This ficlet is based directly on chatlogs from the in-game event hosted by I-RED, but retooled as a narrative from Sakaane’s point of view.
Some portions of dialogue or actions by other characters at the event are not represented, because Sakaane didn’t eavesdrop on everyone. :)

En Route to Malkalen V – Moon 1 – Ishukone Corporation Factory

I-RED has been in full operation for three years and we would like to thank those leaders and allies who have made it possible with a grand ceremony. Through hardship and prosperity, I-RED has endured these long years and made a name for itself as a forward thinker and fighter for Free Trade and greater CONCORD authority in the cluster. The vision of one man turned into the dream and cause of many, and I-RED will continue to forge new relations among all four empires and beyond—all while helping to expand the influence of law and order to regions lacking.

The information stream flowed past Sakaane’s mind’s eye. Her implants automatically decoded the data, effortlessly reforming the otherwise incoherent bits into ordered words and language the organic part of her brain would understand.

Outside, a warp tunnel formed and then eventually collapsed. The hull she was plugged into was an Amarr shuttle affectionately called Firefly and it steered itself toward the stargate. She paid it scant attention. The fastest route to Malkalen from Intaki was mostly lowsec, but today, due to the handful of baseliner passengers on the shuttle with her, she had chosen to go via Stacmon which made the journey mostly through hisec. The passengers had gladly taken advantage of the opportunity she’d offered to go so far and so quickly compared to normal transports.

She wondered idly if they knew it was just as risky—if not more so—to travel with her as it would have been to book the long haul on a regular passenger liner out of Intaki. Darac Rin, after all, was still out there somewhere, along with a multitude of other pirates, suicide gankers, and the like. But then she dismissed the idea. Even though some capsuleers got off on attacking their counterparts in CONCORD-patrolled space and happily sacrificed their ships and crew to get the gank, there were much more attractive targets in the spacelanes than her defenseless shuttle.

There had still been four additional lowsec systems to traverse along the way, but once in high security space again she had re-engaged autopilot and left it to the ship’s small crew to keep tabs on exterior conditions, leaving her free to think about other things.

Sakaane returned her attention to the invitation she’d received from I-RED.

Attendance Details
I-RED Operational Headquarters at Malkalen V – Moon 1 – Ishukone Corporation Factory
Sunday, August 12th YC114 – 16:00 CONCORD Time
Capsuleers Only
No Slaves, Drones, or Armed Escort Allowed
No Weapons…

Bataav and Airaken both had frowned at that. I-RED’s press release stated the event was open and standard guest passes were available to anyone who requested one, including reds. She wondered which familiar faces, possibly even Darac Rin’s, she might see. Her sidearm was in her quarters in Intaki, packed neatly away in its storage box. Darac wouldn’t be able to walk in with one either, but he’d proven before that he didn’t need a gun to go after her.

The only consolation was that Ishukone Watch and I-RED forces would be providing security, and while she knew Bataav had confidence in that, she also knew he would worry anyway until she returned home. She’d left a grudging and unhappy pair of men standing at the railing above the catwalk to the shuttle.

Schedule conflicts kept Bataav from accompanying her, which she lamented, but there was nothing for it.

Someone else wasn’t accompanying her either. Word from I-RED was that particular VIP invite had been declined. As president, she’d decided it was fitting she be on her own as the face of IPI to support I-RED, but a small part of her was also annoyed. Though the relationship between their groups had not always been smooth, and there were some issues she knew needed to be addressed, I-RED was nevertheless their longest-standing ally and vice versa. For this, I-RED’s celebration of achievement, the least Saxon Hawke could have done was show up.

The response to the invitation, at the very least, proved he was still out there…somewhere. To the corp, his silence had been deafening.

Sakaane put it out of her mind. The long journey from Intaki to Malkalen ended as the shuttle completed the final jump. She retook control and warped to the station, landing some twenty kilometers off its radius. Her passengers were directed to the shuttle’s various viewports, as for some of them it was their first opportunity to see this particular view.

The angle of approach from the Amsen gate put them on the sunward side of the station. From here, at first glance, not much looked amiss—if you weren’t accustomed to looking at Caldari stations. This side presented the remaining habitable sections, which seemed more or less unblemished. But after gazing at it for a time, and as the shuttle’s orbit brought the ship between the station and the nearby moon, other details began to jump out: the free-floating debris, the off-axis tilt, a persistent cloud of dark gasses.

Firefly continued around the station. Sakaane imagined the surprised and even horrified expressions that might be crossing the faces of her passengers as the rest of the structure came into view. Where the bulk of the station would have been, all that remained was a twisted wreck. Vast swaths of the station’s interior lay exposed to space, while enormous girders and shards of metal reached out like the ribs of a great beast in a graveyard of bones. Globes of fire burned across the damaged sections, fueled for years by sources still too volatile for repair crews to get near.

Malkalen V - Moon 1 - Ishukone Corporation Factory

Malkalen V – Moon 1 – Ishukone Corporation Factory

The passengers had apparently seen enough; her crew signaled they were secure. The shuttle turned toward the station and was shortly thereafter tugged inside to dock.

Malkalen V – Moon 1 – Ishukone Corporation Factory
I-RED Event Rooms

Not long before the appointed hour, Sakaane queued up to enter the event lobby. The room was in a restored section of the station, and save for the lingering still-new appearance of walls, floors, and fixtures, the area looked like any other established station environment. Only the presence of memorial plaques, placed at intervals and in locations that would not disrupt the efficient flow of foot traffic, served as a reminder of the terrible event that had nearly destroyed the station.

Peering over the heads and shoulders of those in line ahead of her, she glimpsed the lobby: a small but comfortable-looking room. Bright light poured from it and seemed to shimmer as holographic cherry blossoms fluttered down from above. As she drew closer, the sound of soft wind chimes and the occasional quiet beat of a drum, like a heartbeat, grew louder.

A soft-spoken bald Achura man greeted her once she reached the head of the queue. “Thank you for attending,” he said as she provided him her ID for verification. “Your patience while guests continue to arrive is appreciated.” His hands moved over a console embedded in the podium; a slight tingling sensation spread over her body as he scanned her for concealed weapons. Sakaane felt a smile tug at her lips as she glanced down at her attire: a crimson velvet corset, black slacks, and lightweight overrobe to cover her arms. The robe was long and open, black with the same color red accents and a smattering of silver stitching to compliment her simple jewelry. It hugged close to her waist thanks to a belt. Nowhere to hide a weapon I would want to carry.

Apparently satisfied with his scan, the host returned her ID tag and said formally, “Sakaane Eionell. Any attempt to cause disruption within the other chambers can and may result in your biological termination. By proceeding further, you agree that you have taken necessary precautions to preserve your clone continuity.”

A formal agreement flashed up into the air before her. She passed her fingers through the rotating confirmation prompt and was then allowed to enter the lobby itself. Simca Develon greeted her and handed over a lottery ticket as she passed by.

Sakaane chose a seat at random from the copious quantity available. Her gaze wandered, taking in the room’s details and flicking to the faces of the other guests. A note of unease crept in as she recognized a number of them from Bataav’s extensive intel files.

Then she noticed trios of men walking the circumference of the room. Each trio was the same: two heavily armed and armored Ishukone Watch marines following a single suited Ishuk-Raata Enforcer, a baseline employee of the alliance. Studying them, Sakaane decided they looked quite ready to forcibly remove or eliminate any threat to the stability or safety of the event, and felt her unease dissipate.

