For the third time in half-an-hour, Izdahl put away his cellular phone. He was quite tempted to call Armando. Yet, he hesitated, wondering if his need was too great. While he was away from his lover, he wanted to assess his feelings, to make sure that he could understand what was real, instead of what he wanted to exist.
He thought of the cuff he’d given to Armando, signaling how seriously he was taking their relationship. While it wasn’t the highest level of commitment a Nitelge could make, it was certainly significant. He’d never given such an important offering to anyone.
Having had more time to think about what he’d done, Izdahl didn’t regret it but he did have some concerns. He needed reassurance from his lover. He told himself that the in-depth conversation he wanted to have would be best for when they were face-to-face. In the meantime, he would still call Armando, as he very much wanted to hear his voice.
For the third time in half-an-hour, Armando erased the design he was creating. During the past hour, he’d been trying to design the cuff for Izdahl. He knew the basic elements he wanted it to have. However, putting them together in a pleasing fashion was proving to be difficult.
His thoughts turned to how long Izdahl had been away on his trip. The length was only a week. He laughed at himself, realizing that he really missed Izdahl. With him gone, the architect had returned to his own home. Yet, there were reminders of Izdahl there too; his robe in Armando’s bathroom, the brandy he enjoyed the most in the architect’s study. Even some of Izdahl’s favorite foods were in the pantry, Viktor having added them at Armando’s requests.
Armando sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the ache for his lover growing. Images of the last time they had slept together weaved through his mind, further making it difficult to concentrate on his project. Wanting to dull his need, he put aside his sketches and left the house.
He went into the city and walked around, hoping he’d also discover inspiration for his design. He found himself going to many of the same areas he and Izdahl frequented. He smiled, feeling slightly embarrassed, having never longed for someone this strongly. Giving into the desire to be somewhere that was connected to his lover, he stopped at their favorite café, ordering a drink and meal Izdahl had recommended to him. He was sipping his beverage, waiting for the main course, when his phone rang.
“Mr. Medina, this upcoming question has only one acceptable response…Are you looking forward to my return?”
“Yes,” Armando replied, laughing. He was warmed by Izdahl’s deep, rich voice.
“I have some slightly bad news,” Izdahl admitted. “I’ll need to be away for an additional two weeks. Father and Kelcho Nieri see an opportunity to prepare plans for a second project.”
“Can’t you return for just a day—or even part of one?”
“I was thinking I could take a quick flight to see you but I’m forbidden. Father says he wants me here 100% of the time. To make it harder for me to leave, he has put me in charge of everything. There’s no chance for negotiation on this. You know how he is.”
“Yes,” Armando responded. “Well, be a good boy then.”
“Stop mocking me. You’ve never seen my father truly angry. There’s only so much room to be an irreverent son.”
“I’m sure I’ll survive the extended time away. Jonas and I have several meetings and building inspections to attend. Plus, I’m working on your cuff.”
“How’s that going?” Izdahl’s interest was piqued.
“I’m actually at an impasse.”
“It’s funny how you can design buildings but…”
“Wait a moment now. This is different. And I don’t have a family crest like you do, so—”
“It doesn’t have to be elaborate.”
“But this has a special meaning,” Armando assured him. “What it represents is too important for me to do a haphazard job.”
“Take as much time as you require.” Izdahl grinned, enjoying the level of attention Armando was paying to his gift.
“I promised it would be ready when you came back. The extra two weeks certainly will help but…”
“That’s only if I can concentrate, instead of…” Armando stopped short of admitting his need but sensing it, Izdahl wanted the words.
“Instead of…” Izdahl prompted. He waited, hoping Armando would elaborate. When there was no further explanation, he stifled a groan of disappointment. “Just having it at some point will greatly please me. I know you like to take your time to work properly. Anything that shows we’re together is enough for me. It doesn’t even have to be a cuff…And, the reason I used my family crest was to warn other Nitelge. Some are quite bold and have a penchant for trying to ruin Nitelge/Human relationships. I’m not about to let that happen with us.”
Armando’s laughter reached across the distance to Izdahl.
“You sound so ruthless about it,” the architect joked.
“Well, it took forever to get to this point with you. Why would I want that to unravel?”
