New Equilibrium III

She had to look her best. Everything that she had been working towards her entire life was counting on it–and with her brother gone, she needed to act quickly and decisively.

Of course, “looking her best” meant standing in front of a mirror for hours on end inside of her shuttle in Huola. She was dressed casually, but any trained observer would know that every detail was a small aspect of a larger masterpiece. The way her jacket was left open, the creases on her trousers, the lacing on her boots, the muted amount of make-up. The result was the appearance of a powerful woman taking a break, one that was willing to let her guard down for a simple evening of drinking and relaxation.

Alexa would never stand a chance.

Seduction was an art-form and while Naomi loathed the idea of taking advantage of her body to leverage favors, she was also not idiotic enough to consider it valueless. Too many years of intrigue had taught her otherwise. But then, this would be the first time her target was a woman.

Alexa, however, was worth far more to her than a daughter of the nobility. Even Rebecca–her shield–could not afford her what Alexa could offer at a moment’s notice. Alexa commanded a unit of kameiras. The name alone sent a shiver down Naomi’s spine–not one of fear, but of excitement. Her brother’s private security forces, already weakened by the deafening silence of his spy tower in Saikamon, would simply be brushed aside. DENT safehouses and resources would be broken quickly and efficiently. She almost licked her lips as the thought saturated her mind–but she couldn’t do that, yet–she would risk the careful amount of lipstick.

She put on a stressed expression. It wasn’t as hard as she had thought it would be, considering that she actually was stressed. There were variables and countermeasures that she was attending to even now, as DENT assets were identified by her own cabal. The game for power within the family was turning deadly, and family members were choosing sides for fear that neutrality would leave them vulnerable to the eventual victor. The best part was that her brother–alone and isolated with his new wife–had no idea what was transpiring.

She walked onto the Terrace, taking a seat at the bar. Alexa was present, sipping gingerly at a drink. Naomi didn’t say anything at first, choosing instead to order her own drink, and then, for Alexa’s benefit, she let out a sigh of approval once she tasted the contents.

“Another long day, miss?” Alexa asked.

She nodded, turning to Alexa, “Indeed. My brother and sister-in-law have appointed me as Steward while they are away and the work is tiring.”

Alexa nodded slowly, “Congratulations.”

Naomi shrugged carefully, “I suppose there is some space for congratulations, but the work keeps me busy. Especially…” She trailed off.

A little weakness goes a long way and it’s harmless if it’s not real.

“Miss?” Alexa sipped her drink.

“I shouldn’t. Revealing information like this is dangerous.”

“Whatever you say will be held in the strictest confidence, miss.”

Naomi nodded, “I trust you Alexa.”

Trust. Kameira were conditioned from a very young age to serve and defend the Empire. Cases of the indoctrination being broken were few and far between, so “trusting” a Kameira was not a far-fetched notion. The question was if Alexa would trust her?

Naomi took a deep breath, “I believe I have identified a conspiracy in my family against my brother and my new sister-in-law.”

Alexa sat up straight, “Who?”

The devotion of the overzealous. Of course, the true conspiracy was her own. But Alexa knew nothing about the family and its politics, making her an excellent choice for “restoring order,” even if it would mean dozens of DENT fatalities.

Naomi shook her head, “If only I could say with certainty who the ringleader was… All I know is that they are opposed to his union with… with a commoner.”

Every good lie had a little bit of truth in it. And it was true that there were elements within the family who thought Regi’s union with Katerina were far from proper. Of course, Naomi was the champion for the half of the family that wanted Regi removed. His supporters adored her–the half of the family he had actually invited to Katerina’s presentation.

“You may wish to remind them that, by this marriage, she is no longer a commoner.”

It took all of Naomi’s preparations and self-control to keep herself from bursting out in laughter. On paper, perhaps Katerina had indeed been elevated to the nobility. But for the family? Never. Not for the more conservative half. They would never accept her and they probably wouldn’t accept any children produced by the union, either. Not for at least two dozen generations. Reginald’s legacy would be limited to a blotched-out patch on the family tree. Long after his reign, family members would point him out for his indiscretion, as an example of how not to be a Holder. And Katerina? She wouldn’t even be mentioned.

“If only it were that easy. They’re adamant, of course, and I’ve yet to find the family members who hold the opinion. We’ve only managed to catch spies separated by several degrees from their employers.”

“Mm. And they will not turn?”

“It’s unlikely. As it stands, my brother and sister-in-law will both be in danger when they return to the family estate in Myyhera,” She did her best to sound frustrated, “I wish I could be more useful to them as Steward.”

Alexa raised an eyebrow–not a good sign, “Do you wish to arrange protection for your family?”

Naomi looked at Alexa, almost genuinely surprised, “Would you be willing to offer something like that? I hardly know you after all.”

“It is my duty to protect the Empire and its citizens. If you wish, I will send my unit to sweep the grounds and verify security prior to the return of your brother and his wife.”

Naomi let out a smile, “Professional protection from you would certainly put my mind at ease. What are the costs for your services?”

“It is my duty as a soldier of the Empire, miss. No charges.”

“I would be eternally grateful for your assistance.”

That much was true, at least. Though everything was very professional. She wanted Alexa to not only go to the estate but allow herself to be manipulated into doing things–she still had yet to crack the soldier’s facade.

“We will report to your homestead within the hour, miss,” Alexa said, opening a channel with what Naomi presumed was her second-in-command on her neocom.

“There’s… there’s something else, Miss Alexa.”

“Yes, miss?”

This would be a risk. Naomi took a deep breath, then took the plunge.

“If…,” She swallowed, “If the ringleader was identified… would you… help me end them?” She shook her head–an act of course, one to show that she was in turmoil over the request, “I know that the law states they should stand trial but I can’t fathom the possibility of a traitor within my family continuing to live.”

Alexa’s answer was golden.

“Traitors must not be allowed to live. I will end them.”

Naomi looked pleasantly surprised, “You are a credit to all who would protect the empire, Miss Alexa.”

“Thank you miss, I am honored,” Alexa blushed just a little bit.

There. That was what Naomi wanted to see. And now, with business out of the way–or as Alexa probably thought–it was time for her to begin in earnest.

First, zealotry, “When I find the one responsible… and I have an idea of who it might be… I just… I want to be sure.”

“Of course, miss.”

Alexa slid a few kredits across the bar, “For Miss Sakakibara’s drink…”

Naomi could not have imagined a better turn of events. The poor darling. She had no idea.

“How sweet,” She smiled at Alexa, “To what occasion do I owe this?”

“I… wish to show my appreciation for your trust.”

She glanced over Alexa, as if to indicate this wouldn’t be easy for her. Ironic, considering that she was trying to seduce Alexa, “I see.”

Alexa took a sip of her drink, perhaps a bit too quickly, resulting in a few small coughs. Naomi acted as if she was letting her stress melt away.

She leaned closer towards Alexa, “You’re very sweet.”

Alexa blinked, then blushed again, “Thank you, miss. You are a… a kind woman.”

“Am I anything else?” Naomi leaned a bit closer–it could have been teasing, “Besides ‘kind’?”

Alexa looked a bit nervous, “You are… quite attractive. If I may be so bold, miss.”

