When the Beating of Your Heart

“Those who can, anchor up on Pred and overheat prop mods! The rest of you, get to gate, jump and get safe. We’ll get you out later!” 

Reginald lay back and closed his eyes. The clock was becoming depressing–a full sixteen hours left until the JMP-N rescue effort would commence. His ship, along with nine other vessels, had happened to be on the wrong side of a Goonswarm Federation capital escalation in the Goonswarm home region of Deklein–an escalation that had cut the JMP-N strategic cruiser fleet in half, stranding them on opposite sides of multiple bubbles. Some of the ships made it back to the wormhole that led to Enaluri, safety, and home. The rest? They had made a mad dash for a gate–a motley squadron of cruisers, strategic cruisers, HICs, and a Bhaalgorn-class battleship. The order from on high, before communication was cut, had been simple: Wait.

After establishing safe-spots in the system, like all of the other captains of the Trapped Squadron–as they had come to be known–he powered down all systems except life support. No lights, no beacons, no weapons, no capacitor signature–nothing could be left on that could give a roving combat probe something to lock onto. He had ordered the crew of his Legion-class strategic cruiser Shalee’s Revenge out of action stations and into emergency standby positions. This meant that they were all waiting in escape pods. And the waiting was killing them.

He had extracted himself from his pod some time before to patrol around the vessel as best he could in the rufescent emergency lighting. Since it was a strategic cruiser and therefore modular in design, its interior, while certainly Amarrian, nonetheless seemed somewhat alien–as if the familiar flowing lines and golden plates could be shed off at any second by the fullerene structure of the Legion itself, as if the gilded interior was masking a breathing organism deep within the bowels of the ship.

He shook his head, then pressed his hand hard against his temple in an attempt to stave off another powerful headache. Feeling along the walls in the dark, he somehow managed his way back to the bridge, where he found an empty seat. He needed to keep his mind off of the familiar passageways into darkness. He pulled a case out of his back pocket: his Righteous Cross medal. After polishing the medal several times, he pinned it to his uniform, its gleam shining even under the dim lighting. He slumped into the seat, completely aware of how dangerous it was to waste any mental faculties on that. And yet, he found himself holding his neocom moments later–a copy of a report furnished to him by Lady Aspenstar brightly displayed on the screen.

//Encode
//Begin Sub Routine
//Open File D//Project_SFRIM//over-watch
//File Running



//Open Sub-sector 67/8P
//Report Retrieved

Dear Lord Sakakibara

I was sent a notice that you seem to have placed a member of Societas into detention due to ‘illegal incursion into you’re holdings’ may I assure you I was unaware of any such plans, had I been Alexa would be in a very different cell. I understand why you saw fit to detain her however as a subject of SFRIM and still under employment by myself as chief of security of my own holdings I request she is transferred back to my custody to be tried under dereliction of duty and various other charges pertaining her actions.

May I suggest we meet in person in order to talk this out in greater detail ourselves.

Lord Lucas Raholan
Legatus

//Close Report
//Add note
-/ Lord Sakakibara previously registered in sub routine D//PROJECT_INSIGHT/recruitment_sleeperagent
//Close Note
//Encoding
//Begin transmission to SV-3 Location – Aband/A–/Kador

His eyes lingered on the notes at the bottom of the file. Lord Sakakibara previously registered in sub routine. Project Insight. Sleeper agent.

He leaned back again, his head still pounding from a combination of restlessness, mental exertion, and rumination. Massaging his temple with his forefinger and his thumb, he wandered down the familiar darkness of his memories of Huola. Charred flesh. Living corpses. A freighter cracked in two–perceived as a sacrifice to the Red God.

Suddenly, a neocom message broke him out of his reverie. The authentication codes were impossible. His eyes widened as the transmission from a Tengu-class strategic cruiser, broadcasting as Explorator, ran through the encryption sequences of the Sakakibara family. Finally, the message loaded.

“Rescue operation underway. Prep for extraction.” – Naomi

It was impossible. She was supposed to be dead. How did she even find him? Questions cluttered and uncluttered his mind as he rushed back to the pod–they would have to wait, he needed to get his ship and therefore his crew, to safety. He ran back into the pod, closing his eyes as his clone re-interfaced with the control mechanisms of the capsule. Subconsciously, he sent a message throughout the ship, “Action stations. Action stations. We’re extracting.”

***

The extraction from Deklein had gone off without a hitch. The Explorator had provided all of the requisite coordinates and had even prepared a safe point for Reginald and his crew in the insertion system. Although still over 80 jumps from Enaluri, the new region was clear of Goonswarm space. The only problem was that it was Period Basis. Blood Raider territory. For now though, the voices and the echoes remained at bay.

He was standing at the entrance to the docking bay, the Explorator having pulled alongside to provide additional supplies. He recognized some of the incoming crew as staff members from the family suspected of being Naomi’s supporters and classified as such by DENT, though they were primarily lower-level grunts.

And then he saw her.

Her face was gaunt, her skin pale, her hair short. And yet she walked with a sense of purpose he would not have expected from a former prisoner. She smiled slightly to him as she boarded his ship. His guards tensed, but as they were literally at her mercy, they did little more than to show that their weapons were readily available.

“Naomi,” Reginald smiled in that practiced way his mother had beaten into him as a child.

“Older brother,” She grinned back.

They stood there awkwardly, neither of them venturing to say anything beyond their initial greetings, let alone move to make an embrace. A number of emotions were pumping through him–confusion, anger, vengeance, gratitude. It was all so disorienting, to the point that he could do little more than stand.

Naomi broke the silence, “Your wife sent me. She was concerned about you.”

Reginald was caught off guard, “Oh. Well…”

“We’re currently negotiating with the local alliance to provide the necessary equipment for your ship to get out in one piece,” She turned back towards the entrance-way, “You would certainly want to take part in the negotiations?”

Still a little unbalanced, Reginald merely nodded, then gave instructions for his crew to power down all systems except life support until his return. He then followed Naomi into the Tengu-class strategic cruiser. He noticed immediately that it was designed entirely for exploration–scanning systems, the ubiquitous Sisters Scanner Probes, and even the high-end Sisters Expanded Probe Launcher. It was also outfitted purely for travel–a covert operations subsystem rendered the ship invisible as it pulled away from the Shalee’s Revenge, the Legion’s lights already dimming. Propulsion was taken care of through an interdiction nullification subsystem. He wondered to himself where Naomi had received the ISK to build such a vessel.

Naomi walked with Reginald to a lounge area, waving off her attendants except for a pair of Achuran bodyguards, who took a respectful distance from the siblings. She indicated tea for Reginald as she took a seat near a coffee table–Reginald took one opposite.

