New Equilibrium IV

Naomi wore her best smile as she waited in front of the estate’s entrance for Alexa. It was all going almost too well–a few drinks, a few smiles and Alexa had risen to the occasion to lend her services to the Empire. The sun was out in the Myyhera sky, illuminating the country estate with its familiar yellow warmth. Servants walked to and fro, their heads occupied with their allocation of chores for the day. An attendant stood near Naomi–one of the many unnamed faces of the Household Affairs office.

Alexa exited one of the family’s sleek black cars–one of a fleet that were adorned with the family’s crest. Naomi loathed the crest–engraved upon so many trinkets and artifacts throughout the manor, as it was; the seal was in and of itself a silent watcher of her every action. And she imagined it would scream if it was given a voice. But she would hear plenty of screaming once she had her brother and his wife on their knees.

“Welcome to our humble abode, Miss Alexa,” She curtsied.

Alexa bowed, “Thank you, Naomi. And you can call me ‘Alexa.'”

“Very well, Alexa,” She glanced at the facade of the manor building, motioning for the attendant to begin taking notes, “What security flaws do you see?”

Her tone was careful. She wanted to see how much Alexa could pick up on body language and voice stress, so she asked her questions with a veneer of calculation–her tone could have suggested danger or a threat.

“Very few. I would… hesitate to reveal them directly, Naomi, but security is clearly fairly strong.”

So not completely ignorant. 

She nodded, “Why don’t we take tea inside one of the parlors and we can discuss it there.”

“After you, Naomi.”

Naomi walked slowly through the manor, pointing out various conversation items. About half-way there she relieved the attendant of his duties and called upon the staff to provide a tea service in one of the parlors, but that they would take their tea privately. The result was a silver tea service awaiting them with no other souls in sight.

She made her way to the service and took on the role of server, “Do you take sugar or cream?”

“Both, please.”

She nodded, then provided Alexa with a teacup upon a saucer–the sugar and cream present. She imagined that her brother would say something idiotic around this time such as “Mother always told me milk before the tea…” But she chose instead to provide Alexa with a different hallmark–the muted smile of the nobility.

Alexa took a sip, giving her thanks. Their eyes met for a moment, then Alexa said, “You are… quite a lovely woman…”

Poor thing! 

Naomi feigned embarrassment, “Oh, thank you, Miss–ahem–Alexa. You are as well.”

Naomi quickly glanced around after steadying herself–it was not quite time to flirt, yet, “We should be free to speak, here, but sometimes I wonder if I can trust the household staff.”

“The security around the Manor is excellent,” Alexa began, “I have a few concerns–the guards patrol a predictable path, for example, and it might be wise to make some discreet inquiries into the… social alignment of the staff…?”

Naomi, feigning ignorance, raised an eyebrow, “Social alignment?”

“Who assigns their duties? How much access does an outside party have, should they wish to turn one of your employees?”

Naomi responded matter-of-factly, “The house receives deliveries once a week and the staff are on a rotating schedule that gives them leave to visit the town or even go into the city. Their duties are assigned by the Household Affairs office, which I oversee directly.”

Alexa nodded, Naomi continued, “I’m afraid it seems very porous when you cast it in such light,” She put on a downcast expression, “Spies could be rampant.”

Alexa seemed silent for a moment, as if thinking over something critical. Finally, she offered, “If you wish, I could contact some of my associates and see if any of them have unsavory connections.”

She hadn’t considered that as a possibility. It was threatening though it was sincere–an investigation would ultimately lead back to her own operations. She couldn’t have that.

“Alexa,” Naomi put her cup of tea down, hoping to slightly shift Alexa’s course, “If you had the choice to rule out of fear or out of love, which would you choose?”

Alexa hesitated, but finally replied, “I do not like the idea that people are afraid of me–though I understand the usefulness of such perceptions, from a military perspective. Were I given a choice… I would rule out of love.”

Naomi crossed the distance between them. Wearing an expression of virtuous ambition, she looked into Alexa’s eyes then took Alexa’s hands in her own, “Then we are the same.”

“My brother rules by fear and the family loathes him. I want this family to be one where we can love.”

Alexa merely nodded, staring into Naomi’s gaze. Perfect.

“He uses spies to provide him with information, to quell dissent,” Naomi shook her head, “That’s not what I want. I want my brother and my new sister-in-law to return to a transformed family, one where we don’t have to live with barriers of fear erected between us.”

Alexa responded, “I will do all I can to help you achieve that goal.”

Naomi smiled, then acted as if she had just realized they were holding hands. She faked a blush and turned away, “I’m sorry. That was improper of me.”

She heard Alexa take a deep breath. In that breath she heard a symphony of success–the hook was deep indeed.

“Y-you need not apologize, Naomi. I-in fact, I do not know precisely the reason, but… I wish you had not stopped.”

Naomi turned back to Alexa, “You would have allowed me to… to continue?”

Alexa blushed a response, “I would. If you wish.”

As if guided by God, a servant knocked on the door, breaking the moment. Naomi almost burst out laughing at the manifestation of Providence, the servant indicating a message had arrived for her.

She looked at Alexa, “Will–will you stay, tonight? I feel… safer, when you are nearby.”

Alexa nodded, “Yes… yes, of course, I will.”

Naomi smiled, then proceeded to attend to the messenger. She had already won. And now, the reel.

***

It was several hours after she had parted with Alexa. The message had been both a chore and a blessing all at once. On the one hand, the matter was an incredibly dull issue of ledgers, but on the other, it actually made her feel tired. For Alexa’s benefit, she would look exhausted, weak, and vulnerable. All the same she took a deep breath when she heard the knock on her bedchamber’s door, then prepared herself for the act.

“Good evening, Alexa,” She said, looking worn.

“Good evening, Naomi,” Alexa smiled, perhaps a little nervously.

Naomi indicated a place-setting for a meal amidst her room, lightly decorated as it was. Indeed, it seemed rather sparse for the immediate sibling to a Holder. She wondered if it would trouble Alexa, what with her being an agent of the Empire. She hadn’t prepared for this at all–part of her wondered if she should have played this out in one of the gaudier rooms of guilded gold. But it was too late now.

She hoped Alexa would focus on her and on her alone. Looking exhausted, she said, “I know I said we would take dinner together, but do you mind if I just… lie down for a bit?”

Alexa took a seat, her smile appearing a little easier, “I don’t mind at all… is everything all right?”

“I just,” She acted as if it was a battle to keep her eyes open, “I haven’t been sleeping well. The slightest sounds wake me and I feel I’m succumbing to paranoia.” She shook her head, laughing, “Some nights I feel I’m going insane, unsure of whether I am sleeping or dreaming.”

 “Do you wish me to check on you in a few minutes?”

“Actually,” She faked another blush, “It sounds childish of me, as if I’m afraid of the dark, but… would you mind staying?”

“I would not mind at all,” Alexa smiled, clearing her throat nervously.

Too simple! 

Naomi smiled, a little too earnestly, “Thank you!” She glided over to the bathroom to prepare for bed, calling from inside, she asked, “Is there anything you need? I hope the food is to your liking.”

“Everything is lovely. The food is wonderful and so is the company.”

“I’m glad.”

Naomi shrugged her clothes off in front of the mirror, then ran her fingers across a silken nightgown she had chosen for this occasion. It was very modest, barely showing any skin except for her neck and collarbone. Thin straps held it loosely upon her shoulders. She wanted to look innocent and yet desirable as she slowly wiped away her make-up, peeling layers away from the Steward of the Sakakibara family. She would look her purest for Alexa.

She emerged from the bathroom barefoot, the silken nightgown shimmering slightly against the light. Her eyes fell upon Alexa. The kameira was blinking in astonishment, appearing speechless.

Poor thing! 

Alexa averted her eyes, “I am sorry, mi–Naomi. I shouldn’t stare like that.”

Naomi acted ignorant, knowing full well what Alexa’s gaze entailed. Instead, she asked, “Does it look silly on me?”

“No, no miss. Naomi. It… looks wonderful. You… look wonderful.”

Naomi twirled once around to check the nightgown over, “You’re certain?”

Alexa nodded, “A-Absolutely, Naomi.”

She could feel Alexa’s eyes upon her, glued to her as she completed the turn. This was going far too smoothly, but she was not one to deny a gift.

She giggled, “All right, Alexa. If you’ll excuse me for a moment…”

And now, the finishing touch. She found a patch of moonlight against her bed, the milky beams illuminating her as she knelt down. She clasped her hands together, then began whispering evening prayers–she meant none of the words. It was all an act. And yet, she was the image of piety. Alexa whispered her own prayers in the distance.

She rose gently, then peeled off the covers of the bed, “You can leave the plate there, I’ll have a servant take care of it in the morning.”

She slid beneath the covers gracefully, then let out a sigh of ecstasy. She really did feel tired after all.

To her surprise, Alexa approached the bed, then removed her jacket and pants. She almost gasped at the boldness, then realized Alexa simply didn’t understand. She said nothing as Alexa climbed into the bed with her tanktop.

Too easy! 

Once Alexa was under the covers, Naomi giggled, “I wasn’t expecting you to come into bed with me.”

“Oh. Oh, I apologize for my presumption,” Alexa blushed magnificently, “Do you wish me to leave…?”

