Naomi glanced at the servants as she made her way up the front steps of the Manor. She noted the hint of disapproval in their gazes, though they averted their lingering stares. After all, she was the true resident of the Manor when Reginald wasn’t around and she should have access to her home even when he evicted her with little notice just to introduce his girlfriend to the family.
A young girl of five with jet black hair followed behind her, the miniature image of a proper lady. As the little scion finished climbing the steps, she glanced up at Naomi and smiled one of her innocently oblivious smiles. Naomi returned a forced smile back. She would do anything to maintain Rebecca’s innocence, even if it meant molding herself into the suffocating box the family had constructed for her the moment her father had declared he wanted to give her his name. She forced the bitterness out of her expression as she knelt down to straighten out Rebecca’s tiny collar.
“Will Grandmother be here?” Rebecca smiled brightly.
“Of course she will be,” Naomi nodded, “And what will you say to her?”
“And why is that?”
Rebecca grinned, “Because I’m playing a game with grandmother, and if I talk first, I’ll lose!”
“Yes, exactly.” Naomi stood up, taking Rebecca’s hand in hers, “Come now, we must greet the visitor.”
Naomi led Rebecca down the corridors, treated as a stranger in her own home by the servants–no doubt on Reginald’s orders. Of course, she had left orders of her own to a few select supporters. One of those was to keep the servants in line. She wanted her arrival to be a complete and utter surprise to him, to force him off guard. He’d likely default to his “perfect gentleman” demeanor and maybe even treat her decently for a change. At least, as long as Katerina Tzestu was around.
First, though, she needed to make sure they were separated. As she had reached the Manor grounds with Rebecca, she had left a message to the family member Reginald had left as a caretaker for his listening tower in Saikamon. His name was Orion, Rebecca’s father. She had sent a message to him regarding Rebecca. Of course, he would do anything for Rebecca–the weakness of a widower who only wanted to see his daughter safe. Naomi had guaranteed Rebecca’s safety in the message, but only if he caused the tower to go dark for fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes was how much time her men needed to breach the tower and kill him.
How simple it all was. In his attempt to strengthen the loyalty of his family by giving Ashessa’s son a prominent caretaker position, Reginald had left himself entirely vulnerable. Everything was slowly coming together.
Naomi stopped in front of the doors that led to the parlor. By now, Reginald had probably received news of the tower and would thus be politely excusing himself like the gentleman he was. He would then leave his precious Katerina to the family–or at least, the half of the family that would even consider accepting her. Naomi hadn’t quite been invited.
She could still hear the voices from inside, one of which she picked out as her older brother’s, “I’m sorry to interrupt Aunt Ashessa. Miss Tzestu, I apologize, but a matter requires my attention.”
“Attend to it then, I will be quite alright here.”
So that was Katerina’s voice.
“Thank you, I should be back shortly.”
“You see?” Naomi made out Ashessa’s ancient timbres, “But I suppose it can’t be helped. His mother wasn’t finished preparing him when she left the family.”
That last part made Naomi’s blood boil. That woman. The one who stole her childhood. She let the anger flicker over her face for a moment, hoping all the while that Rebecca didn’t notice.
She heard a laugh, Katerina again, “At least he had the courtesy to inform us before getting drawn into something.”
Naomi wouldn’t allow Ashessa to continue, however. She’d make her pay for the slight. With Rebecca on her hand and wearing a noble appearance, she gracefully entered the parlor, casually brushing past other guests and walked straight to the two women. The wrinkled crone was Ashessa, while the other–a woman she recognized immediately from the information she had obtained–was Katerina Tzestu. Her brother’s love interest. The woman he was “courting.”
She watched with glee as Ashessa’s jovial expression turned sour. The old woman looked at her with contempt, “What are you doing here?”
“Oh Auntie!” Naomi forced herself to giggle as if the question had been a joke, “I wouldn’t miss this presentation for all of New Eden.”
She held Rebecca’s hand tightly for effect, remembering that Ashessa was probably ignorant of her son’s untimely demise, “Introduce us, please?”