He raised a cup of tea to his lips, eventually forcing himself to say, “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Naomi smiled back, “Will you allow me to apprise you of the situation?”

He nodded, looking at her intently–trying to find a motive behind this act of kindness, this obvious manipulation.

“As I’ve said, we have been engaging in negotiations for your safe passage through this region with the local alliance–Drop the Hammer,” She indicated a wide viewport from which one of the local gates could be seen, “They’ve been very helpful in terms of providing market data. Unfortunately, the closest station with a publicly-available Interdiction Nullifier for your Legion is twenty-eight jumps away. At least, in Stain.”

Reginald shuddered at the thought of entering Sansha space. Naomi seemed to sense this, offering reassuringly, “We are going to check a market in another adjacent region. It is looking hopeful.”

He quirked a brow at her, though his nullsec geography was inadequate at best, “What region?”

She looked at him carefully, then provided a holo-projection of the constellation for him, “The system is CX8-6K in the OK-FEM constellation.” She tilted her head, “Are you familiar?”

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He looked at the projection–systems plotted out in dots seemingly so insignificant and yet separated by vast expanses of empty space. They were color coded–the bright lights of Empire space highsec contrasting against the red of null. Lowsec seemed non-existent in comparison. As he analyzed the constellation Naomi showed him, something stirred deep in his spine. Taking another sip of tea, he tried to shake the feeling off, but it clung to him, unwilling to let go. It was not an itch, but rather the sense of something grabbing onto him, latching onto him, coiling and uncoiling. He shifted in his seat, though it did little to abate the sensation.

“It’s a major hub in this area of space. The parts we need will surely be there,” She smiled sanguinely.

Fresh pains suddenly coursed through his cranium like bolts of lightning. He dropped his cup of tea. Despite his implants, he could feel his eyes unfocusing, voices re-congregating inside of his mind. He pressed both of his hands to his head, as if he was trying to hold it together, to keep it from splitting in two.

Naomi smiled, then rose. The two Achuran bodyguards hoisted Reginald onto his feet and despite his best efforts to resist, dragged him towards the viewport. One of them placed his hand firmly beneath Reginald’s chin, forcing him to gaze out into space.

As he struggled against the cacophony growing in his mind, Naomi’s voice cut through as clean and sure as a sharpened knife, “We’re here. Welcome to Blood Reach.”

***

At first, it was hardly visible through the dust particles produced by asteroids and other debris. But as the Tengu-class vessel fell into line on the approach lanes, structures slowly rose out of the obscurity of the haze.

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His heart skipped a beat as the structures came into focus. He didn’t even notice the Bhaalgorn-class battleships moored to the complex. His eyes suddenly focused completely on the Blood Raider architecture.

“This place guards a holy site. The Pagera Manton,” Naomi’s voice once again cut through the chorus echoing through his mind.

He felt his body begin to relax into the grips of the Achuran bodyguards. His heart rate continued to flutter wildly, the voices slowly beginning to abate the closer the vessel approached. Finally, after the proper clearances were made, the Explorator docked with Blood Reach.

It was awe-inspiring.

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It was as gorgeous as any similar structure he had seen in the Empire, the bloody patterns offering a grotesque yet stunningly beautiful alternative to orderly gold. Towering above the complex like a vigilant sentry stood Blood Reach’s Central Administration Structure. Somewhere in Reginald’s mind, he cataloged the intriguing observation that even the Blood Raiders saw value in bureaucracy, but that was a thought buried underneath the increasingly melodious symphony in his mind. The pain seemed to all but dissipate as the guards and Naomi led him into the structure–each step leading towards a crescendo of disorienting euphoria.

There were hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims surging to and fro throughout the building. Many wore masks, others their bare faces. It was all so intriguing, so surreal–most of the pilgrims would have fit in on the Amarr Emperor Family Academy trade floor or even at a ball at Knight’s Mercy. They seemed so ordinary, despite the darkness of their visit.

Hallways, elevators and tramways led to various sections of the Blood Reach complex. Something like a Central Terminal stood at the base floor, regular trains of automated maglevs leading to places such as “Bloodsport Stadiums,” “Slave Pens,” “Altars,” and “Cloning Facility.” He could see signs leading to other, more sinister locations, but couldn’t make out the wording. They probably went to places where one could consume the blood of their choice, and for some strange reason, he was not bothered by the thought.

Naomi and the guards led him to an elevator, flanked by two masked men. After exchanging a few hushed whispers, he was loaded onto the elevator. It was made almost entirely of glass, offering a complete and unobstructed view of many proceedings on the main floor. Slave auctions. The sale of blood wine. Sacrifices.

On a massive screen above one of the maglev lines, a camera drone feed zoomed out of one of the Bloodsport Stadiums. Fights to the death. Unlicensed Mind Clash grandmasters. The schedule was spelled out in full as it rotated around the stadium, crowds cheering as their favorites were announced.

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The elevator opened into a chamber already occupied by dozens of what he assumed were high-ranking Sani officials. Most were naked, bodies writhing in the shadowy confines amidst the smell of blood. It was all too much at once. He felt a fresh pair of hands and then a body press against him. He turned his attention to a dark-skinned girl wearing a white ceramic mask, a chalice of red liquid–presumably blood wine–in her hand. Naomi brushed her away, then began to lead Reginald through the intensity before them. He would have fallen to his knees had it not been for the Achuran bodyguards. His brain simply couldn’t keep up with the sensations, the sheer physical, spiritual and psychological inputs entirely overwhelming. Lines of Scripture played through his head–lines about sacrilege and blasphemy–while at the same time verses from childrens’ songs from “Dr. Adad’s Wild Time!” swirled through the sea of sin. He could almost feel something shattering, deep in-grained beliefs at risk of melting away.

Somehow they got him through the chamber and into a quieter room. An altar, covered in the fresh blood of a now-pale human sacrifice was bathed in pale artificial light, casting the rest of the sanctuary in shadow. A hooded figure approached them as the distinctive dripping of blood ran down grooves along the altar and into chalices prepared for the occasion.

“So,” The hooded figure said in a masculine voice, “This is the one who married Michael Tzestu’s sister. Our ‘Hero of Huola.'”

It felt as if an Iteron Mark V had crashed into his head, almost knocking him off of his feet. Reginald could barely keep his eyes open through the constant barrage of everything anathema to what he had grown up with. Sensing this, an Achuran guard simultaneously pulled back on his hair and forced him to his knees so that he was looking up at the figure.

“We have such plans for you, Lord Sakakibara,” The figure said as he wiped his hands of blood, licking remnants off of thin fingers. He knelt down to Reginald’s height and lightly drew a bloody smear across the Righteous Cross medal on his chest.