Naomi felt herself blush at the compliment, “Why… why, thank you.” She glanced away, “And you may, of course.”

Alexa cleared her throat, “Well, uh… thank you, miss.”

Hints. There was only ever one thing that anyone seeking a romantic interest wanted. It was not love–love developed later. It was not lust–lust only played to base instincts and was far easier to manipulate. No, for the one whose heart fluttered lightly, for the one who was suddenly aware of every little action, for the one who stumbled upon their own words–there was only one thing they wanted. Certainty. Hints served as the mechanism for producing that certainty, though it was a fine balance. To be challenging enough to be desirable and yet not so distant as to have the pursuer lose interest–that was the art.

Joni arrived on the Terrace to talk about a gatecamp, but Naomi knew that Alexa’s thoughts were entirely on her. A little more playful banter, then they scheduled their next meeting. And with that, Naomi took her leave, no doubt with Alexa watching her do so.

The hook was there. And now it was time to reel.

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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.

The Worst Day and the Best Day III

He was deep in thought when he walked back onto the Terrace from the gardens. The impromptu stroll had done little to quell the raging tempest, words and thoughts a howling gale through which he desperately tried to navigate. There was so much on his mind–the Aposi, his holder’s directive, his new position as a pirate, his engagement to Kat, Shalee’s words. Everything seemed to blend together and then fall apart all at once, evading his usual method of listing issues for closer examination. But he found he could barely spend five seconds on his engagement without thinking of the directive, then only a moment before switching to the Aposi, then on to Shalee’s words, then back to his engagement.

As he stepped onto the now-familiar pavement of the Terrace, he caught a glimpse of Kat sipping a glass of wine. He should have been happy to see her as he cherished every moment of their rare meetings–her deployment to Catch as a Legionnaire limited their time with one another. But instead of relief, he felt anxiety.

You are at least the third man she had been deeply in love with this year alone.

The third. Briefly, he let his mind ruminate on the possibility–was he just a rebound? Or did she actually love him? If she didn’t, then why would she say ‘yes’ to the engagement? For social gain? But that’s not what she was like at all–she wouldn’t use him for something like that. Or would she?

He managed a wordless smile as he approached her, wanting to ask a thousand questions and give an equal number of explanations.

“Hey.” She smiled back.

“Good evening, Kat,” He found a seat, his eyes glancing from one side of the Terrace to another, “How are you?”

She frowned a reply, “I’m okay, you?”

“Not… not a fantastic day,” He said as he saw Shalee emerge from the pathway to the manor, “But… we can talk about it later.”

“Okay,” Kat nodded as she followed his gaze to Shalee. She stood up and gave her a big hug.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I want to tell you–” Shalee stopped at Kat’s warm embrace, returning it, “What’s this for?”

“Reginald told me, about ILAW. Let me know if I can do anything, okay?”

“There’s nothing much to be done, most everyone has left.”

“Well I meant if you want to go after them…” Kat said, referencing the Aposi–the culprits responsible for Karlee’s murder.

“Oh. That. Yes, I do. But that is a conversation for another time. I need to say something to you both now.”

He looked up at her. If not about the Aposi, then it had to be about the engagement. His heart sank–he wasn’t prepared to defend against her. His fingers curled involuntarily as he felt a pang of sharp anxiety run through his body, causing a shiver. Would there still be an engagement at the end of tonight?

“Earlier,” Shalee started, “I told Regi that he should wait a very long time before you two married, and just now, thinking about–I shouldn’t have given that advice.”

His heart skipped a beat.

“Your marriage is your own affair, no one else’s. And you will know when it is right. Don’t let any outsiders influence what is between the two of you, okay? Even me.”

Kat hugged Shalee again, smiling, “Even if you have our best interests at heart? Don’t worry though, I won’t.”

He felt the warmth in Kat’s words slowly melt away the isolating frost of his own bleak thoughts. She seemed so earnest, so honest. How could she not love him?

“I do have your best interests at heart. But your experiences and mine are vastly different. I have no right to give advice based on the things I’ve been through,” She paused, then continued, “That being said, I have something else to confide. I want you two to be the first to know.”

He hadn’t realized he had been smiling this whole time. It felt strange after who knew how long he had been frowning, his brows furrowed. It felt wonderful to smile genuinely. He waited patiently for Shalee to continue.

“I’m getting married.” Shalee declared.

“Really?” His eyes widened, breaking into a broad smile, “Congratulations!”

Katerina smiled, “Congratulations. To Tiger?”

Shalee nodded, “I’ve decided it is time. He doesn’t know it yet… will you help? I want to do it tonight. In the cathedral. You could be witnesses.”

“We’d love to.” Kat answered for the both of them. He didn’t mind at all–his silent penance for ever doubting her.

“If you two can go arrange the cathedral, I’ll find Tiger,” Shalee said.

As the two of them began walking towards the cathedral, an older gentleman approached from the guest house carrying many suitcases. Reginald looked at him curiously, though he was caught up in the moment, unable to–no, unwilling to even momentarily leave Kat’s presence to give him aid.

“Wait!” Shalee called out to the pair.

“What’s up?” Kat asked, turning to look at Shalee.

Shalee walked up to Kat, wearing a giddy grin, “Be impulsive with me. Why don’t you and Regi get married too? We can have a double elopement here.”

He stopped dead in his tracks, his heart racing, “Elopement?”

“Well, it sort of is an elopement. At the cathedral, anyhow.”

“Yea, lets.” Kat said, looking a bit shocked.

Months of planning. Invitations. Choosing decorations. None of it would be needed anymore. Not one second of it. He wouldn’t have to sit for hours staring at colors while he entertaining family members he didn’t even know existed. The thoughts were irresponsible. As a Holder, he shouldn’t have even thought them.

Reason broke through his excitement, “But… would it be… legal and accepted?”

Shalee responded simply, “Yes. And yes.”

“All right, then.” He couldn’t believe what he was saying. Generations upon generations of his ancestors were cursing him for even considering the notion. His extended family would be in an uproar. But none of that seemed to matter–one glance at Kat and it was enough to assuage all of his concerns. He loved her.

“Then we will meet you at the cathedral.” Shalee said, dragging Kat off towards the manor.

He watched them disappear, then realized that he had a very short amount of time to prepare. A new frenzied list formed in his mind–ring, formal dress–and then, out of nowhere seemingly–her parents. They would want to be here. He’d have to pull strings with L.

The older gentleman straightened up after tying a shoelace, “Eh, a cathedral? When did they build that?”

“Indeed, sir.” Reginald answered distractedly as he pulled out his neocom for frantic messaging, “It was completed a fortnight ago.” He smiled widely, “And I’ll be getting married there, tonight.”

“Mwaggiage! Good luck my good man!” He slapped Reginald on the back heartily, “I can tell I am looking at is kind of an old fashioned guy who believes in the sanctity of marriage!”

“Thank you! Thank you!” He wasn’t entirely sure what the man had said, but assumed it was a compliment, “Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’d best go and get prepared.”

As Reginald darted off of the Terrace, he heard the man call after him, “God bless my good man!”