“I doubt you have cause to worry. At any rate, I’ll have the matter of your gift all sorted out.” Armando paused, then admitted how he was feeling. “I really miss you, which is why I’m at our favorite café. I’ve ordered the same meal we first had here.”
Izdahl was thrilled with the revelation.
“I want to hear you say, ‘Izdahl, it won’t taste as great because you’re away’.”
“I’m not doing that. It’s too embarrassing. Furthermore, it’s not even true.”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Izdahl murmured.
“You don’t have to sound so wounded about it.” Armando laughed softly.
Izdahl knew he had made a silly request but it was one that he wanted Armando to honor. The quick refusal was a small blow to his confidence and he intended to play it up for dramatic effect.
“I’m beyond wounded,” he began to lament. “I’m—Damn, look how late it is! I need to get some sleep.”
“Forgot the time difference, did you?”
“Yes. I’ll contact you later. Bye, love.”
“Oh, wait; one more thing Armando. When I return, I want you to be ready for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m going to bend you in half and fuck you until you’re limp!” Izdahl chuckled wickedly and hung up, imagining the shock on the architect’s face.
The iced coffee that arrived didn’t do anything to cool down Armando. He was stunned by the lewd words; they swirled in his head, hardening him as he imagined Izdahl fulfilling his promise.
Izdahl was enjoying the crisp night air on the balcony of Kelcho Jalva Nieri’s guesthouse. The climate in the main Nieri territory of Cartiv tended to be colder than his homeland. Izdahl still found it enjoyable, breathing in the scents of the night. He thought it would have been more pleasant to have Armando with him. Perhaps, he would plan a trip here with his lover. Maybe they could even bring their steeds and go racing across the plateaus in the southern part of the country. He imagined what they would do while camping under the stars.
His father came out on the balcony and calling him, taking him away from his reflection. Standing side by side, they looked out onto the large garden.
Jaxon patted him on his back.
“Good job today. Your confidence at negotiating deals is growing.”
“Don’t be so surprised at the compliment. Do I rarely give them out?”
“Yes,” Izdahl admitted, laughing.
“Hmmm. Well, I would never give you anything you have not earned.”
“Of that, I’m sure.”
The two were quiet for a while. Then a heavy sigh escaped Izdahl and Jaxon laughed.
“It has been difficult for you being apart from Armando,” Jaxon noted.
“Yes, almost three weeks now. However, I know it is not a long time—and I feel ashamed about my…lack of fortitude.”
“You do realize that as you take on additional, important assignments, this will happen more often. A relationship untested is not one at all.”
“And you are aware that one of the most difficult tests might come soon?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your Guardian Emblem has activated.”
The new development in Izdahl’s life was one he believed would bring about a great deal of change. He now had a responsibility to the entire planet. He subdued another heavy sigh, not wanting to give his father any hint of the unrest he was feeling.
“Yes,” he answered calmly.
“How do you plan to manage it?”
“My actions will shame the family,” Izdahl replied glibly. “I’ll run and hide.”
“Izdahl!” Jaxon admonished.
“Father, really; of course I will do what is right.”
“You say all of this without even having the full details. You have not experienced the Resonance Ceremony. It has a way of creating doubts, if not outright devastation. It generated much bitterness between your mother, Dagmar and me. You and Syrik might have never existed.”
“Dagmar forgot that the ultimate goal is to protect the planet. He let his pride overtake him.”
“See that you do not make the same mistake.”
“No one in our clan has a need to feel concern.”
Jaxon nodded, hoping that Izdahl’s words would not be empty.
“When we return home, will you talk to Armando about what might happen?”
“Yes. GG wants to explain more of the circumstances. However, I want to lay the groundwork. If Armando finds out that I had an understanding of the situation but didn’t tell him, he’ll be quite angry. I don’t want this experience to start out with negative feelings between us.”
“A wise choice.”
Izdahl wiped his mouth with his napkin, still savoring the flavors from the meal Armando had made for him.
“Did you do something wrong?” Izdahl asked. “While I was away, did you get into some kind of trouble?”
“Why would you think that?” Armando asked, laughing as he refilled Izdahl’s wine glass.