“Plans for you. Your wife. And your son.”

***

Naomi had somehow secured the parts necessary for Reginald’s escape from null. With a rendezvous scheduled and a location for a drop-off secured, they had made their way back through the whirlwind of blasphemy and heresy. Back on the Explorator, Reginald stood at the viewport, looking back at Blood Reach in the distance. He stood alone, unaided, his back straight in the manner his mother had beaten into him–a posture fit for a Holder.

“Well, Reginald?” Naomi joined him, asking in a familiarly sweet voice, “Will you return?”

The answer flickered briefly in his eyes.

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Coup d’etat I

Having a pet kameira had its advantages, Naomi thought to herself as she browsed through the ever-lengthening list of DENT operatives being picked off by her cabal. They had been exposed, of course, because of Alexa de’Crux’s kameiras, her teams identifying and compromising DENT safehouses. Alexa would spend her days investigating DENT’s locations, then spend her nights in Naomi’s bed, completely infatuated.

As for Doctor Nayot, he was playing his part perfectly. By masquerading as DENT’s commander–the elusive L–he was goading Alexa into bidding after bidding. His “confession” was also quite convincing, making Alexa believe the family was actively trying to eliminate Naomi, rather than integrate and reconcile, which was Katerina Sakakibara’s true wish. The real masterpiece had been the dangerous game Naomi had played poisoning herself to heighten Alexa’s emotional reactions–the poor girl had almost broken down at the sight of Naomi lying comatose. In other words, Alexa was wrapped around Naomi’s finger and Reginald’s Holding was slowly becoming hers.

There was one final obstacle in place before she could claim full control, a person that the family flocked to in times of crisis. Naomi’s great-aunt Ashessa Sakakibara. In recent years, Naomi had curbed Ashessa’s influence by becoming Rebecca Sakakibara’s guardian; as long as she was in her care, the rest of the family was too frightened to threaten Naomi’s growing power. And with her brother reeling psychologically from military campaigns in the Bleak Lands and Heimatar, her influence had grown substantially while his own eroded.

But the next step would be to remove Ashessa Sakakibara.

***

Naomi was reclining on the soft lawn of a hillock overlooking the lake at the estate, resting her head against Alexa’s legs while the latter tickled her fingers through her hair. There were some advantages to seduction, Naomi supposed, surprised that she was actually savoring the moment. She had been enjoying much, in perfect honesty, leading Alexa deeper into corruption with every night spent in her bed.

Her neocomm beeped.

She sighed, then looked over at the notification. A worthless tower that still belonged to Heart of Pyerite was under siege from Reginald’s new home: Death by Design. It was all she could do to stop a grin from forming on her face. Instead, she forced it into shock, “Oh God!”

“… What?” Alexa asked, their midday foray interrupted.

She showed Alexa the notification, putting on an act of complete helplessness, “He’s… he’s destroying… There’s nothing I can do.”

“The report says that the defenses are holding,” Alexa tried to comfort her, “Can we contact anyone?”

Naomi shook her head, “My brother’s pirate corporation is sieging an asset.”

Alexa growled, “We should inform Lady Lianne.”

Naomi started to become frantic–the natural response of someone who would have actually cared about the control tower, “What can anyone do? What am I supposed to do?”

“Love, losing your head will not help. Give me a moment.”

Naomi shook her head violently, “No one can challenge a capital fleet of that size… He’s destroying everything I want to build!”

How ironic.

“And my frigate is sadly under-equipped…” Alexa said uselessly, “We could do this politically.”

“Politically?”

“How much evidence do we have that DENT is operating under Kat’s orders?”

“Just the message.”

“We also have the doctor’s confession. I have several messages from ‘L,’ one of which directly names Ashessa as an interested party.”

Naomi wiped the tears from her eyes, “What would you suggest we do?”

“I suggest that we make this an extremely embarrassing war for them to wage.”

“Embarrassing?”

 Alexa nodded, “We dig up so much dirt on DENT that their actions against the nobility bite them in the rear. Turn the people against them.”

Naomi shook her head, “The people fear them.”

“Then we make the Council sit up and take notice.”

Naomi almost froze. She hadn’t expected Alexa would make such a drastic suggestion. A Theology Council investigation and trial would ruin everything she was trying to build. She couldn’t allow that. Only after becoming Holder could she even begin considering an Imperial review, and only after Reginald and Katerina had been disposed.

 “But… it’d expose us,” Naomi countered, banking on Alexa caring more about their relationship than anything else. She sat up, then clung to Alexa tightly, feigning weakness and vulnerability, “I… I don’t want that to happen, yet. They’ll slander us.”

“DENT wants to destroy us. They want us to be intimidated.”

Naomi swallowed, “I have another idea…”

“Yes, love?”

“We… can invite Ashessa to dinner,” Naomi began speaking her plan into motion–the assassination of a matriarch within the Sakakibara family, “Tell her that… that we know everything and that she’s implicated. And… if she doesn’t back down…”

“… Then, we go straight to the Council.”

Naomi suddenly felt upset at Alexa’s loyalty to the Empire. She hadn’t been able to shake that faith quite yet, even with DENT operatives supposedly kidnapping families and having them executed. to be truthful, that had been Naomi’s doing, but she needed Alexa’s kameiras. Without their combat prowess, DENT would swarm the estate with the remnants of their assault forces and try to eliminate Naomi once and for all. She had to solidify her claim before that could happen.

Naomi responded quietly with a shake of her head, “No… we kill her.”

Alexa took a deep breath, then looked over the water. Naomi could see the fear and worry etched onto her face, emotions she thought kameira were incapable. But then, they said that kameira were also incapable of feeling love. She almost chuckled to herself. This was far from love. This was seduction.

Naomi continued, seeing that Alexa was too busy thinking to respond, “Without her, DENT falls apart and then Regi and Kat won’t have anyone supporting them anymore. They’d have to accede, to accept us.”

“Cut off the head,” Alexa muttered, “And the body dies.”

Naomi suppressed a grin forming across her face, instead nodding silently.

“Naomi,” Alexa turned to her with a serious expression, “It’s very im,portant that you understand what you are asking me to do. You are asking me–potentially–to assassinate a member of the Amarrian nobility. If we are not very certain that she is guilty, and have evidence to back our assertions… I will most likely be court-martialed, and suicided.”

Naomi tried to reassure the kameira, “If they ever found out. I’d never let them find out, Alexa. It’d be our secret. Forever.”

She added for good measure, “But think of the lives we’ll have saved–those innocent families torn apart by DENT brutality.”

Alexa looked back over the lake.

Naomi shed a controlled tear, “I don’t want… anymore children to suffer.”