Now, what was it he had been thinking about? Oh, that’s right. Ring.

The Worst Day and the Best Day II

He was still fuming when he reached the Terrace, eyes glued to the neocom’s message. Hundreds of thoughts were vying for position at the forefront of his mind as he crossed in front of the fountain, the trickling water drowned out entirely by the sound of his voice echoing against the finite space of his imagination. After he read the message for the thousandth time, finding that the words hadn’t changed since the first review, he gave into frustration. He was about to cast his neocom violently away when he caught Alexa de’Crux drinking tea out of the corner of his eye. He stopped abruptly, trying to regain his composure.

“Sir…?” Alexa asked, a hint of concern in her voice.

He cleared his throat, feeling foolish, “Apologies. I’m just…,” He forced down an urge to enter a tirade, “Furious.”

“About what, sir?”

He decided to try to sit down, though his body was tense with restlessness. Fibers and sinews strained him towards finding a solution, a way to get back at the robot Vlad Cetes, some way to curry favor with his district holder.

“I just received a message from…” It took every effort to not spit, “My superior.”

“I see. From your reaction, I assume that it was not a favorable message.”

He shook his head, “Not at all. It’s… it’s… But it’s what the holder above me says and I’m bound by law to deal with it.” He swallowed, “He attached an MIO report indicating that Vlad Cetes committed no crime and ‘that his actions were justified.'”

Alexa said, “I understand. You were given an order, and you must carry it out. Mm.”

He threw up his hands in frustration, “Among other things. But Marcos Mujilus is the district holder and I have little recourse.” He laughed angrily, “He said my recent actions have brought shame to my estate and by extension, his holdings.”

Alexa nodded, “Self-defense brings shame to him?”

“He meant more my engagement to Miss Tzestu,” He replied.

That was a speculation, but the implications of his relationship existed in between the lines. His district holder likely had no respect for Katerina and that infuriated him beyond reason. He was doing his best to keep his outer appearance stoic, but he could feel the tempest raging within his soul.

“But apparently,” He somehow managed to continue, “I’m supposed to ‘cease hostile action towards registered Capsuleer Vlad Cetes.'”

Yes. Cease hostile action against the robot that murdered him.

He had just finished uttering Vlad’s name when Shalee walked onto the Terrace. She wore a short white sundress and flip flops, her hair tied back into a loose ponytail. She certainly looked much better than during the time they spent at the shore, but then he always seemed to have difficulty reading Shalee Lianne. Nonetheless, for her sake, he tried to clear his voice of frustration, stiffly managing a bow, “Good evening, my lady.”

She smiled back at him warmly, “Evening,” though her expression changed immediately–she never seemed to have difficulty reading him, “Is everything alright?”

He didn’t want to burden her with his own issues, not with the Aposi that murdered her daughter at large. After all, he had yet to even tell his fiancee. But that would have to come in time. He didn’t know for how long Lady Lianne would be available, her schedule a mystery since she had told him about disbanding Imperial Outlaws. He was certain its erratic nature was meant to throw off the Aposi, but as she remained secretive, he wondered if she realized it kept her away from her allies as well.

His upbringing screamed at him to remain stoic, to keep the directive within the family and family to-be, but another part of him sought her counsel. It was the part of him that had volunteered his corporation as security for the Cathedral, the part that had investigated suspicious crates at the building site with her, the part that had once planned on inviting her to the opening ceremonies at his University of Saikamon, and the part that had come to admire her steadfastness on the treatment of slaves and the wider practice of slavery. He felt selfish for doing so, but he chose to reach out for help.

“The Holder above me…,” He chose his words carefully so as to not sound too insulting towards his superior, “Issued a directive regarding my holdings and affairs.”

She quirked a brow. “Oh? Want to talk about it?” She asked as she glided across the Terrace, choosing a seat at the bar.

He sighed, accepting that if he was going to seek her advice, he would show her everything, “Would you care to read the directive?”

Shalee nodded, “Yes, if you are okay with sharing it.”

He opened the message again, doing his best to conceal his rage. He forwarded it to her as quickly as possible, then placed his neocom face-down onto a tabletop. He turned towards the sea. As the shimmering waves rose and fell with a tempo determined by the moons above, he tried to occupy his thoughts with what it must have been like for the first explorers. He wondered at what it must have been like to chase the horizon on sailing ships of old, knowing not whether they would return. It made him all the prouder to be a servant of the Empire–the first true explorers of New Eden and the first to re-discover jump gate technology.

Shalee wrinkled her nose, “You think the MIO that was stalking Katerina has now involved himself into your affairs?”

He jolted himself out of his daydreaming, welcome though it was, “Possibly.” He rested his elbow on the bar’s countertop, then pressed his face into his hand, “But there was no mention about the Sani Sabik in the directive… I think he was referencing her commoner status.”

He said “commoner status” sarcastically. To him, Katerina was a noble in all but ancestry and name. He was determined to correct the latter. She would be his lady, elevated to the nobility with sacred vows exchanged with the blessings of his family or without. He cared little for their opinion, or even for the opinion of his district holder. He loved Katerina.

Shalee nodded, “Probably, yeah. That will be a battle you will always fight again, no matter what.”

Shalee’s words struck like a Rokh’s Spike volley from over two hundred kilometers away. Of course. He would never be able to affect her ancestry, her blood. He felt bothered by the simple yet true statement–the implication that no other member of the nobility would truly respect Kat. They would still find a way to look down on her.

He shook his head, “And then I’m supposed to just ignore that Vlad killed me?”

Shalee chewed on her bottom lip, her expression troubled, “I do find it rather odd that he would mention Vlad. How would he even know of Vlad?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed, “But I’m bound by the directive…”

“I suppose we should lift the ban.”

He shot his eyes up at Shalee, flabbergasted. He was defeated. Not even his former executor would try to fight the directive. Vlad, for having been exiled to null sec for nearly a month, had somehow won.

He offered weakly, “He’s not your district holder…”

“No. But, the whole ‘keep your friends close and enemies closer’ comes to mind.”

So that was it. He should have known better. The depths of Lady Lianne’s ability to form and develop machinations was something that he had yet to fully comprehend. There was much he didn’t know about her–glimpses of her childhood manifested through his sporadic interactions with Red. But an executor rarely becomes one without having a firm grasp of strategy, and Shalee Lianne had been the executor of the most powerful alliance in the 24th Imperial Crusade.

“All right,” He nodded quietly, adding superfluously–for he knew that she would have taken precautions, “But, I don’t want Kat to be in danger. She’ll remain safe when she visits?”

He was more than willing to sacrifice himself to keep Kat safe, a truth he hoped to convey when his gaze met with Shalee’s own.

“Yes, of course. I won’t let anything happen to her here. I have upped security inside of the house.”

He breathed a sigh of relief–perhaps the first one since he had received the directive. But there was more he needed to tell Shalee. This time, not as a loyalist seeking guidance but as a friend justifying his request. He wondered what she would think of him as he cast his gaze towards the ground.

“I wish I told you under better circumstances,” He began, like a penitent sinner beginning a confession, “But I’ve proposed to her. So, I’d be devastated if anything were to happen. I know it’s selfish of me. Forgive me.”