“I returned and you invited me to your house. You’ve spent all of this time making me dinner. When will I get the bad news?”
“It’s nothing like that,” Armando assured him. “I only wanted to make you something. I enjoy having you back home.”
“So you missed me?”
“Very much but I kept myself occupied.”
“I really would have returned earlier, except that Father wanted to make a point…I’ll be apart from you more, especially since your business is also expanding. I know you’re looking at opportunities to design in other territories.”
“I’m sure we’ll create a process that works for both of us. I’m not concerned…Tell me about the Nieri’s homeland.”
“Love, you’d think it was beautiful,” Izdahl began. “It has some large cities that are well-designed, just like our capital. They’re busy but not hectic. You know how some places are. Anyway, the countryside is even better. I want to take you there. We can ride across the plateaus. We can spend some nights under the stars. I’ll point out my favorite constellations to you. Let’s go during one of the summer months, preferably when it’s hot but not too hot.”
“No. I can’t agree to that,” Armando said, firmly shaking his head.
“Why?” Izdahl was crestfallen, his surprise at the refusal showing in his eyes.
“I won’t go on a long trip with you–until you wear what I’ve designed.” Armando went to the dining room’s sideboard to retrieve the wooden box that contained the gift he was proud to have produced for his lover. “I picked it up from the jeweler two days ago. And it looks exactly how I wanted.”
The baltium cuff had a carving of a hawk in flight at the center of it. Three feathers were engraved on the inside, representing the past, the present and the future. Above them was the date Izdahl and Armando had become an official couple, along with their initials.
Armando put the cuff on Izdahl’s wrist, firmly clicking it into place.
“There,” he said. “Now you don’t have to worry.”
“I bet while you were away you kept on thinking about giving me the cuff. You probably thought you moved too fast, that I accepted it because I felt I had to take it. I want you to know none of that is the case. So, I’ll wear the present from you. You’ll have the one from me.”
“Maybe you are getting to know me too well,” Izdahl responded. He cleared his throat and chuckled. Still standing, Armando tilted Izdahl’s head up and brought his mouth close to his lover’s.
“I don’t think that will ever be the case—for either of us,” Armando whispered. “We’ll always remain interesting to each other…And so ends the sickly, sweet comments. Give me a kiss.”
Izdahl brought his lips the rest of the way to Armando’s, smiling.
“I like that,” Armando said, when their mouths had parted.
“You often smile right before our lips meet. I imagine that there are lecherous thoughts going through your head.”
“How right you are…”
The news that awaited Khalaf when he visited his older brother was not welcomed.
“Father has summoned us,” Rasmus announced, before his sibling could get comfortable.
“Apparently, the core of the Terada clan is getting restless.”
“Over what this time?”
“You, mainly. You’ve been agitating part of our clan.”
“According to whom?”
“According to Father. Didn’t you recently see Hixu in the city?”
“Oh yes,” Khalaf replied, laughing. He settled in a couch across from Rasmus and began to explain. “I was surprised she was here in an Amasi territory. From what I remember, she avoids the other clan strongholds as much as possible. For her to come to the Amasi governing province, of all places, is quite unusual. I had to find out why.”
“So what happened?”
“When I asked her why she was here, she told me it was none of my business. I tried to continue to be polite, despite her attitude, and offered to buy her a drink. She rudely refused.”
“And in all your wisdom, you told her…”
“That I was rich enough to own her whole family and their property three times—and still have enough to get a small island. Brilliant, wasn’t it?”
Rasmus leaned forward, clasping his hands together and spearing his brother with his eyes.
“I hardly think so, Khalaf. Hixu’s subclan has always been the most difficult for Father to control. You shouldn’t have goaded any of the hill-dwellers. Now their leader has spoken to Father and we must go home. Do you know how many things this can affect?”
“I cannot relax! Dagmar has me doing some work for him now.”
“And you should thank me.”
“What does that mean?” Rasmus stiffened at his brother’s smug tone.
“So much can be suggested when one is in bed with another,” Khalaf responded, nonchalantly. “I reminded him of your usefulness.”
“I do not need you acting as a go-between for me.”
