Your face is burning.
And it still was, thirty minutes later, his back propped up against the doorway to his balcony. He buried his face into his hands, trying to force the redness away with sheer force of will. He had tried to make a stand for tradition, for observing rules of courtship, for standing for what was right. So then why did he feel guilty? Why did he feel like he was wrong?
The inner turmoil was stretching him thin–he had sent nearly the entirety of a campaign’s worth of ships to Egghelende rather than to the correct staging point for a major push. Messages were going unanswered, schedules weren’t being filled, recruitment was backlogging and there was no sign that anything was being mitigated. It was all cascading together into a miasma of dissonance and cacophony. His ordered, scheduled, predictable world was crumbling all around him.
He hadn’t known her out of pod until several short weeks ago. Right before meeting her, he was a slave-owner, his corporation led the 24th Imperial Crusade in confirmed kills against Minmatar, Gallente, and pirates, and he was focused on driving it forward with the delicate precision of fine clockwork.
And then he met her out of pod. His superior officer. His alliance executor. A living legend within the Crusade. She possessed the sort of influence that could only be obtained with a true noble heritage, years of positioning, and a strong sense of purpose. By contrast, he had none of those things. At the very best, he was a new, weak piece in a game that had started years before he even considered joining the militia.
He hadn’t even known her that long when she exhibited an immense amount of control. Within two weeks of meeting her, she had him collared and his slaves were free.
His face burned again at the thought, as if the humiliation of being paraded around the Terrace in a golden collar wasn’t already acute enough. He could feel tears of shame forming around his eyes. But somehow, in her diction, in her resolve, the shame had been bearable, because it was all for a brighter future. That’s what he told himself, anyway, in awed admiration of the clarity she offered in a sea of gray.
He pulled his knees to his chest as he tried to make himself small–the way he had done in the days leading up to his mother leaving the family for good. His mother’s last words to him echoed like a crystal goblet shattering in an empty Cathedral, “Remember, Reginald, I only want the best for you.” He could still see that fake, forced smile she wore as she departed, a smile filled with malice and disgust.
It was the same kind of smile Lady Lianne had flicked at him the night before with the words, “But of course I do. I only want the best for you, Reginald.”
He hated smiles like that. Those false, sarcastic smiles that meant the exact opposite. It was worse than cruel. A shock ran through his spine as familiar cold radiated into his soul, the self-pity known only unto the anxiously depressed and heartbroken.
She had really said, “But of course I don’t. I only want the worst for you, Reginald.”
He suddenly found it difficult to breath as a fresh wave of frigid despair coursed through him, crashing through the old barriers he had erected against his mother. Like shallow trees planted in the bed of a flooding river, they fell one by one. Earning a spot at the Royal Amarr Institute–shattered by his father being unable to pay the tuition. Scoring top marks in his first few courses–broken by not graduating with distinction, merit, or honor. Forging a path for his own identity by not choosing engineering, applied mathematics, or industrial design–destroyed by the month of hauling garbage in Penirgman just to make ends meet.
And then there was nothing left. Nothing except Kat. It wasn’t strong, that small spot of warmth at the base of his neck when he thought of her. But it was enough to turn the bitterness away, if only for a moment. He glanced at the railing to the balcony, finding himself smiling a weak smile. They had stood there together, hand in hand, watching the waves roll across a boundless sea with a wonder so hard to kindle within a capsuleer. It was a nice memory. He set it up as another barrier to Lady Lianne’s mocking tones and icy glares. It would never be enough.
He could feel it crumbling, then it snapped.
“She is in the Legion killing the militia. She has no loyalty. I have no respect for people of her ilk, they can burn for all I care.”
He had reached out to her because she needed a friend.
“You’re so keen on playing ‘Knight Errant’ then so be it. Come talk to me after you lose your entire fleet to the Legion hotdropping you. When Katerina kills YOUR men.”
A toast to friendship.
“You think Katerina is loyal to you? Time will tell, the battlefield will prove this to you.”
He had observed the proper rules, etiquette, and decorum.
“Don’t come crying to me when your men stop trusting you because you’re bedding the enemy.”
He was shivering. He was tired. He felt weak. He let his head fall to his chest. He closed his eyes and saw Kat across the table from him, enjoying dinner with a smile. He saw them strolling through the trade floor of the Emperor Family Academy station above Oris. He saw her standing by his side as he signed the papers for Joni. He saw her laugh. He saw them standing next to each other on the railing to the balcony. For a moment, he thought he could feel her hand in his. He clenched his fist, more tears streaming down his cheeks as he tried to shake the memory of the feeling away. He didn’t want to believe what he was about to tell himself, but Lady Lianne was right. With her scathing words as a catalyst he willed the sentences into existence:
“Katerina’s smiles are fake.”
“Katerina is the enemy.”