He waited for the tempest. For her look of disapproval. It took him several moments before he managed to look up from the Terrace’s well-traveled pavement. Her brow was quirked and she opened her mouth, but closed it again. She was choosing her words carefully to not hurt him–he felt his heart begin to sink.

“Congratulations.”

He felt the surprise spread over his face. She had frowned, hadn’t she? Her eyebrow had been quirked, had it not? He finally managed a clumsy, “Thank you.”

He added haltingly–drawn from sentences he had been prepared to use as defensive responses, “We haven’t set a date, yet. Lady Aspenstar believes it will be several months at least.”

He continued, unsure of himself, “To be honest, I was surprised she accepted my proposal.”

After a while, he became solemn. He was thankful that she had offered her congratulations, and that she seemed to approve of the match. No, he was more than thankful. Joyful? Relieved? At any rate, a descriptive superlative would come later.

“Any leads thus far? I’m sorry for hijacking the conversation for my own issues when the wider problem has yet to be resolved.”

He wanted to prove to her that her trust in him was not misplaced and that he was capable of maintaining a macro view, of thinking strategically. The Aposi would likely not just wait around and let him get married to Kat. He wanted to start fighting them immediately, to preempt their attacks by going on the offensive.

But Shalee shook her head, “Before we talk about that, let me say something else. I know I have no right to, but, I feel I must. And if you hate me for it, then… alright.”

He swallowed with trepidation, “What’s on your mind?”

“After Tiger and I broke up, I soon started dating Xolve–he was a militia pilot at the time. He was charming, charismatic, and we fell in love so quickly, within two months he proposed and I accepted. He was a rebound, I didn’t realize it at at the time, but in love with him because it was easy and it was nice to have someone and it was a huge mistake. I didn’t know him, not really. What can you know after two months?”

With every syllable, something cold at the base of his spine grew in magnitude. He knew the conclusion would be about his relationship with Kat, somehow. He wondered what had happened to the “congratulations” from only moments before. But he listened attentively, doing his best to ignore a darkness he had not felt since Shalee had castigated him for dating a Legionnaire. Her tone was not one of anger; it was the timbre of experience, resonating with reason. And because of that, it cut all the deeper.

“I ended things a while later, but–my point is. You can’t truly know the measure of a person in such a short space of time. You shouldn’t marry someone without really knowing them, and letting them know you. Completely. And that takes a lot of time. So I hope that you will give your engagement the time it deserves instead of blindly jumping into something so serious.”

“You are least the third man she had been deeply in love with this year alone. So. Go slow. You are a capsuleer, and you have all the time in the world.”

Third man. He could feel something snapping within him. Was that all he was to Kat? A rebound? To the woman he had declared his love for, with whom he would share hit title and offer his name? Was it all just an elaborate ruse? And for what purpose? Suddenly, the love he had for Kat fell into a cloud of calculation.

“I see… I didn’t know that…”

But what exactly had he not known? He had seen Kat’s relationship with Roland disintegrate when the ‘demigod’–as she had called him–disappeared. In fact, Roland’s absence was one of the reasons he had reached out to Kat when she left In Exile in the first place. And what of Ryven? He had understood that they had been in a relationship before the man that wore the human-skin coat had come to prominence, but she had assured him.

So what was he? What was Reginald Sakakibara to Katerina Tzestu?

“Please excuse me.” He said in a monotone, beginning to process information.

What did anything matter anymore?

As he clambered towards the gardens, he felt his head hang lower and lower with each step, the weights of a shattering heart and grim responsibility pulling him into the deep abyss of simple existence.

Altercation

A camera drone sits above the Terrace, hovering lightly as it observes the goings-on. It zooms in on the back of a female capsuleer walking towards the landing pad, categorizing the footage for record-keeping. After she is out of sight, it refocuses its lens on a familiar face–Lord Reginald Sakakibara fast approaching the Terrace. 

***

He knew he had heard her voice. Her voice. His sister’s voice. It had to have been.

He rushed onto the Terrace only to see Vlad Cetes sitting at the bar. He stopped for a moment to look at the android–the thing that he was certain had murdered his men. There had been conversations about Vlad, of course–conversations with Tigerfish Torpedo and Ryven Krennel. Tiger had essentially disowned the machine while Ryven accepted that Vlad’s involvement in the murder was probable. Tiger had even gone so far as to give Reginald leave to deal with Vlad, personally–through a trash compactor. Regi had even taken the liberty of moving it onto the grounds in preparation for Vlad being found guilty by Lady Lianne. But his mind was elsewhere walking onto the Terrace.

Still looking around for Naomi, he asked, “Was someone–Was someone just here?”

“Your sister was here.” Vlad responded.

Reginald snapped his attention towards Vlad, fears slowly becoming realized, “What?!”

“Your sister was here.”

“What did she want? Why was she here?” Reginald asked, becoming frantic.

“She wanted the identity of your girlfriend.”

Reginald gave Vlad a hard stare–a piercing gaze on top of his suspicions that his men were murdered by Vlad’s hand, “And?”

“And?”

“What did you say? Did you say anything?”

Vlad stated simply, “We had an exchange.”

“What kind of exchange?”

“Money for information.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Who she was.”

Reginald felt a burst of anger surge out of him. All this time, L had somehow managed to keep Kat’s name away from Naomi, slowly preparing the family’s delicate politics. But all she had had to do was walk onto the Terrace and ask Vlad? And he had volunteered it freely? Everything was falling apart. She would be running “Katerina Tzestu” through databases–her link to Pandemic Legion, her social status, and maybe even the MIO inquiry.

He lashed out at Vlad, “WHY?! That’s–Do you know how complicated that makes things?”

“That is none of my concern.”

Reginald was seething, “Damn you, you bloody murderous robot. I’ll throw you into a garbage compactor myself.”

“All talk, no action.”

Fists clenched, Reginald shot back, “We’ll see about that.”

He took out his datapad and started to write a message. It wasn’t addressed to anyone. He just wanted to give the appearance that he was writing something to someone important–Lady Lianne, Lady Aspenstar, Alexa de’Crux–it didn’t matter, Vlad just needed to believe. He had played this game before and he could play it again, “Let’s see how you like it when I offer to testify on my word as a Holder that you are the guilty party. Your benefactor has abandoned you and you have no allies here.”

“False.”

He didn’t bite.

Reginald lost his temper, “I have leave to throw you into a garbage compactor. If you do anything, ANYTHING that threatens Kat at all–I’ll see to it that that compactor follows every replicated one of your bodies to the end of time!”

“I see your weakness, then,” Vlad responded nonchalantly, “Tell me, would you sacrifice her if it meant you could ‘throw me into a garbage compactor’?”

Sacrifice her? The idea was completely alien. Suspicion and frustration boiled over into sheer anger. He wouldn’t let a robot talk about Kat like that, “Don’t you dare use her as a bargaining chip!”

He tried to return to the murder of his men, “You. Are. Guilty.”

“Anything is to be used. Used, abused, ultimately thrown away. Anything and everything.”