“If you say so…”
Rasmus narrowed his eyes at his sibling, who merely grinned.
“You won’t be so happy once we’re back in our homeland,” Rasmus verbally jabbed.
“I know,” Khalaf replied in a petulant tone, his earlier amusement momentarily chased away by his older brother’s mood. “I hate that place.”
“Regardless of how you feel, I’m taking you with me. You don’t want Father to send anyone for us, especially Wolam.”
Khalaf smiled, imagining the tall, burly administrator of his Father coming to get him.
“Wolam, the juggernaut. You know, I actually think he wants me.”
“Khalaf…” Rasmus gave his brother a warning look. “I’ve told you repeatedly that Wolam is not for you. He’s one season away from being crazy. I’m not sure how Father keeps a reign on him.”
“I’d like to make Wolam become unhinged,” Khalaf admitted, smiling slyly.
“Well, depending on how angry Father is with us, you just might get your wish…Prepare yourself. Father and Mother are on vacation. When they return, they want us to visit them.”
“I suppose it might be better than talking to Izdahl Amasi.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said he wants to see me. Well, actually, he wants to see ‘Leila’ again and that could be a problem.”
“What mistake have you made, Khalaf?” Rasmus demanded. “Did you injure Viktor? Did you—”
“Stop accusing me of things. I told you a while back that Izdahl might have suspected that Leila is not real. Viktor has been acting strange for a long time, though he seems to believe I can’t detect his increasing nervousness around me. I believe the two things are related.”
“I told you to be careful of Izdahl!”
“I couldn’t avoid that first meeting with him. I thought it was all over, after that lunch. He didn’t do anything for so long.”
“No, except lull you into a false sense of security, you ass. While we’re on the trip, we’ll formulate a plan of how to handle him.”
Armando sat up suddenly, his breathing heavy. Izdahl, aware of his distress, awoke too.
“Are you alright?” Izdahl asked, concern in his voice. “What happened?”
“It was a dream.”
Armando rubbed his arms rapidly, trying to clear his mind of the images that had been bothering him for weeks. He had hoped that, by now, he would be able to sleep properly. Yet, this was not the case. Even now, the visions from the dream lingered, creating in him a doubt that he was truly awake, safe with Izdahl next to him.
“Love, you’re shaking and you look so panicked…All of this from a dream?”
“I’ve never dealt with anything like this. It’s really the same scenario but it’s slowly expanding,” Armando explained. “There’s this figure. I’ve never seen his face but he has me in a cage. He tells me that I’ll get in his way and that he’ll add me to ‘his collection.’ He shows me the Madresh Oetan flickering and eventually it shuts down completely. Then I see so much death on this planet. He’s at the center of it.”
“Is there anything distinctive about him? Is he Human? Is he Nitelge?”
“No, not that I see. There isn’t too much I can say, other than he sits on a throne and he wears armor.”
“Does the armor have anything on it?”
“Nothing in particular…He’s malicious, Izdahl. I don’t even need to see his face to know that. He’s so casual about the damage he causes.”
“The shield for our planet fails?” Izdahl frowned, as he was troubled by that information.
“Yes. And then our world is flooded with death.” Armando shook his head, as if doing that would remove the images from the dream.
“When did this dream begin?” Izdahl asked.
Armando avoided Izdahl’s eyes, believing that he would not like the answer.
“Answer, ‘Mando,” Izdahl prompted.
“A little before you went on your trip,” the architect murmured.
“That was almost a month ago! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Because I felt like a fool,” the architect admitted. “There’s no way it should be affecting me like this.”
“It must be happening for a reason. I want you to speak with GG and Mother. Dreams mean more than you expect. Nitelge don’t see them as merely the result of indigestion, too much alcohol, an overactive mind—or anything like that.”
Armando laughed, feeling the chill from the nightmare slip away.
“I should have told you,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment.
“Indeed, Mr. Keep-It-All-To-Myself.”
Izdahl reached for Armando and wrapped him in his arms. The architect, soothed and able to properly rest for the remainder of the night, was eager for a pleasant slumber.
Izdahl watched the calm rise and fall of Armando’s chest, thinking that he would wait a while longer to discuss the change that was about to overtake their lives.