Pawn

Her name was Ahzelan Tinja. She was a young woman in her mid-twenties, fresh out of the Saint Alia School of Nursing in Myyhera IV’s second district. Passing through the rigorous curriculum had required long nights of coffee and studying, but Ahzelan had persevered, often sacrificing social and romantic pursuits for the academic. She had been immensely worried that her singular academic focus would limit her employment options, having created few connections during her years at Saint Alia’s. It was why she would never get married, her mother would say. But as she was preparing to graduate, she had received a message that changed her life.

“Dear Miss Tinja, 

I was quite impressed by your performance at Saint Alia’s School of Nursing. I count myself among the friends of the institution, as many of my colleagues are instructors there. I am Doctor Ezekiel Nayot, the family doctor for the Sakakibara Family, and I would be pleased if you were available for an interview. 

Sincerely, 

Ezekiel Nayot, M.D.                                                                             Director and Chief Physician, Medical Branch           Sakakibara Family Office of Household Affairs

Her heart had skipped a beat when she received the message. At first she didn’t believe it, resigning herself to a cold shower to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. A position in a Holder’s household as a paid staff member rather than as a slave was an incredible honor, especially due to the amount of trust and clearances required to attend to even a minor member of the family.

She scheduled an interview almost immediately, traveling to the Sakakibara Family’s township in the heart of the district. On the way, she notified her parents and younger brother–they had been ecstatic. Her mother and father seemed particularly pleased, though they had always been supportive of her. With their support, smiles, and blessings, her life was finally about to begin.

She met with Doctor Nayot in the shade of an outdoor table at a cafe in the township a few miles from the Sakakibara Family’s country estate. Everything felt slower in the country; the people were nicer, perhaps even more pious than their city counterparts. She enjoyed a cup of espresso as the doctor outlined the responsibilities. He was an older man, his hair turning gray but nonetheless sharp-witted. She thought that she would enjoy working with him.

“So,” He finally asked, munching on a pastry, “Would you consider working with us?”

It was all she could do to refrain from screaming a resounding, “Yes!” Instead, she managed, “I would certainly like to pursue the opportunity.”

He chuckled, “Very well. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

The “weeks” went by like a whirlwind. Between packing and tearful good-byes to her immediate and extended families, Ahzelan found herself exhausted and anxious. What if she made a mistake? What if she was made to attend to measures, the slightest deviation from which, would result in a Sakakibara’s death? She prayed daily for guidance, and as she gave her final waves at the train station, she felt a surge of pride. She had been chosen for this.

***

“Read back the symptoms she reported,” Doctor Nayot demanded, rushing through the hallways at the Sakakibara estate with a retinue of nurses and med-techs in tow, equipment trailing behind them.

Brara, one of the associate doctors read aloud from a clipboard, “Patient complained of headache, dizziness, and disorientation before retiring–she then lost consciousness in the presence of a member of the house staff. That’s all we know.”

“Damn it,” Doctor Nayot cursed as he burst into Naomi Sakakibara’s bedchamber, directing the staff to set up the equipment around the bed.

This was Alzheran’s first test as a member of the medical staff. As such, she aimed to perform her work diligently and with only a modicum of direction. She had learned to be independent at Saint Alia’s, working to anticipate a doctor’s orders before they spoke them. With equipment ready for use–a heart monitor, IV, and other basic necessities, she stood to the side, waiting for the doctors to continue their diagnoses. She had learned to not let her eyesight linger on patients, though her curiosity got the better of her.

Breathing lightly on the bed was Naomi Sakakibara, the appointed steward of the Sakakibara family while Lord Reginald was on honeymoon with Lady Katerina. She seemed smaller in person, her dark hair kept short and her complexion clear. She looked almost frail–a far cry from the rumors of the tyrant servants spoke about in hushed whispers. If anything she seemed angelic, a vision of purity caught in a potentially fatal ballet between life and death.

Ahzelan was broken from her reverie when a 6′ 4″ female kameira burst into the bedchamber. A servant followed behind, looking incredibly upset at the intrusion, only begrudgingly letting the newcomer into the room. It was the first time Ahzelan had ever seen a kameira–one of the vaunted if almost mythical slave-soldiers of the Amarr Empire. But she clung to professionalism, trying to keep her mind occupied with the tasks of keeping Miss Naomi Sakakibara alive, even if that meant working around the kameira who knelt down next to the bed and took Naomi’s hand.

“What did they do to her?” The kameira asked.