Katrina Oniseki was also in the room, monitoring the incoming guests and occasionally entering notes into a datapad that spent the rest of the time tucked under her arm. The blonde-haired woman was dressed in her usual I-RED uniform and had her hair drawn back in its customary low ponytail. Not a lock was out of place and her clothing was pristine. She smiled at everyone in turn.

Small conversations bloomed as more people arrived and clumped together into nodes of friends, acquaintances, business partners. Most spoke in subdued tones that Sakaane couldn’t overhear, though the occasional punch line of a joke or enthusiastic greeting carried. After some minutes, John Revenent appeared through an adjoining door. A few guests seemed to snap to attention, their interest immediately caught by his presence, though he said nothing and quietly disappeared a few moments later.

A cherry blossom landed on Sakaane’s crossed knee, resting delicately on the black fabric of her pants. The hologram exuded a soft pink glow which pulsated gently as the petals settled. She gazed at the flower for a few moments before tentatively reaching out a finger. The blossom dissolved.

“Please remember that all patrons must be available in station to receive lottery rewards,” Katrina announced suddenly. Guests turned her way in acknowledgment before continuing their conversations.

A flash of black and red appeared at the lobby entrance as Morwen Lagann entered in a full-length gown, toting what Sakaane recognized as a leather violin case slung over her shoulder.

Katrina’s voice cut again through the growing din of conversation. “Those of you who have a lottery ticket may enter the main room now.”

Compared to the climate at her estate on Intaki, and (to a lesser degree) the temperature in the lobby, walking into the Greatroom was somewhat like plunging into a pool of water expecting it to be reasonably heated and finding out only as the liquid hit exposed flesh that it wasn’t. A wave of goose bumps spread over Sakaane’s arms as she followed the other guests inside; she tugged her robe a bit closer. The cool air washing over her now was, she knew, more in tune with what many Caldari preferred. She made an effort to look comfortable.

The Greatroom was expansive and impressive in all manners of the word. A high ceiling, augmented with simulated clouds and a glimmer that suggested sunlight, eased what might have otherwise been a claustrophobic, windowless space. Holograms of white birds fluttered to and fro in that space, their songs echoing down around the guests like the blossoms from the lobby. An unobstructed floor behind a bank of chairs allowed the gathered guests to spread out and resume their conversations. Buffet tables flanked a wall and servers stood ready to provide food and drink to all attendants.

At the far end of the room, a podium and table with seating for the I-RED Board of Directors stood atop a large dais. A single massive seal was mounted on the wall immediately behind it, flanked by great red banners hanging from the ceiling. A massive plate of what appeared to be solid titanium diborite bore the unmistakable crimson emblem of the Ishuk-Raata Enforcement Directive and dwarfed the table and podium below.

As in the lobby, the Greatroom was patrolled by several trios of Ishukone Watch marines and I-RED Enforcers. Various other I-RED employees and pilots were present as well.

Sakaane took a turn through the room, walking slowly and studying its various details, her hands clasped casually behind her back. The movement helped keep the chill at bay, and at length her goose bumps subsided.

Somewhere nearby, a young woman said conversationally, “Hm, they, ah, they certainly did a, a nice job. With this. Do you know, um, what they, ah, they’re unveiling?”

A man replied, “We haven’t a clue. We haven’t put a lot of effort into finding out ahead of time, though.”

Sakaane turned to see who had spoken but the pilots were lost among the gathering crowd. More people were filtering in and the room was filling up. The guests accepted drink and finger food from passing trays or served themselves from the buffet.

Katrina Oniseki appeared from the lobby and stepped up to the podium. Her clear voice rang out and caught everyone’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! Please settle down. Rikaato.”

Obligingly, the crowd drifted toward seats or remained standing in groups. Conversations cut short in mid-sentence were promised to be continued with slight head nods or significant looks.

“Thank you. Thank you all for coming. It is a pleasure to see so many friendly—and even not so friendly—faces among you. We at I-RED hope everyone enjoys a pleasant and safe experience here for the next few hours.” She paused, not to refer to any notes, but to look over the crowd, smiling at those she made eye contact with. “My name is Katrina Anya Oniseki of Onitseru. Ishukone employee, Hyasoda born, Shosho of the Ishuk-Raata Enforcement Directive. Many of you know me by my PR position.

“Tonight’s itinerary is quite full! Please listen carefully.” As Katrina spoke, guests continued to arrive. Noting the Shosho standing at the podium, they quietly took a seat or conversed in undertones with the servers. “First up, you may all enjoy the words of Taisho Revenent. Or you may not, perhaps—who knows?” A smattering of laughter passed through the crowd. “Following that, we’ll have several question and answer sessions and round tables, as well as a lottery drawing, and a product unveiling.

“So, without further ado, I present to you the Executor of the Ishuk-Raata Enforcement Directive… Taisho John F. Revenent!”

The Executor approached the podium, shaking his head slightly as Katrina stepped back and led the audience in a round of applause. Behind him, Simca Develon entered and slipped into a seat at the director’s table.

At the podium, John gave himself a moment to gather his thoughts. Silence fell over the gathered guests as they waited for him to speak. When he did, his tone was even and tinged with reflection and thought.

“Welcome, everyone. Many of you know me as the Executor of Ishukone-Raata. Not an easy appointment but it is simple enough.” He paused. “I have learned many things during the three years I’ve led this organization, and even under the guidance of my ancestors, and peers, I have made many mistakes, but I look to these mistakes and do not feel shame, or regret, but a sense of pride. Each mistake represents a hurdle we have overcome, and a reminder to friends and foes alike that, confronted by anything, good or bad, we are willing, and capable, of dealing with it head on.”

He paused again to briefly survey the crowd. “Our path has not been an easy one, and I would not have it any other way. Through the sacrifices of the past, the pain we have endured, the everyday struggle for a better tomorrow, is what defines us as a organization, and as Caldari. These things may define us, but what we represent is the voice of a minority that is willing to push for progressive forward thinking, and to confront unpopular issues, both in, and outside, the State.”

Sakaane glanced sidelong at those sitting near her. Some were nodding their heads in agreement while it seemed others were shifting in their seats. Uncomfortably because of John’s words? She reminded herself of the wide range of people I-RED had invited.

John cleared his throat before continuing. “I am honored to work alongside the men and women of Ishukone-Raata. Capsuleer or not, you have my respect. May your ancestors watch over you, as they have watched over me these past three years… Rikaato.”

Sakaane joined the rest of the audience in applause as the Taisho stepped back from the podium. Katrina gave him a low bow and a smile, which he returned before taking his place at the head of the table.

The crowd shifted. Some took an opportunity to refresh drinks or snag new appetizers. A young black-haired woman Sakaane didn’t know but whose clothing bore the insignia of GoonWaffe made a beeline to the nearest server. There was a brief murmur from onlookers when she nearly crashed into a man Sakaane recognized as Istvaan Shogaatsu. The woman looked embarrassed and immediately stepped away from both Istvaan and the server, who expertly kept control of his tray.

A different server appeared at Sakaane’s elbow to offer refreshment. She accepted a glass of water from him and turned her attention back to the podium.

Katrina had retaken the speaker’s position. “And now the part many of you have likely been waiting for. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you Ishuk-Raata’s first baseline market product, available for all races and lots of life.”

The floor of the dais shifted and split open, revealing a massive object slowly being elevated into view. Once its carapace fully cleared the storage area, it began to rotate in place to display all sides. This made it immediately clear it was a flying machine of some sort, though at first glance it appeared ugly and simple, a far cry from the myriad sleek ships the capsuleers were accustomed to.

Sakaane sat up in her chair to get a better view, as did many of those around her. People were murmuring again, passing their initial impressions to one another. Datapads were retrieved from pockets to take notes.

