Naomi and Rebecca had left Kat near the rear entrance of the Manor, just as Reginald chanced upon the Khanid girl. Yet, as Naomi turned the corner, she could still hear her brother’s concerned reverberations echoing through the hallways. She leaned against a wall, asking Rebecca to stay still in order to eavesdrop on his voice.
“Were you just talking to someone?” She could hear him ask her, his words drenched with worry.
“Your sister just left.” She heard Miss Tzestu respond.
“She’s here?! Are you all right? Did she harm you?”
Of course that’s the first thing that would have come to his mind. Whether or not she had harmed his precious girlfriend. Never mind that they shared their father’s blood. Naomi let herself lean against the wall. It shouldn’t have bothered her so much, but it did.
“I’m fine! Don’t fret.”
“Are you sure? You’re not under any duress?” Naomi heard his voice change to the tone she was more familiar with, probably indicating he was talking to a servant, “Find her!”
Unexpectedly, Miss Tzestu’s voice, soothing, “It’s fine, just let her go.”
As expected, her brother called off the search. In some ways, Naomi was jealous that Reginald was so affectionate towards Katerina Tzestu–an outsider, a commoner–and one that he showed more respect and deference to than his own half-sister. But she too would always be an outsider in her own home. She gripped Rebecca’s tiny hand, then walked her towards her quarters.
Her ears pricked as Reginald started talking about dinner. Naomi smiled a small smile–another opportunity to talk to Katerina Tzestu without any interference. Her brother would of course decline to dine with her in her private chambers–he was always like that. But Naomi was certain that Miss Tzestu would appreciate some company. After depositing Rebecca into her room, Naomi made her way towards the kitchens.
It was some time later when Naomi knocked on the door to Miss Tzestu’s bedchambers. She had managed to exert her influence on the staff so that she would be in charge of wheeling the dinner–made up of victuals and morsels that Reginald had hand-picked. At least, that’s what the staff had told her. She had needed one of her loyalists to be present in order to get all of the details, but she believed the risk to be worth it.
She knocked on the door.
Katerina opened the door, revealing that she was wearing the same outfit though without her shoes. As expected, her brother was nowhere to be seen.
Naomi curtsied politely as a maid would, if in a playful manner, “My lady, I have brought your supper.”
“Come in, Miss.” Katerina smiled.
Naomi wheeled the cart into the bedchamber, closing the door behind her. Asked as more of a greeting rather than a question, she queried, “How are you enjoying your stay here?” She lifted a lid off of the cart, “To your liking I hope?”
The lid revealed a steaming bowl of soup. Naomi added, “He sent up a few courses, as he would.”
Katerina smiled, “He’s a gentleman. And the house is lovely.”
Naomi rolled her eyes, “Is that why he’s not here entertaining you?”
Katerina continued to smile, “Yes, but I was referring to him sending up multiple courses.”
“Oh?” Naomi expertly set a place for Katerina, “Will you allow me to wait on you, then? I’m hoping we can be friends.”
Katerina nodded, “I suppose, if you don’t mind. You should know that Reginald was not happy though.”
Naomi put on a laugh for good measure as she pulled a seat out for Katerina. She knew all about her brother’s unease towards her, which was likely tenfold the magnitude when it came to her interactions with the woman, with which, he was infatuated.
“I told you so,” She leaned in, hoping to plant a seed, “He hates me.”
Katerina shrugged, “He seemed more afraid. I wonder why?”
Naomi sighed, more out of the fact that Katerina wasn’t just blindly agreeing with her. She had forgotten that the Khanid girl wasn’t from the nobility and that she would speak her mind freely. Naomi hoped that in time, she could sway Miss Tzestu–an ally in her brother’s bed was powerful indeed.
“Because he thinks I’m a monster, of course.” Naomi grinned playfully, “And he’s worried I’ll spread my corruptions all over you.”
Katerina chuckled, “And are you?”
Naomi winked back, “Wait until dessert.”
Katerina laughed, then took an obedient spoonful of soup. Naomi watched the other woman with the careful attention of a patient servant. She was also available for Katerina’s need, but otherwise did not exist in the room. Finally, she remembered about something to drink.
“Do you have a preference of beverage?”
Naomi giggled at Katerina’s candor. Was this what her brother liked so much? A woman free of pretexts and masks, one open and honest? She caught herself at the thought, realizing that this could be only what the Khanid woman wanted her to see. She decided she would have to tread carefully if she wanted Katerina’s influence as a weapon to use against her brother.