Naomi placed a reassuring hand on Alexa’s arm, “But since you’re here…” She then slid her body gracefully next to Alexa’s warmth.

Alexa paused for a moment, then gingerly placed her arms around Naomi’s slighter frame. Naomi snuggled closer, her eyes closed. She whispered a soft, “Have I told you how safe I feel around you?”

“Yes… but I like hearing it. And… my heart is racing. Wh-why is it doing that?”

Naomi gently placed an ear against Alexa’s chest, every move calculated, every word handpicked for effect. She chose an innocent explanation, “You must be having a heart attack.”

She felt Alexa shiver as they drew closer together.

Alexa confessed “It only beats so fast… when I’m with you.”

She smiled at the confession, not because she was particularly surprised–she knew Alexa was falling rapidly in love with her–but because her plan was working perfectly. She opened her eyes gently, then raised her body up so that her face was level with Alexa’s, “Does it, now?”

Alexa nodded slowly, gazing into Naomi’s eyes. Naomi could almost feel Alexa’s heart thumping wildly.

She asked a question, her eyes shining, “If there was one thing you wanted right now, Alexa. What would it be?”

“… To know love.”

Naomi leaned in close to Alexa, their lips separated by mere centimeters, “And how would you want to come to know love?”

Alexa licked her lips nervously, “B-by being with s-someone… that loves me…”

“So precious,” Naomi smiled sweetly. She whispered, in the same soft tone, “Alexa, have you kissed before?”

Alexa shook her head, “No. I… have never had the need…”

Naomi smiled once more, but pulled away from Alexa’s face. Instead, she rested her head on Alexa’s chest, then drew Alexa’s arms into a tighter embrace. The kiss would wait–a lingering longing in Alexa’s mind that would ensure the completion of the seduction. And as a result, provide Naomi with significant military might. All the same, she listened to Alexa’s heartbeat, enjoying the rhythm as a child may have enjoyed a lullaby.

She felt Alexa place a hand on her head, then begin to gently stroke her hair, “I-I don’t know what I am feeling.”

“Don’t question it. Enjoy it.” Naomi replied.

Alexa nodded, “Naomi…?”

“Yes, Alexa?”

“… Teach me about love.”

All too easy. 

“I will. I promise.”

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New Equilibrium III

She had to look her best. Everything that she had been working towards her entire life was counting on it–and with her brother gone, she needed to act quickly and decisively.

Of course, “looking her best” meant standing in front of a mirror for hours on end inside of her shuttle in Huola. She was dressed casually, but any trained observer would know that every detail was a small aspect of a larger masterpiece. The way her jacket was left open, the creases on her trousers, the lacing on her boots, the muted amount of make-up. The result was the appearance of a powerful woman taking a break, one that was willing to let her guard down for a simple evening of drinking and relaxation.

Alexa would never stand a chance.

Seduction was an art-form and while Naomi loathed the idea of taking advantage of her body to leverage favors, she was also not idiotic enough to consider it valueless. Too many years of intrigue had taught her otherwise. But then, this would be the first time her target was a woman.

Alexa, however, was worth far more to her than a daughter of the nobility. Even Rebecca–her shield–could not afford her what Alexa could offer at a moment’s notice. Alexa commanded a unit of kameiras. The name alone sent a shiver down Naomi’s spine–not one of fear, but of excitement. Her brother’s private security forces, already weakened by the deafening silence of his spy tower in Saikamon, would simply be brushed aside. DENT safehouses and resources would be broken quickly and efficiently. She almost licked her lips as the thought saturated her mind–but she couldn’t do that, yet–she would risk the careful amount of lipstick.

She put on a stressed expression. It wasn’t as hard as she had thought it would be, considering that she actually was stressed. There were variables and countermeasures that she was attending to even now, as DENT assets were identified by her own cabal. The game for power within the family was turning deadly, and family members were choosing sides for fear that neutrality would leave them vulnerable to the eventual victor. The best part was that her brother–alone and isolated with his new wife–had no idea what was transpiring.

She walked onto the Terrace, taking a seat at the bar. Alexa was present, sipping gingerly at a drink. Naomi didn’t say anything at first, choosing instead to order her own drink, and then, for Alexa’s benefit, she let out a sigh of approval once she tasted the contents.

“Another long day, miss?” Alexa asked.

She nodded, turning to Alexa, “Indeed. My brother and sister-in-law have appointed me as Steward while they are away and the work is tiring.”

Alexa nodded slowly, “Congratulations.”

Naomi shrugged carefully, “I suppose there is some space for congratulations, but the work keeps me busy. Especially…” She trailed off.

A little weakness goes a long way and it’s harmless if it’s not real.

“Miss?” Alexa sipped her drink.

“I shouldn’t. Revealing information like this is dangerous.”

“Whatever you say will be held in the strictest confidence, miss.”

Naomi nodded, “I trust you Alexa.”

Trust. Kameira were conditioned from a very young age to serve and defend the Empire. Cases of the indoctrination being broken were few and far between, so “trusting” a Kameira was not a far-fetched notion. The question was if Alexa would trust her?

Naomi took a deep breath, “I believe I have identified a conspiracy in my family against my brother and my new sister-in-law.”

Alexa sat up straight, “Who?”

The devotion of the overzealous. Of course, the true conspiracy was her own. But Alexa knew nothing about the family and its politics, making her an excellent choice for “restoring order,” even if it would mean dozens of DENT fatalities.

Naomi shook her head, “If only I could say with certainty who the ringleader was… All I know is that they are opposed to his union with… with a commoner.”

Every good lie had a little bit of truth in it. And it was true that there were elements within the family who thought Regi’s union with Katerina were far from proper. Of course, Naomi was the champion for the half of the family that wanted Regi removed. His supporters adored her–the half of the family he had actually invited to Katerina’s presentation.

“You may wish to remind them that, by this marriage, she is no longer a commoner.”

It took all of Naomi’s preparations and self-control to keep herself from bursting out in laughter. On paper, perhaps Katerina had indeed been elevated to the nobility. But for the family? Never. Not for the more conservative half. They would never accept her and they probably wouldn’t accept any children produced by the union, either. Not for at least two dozen generations. Reginald’s legacy would be limited to a blotched-out patch on the family tree. Long after his reign, family members would point him out for his indiscretion, as an example of how not to be a Holder. And Katerina? She wouldn’t even be mentioned.

“If only it were that easy. They’re adamant, of course, and I’ve yet to find the family members who hold the opinion. We’ve only managed to catch spies separated by several degrees from their employers.”

“Mm. And they will not turn?”

“It’s unlikely. As it stands, my brother and sister-in-law will both be in danger when they return to the family estate in Myyhera,” She did her best to sound frustrated, “I wish I could be more useful to them as Steward.”

Alexa raised an eyebrow–not a good sign, “Do you wish to arrange protection for your family?”

Naomi looked at Alexa, almost genuinely surprised, “Would you be willing to offer something like that? I hardly know you after all.”

“It is my duty to protect the Empire and its citizens. If you wish, I will send my unit to sweep the grounds and verify security prior to the return of your brother and his wife.”

Naomi let out a smile, “Professional protection from you would certainly put my mind at ease. What are the costs for your services?”

“It is my duty as a soldier of the Empire, miss. No charges.”

“I would be eternally grateful for your assistance.”

That much was true, at least. Though everything was very professional. She wanted Alexa to not only go to the estate but allow herself to be manipulated into doing things–she still had yet to crack the soldier’s facade.

“We will report to your homestead within the hour, miss,” Alexa said, opening a channel with what Naomi presumed was her second-in-command on her neocom.

“There’s… there’s something else, Miss Alexa.”

“Yes, miss?”

This would be a risk. Naomi took a deep breath, then took the plunge.

“If…,” She swallowed, “If the ringleader was identified… would you… help me end them?” She shook her head–an act of course, one to show that she was in turmoil over the request, “I know that the law states they should stand trial but I can’t fathom the possibility of a traitor within my family continuing to live.”

Alexa’s answer was golden.

“Traitors must not be allowed to live. I will end them.”

Naomi looked pleasantly surprised, “You are a credit to all who would protect the empire, Miss Alexa.”

“Thank you miss, I am honored,” Alexa blushed just a little bit.

There. That was what Naomi wanted to see. And now, with business out of the way–or as Alexa probably thought–it was time for her to begin in earnest.

First, zealotry, “When I find the one responsible… and I have an idea of who it might be… I just… I want to be sure.”

“Of course, miss.”

Alexa slid a few kredits across the bar, “For Miss Sakakibara’s drink…”

Naomi could not have imagined a better turn of events. The poor darling. She had no idea.

“How sweet,” She smiled at Alexa, “To what occasion do I owe this?”

“I… wish to show my appreciation for your trust.”

She glanced over Alexa, as if to indicate this wouldn’t be easy for her. Ironic, considering that she was trying to seduce Alexa, “I see.”

Alexa took a sip of her drink, perhaps a bit too quickly, resulting in a few small coughs. Naomi acted as if she was letting her stress melt away.

She leaned closer towards Alexa, “You’re very sweet.”

Alexa blinked, then blushed again, “Thank you, miss. You are a… a kind woman.”

“Am I anything else?” Naomi leaned a bit closer–it could have been teasing, “Besides ‘kind’?”