Katrina walked slowly around the object, speaking into a collar-mounted microphone. “This is the ornithopter, a flight-capable craft marketed for developing colonies and low income areas, costing only two hundred ISK each. With a bare minimum of moving parts, and modular repair designs, it is explicitly designed for durability and ease of use. We currently have a stock of three million units ready for shipment immediately.” She appeared genuinely proud of the device, looking on its hideous shape as only a mother would to a deformed infant. The ornithopter looked not all dissimilar to a bug, with spindly feet as landing pads, and a fat body with wings.

Istvaan spoke up. “What’s it do, precisely?”

Another pilot, Ethan Verone, chimed in. “Can it be militarized? Or rather, armed?”

Hearing their questions, Katrina said only, “I’d like to remind everyone that these are not for sale to capsuleers directly, though your associated companies and holdings may purchase stock for your planetary colonies. You may log in to our GalNet site and place your bids immediately.”

Would our industrialists be interested in this? Sakaane wondered. Many people in IPI had planetary holdings. After some brief consideration, she withdrew a compact datapad from a pocket of her overrobe and placed a bid.

The rustle of the audience died down; datapads were tucked away again or placed expectantly on tables for whatever was coming next. Seeing this, Katrina clapped her hands once. “Moving on, then. I introduce to you, Vice-Executor and Chujo Simca Develon.”

Once at the podium, the Chujo smiled at everyone and began, “Saisieni. It’s time for the awards ceremony, where we honor people outside of I-RED for their contributions to the State.” An attendant handed Simca a small envelope, which she opened. “First, it’s a distinct pleasure to award the Ishukone Order of Honor to the Wyrkomi Honor Guard for their exceptional dedication to fighting piracy.”

A woman with dark hair pulled tightly back from her face stood up, carefully placing a small black box on her chair. This was Hoshisuuvi, the Executive Officer of WHG. A round of applause accompanied her to the podium; she adjusted her grey uniform before stepping onto the stage. She bowed to Simca. “On behalf of the Honor Guard, rikaato.”

Katrina retrieved a finely polished wood box from the director’s table. Holding it at an angle visible to the audience and Hoshisuuvi, she opened the box to reveal a magnificent seal and plaque. “For your services to Ishukone, we honor you with this small token. Rikaato. May the ancestors whisper the names of Wiyrkomi Honor Guard into eternity.”

Hoshisuuvi nodded, accepting the box and admiring its contents. Then, bowing again to the I-RED representatives, she said, “Your recognition will be deeply appreciated in the halls of the Honor Guard. Again, rikaato.”

Katrina walked with her to the edge of the dais, murmuring something which wasn’t picked up by the room’s audio system.

Sakaane’s eyes trailed after Hoshisuuvi as the woman returned to her seat. WHG, she knew, operated Black Rise and Placid. IPI had no formal relations with them, but WHG’s reputation was well known. The honor was deserving, indeed.

Simca was opening another envelope. “Next up, we would like to award Dex Nederland with the Cross of Merit for his unending dedication to the State, its ideals, and its continued success.”

Dex, sitting next to Hoshisuuvi, chuckled and rose from his seat. He was a massive Civire with closely shaven reddish-brown hair and beard to match. Katrina grinned as he stepped onto the stage and handed another wooden box of similar style as the first to him. Inside rested the medal and a plaque inscribed in trit gold with his name and details to commemorate the honor.

Simca bowed to him, still smiling. “Congratulations. Couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of that one.”

“Thank you for your service to our people, Nederland-haan,” Katrina added. “I can only hope to match your accomplishments in my own time.” She stepped back, giving him a salute.

Dex returned their smiles and Katrina’s salute. “Thank you. It’s good to be recognized by peers for one’s efforts. Moitte.” Then he left the stage and returned to his seat.

The attendant handed Simca one last envelope. She tore it open and laughed lightly as she read over its contents. “Last, for their exceptional resolve in securing the safety and cultural sovereignty of the Intaki system for future generations, we would like to recognize the Intaki Prosperity Initiative.”

Sakaane felt her eyes widen at the unexpected announcement and cursed inwardly as a blush rushed unbidden to her face. “Oh my!” Standing, she smoothed out her robe and walked forward to join the I-RED directors on the dais. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Dex turning to whisper to Hoshisuuvi.

Applause carried Sakaane to the stage. A grateful glance back at the audience showed her Morwen’s grinning face, which triggered a smile of her own. The performer had her hands held up and was clapping loudly. Not far from her was Saul Ambrye of Ishukone Prosperity Exchange. The elder man’s smile was warm. Sakaane made a mental note to speak to him later.

She looked to Simca and Katrina, but not before her eyes fell on a woman with pale blonde hair and a tattoo over her right eye, dressed in a posh model’s dress, and felt a confused jolt of surprise. Jev North, of Anshar Incorporated. The Serpentis loyalist was also applauding, a quirky, slightly-crooked smile on her face.

Katrina had a large scroll and a plaque in her hands, which she handed to Sakaane. “We consider you cousins in the fight for cultural self-determination. May you never lose sight of your goal.”

“Thank you very much,” Sakaane said, bowing. “We have always valued our partnership with I-RED and your assistance with our mandate in Intaki.” Glancing past Katrina, Sakaane met John’s gaze. He bowed his head in respect.

Simca and Katrina both returned her bow. Leaning close, Katrina whispered, “Hope to see you soon for that dinner!”

Sakaane offered one last bow to Taisho Revenent before leaving the stage. Morwen gave her a small wave as she passed by, which Sakaane returned with a nod before resuming her seat.

Her fingers itched with curiosity to unroll the scroll, but the document was large and ornate, so instead she carefully laid it on the table before her and studied the plaque. It was smooth black obsidian with beveled edges, and chiseled by hand into its surface were Simca’s words:

With Honor
Intaki Prosperity Initiative

Ishuk-Raata Enforcement Directive recognizes the Intaki Prosperity Initiative
for its exceptional resolve in securing the safety and cultural sovereignty
of the Intaki system for future generations.

She ran her fingers over the cool surface, quite pleased. As Dex had said, it certainly was nice to be recognized by one’s peers. She decided the plaque would hang in a public viewing area at the Intaki Cultural Center.

“Nearly finally,” Katrina was saying, “we offer a public question session to all present. I’m sure many of you have concerns or questions about I-RED or its involvement in various theaters. Ask, and we shall answer.” She grinned and added, “As well, let the tea be served.”

Almost immediately, Hoshisuuvi raised her hand. “I would like to pose a question.”

Servers appeared and moved through the crowd, bearing cups and pots of steaming tea for everyone.

The I-RED directors acknowledged Hoshisuuvi. She rose from her seat again with a glance at Dex, and walked forward to a point facing the middle of the dais, carrying the small black wooden box she had brought with her.

A server brought tea to Sakaane, who thanked him but kept her eyes on the WHG officer as she accepted the cup.

“Thank you,” Hoshisuuvi said. She looked pointedly at John. “Admiral Revenent. You spoke of mistakes and overcoming them.” Each word was articulate. “Through perseverance, you said you’ve shown our enemies that we are able to deal with them head on. And you claim the voice of minority and the courage to confront unpopular issues.” She smiled slightly. “And you’ve very generously and publicly recognized in my own organization some of those same qualities. Brave words, Admiral, and spoken of brave and necessary actions by a man who, I think, is accustomed to such. And yet…” Hoshisuuvi turned her head slightly. “…among us here tonight are the agents of a perverse and dangerous foe.”

Silence fell over the crowd; even the twittering of the holographic birds seemed hushed. No one moved until someone yelped and swore bitterly; a server had been pouring tea and overflowed the cup onto the hands of the pilot holding it.