Reginald’s mind was ablaze with unspeakable images. Abusing Katerina? That was unthinkable, anathema to his very existence, of what it meant to be a gentleman, a Holder. He thrust the image out of his mind and focused his eyes angrily on Vlad. He called over for security guards–he would exact vengeance today.

“You sicken me, robot. And it only makes it all the clearer–you belong in a rubbish heap on its way to a star in a disposal unit.”

As Vlad was flanked by the security guards, Reginald added, “As I’ve said, you have no allies here.”

“Do you think I’m stupid? What are we surrounded by?”

Reginald, his mind singularly focused on bringing Vlad to justice, responded stupidly, “Lady Lianne’s security personnel?”

“No. Look up, see those mountains?”

Reginald glanced away at the peaks in the distance, then shot his gaze back to Vlad, “What of them?”

“Do you really think I am alone? Or that only ONE unit exists at a time?”

Reginald shook his head, “Is that how you killed my men?”

Not waiting for a response, Reginald motioned for the security guards to start dragging Vlad towards the trash compactor “And I’ve told you, Vlad. Tiger has already given me permission. There’s a Vlad-sized garbage compactor just over there.”

Without warning, Vlad suddenly rotated, flipping one guard to the ground. The other guard received a palm strike to the shoulder. Both were incapacitated in a matter of seconds. Other security guards started to investigate the scene, some of them preparing to draw weapons. Vlad declared, “I will not kill these men, but do not force my hand.”

Reginald raised his palms to show he was unarmed, “It’s clear to me that you’re guilty, Vlad.”

Vlad dropped a knee on the prone guard and grabbed the back of his neck. As the security guards raised their weapons in response, Vlad motioned to them, “Step away or I will kill him.”

Reginald looked at the hapless security guard. He wondered if his own men had the same fear in their eyes, frightened of mortality. He wouldn’t, no, he couldn’t burden Lady Lianne with their lives as well. He would stand alone against the robot.

“Do as he says, I don’t want your blood on my hands as well.”

Vlad picked up the security guard and threw him at Reginald, who helped him to a medical officer.

He told the guards who were standing around, “My quarrel is with the murderer.”

“You have no proof,” Vlad replied.

“Tiger has given me leave to throw you into a garbage compactor, you murderer.”

Vlad retorted, “And I have leave to disable you and throw you into a garbage compactor.”

Reginald requested a sidearm from one of the guards. Pistols were unwieldy weapons. Like all firearms, they were impersonal, dishonorable. He would have preferred a blade. But a firearm would have to do.

“… or more fitting, turn you into a True Slave, a machine with no free will, and watch a corner of your mind scream.”

Reginald shuddered at the thought. Katerina had already lost someone to the madman Sansha Kuvakei–her fiancee, the reason why she became a capsuleer. He had lost someone too. Was he taking too big a risk? Or was Vlad just bluffing? Regardless, he refused to back down, no matter the petty threats.

He raised the pistol deftly at Vlad–he thought it prudent, considering Vlad Cetes was a weapon. Responding to his claim to have leave to kill him, and feigning ignorance of his True Slave comment, Reginald asked, “Oh? And who might that be?”

“I need no authority, or leave, to conduct my business. Put that pistol away before you get hurt.”

Reginald said, “You’re no longer welcome here–Tiger has said it himself. You have no real contract. So what is your business in this place, aside from murdering the innocent?”

“My business is my own.”

Reginald kept the pistol trained on Vlad, “You’re a threat to everyone.”

“I am not a threat unless paid to be one, or threatened myself.”

“So be a good, obedient robot, listen to your betters, and march yourself over to the garbage compactor,” Reginald demanded.

“No.”

Reginald shot Vlad a cold, icy stare, “You’re going into that compactor one way or another. It’s up to you if you want to go there intact or in pieces.”

“I will not be going into a compactor, if anything,” He took a step towards Reginald, “You will.”

An image of being crushed to death flashed through Reginald’s mind. Instinctively, he released the safety on the pistol, “Another step and I put one through your head.”

Vlad raised his hands in surrender, his left hand roughly even with Reginald’s pistol. Reginald couldn’t suppress the feeling of relief.

“Good, glad that you’re now cooperating,” He jerked his head in the direction of the compactor, “Garbage compactor is–”

But he couldn’t finish his sentence through the sudden burst of pain. Instead he screamed in agony. Vlad had launched a ballistic knife from a hidden compartment right into his pistol hand. He dropped the weapon involuntarily, clutching at the knife that was now embedded in his hand.

“Take him!” He screamed at the guards.

But Vlad took the initiative while the guards remained stunned. He closed the distance between himself and Reginald suddenly and without hesitation. Grabbing the knife, he twisted it into Reginald’s hand until the tendon was severed. Reginald fell to his knees in sheer agony, screaming in pain.

Vlad turned to the security personnel, “Don’t make me do the same to you, stand down!”

Reginald muttered “Bastard. You’ll never–gah–get away with this.”

“Unlike you, I have not attacked. Only defended.”

“I didn’t pull the trigger.”

“No but you aimed, I would suggest you back down, before you get hurt again.”

Reginald forced himself to his feet, “For the sake of my men. For the sake–god damn it–justice. I refuse to back down!”

Reginald barked at the security guards, “Well go on, arrest the bastard!”

One of them responded meekly, his eyes following the trail of blood from Reginald’s torn hand, “We don’t take orders from you, sir.”

“Fine,” Reginald spat back. With his good, he picked up the pistol and trained it back on Vlad, “Now then, garbage compactor.”

“Do you want to keep that other hand? Put it down. Now.”

“I have leave from Tiger to throw you into that garbage compactor. You’re going in, if I have to do it myself.”

Vlad taunted, “How predictable, just like a childrens’ wind up toy, or Nauplius. You go on, and on, and on, about something you simply cannot do.”

Reginald cleared his throat, pain still searing through his hand, trying to hold the pistol as best he could with his non-dominant hand, “On the authority of her ladyship, Shalee Lianne, I am authorized to throw you, Vlad Cetes, into a garbage compactor. You’ve outlived your usefulness, robot. And no one stands with you.”

Vlad responded, “Look at you. A useless hand, no one supporting you. Simply blowing hot air. Put the pistol down.”

Reginald responded defiantly, “No.”

In reality, he wouldn’t back down. He was so close to meting out justice. And what was pain but penance? Penance for disrupting the investigation to start with. Penance on behalf of the souls of the fallen. Penance for betraying Lady Lianne’s trust.

Vlad swiftly lunged at Reginald’s hand. With only inches of clearance, Reginald sidestepped him, conducting a variation on a distance parry he had learned in his childhood. He raised the pistol at the back of Vlad’s head, muttered a prayer, and fired.

Vlad’s head seemed to explode with the impact. But when the effects cleared, there was only a small dent and some scorch marks on the dull gold armor. He turned back to Reginald and threw another knife at him–this time it went straight to his heart.

Reginald dropped the pistol, a look of utter surprise on his face. His mind started racing. Forgiveness. Mercy. Death. Kat. Then he realized that he couldn’t remember when he had performed his last mind-scan. As he fell to the ground, strength emptying from him, he urged his thoughts into a prayer.

Please God. If I have to die, please don’t take Kat away from me. Please. Just this once. Just once.