“What do you mean, miss?” One of Ahzelan’s colleagues asked, still a little dazed at the sudden entrance.

The kameira produced a datapad, “Does nobody here know how to read?! She’s been poisoned.”

Doctor Nayot glanced at the datapad, biting his lip, “Poisoned… We’ll need other equipment.”

He glanced to the others to follow him, though he left a lingering gaze on Ahzelan. She knew in that moment that he trusted her to keep Naomi Sakakibara alive, to monitor vitals, and to report any deterioration in her condition. She felt proud that she was chosen for such a task.

“442, Actual. Status?” The kameira called into a comms-link, then said a little softer, “Naomi… My love.”

Ahzelan tried to ignore the last two words, instead scratching numbers into a clipboard as she tended to the equipment. She noticed the kameira’s face clouding after reading a neocom message, even going so far as to growl. Ahzelan checked to ensure Naomi was stable, then decided to take the plunge.

“Can I help you with anything, miss?” She asked, concern dripping in her voice, perhaps mixed with a little fear.

“Search the house. Confiscate all data transmission devices. The person responsible for this is watching us.”

Ahzelan had no idea how to respond. She wasn’t responsible for security at the Sakakibara estate, much less did she have the authority to confiscate ‘data transmission devices.’ And who was the person watching them? She shook her head, trying to remain calm, hoping that her demeanor would help calm the kameira.

“Umm… I can contact my colleagues?”

“Do it.”

Ahzelan didn’t much like the idea of taking orders from someone outside of the medical staff, but Naomi was still stable. She picked up her comms unit and contacted Doctor Nayot, relaying the medical information, utilizing the correct terminology and radio protocols. After their brief conversation, in which she told him the kameira was still present, she placed her comms unit on a table. After a few moments, it lit up back to life.

She picked up her comms unit, “Tinja, go ahead.”

“Miss Tinja,” A voice said, if it could be called a voice–it was garbled, electrified, and distorted, “Listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you. Your parents and younger brother are being held hostage. They’re kneeling on the ground in your backyard. Follow my instructions and they will come to no harm. You will pick up a syringe left in the blue bag. It has a green handle. You will give the kameira your comms unit, then place the syringe against Naomi Sakakibara’s IV. They’re right here.”

“Ahzelan, sweetheart,” Her father said, “We’re all right. I don’t want you to do–“

“That’s enough. Follow the instructions.”

Ahzelan almost froze when she heard her father’s voice grow quiet. Frowning, she handed the comms unit to the kameira, “For you… the voice sounds… garbled.” Once the kameira’s attention was on the unit, Ahzelan almost dove into the blue bag, finding the syringe just as the voice told her it would be. She then took a position next to the IV, unsure how or why this was happening.

“What do you want?” The kameira asked.

“I want Naomi to stop pressuring the family to become Holder. It’s Reginald by right.”

“Does he know you’ve poisoned his sister?”

“Of course not. He’s too busy with his new, commoner wife to care about anything. It would seem,” The voice laughed, “That you’ve become close with Miss Sakakibara.”

“Tell me, L. Do you know precisely who I am?”

L. Ahzelan recognized the moniker–the codename for the DENT spymaster, a man who controlled webs and threads cast about New Eden. The rumors were that he policed both the Holding and the Sakakibara family. All that Ahzelan really knew was that the servants and nobility alike feared DENT. She swallowed, offering a prayer that if she survived this, and if her family survived, she would find a position in an orphanage or volunteer at a slave rehabilitation camp.

“The better question is if you know who I am. But I am not here to argue with a star-crossed girl madly in love with a whore’s spawn excuse for a daughter of the nobility.”

“Strike two.”

L laughed, “Do you want to save her or not?”

“How do I do that? It seems that you are holding all the cards.”

“The choice is yours. They still need to diagnose the poison, you know. That could take time. Everything does.” He voice paused, then said firmly, “Stand down. Your team is getting dangerously close to our location. And that would cause… problems.”

“You give me the antidote, and we’ll stand down.”

“Turn and face your beloved.”

The kameira turned towards Naomi. Ahzelan’s heart skipped a beat as she was now in full view of the kameira, her face shadowed and angry. Her hand started shaking–the one holding the syringe–but she dared not move it away from the IV. Her parents, her little brother were counting on her.

“That’s a lethal dose she’s holding, Miss de’Crux. Now. Stand down.”

de’Crux growled and twitched, “442, Actual. Stand down.”

Ahzelan could feel the seething anger penetrate her through de’Crux’s cold, icy stare. Still, she clung to the syringe, ready to administer when ordered if need be.