Sakaane gripped her own teacup; the chill of the room suddenly seemed heightened and the hot tea was the only spot of warmth.

Hoshisuuvi looked at the other guests. “I do not speak of the Gallente. They I can, at least, respect.” Her voice rose energetically. “No, allowed among us tonight are the willing and loyal officers of Sansha Kuvakei.” She shifted the box to one hand and pointed an accusing finger at a trio of pilots. “There they are…with their silver tongues and friendly demeanor. They are lying to your face and no one, apparently, will say anything.”

Various people turned in their seats to stare. Sakaane looked; the faces were unfamiliar. Fumbling for her datapad, she discretely queried an identity search and came up with Tiberious Thessalonia and Degen Sankriga, both of True Slave Foundations, and Scherezad, of Lai Dai Research Spacelane Security. The latter result was confusing, but she didn’t know any of them and held her breath expectantly, the tea forgotten.

Verone, leaning against the wall near where Sakaane was sitting, shook his head and chuckled quietly. “Here we go.”

Tiberious, faced with Hoshisuuvi’s finger, responded only with, “Hm?”

“In the two years since they began, our beloved State has witnessed millions of its people taken forcibly from their worlds in the Nation incursions,” Hoshisuuvi went on. “Countless Caldari soldiers have laid down their lives to save millions more from capture and an unspeakable fate in the belly of Nation.” She rounded back to face John Revenent. “I ask you, Admiral, what courage is there in allowing the same people who would gut the very heart of our State a seat at your table? These are the people who would overwrite our culture and unmake everything our ancestors struggled to accomplish for the sake of a madman’s vision. What honor is there in that?”

Without waiting for an answer, Hoshisuuvi lifted the black box over her head and threw it onto the floor in front of her. It split open; black tea leaves spilled out. Their aroma wafted into the air and quickly out-competed that of the hot tea the guests had been served.

Looking down at what she had done, Hoshisuuvi’s lips firmed into a thin, hard line. Then she said, “There. That is what defines you as a Caldari. If you truly have the courage to confront unpopular issues, you would seize the lot of them and begin interrogations immediately.”

Degen Sankriga, watching the WHG officer, simply smiled and sipped his tea. Beside him, Tiberious smiled too and tilted his head to one side.

Hoshisuuvi didn’t meet their gaze. With a sharp nod and salute to I-RED, she added, “Rikaato,” then walked out of the room.

John, who had been watching Hoshisuuvi with an unblinking gaze, gave an approving smile as she departed.

After a moment, Sakaane became aware of hot porcelain burning her fingers and pried her fingers off the cup. She shivered and crossed her arms instead for warmth, feeling the previously pleasant atmosphere had been sucked right out of the room. Despite this, she noted certain people seemed unperturbed by Hoshisuuvi’s outburst, as if they were accustomed to accusations of treachery being regularly flung about.

Verone spoke quietly to another pilot but his words carried well in the room’s continued stillness. “Well, that was a little rude.”

“I, uh, what?” Scherezad said, and Sakaane recognized her voice as one she had overheard earlier. The woman was looking about confusedly.

Tiberious turned to her and spoke evenly. “You’ve just been accused of being a Sansha’s Nation loyalist. Perhaps you should like to leave the table, so as not to be seen with us?”

Scherezad’s eyes widened. “I—ah—what? Oh, um, goodness, no. No offense, um, really, but—ah, perhaps. Oh, yes.” Clearly flustered, she immediately moved to an unoccupied seat at another table.

Another moment of uncomfortable silence passed. John Revenent looked to the crowd. “Well then… Anyone else?”

“Shall I declare my undying rabbit-eared love for you John, just to balance things out?” Verone called out, an amused smile on his face. This elicited a smattering of nervous laughter from the other guests.

Katrina, professional as always, was composed. “It is well known that all lots of life were welcomed to this event. If anyone else mistakes invitation for cooperation, you are free to say so now. That said, are there any other questions?”

An Amarr woman slowly rose from her chair. “If I may, in the whispers of history, it is always those who stand up and break the mold, break the cycle of destruction to just talk that have always proved the most courageous…even if the other side is vacant to such ideal.”

It was then that Tiberious asked, “Might I be allowed to speak, John Revenant?

Katrina answered. “Tiberious Thessalonia. Please speak your mind, Nation.”

The Sansha loyalist got to his feet. He was a severe-looking man with brown hair and a scruff of beard, and from a distance his eyes had an odd quality to them that Sakaane couldn’t make out. As he moved, the thick material of his charcoal uniform reflected a glossy olive sheen; the room’s light slid up two spikes protruding from each shoulder. She leaned forward in her seat to get a better view and also saw a flash of skin: the tunic was undone and Tiberious was not wearing a shirt underneath.

Does he feel the chill in the air? Sakaane wondered idly.

“Thank you,” he said. “It has been an honor to be invited to your event. I and the rest of my foundations brothers and sisters thank you, for even those who have not been here in person have been connected through our network. We wish you the greatest success on the deployment of your ornithopter, and all success in the future.”

Katrina’s eyes narrowed slightly, though her lips retained the polished smile she’d been carrying all evening. “Thank you.”

“However,” Tiberious went on, “considering how our presence here, despite the presence of other enemies of your organization, seems to set off the rest of your guests, we ask your permission to withdraw, with all thanks.”

A few people cleared their throats uncomfortably.

Sakaane sighed quietly and reflected on the camaraderie she’d witnessed at past holoreel conventions, which in some ways were not altogether different in scope than I-RED’s event. Outbursts there had been virtually non-existent though she was sure plenty of Nation pilots had attended, too. So why can’t people of opposing forces put aside their differences for this event, which has nothing to do them personally, like they do there?

Katrina studied Tiberious and didn’t answer immediately. Then she raised her arm, motioning in the direction of the exit. The Ishukone Watch officers guarding it parted to create a hole for the Nation representatives.

“We thank you for your attendance,” Katrina said.

Tiberious inclined his head. “We came at your invitation and with the well-wishes of our foundation. This event will be…remembered. Rikaato.” He bowed, then nodded to Degen, who drained the rest of his tea, rose, and bowed to the I-RED directors. Simca, after exchanging a quick look with Katrina and John, rose from her seat to return the gesture.

The two pilots turned and headed calmly to the exit. Tiberious’s expression was flat, his hands held at his sides, while Degen drifted after him, humming softly. As they left, Jev North raised her cup in salute, giving them a faint inclination of her head in farewell, while Verone nodded to Tiberious. After a moment, another pilot, a woman with a blue tattoo across much of her face, followed them out.

Katrina’s smile seemed frozen on her face, though her tone remained sweet and pleasant. “Next question, please?”

The woman with the GoonWaffe logo on her clothing put up her hand.

“Lyris Nairn,” Katrina said.

“Well. After all that, I suppose my question isn’t nearly as important as a grandiose display of pomp and prejudice.” She placed her full teacup down and pushed it away with disdain. “My question, Oniseki-haani, is one of business. Would you find it untoward for there to be a public auction on exclusive intellectual property rights for your ugly mechanical bird?”

“Untoward? No. Possible? Also, no. We will retain full IP rights on the ornithopter.”

“Very well.”

Someone else raised a hand. Katrina said, “Turelus. Next question, if you please.”

He stood up, jerking nervously on his uniform, and looked at the I-RED Executor. “Revenent, you said in your speech how you ‘have made many mistakes, but look to those mistakes and don’t feel shame, or regret, but a sense of pride’. Does that pride include your betrayal of the State last year and the open assistance to Federation forces in the war?”