He crumpled onto his side, his hands fruitlessly clutching at the knife. He was going to die. This part of him. And he’d never live his last hours again. It would be over.

Vlad stepped next to Regi, then whispered into the dying man’s ear, “You shouldn’t have done that. Now you die like your men.”

Reginald tried to respond, his eyes wide, but could only manage a cough and some sputters. He felt his vision grow dark, first at the peripheries then until everything became dim. It felt strange, dying–there was something beneath him that was warm but he felt cold internally, as if something was flowing freely out of him.

The pain started to fade. Sounds and voices disappeared. There was no more color. And then there were no more thoughts.

***

The camera drone swoops down next to the corpse on the Terrace. It runs a scan to check for vitals, careful to not be knocked around by Alexa de’Crux’s kameiras. After a few minutes, it transmits the results to a central computer, to be downloaded into a hard drive at Cerra Manor for record keeping. 

Subject: Lord Reginald Sakakibara

Date/Time: November 11, YC116/03:46:00

Status: Deceased

Terrace Scene, Poking a Tiger

[Author’s OOC Note: This scene, taken from the in-game Cerra Manor Terrace channel, is one of the first RP scenes I took part in without  Shalee or Kat (both are awesome, by the way) present either OOC in-game or IC in the channel. I was therefore without their guidance. So, in a lot of ways, it was an adventure into the realm of RP, which has proven to be an immensely fun way of passing otherwise mind-numbingly boring time (yay POS management!).

Setup: Reginald’s perception of Tigerfish Torpedo at this point are colored by two incidents. The first is when Reginald unwittingly brought a Fraudulent Pax Amarria to the Terrace and was subsequently interrogated by Tiger and Vlad Cetes–an incident that has left Reginald with a low opinion of Tiger. Shalee managed to save the day with a timely intervention, but not before Tiger engaged in a series of public displays of affection that Reginald found tasteless.  The second, which decreased his opinion even further of Tiger, took place the night prior to this scene, during which Kat alerted Shalee to Tiger sharing a bed with Lunarisse Aspenstar–it also happened to be the same conversation where Reginald had revealed to Shalee that Heart of Pyerite employed slaves, thus sparking the chain of events that led to his collar.

After writing that description, I’m surprised at how complex the context is despite my less than a week of RP experience at the time–it’s so entertaining on the Terrace. At any rate, just so that you don’t have to deal with massive chatlogs, I have adapted the scene into a narrative.]

Terrace Scene: Poking a Tiger

Reginald felt a few glances in his direction from a number of the servers as he walked onto the Terrace from the Guest Manor. He was unsurprised–it made sense that Lady Executor Lianne’s employees would share her sentiments. He fought back an urge to tell them that he was trying to make amends, that he was working towards emancipating his corporation’s slaves, and that he had an email to Lady Lianne as proof. But there wasn’t much good in that, especially as his slaves were not yet free. He was also still mulling over Lady Lianne’s response, a message that arrived in his inbox encrypted. After running an Imperial Outlaws leadership-level decryption algorithm for nearly an hour, the message was revealed to be a curt reply:

We should talk. – Shalee

Although he thought his own message may have warranted a lengthier response, he was nonetheless at a loss as to what “We should talk” was referring. She could be angry, though she could also be willing to forgive him and his corporation. Far too many variables. It demanded much more thought on the matter than he was prepared to give at the moment.

With an unsatisfied sigh, he managed to finally pry his eyes away from the message, sat down at an empty table, and ordered breakfast. To his surprise, he was greeted by another patron.

She approached the table, giving him a nod, “Sir.”

“Oh, hello,” Reginald replied, surprised. He stood up afterwards entirely on instinct–always stand up for a lady, his mother had told him–and asked, incorrectly, “How are you?”

His mother would be displeased indeed. His face turning red at the faux pas, he attempted to rectify his error by reciting, “Apologies, where are my manners? Reginald. Please to make your acquaintance.”

“Alexa de’Crux, sir,” The dark-skinned girl replied, “The honor is mine. I trust you find the day well, sir.”

As he returned to his seat, Reginald nodded cheerfully, “Quite well, thank you. Would you care to join me?”

“Thank you, sir,” Alexa responded, though after taking her seat, she held a stiff posture.

Reginald was unsure what to make of the patron. He had never seen her before, but that was less than surprising considering that he had only been visiting the Terrace during his off hours from Saikamon for less than a week. Fortunately, she was the one who first brokered conversation.

“This is a lovely home.”

“Isn’t it?” Reginald nodded, making a show of admiring the Terrace and its surroundings, “It’s quite impressive that my alliance’s executor even owns something like this.” He tried to correct himself, “Or still owns it for that matter.”

Understanding that Cerra Manor belonged to an Amarrian holder in Minmatar-occupied territory, Alexa responded, “You should be proud. Maintaining and defending such a holding is no easy task.”

Reginald, however, was transfixed on “You should be proud.” The words struck a deep chord as his memory flashed of a Shalee too angry to even tolerate his company the night prior. He became quiet, trying to piece together the right words as a server brought a plate of fruit and a cup of tea to the table.

“Well, as of late, I’m not quite sure what my standing in the alliance is–not sure if I have the right to be proud.”

Just then, a voice boomed from behind him, startling Reginald out of his seat, “No, you don’t!”

Reginald shot around to see none other than Tigerfish Torpedo enter the Terrace from the Manor pathway, heading towards the bar. He walked with a sort of confidence and ownership Reginald didn’t believe he should command at all, a man who had nearly threatened to torture him over a book, a man who horribly mistreated Lady Lianne by all standards of gentility. That’s when Reginald’s fear started to boil over into anger, when machinations started clicking into place.

“I’m surprised to see you here, sir.” Reginald only managed the “sir” as a token of respect.

Alexa shot out of her seat as well, snapping to attention, “Sir!”

Tiger, seemingly more interested in the bar’s contents, didn’t even turn to face Reginald, “Surprised? Why so?”

Glancing over to Alexa, Tiger addressed her directly, “And who might you be?”

Angered by the sheer lack of deference, Reginald started not with a probe but a frontal assault, “Oh you know, infidelity.”

Tiger shrugged off the first barrage, “Infidelity? Explain.”

A true, gentlemanly confrontation was clearly out of the question with this man. It would take another strategy, for which Reginald began adjusting. Two could play at that game.

With Alexa remaining stiffly at attention, Reginald returned to his seat, crossed his arms, and looked at Tiger smugly, “I don’t need to explain myself to you.”

That got Tiger’s attention. “Actually, you do. I’m your superior officer, by rank if by no other virtue and hold a career within the militia that makes yours seem as though it should pass by in the blink of an eye.”

Perfect. Laughing softly, Reginald shot back, “Technically, we’re the same rank, Major.”

Tiger nodded as he picked up a drink from the barman, “I see. You bought your commission. That’s very nice.”

Noticing Alexa’s posture and half-turned to her, Tiger released her with a simple, “At ease, please.”

Reginald tilted his head, undaunted, “Bought? I served in Huola while you were sitting on your hands in Egghelende.”