Alexa looked a bit nervous, “You are… quite attractive. If I may be so bold, miss.”

Naomi felt herself blush at the compliment, “Why… why, thank you.” She glanced away, “And you may, of course.”

Alexa cleared her throat, “Well, uh… thank you, miss.”

Hints. There was only ever one thing that anyone seeking a romantic interest wanted. It was not love–love developed later. It was not lust–lust only played to base instincts and was far easier to manipulate. No, for the one whose heart fluttered lightly, for the one who was suddenly aware of every little action, for the one who stumbled upon their own words–there was only one thing they wanted. Certainty. Hints served as the mechanism for producing that certainty, though it was a fine balance. To be challenging enough to be desirable and yet not so distant as to have the pursuer lose interest–that was the art.

Joni arrived on the Terrace to talk about a gatecamp, but Naomi knew that Alexa’s thoughts were entirely on her. A little more playful banter, then they scheduled their next meeting. And with that, Naomi took her leave, no doubt with Alexa watching her do so.

The hook was there. And now it was time to reel.

New Equilibrium II

She held her breath as she saw them walk onto the Terrace. For all of her anger and the contemplation she had poured into how the encounter would unfold, she was almost rendered speechless. They looked happy, locked in light conversation as their things were moved to the landing pad by servants. But when her brother’s gaze fell upon her, she remembered how much she loathed him. Time slowed down as his smile became the unreadable stoic expression of the nobility, a court-pressed slight smile that was supposed to lull a person into a sense of security. She expected that that’s how he perceived her–not as his sister, but as a noblewoman. The distance between them was staggering. Suddenly, it didn’t even matter that Katerina offered a greeting–she could only feel the anger pent up within her finally erupting.

She folded her arms, trying to keep her outburst as dignified as possible, “You didn’t invite me. It’s all over the IGS and you didn’t invite me.”

Kat narrowed her gaze upon the half-Achuran noblewoman, “We didn’t have time to invite anyone. The only people who were there were my parents, because Reginald had already flown them out for something unrelated. It was spur of the moment.”

“No one flies their finacee’s parents for ‘something unrelated,'” Naomi whined, like a spoiled child that had received too small a portion of dessert. She turned her gaze to her half-brother, “I was only a few jumps away and I’m your closest living blood relative!”

“Like Katerina said, it was very sudden,” He frowned.

She could hear the reluctance in his voice. He was going to let Katerina wage this battle while not taking part. How shrewd to let his new wife hit the ground running. Coward. He always let someone else fight his battle while he looked on from relative safety.

“Hmph,” She turned away, looking back at Katerina, “So then, if not for an apology, why did you want to see me?”

She was surprised to feel Kat’s hand upon her arm, “Reginald had flown them out as a surprise for me, since I mentioned I hadn’t seen them in close to a year, and he wanted to meet them.” After the explanation, Kat motioned to some couches.

Naomi followed her gaze, then nodded towards them, indicating she understood, “All right.” She gave another fierce glance in the direction of her brother–who had already started to converse with Joni–then started to calm down. She hated him with a passion and everything that he stood for–stagnation, status quo, regression, tradition, secrets. But then, she had secrets of her own, didn’t she?

Kat walked slowly, continuing the conversation, “As for why I wanted to see you… We’re going away for a few days, and we need someone to take care of the family affairs for while we are gone.”

“So?” Naomi quirked a brow, “You needed recommendations for a steward? There’s my aunt Ashessa, though she’s grieving her son’s death currently.”

What a waste of time. No apology and she would just empower someone who was already strong. But there were no other candidates for steward that would stand with her. Ashessa was isolated enough to not cause any issues, old enough to keep out of affairs, and wouldn’t act as long as Naomi still had Rebecca.

Kat took a seat on one of the couches, “If you’re mad at us, I understand. I’m sure we can find someone else.”

For all of her hatred for Reginald, she had few qualms about Kat, no real quarrel. Kat was just a commoner after all and was far easier for Naomi to relate to than any family she had grown up with. Naomi’s expression softened–there was no need to hurt her. At least, not yet.

“I’m sorry if I seem a little abrasive,” She apologized, “I just would’ve liked to have been at the ceremony.”

Kat nodded, “I understand that, believe me. There wasn’t even enough time for me to find a ring! Reginald’s wearing my father’s wedding band right now.” After a moment, Kat added, “Do you remember what you asked me on Myyhera?”

Naomi couldn’t help but giggle that her brother was wearing a commoner’s wedding ring. It took a while for Kat’s question to sink in, piquing Naomi’s interest, “I do. You spoke with him, then?”

Kat’s expression turned deadly serious, “Well, you wanted a shot, and with Aunt Ashessa in mourning, and no other suitable candidates…”

Naomi’s eyes widened. She felt her heart skip a beat. It was impossible. There was no way.

She glanced at Reginald then looked at Kat in disbelief, “There’s no way he would consent to that…”

Kat chuckled, “Well, we’re married. And he said if I trusted you, he’d be willing to trust you for a few days.”

Kat was an angel. In less than three days, she had done more for Naomi than the entire “family” had done for the entirety of her life. Of course, she had guessed this would happen. Her brother was infatuated by the red-haired Khanid girl, after all.

“I–I don’t know what to say!” Naomi jumped out of her seat and wrapped her arms around Kat–she hoped it would be convincing, “Thank you! Thank you!” She added, for good measure, “And… congratulations, Lady Sakakibara.”

Kat smiled, “Thank you. But! A few things first.”

Naomi didn’t like the sound of that. Power would be coming with strings attached. Katerina was likely smarter than she let on. Naomi nodded attentively, acting as respectful as she could with a sober look on her face.

Kat said, “First, I want you to look me in the eyes, and promise that I’m not going to regret this.”

Naomi looked at Kat soberly, squarely in the eyes, “You won’t regret this.” She tried not to swallow, keeping her attention on maintaining a relaxed face–if she could convince her here, she’d have won, “I promise.”

Kat nodded, “Alright. And I want you to trust me when I say you won’t need to fear the family anymore either. That means you definitely won’t need  a hostage.”

Naomi let hesitation flicker across her face. At first, she cursed herself for it, but then realized that a rational person would also be upset at the notion of losing their one bargaining chip. She replied with a whisper, “I may not need to fear my brother with you in his bed, but you can’t claim that for the rest of the family. At least, not yet. I’ll have to see the impact you make before agreeing with you about Rebecca.”

Katerina looked fierce, “Anyone who does anything to anyone in my new family is going to regret it in a way few non-capsuleers can understand. That goes for you, as well as everyone else in this family. I’m not asking you to agree about Rebecca right this second, but I want to keep it in mind.”

Naomi nodded solemnly, “I don’t doubt your sincerity. But aren’t you acting a bit much like CONCORD? I have Rebecca to prevent bad things from happening to me. Your enforcement of order is in response to something happening to me.”

Katerina nodded, “I understand, and I’m not disputing it. That’s why I’m not saying do it now. What I am saying, is prove to me you want to be part of the family, and that you can be part of the family, and I will do everything in my power to make it happen. Fair enough?”

Naomi smiled, “Yes, my lady.” She added, again for effect, “You won’t regret this at all.”

“See to it I don’t, Naomi,” Kat rose, “In any case, it’s time for us to leave.”

Naomi stood up respectfully, “Will I be able to reach you should an issue arise-not that I foresee any shall.”

She was lying through her teeth, but Kat hadn’t had a noble’s upbringing. Beneath the long eyelashes and expression of serenity, machinations were already at work. She needed to draw out DENT and remove as many of them as possible, but there was no way her own cabal could hope to challenge their combat expertise. She had spent so much on the first attempt in Saikamon that almost neutralized her brother, then another that had resulted in Orion’s death. She was obtaining power at the wrong time.

“You can reach either of us via neocomm,” Kat replied.

Naomi smiled, then curtsied politely, “Please enjoy your honeymoon, my lady.”

Kat smiled back, collecting Reginald in the process, “We shall.”

Enjoy your honeymoon, for it is all you will enjoy. 

New Equilibrium I

He rubbed a towel over his dark hair, the towel itself now carrying the faint scent of lavender that had permeated throughout the bathroom. His quarters were surprisingly tidy now that the mess he had created had been disposed and that he was packed. Lady Lianne had once told him that a new energy–supported by his drawings and his belongings–would take away the lingering presence of her father, but it had always been there, in the background. He imagined, wiping away a few droplets of water from his face, that that was why the room had produced such darkness. He almost laughed at the thought, tucking it away into a safe place at the back of his mind, drowning it in the happiness from the night before. After all, the room was now more than just a room for the youngest CEO in Imperial Outlaws–not that he held that position or even membership in the vaunted alliance anymore. Now, it was a place he could call home with his beloved.

She watched him, legs crossed, sitting near her own pieces of luggage. He felt that her green eyes saw everything about him, their emerald hues illuminated by the morning sunlight. He was still caught up in the whirlwind of the surprise wedding. So little had been planned. And yet, the spontaneity was refreshing. He had spent so much of his life glued to a regimen that the sudden freedom, the lack of official responsibility, and the prospect of loving Katerina, left him speechlessly happy.