“I need to consult with my superior. If this… goes south, I want it to be on the record that we were working in the best interests of the Empire. That, at least, will spare us from the more serious consequences of our actions.”

Naomi could feel her plan begin to unravel, “the fewer that know, Alexa… the better.” She added, harkening back to an older conversation, “You said yourself, traitors should die.”

“Yes, but I’d much rather it not be us that are branded traitors.”

“We’re not traitors. The evidence is overwhelming. We’ll prepare a file,” Naomi started, trying to find any alternative to exposing the situation to a wider circle, “If anyone asks questions, Alexa… anyone other than… my brother or his wife… we’ll be prepared.”

Alexa nodded.

“If Lady Aspenstar is dragged into this…”

“No, it won’t be her. I just… love, I want a paper trail. I want something that stands up against whatever evidence DENT throws against us.”

“We’ll have it… Who would you want to notify?”

“The Praefectus of my corporation. One step below Lady Aspenstar. I will speak with him in confidence, and make sure that our… necks are covered? Is that the correct term?”

Naomi ignored the lesser query, “Is he trustworthy?”

Alexa nodded, “He has guided me on previous occasions. I trust him.”

“Tell him only the very smallest amount of information,” Naomi pressed herself against Alexa, “We should protect those we care about as much as we can.”

Alexa nodded, then pulled out her datapad.

Naomi sighed, “I… will bear the sin, Alexa.”

Alexa took Naomi’s hand, “We… will bear it.”

“You make me feel so safe,” Naomi smiled.

“And I will always do everything I can to keep you safe.”

Naomi smiled, “Shall I send the invitation?”

Alexa looked at her datapad, “One moment…”

Naomi nodded quietly, letting the wind sweep over the hillock as Alexa examined her messages. She wondered if there was an afterlife for relationships, and if so, where would her time spent with Alexa go? She buried the thought as a useless, idle curiosity.

Naomi kissed Alexa’s chin, “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, it’s fine. My Praefectus suggested a combination of approaches: that we deliver our evidence to the MIO, and launch our plan afterward. That way, the enemy’s political and financial support will be cut off–they attempted to murder a minor noble, after all, which could cause them to be declared heretics.”

Naomi found it strange being referred to as a noblewoman, but she shook her head in response, “No… I… The MIO would know about us.”

Alexa sighed, “I don’t know what to do. Make the call, Naomi. I have never sunk a mission, and I do not intend this to be my first.”

Victory.

Naomi smiled, “I’ll inform Ashessa that we want to ask her to dinner, here.”

And so the trap was set.

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.

New Equilibrium IV

Naomi wore her best smile as she waited in front of the estate’s entrance for Alexa. It was all going almost too well–a few drinks, a few smiles and Alexa had risen to the occasion to lend her services to the Empire. The sun was out in the Myyhera sky, illuminating the country estate with its familiar yellow warmth. Servants walked to and fro, their heads occupied with their allocation of chores for the day. An attendant stood near Naomi–one of the many unnamed faces of the Household Affairs office.

Alexa exited one of the family’s sleek black cars–one of a fleet that were adorned with the family’s crest. Naomi loathed the crest–engraved upon so many trinkets and artifacts throughout the manor, as it was; the seal was in and of itself a silent watcher of her every action. And she imagined it would scream if it was given a voice. But she would hear plenty of screaming once she had her brother and his wife on their knees.

“Welcome to our humble abode, Miss Alexa,” She curtsied.

Alexa bowed, “Thank you, Naomi. And you can call me ‘Alexa.'”

“Very well, Alexa,” She glanced at the facade of the manor building, motioning for the attendant to begin taking notes, “What security flaws do you see?”

Her tone was careful. She wanted to see how much Alexa could pick up on body language and voice stress, so she asked her questions with a veneer of calculation–her tone could have suggested danger or a threat.

“Very few. I would… hesitate to reveal them directly, Naomi, but security is clearly fairly strong.”

So not completely ignorant. 

She nodded, “Why don’t we take tea inside one of the parlors and we can discuss it there.”

“After you, Naomi.”

Naomi walked slowly through the manor, pointing out various conversation items. About half-way there she relieved the attendant of his duties and called upon the staff to provide a tea service in one of the parlors, but that they would take their tea privately. The result was a silver tea service awaiting them with no other souls in sight.

She made her way to the service and took on the role of server, “Do you take sugar or cream?”

“Both, please.”

She nodded, then provided Alexa with a teacup upon a saucer–the sugar and cream present. She imagined that her brother would say something idiotic around this time such as “Mother always told me milk before the tea…” But she chose instead to provide Alexa with a different hallmark–the muted smile of the nobility.

Alexa took a sip, giving her thanks. Their eyes met for a moment, then Alexa said, “You are… quite a lovely woman…”

Poor thing! 

Naomi feigned embarrassment, “Oh, thank you, Miss–ahem–Alexa. You are as well.”

Naomi quickly glanced around after steadying herself–it was not quite time to flirt, yet, “We should be free to speak, here, but sometimes I wonder if I can trust the household staff.”

“The security around the Manor is excellent,” Alexa began, “I have a few concerns–the guards patrol a predictable path, for example, and it might be wise to make some discreet inquiries into the… social alignment of the staff…?”

Naomi, feigning ignorance, raised an eyebrow, “Social alignment?”

“Who assigns their duties? How much access does an outside party have, should they wish to turn one of your employees?”

Naomi responded matter-of-factly, “The house receives deliveries once a week and the staff are on a rotating schedule that gives them leave to visit the town or even go into the city. Their duties are assigned by the Household Affairs office, which I oversee directly.”

Alexa nodded, Naomi continued, “I’m afraid it seems very porous when you cast it in such light,” She put on a downcast expression, “Spies could be rampant.”

Alexa seemed silent for a moment, as if thinking over something critical. Finally, she offered, “If you wish, I could contact some of my associates and see if any of them have unsavory connections.”

She hadn’t considered that as a possibility. It was threatening though it was sincere–an investigation would ultimately lead back to her own operations. She couldn’t have that.

“Alexa,” Naomi put her cup of tea down, hoping to slightly shift Alexa’s course, “If you had the choice to rule out of fear or out of love, which would you choose?”

Alexa hesitated, but finally replied, “I do not like the idea that people are afraid of me–though I understand the usefulness of such perceptions, from a military perspective. Were I given a choice… I would rule out of love.”

Naomi crossed the distance between them. Wearing an expression of virtuous ambition, she looked into Alexa’s eyes then took Alexa’s hands in her own, “Then we are the same.”

“My brother rules by fear and the family loathes him. I want this family to be one where we can love.”

Alexa merely nodded, staring into Naomi’s gaze. Perfect.