Tiger responded, the tone of his voice dripping with mockery, “I fought to win back the warzone with the Metropolis campaign that resulted in over four weeks of constant fighting, system by system, before you even sat in a capsule. I will not blow smoke with you. You are a child in the grand scheme.”

Reginald put on a yawn for good measure, “A campaign that ultimately means nothing in the long-run. I served in Bosboger, Huola, Lulm, and Huola again.”

Tiger smiled back, “And I served in the Sani Sabik, as the personal Prathet to Shiras Revan Neferis; the Thrice Illustrious Sovereign of Bloodveil for over 6 years. Your career means dick.”

A gold mine of a response. Reginald forced down a smile. He felt his blood should have curdled at the title, but his mind was coursing with adrenaline. Was this fun? Not quite. No, this was justice. And he was fighting on the side to defend Lady Lianne’s honor. What more cause did the son of a Holder need?

He narrowed his gaze at Tiger, his tongue becoming a dagger, “What Shalee sees in you is beyond comprehension. She deserves far better than a supposedly reformed criminal.”

Tiger attempted to brush off the comments, waving vaguely in Reginald’s direction, “And as you say; your opinion means very little to me.”

Time for another dagger. Reginald cast it with a chuckle, “Whatever you say, Blood King.”

A direct hit. Tiger’s eyes shot back to Reginald. “Is that supposed to anger me?” He asked, his eyes growing cold and devoid of emotion, “If you had any idea of the stuff I’d done in the past, you’d realize that title greatly undermines my actions.”

As the conversation progressed, on the periphery, Reginald had noticed Alexa had been growing less and less comfortable. He was creating an ally, and only by Tiger’s own confessions. This was going splendidly.

Tiger returned his attention to Alexa, “So, again, who might you be, dear?”

Too late, Reginald thought to himself. No one really comes back after declaring they were a Sani Sabik.

“Alexa de’Crux… sir.”

Tiger nodded, either oblivious or undeterred, “Alexa de’Crux? That’s a pretty name. You’re here on business?”

“Yes… sir.”

“Well, I’ll assume you’re here with peaceful intentions?”

Alexa hesitated, “For the moment… sir.”

“For the moment?” Tiger queried, sipping his drink, “Well, I’m all for peaceful co-existence, so whatever we can do to facilitate you, you only need ask. I will, of course, pass on any issues you raise to Shalee.”

“Of course, sir.”

Reginald could feel Tiger attempted a peace offering, “You may of course explore our grounds. It’s quite a stunning spot. I personally suggest you visit the beach and the gardens whilst you conduct your business.”

“Thank you, sir. I will, sir.”

Tiger smiled at Alexa, bowing, “You may call me Tiger.”

“As you wish, sir. Tiger.”

Reginald had been watching the conversation with great amusement. Indeed, he had coughed at Tiger’s attempts at hospitality and then almost broke into outright laughter as the exchange continued. But laughter does not win wars. Wars are won with diligence. And when Tiger offered his first name to Alexa, Reginald nearly shot out of his chair.

His voice harsh, he asked, “A new conquest for the Blood King?”

He felt himself pulling Alexa back out from Tiger’s grasp, though he wasn’t entirely sure if it was necessary to do so. Yet, it paid to be on the safe side when it came to defending a lady’s virtue. He hoped that Alexa wouldn’t hold it against him for being so blunt.

Tiger’s gaze darted back to Reginald, “New conquest? What is your problem, child?”

Ignoring Tiger’s question, Reginald turned to Alexa, “I hope you don’t see him as representative of all of us. Some of us at least make an attempt to act civilized.”

Tiger broke in, “I was being civilized. The only reason I’m not now, is your continued attempts to goad a response from me.”

A correct observation. Credit belonged where credit was due, of course. But merely identifying the mode of warfare was insufficient. One needed also to develop countermeasures.

Reginald rolled his eyes, preparing yet another attack, “Says the man who treats the woman he claims to love like a…,” Reginald paused, no, some attacks went too far, “I won’t insult Shalee by describing the way you treat her.”

Tiger quirked a brow, “Excuse me? You’ve not know her, nor I, long enough to have any say in how I treat her. You know nothing about our relationship.”

A fair defense. Reginald was grasping at straws here and there, but there were universal constants when treating a lady. Relying entirely on upbringing, Reginald responded, ” And from what little I’ve seen, it’s absolutely disgraceful. What kind of man walks up to the woman he claims to love, interrupts a conversation she’s having, and then proclaims for all around to hear ‘dress sexy’?”

Alexa even almost laughed. An unexpected, though excellent measure for effect.

Tiger shook his head “That’s what you’re basing my five year relationship with Shalee on? Well, you’re quite right. That sums it up perfectly.”

Reginald threw another dagger, “I can’t imagine from what lows it must have degraded from.”

“Well, you seem to know everything about us, so why imagine?”

Reginald chuckled, the net closing, “Well, I don’t claim to know everything, I’m still new to the alliance.” He smirked as he stood at the precipice of victory, “But I don’t need to be a seven-year veteran to understand how to properly treat a lady.”

Tiger laughed and tilted his head down at Reginald, “That’s it, isn’t it? You have feelings for Shalee. And it’s ten years.”

Reginald was suddenly disarmed. For all of the calculations and careful crafting to get Tiger to admit to his shameful deeds, he had never expected that assertion. Did he have feelings for Shalee? Was this the whole reason why he was fighting in a battlefield for her honor? The thought lingered longer than he thought comfortable or proper. He found himself losing initiative and suddenly on the defensive in a war he had started.

“A preposterous assumption from a former Sani Sabik,” He tried to mask his emotions with a laugh, though he truly did not know what those emotions were.

“I do tend to make them every now and again. Occasionally I hit the nail right on the head too.”

Reginald grasped at a thread of a lifeline, “Leave it to a Sani Sabik to talk about nails.”

Did they even use nails? What little was known about the Sani Sabik was shrouded in myth–it’s not like they operated in the open. And it had been years since Karsoth had been executed by Empress Jamyl for his crimes, for his support of the Blood Raiders in the Bleak Lands. Reginald hoped that maybe, somehow, they really did use nails.

“Is there some reason I should associate a nail with the Sani?” Reginald’s heart sank as Tiger corrected him, “In the six years I spent there, I don’t think I used one even once.”

Reginald found his position increasingly untenable. Tiger had dealt him two blows he had yet to recover from: one that questioned the honorable nature of the exchange in the first place and one that called into question his knowledge on the subject of the Sani Sabik, and by extension, all knowledge in general. There was still an opening, though, one he could make. It was a debate tactic–no, a tool of rhetoric–he had learned at the Royal Amarr Institute that won no favoritism from professors or peers.

Reginald swallowed his pride and fired, “Well, then, please,” He motioned to Alexa and the servers on the Terrace for rhetorical effect, “Enlighten us with your torture methods, Blood King.”

Perhaps, at the very best, a glancing blow. The idea was to draw attention back to Tiger and refocus the spotlight on his Sani Sabik past. Tiger smiled and glanced from Reginald to Alexa, and back again, “What makes you think I ever tortured anyone?”

Alexa spoke up, “That’s what the Sani Sabik do.”

Tiger glanced in her direction, “Do all Amarrians own slaves?”