He slid a sketchpad into a satchel, only to find his neocom. He tapped at it to check his email surreptitiously, hoping that she wouldn’t mind a small delay. But there it was. The very first message. The directive from Lord Mujilus.

He frowned, feeling the happiness begin to shatter, “I don’t want you to worry about this, but… there’s something I should probably tell you.”

She looked up at him, curious, “What’s up?”

He showed her the message in its entirety, though he smiled despite himself, having addressed: “1) Ensure your relationship with Katerina Tzestu meets expected standards of propriety.”

“I suppose that we’ve fulfilled his first requirement,” He tried to jest, though it had little effect on the sour expression on Kat’s face.

“Insolent bastard.”

He loved that about her–she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. There were no circumlocutions, pleasantries, or formalities shielding her true intentions in her speech.

“I know,” he agreed with her, “But he’s right that I have to know my place.”

“Though,” He sighed, glancing over the allusion to his minor Holder status, “That does mean I’ll need to pick someone to be a steward in my place, while we’re away.”

She nodded, her attention on the issue at hand, “Have you thought of someone?”

He shook his head. There weren’t many options. He said truthfully–he would keep no secrets from his new wife, “I’m surrounded by incompetents and no suitable candidates have stepped forward since Ashessa’s son was killed.”

“Well, there is one person who I know claims to be capable,” She said.

“They would need to be a family member…” He trailed off, considering possibilities and quickly reviewing files on minor relatives.

She nodded, “I’m aware…”

He looked at her, curious, “Oh? Someone you met when you were visiting?” He smiled, “I’m all ears.”

“I don’t know if you’ll like it…”

He frowned, “A minor member of the family would be fine.”

“She’s not exactly a minor member…”

“Then who is it?” He finally realized who she was speaking about, “Ashessa may be old, but I’m sure she would be willing to rise to the occasion at least for a few days. But she’s still mourning, unfortunately.”

“Your half-sister. I know she claims to be capable, and she claims to want to be more involved,” She added, having offered her solution while he had been going on, “Aunt Ashessa would be a safe choice, if she could, but as you said…”

He looked at her sternly, “Naomi?” He turned away, thoughts beginning to race–wondering if he would need to apply safeguards and watchmen on Naomi’s activities, “Do you trust her?”

She sighed, “I’m not completely sure. I want to believe her, but…”

“Would you give her the benefit of the doubt?” He asked.

He trusted Kat’s judgment. There’s something to be said about navigating your way into Pandemic Legion, a structure so labyrinthine and dangerous the entire alliance may as well have been a living Dam-Torsad. All the same, Naomi was dangerous.

He looked back towards Kat, referring to Rebecca, “I mean, she has a deadman’s switch inside of a little girl!” He regained his composure quickly, after having raised his voice, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.”

He would not treat his wife like that.

She nodded, “It’s alright, I know what you mean. Maybe if you have someone watch over her, that might be a way to at least get that out of her.”

He became solemn. Saving Rebecca from the deadman’s switch would be a priority upon arrival, and showing trust towards Naomi would also go a long way in smoothing over relations within the family, “I could assign someone to monitor her, yes.”

He walked over to Kat and took her hands into his, “I remember what you said. If I trust her, we might be able to save Rebecca?” He recounted, “To make her feel more welcome so she doesn’t need to threaten anyone?”

She nodded, “It’s possible. But it’s your family, you know them better than I do, and it’s your decision.”

All of that was true, but he didn’t want her to think of it as his family. He wanted her to think of it as their family. He looked at her directly, asking again, “Would you give her the benefit of the doubt?”

She sighed, “If it was just me I’m risking I’d say ‘yes’ in a heartbeat. But I don’t want my first recommendation as your wife to basically screw you and your house.”

He kissed her, shaking his head to assuage her concerns, “It’s our family. And I’ll accept your recommendation if you feel she is trustworthy.”

She nodded, “Alright then. Let’s talk to her, face to face, before we actually decide.”

He agreed, sending Naomi a message through his neocom. At the same time, he sent a request to the staff to begin moving their things to the shuttle. This would be Kat’s first major decision as a member of the family and if it went well, their future was bright indeed.

***

Naomi arrived at the Terrace upset. It had been some time since her brother had married Katerina Tzestu and the only reason she had learned of it was through a public posting on the Intergalactic Summit. They had the same father! And he didn’t even bother to invite her! She was still fuming about the wedding when she sat down at the bar.

“Are you all right, miss?”

It was Alexa de’Crux–a kameira assigned to Cerra Manor but under the employ of Lady Lunarisse Aspenstar–though Naomi wouldn’t have cared if Empress Jamyl herself had asked–her response would have been the same.

She laughed sarcastically, “Am I all right?”

Alexa blinked, “That… is what I asked…”

Naomi threw her arms up in frustration, “My family’s household affairs office announces that my brother is married. MARRIED. It claims that immediate family was present and yet I didn’t receive an invitation. AT ALL.”

“Oh. I see. I was not informed, either. Until it had occurred, I mean.”

Naomi shook her head furiously, “It’s… it’s… unbelievable.”

“I understand that the relationship was quite contentious among some parties.”

Naomi latched onto the gossip–as she would for anything regarding her brother–raising an eyebrow, “How do you mean?”

“It is probably not my place to speak on such things.”

Naomi smiled, “I can keep a secret.”

Alexa watched Naomi for a moment, then said, “There were… objections to their association. Competition, I believe, is an accurate term.”

“Oh?”

Alexa nodded, saying nothing more.

Naomi, curious, prodded her, “For both couples?”

“I should advise, miss, that I am often incorrect. I am… not very good at interpreting such things.” She added, “No, miss. For her. The competition, I mean.”

Naomi was puzzled, and she hated feeling that way, “Perhaps you could shed light on the entire situation?”

Alexa said carefully, “Again, I might be incorrect. There was… another person involved, that thought she was… above your brother.”

“Another person involved?” She thought for a moment of potential suspect, but couldn’t come up with any, “Any names or are you remaining frustratingly cryptic?”

Alexa remained silent, not saying anything for a long moment.

Naomi sighed, taking a sip of her drink daintily, “Teasing is so… unbecoming.”

“It is not a matter of teasing, miss,” Alexa protested, “The situation is very delicate.”

“If my brother is in any danger…” Naomi started, though she would have welcomed such an arrangement.

“Not at all, miss.” Alexa paused, then looked towards the menagerie, “Are there any exotic animals in there?”

Naomi shrugged, “I’ve never been. There’s much about this place I simply do not know.”

Alexa nodded slowly, “They say that exotic animals–say tigers, for example–can be extremely jealous of other cat’s mates…”

Naomi tilted her head, picking up slightly on the references, “Do they now? Even if it has a mate of its own?”

“Even in that case,” Alexa took a sip of tea, “They rarely act on such things openly, however.”

“Fascinating. The things you can learn from menageries.”

“Mm-hm. Thankfully, I generally don’t have to worry about such things.”

Naomi nodded, “Ignorance is bliss, as they say.”

“As they say.”

“Well, have you seen my brother around here?” Naomi snapped, growing impatient, “Last I heard from the staff, he had yet to embark on his honeymoon following the elopement.”

“I saw him the other day,” Alexa replied, “We haven’t crossed paths since then.”

Naomi sighed, “I suppose I just need to wait for him or his new wife to make an appearance then. Ridiculous.”

Alexa nodded a bit, an action that caused an awkward silence to fall over the Terrace. It left Naomi with her thoughts–she hated her brother and everything he stood for, how his mother had spoon-fed him, groomed him to become the head of the family, all the while treating Naomi little better than a stray hound. The whole family was rotten to the core and wanted to change it, to modernize it, to throw off the yoke it had placed upon itself by allowing Reginald to maintain the title.

He was driving the family into ruin, of course. Marrying a commoner. Becoming a pirate. Abandoning the militia. Resigning from his prominent CEO position. Every action he had taken since Huola fell heaped disgrace upon disgrace onto the family, and yet the majority clung to him, if only because he was familiar in his wanton failures.

Few saw that she was the proper choice–if only her Achuran background didn’t continually impede her. Maybe there was a way to rule in all but name–she could always puppet Rebecca, but not as long as Ashessa was still breathing.

“Do you have any other siblings?” Alexa broke into her thoughts, “Well… aside from your new sister-in-law.”

She wore a serious expression when she turned to the kameira, “No. Reginald is my half-brother and only sibling.”

“I see.”

“Why do you ask?” She raised an eyebrow–“half-brother” implied all sorts of improprieties and she could do without adding another person believing her mother was a whore.

“I have no siblings. No family of any kind, in fact.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m a little envious,” Naomi said without thinking, suddenly spilling her thoughts out onto the Terrace like an iced coffee, “No family is a better alternative to the life I was born into. I’m treated as an outsider while Reginald basks in the family’s favor as our father’s ‘one true heir.'”

“You have a father. Or, at least, you know who your father is.”

Naomi looked at Alexa, snapping, “He’s dead, and I never knew my mother.”

“I was taken from my birth mother a few minutes after I was born.”

She suddenly felt guilty for snapping at Alexa. In the span of a few minutes, consumed by her own thoughts, she had forgotten all she knew about the elite combat troops known as “Kameiras.” She frowned a little, “I see.”

Alexa sighed, “Kameira children are raised by a creche matron, until six years of age. We can fight by ten. None of us know our biological families.”