A few people choked on their tea or snarked openly. Many in the room shook their heads.

Verone muttered to a colleague, “Someone’s gonna get fuckin’ shot, soon.”

“I will answer,” John said, “though you may not be pleased with it. We did not betray the State. The militia is full of pirate elements. We dealt with the issue. You will take note that we fight elements in the Gallente militia as well.”

Someone in the room clapped, alone.

Unperturbed, John added, “We did what was best for Ishukone’s assets at the time.”

Lyris called out, “Did you really expect the man to stand up and admit to betrayal? That takes more courage than an alleged-traitor would have, ne?”

The Amarr lady who had spoken earlier was nodding with approval and interjected, “None of the militias are pure to their origins. We all know this.”

Turelus nodded. “Then I will simply leave it at that. Thank you.” He sat down and started typing into a datapad.

Katrina smoothed her hands over the waist of her uniform and looked back to the crowd. “Are there any others?”

The man who had been clapping raised his hand. “Yes, if you please?”

“Henry Montclaire. Please state your concerns.” As she spoke, Katrina caught sight of Verone pushing himself away from the wall and nodded at him to indicate he could speak next.

“Thank you. What is your new creation intended for? Is it a personnel transport, a cargo hauler? What is its weight limit and how far can it travel?”

The frozen smile on Katrina’s face melted into something more genuine. “Oh, yes—it is a twin or solo pilot, flight capable, passenger transport and light cargo hauler. Atmospheric flight only. All specifications will be listed on our GalNet site.”

“Thank you. What is the expected lifetime of one of these vessels? And, if you will permit me one final question, does it come in green?”

Several people in the audience, including Sakaane, took out datapads again to take notes. The mood of the room started to lift.

“Forty to sixty standard years, assuming optimum maintenance. Twenty years, assuming minimum warranty covered service.”

Simca chimed in, grinning widely. “Yes, you can get it in green or several other colors.”

“Thank you.”

A few people stood up then and left. Katrina and Simca waited for them to depart before inviting Verone to speak next.

The Veto CEO made his way to where the broken box of black tea remained on the floor. Balancing his drink in one hand, he carefully scooped the box up, rearranged its contents, and closed it. Then, stepping onto the dais, he rested the box gently on the table in front of John and Simca.

“More of a statement than a question,” he said. “I don’t often speak in front of people, so bear with me.”

John looked first at the box, then up at Verone.

“Four years ago, this station was all but destroyed by the act of a foolish old man bent on hatred and racism. It’s clear that after the loss of Gariushi, Ishukone has never recovered fully.”

The smile on Katrina’s face adopted a plastic look again.

Verone went on. “Reppola, if I might say so, isn’t up to the job. Otro’s shoes are a large set to fill, with a long and winding legacy. But let’s not forget his origins. He was a great man, but at his core, he was a Gurista.”

Sakaane started. Rumors had swirled in the public for years about Gariushi’s background, rumors which had always been denied by authorities in the State. But a comment like that coming from the foremost representative of a Gurista mercenary cell was either a hopeful boast or…blatant confirmation. She thought about Verone’s reputation and decided it was more likely the latter.

“Under his guidance, ruthless at times it might have been, he provided one of the finest working and social environments in the State for his employees. He did this by getting the job done. Tough decisions, often for the benefit of Ishukone, his people, and not the State, had to be made. And he made them without a second thought.” Verone paused for effect. “This is the characteristic of a great leader. A core characteristic that has just been regarded with the utmost of disrespect by I-RED’s so-called allies.

“Revenent-haan. John. I came here this evening to offer I-RED an olive branch. I’ll refrain from doing so for fear of making your life more difficult by further antagonizing your soft-hearted, less capable and knowledgeable ‘allies’.” He took a breath. “In the end, difficult decisions have to be made. I know this, after being in a leadership position for nine years, and as a commissioned officer for the Federation Navy’s Tripwire program before my departure. So, rather than posing a question, I’ll simply show the respect as an adversary that your so-called friends and allies have failed to do today, bringing shame on themselves, and their corporations.”

He raised his tumbler to John, a slight smile on his face. “To I-RED, and their continued success under the leadership of Revenent-haan.”

Sakaane and others raised their cups to join in the toast. Applause broke out as well.

Katrina, at a nod from John, said, “The Taisho thanks you for your recognition and support, Ethan Verone.”

The Veto CEO gave John a respectful bow. “Thank you for the opportunity to speak.” Then he sauntered back to where he’d been standing by the wall, a slight smirk on his face.

Dex raised his finger. “I have a rather straightforward follow-up to Verone-guri.”

“Dex Nederland,” Katrina said. “Please continue.”

“While I cannot speak for WHG and their status with regard to I-RED, I have a pretty good idea about 4TH’s stance and LDIS’s. What is I-RED’s position in relation to 4TH?”

The plastic smile never faltered. “We have for a long while been at odds with CVA. This is no surprise. The Fourth District maintains ties with CVA, and for that we regrettably maintain negative standings with your alliance. Lai Dai Infinity Systems, while bound by these standings, is not considered our enemy. It is an unfortunate circumstance that this is so. Standings aside, we consider you our brothers and sisters of the State. Wherever you may go, that will never change. Though we may fight and even argue, there is no denying our common home.”

Dex inclined his head. “Thank you. I wanted to ensure the relationship was clear. LDIS considers I-RED to be a competitor in many, many things. As with so much in the State, ‘ally’ can be a fluid term.”

At that, the smile on Katrina’s face shifted again, became a predatory grin that darkened her otherwise pleasant features. “Yes. The relationship is quite clear.”

Dex smiled back. “Moitte.”

The edge to Katrina’s smile bled away as Dex resumed his seat. “I believe this wraps up our Q ’n’ A session,” she said.

A few in the audience looked relieved. More people began to depart. Sakaane took the opportunity to settle back against her chair and adjust the pin keeping her hair in place. At least no one had been shot. Yet.

Katrina raised her arms. “Now, we have two events starting. First, we have Morwen Lagann providing live music and entertainment. And for those who prefer a less relaxed mood, we will be having an exhibition match. The Executor and Vice Executor of Ishuk-Raata will be fighting each other, in the ring. Yes, you heard correctly. Taisho Revenent versus Chujo Develon. For those wishing to see the fight, please make your way downstairs. Those who’d prefer to see Lady Lagann’s performance, stay here.”

Morwen coughed lightly when her name was spoken. Slightly flushed from the wine she’d been drinking, she motioned her hand to catch Katrina’s attention. “I’m going to need several moments to tune, so I don’t think there’s going to be any need for overlap.”

Katrina nodded. “Then we begin the fight first. Morwen Lagann will perform afterward.”

Chairs scraped across the floor as everyone abandoned their seats and headed to the stairs leading to the Underclub.

Simca flashed a grin at her leader. “Ready for this?”

John stood, somewhat reluctantly it seemed, and soundlessly followed her downstairs.

Sakaane collected IPI’s award items. A young man in Ishukone livery swept by and thoughtfully offered to have them stored until the end of the event. Thanking him, Sakaane headed downstairs with the crowd, though a familiar pang in her gut made her cast a wistful glance over her shoulder to see Morwen setting up for the performance. She had pulled out the leather case and popped its latches so she could carefully examine the instrument contained within.

In another life, that might have been me.

Stewards arrived to tidy the room, and the last of the crowd pulled Sakaane onto the stairs, obscuring Morwen from sight.

The temperature rose increasingly as she went down. The Underclub was brightly lit but its décor was partially concealed behind a thin fog of cigar smoke that made Sakaane’s eyes sting and her lungs recoil. She wrinkled her nose and fought not to cough.