She could feel the reluctance drip from Ashessa’s voice, “Miss Tzestu, this is Naomi, my nephew’s second child.”
Well, at least she didn’t call me “whore’s spawn.”
With a far sweeter voice, Ashessa added, “And this darling girl is Rebecca.”
Katerina smiled–Naomi was unsure if it was genuine or not–to the both of them, “It’s truly a pleasure to meet both of you.”
“Likewise,” Naomi glanced to Kat then to Rebecca, her voice calculated at a higher octave, “But my is it crowded here. Shall we take a walk in the gardens? The three of us?”
On cue, Ashessa protested, “Reginald said–”
Naomi interjected, “Regi isn’t here, Auntie.” For dramatic effect, she glided around to behind Rebecca, placing her hands on the little girl’s shoulders, “And we picked out this dress for a stroll didn’t we, Rebecca?”
The little girl nodded with enthusiastic glee. It was all a show, of course. It was a message that screamed to Ashessa, “This little girl–your granddaughter–is my doll.”
To Naomi’s surprise, Katerina smiled at Ashessa, “It’s alright, ma’am. It’s just a stroll. Besides it’d be rude to decline the invitation from Reginald’s sister.”
In a standard presentation, that would be the case, yes. But the atmosphere within the family had grown so toxic–the act was dangerous. Publicly, however, no one could say that Katerina had been rude. Well-played.
Ashessa nodded, “Very well.” She shot a piercing gaze at Naomi, “But don’t take them out too far.”
“Too far” referred to the lake. But it wasn’t time to dispose of either Rebecca or Katerina. At least not yet. She still had to assess Tzestu. Could she be used? Were her manners a front?
Naomi patted Rebecca’s shoulders for effect, “We’ll be back before nightfall.”
Turning to Katerina she smiled, “You’ll love the outside–it’s far better than being couped up in a place like this.”
Katerina chuckled politely, “If you say.”
The trio exited the Manor in silence in favor of the gardens, which had taken on a somber personality with winter fast approaching. A fountain sat the center of the garden–set up in quadrants around cobbled pathways. In the distance stood the Sakakibara family’s chapel, a stone structure from an older time complete with stained glass windows. But she had no use for God right now.
Naomi smiled down at Rebecca, motioning to the empty gardens, “Go on then, run along.”
The little girl beamed, then skipped off towards the fountain. As she bounced, jumped, and laughed, Naomi almost felt sorry that she would grow up without a father. It was only just. Naomi hadn’t grown up with a mother after all.
She wore her best smile, then turned to Katerina, “It’s wonderful meeting you. We joke about you being Regi’s best-kept secret.”
Katerina laughed, “I’d hardly call myself a secret!”
Naomi smiled slightly, unsure of what to make of her, “Walk with me.” She kept her eyes on Rebecca in the distance “So how do you feel? Being courted by my older brother?”
Katerina smiled, keeping the leisurely pace, “He’s a perfect gentleman.”
Naomi raised an eyebrow, thinking she had caught Katerina in a red-handed lie, “Oh? A perfect gentleman invites a woman to stay in his private quarters?”
Katerina nodded, “When he sees a lady in distress he does and then does not take advantage.”
Naomi failed to hide the disappointment, her pace slowing, “I see. How noble.” She thought for a moment, then decided to go for the jugular, “You could surely guess my next query.”
No man is perfect.
She stopped, then leaned in towards Kat, “Is he bedding you?”
Katerina continued to smile politely, her response without hesitation, “He is not, although it’s hardly your concern is it?”
Katerina’s response had none of the telltale signs of a lie. Naomi felt her mind stumble for once.
She sighed, “Of course he isn’t everyone’s perfect gentleman.” She folded her arms, then asked as an afterthought, “So, do you love him?”
“Might I ask if you’ve been in a relationship, miss?”
Naomi thought back to a few times when she had disappeared after becoming a capsuleer. Her time in Gallente space had been free-spirited before she finally returned to the regimented lifestyle of her family. Of course, she couldn’t remember the names of either of her fancies.
She giggled despite herself, “A fling here and there. Nothing serious.”
