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.
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.