When Dagmar and Armando arrived at the site, Armando was speechless. He knew that the Havad territory of Meino had beautiful scenery with lush green landscapes. However, what he saw was in direct contrast to that. The ground was scorched and there were barely any signs of life, other than sparse shrubbery and small animals that scurried across the ground. A dry wind blew across the land, stirring sadness within Armando. It was difficult for him to see an area almost void of life.
“I know you haven’t agreed to a do project for me,” Dagmar began. “I’m hoping that a challenge can sway you. Will you listen to what I want?”
“Again Mr. Havad, Jonas and I haven’t made a final decision. Still, I’m prepared to listen to you. So, please continue.”
“Thank you. I want a museum to honor the old Ymir Briger.”
“What makes this place so important to you?” Armando asked.
“I know it’s not much to look at now. However, it was the location of the capital for the Havads and of the governing foundation for the entire planet. Before the war with the Basheil, we were the strongest clan. As you can see, this part of Meino was basically obliterated. It’s only in the past seven years that signs of life have slowly been returning.”
“Ah yes, I remember. This area was destroyed in that war.”
“You’ve grown familiar with Nitelge history,” Dagmar noted.
When the Basheil had gained a significant advantage, their first action was to target Meino. Their strategy was to make sure the ruling clan of the time was destroyed. To have the most powerful area demolished was severely demoralizing for the Nitelge.
Dagmar thought of the casualties of the war. Each clan had lost at least 45% of its members. The Havads had taken the most damage, as their territories had been more widespread over the entire planet. Over the decades, the balance of power had changed. While the Havads were the second most powerful clan, they were decidedly less influential than the Amasis.
“Yes, I’ve been educating myself recently,” Armando told him. “It’s a strong culture and I was missing a great deal by shutting myself off from it.”
“No doubt Izdahl sparked your interest,” Dagmar joked.
“That is true,” Armando replied. “I have changed, now that I’m with him.”
He looked down at the ground, embarrassed to be discussing his personal life with a possible client. But Dagmar was so ingratiating that he wanted to be open with him. For a being with his authority, the Kelcho did not seem overbearing. He certainly did not come across as calculating, or a host of other unsavory descriptors Izdahl had used when speaking of him. Armando wondered why Izdahl insisted on disliking the Kelcho. It most likely stemmed from old arguments that had become grudges. That did not mean that Armando had to share in the dislike.
“Again I seem to be prying…” Dagmar murmured.
“No; it’s alright.” Armando smiled.
Unknowingly, the architect was tugging at the Kelcho’s emotions. Dagmar had seen the tender expression on Armando’s face when he’d mentioned Izdahl. Not for the first time, the Kelcho found himself drawn to Armando. His determination to carry out his original plan and his desire to have the architect were now warring with each other. He resolved to stay focused on his first idea.
“At any rate, we should get back on the main topic,” Dagmar stated. “I think it’s time to create a museum to further honor those we lost. I also want to show the beauty of the Ymir Briger. I’ve let this area rest long enough.”
“Yes of course. I understand.”
“I thought you might…Now, come towards the edge of this cliff. Be careful; don’t lean over too far.”
Armando followed where Dagmar indicated, going to the railing that surrounded the edge. The Kelcho handed him binoculars.
“A mile below us is the statue of Zaitis Havad,” Dagmar explained.
“Am I really going to be able to see it with these?” Armando asked. He examined the small binoculars, looking doubtful.
“Yes,” Dagmar said, laughing. “They’re quite advanced. I wouldn’t have given them to you otherwise.”
“Um, yes. Sorry Kelcho. Please continue.”
“Now, of all the Havads, I admire Zaitis the most. He personally led the forces against the Basheil.”
“I’ve read that it was his idea to have the Amasis work on a shield for the planet.” With the binoculars, Armando peered down below, adjusting the focus until he could clearly see.
“Yes…He’d anticipated an attack and directed the technologically-inclined Amasis to find a suitable solution. They had made significant progress but were not able to finish before the planet was attacked…Now, the statue broke into several pieces. Previous Kelchos of my clan upheld a mandate against moving it but I will be getting that repealed.”
“Why was there a mandate?”
“As they lost power to the Amasis, the other clans accepted the explanation that to repair the statue, or make a new one, could be an affront to the new rulers of the planet. That’s because Zaitis led well but many feared him. His methods were considered too…ruthless.”
“Why is that?”
“In case you didn’t know, we are related to the Basheil. Some of the gentler Basheil separated from that culture, forming the Nitelge. We are less warlike, though we have our moments. Zaitis had more such “moments” than the others but he was the right leader for the times. He was going to launch an attack against the Basheil. He was going to take the fight to them.”
“And others didn’t like that?”