The question hit Reginald hard, and as much as he wanted to support Alexa, he found himself mumbling, “Shalee doesn’t. All of In Exile. doesn’t.”

Tiger responded, “But that’s what the stereotype is, right? I mean, I couldn’t possibly be a peaceful ex-Sani could I?”

“But no! Of course not. That’s not what the Sani do!” Tiger looked back at Alexa.

“… They are heretics.” Alexa murmured.

Reginald nodded in agreement, trying to find a better opening.

“They have a different faith, and yes, some are heretic. I became Sani by accident, as it happens. I have never even considered their faith my own.”

Reginald jumped at the chance, “Ignorance of the faith is no defense for blasphemy.”

Tiger replied, “I was tried for my crimes, and executed for my part. Further, I’ve helped fund the Amarrian war by over twenty-two billion isk, and I’m now overseeing the construction of a Cathedral to further embrace the culture. What right do you have to make any assumption based on my past?”

Alexa answered for Reginald, “I have never encountered a Sani Sabik that has truly ‘reformed.’ Sir.”

Tiger made a dramatic gesture, “Well, now you have.”

Reginald held his fingers up, counting one down for each point, “A capsuleer’s execution means nothing. So isk can cover a lifetime of heresy? And the Theology Council ought burn that cathedral to the ground.”

Tiger laughed turning his back to Reginald, “Your opinion means nothing.”

Reginald grinned, “Typical defensive response of a delusional.”

Tiger’s attention refocused, “You seem rather opinionated for a man with hardly any past and just a few months’ service to the militia.”

Alexa, again, entered the fray, “At least his past is beyond reproach. Sir.”

Tiger sucked on his teeth, lips pursed, “You’ve gone too far, Alexa.”

Reginald shot to his feet instinctively, “Is that a threat?”

“Is what a threat?” Tiger asks, looking back to Reginald.

“Do not assume that I am helpless without a weapon in my hand, sir.” Alexa fumed.

Perhaps his poking and prodding had gone too far. He had not intended bloodshed from the onset. He narrowed his gaze onto Tiger, trying to pull the situation back from the brink, “I don’t think Shalee would appreciate your treatment of her esteemed guests.”

Tiger shook his head, “I simply said she’d gone too far. No threat implied. You should stop speaking for other people.”

Enraged, Reginald spat back, “Perhaps you should let me speak for you. It’d limit the amount of absolute nonsense you’ve been spouting.”

“Me? You’re the one that began by goading me with comments about my relationship; nothing that is any of your business at all. Then you called me ‘Blood King,’ suggested my Cathedral be torn down, and accused me of torturing people in polite society. From a man I’ve known all of a week!”

Reginald gave a sly smile, “What can I say? I’m incredibly observant.”

“You’re opinionated, you jump to conclusions, you’re offensive, insulting, and base too much on stereotypes without having any background knowledge with which to form a genuine opinion.”

Before Reginald could make another clever remark, Alexa responded beautifully, “A heretic calls another man ‘offensive.'”

Tiger shot back towards Alexa, “A heretic? I’m not heretic, and if you accuse me of such again, I may have to take issue with you.”

“Go ahead.” Alexa stood her ground.

Tiger shot a look back at Reginald, “That was a threat.”

There would be bloodshed if the path continued. Perhaps it was time to begin drawing the engagement to a close. But how much further could it go? Reginald rolled his eyes, “Unsurprising, coming from a man who, having just met him put me through an interrogation akin to the Inquisition itself.”

“You come her brandishing a fake copy of the Pax and you want to know why I was suspicious of you?”

Reginald demonstrated unwavering loyalty to Lady Lianne–that anyone would question her word was anathema–gritting his teeth, “How dare you say it was fake! Shalee herself called it genuine.”

“It is not genuine. Bring me the copy, and I’ll show you how I know.”

Alexa turned to Reginald, “You have nothing to prove to him.”

Reginald nodded at Alexa’s reassurance, “I know. He’s the one lobbying threats around here, today. Normally we have civilized discussions.”

“He wanted a reason for my interrogation. I gave him one. If you can’t face the truth, then don’t blame me.”

Alexa snorted, “Truth. What would you know of truth, Blood Raider?”

Tiger laughed, “Say what, slave?”

Alexa took an angry step towards Tiger, “I am no slave and you heard me clearly enough.”

Tiger gave her a wry smile, “You’re no slave. I’m no Blood Raider. Even when I was Sani, I wasn’t a Raider. There’s a big difference. I suggest you read your history books.”

“Heresy is heresy. I see no difference.” Alexa responded faithfully.

Finding the situation quickly deteriorating, Reginald tried to reassure Alexa as she reassured him, “You’re better than him, Alexa. No truly reformed Sani Sabik would dispute freedom.” Reginald gave Tiger a sharp glare, “We ought to chalk it up to his natural depravity.”

Tiger laughed, “You’re pathetic. Have to fight all her battles?”

Reginald was starting to lose his own patience, but Alexa was far ahead of him, “If you seek battle, I am right here,” she declared.

Tiger shook his head, “That would do me no favors with Shalee, and hers is the only opinion I actually care for.”

Alexa spat, “Then go, run and hide behind her good name.”

Reginald couldn’t resist another jab, “And yet you reject her declaration that the Pax was genuine? Hypocrite.”

“It is fake!”

Reginald, solidifying his high-ground position, reaffirming control of the battle, stated, “It would seem, as far as the alliance goes, my executor’s word is good enough for me. You seem to want much more than that.”

Tiger shook his head, “If you want to know how I know it’s fake… It’s because I was part of the team that distributed that copy for Revan. I’ve seen it before. Bring me the book, and a blade, and I’ll prove it.”

Reginald also shook his head, “There’s nothing to prove. Though you’ve declared your guilt before all present.”

“I have, and I stand by my statement.”

Reginald offered more accusations dripping with accusatory tones, “How deep does the heresy run in the empire? One that you helped spread? No amount of atonement could possibly make up for so many lost souls.”

Tiger grinned, nodding, “Hey, if you really want ammo… I led an assault fleet once, under the name of the Sani Sabik, and destroyed a CVA tower that was unarmed in Sahtogas. It was about seven years ago, and had women and children on board.”

Reginald swallowed. He had expected Tiger to break down in shame, not demonstrate such callousness. He provided the only words that he could, “What could she possibly see in you?”

Tiger shrugged, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to attend.”

Alexa offered, “She thinks that this ungodly creature is worth saving.”

Reginald crossed his arms, “Indubitably. God bless her soul.”

With that, Tiger picked up his drink from the bar and headed towards the Manor. After making an apology on behalf of Imperial Outlaws, Reginald also parted way with Alexa. It had not gone perfectly. Tiger had not fallen to his knees, begging Shalee for forgiveness like he ought to have done. Furthermore–and perhaps worse–Reginald had essentially lost his temper. Cool calculations had broken down in the heat of the moment. Loyalty. Etiquette. Those had been Reginald’s two guiding beacons and he had come close to snapping them apart.

And then there was Tiger’s assertion, an echo in the back of Reginald’s mind as he walked towards the landing pad.

That’s it, isn’t it? You have feelings for Shalee.”