“And yet you serve the Empire so effectively,” Naomi tried to give a compliment.

“The Empire is the only ‘family’ I’ve ever had. It is an honor to serve.”

Naomi smiled, “It’s reassuring to know you think so.”

“Miss–” Alexa paused, “Never mind. It is… not important.”

Naomi raised an eyebrow–the least she could do was answer an honest question for how she had just trusted the poor girl. Alexa seemed like she was just trying to understand her life. Naomi couldn’t fault her for that.

“What’s on your mind?”

“Do you have anyone…?” Alexa turned away, ending the question.

Naomi sighed, “You’ve already started to ask the question–in civilized society, we complete the query.”

She had meant the latter half to be a jest, but she could feel the haughty attitude drip from them. That was the last thing she had wanted–to make Alexa feel inferior.

“Miss, is there anyone in particular that you are… attracted to?”

How bold! Naomi smiled in relief that Alexa seemed unperturbed, then shook her head as she laughed, “Is that all you were going to ask? No, I’m not.”

“But then,” Naomi mused, “My social footprint is very light–there aren’t many opportunities to mingle, it would seem.”

“Hm. I have been told that I am ‘stiff.’ In a social sense.”

Naomi found herself giggling, her mind turning to how to tease Alexa, “And you?” She leaned forward as she crossed her legs–a lady should never do so in public, but she wanted to seem familiar–and placed her hands on her knees, “Is there someone special you admire?”

“Admiration… hmm… I admire my superior officer. But, no, there is nobody ‘special,’ right now. Well… perhaps one person, but I am not certain about my feelings.”

Naomi’s interest was piqued, enjoying Alexa’s attempts at explaining her feelings, “Oh? Tell me about them.”

“A Caldari, much like yourself. We’ve met a couple times before. Romantic interactions, however, were not part of my training. When I say that I am ‘not certain’ about my feelings, I mean that in a literal sense,” Alexa tried to explain.

Naomi felt a smile curl onto her face. She tilted her head, allowing the grin to widen, “You poor thing.”

She let the words linger, catching a smile back from Alexa. It was rare to find someone so innocent–and ironic of the kameiras, who were trained as soldiers from such a young age. They knew death, better than most who served the Empire. And yet, to not know love. It was adorable to see one so strong so clueless; Alexa’s words betrayed her lack of comfort, lack of ease at speaking about relationships.

At that moment, Joni Hariere, joined them on the Terrace. After greetings were exchanged, he asked, “So it looks like Amarr won, any cool parties today?”

Alexa shook her head, “I have not been notified of any parties. Perhaps…” But she didn’t finish the thought.

“Everyone might be too tired to party.” Joni quipped, “Oh well, maybe I’ll just celebrate by killing those poor bastards who try to defend systems.”

Naomi should have been shocked. As a noble she often worked with non-capsuleers at the estate, and she was constantly interacting with the family. The realm of capsuleers was filled with pilots who lacked remorse, who didn’t see destroying ships as killing the non-capsuleer crew, silencing voices with every fresh wreck. But while she should have been shocked, she felt that she wasn’t. Her life was unforgiving, and she had little time to mourn those she did not know.

“My brother abandoned the militia for reasons he has yet to explain to my family,” She said off-handedly, “I’m sure it kills him that he wasn’t present when the last system fell.”

“He should be proud,” Alexa said, no doubt trying to praise a Holder, “The Empire scored a great victory.”

“I’m sure he is, in his own way,” Naomi sighed, slightly disappointed at Alexa’s blind obedience.

“I wonder how my Caldari associate feels about it…” Alexa thought out loud, “I’m glad that we have finally won the day, at any rate.”

Naomi waved a hand, trying to mask the boredom in her voice, “Indeed. I wonder how the Crusade will handle the free time.”

Alexa chuckled, “Lock the red-light districts down, the Crusade is on liberty!”

Naomi laughed. The idea was amusing, not dry and rote like she was expecting at all. She had expected Alexa to suggest attending morning, noon, and evening Masses to celebrate, followed by a contemplation of the Scriptures. Instead, Naomi’s mind started to swirl with the images of pilots of the Crusade entering businesses of ill-repute. The thoughts made her blush. The sheer defiance of the standard moral code was enough to make her giggle.

“Could you imagine it?” She laughed, “The Empress’ Crusade as bad as the Federal Defense Union?”

Alexa laughed as well, “I don’t think anyone could match the FDU.”

“The 24th would go down in history as a bunch of hedonists!”

“Those that weren’t court-martialed!” Alexa looked at Naomi, laughter punctuating her sentence, “We… we’re much t-too disciplined… f-for that…”

Naomi’s imagination started running wild. She wiped a tear from her eye through a fresh fit of giggles.

“H-here…” Alexa reached over with a tissue.

Naomi took it, nodding her thanks. A fresh thought of an Amarrian cathedral suddenly transforming into a rave party threw her over the edge into more side-splitting laughter.

Alexa patted the back of Naomi’s hand, “C-Can you s-see Admiral Rondak’s f-face…?”

“He might just give the Republic the warzone out of sheer embarrassment!”

“So-sorry, Re-Republic, b-but v-victory is g-going t-to our heads…” Alexa laughed, collapsing.

Naomi couldn’t hold it back any longer. Seeing Alexa burst into boisterous laughter broke down all of the protocols of decorum she had been raised with at the boarding school. She joined in wholeheartedly, laughing at the thought of virtuous Crusaders celebrating their victory with vice only to return to duty the next day, pretending to be good boys and girls.

Naomi felt Alexa’s hand upon hers. She continued laughing, enjoying the moment, content to watch Alexa recover, “Ohh… oh, my goodness…”

She helped Alexa into a chair, trying to stifle laughter.

“Th-Thank you.” Alexa said, taking a deep breath.

Naomi inhaled as well, “Absolutely.”

Alexa stifled a giggled, smiling at Naomi once more. It was a look that Naomi felt unsure about. It could have just been a friendly smile. But part of her saw the telltale signs–interest, perhaps? Her mind jumped to conclusions. She didn’t often receive smiles like the one Alexa gave her. But maybe she was imagining things.

“As I said… we’re much too disciplined to let… such debauchery occur.” Alexa breathed.

Naomi gave a proper nod, “But of course.”

Alexa held her gaze, then turned to her drink, “I should… finish my drink and get back to work…”

Naomi was enjoying the attention, “It was a pleasure speaking, er… laughing with you.”

“The pleasure was mine.”

“Do take care.” Naomi smiled.

Alexa finished her tea and bowed. Her eyes fell upon Naomi for another moment, then she turned and exited towards the shuttlepad. Interested. She could feel herself smiling stupidly at the thought, but part of her desperately wanted to see, to know. She was curious.

“Looks like you found a new friend.” Joni mused to Naomi.

So Alexa’s smiles were noticeable after all. She laughed, “I think so.”

“That’s always nice. Looks like it’s just you and me here, where is everyone?”

Naomi shrugged, “Probably on honeymoons.”

“Is someone lovesick here?” He smiled at Naomi.

She quirked a brow, “I think you misread me, sir. I was referring to the unions between Lady Lianne and Mr. Torpedo and my brother with Miss Tzestu… speaking of which…”

She trailed off as she saw them enter the Terrace. There they were. The newly-wed couple.

Wedding

It had all been done at the last second. But that had a beauty to it unto itself. Everything had been just a little off, a little imperfect, a little askew. But in that imperfection–in the attempt to provide “just enough” so the ceremony could take place–it had been perfect. A double wedding, planned and executed with less time than a fleet’s “rage form,” on Huola VII at the new cathedral. Shalee Lianne Cerra with Tigerfish Torpedo. And Katerina Tzestu with himself.

Kat had mesmerized him. She wore an ivory dress, her hair done into curls gathered behind her head. Her smile was radiant and she carried with her a pride he knew would make her an excellent noblewoman. And her face when he had shown her her parents was priceless.

“How did you…” She shook her head, “Nevermind, it was very thoughtful of you.”

“You shouldn’t look so surprised,” he laughed, “Will you introduce us, love?”

The words they exchanged were limited as he quietly stood by and let Kat do most of the talking. He watched her embrace them, then she introduced them and they spoke for a while. They were nice enough people–polite–though he hoped that stemmed from their approval as parents of him rather than as commoners remaining respectful to a Holder. Kat was going to be his equal, and as much as he could, he would extend her parents the same courtesies.

He didn’t really understand what Johanes Beaumonte was saying.

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder today. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv.”

But then, he didn’t really care. He was basking in the pride of marrying the woman he loved, standing beside her in front of the altar. She was an image in ivory with her copper hair glowing like embers.

Before he knew it, they had exchanged vows. Before he knew it, they had kissed. Before he knew it, they had exchanged rings. And then he was holding her hand, walking with her towards the future.

https://forums.eveonline.com/default.aspx?g=posts&t=391562&find=unread

The Worst Day and the Best Day III

He was deep in thought when he walked back onto the Terrace from the gardens. The impromptu stroll had done little to quell the raging tempest, words and thoughts a howling gale through which he desperately tried to navigate. There was so much on his mind–the Aposi, his holder’s directive, his new position as a pirate, his engagement to Kat, Shalee’s words. Everything seemed to blend together and then fall apart all at once, evading his usual method of listing issues for closer examination. But he found he could barely spend five seconds on his engagement without thinking of the directive, then only a moment before switching to the Aposi, then on to Shalee’s words, then back to his engagement.