“Good. If anything Miss de’Crux, you’re decent at following orders,” L taunted.

She managed a whisper, shaking her head at the kameira, “I-I don’t want to be here. Please.”

“Then go.”

She shook her head more, “They have my brother. My parents.”

De’Crux turned back to the datapad, “I stood down. Release this woman’s family.”

“Now, then,” L continued, ignoring the request, “Have a seat Miss de’Crux and we will discuss terms. I want you hear you drop all of your weapons to the floor.”

“The antidote, first. Terms later.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” L scolded de’Crux, “Young lady… take the syringe…”

Ahzelan gripped the syringe tighter.

De’Crux turned her attention to Ahzelan, speaking calmly, “If you do this, you will die.”

Ahzelan steeled herself. All of her training and preparation had taught her to never harm a patient, but what was one life for three? She could feel tears rolling down her cheeks as she pressed the syringe deeper into the IV. Just a little more and she could inject and it would all be over. She would see her mother Ahni again, eat her home-cooked meals and laugh about the same old jokes; she would see her father Kahtin, bandaging fingers from his excursion with whittling, scolding him to stop trying; and she would be at her younger brother Ezal’s graduation from high school. Just a little more.

“My… my family…” She started to sob.

But de’Crux beat her to it. The kameira slammed into her in a matter of moments, forcing the syringe out of her hands. Cast onto the ground, she looked up helplessly at the slave-soldier, utterly terrifed. The kameira ordered, “Sit down.”

“No!” Ahzelan screamed as she watched the syringe fall to the ground, realizing what it meant, what would happen.

“Not a good choice, Miss de’Crux.” L said calmly.

A video image flickered onto de’Crux’s datapad, though it was too far away for Ahzelan to make out anything distinct.

“I just kept you from making a very serious mistake,” de’Crux said to her, “You should be thankful. You expect me to sit back and just let you kill someone I care about?”

“We didn’t want to have to do that, Miss de’Crux,” L said, obviously referring to the video, “But be so kind as to let the young lady know that her father has just entered the void.”

Ahzelan broke down into whimpers, the declaration shattering her soul, “Daddy…”

“Now then, we can kill the other two, or you can listen to our terms.”

“Here’s a newsflash. You kill Naomi, and your bargaining chip is gone. what’s more, I will be very… very… angry with you,” de’Crux said, “I never said I wouldn’t listen. What are your terms?”

“Don’t think you can dictate terms to us, Miss de’Crux. We know where her clones are. We know where she’ll wake up. We can play this tragedy out again and again and again.”

Of course. Naomi Sakakibara was a capsuleer, immortal. But her father’s hadn’t been, not Ahzelan’s father. Not the man who had taught her to ride a bicycle, not the man who had held her when she scraped her knees on the cement, not the man who worked day in and day out to pay for her education, not the man who had smiled proudly at her graduation ceremonies, not the man who had taught her that life was best lived helping others. He was dead. Forever. And neither de’Crux or L seemed to care. Ahzelan’s life and the lives of her family were worthless in this greater game–a game to preserve the life of one who could not die.

“But our demands are simple. We need a guarantee that Naomi will stop attempting to ‘transform’ the family. She will step down from her position as Steward in favor of Ashessa Sakakibara. She will confess to the murder of Orion Sakakibara. And then she will release Rebecca Sakakibara from her custody.”

“You’re not being very clear-headed,” de’Crux responded, not budging an inch.

“There are our demands… unless… she hasn’t told you about Rebecca?”

“She has not, but that is not my concern. Or yours.”

L started laughing hysterically, the garbled voice a series of high and low pitches.

“Laugh all you want, but consider this: how is she going to do anything if she’s comatose from your poison? Give us the antidote and we will consider your demands.”

“When she wakes up, ask her to tell you about Rebecca. The poison is methyl alcohol.” L cut the transmission.

“442, Actual. You have a go. Secure all civilians and take OPFOR down with prejudice.” She turned back towards the door, “Doctor!”

Finally, Doctor Nayot and the med-techs arrived with the equipment for testing for and treating poison. De’Crux said simply, “Methyl alcohol.”

Ahzelan needed to do something. While Doctor Nayot’s presence was soothing, she knew that only she could save her mother and younger brother. There was only one thing she could do. She reached for the syringe on the ground.

De’Crux planted a boot on her hand, “This will not bring him back.”

Ahzelan yelped, the tears rolling freely, “You killed him! You killed him!”