Blue and violet lights flashed to stir the senses, while whispers and echoes in both Napaani and Achuran from Ishukone advertisements flickered through the room, though this was drowned out by loud music containing a bone-rocking thrum of deep Caldari drumstep hammering in the background.

A fully stocked and staffed bar was built into one end of the club, with plenty of tables and booths available around the room. Huge widescreen holopanels were everywhere, broadcasting fights, stocks, news, and more advertisements, each with built-in interactive betting and purchasing features to tempt people out of their ISK. Above it all, female and male dancers gyrated in wall alcoves and overlooks, well out of reach of the patrons.

The main feature of the room was an eerily well-lit fighting ring which clearly showed brown spatters of old blood staining the pad. Its ropes were frayed in some places.

Sakaane paused at the bottom of the stairs, squinting to take it all in. Here, too, the Ishukone Watch patrols were present, and she envied them their earplugs which filtered out most of the noise.

Katrina, standing in the middle of the ring, was shouting to be heard. “Ladies and gentlemen, the betting booth is right over there. Please feel free to throw your money down on a good fight!” One of the guests shouted something back at her, and Sakaane heard Katrina say, “Yes, this is the only scheduled fight. Attendees are welcome to challenge each other. I-RED will not be fighting our guests though.” She paused. “Not tonight.”

Looking around, Sakaane tried to decide where to sit. She didn’t like loud bars, and fight clubs were even lower on the list. Nearby, she saw Henry Montclaire wrap a kerchief around his face outlaw-style and snorted an amused laugh that turned into a cough. Making a decision, she headed to a seat in what she hoped was the club’s quietest corner.

“All right! Here we go!” Katrina’s voice rang out clearly through the smoke and over the thrumming music as the PA system finally connected to the mic in her collar. “Ladies and gentlemen of the audience, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce the Heavyweight Champion of Lonetrek YC53 and Capsuleer Extraordinaire, the Father of Fury, the Rumbling Revenent… JOOOOOOHN REVENENT!”

John entered the ring. He’d traded his uniform for black shorts. The bright light caught the hint of disapproval on his face. At his appearance, there was a renewed flurry of activity by the betting booth.

“Weighing in at two hundred, twenty-nine pounds, can this Monster of Muscle take down his challenger?! Can the Executor of Executions win the day?! For in this corner”—Katrina made a sweeping gesture—“we have the Maiden of Mordu, the Mistress of Mohawks—weighing in at a featherweight one-two-nine… Vice Executor SIIIMCAAAA DEVELON!” She stepped out of the ring, a grin on her face, and added, “This is going to be messy.”

Simca emerged from the women’s locker room, a laugh on her lips. Like John, she had changed into black fight shorts, though her upper body was protected by a skintight rash guard. Upon entering the ring she made a show of popping her neck before bowing to her commander.

Someone in the crowd shouted, “Knock him the fuck down!”

Katrina rose her arm. “To your marks!”

Simca slid a mouth guard past her smile and fell into a fighting stance. John raised his arms in a similar pose.

The shrill clanging of the bell sent Katrina’s arm whistling down through the air. “Fight!”

Simca stepped slowly toward John, closing the distance between them and reaching out with her left hand in a show of respect. He returned the gesture by moving in to tap her hand, but then bounced back on his feet and quickly jabbed twice, followed by a left cross that connected squarely with the woman’s jaw.

Katrina, having retreated into the crowd, was mumbling something that didn’t carry through the crowd now that her mic was muted. But at John’s opening move, her eyes widened with dismay and she ran back up to the ring, obviously ready to climb back in.

“NO MERCY JOHN!” a woman shouted through cupped hands.

Simca staggered back and shook her head, a slight grin on her face. Without hesitation, she lunged forward, bringing her trailing leg up quickly, her shin flying toward John’s head as her hips twisted around.

Katrina, halfway into the ring, froze as Simca retaliated, then slumped off the ropes with a groan that, while not audible, was visible in the expression on her face. She turned, motioned enthusiastically at a server. “Drink!” He hurried over to give her one, which she downed in one go. The glass was thrust back at him. “MORE.”

John had brought up his arm, a little too late. Simca’s strike hit him in the side of the head. He staggered and tried to regain his balance, while Simca pressed her advantage, following up with a few quick punches to the stomach.

Someone yelled, “Back off! Don’t let him get close!”

John shrugged off the hits and moved in, throwing a few jabs of his own at her stomach followed by a cross to the head.

Sakaane watched the fight, her elbow on the table and her chin propped in her hand. I wonder if this is how I-RED eases stress between its leadership all the time? Maybe if Layla and I had… The small amused smile on her face widened slightly as Henry Montclaire wandered by, heading toward the stairs, still wearing the kerchief around his face.

Simca was on the mat. John’s cross to her head had caught her in the nose. She got up slowly, dripping blood but smiling.

More people were getting caught up in the fight. Jev shouted, “Insubordination be damned! Kick his ass!” Others clapped excitedly or banged their fists on tables, their teeth bared in grins at the bloody carnage playing out before them.

“Don’t smile at him, hit him the fuck back!”

As soon as Simca regained her feet, John moved in again. He quickly took another powerful swing at her, grinning through his mouth guard.

From the corner of her eye, Sakaane saw Morwen appear from the women’s locker room, violin and bow in one hand, case in the other. She paused for the briefest moment by the doorway to watch the fight, then quietly headed back upstairs.

Sakaane watched her go. Then, looking back at the fight, she decided she’d seen enough. Once upstairs, she gratefully breathed in the clean, crisp air, then headed for the buffet table. Plate in hand, she then chose a spot that would afford a good view of the performance.

The ornithopter had been retracted into the floor, giving Morwen the benefit of almost the entire dais. She was sitting on a single stool in the middle of it, the skirt of her gown splayed around her, with the violin bow in her hands. She’d inserted a wedge between the bow’s shaft and its hairs to tighten them, and inspected her handiwork carefully. The bow’s curve was outward, away from the hairs rather than toward, and its tip was much more pointed than the common style. Satisfied, she picked up her violin and checked the tuning again.

Sakaane chewed her food slowly, watching with interest. Memory stirred; she’d gone through those motions many times herself, once.

People began drifting back into the room from the Underclub, though a sudden roar of noise from downstairs made everyone turn their heads briefly. A few moments later the dinging of the bell echoed up the stairwell, marking the end of the fight.

Saul Ambrye appeared in the hall. Sakaane caught sight of him and beckoned him over to her table. As he arrived, she stood to greet him with a polite bow. “Namas, Saul. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Madam President,” he said. “I am most honored to make your acquaintance.”

Sakaane smiled. “Won’t you join me?”

“I would be delighted, yes.” He extended a hand toward the seat Sakaane had risen from as he pulled out his own and folded himself into it.

Katrina appeared at the top of the stairs and strode directly to Morwen, leaning over to speak quietly with her. The two conferred together for a few moments. Behind them, a triumphant Simca also appeared, looking worse for wear, and paused to lean against a wall before heading back to her seat at the director’s table.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention and silence if you please.” Katrina had stepped aside. “For something a bit less sweaty and bloody—we have Morwen Lagann and her stirring tunes. Ms. Lagann?” Katrina then sat briefly beside Simca but a second later jumped to her feet and disappeared down the stairs to the Underclub.

Sakaane leaned toward Saul and said quietly, “I’ve been pleased to see you and members of IPREX returning to the public eye lately. Perhaps we could talk about that at a later time?”