As he stepped onto the now-familiar pavement of the Terrace, he caught a glimpse of Kat sipping a glass of wine. He should have been happy to see her as he cherished every moment of their rare meetings–her deployment to Catch as a Legionnaire limited their time with one another. But instead of relief, he felt anxiety.

You are at least the third man she had been deeply in love with this year alone.

The third. Briefly, he let his mind ruminate on the possibility–was he just a rebound? Or did she actually love him? If she didn’t, then why would she say ‘yes’ to the engagement? For social gain? But that’s not what she was like at all–she wouldn’t use him for something like that. Or would she?

He managed a wordless smile as he approached her, wanting to ask a thousand questions and give an equal number of explanations.

“Hey.” She smiled back.

“Good evening, Kat,” He found a seat, his eyes glancing from one side of the Terrace to another, “How are you?”

She frowned a reply, “I’m okay, you?”

“Not… not a fantastic day,” He said as he saw Shalee emerge from the pathway to the manor, “But… we can talk about it later.”

“Okay,” Kat nodded as she followed his gaze to Shalee. She stood up and gave her a big hug.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I want to tell you–” Shalee stopped at Kat’s warm embrace, returning it, “What’s this for?”

“Reginald told me, about ILAW. Let me know if I can do anything, okay?”

“There’s nothing much to be done, most everyone has left.”

“Well I meant if you want to go after them…” Kat said, referencing the Aposi–the culprits responsible for Karlee’s murder.

“Oh. That. Yes, I do. But that is a conversation for another time. I need to say something to you both now.”

He looked up at her. If not about the Aposi, then it had to be about the engagement. His heart sank–he wasn’t prepared to defend against her. His fingers curled involuntarily as he felt a pang of sharp anxiety run through his body, causing a shiver. Would there still be an engagement at the end of tonight?

“Earlier,” Shalee started, “I told Regi that he should wait a very long time before you two married, and just now, thinking about–I shouldn’t have given that advice.”

His heart skipped a beat.

“Your marriage is your own affair, no one else’s. And you will know when it is right. Don’t let any outsiders influence what is between the two of you, okay? Even me.”

Kat hugged Shalee again, smiling, “Even if you have our best interests at heart? Don’t worry though, I won’t.”

He felt the warmth in Kat’s words slowly melt away the isolating frost of his own bleak thoughts. She seemed so earnest, so honest. How could she not love him?

“I do have your best interests at heart. But your experiences and mine are vastly different. I have no right to give advice based on the things I’ve been through,” She paused, then continued, “That being said, I have something else to confide. I want you two to be the first to know.”

He hadn’t realized he had been smiling this whole time. It felt strange after who knew how long he had been frowning, his brows furrowed. It felt wonderful to smile genuinely. He waited patiently for Shalee to continue.

“I’m getting married.” Shalee declared.

“Really?” His eyes widened, breaking into a broad smile, “Congratulations!”

Katerina smiled, “Congratulations. To Tiger?”

Shalee nodded, “I’ve decided it is time. He doesn’t know it yet… will you help? I want to do it tonight. In the cathedral. You could be witnesses.”

“We’d love to.” Kat answered for the both of them. He didn’t mind at all–his silent penance for ever doubting her.

“If you two can go arrange the cathedral, I’ll find Tiger,” Shalee said.

As the two of them began walking towards the cathedral, an older gentleman approached from the guest house carrying many suitcases. Reginald looked at him curiously, though he was caught up in the moment, unable to–no, unwilling to even momentarily leave Kat’s presence to give him aid.

“Wait!” Shalee called out to the pair.

“What’s up?” Kat asked, turning to look at Shalee.

Shalee walked up to Kat, wearing a giddy grin, “Be impulsive with me. Why don’t you and Regi get married too? We can have a double elopement here.”

He stopped dead in his tracks, his heart racing, “Elopement?”

“Well, it sort of is an elopement. At the cathedral, anyhow.”

“Yea, lets.” Kat said, looking a bit shocked.

Months of planning. Invitations. Choosing decorations. None of it would be needed anymore. Not one second of it. He wouldn’t have to sit for hours staring at colors while he entertaining family members he didn’t even know existed. The thoughts were irresponsible. As a Holder, he shouldn’t have even thought them.

Reason broke through his excitement, “But… would it be… legal and accepted?”

Shalee responded simply, “Yes. And yes.”

“All right, then.” He couldn’t believe what he was saying. Generations upon generations of his ancestors were cursing him for even considering the notion. His extended family would be in an uproar. But none of that seemed to matter–one glance at Kat and it was enough to assuage all of his concerns. He loved her.

“Then we will meet you at the cathedral.” Shalee said, dragging Kat off towards the manor.

He watched them disappear, then realized that he had a very short amount of time to prepare. A new frenzied list formed in his mind–ring, formal dress–and then, out of nowhere seemingly–her parents. They would want to be here. He’d have to pull strings with L.

The older gentleman straightened up after tying a shoelace, “Eh, a cathedral? When did they build that?”

“Indeed, sir.” Reginald answered distractedly as he pulled out his neocom for frantic messaging, “It was completed a fortnight ago.” He smiled widely, “And I’ll be getting married there, tonight.”

“Mwaggiage! Good luck my good man!” He slapped Reginald on the back heartily, “I can tell I am looking at is kind of an old fashioned guy who believes in the sanctity of marriage!”

“Thank you! Thank you!” He wasn’t entirely sure what the man had said, but assumed it was a compliment, “Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’d best go and get prepared.”

As Reginald darted off of the Terrace, he heard the man call after him, “God bless my good man!”

Now, what was it he had been thinking about? Oh, that’s right. Ring.

The Worst Day and the Best Day II

He was still fuming when he reached the Terrace, eyes glued to the neocom’s message. Hundreds of thoughts were vying for position at the forefront of his mind as he crossed in front of the fountain, the trickling water drowned out entirely by the sound of his voice echoing against the finite space of his imagination. After he read the message for the thousandth time, finding that the words hadn’t changed since the first review, he gave into frustration. He was about to cast his neocom violently away when he caught Alexa de’Crux drinking tea out of the corner of his eye. He stopped abruptly, trying to regain his composure.

“Sir…?” Alexa asked, a hint of concern in her voice.

He cleared his throat, feeling foolish, “Apologies. I’m just…,” He forced down an urge to enter a tirade, “Furious.”

“About what, sir?”

He decided to try to sit down, though his body was tense with restlessness. Fibers and sinews strained him towards finding a solution, a way to get back at the robot Vlad Cetes, some way to curry favor with his district holder.

“I just received a message from…” It took every effort to not spit, “My superior.”

“I see. From your reaction, I assume that it was not a favorable message.”

He shook his head, “Not at all. It’s… it’s… But it’s what the holder above me says and I’m bound by law to deal with it.” He swallowed, “He attached an MIO report indicating that Vlad Cetes committed no crime and ‘that his actions were justified.'”

Alexa said, “I understand. You were given an order, and you must carry it out. Mm.”

He threw up his hands in frustration, “Among other things. But Marcos Mujilus is the district holder and I have little recourse.” He laughed angrily, “He said my recent actions have brought shame to my estate and by extension, his holdings.”

Alexa nodded, “Self-defense brings shame to him?”

“He meant more my engagement to Miss Tzestu,” He replied.

That was a speculation, but the implications of his relationship existed in between the lines. His district holder likely had no respect for Katerina and that infuriated him beyond reason. He was doing his best to keep his outer appearance stoic, but he could feel the tempest raging within his soul.

“But apparently,” He somehow managed to continue, “I’m supposed to ‘cease hostile action towards registered Capsuleer Vlad Cetes.'”

Yes. Cease hostile action against the robot that murdered him.

He had just finished uttering Vlad’s name when Shalee walked onto the Terrace. She wore a short white sundress and flip flops, her hair tied back into a loose ponytail. She certainly looked much better than during the time they spent at the shore, but then he always seemed to have difficulty reading Shalee Lianne. Nonetheless, for her sake, he tried to clear his voice of frustration, stiffly managing a bow, “Good evening, my lady.”

She smiled back at him warmly, “Evening,” though her expression changed immediately–she never seemed to have difficulty reading him, “Is everything alright?”

He didn’t want to burden her with his own issues, not with the Aposi that murdered her daughter at large. After all, he had yet to even tell his fiancee. But that would have to come in time. He didn’t know for how long Lady Lianne would be available, her schedule a mystery since she had told him about disbanding Imperial Outlaws. He was certain its erratic nature was meant to throw off the Aposi, but as she remained secretive, he wondered if she realized it kept her away from her allies as well.

His upbringing screamed at him to remain stoic, to keep the directive within the family and family to-be, but another part of him sought her counsel. It was the part of him that had volunteered his corporation as security for the Cathedral, the part that had investigated suspicious crates at the building site with her, the part that had once planned on inviting her to the opening ceremonies at his University of Saikamon, and the part that had come to admire her steadfastness on the treatment of slaves and the wider practice of slavery. He felt selfish for doing so, but he chose to reach out for help.