“He uses spies to provide him with information, to quell dissent,” Naomi shook her head, “That’s not what I want. I want my brother and my new sister-in-law to return to a transformed family, one where we don’t have to live with barriers of fear erected between us.”

Alexa responded, “I will do all I can to help you achieve that goal.”

Naomi smiled, then acted as if she had just realized they were holding hands. She faked a blush and turned away, “I’m sorry. That was improper of me.”

She heard Alexa take a deep breath. In that breath she heard a symphony of success–the hook was deep indeed.

“Y-you need not apologize, Naomi. I-in fact, I do not know precisely the reason, but… I wish you had not stopped.”

Naomi turned back to Alexa, “You would have allowed me to… to continue?”

Alexa blushed a response, “I would. If you wish.”

As if guided by God, a servant knocked on the door, breaking the moment. Naomi almost burst out laughing at the manifestation of Providence, the servant indicating a message had arrived for her.

She looked at Alexa, “Will–will you stay, tonight? I feel… safer, when you are nearby.”

Alexa nodded, “Yes… yes, of course, I will.”

Naomi smiled, then proceeded to attend to the messenger. She had already won. And now, the reel.

***

It was several hours after she had parted with Alexa. The message had been both a chore and a blessing all at once. On the one hand, the matter was an incredibly dull issue of ledgers, but on the other, it actually made her feel tired. For Alexa’s benefit, she would look exhausted, weak, and vulnerable. All the same she took a deep breath when she heard the knock on her bedchamber’s door, then prepared herself for the act.

“Good evening, Alexa,” She said, looking worn.

“Good evening, Naomi,” Alexa smiled, perhaps a little nervously.

Naomi indicated a place-setting for a meal amidst her room, lightly decorated as it was. Indeed, it seemed rather sparse for the immediate sibling to a Holder. She wondered if it would trouble Alexa, what with her being an agent of the Empire. She hadn’t prepared for this at all–part of her wondered if she should have played this out in one of the gaudier rooms of guilded gold. But it was too late now.

She hoped Alexa would focus on her and on her alone. Looking exhausted, she said, “I know I said we would take dinner together, but do you mind if I just… lie down for a bit?”

Alexa took a seat, her smile appearing a little easier, “I don’t mind at all… is everything all right?”

“I just,” She acted as if it was a battle to keep her eyes open, “I haven’t been sleeping well. The slightest sounds wake me and I feel I’m succumbing to paranoia.” She shook her head, laughing, “Some nights I feel I’m going insane, unsure of whether I am sleeping or dreaming.”

 “Do you wish me to check on you in a few minutes?”

“Actually,” She faked another blush, “It sounds childish of me, as if I’m afraid of the dark, but… would you mind staying?”

“I would not mind at all,” Alexa smiled, clearing her throat nervously.

Too simple! 

Naomi smiled, a little too earnestly, “Thank you!” She glided over to the bathroom to prepare for bed, calling from inside, she asked, “Is there anything you need? I hope the food is to your liking.”

“Everything is lovely. The food is wonderful and so is the company.”

“I’m glad.”

Naomi shrugged her clothes off in front of the mirror, then ran her fingers across a silken nightgown she had chosen for this occasion. It was very modest, barely showing any skin except for her neck and collarbone. Thin straps held it loosely upon her shoulders. She wanted to look innocent and yet desirable as she slowly wiped away her make-up, peeling layers away from the Steward of the Sakakibara family. She would look her purest for Alexa.

She emerged from the bathroom barefoot, the silken nightgown shimmering slightly against the light. Her eyes fell upon Alexa. The kameira was blinking in astonishment, appearing speechless.

Poor thing! 

Alexa averted her eyes, “I am sorry, mi–Naomi. I shouldn’t stare like that.”

Naomi acted ignorant, knowing full well what Alexa’s gaze entailed. Instead, she asked, “Does it look silly on me?”

“No, no miss. Naomi. It… looks wonderful. You… look wonderful.”

Naomi twirled once around to check the nightgown over, “You’re certain?”

Alexa nodded, “A-Absolutely, Naomi.”

She could feel Alexa’s eyes upon her, glued to her as she completed the turn. This was going far too smoothly, but she was not one to deny a gift.

She giggled, “All right, Alexa. If you’ll excuse me for a moment…”

And now, the finishing touch. She found a patch of moonlight against her bed, the milky beams illuminating her as she knelt down. She clasped her hands together, then began whispering evening prayers–she meant none of the words. It was all an act. And yet, she was the image of piety. Alexa whispered her own prayers in the distance.

She rose gently, then peeled off the covers of the bed, “You can leave the plate there, I’ll have a servant take care of it in the morning.”

She slid beneath the covers gracefully, then let out a sigh of ecstasy. She really did feel tired after all.

To her surprise, Alexa approached the bed, then removed her jacket and pants. She almost gasped at the boldness, then realized Alexa simply didn’t understand. She said nothing as Alexa climbed into the bed with her tanktop.

Too easy! 

Once Alexa was under the covers, Naomi giggled, “I wasn’t expecting you to come into bed with me.”

“Oh. Oh, I apologize for my presumption,” Alexa blushed magnificently, “Do you wish me to leave…?”

Naomi placed a reassuring hand on Alexa’s arm, “But since you’re here…” She then slid her body gracefully next to Alexa’s warmth.

Alexa paused for a moment, then gingerly placed her arms around Naomi’s slighter frame. Naomi snuggled closer, her eyes closed. She whispered a soft, “Have I told you how safe I feel around you?”

“Yes… but I like hearing it. And… my heart is racing. Wh-why is it doing that?”

Naomi gently placed an ear against Alexa’s chest, every move calculated, every word handpicked for effect. She chose an innocent explanation, “You must be having a heart attack.”

She felt Alexa shiver as they drew closer together.

Alexa confessed “It only beats so fast… when I’m with you.”

She smiled at the confession, not because she was particularly surprised–she knew Alexa was falling rapidly in love with her–but because her plan was working perfectly. She opened her eyes gently, then raised her body up so that her face was level with Alexa’s, “Does it, now?”

Alexa nodded slowly, gazing into Naomi’s eyes. Naomi could almost feel Alexa’s heart thumping wildly.

She asked a question, her eyes shining, “If there was one thing you wanted right now, Alexa. What would it be?”

“… To know love.”

Naomi leaned in close to Alexa, their lips separated by mere centimeters, “And how would you want to come to know love?”

Alexa licked her lips nervously, “B-by being with s-someone… that loves me…”

“So precious,” Naomi smiled sweetly. She whispered, in the same soft tone, “Alexa, have you kissed before?”