“Ah, yes. We had some bureaucratic…” He paused thoughtfully. “…troubles. I look forward to an audience when you are free.” He fell silent as Morwen picked up the violin, rose from her seat, and began to play.

The piece began with a series of longer, low notes that alternated with higher figures of short ones. The pace quickly picked up; Morwen swayed slightly on her feet, almost immediately caught by the undulating melody.

The bow bounced lightly across the strings; the music alternately swelled into the event room’s cavernous space, amplified by its acoustics, then faded away as Morwen backed in intensity. The bow’s shape allowed her to send chords resonating into the air.

Overhead, the holographic birds flitted to and fro, seemingly dancing in time to the music. Their soft twittering complimented a series of trilled cadences which led into a slow, gentle ending of the first movement.

Morwen paused, then began the second movement. The black and red panels of her dress swept gently around her as she leaned forward and dipped the neck of the violin, then straightened up and swayed in time to the music, while heads in the audience caught the beat and bobbed lightly too. Her fingers flew over the strings, the bow passing across them just as swiftly, playing melody and harmony simultaneously.

Sakaane felt her own fingers twitch now and then as the song poured out of Morwen’s violin. She didn’t know the piece herself but instincts borne of years of musical instruction in her youth—and long since neglected—stirred in her mind and made rusty stabs at anticipating familiar runs of notes.

The theme returned, and this time Morwen’s dual-line technique was much more prominent. Chords reverberated around the audience, fooling ears into believing another violinist was present despite it only being Morwen on stage. She finished off the movement with three slow, but somewhat exaggerated, tones.

Taking a breath, Morwen began the next movement. The somewhat slower, more sedate harmony was full of chords which she played flawlessly along with a lighter melody on the upper strings.

Off to one side, Katrina emerged from the Underclub with John in tow. He was back in his uniform; his face and neck appeared raw from the fight. They took a seat together; she handed him a glass of water and some aspirin. He accepted the drink but ignored the painkillers.

Morwen closed her eyes as she moved into the final set of her performance. The tones emerging from her violin were firmer than before and regained the energy from the first and second movements. Her posture straightened and she played quickly, the notes ringing out while her fingers danced on the strings. The room filled with rich sound.

The finale was coming. A smile crept across Sakaane’s face as she watched Morwen building up to it, still with her eyes closed, lost in the music. The room could have been empty and Morwen would nonetheless have played with this passion, simply for the joy of the music itself.

The bow caressed the strings to create three chords to close the piece. Morwen drew them out; the sound hung in the air.

A moment of silence. Her eyes reopened to look to the audience. They burst into applause, and then a standing ovation.

Sakaane, a grin lighting up her face, called out, “Bravo!”

“Magnifique!” This from Saul.

Morwen bowed to them all, a grin on her face.

The applause abated. Sakaane returned to her seat, still looking to Morwen. “Very nice,” she said, even though the young woman probably would not hear. “A great piece.”

Katrina stepped up to the stage and bowed to Morwen, thanking her quietly. Morwen smiled back, nodding and shifting the bow out of her hand so she could offer it to shake. Katrina took it awkwardly, unfamiliar with the Gallente custom. “Feel free to take your time closing up here,” she said, then turned to the crowd to announce, “For tonight’s final hosted event, we offer a lottery drawing!”

Behind her, Morwen stepped off the dais to put her violin away. She waved to Sakaane with a “Thanks!” as she disassembled the bow, its hairs falling loose against the stick as she tugged out the small wedge. The violin was laid carefully in its case. Sakaane’s eyebrow arched with surprise, but then she supposed Morwen’s social adaptation chip might have been filtering and augmenting comments by the audience that were more obviously directed at her.

Saul was nodding. “Indeed. A truly spirited performance.”

Katrina had pulled out her datapad and was saying, “The numbers have already been drawn.” Glancing briefly at the display, she looked into the audience, searching for a particular face. “It’s my pleasure to announce that Jev North has won a pair of Hookbill navy frigates! Third place prize!”

The guests broke out applause again. Jev rose from her seat and bowed slightly. “Many thanks. It happens to be about the largest hull I can fly out of here without serious trouble, as well.”

Katrina checked her datapad again. “Number sixteen please. Wurblewind!”

A man with a neatly trimmed beard that did not at all hide the burn scarring the left side of his face calmly stood up, twitching his Federal marine service uniform into place as he did so.

“Wurblewind, you have won a pair of Navy Cruisers! Caracal and Osprey!” When the applause died down and Wurblewind had returned to his seat, Katrina leaned excitedly over the podium. “And now for the twin grand prize winners! Winning a brand new Navy Issue Scorpion, we have…number…”

Everyone waited expectantly.

“Lucky number thirty-one! Shaalira D’arc! And the final grand prize winner, winning a brand new Navy Issue Raven is…” Katrina frowned at her datapad. “Istvaan Shogaatsu? Seriously…?” She turned away, jabbing at the display. John arched an eyebrow at her.

Morwen, along with several other guests, burst out laughing.

Istvaan stood up and flung his arms wide. “I humbly accept this prize and deny all allegations of fixing the contest!”

Katrina looked from him to the rest of the crowd and shook the datapad ineffectively. “Well, it’s legitimate. You’re the lucky winner, Istvaan! Come get your Raven!”

“Hell yes. I dare say I’ll put it to good use. Thank you!”

Katrina laughed a bit and nodded. “You’re welcome.” Stepping down from the stage, she brought her hands together in front of her and addressed them all. “The event is largely over in any official context. You are all free to stick around and enjoy yourselves until we close the doors. You’re welcome to also ask any of us questions.”

The crowd stirred and began to break up. A few people shouted comments about the Raven and hurried off.

Sakaane glanced at Saul and picked up where their conversation had left off. “Feel free to stop by my office anytime.”

He nodded with appreciation. “I will do so soon, then.” He shifted in the chair. “I should probably be along however. Some mutual friends escorted us here and I believe one of them has an engagement to attend coming up.”

“Certainly. I was glad to have met you, in any case, and I’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.”

“Likewise.” He nodded respectfully. “Suprab nahi.” Standing, he scanned the room a moment before sighting the I-RED officials and made his way in their direction.

Sakaane lingered at the table to look over the remaining guests. Some had drifted back into clumps to converse; a guard poked Istvaan with a rifle and made the pilot empty his pockets (which apparently contained an assortment of I-RED silverware and a selection of items belonging to other guests). Turelus was standing nervously in front of John Revenent, saying something she couldn’t hear. Then bodies shifted, momentarily obscuring people from sight. The next break revealed Istvaan free of the guard and conversing with Morwen.

Katrina was standing alone, a smile on her face. Sakaane approached her. “This was lovely. Thank you for having me here. And for the recognition! It was quite unexpected.”

Just then, several other people also approached, including Simca, who gave Katrina a quick kiss on the cheek. “Well I think it went well. You?”

Katrina stiffened; flustered panic flashed through her eyes at the public display of affection. Nevertheless she managed a small nod to Sakaane. “Yes, it was enjoyable. We loved having you over, Sakaane. Really.”

Sakaane grinned at the couple. “I promise I’ll make it down to see you both for dinner very soon.”

Katrina pointed at Sakaane. “I’m going to hold you to that!”

Simca returned the grin. “Me too.”

More people were edging in for attention. Sakaane stepped away, only to feel a tap on her shoulder.

“Boo.”

She turned, finding Morwen. “Hello!”

Morwen smiled widely and extended her hand, which Sakaane took. “It’s good to finally meet in person.”

“Indeed. You play very well!”

Morwen rubbed the back of her head with her hand, awkward at the compliment. “I try. It’s what I would be doing if I hadn’t done the capsuleer training thing.”

