“Brother-in-law, it’s me, Syrik. Do you have time to talk? Or, are you ‘busy’ with that fake business of yours?”
Armando, who was driving to meet Jonas at their newest building site, shook his head at Syrik’s obnoxiousness.
“What do you want? I can’t waste money chatting on the phone with a nobody.”
Syrik and Armando both laughed, enjoying the continuation of their friendly feud.
“As I recall, on a beautiful Spring day, Kiana and I trounced you and Izdahl at Trust.”
“I thought you’d forgotten about it.”
“Ha! Of course not. I’m collecting the prize. We’d like you and Izdahl to watch Nyrese the first week of next month. Izdahl’s schedule will be clear. What about yours?”
Armando instructed his vehicle to search through his calendar. The computer reviewed his activities and quickly provided him with the information.
“Mine is also open,” he confirmed.
“Then it’s set. Kiana and I will take our trip. You and Izdahl will keep Nyrese from burning everything and flying away.”
“She’s at that point already? I just saw her two weeks ago.”
“She’ll be changing rapidly for a while,” Syrik explained. “Nitelge children usually develop at a faster rate than humans, at least until age five. Despite how much Nyrese transforming, I doubt there’ll be problems while you’re watching her. Izdahl knows how to handle her fire blasts.”
“Fire blasts?” Armando asked, feeling a bit alarmed. “Does she give clues of what she’s about to do?”
“She says ‘fire time’—but not always…” Syrik chuckled. His casual amusement with his daughter’s quirk didn’t reassure Armando.
“Alright. And what about her flying?”
“She can get off the ground up to 3 feet. Most Nitelge her age struggle to reach 1 foot but my sweetheart is ahead of them. Oh, make sure you watch your vitals. She doesn’t quite have her steering perfected.”
Syrik talked for a short while longer about Nyrese’s habits. Armando had a basic familiarity with most of them, having already heard many humorous stories from his sister.
“Kiana will be calling later to provide other information,” Syrik assured him. “But right now she’s preparing for a panel on Nitelge/Human interactions. She’s quite anxious about it.”
“Yes. She’s been working on it for several months, hasn’t she? I’m looking forward to her presentation.”
“I thought that before she does it, I’d have her take a quick vacation,” Syrik explained. “You know how she can get when she’s highly invested in something.”
“Yes,” Armando said.
“Then she’s feeling even more concerned because she’s not spending as much time with Nyrese as she wants. Of course, I keep reminding her that soon her schedule will be less packed. I also reinforce that I know she’s a great mother. It just makes me worry when she thinks badly of herself.”
“Well, how about I tell her that she’s a horrible mother and that she should stay home? She often believes and does the opposite of what I say.”
Syrik laughed. “Alright, we’ll use that tactic. And, um, thanks for telling her not to marry me.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Armando replied, chuckling.
Izdahl was trying to decide what to do about Leila Barton. He was playing his cello, practicing Franz Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. He’d heard it two months ago at Dmitri’s home and had wanted to perform it for the upcoming orchestral concert. While he played, he reviewed various scenes from the lunch with Viktor’s lover.
Without warning, his A string broke, snapping up towards his left eye. It cut into the flesh of his cheek. He winced, surprised.
After tending to the injury under his eye, he returned to examine his instrument. He’d known he would be playing vigorously on it for several months, including all the way through the concert. It was why, earlier that week, he’d taken it to his favorite music shop in the city for maintenance. That included having it completely restrung.
He’d had strings break before but they had never snapped up at him in such a dangerous manner. Unsure about what exactly propelled his thoughts, but believing he was not mistaken, he suspected someone had tampered with his cello. He decided he would speak with the storekeeper. He certainly didn’t want to feel as if he needed special protection from his own instrument.
He set down his cello and smacked his hand against his head. That was the answer. He realized how he could find out if Leila was being truthful.
He would ask Viktor if she had ever given him protection capsules, particularly at the beginning of the relationship. The capsules were a highly controlled substance on the entire planet. There were illegal dealers but their number was quite small. The penalty for selling these goods improperly was a mandatory ten years in prison. Nitelge were primarily the ones who had access to them and used them to protect their human lovers. If Leila were actually a Nitelge, at some point, she would have had to provide Viktor with these. At a minimum, she would need to keep him healthy to get information.