Alexa shook her head, “No. I… have never had the need…”

Naomi smiled once more, but pulled away from Alexa’s face. Instead, she rested her head on Alexa’s chest, then drew Alexa’s arms into a tighter embrace. The kiss would wait–a lingering longing in Alexa’s mind that would ensure the completion of the seduction. And as a result, provide Naomi with significant military might. All the same, she listened to Alexa’s heartbeat, enjoying the rhythm as a child may have enjoyed a lullaby.

She felt Alexa place a hand on her head, then begin to gently stroke her hair, “I-I don’t know what I am feeling.”

“Don’t question it. Enjoy it.” Naomi replied.

Alexa nodded, “Naomi…?”

“Yes, Alexa?”

“… Teach me about love.”

All too easy. 

“I will. I promise.”

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.

New Equilibrium II

She held her breath as she saw them walk onto the Terrace. For all of her anger and the contemplation she had poured into how the encounter would unfold, she was almost rendered speechless. They looked happy, locked in light conversation as their things were moved to the landing pad by servants. But when her brother’s gaze fell upon her, she remembered how much she loathed him. Time slowed down as his smile became the unreadable stoic expression of the nobility, a court-pressed slight smile that was supposed to lull a person into a sense of security. She expected that that’s how he perceived her–not as his sister, but as a noblewoman. The distance between them was staggering. Suddenly, it didn’t even matter that Katerina offered a greeting–she could only feel the anger pent up within her finally erupting.

She folded her arms, trying to keep her outburst as dignified as possible, “You didn’t invite me. It’s all over the IGS and you didn’t invite me.”

Kat narrowed her gaze upon the half-Achuran noblewoman, “We didn’t have time to invite anyone. The only people who were there were my parents, because Reginald had already flown them out for something unrelated. It was spur of the moment.”

“No one flies their finacee’s parents for ‘something unrelated,'” Naomi whined, like a spoiled child that had received too small a portion of dessert. She turned her gaze to her half-brother, “I was only a few jumps away and I’m your closest living blood relative!”

“Like Katerina said, it was very sudden,” He frowned.

She could hear the reluctance in his voice. He was going to let Katerina wage this battle while not taking part. How shrewd to let his new wife hit the ground running. Coward. He always let someone else fight his battle while he looked on from relative safety.

“Hmph,” She turned away, looking back at Katerina, “So then, if not for an apology, why did you want to see me?”

She was surprised to feel Kat’s hand upon her arm, “Reginald had flown them out as a surprise for me, since I mentioned I hadn’t seen them in close to a year, and he wanted to meet them.” After the explanation, Kat motioned to some couches.

Naomi followed her gaze, then nodded towards them, indicating she understood, “All right.” She gave another fierce glance in the direction of her brother–who had already started to converse with Joni–then started to calm down. She hated him with a passion and everything that he stood for–stagnation, status quo, regression, tradition, secrets. But then, she had secrets of her own, didn’t she?

Kat walked slowly, continuing the conversation, “As for why I wanted to see you… We’re going away for a few days, and we need someone to take care of the family affairs for while we are gone.”

“So?” Naomi quirked a brow, “You needed recommendations for a steward? There’s my aunt Ashessa, though she’s grieving her son’s death currently.”

What a waste of time. No apology and she would just empower someone who was already strong. But there were no other candidates for steward that would stand with her. Ashessa was isolated enough to not cause any issues, old enough to keep out of affairs, and wouldn’t act as long as Naomi still had Rebecca.

Kat took a seat on one of the couches, “If you’re mad at us, I understand. I’m sure we can find someone else.”

For all of her hatred for Reginald, she had few qualms about Kat, no real quarrel. Kat was just a commoner after all and was far easier for Naomi to relate to than any family she had grown up with. Naomi’s expression softened–there was no need to hurt her. At least, not yet.

“I’m sorry if I seem a little abrasive,” She apologized, “I just would’ve liked to have been at the ceremony.”

Kat nodded, “I understand that, believe me. There wasn’t even enough time for me to find a ring! Reginald’s wearing my father’s wedding band right now.” After a moment, Kat added, “Do you remember what you asked me on Myyhera?”

Naomi couldn’t help but giggle that her brother was wearing a commoner’s wedding ring. It took a while for Kat’s question to sink in, piquing Naomi’s interest, “I do. You spoke with him, then?”

Kat’s expression turned deadly serious, “Well, you wanted a shot, and with Aunt Ashessa in mourning, and no other suitable candidates…”

Naomi’s eyes widened. She felt her heart skip a beat. It was impossible. There was no way.

She glanced at Reginald then looked at Kat in disbelief, “There’s no way he would consent to that…”

Kat chuckled, “Well, we’re married. And he said if I trusted you, he’d be willing to trust you for a few days.”

Kat was an angel. In less than three days, she had done more for Naomi than the entire “family” had done for the entirety of her life. Of course, she had guessed this would happen. Her brother was infatuated by the red-haired Khanid girl, after all.

“I–I don’t know what to say!” Naomi jumped out of her seat and wrapped her arms around Kat–she hoped it would be convincing, “Thank you! Thank you!” She added, for good measure, “And… congratulations, Lady Sakakibara.”

Kat smiled, “Thank you. But! A few things first.”

Naomi didn’t like the sound of that. Power would be coming with strings attached. Katerina was likely smarter than she let on. Naomi nodded attentively, acting as respectful as she could with a sober look on her face.

Kat said, “First, I want you to look me in the eyes, and promise that I’m not going to regret this.”

Naomi looked at Kat soberly, squarely in the eyes, “You won’t regret this.” She tried not to swallow, keeping her attention on maintaining a relaxed face–if she could convince her here, she’d have won, “I promise.”

Kat nodded, “Alright. And I want you to trust me when I say you won’t need to fear the family anymore either. That means you definitely won’t need  a hostage.”

Naomi let hesitation flicker across her face. At first, she cursed herself for it, but then realized that a rational person would also be upset at the notion of losing their one bargaining chip. She replied with a whisper, “I may not need to fear my brother with you in his bed, but you can’t claim that for the rest of the family. At least, not yet. I’ll have to see the impact you make before agreeing with you about Rebecca.”

Katerina looked fierce, “Anyone who does anything to anyone in my new family is going to regret it in a way few non-capsuleers can understand. That goes for you, as well as everyone else in this family. I’m not asking you to agree about Rebecca right this second, but I want to keep it in mind.”

Naomi nodded solemnly, “I don’t doubt your sincerity. But aren’t you acting a bit much like CONCORD? I have Rebecca to prevent bad things from happening to me. Your enforcement of order is in response to something happening to me.”

Katerina nodded, “I understand, and I’m not disputing it. That’s why I’m not saying do it now. What I am saying, is prove to me you want to be part of the family, and that you can be part of the family, and I will do everything in my power to make it happen. Fair enough?”