“Yes. As such a powerful Kelcho, they couldn’t kill him but they managed to seal him away.”
“So he’s still alive?” Armando stared at Dagmar, looking alarmed.
Dagmar chuckled at the innocent wonder on the architect’s face, thinking about how the abilities of the Nitelge mystified humans. They really didn’t understand the depth of the power the Nitelge possessed.
“Yes,” Dagmar confirmed. “He has been in stasis for almost 300 years.”
“Will he ever be released?”
“Not anytime soon. That would be quite a feat for me to convince the other Kelchos. However, it’s more likely that I’ll be able to recreate the Ymir Briger and raise the statue to Zaitis’ memory.”
“Even that sounds like it might be a problem.”
“Oh, it’s worth a try…”
Dagmar opted to keep some information concealed. Xersa was going to call a council with the Kelchos about the matter and allow a vote. In truth, Dagmar had Izdahl to thank for this opportunity. When Izdahl had been disrespectful after the concert, it had created a chance for Dagmar to skewer Xersa. He’d planned to question her authority at the next meeting of the Kelchos, deciding it would be beneficial to use Izdahl’s actions as leverage. However, he’d reconsidered his tactics, asking for Xersa to put the construction issue up for discussion. At best, Dagmar would be allowed to rebuild the Ymir Briger, though in a smaller version. At worst, some would be surprised that Xersa would even open such possibilities; confidence in her skills to make wise choices could likely be weakened. Either way, Dagmar knew that he had Xersa in a difficult position. He smiled, thanking Izdahl once again for his youthful impetuosity.
As Armando was listening to Dagmar, he continued to look down at the broken 60-foot statue of the previous Kelcho. The pieces of it were surrounded by three massive stones which formed a force field. Armando could see the triangular planes of the field shimmering in the hot, arid air. When the shield violently pulsed, as if the statue was trying to destroy it, a chill suddenly came over him. Armando swiftly moved away from the edge, his heart now beating rapidly.
“Kelcho Havad, perhaps we shouldn’t get so close.”
“Oh, do you have a fear of heights?”
“No.” Armando quickly gave an explanation he thought would sound plausible. “It’s just that with this site having been so badly attacked, there might be many weaknesses in the rock formation. I know it happened centuries ago but…”
Dagmar appraised him, smiling a bit patronizingly. Armando sighed. They both understood that what he’d just said wasn’t what he was truly feeling. There was power in the statue. For it to fall so far and only be in three equal pieces was disconcerting. The most alarming part of it was that the head of Zaitis had fallen in such a way that the eyes looked right back up. It gave Armando the feeling that the statue was going to reassemble itself and begin a journey towards him.
“I understand why you’re bothered,” Dagmar told him. “I’m in awe myself. You see, the sculpture was made by Zaitis. He spent five years creating that, as he strategized late into the night, thinking about how to combat the Basheil. At the center of the statue is energy from him.”
“It’s similar to how the Shield is operated?”
“Yes…That formation has brought out interesting things in individuals, even what they seek to hide. Some even trembled when they were near it, as they did with Zaitis.”
“What do you mean?’
“Zaitis is considered the most powerful Kelcho, ever,” Dagmar explained. “Someone like that can leave a mark on anyone and anything.”
“But he is in stasis, right?” Armando flushed with embarrassment at his question.
Dagmar only chuckled, making Armando more uncomfortable.
“My dear young man, just imagine what it would be like to have him unsealed.”
Armando took the binoculars again and looked at the statue. He wondered why he was feeling so apprehensive about it.
“Love, sorry about that,” Izdahl murmured, looking apologetically at Armando.
Armando sighed and settled himself in a chair in their bedroom’s sitting area, thinking about the night’s events.
The two had returned home, after having gone into the center of Arlka to enjoy a quiet dinner together and then a movie. Izdahl would be going to The Gathering soon and they were eager to spend the remaining time together. However, they’d found it quite difficult to do so. Izdahl was now the subject of much attention. Even as they had walked from the train station to the restaurant, various individuals had stopped them. They were drawn to Izdahl, asking questions, mesmerized by him. He and Armando had continued as planned, making adjustments for the interruptions.
This rise in attention had been a result of Izdahl’s profile being recently published in The Guardians’ Review, a magazine that focused on the lives of those who carried fragments. An entire monthly issue was dedicated to each of the four new Core Guardians and Izdahl was the last to be featured. The order had been decided by a poll on the magazine’s website where most responders had indicated that the publication should “save the best for last.”
Many had already been interested in Izdahl because of his family connections and his charming personality. To be able to further pour over the details of his life was irresistible. Many humans and Nitelge had particularly hoped to get a glimpse into what he was like with Armando. Their relationship had become a source of curiosity, especially given the handsome architect’s rise in popularity.