“The Holder above me…,” He chose his words carefully so as to not sound too insulting towards his superior, “Issued a directive regarding my holdings and affairs.”

She quirked a brow. “Oh? Want to talk about it?” She asked as she glided across the Terrace, choosing a seat at the bar.

He sighed, accepting that if he was going to seek her advice, he would show her everything, “Would you care to read the directive?”

Shalee nodded, “Yes, if you are okay with sharing it.”

He opened the message again, doing his best to conceal his rage. He forwarded it to her as quickly as possible, then placed his neocom face-down onto a tabletop. He turned towards the sea. As the shimmering waves rose and fell with a tempo determined by the moons above, he tried to occupy his thoughts with what it must have been like for the first explorers. He wondered at what it must have been like to chase the horizon on sailing ships of old, knowing not whether they would return. It made him all the prouder to be a servant of the Empire–the first true explorers of New Eden and the first to re-discover jump gate technology.

Shalee wrinkled her nose, “You think the MIO that was stalking Katerina has now involved himself into your affairs?”

He jolted himself out of his daydreaming, welcome though it was, “Possibly.” He rested his elbow on the bar’s countertop, then pressed his face into his hand, “But there was no mention about the Sani Sabik in the directive… I think he was referencing her commoner status.”

He said “commoner status” sarcastically. To him, Katerina was a noble in all but ancestry and name. He was determined to correct the latter. She would be his lady, elevated to the nobility with sacred vows exchanged with the blessings of his family or without. He cared little for their opinion, or even for the opinion of his district holder. He loved Katerina.

Shalee nodded, “Probably, yeah. That will be a battle you will always fight again, no matter what.”

Shalee’s words struck like a Rokh’s Spike volley from over two hundred kilometers away. Of course. He would never be able to affect her ancestry, her blood. He felt bothered by the simple yet true statement–the implication that no other member of the nobility would truly respect Kat. They would still find a way to look down on her.

He shook his head, “And then I’m supposed to just ignore that Vlad killed me?”

Shalee chewed on her bottom lip, her expression troubled, “I do find it rather odd that he would mention Vlad. How would he even know of Vlad?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed, “But I’m bound by the directive…”

“I suppose we should lift the ban.”

He shot his eyes up at Shalee, flabbergasted. He was defeated. Not even his former executor would try to fight the directive. Vlad, for having been exiled to null sec for nearly a month, had somehow won.

He offered weakly, “He’s not your district holder…”

“No. But, the whole ‘keep your friends close and enemies closer’ comes to mind.”

So that was it. He should have known better. The depths of Lady Lianne’s ability to form and develop machinations was something that he had yet to fully comprehend. There was much he didn’t know about her–glimpses of her childhood manifested through his sporadic interactions with Red. But an executor rarely becomes one without having a firm grasp of strategy, and Shalee Lianne had been the executor of the most powerful alliance in the 24th Imperial Crusade.

“All right,” He nodded quietly, adding superfluously–for he knew that she would have taken precautions, “But, I don’t want Kat to be in danger. She’ll remain safe when she visits?”

He was more than willing to sacrifice himself to keep Kat safe, a truth he hoped to convey when his gaze met with Shalee’s own.

“Yes, of course. I won’t let anything happen to her here. I have upped security inside of the house.”

He breathed a sigh of relief–perhaps the first one since he had received the directive. But there was more he needed to tell Shalee. This time, not as a loyalist seeking guidance but as a friend justifying his request. He wondered what she would think of him as he cast his gaze towards the ground.

“I wish I told you under better circumstances,” He began, like a penitent sinner beginning a confession, “But I’ve proposed to her. So, I’d be devastated if anything were to happen. I know it’s selfish of me. Forgive me.”

He waited for the tempest. For her look of disapproval. It took him several moments before he managed to look up from the Terrace’s well-traveled pavement. Her brow was quirked and she opened her mouth, but closed it again. She was choosing her words carefully to not hurt him–he felt his heart begin to sink.

“Congratulations.”

He felt the surprise spread over his face. She had frowned, hadn’t she? Her eyebrow had been quirked, had it not? He finally managed a clumsy, “Thank you.”

He added haltingly–drawn from sentences he had been prepared to use as defensive responses, “We haven’t set a date, yet. Lady Aspenstar believes it will be several months at least.”

He continued, unsure of himself, “To be honest, I was surprised she accepted my proposal.”

After a while, he became solemn. He was thankful that she had offered her congratulations, and that she seemed to approve of the match. No, he was more than thankful. Joyful? Relieved? At any rate, a descriptive superlative would come later.

“Any leads thus far? I’m sorry for hijacking the conversation for my own issues when the wider problem has yet to be resolved.”

He wanted to prove to her that her trust in him was not misplaced and that he was capable of maintaining a macro view, of thinking strategically. The Aposi would likely not just wait around and let him get married to Kat. He wanted to start fighting them immediately, to preempt their attacks by going on the offensive.

But Shalee shook her head, “Before we talk about that, let me say something else. I know I have no right to, but, I feel I must. And if you hate me for it, then… alright.”

He swallowed with trepidation, “What’s on your mind?”

“After Tiger and I broke up, I soon started dating Xolve–he was a militia pilot at the time. He was charming, charismatic, and we fell in love so quickly, within two months he proposed and I accepted. He was a rebound, I didn’t realize it at at the time, but in love with him because it was easy and it was nice to have someone and it was a huge mistake. I didn’t know him, not really. What can you know after two months?”

With every syllable, something cold at the base of his spine grew in magnitude. He knew the conclusion would be about his relationship with Kat, somehow. He wondered what had happened to the “congratulations” from only moments before. But he listened attentively, doing his best to ignore a darkness he had not felt since Shalee had castigated him for dating a Legionnaire. Her tone was not one of anger; it was the timbre of experience, resonating with reason. And because of that, it cut all the deeper.

“I ended things a while later, but–my point is. You can’t truly know the measure of a person in such a short space of time. You shouldn’t marry someone without really knowing them, and letting them know you. Completely. And that takes a lot of time. So I hope that you will give your engagement the time it deserves instead of blindly jumping into something so serious.”

“You are least the third man she had been deeply in love with this year alone. So. Go slow. You are a capsuleer, and you have all the time in the world.”

Third man. He could feel something snapping within him. Was that all he was to Kat? A rebound? To the woman he had declared his love for, with whom he would share hit title and offer his name? Was it all just an elaborate ruse? And for what purpose? Suddenly, the love he had for Kat fell into a cloud of calculation.

“I see… I didn’t know that…”

But what exactly had he not known? He had seen Kat’s relationship with Roland disintegrate when the ‘demigod’–as she had called him–disappeared. In fact, Roland’s absence was one of the reasons he had reached out to Kat when she left In Exile in the first place. And what of Ryven? He had understood that they had been in a relationship before the man that wore the human-skin coat had come to prominence, but she had assured him.

So what was he? What was Reginald Sakakibara to Katerina Tzestu?

“Please excuse me.” He said in a monotone, beginning to process information.

What did anything matter anymore?

As he clambered towards the gardens, he felt his head hang lower and lower with each step, the weights of a shattering heart and grim responsibility pulling him into the deep abyss of simple existence.

The Worst Day and the Best Day I

He couldn’t believe his eyes. He ran them over the words again, believing that somehow it was all a terrible mistake, a practical joke, or some stock directive that had somehow been addressed to him. But it was all in order–the accompanying seal, the Ministry of Internal Order report, and the signature all fit perfectly.

He cast his neocom down, absolutely outraged. But the Empire was an Empire of laws and he was bound to obey, even if it reached into his personal affairs. Fuming, he walked out of his quarters at Cerra Manor and headed for the Terrace for fresh air. The message on his neocom read:

12/12 Directive
From: Marcos Mujilus
Sent: 2014.12.13 00:43
To: Reginald Sakakibara,

Holder Sakakibara,

Your recent conduct has been brought to my attention. Your recent actions bring shame to your own estate, and by extension to my own holdings. Accordingly you are directed to:

1) Ensure your relationship with Katerina Tzestu meets expected standards of propriety.

2) Explain your actions in abruptly dissolving your corporation.

3) Cease hostile action towards registered Capsuleer Vlad Cetes. The report I received from the Ministry of Internal Order concluded that no crime was committed and that his actions were justified. You will pass the attached report on to any concerned parties.

4) Your Holder status only gives you rights on your own estate. Do not forget your place.

I expect compliance at the earliest possible time. Do not disappoint me.

*MIO report attached*

Heretics in Plain Sight

He waited patiently for his neocom to blink with an expected notification. He checked the time and let out a long, drawn-out groan. It was late by at least several hours.

He had tasked what was left of the Project DENT spynetwork to dredge up information on the Aposi–the Sani Sabik cabal that had successfully infiltrated Imperial Outlaws. and had murdered Lady Lianne’s daughter. He clenched his fist at the thought, letting his mind wander unproductively about whether the little girl had understood what was happening as her life ended. She was probably confused, disoriented. He willed himself away from his imagination after offering another prayer for the child’s soul and returned to reviewing the papers and reports strewn across his bed in his quarters in Kamela.

Realizing that the message was probably delayed again, he walked over to the kitchen counter and poured himself a cup of tea. One file caught his attention for the dozenth time. He picked it up and scanned it over once more in between sips of rejuvenation.