Izdahl knew he would be asking Viktor some very personal questions. However, he felt that any awkwardness was outweighed by dangers Leila could represent, particularly with Dagmar involved.
“Tell me more about how Nitelge develop,” Armando requested of Izdahl. “I want to be completely ready for babysitting Nyrese.”
He and Izdahl were preparing Izdahl’s home for Nyrese’s stay. As they did some minor restructuring in the house, Armando asked for more information on Nitelge.
“It won’t be incredibly difficult and we’ve spent time with her,” Izdahl said. “We know much of what to expect.”
“True but I would hate for anything to happen because of my ignorance. I want to understand more.”
“Well, how much do you know about Nitelge development?” Izdahl asked. While he listened to Armando’s answer, he put some of his more valuable items out of his niece’s reach.
The architect started explaining what he knew. Nitelge and human children were much alike. However, unlike humans, they walked independently around eight months and started developing wings. Those who could wield at least one element began showing their ability towards the end of their first year.
“You have the basic facts,” Izdahl confirmed for Armando. “Also, the wielding can be dangerous if you don’t pay attention to the clues. Those who aren’t crafting experts always indicate when they’re about to release an element. With babies, their irises turn the color of the elements; brown for the earth, blue for water, silver for air and red for fire.”
“Nyrese so far has shown that she knows fire. Is that going to be a problem when we watch her?”
“No. Since her ability is especially potent, Mother put a blocking spell on her. Her missiles won’t get far; they’ll dissipate quickly.”
“That should help make this more manageable. Also, Syrik said that she won’t be flying very high.”
“Yes but don’t get too comfortable. Even though she’ll only be with us for a few days, she might develop more. She’ll be able to clearly understand, say and do a great deal. That could be difficult for us.”
“Did you give your parents much trouble?” Armando asked, curious about how Izdahl’s youth.
“Yes,” Izdahl replied, laughing. “I know that Mother learned the blocking spell because of me. I was two and Syrik was bullying me and I set his clothes on fire.”
“Really?” Armando exclaimed.
“Yes, with the hottest type of flame too,” Izdahl responded, laughing harder. “Tough combination; the terrible twos plus pyrotechnics.”
“Well then, hopefully nothing goes awry when we watch Nyrese.”
“Have you come to complain? Am I not paying you enough?” Dagmar demanded.
He had been reluctant to give Khalaf access to his home. Since beginning to deal with the two Terada brothers, Dagmar had found that the youngest was becoming the most difficult one. Dagmar regretted the special request he’d made of Khalaf. He wondered if, perhaps, that was the reason the young Nitelge was now getting so bold.
Khalaf nonchalantly poured himself a glass of brandy from the selection of liquor in Dagmar’s study. Sipping his drink, he settled into a leather chair across from Dagmar’s desk. The light played across his handsome features, as he took his time in responding to the older Nitelge.
“It’s nothing like that,” Khalaf began. “It’s just that…How can I say this? I think you’re wasting my time and my brother’s time. I expected you to keep giving us projects. Instead, for almost a year now, you’ve barely had us doing anything.”
“But I’ve retained both of you.” Dagmar regarded him with piercing scrutiny. “Aren’t you essentially getting paid to do nothing?”
“Some might be happy about that. Yet, I find it to be insulting. Rasmus and I are the most talented out of all the Teradas and—”
“That’s not saying much,” Dagmar cut him off, laughing.
“I didn’t come here to listen to your petty insults.”
Dagmar closed the contract file he was reviewing on his personal computer, now focusing completely on Khalaf. He wondered exactly what the upstart wanted.
“Does your older brother know you’re here?” the patriarch asked.
After that answer, Khalaf set his drink down on an antique end table, purposely placing it an inch away from the nearest coaster. He noted the disapproval that flashed across Dagmar’s face but didn’t relocate his glass. Instead, he left his chair and walked over to him.
Dagmar now stood, incensed by how casual Khalaf was daring to be in his office. He gave him a cold stare and issued a command.
“Never come around me without Rasmus, unless I direct you to do so. He is much savvier than you are.”
“I can be savvy…”
“Oh, is that why Izdahl Amasi is suspicious of you?”
“He isn’t able to prove anything.”
“Yet…If you become a liability to me, Khalaf, I will snap your back in half.”