Naomi cleared the soup, then replaced it with the second course–roast beef, potatoes, and various greens–bringing along with it, as the servants had told her, a bottle of Katerina’s favorite red wine from Cerra Manor.
She poured a glass, “Of course, he would remember the wine you liked.”
Katerina laughed in response, “See? Gentleman. Pour yourself one too if you like.”
Naomi hesitated for a moment, but in the end, gladly accepted Katerina’s invitation. She was unused to being treated so kindly and for a second, felt a pang of regret for wanting to manipulate the girl into a pressure point on her brother. All the same, a single act of kindness could not undo a life of misery–and while her brother was not the worst of the family, he had done little to alleviate the suffering.
Naomi offered a toast. The irony of the subject was palpable. “A toast. To gentlemen.”
Katerina smiled back, impossible for Naomi to read, “To gentlemen.”
Naomi prepared herself for the coming banality. Unfortunately, with little in common, she would have to wade through the traditionally dense and dull subject of family. She wondered if Katerina held her family in a high regard despite her commoner origin.
“So, Miss Tzestu, have you any siblings?”
Katerina nodded, “Three. Well technically two, my younger sister passed.”
Naomi put on a mock expression of surprise. She already knew that, having read Katerina’s file. Nonetheless, she could still feel the sadness in the tone. There were other things she knew about Katerina Tzestu, but she would have to save them for later, for when she would need to reign her in or keep her in line.
For now, sympathy. “I’m so sorry for asking.”
Katerina shrugged, “It’s quite alright, it’s not something that’s just happened. Do you? Other than Reginald, I mean.”
Naomi shook her head, allowing a sour timbre in her response, “No. And to be honest, I’m glad they were spared this family.”
“Well I’m sorry it’s like that.”
Naomi stood up to clear Katerina’s plate, “Don’t worry yourself over it. My father has passed and I never knew my mother, but we have to move on, don’t we?”
Of course, she hadn’t budged.
“Something like that,” Katerina nodded.
Naomi placed a piece of cheesecake–one of the desserts that Katerina enjoyed–in front of her, “Dessert, my lady.”
Katerina smiled, “Thank you.”
Naomi winked, “Let me know if you feel corrupted.”
Naomi couldn’t help but let out a genuine, “Adorable!”
Katerina joined her in the laugh, “Flatterer.”
After providing Katerina with a cup of espresso, Naomi said, “I’m sorry you missed dinner earlier. I heard it caused a bit of a riot.”
Katerina shrugged, “Apparently they couldn’t find us. To tell me dinner was ready, I mean.”
“Oh?” Naomi raised an eyebrow, entirely informed on how and why they hadn’t been able to find them earlier. A combination of bribery, her personal cabal, and jamming technology. She lied and put on a thoughtful expression, “How curious.”
Katerina shrugged, “What can you do, right?”
Naomi was unsure if Katerina knew, understood, or suspected anything. She went with it, “I suppose.”
Naomi steered the conversation in another direction, “I hope the rules here aren’t stifling you.”
“Despite being a commoner I’m not unfamiliar with the rules of nobility.”
In any friendship, friends are willing to show weakness, Naomi reminded herself. Furthermore, any good lie has some truth in it. Everything was an act with the nobility–few things, if any, were truly genuine.
They talked for a while about Katerina’s other siblings. Although Naomi already knew all there was to know about Katerina’s siblings, listening to her recollections breathed life into the digitized files. Naomi was surprised to hear that Katerina held both of her siblings in high regard–and that she was able to speak with fondness about her older brother, given what he had become in pursuit of revenge.
“You use ‘greatest’ to describe your brother, who is also your tormentor and enemy?” Naomi asked, perplexed.
“Was. When we were growing up. Some days I could literally kill him. Other days he was the best brother ever.”
Naomi laughed, confessing, “I wish Reginald and I had a relationship like that. He became very distant over time, and he stopped speaking to me entirely when his mother left the family.”
Naomi sighed, “I wish I had a sister.” She looked at Katerina, smiling, “Your family sounds wonderful.”
“Well, it didn’t last.”
Oh, I know, my dear.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Katerina shrugged, “Welcome to life.”
