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.

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