Naomi smiled, “Yes, my lady.” She added, again for effect, “You won’t regret this at all.”

“See to it I don’t, Naomi,” Kat rose, “In any case, it’s time for us to leave.”

Naomi stood up respectfully, “Will I be able to reach you should an issue arise-not that I foresee any shall.”

She was lying through her teeth, but Kat hadn’t had a noble’s upbringing. Beneath the long eyelashes and expression of serenity, machinations were already at work. She needed to draw out DENT and remove as many of them as possible, but there was no way her own cabal could hope to challenge their combat expertise. She had spent so much on the first attempt in Saikamon that almost neutralized her brother, then another that had resulted in Orion’s death. She was obtaining power at the wrong time.

“You can reach either of us via neocomm,” Kat replied.

Naomi smiled, then curtsied politely, “Please enjoy your honeymoon, my lady.”

Kat smiled back, collecting Reginald in the process, “We shall.”

Enjoy your honeymoon, for it is all you will enjoy. 

New Equilibrium I

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.

“Insolent bastard.”

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.”

“Oh?”

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.”

“I see.”

“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.

A Chance Encounter 2

Naomi glanced at the servants as she made her way up the front steps of the Manor. She noted the hint of disapproval in their gazes, though they averted their lingering stares. After all, she was the true resident of the Manor when Reginald wasn’t around and she should have access to her home even when he evicted her with little notice just to introduce his girlfriend to the family.

A young girl of five with jet black hair followed behind her, the miniature image of a proper lady. As the little scion finished climbing the steps, she glanced up at Naomi and smiled one of her innocently oblivious smiles. Naomi returned a forced smile back. She would do anything to maintain Rebecca’s innocence, even if it meant molding herself into the suffocating box the family had constructed for her the moment her father had declared he wanted to give her his name. She forced the bitterness out of her expression as she knelt down to straighten out Rebecca’s tiny collar.

“Will Grandmother be here?” Rebecca smiled brightly.

“Of course she will be,” Naomi nodded, “And what will you say to her?”

“Nothing!”

“And why is that?”

Rebecca grinned, “Because I’m playing a game with grandmother, and if I talk first, I’ll lose!”

“Yes, exactly.” Naomi stood up, taking Rebecca’s hand in hers, “Come now, we must greet the visitor.”

Naomi led Rebecca down the corridors, treated as a stranger in her own home by the servants–no doubt on Reginald’s orders. Of course, she had left orders of her own to a few select supporters. One of those was to keep the servants in line. She wanted her arrival to be a complete and utter surprise to him, to force him off guard. He’d likely default to his “perfect gentleman” demeanor and maybe even treat her decently for a change. At least, as long as Katerina Tzestu was around.

First, though, she needed to make sure they were separated. As she had reached the Manor grounds with Rebecca, she had left a message to the family member Reginald had left as a caretaker for his listening tower in Saikamon. His name was Orion, Rebecca’s father. She had sent a message to him regarding Rebecca. Of course, he would do anything for Rebecca–the weakness of a widower who only wanted to see his daughter safe. Naomi had guaranteed Rebecca’s safety in the message, but only if he caused the tower to go dark for fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes was how much time her men needed to breach the tower and kill him.

How simple it all was. In his attempt to strengthen the loyalty of his family by giving Ashessa’s son a prominent caretaker position, Reginald had left himself entirely vulnerable. Everything was slowly coming together.

Naomi stopped in front of the doors that led to the parlor. By now, Reginald had probably received news of the tower and would thus be politely excusing himself like the gentleman he was. He would then leave his precious Katerina to the family–or at least, the half of the family that would even consider accepting her. Naomi hadn’t quite been invited.

She could still hear the voices from inside, one of which she picked out as her older brother’s, “I’m sorry to interrupt Aunt Ashessa. Miss Tzestu, I apologize, but a matter requires my attention.”

“Attend to it then, I will be quite alright here.”

So that was Katerina’s voice.

“Thank you, I should be back shortly.”

“You see?” Naomi made out Ashessa’s ancient timbres, “But I suppose it can’t be helped. His mother wasn’t finished preparing him when she left the family.”

That last part made Naomi’s blood boil. That woman. The one who stole her childhood. She let the anger flicker over her face for a moment, hoping all the while that Rebecca didn’t notice.

She heard a laugh, Katerina again, “At least he had the courtesy to inform us before getting drawn into something.”

Naomi wouldn’t allow Ashessa to continue, however. She’d make her pay for the slight. With Rebecca on her hand and wearing a noble appearance, she gracefully entered the parlor, casually brushing past other guests and walked straight to the two women. The wrinkled crone was Ashessa, while the other–a woman she recognized immediately from the information she had obtained–was Katerina Tzestu. Her brother’s love interest. The woman he was “courting.”

She watched with glee as Ashessa’s jovial expression turned sour. The old woman looked at her with contempt, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh Auntie!” Naomi forced herself to giggle as if the question had been a joke, “I wouldn’t miss this presentation for all of New Eden.”

She held Rebecca’s hand tightly for effect, remembering that Ashessa was probably ignorant of her son’s untimely demise, “Introduce us, please?”

She could feel the reluctance drip from Ashessa’s voice, “Miss Tzestu, this is Naomi, my nephew’s second child.”

Well, at least she didn’t call me “whore’s spawn.”

With a far sweeter voice, Ashessa added, “And this darling girl is Rebecca.”

Katerina smiled–Naomi was unsure if it was genuine or not–to the both of them, “It’s truly a pleasure to meet both of you.”

“Likewise,” Naomi glanced to Kat then to Rebecca, her voice calculated at a higher octave, “But my is it crowded here. Shall we take a walk in the gardens? The three of us?”

On cue, Ashessa protested, “Reginald said–”

Naomi interjected, “Regi isn’t here, Auntie.” For dramatic effect, she glided around to behind Rebecca, placing her hands on the little girl’s shoulders, “And we picked out this dress for a stroll didn’t we, Rebecca?”

The little girl nodded with enthusiastic glee. It was all a show, of course. It was a message that screamed to Ashessa, “This little girl–your granddaughter–is my doll.”

To Naomi’s surprise, Katerina smiled at Ashessa, “It’s alright, ma’am. It’s just a stroll. Besides it’d be rude to decline the invitation from Reginald’s sister.”

In a standard presentation, that would be the case, yes. But the atmosphere within the family had grown so toxic–the act was dangerous. Publicly, however, no one could say that Katerina had been rude. Well-played.

Ashessa nodded, “Very well.” She shot a piercing gaze at Naomi, “But don’t take them out too far.”

