the thick armor he had been wearing during their training session half an hour ago. The prince himself shrunk toward him and seemed to disappear into the loose fitting shirt and pants he had changed into. His limbs were long and awkward, evidence of a body in transition from boyhood to manhood.
"I said you may leave us."
Gregorio shifted as if to leave, then paused, fixing his Empress with a pleading look.
"Your Majesty, if I may be so bold-"
"You may not," Teodora curtly interrupted, fixing him with a glare that could melt glass. "The only reason I am still tolerating your presence is your years of service to my line. Stay another moment, and I will consider it treason."
The older man looked as though he were still going to say something but thought better of it and started for the exit, shooting the young lad an apologetic glance before closing the large double door behind him with a click that echoed through the chamber for a long moment.
Enrique stared at the floor, not able to work up the courage to face his mother directly. Teodora, for her part was looking him up and down, appraising what she saw. With a snort of derision she shook her head and walked toward him, the click of her heels filling his heart with dread as she neared.
With her thumb and forefinger she took hold of the boy's chin, forcing him to look into her eyes and meet the disappointment found there. Enrique didn't squirm or try to break her grasp. There was no point. It would only add to the pain that was coming.
"What's the matter with you?" Teodora hissed. He could feel her fingernails biting into him from beneath her thin gloves. "Do you want me to produce another heir? To debase myself into a marriage below my station? Surely you can't expect me to allow you to take the throne, weak as you are."
He didn't want to cry. But the tears came unbidden to his eyes and when they dampened her silk gloves his mother recoiled from him in disgust.
"You're a disgrace," she spat, removing both of her gloves before coiling her arm back and lashing out with an open palmed slap that hit his cheek with a force that that knocked him off balance.
"Well?" she demanded, spittle hitting the red handprint on his face. "What do you have to say for yourself?
The prince remained silent. There was nothing that he could say to change what was coming.
"Since you are failing at your weapons training, it seems only right that I teach you the lesson your teachers are too soft or scared to teach you." There was a soft click as the monarch twisted the tip of her scepter and pulled a long, thin, familiar rod out of the core of the symbol of rule.
"Take off your shirt. Let's not ruin another, shall we?"
Trembling, Enrique did as he was told, letting the fabric billow to the marbled floor as his teeth clacked together, revealing skin that was already marred with criss-crossing white lines across his back and shoulders.
"Turn around and get on your hands and knees."
The young prince dropped to the floor, muscles betraying him as they spasmed uncontrollably. His mother clucked her tongue and whipped the cane through the air, relishing the cries that escaped his mouth.
He was quieter than last time.
That was good.
Maybe he was finally learning.
The prince was, indeed, learning. With each new line, with every new scar, he was learning one important truth, one that was sinking deep into his core.
He would never be like this woman.