Naomi felt she was losing the conversation with Katerina. She offered to take her leave so that the Khanid woman could get some rest. It wasn’t going how she planned it would. Instead the conversation was leading to a point where she might actually befriend her brother’s infatuation. She thought the notion ridiculous. Katerina was a means to an end, nothing more. She couldn’t afford to get attached.
“If you have other stuff to do I wouldn’t mind, of course.”
Naomi chuckled, “I wouldn’t leave you to your lonesome like my brother.” She sighed for effect, “He’s working himself to death now when he should be entertaining you.”
“It’s quite alright, I know better than most how demanding his position can be.”
A little truth went a long way. Naomi responded, “Still, he should learn to reach out for help. He doesn’t trust me with anything and a result he gets buried under so much.”
“Well, it’s not something that anyone can force on him.”
Naomi shook her head, a hint of temper rising, “I agree, it’s just that the people he works with are so… incompetent. For example, one of the family’s control towers went offline and the family member in charge of running it is missing along with a huge amount of ISK.”
Except that I killed him and staged the whole thing, of course.
“Wow. That’s really bad.”
Naomi was surprised for a flash of a moment, then let out an exasperated sigh, “He’s sorting through candidates right now. I doubt I’m on the list. He only sees me fit to oversee things like the household.”
“Really? He sees you fit for that?”
Naomi laughed, “Are you surprised? I’m heavily surprised to the point my role is entirely symbolic.”
“That I believe.”
“It’s not like there’s a huge gap in our abilities. We had the same tutors and went to similar schools.”
“Are you surprised?”
Naomi felt a twinge in the back of her mind. What was Katerina trying to tell her? That all this time years of mistreatment could be chalked up to culture?
“I didn’t think so much of his mother would have rubbed off on him. He hates me… just like she did.”
“You know our culture. Are you honestly surprised?”
Naomi looked down at the table out of frustration, frowning, “No. But I just wish he could trust me.”
“Well, that’s out of your hands, sadly.”
No! I refuse to believe that!
Naomi nodded quietly, “But he trusts you.”
“To an extent,” Katerina corrected.
Naomi laughed, “But still far more than he trusts me. I’m sure he’d let you access the family fortune in a heartbeat if you just asked.”
Katerina barked a laugh, “Oh I doubt that.”
“I just hate seeing my father’s legacy get mismanaged by extended family–but Regi chooses them over me in every instance.”
“Well. Nothing you can do about it, is there?”
Naomi looked away for a moment, a show of weakness, then asked, “Would you–would you talk to him for me?”
Katerina nodded, “I’ll speak to him about it, don’t worry about that.”
Naomi casually reached into her pocket and pressed a button, putting a series of events in motion. Now, she needed Katerina and Reginald to spend time alone to give Katerina a chance to talk to him.
After she had done so, Naomi looked at Katerina brightly, everything an act, all for show, “You will? Thank you! Thank you so much!”
She shot out of her chair and wrapped her arms around the Khanid woman, “You’re the best!”
Katerina looked frozen in shock, then replied, “Think nothing of it.”
“You’re just–you’re amazing. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. If there’s anything I can do, anything, don’t hesitate to ask me.”
Katerina chuckled, “I won’t.”
“And altruistic. You’re perfect.”
Katerina snorted, “Liar.”
Naomi froze for a second, wondering if Katerina had found her out. She tried a neutral move, giggling, “I can see why he likes you.”
Katerina smiled, “You’re too kind. Thanks for keeping me company.”
Naomi almost breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was going perfectly.
She curtsied, “A pleasure, Miss Tzestu.”
As she left Katerina’ bedchambers, Naomi glanced at one of the household servants loyal to her. Katerina would have received a message from “Reginald” about how he wanted to see her. She would probably respond, going to him immediately even if a servant wasn’t provided. But the servant was a good prop, making the entire act genuine.
Naomi didn’t care what they did when they were alone. It was all irrelevant as long as the conversation took place. Naomi wanted control of the tower. It was Reginald’s pride and joy–a listening tower to spy on the rest of the family. She had come so far only to be blocked by Ashessa’s son. She had eliminated him after Rebecca had failed to provide leverage. Naomi had understood why, considering that his daughter had been reduced to little more than a puppet. Still, she had expected more of a father out of him.
The good news was that Katerina had sounded earnest–and that’s what Naomi had wanted. At the very least, if worst came to worst, she still held Rebecca’s life in the palms of her hands. If tonight didn’t work out, she could always have another chat with Katerina.
But it probably wouldn’t involve conversation over wine.