“I’m sorry that happened, miss,” de’Crux said, “But I swear to you that he will be sorrier.”

“They’re probably all dead because of you.”

Ahzelan broke down into tears. Everything seemed as if confusion itself had manifested in the bedroom–a swirling mass of bodies tending over a woman. But not just a woman. A noblewoman. That’s what made the difference. That’s why her father died. She could make out the chatter from de’Crux radio connection.

“Hostages down. One hostile captured. One hostile down. No confirmation on escapees…”

Hostages down. That’s all that her mother and brother were afforded as a eulogy. Their names were Ahni and Ezal, she thought to herself. He was only fifteen. She started crawling over to the syringe. Why? Why was God punishing her? Why did He choose her family to pay the price, to become pieces in a game of the nobility?

But again, de’Crux beat her to the syringe. The kameira hoisted her up by the collar.

“I want to die! I want to die!” Ahzelan wailed as she was manhandled.

“Listen to me,” de’Crux said, “You’re angry, you’re hurting, you’re scared. Your death will not bring them back. Don’t let them win again.”

Ahzelan only managed to kick and thrash for a little while before exhausting herself, her mind aflame of memories of home, how she wanted to go home, and how she wanted home to be home if she ever returned. But that was all impossible. No one could bring back the dead.

“Doctor? She needs a psych eval; put her on suicide watch.”

As she was led out of the bedchamber by another med-tech, she felt useless. All her training. All the nights of studying and absorbing information had been to help support her parents, to give them a better life. All that time learning to save lives.

And she couldn’t even save three.

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All An Act

“Are you sure she can be trusted to act?”

Naomi looked over at the master of the query, a bespectacled older man with streaks of gray and white running through his once-dark brown hair. His name was Doctor Ezekiel Nayot, one of Naomi’s oldest supporters in her bid to obtain the title–or at the very least, puppet the title through manipulating Rebecca Sakakibara. As the attending physician, he had been present when Naomi’s father issued his dying wish for Naomi to become Holder. He was a cunning man as well as a shrewd physician, dodging attempts at silencing Naomi’s claim by maintaining the facade of a diligent family physician. In reality, he was responsible for quietly removing some of the older family members in addition to some of the youngest ones, slowly solidifying Naomi’s position against Reginald.

In other words, he was dangerously effective.

“I believe so,” She replied, glancing over her small cabal in one of the more sheltered parlors at the Sakakibara estate, “At the very least, she’s completed infatuated with me.”

“It’s a dangerous plan,” Dr. Nayot said, lighting a cigarette as he did so.

That much was true. The plan revolved entirely around Alex de’Crux being told enough to act, but not enough to begin unraveling the web of lies. Of course, it helped that the head of Reginald’s security organization–DENT–went by codename “L.” That alone made it all too easy to manipulate.

“I know,” She nodded.

The plan was far from foolproof and relied heavily on everything happening within a few degrees of deviation from the actual plan. That made it incredibly fragile, though if successful, would cripple DENT’s ability to act and therefore isolate Reginald and his new wife Katerina. It involved Naomi faking her own poisoning, then using DENT-style tactics of kidnapping and execution to draw Alexa’s kameiras out. She would be sacrificing some of her lesser supporters, but they were mere pawns in the game at best.

The centerpiece however, was the role Doctor Nayot would have to play. Not only would he impersonate the elusive “L” to Alexa, he would also be responsible for ensuring the dose of poison within Naomi’s veins didn’t outright kill her. It was easier and more effective to be poisoned than simply to act poisoned, and risking one clone was all that it would take.

“And this de’Crux, you’re absolutely certain you can manipulate her?” Doctor Nayot asked, ever the cautious man.

Naomi thought back to the kiss she shared with Alexa. She knew it had been Alexa’s very first, so she solidified the memory with a seductive use of tongue. She was certain Alexa was pouring over it whenever she got a free moment, her body most likely consumed with obtaining more sensations, of sharing additional kisses. It was that desire that Naomi was manipulating, the so-called “love” Alexa thought she was feeling.

“Yes, I just need a little more time with her. She thinks herself a guardian of the empire, so as soon as I am poisoned, she will be as a slaver hound unleashed, tearing through perceived threats with abandon. L and DENT won’t stand a chance.”

“And then?”

“And then I’ll have Reginald and Katerina on their knees.”

“And if Alexa decides to stand against you?”

“Then I shall do what every master does to a mad hound.”

“And that is?”

“Put her down.”

