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.
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.”
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.”
“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.