Katerina smiled, “Then as you may know, rarely do you start a relationship by loving each other. However I do like your brother, a lot. I’m sure that in due time it will indeed become love.”
Naomi hadn’t been expecting this. Honesty. It was something so rare in her day to day dealings that she had forgotten that some people were not as twisted, contorted, or estranged. Suddenly, she could understand why Reginald held feelings for this commoner.
Naomi laughed, “I like you. You’re so refreshing. A noble girl would have swooned at the idea.” She ran her eyes over Kat once more, “I approve.”
This was a surprising outcome but not quite one she was ill-prepared for. A friend in Katerina could be far more useful than an enemy for her purposes. But to develop a friendship, she would need to share something intimate. Something beyond their shared sense of being outsiders at the Sakakibara Estate.
Rebecca suddenly dashed behind Naomi’s leg, breaking the woman’s concentration. Before Naomi could say anything, Rebecca asked Katerina, “Are you a princess?”
Katerina smiled brightly at Rebecca, “No, miss. Are you?”
Katerina added to Naomi, “I’m glad you approve.”
Rebecca shook her head, though she continued to smile.
Katerina smiled, “No? Well you look like one!”
Rebecca smiled widely at the compliment, then skipped off back towards the fountain once more. No doubt she was imagining an army of knights at her beck and call. Katerina may be a commoner, but she certainly knew how to play on noble sensibilities. Either that, or perhaps all nobles truly were morons.
But now was time for a secret, “She’s such a good girl. Ashessa hates that I have her, of course. But that little girl is my shield.”
“Your shield?” Katerina asked.
Naomi nodded, prepared to tell everything in regards to the little girl, “From the family. As long as I have her, there is nothing they can do to me. Not even Regi.”
That last part was a bit of a fib. Regi would try to find a way to save Rebecca, of course. He was like that. Show him a little weakness, a damsel in distress, and he would come running from across the galaxy with a handkerchief and gentle smile. She hated that about him.
“I suppose that makes sense. Not that I could imagine him doing something even if he were able to.”
Naomi decided to show Katerina a button on her neocom, “He doesn’t know that I gave her an implant. If I don’t reset a timer once a day, it starts ticking down. You can guess the rest, I’m sure.”
Katerina nodded, “I’ve worn something similar myself, once or twice.”
Now that was interesting.
“Still,” The Khanid girl continued, “I can’t imagine you’re entirely comfortable playing with her life like that?”
Naomi shrugged at the philosophy, “Innocence is so fleeting. I’d be doing her a favor if I forgot to attend to it one day.”
That little girl never knew her mother and hardly knew her father. And now she never would, kept in a perpetual loop of happy memories, never understanding that her parents were both dead and that she was just a pawn in a greater game.
“But also an injustice, to not let her choose for herself. But I’m a commoner, unfamiliar with the ways of the nobility, so feel free to ignore my uppity musings.”
Naomi countered, “The fact that she doesn’t know the choice exists is a blessing. As for how you feel you can dispense with that with me. I’ve always been an outsider here. His mother made sure of it.”
Katerina shrugged, “I can’t imagine it was easy, with your father’s family pushing you out.”
Naomi smiled wistfully, “It wasn’t.” She turned to Kat, “Regi probably painted me as a kind of monster, didn’t her?”
To her surprise, Katerina shook her head quickly, “Not at all. He didn’t come out and say it but it seemed like he enjoyed growing up with you.”
Naomi thought for a moment, then remembered a single happy memory from her childhood. The day her older brother had stood on the balcony and pretended to be an acrobat, just to see his little sister smile. One memory, however, would never make up for a lifetime.
Naomi nodded, “That would’ve been all he enjoyed.” She turned to Rebecca, “Rebecca darling it’s time to go back inside, now.”
Naomi glanced back to Katerina, “We’re both outsiders, here, so why don’t we agree to keep secrets? Please don’t tell Regi about…,” She paused as the little girl approached, “Well, you know.”
Katerina nodded, “As long as it’s nothing harmful, of course.”
Naomi stroked the little girl’s cheek, “If only it weren’t necessary.”
Katerina nodded quietly.