The Sani Sabik influence with the 24th Imperial Crusade was far more apparent than he realized when he had joined Death by Design. One such group had even been a part of one of the more powerful alliances within the crusade: The Loaded-Dice alliance based in the Bleak Lands. Fitting, it seemed, that such an organization would have found refuge in the former home territory of the Blood Raiders.

The corporation he was examining closely was Blood Fountain Massacre, headed by Apothys Rah. As Sani Sabik, they were less than discreet about their loyalties. Indeed, Apothys Rah’s own publicly-available biography read as:

The planets surfaced burned and the skies were ignited with the crack of laser fire and burning comets as vessels plummeted through the atmosphere, addressing the captured heathens he spoke.”It was us who brought civilization to this dark and perilous galaxy, and it is us who uphold it, with compassion.. strength.. and courage. We save you Minmatar from yourselves. We will help the lost ones amongst you find their way and we will do it with the deathless force only the might of the 24th Imperial Crusade can wield. pausing a moment before the kneeling heathens the robed figure turned and cried out to the Blood Raiders. Blood for the Blood God!!!” The Blood Raiders roared in approval and the figure turned to his second. “Now sacrifice the males in the name of the Blood God and take the females too the slave barges”

– Apothys of the House of Rah, ‘Divine Commodore’ of the 24th Imperial Crusade and the sinister Order of the Empress’s ‘Blood Fountain Massacre’ –

It was appalling that such a flamboyant corporation of Sani Sabik was allowed to operate beneath the Empress’ banner, with no loyalist corporations taking up the mantle against them. Something had to be done, but there were limitations to his capabilities. Starting over at the bottom of the corporate ladder left him operating sparsely and only with the tentative approval of higher-ups. He had been used to creating his rules and regulations rather than following them.

He would have made a proposal to Predator Elite directly to declare war on Blood Fountain Massacre, but that was largely unnecessary as Death by Design was already a neutral party in the ongoing Amarr-Minmatar conflict and could therefore fire on both. As a result, he had started to pressure on the alliance to which Blood Fountain Massacre once pledged allegiance: Loaded-Dice. It was no secret that Loaded-Dice’s executor Kenshein had partaken in the freighter kill above the infrastructure hub in Huola, therefore implicating his entire alliance. Reginald believed this game him a path of salvation and penance.

But how can one man hope to overcome the bureaucracy of an entire alliance? What message could possibly be sent loud and distinct enough to cut above the natural communications of “Amarr Victor” and blind loyalty to a corrupt Crusade that would have Blood Raiders operate beneath its sacred banners?

The answer had been simple, yet elegant. A single pilot, properly equipped, could wreak havoc upon the rank and file and leadership alike. A single pilot could send a message so loud as to be deafening. And thus he had begun a smartbombing campaign in Kourmonen.

He turned to a paper-clipped page inside of the file. And it had already received attention:

“Blood Fountain Massacre left our alliance in September. Any harm done to us for the sake of them is misplaced, when we have neither the control nor influence to alter their course. If they are Sani Sabik cultists, then you will have to hunt and kill them in our Empress’ name.” 

Alas, the path to salvation is long and narrow and the “do it yourself” mentality was less than becoming for warriors of the Amarr militia. Standing by and doing nothing was almost as bad as supporting the Sani Sabik. Turning a blind eye out of convenience was an affront to God and the Empress.

The campaign would have to continue. At least, until allies could be rallied against the Sani Sabik corruption within the Crusade.

Until then, he walked alone.

Kamela

It had been several days since Shalee had told him about the Aposi and her intention to disband Imperial Outlaws. He had received no further instructions. The lack of communication was less than surprising, however; she needed time to mourn.

As he walked through the 24th Imperial Crusade station above Kamela V, he felt a pang of guilt for wanting his marriage to Kat to take place at the cathedral in Huola. There had been moments where he mused it would be the first major service since the cathedral was sanctified, yet, he imagined that a memorial for Karlee, Shalee’s daughter, would be more appropriate. He hoped that Shalee was reaching out for help in her self-imposed exile. He felt silly for worrying–she would have surrounded herself with loyalists.

His quarters in Kamela were a far cry from the suite he had enjoyed as a CEO in Saikamon, Siseide, Egghelende, Tararan, Kourmonen, and a host of other systems. He had grown used to ridiculous amounts of space–every additional square foot costing a fortune and reserved only for the leadership of capsuleer corporations. He held no such position now and wasn’t planning on gaining attention by rising through the ranks. Still, he felt cramped. At very least, he didn’t need to share his limited quarters with anyone.

It had a bed, a desk, and a kitchen just large enough to house a small refrigerator, a tiny oven, and some other amenities. There wasn’t quite enough space for a table, so he had done without one. Instead, there were a pair of swivel chairs planted into the floor at the kitchen counter. The lighting was acceptable and a projector provided images on a bare wall–on some days it was a beach very much like the one at Cerra Manor, on others, a temperate forest, and still others a frigid mountainside.

But the feature that stuck out the most to him was a lack of a sofa. He remembered Kat scolding him for not having one when he had first moved into the Manor as a place to entertain “casual guests.” He supposed that the bed would have to do if she ever visited.

At any rate, it could have been worse. It was an Amarr station, after all, providing him with a wide arched ceiling with the usual golden ornaments and finishes. The solitude had done wonders for him psychologically, far away enough from Huola and free of responsibility, he had managed to focus on integrating into the corporation, which was going well. Still, it was likely the Aposi were watching.

The news that he was closing Heart of Pyerite and accepting an offer to join the pirate corporation Death by Design had been met with outrage among his extended family and shareholders. Much like the number of members within NO45, the share price of the corporation plummeted, casting a number of fortunes into utter ruin. As expected, he received numerous threats, some of them even aimed at his engagement with Katerina.

He had spoken to her, of course, about the entire debacle. The conversation was fresh in his mind. They had been seated on the floor, leaning against his bed at Cerra Manor. He had failed to clean up the mess of ink, papers, and blood on his floor. She had looked terrified.

“What’s going on?” She had whispered, a note of horror in her voice.

He had broken down into a series of battered sentences and overthought responses. Part of him had wanted to burn the pages as soon as he had returned from the shore with Shalee, but another part of him wanted Kat to know. She had a right to know.

“Do you hate me?” He finally asked, after rambling off a series of incoherent responses.

She sat next to him, wrapping an arm around him, “Why would I?”

“Because… because innocent slaves died at the infrastructure hub in Huola. My corporation was clearing the decommissioning papers. It was my fault. There shouldn’t have been any slaves there.”

She sighed, “Do you trust me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well I trust you. And I trust you knew nothing about it, no matter what anyone else says.”

He his heart melted and he nearly broke down again, but this time out of sheer joy. He hadn’t expected that to be her response. He supposed that was his fault for not giving her more credit, for allowing his upbringing to once again influence his outlook on life. He felt ashamed and relieved at the same time, his heart pounding at the reaffirmation whilst the cold of self-isolation slowly melted away. He loved her.

After a few moment, he told her what Shalee had told him: The Aposi, her daughter, her quest for revenge. He added that he wanted to help her achieve that goal, to bring the people responsible for murdering a little girl to justice. He wouldn’t and couldn’t suffer them to continue existing. But it came at a price. Everything did in New Eden. And his title as Holder was not above the immortal conflicts–it too, would be a casualty in the campaign, bloodied and tarnished by the desire for retribution.

“But,” He squeezed her hand after confiding in her, “My reputation is ruined… And…” He choked on the words but finally managed as he shattered his own feelings for her sake and for her family’s sake, “I can understand if you want to call off the engagement.”

She looked at him, her eyes horrified, “Do you take me for some status whore?”

He snapped to attention immediately, just in time to see the look of disgust on her face. “No, of course not!” He shook his head, “Never, never, never.”

He took her hands in his, then said quietly, staring directly into her emerald eyes, “I love you, Katerina Tzestu.”

And that had been that.

He stopped at an observation window to survey the expanse of the system of Kamela. The familiar golden hue of the Amarrian nebula shown throughout this fortress of organized piracy. He was still getting used to his uniform, now that it held insignia for Death by Design and the alliance Did he say jump. He had that in common with Katerina, now. Officially, he was a pirate.

Unofficially, of course, he was Shalee’s eyes on the outside of the Crusade, working from without to test the Crusade’s facade and hopefully expose Aposi sympathizers and agents within its ranks. It was no secret that the legendary Predator Elite had designs on the moons throughout the Bleak Lands–every source of income not held by the Crusade was another blow to the Aposi and their influence.

But his hands were sullied. He thought that he needed to play the role to the utmost in order to get the Aposi to stop monitoring him, to believe that he had left in disgust at Shalee’s actions in order to take revenge against the militia that betrayed him.

He had fired upon a member of the Crusade on the undock in Kamela. The pilot’s Imperial Navy Slicer hadn’t stood a chance against the lasers of a Legion he had been provided with for the sole purpose of destroying ships exiting the safety of the station. For good measure, he had destroyed the capsule as well. As long as they were watching, this was what he would have to do–to continually fight his beloved Empire until the Aposi threat had been extinguished permanently.

As a call to arms sounded throughout the Did he say jump district in the station, he wondered at how many more he’d have to kill.