Doctor Nayot nodded in agreement, then snuffed out his cigarette into an ash tray. The nod meant everything to Naomi. It was the nod he had given her when he put one elderly Sakakibara into a coma from which they never awoke, the nod he had given her when he had killed a newborn child right under the nose of its mother, and the nod he had given when her father’s agony finally ended.

All she needed now was a few nights alone with Alexa–maybe even just one. After all, Alexa had requested a lesson in love.

An Echo, Distant

They walked down towards the shoreline beneath Cerra Manor, admiring the ocean swells. Naomi could almost feel the anticipation pulsating from Alexa, especially when she offered her hand to Naomi politely. Everything was going smoothly and Alexa would soon be wrapped around her finger, her kameiras sweeping through DENT assets as easily as the wind sweeping up grains of sand on the shore.

All in time.

“I’ve only visited the lake on my family’s property–the ocean is a new experience for me,” She lied, though it sounded deliciously innocent.

“I have never taken a lot of time to look at the ocean. Usually, I’m on deployment and my attention is focused on my work,” Alexa replied.

Naomi giggled, “Do you ever take time off?”

“When I visit the Manor, I am usually off-duty. I… make an effort to ensure that I will not be… pulled away.”

Naomi nodded, walking towards the edge of the path. She placed her drink on the rough, though solid surface. Setting aside her boots, she began to walk on the sand, allowing the fine grains to seep in between her toes. She was surprised at how much she enjoyed the warm sensation, but allowed herself to smile for Alexa’s benefit. Naturally, Alexa did the same.

“Being pulled away is a reality of my position. Aside from time for sleeping, I rarely get longer than an hour or two here or there,” Naomi said in a lightly relaxed if business-like tone.

“It is hard. Very little time to be with others.”

Naomi picked up her drink, grinning, “So we must enjoy the time we have with them to the utmost.”

Alexa smiled as she retrieved her drink, “How does one do that?”

Naomi took a deep breath, “Share fond memories.”

Alexa smiled, “And fond hopes?”

Naomi walked closer to the water’s edge, then smiled warmly at Alexa, “Do you have hopes you would like to share with me, Alexa?”

Alexa joined Naomi, nodding a bit, “I hope that moments like these will reoccur.”

Naomi took a sip, then placed her drink on the beach. She took one of Alexa’s hands, then leaned against her, resting her head on Alexa’s shoulder, “And moments like this?”

“Moments just like that,” Alexa nodded. After a while, she asked, “What are your hopes, Naomi?”

“A lasting peace in my family.”

That much was at least true, even it meant killing off family members quietly.

She added a lie, “And then more time to enjoy moments like this one.”

Alexa awkwardly wrapped an arm around Naomi’s waist. Perfect.

“So do I,” Alexa whispered.

Naomi put on a blush, but didn’t resist the motion. Instead she settled deeper into one-armed embrace.

“I… I apologize if I’m being too forward…,” Alexa said.

Naomi shook her head gently against Alexa’s shoulder, “You’re expressing yourself. It’s entirely natural.”

“I have never… felt like this before.”

Naomi giggled, then looked towards Alexa and lightly kissed her on the cheek. She then settled back into the embrace, confident that she had triggered a series of events within Alexa’s mind. She could feel Alexa’s heart racing, her breathing nervous–she had pulled a kameira out of her comfort zone. She almost felt guilty using Alexa as a means for an end. Almost.

Alexa returned the light kiss, “You are very beautiful.”

Naomi wore another blush, whispering only barely enough to be heard over the sound of rolling waves, “You’re too kind.”

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Alexa tilted Naomi’s head towards her own. Their lips met. The kiss was inexperienced, but earnest, as if Alexa had hoped to kiss Naomi properly. Well, there was no harm in taking a little enjoyment, was there? Closing her eyes, Naomi placed her arms around Alexa’s neck, then slipped her tongue expertly between Alexa’s lips. She reveled at the look of surprise on Alexa’s face at the action.

Poor thing.

Naomi, wearing yet another blush, gasped as they finally broke the kiss, “I wanted to make sure you would remember your first kiss. Apologies if it felt… improper.”

Alexa shook her head, “It felt wonderful…”

Naomi drew Alexa’s other arm around her waist, creating a full embrace, “I’m glad.”

Alexa smiled, “How large is the estate? Might we… get lost, wandering?”

“We’d have to go back to Myyhera, but there’s much I’d like to show you.”

“I would very much like to see it.”

Naomi smiled brightly, then took Alexa by the hand.

“Then come with me.”

And so it begins.