“You won’t do anything like that, Mr. Havad,” Khalaf responded, regarding Dagmar shrewdly.
“And what makes you so sure?”
“Because I’m one of the planet’s most skilled shape-shifters and more importantly, you’ve asked me to change into her. Who will spend hours talking to you in the form of the one you lost? It’s such a pity; they could have been your sons…”
“Leave now!” Dagmar ordered, losing his usual composure.
“And come back tomorrow, on my usual day?” Khalaf asked cheekily.
Dagmar did not reject the idea. The hand that was steadily stroking his crotch distracted him.
“I thought so,” Khalaf remarked, laughing softly. “Maybe on the next occasion, I’ll wear the same perfume she does. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
On his way out of Dagmar’s home, he briefly changed into the sleek, serene figure of Syrik and Izdahl’s mother, mocking the Kelcho’s need.
Nyrese wanted her father’s attention. She released her wings, flew up and hung off his arm. Syrik indulged her, as he and Kiana told Armando and Izdahl how to reach them while they were away. It was the afternoon when the couple would be leaving for Direng, a resort area on the other side of the planet.
“Sweetheart, your mother and I have to go,” Syrik said. “Stand up.”
“No.” The response was followed by a giggle.
“Nyrese…” Syrik’s voice was quietly serious.
“Yes Daddy.” Nyrese let go of him. Tears sprung to eyes that were the same gray shade as his. Syrik knelt down in front of her. He brushed away tears and lightheartedly pinched her nose.
After giving Nyrese many hugs and kisses, Syrik and Kiana departed.
Armando and Izdahl were now faced with a pouting, distraught one-year-old.
“Don’t be sad,” Izdahl told her. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Oooh! Practice time!” Nyrese exclaimed, jumping up and down. Izdahl laughed at the speed of her emotional transformation.
“Practice?” Armando asked.
“Fire wielding,” Izdahl replied.
“Uncle ‘Mando, watch me,” Nyrese instructed.
She conjured up a small ball of fire, making it move back and forth between her tiny hands. She made the ball larger, gleeful that Armando was clapping. The fire orb was at a size that Izdahl, her teacher, did not permit, as she didn’t yet have the capability to consistently control it. In her excitement to show her talent, she was also not paying attention to the distance she was from Armando. If she lost focus, Izdahl knew she could cause an injury. Though the blocking spell was still active and Armando was in no danger, Izdahl wanted Nyrese to be more mindful.
“Nyrese, you know better,” Izdahl admonished quietly. “Please put it out.”
His niece quickly listened, wondering what she had done wrong.
“What’s the first rule of fire wielding?” Izdahl asked.
“Be mindful of others.”
“Respect the fire.”
“Will you remember from now on?”
“Yes, Uncle. Sorry.”
Satisfied, he took her to the practice area, in the expansive backyard. For the next 20 minutes, he instructed her on how to improve her fire skills. He was impressed with how well she was doing, being able to now make her flames into rudimentary figures of animals. Armando watched all of this, fascinated by the display that humans were rarely privy to seeing up close.
“I was so impressed,” Armando said, after Izdahl and Nyrese ended their practice. “I think someone deserves something special for all of that.”
“Oh, what are you going to give me?” Izdahl asked, a salacious smile gracing his lips.
“Not for you,” Armando replied laughing. “I meant Nyrese.”
“For me?” Nyrese asked, looking eager.
“Yes, I have some things in mind,” Armando told her, scooping her up in his arms.
His idea was a day filled of activity, including a trip to the zoo and an amusement park. All of the excitement had Nyrese fighting to keep from yawning during the early evening. When they went to put her to bed, at first, she kicked and giggled. However, soon, her fatigue from the day and the warm milk she’d had took effect. Her eyes closed and she drifted into sleep.
“Well then, I don’t see why others fuss,” Armando joked. “I think we’re now parenting experts.”
“We’ve only made it through one day,” Izdahl told him, as they relaxed on a couch.
“Are you expecting trouble?” Armando asked him.
“You never know with a Nitelge,” Izdahl teased. “Let’s see how tomorrow goes.”
The next day, Nyrese was once again filled with energy. Izdahl and Armando took her to the Amasi stable.