“Me too.” Sakaane pushed down on the ache that suddenly swelled in her chest again. “Funny how life turns out, isn’t it?”

Morwen opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, simply nodding. “Yeah, it is. I’m just glad I was able to make the spare time to keep up with it.”

“Do you play anything other than violin?”

“I picked up the cello a year or two ago. Was having a rough spot and needed a distraction. I’ve dabbled in a few other things, but this is where the core of my skills and experience are.” She twisted her body slightly to pat the case on her back.

Sakaane nodded and reached out gingerly to touch the case. The leather was soft, well-cared for. “It shows. I used to play, a long time ago.”

“I knew you sang,” Morwen admitted. “I didn’t know you played violin, though.”

The ache in Sakaane’s chest tightened, not altogether unpleasantly. It’d been a long time since anyone had recognized her. “I did a few things. The singing is what was starting to launch a career for me. I would toss in the instrumental pieces when it suited me, and some of my work I played and sang together.”

Morwen nodded. “It’s a good way to do it…” The awkward expression came back to her face; she rubbed the back of her head again. “I suppose I wasn’t being entirely honest. I should’ve said ‘again’, earlier. About meeting you. It was a really long time ago, though. But yeah. Heh. It’s been like…ten or eleven years since that trip to visit my grandparents. Wow.”

“Your grandparents?”

“They took me to one of your performances when we were visiting them once.” She grinned sheepishly.

“I sure hope it was a good one, then!” Falling silent, her gaze drifted from Morwen’s face back to the violin case. Sakaane’s violin was at the estate on Intaki, on a stand under a protective dropcloth, in a locked room she hadn’t been in since—

Sakaane forced a smile. “That really was a long time ago.”

“Yeah. Got the autographed poster to prove it, too.” Morwen laughed.

The laughter helped; this time the smile was genuine. “I hope it’s not that one where I’m wearing that awful getup and supposed to be pouring my heart and soul into the mic, is it? My agent wanted me to do that one…”

“It’s been long enough that I really don’t remember too many details.” She grinned a little. “It took me a while to put two and two together, anyway. I just remember having a lot of fun and enjoying it.”

“Well, thank you. And what about you? Did you ever take time to perform professionally?”

“A little bit, before flight school, yes. But never outside of Garoun. Most performances were in Caille itself.”

“I’d love to hear recordings of them, if you have any.”

Morwen nodded. “I’ll ask my mother next time I see her, and maybe I can bring them along when I come to visit.”

“That’d be wonderful.” She bit her lip briefly. “My music and I have…parted ways, at least for now. But I still have my interest in other performers.”

“I’ll see if I can find the recordings from the two events Silas has put on as well. Reppy should have those, I think.”

“You’re planning to visit Intaki then, in the near future? Is that right?”

Morwen gave her an odd look. “Well, yeah. I seem to recall being told I was going to get a tour, and then dragged around shopping for traditional clothes.”

Sakaane feigned innocence. “I’m sure have no idea what you mean!”

“Uh huh. Anyway, yeah. Have a few things to take care of before I can make it out, though. So possibly within a month, I hope.”

“That’d be great. I’ll set aside time in my calendar.”

“I’ll make sure to let you know as soon as I know when I’ll be able to head out. It’ll be nice to be home again. It’s been too long since I had a proper visit. The last one was only long enough to buy a rug for my apartment on my carrier.”

The crowd had thinned considerably. Sakaane suddenly heard Jev quip to someone, “I’m not exactly plumbing for intel either, but there was a warm feeling of recognition for two out of the three awardees.”

She cast a sidelong glance at the Anshar employee, but didn’t break her conversation off with Morwen. “If there’s anything you specifically want to see, let me know.”

“You’d know the landmarks better than I,” Morwen replied, “so I think I’ll be better off leaving that in your hands as well as those of your corpmates.”

“Sounds good. Maybe we’ll get all the girls together and have a night out.”

“Heh. Yeah, should do. Maybe I can apologize to anyone I ‘accidentally’ traded fire with some years back, too.” Morwen grinned.

Sakaane cocked an eyebrow. “I’m sure they’ve all forgotten about that. Probably.”

Morwen coughed. “Probably. I can’t really say I didn’t have fun when I was terrorizing Vey and Brarel, though.”

Jev swept past, and for a brief moment, her eyes locked with Sakaane’s. The Anshar pilot nodded politely. Sakaane returned the gesture, stiffly. Jev moved on, making her way toward Katrina, now seated alone at the director’s table.

Sakaane’s eyes trailed after her, then cast warily about the room. Nothing seemed amiss, and the Ishukone Watch guards continued to patrol. It was an odd feeling to have been in such close proximity to a Serpentis loyalist and not be firing a gun of any kind. Sakaane wondered if Jev might have nodded so politely if the pirate knew about the plans taking root at the back of Sakaane’s mind. If they came to fruition…Darac Rin was in for a rude surprise. How close-knit was the Serpentis community? Sakaane wondered.

Her attention turned back to Morwen. “Each of us has a path to follow. So long as we are enjoying it to the best of our ability and living a good and full life along the way, I think that’s what matters most.”

“Mm. I think I needed to take a walk off the path for a bit to see where I really needed to go. It’s nice to be back on it again.”

Sakaane felt her smile slip a bit and said quietly, “I think that happens to everyone from time to time.”

Morwen nodded. “Yeah. Sometimes you need a reminder of what the destination is, and often enough you can’t see it through the trees.”

“I’m glad you found yours then!”

“Took me long enough, but…worth it.”

They were essentially alone now. All but a few individuals had gone. Morwen glanced around. “It’s a little on the late side. I should get home and make those arrangements for Istvaan. Not needing to pay for hounds’ food will be nice.”

“I should head out shortly too. Again, it was lovely to hear you play and meet you finally. I’ll look forward to seeing you soon. Will you excuse me?”

“Sure. Have a safe trip home.”

“Suprab nahi, Morwen.”

Katrina remained sitting at the director’s table, fiddling with a few remaining bits of black tea leaves and wood splinters left behind from Hoshisuuvi’s shattered box. The box itself was gone. A troubled expression Katrina couldn’t quite hide furrowed her face.

Sakaane slipped silently up to her. “Everything all right?”

Katrina looked up and smiled, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “A bit worried about diplomacy now, but yes. The event was quite pleasant.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Sakaane said gently. “You’re accomplished in your role. Your guests all knew the rules… The shame is theirs, for acting out.”

Katrina managed a small laugh. “True enough. I’m not even sure if the formal dinner is still a go. The Taisho did not look too pleased, though with the outburst and the brawl, I can’t imagine why he would be.” She shrugged. “We all knew there would be hard questions and pointed jabs tonight. I just did not expect it from one of our closest allies. I suppose that’s why it stings so much.”

“I’m not too familiar with them, but had recently gained a passing knowledge after having some abbreviated contact with Malcolm Khross. I have to wonder what might have happened if he’d been in attendance instead…”

“I’ve no clue.” She chuckled and seemed to shift tracks mentally. “So… Dinner tonight? I’m famished.”

Sakaane considered, and decided there was no time like the present. “Certainly! If you’re up for it.”

Katrina laughed, more earnestly. “I am. I’ve been waiting for you to take our offer for a while. Will Bataav be attending?”

“Unfortunately he has duties to attend to tonight. He would have come with me otherwise. But he sends his best regards.”

They were now the last two people in the hall, save for the guards and some stewards. At Sakaane’s gesture, one retrieved the gifted plaque and scroll for her.

Katrina stood. “Shall we, then?” She led Sakaane out of the hall, and the guards closed the doors behind them.