“It was just tea.”

He felt sick. It had to have been hours since he had seen Joni to the Guest House, since Katerina had left for Amamake, since he had sent a communication to Lady Lianne regarding Joni’s health. He turned over again, struggling to find a comfortable position, though he understood it was by no means the fault of the bed. Maybe it was the espresso.

Sighing heavily, Reginald clambered out of the covers and placed his feet firmly on the ground. Sitting upright, he started to massage his temples, his mind ablaze with the events of the night before. Too thirsty to sleep, too exhausted to get water. He contented himself with breathing, his mind crossing back over familiar torments.

It was supposed to have been a quiet visit to The Holy Grape. He had asked Katerina Tzestu–formerly of Imperial Outlaws. and now of Pandemic Legion–to the venue as he was unfamiliar. The goal was simple: Sample the food and drink at The Holy Grape in preparation for obtaining similar for his date with Lady Lianne. It had started as a friendly excursion and then the evening took a turn for the worse.

Reginald and Katerina had just finished dessert. He had been of the opinion that tea was perfectly acceptable with cheesecake, but Katerina had convinced him to keep an open mind about espresso. With that in mind, dessert was surprisingly enjoyable. At least, until the Kingdom slaver Natasha Lanti entered the Grape, male slave in tow. He had clandestinely sent a message to Lady Lianne requesting further instructions, but had received no response. Instead, Lady Lianne arrived at the Grape personally with a ruffian–though one of Reginald’s alliance mates–acting as escort.

The negotiations between Natasha and Lady Lianne broke down almost immediately. Simultaneously, the ruffian of a man did little to cast a positive light on Imperial Outlaws., almost causing a raucous within the establishment. To Reginald’s relief, the ruffian began behaving considerably better, but only after the Sommelier, Charity Black, approached him with two imposing-looking staff members. The transaction for Joni’s transfer came to a bill of two billion ISK, which Lady Lianne dutifully paid on the spot.

But she did not seem happy by any stretch of the imagination. There was a beauty all of its own to her demeanor–as a storm is beautiful when seen from a distant horizon. But Reginald did not have the pleasure of a dozen miles between himself and the fire behind her gaze, a fury concealed beneath delicate features and blue eyes. Nor was he merely an observer when her expression finally fell upon him, sharing a table with Katerina as he was. He hoped he was mistaken, he hoped that Lady Lianne had simply turned her head after becoming angry at the slaver–but he felt the stare lingering in his mind.

Though he was certain he had observed stiff rules and etiquette when entertaining Katerina, he felt somehow that he had crossed a threshold he should never have. The feeling had started several nights prior, the night after Joni was abducted, when he walked onto the Terrace with a tactless smile. Lady Lianne had seemed less than pleased when her inquiries revealed that Reginald had enjoyed tea with Katerina. He apologized, but she had replied, “Stop it! You don’t have to apologize. If you have an interest in her, that is your business. Not mine. You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

He had wanted to say he was observing the rules becoming of a gentlemen, that Katerina simply needed someone to talk to to, that he was just being a friend to her when she needed one most. He shook his head quietly. That would’ve been accurate, then.

Now, however, things were more complicated. When he caught Lady Lianne’s expression at the Grape, he felt guilty. Not in the scandalous way of being found out–he could hold his head high that he treated Katerina with deference and respect. No, he felt the guilt that a traitor must feel, the guilt of betrayal–the guilt associated with breaking Lady Lianne’s trust, even if she herself had said she trusted no one . He pounded himself with “should have’s”:

“I should have been on the Terrace last night.”

“I should have been the one to go to The Grape with Lady Lianne.”

“I should have been there, somehow, afterwards.”

“I should have been available as a subordinate within her alliance.”

“I should have stayed away from–”

Why couldn’t he complete that thought? A smiling Katerina occupied his attention as he tried to will the end of the sentence. But even if he could finish the sentence now, would he believe it? He rubbed his eyes in between breaths, searching for respite from the dizzying cacophony of thoughts, whispers, and memories.

As penance for his transgressions–though reluctant–he stayed behind at the Grape after Lady Lianne took her leave, serving as the plenipotentiary for the slave transaction paperwork regarding Joni. With the evening already ruined, he considerately asked Katerina if she wanted to leave. It would have been well within her right to–he was just putting his name to paper after all. But she had volunteered to stay. And then, that’s right, they went for a walk to the trade floor, where he showed her how he made his first billion ISK, margin trading on the commodities market in the Emperor Family Academy station above Oris. They had shared laughs. That had been fun–a way to distract him from his responsibilities.

Reginald felt his right hand start to shake as the unwanted memory of signing the papers crept into his thoughts. And then there was the remote. The collar. That monstrosity that came with explosives? And Natasha insisting that Joni was dangerous. And then there was the way Joni looked. How many Jonis had he created?

But she stayed with him through all of it, not just for the formalities. She even helped him bring Joni back to the Terrace and see that he had a meal, before seeing him off to bed. And then they talked and she was there, listening to his outrages, his outbursts, his sorrows. And then he had asked for a hug. Hours afterwards, he was certain that request was improper, but the result was comforting, natural, human.

“I don’t want to do that ever again,” He had said, embracing her, a waterfall of freezing guilt pouring over him, his mind saturated with Joni’s accusatory tones and Lady Lianne’s glare.

“With any luck you won’t have to,” Katerina had replied, returning the embrace.

He felt his face burn suddenly. He tried to shake it all away as he sunk back beneath the covers, shutting his eyes in an attempt to drift off to sleep.

“It was just tea.”


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