Izdahl mounted his steed and Nyrese flew up to him. He helped her settle onto Koraiy. Armando rode Yohan, who he’d begun to board on the property. Before the trio set off, Izdahl reminded his niece about paying attention to him.
“Safety first!” she chattered. It was a lesson Syrik and Kiana had drilled into her, especially since she could wield fire.
The three of them spent most of the morning riding. Their journey through the Amasi’s territory was punctuated with Nyrese’s gleeful shouts of, “Go faster!”
Upon leaving the countryside, Izdahl and Armando took Nyrese into the center of the city for lunch. They went to a restaurant that catered primarily to the tastes of children, complete with sandwiches made into the shapes of animals. There was only one incident that threatened to mar the day. A little Nitelge, who had wandered away from his parents at a nearby table, was fascinated by Nyrese. He poked her in her side, attempting to be playful. It caused her to drop her sweet bun that was glazed with rainbow icing, a favorite treat of hers. She watched it hit the floor, gasping and covering her mouth in horror.
Preparing to administer her idea of justice, without a word, she created a fireball. Izdahl quickly extinguished it. Armando made her apologize and instructed her on controlling her anger, while the other child’s parents gathered him up.
After finishing their meal without any more mishaps, they strolled around the city, Nyrese holding a hand of Armando and Izdahl. Without warning, she’d pick up her feet, swinging and laughing.
“I think we’re making her kind of spoiled,” Armando said, chuckling.
“Just a little,” Izdahl replied, smiling.
Having succeeded in wearing Nyrese out again, they settled her down for the second night.
“Bedtime for you?” she asked.
“No, not yet,” Armando said, brushing some hair off her face.
“We’ll be downstairs,” Izdahl explained. “Get some rest.”
“Hugs and kisses first,” she said. They both obliged her, making her laugh. Then, after closing the door, leaving a little light for her, they went to Izdahl’s study, where they chatted into the night.
Later in bed, they were just about to reach for each other, when they heard a noise outside the bedroom door. It was Nyrese.
“Sweetheart, what is it?” Armando asked. She clung to him, burying her tear-stained face in his shoulder.
“Scared,” she whispered.
“Why?” Izdahl asked.
“Maybe she had a bad dream,” Armando guessed. Nyrese didn’t have the words to explain.
“Want Daddy’s wing,” she demanded. “Daddy’s wing want!” In her distress, her speech had regressed to that short, emotional phrase. She repeated it over and over again, crying.
“Oh, wait! I understand,” Izdahl exclaimed. “Syrik says when she gets frightened, she sleeps between him and Kiana.”
“Then he unfolds one wing and covers both Nyrese and Kiana,” Armando finished, “I remember Ki mentioning that to me…Let’s try it.”
Soon, Nyrese was calm, having been soothed by Izdahl’s outstretched wing that provided a haven.
“This is very comforting,” Armando said. Then his voice took on an unmistakably intimate tone. “Maybe you can wrap your wings around me at other times.”
As much as Izdahl enjoyed babysitting, the expression that was in Armando’s eyes made him look forward to Nyrese going home. Armando laughed softly, understanding the reaction he had caused.
“So…aren’t you enjoying your time with Izdahl?” Kiana looked at Armando knowingly. “Wasn’t I right that he would be good for you?”
Armando would only grin, as he ate one of the chocolates she’d brought to his house.
“Well, admit it,” she prodded. “You’ve been sleeping with him for a while now. You have the look of a human who has been with a Nitelge.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Whatever. I’m glad, even if you won’t admit it’s happening.” She put a few feet between herself and Armando. “Besides, you really needed it.” She ran.
“What did you say to me?” Armando shouted, chasing her from the living room, through the kitchen and then back again to the living room. Just as when they were children, he quickly caught her.
“Say you’re sorry,” he demanded, tickling her.
“No,” she screamed with laughter.
“I’ll make you eat worms again, like when you were four.”
“I’ll tell Syrik,” she said, squirming away from him.
Armando laughed and gave her a hug. Then, he grew serious.
“Ki, are you happy? With Syrik, I mean.”
“Yes, big brother, I am.”
“I’m happy too.”
“We’ve been through so much. I’m glad things are working out for us.”
“True…” Armando’s tone became wistful. “And, Mother and Father should be here to see it all.”
“We both know how quickly life can change,” Kiana reminded him. “So, let’s be thankful for what we do have.”