“Too far” referred to the lake. But it wasn’t time to dispose of either Rebecca or Katerina. At least not yet. She still had to assess Tzestu. Could she be used? Were her manners a front?

Naomi patted Rebecca’s shoulders for effect, “We’ll be back before nightfall.”

Turning to Katerina she smiled, “You’ll love the outside–it’s far better than being couped up in a place like this.”

Katerina chuckled politely, “If you say.”

***

The trio exited the Manor in silence in favor of the gardens, which had taken on a somber personality with winter fast approaching. A fountain sat the center of the garden–set up in quadrants around cobbled pathways. In the distance stood the Sakakibara family’s chapel, a stone structure from an older time complete with stained glass windows. But she had no use for God right now.

Naomi smiled down at Rebecca, motioning to the empty gardens, “Go on then, run along.”

The little girl beamed, then skipped off towards the fountain. As she bounced, jumped, and laughed, Naomi almost felt sorry that she would grow up without a father. It was only just. Naomi hadn’t grown up with a mother after all.

She wore her best smile, then turned to Katerina, “It’s wonderful meeting you. We joke about you being Regi’s best-kept secret.”

Katerina laughed, “I’d hardly call myself a secret!”

Naomi smiled slightly, unsure of what to make of her, “Walk with me.” She kept her eyes on Rebecca in the distance “So how do you feel? Being courted by my older brother?”

Katerina smiled, keeping the leisurely pace, “He’s a perfect gentleman.”

Naomi raised an eyebrow, thinking she had caught Katerina in a red-handed lie, “Oh? A perfect gentleman invites a woman to stay in his private quarters?”

Katerina nodded, “When he sees a lady in distress he does and then does not take advantage.”

Of course. 

Naomi failed to hide the disappointment, her pace slowing, “I see. How noble.” She thought for a moment, then decided to go for the jugular, “You could surely guess my next query.”

No man is perfect.

She stopped, then leaned in towards Kat, “Is he bedding you?”

Katerina continued to smile politely, her response without hesitation, “He is not, although it’s hardly your concern is it?”

Katerina’s response had none of the telltale signs of a lie. Naomi felt her mind stumble for once.

She sighed, “Of course he isn’t everyone’s perfect gentleman.” She folded her arms, then asked as an afterthought, “So, do you love him?”

“Might I ask if you’ve been in a relationship, miss?”

Naomi thought back to a few times when she had disappeared after becoming a capsuleer. Her time in Gallente space had been free-spirited before she finally returned to the regimented lifestyle of her family. Of course, she couldn’t remember the names of either of her fancies.

She giggled despite herself, “A fling here and there. Nothing serious.”

Katerina smiled, “Then as you may know, rarely do you start a relationship by loving each other. However I do like your brother, a lot. I’m sure that in due time it will indeed become love.”

Naomi hadn’t been expecting this. Honesty. It was something so rare in her day to day dealings that she had forgotten that some people were not as twisted, contorted, or estranged. Suddenly, she could understand why Reginald held feelings for this commoner.

Naomi laughed, “I like you. You’re so refreshing. A noble girl would have swooned at the idea.” She ran her eyes over Kat once more, “I approve.”

This was a surprising outcome but not quite one she was ill-prepared for. A friend in Katerina could be far more useful than an enemy for her purposes. But to develop a friendship, she would need to share something intimate. Something beyond their shared sense of being outsiders at the Sakakibara Estate.

Rebecca suddenly dashed behind Naomi’s leg, breaking the woman’s concentration. Before Naomi could say anything, Rebecca asked Katerina, “Are you a princess?”

Katerina smiled brightly at Rebecca, “No, miss. Are you?”

Katerina added to Naomi, “I’m glad you approve.”

Rebecca shook her head, though she continued to smile.

Katerina smiled, “No? Well you look like one!”

Rebecca smiled widely at the compliment, then skipped off back towards the fountain once more. No doubt she was imagining an army of knights at her beck and call. Katerina may be a commoner, but she certainly knew how to play on noble sensibilities. Either that, or perhaps all nobles truly were morons.

But now was time for a secret, “She’s such a good girl. Ashessa hates that I have her, of course. But that little girl is my shield.”

“Your shield?” Katerina asked.

Naomi nodded, prepared to tell everything in regards to the little girl, “From the family. As long as I have her, there is nothing they can do to me. Not even Regi.”

That last part was a bit of a fib. Regi would try to find a way to save Rebecca, of course. He was like that. Show him a little weakness, a damsel in distress, and he would come running from across the galaxy with a handkerchief and gentle smile. She hated that about him.

“I suppose that makes sense. Not that I could imagine him doing something even if he were able to.”

Naomi decided to show Katerina a button on her neocom, “He doesn’t know that I gave her an implant. If I don’t reset a timer once a day, it starts ticking down. You can guess the rest, I’m sure.”

Katerina nodded, “I’ve worn something similar myself, once or twice.”

Now that was interesting. 

“Still,” The Khanid girl continued, “I can’t imagine you’re entirely comfortable playing with her life like that?”

Naomi shrugged at the philosophy, “Innocence is so fleeting. I’d be doing her a favor if I forgot to attend to it one day.”

That little girl never knew her mother and hardly knew her father. And now she never would, kept in a perpetual loop of happy memories, never understanding that her parents were both dead and that she was just a pawn in a greater game. 

“But also an injustice, to not let her choose for herself. But I’m a commoner, unfamiliar with the ways of the nobility, so feel free to ignore my uppity musings.”

Naomi countered, “The fact that she doesn’t know the choice exists is a blessing. As for how you feel you can dispense with that with me. I’ve always been an outsider here. His mother made sure of it.”

Katerina shrugged, “I can’t imagine it was easy, with your father’s family pushing you out.”

Naomi smiled wistfully, “It wasn’t.” She turned to Kat, “Regi probably painted me as a kind of monster, didn’t her?”

To her surprise, Katerina shook her head quickly, “Not at all. He didn’t come out and say it but it seemed like he enjoyed growing up with you.”

Naomi thought for a moment, then remembered a single happy memory from her childhood. The day her older brother had stood on the balcony and pretended to be an acrobat, just to see his little sister smile. One memory, however, would never make up for a lifetime.

Naomi nodded, “That would’ve been all he enjoyed.” She turned to Rebecca, “Rebecca darling it’s time to go back inside, now.”

Naomi glanced back to Katerina, “We’re both outsiders, here, so why don’t we agree to keep secrets? Please don’t tell Regi about…,” She paused as the little girl approached, “Well, you know.”

Katerina nodded, “As long as it’s nothing harmful, of course.”

Naomi stroked the little girl’s cheek, “If only it weren’t necessary.”

Katerina nodded quietly.