The magazine’s profile on Izdahl spanned his entire life, describing his bloodline, where he had done his schooling, his previous lovers, etc. It was quite thorough, with barely any subject untouched.
Having gained more notoriety, Izdahl now regretted not asking the magazine to forego even featuring him. Or, he could have at least requested a less complete review of his life. He was now concerned that Armando would feel overwhelmed by what he read, as well as the additional public’s focus on their relationship.
He’d made sure to tell Armando about the profile well in advance and the architect had not expressed any reservations. Izdahl was hoping the nonchalant acceptance would still be there, once Armando did have a chance to see the publication. Then again, Izdahl now remembered that he had mentioned it to Armando when the architect was preoccupied with three major projects at the same time. He wondered just how much Armando could even recollect about what he’d been told.
“I’ve yet to look at this infamous magazine,” Armando said.
When the issue had come out two days ago, many around Armando had chattered on about it, including his employees. Even Kiana had called him up, pressing him for his feedback. He’d tuned everyone out but tonight the interest because of it had been impossible to ignore.
“You don’t have to see it,” Izdahl said.
“Oh no. Kiana made sure to buy me a copy yesterday,” Armando said, opening the publication. “She usually doesn’t care about things like this. So, it must be for a reason.” He perused the pages, taking his time to read various sections, making a note to come back to certain portions. He was especially curious about Izdahl’s past lovers and his comments about his feelings for Armando.
“Well, I’ve already learned some new things about you,” Armando told Izdahl pointedly.
Izdahl fidgeted and leaned against the dresser for support. Armando hadn’t even made it through half of the magazine. The architect was certainly taking his time.
“Let’s shower,” Izdahl said, reaching for the magazine. “Let’s get some rest.”
“No.” Armando evaded Izdahl’s grasp. “There’s much more.”
“Come on. There’ll be plenty of time for that,” Izdahl said. “Seeing you wet and naked, right now, is a necessity.”
“Like air for you,” Armando joked, momentarily pulled into Izdahl’s distracting ruse.
“Yes, keep feeding my ego.” Armando laughed. He returned to looking at the magazine.
“Well, if it helps to get you wet and naked…”
“Izdahl, why are you so insistent? You must be trying to keep me from…”
Armando’s words ended. He had reached the center of the magazine. There was a ten-page photographic spread of Izdahl. Through 25 pictures, he showed off his excellent physique in a series of nudes. The virile, confident expression on Izdahl’s face and his beautiful body guaranteed that he would be the source for many fantasies. Armando felt jealousy burning at the center of his stomach, as he saw his lover so blatantly and casually on display.
The final three images in particular seared Armando’s mind, the ones of Izdahl’s full frontal nudity. The first was of Izdahl in bed with white sheets that were crumpled at his feet. His arms were serenely clasped behind his head as his body was on exhibit, the results of his active life there for anyone to appreciate. Another image showed him in a pool, floating naked on his back, sunlight catching the beads of liquid on his body. There was an inviting grin on his face, as if he had been flirting with the photographer. A third image was of him in the shower. He was completely aroused, one hand around his thick shaft. The other hand was against the wall. His eyes were closed in bliss, as if he’d just pumped himself to completion.
“Yeah, about those, uh, pictures…I…” Izdahl didn’t know how to continue. He was trying to gauge Armando’s mood. He could have sworn he’d seen a flash of anger cross the architect’s face.
Armando closed the magazine and put it aside. He began to slowly undress, loosening his tie.
“Well, did you want to shower together or what?” he asked, looking expectantly at Izdahl.
Izdahl nodded, thinking of how to make amends. He’d heard the annoyance in Armando’s voice. A short while later, as he soaped Armando’s shoulders, he tried to determine the architect’s deeper reactions to the magazine.
“You’re not seriously bothered by any of it, are you?” Izdahl asked. He watched the suds make their way down his lover’s muscular back, clinging to the supple skin and flowing down over his rear end.
“The pictures are a little…surprising.”
“They’re tastefully done, even the ones with full nudity.”
Armando turned to face Izdahl, pushing away his hands.
“The entire planet knows where all of your fucking moles are!” he exploded, his jealousy getting the better of him. “You could have held back something.”
“They’re nothing compared to the pictures the other Core Guardians took,” Izdahl protested. “Those were much more blatant. Some guardians were even posing with other Nitelge and humans. I was all by myself!”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you feel you missed out?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“I don’t like you showing your body that way.”
“I understand. But the important thing is that I didn’t say much about our relationship. I know that you truly value your privacy. I made that clear to the editor. She pushed for more but I think I did a good job of limiting the information I gave her. I’m really sorry. I know this publicity must still be annoying for you.”
“You seem to be enjoying it.”
“I am a little,” Izdahl confessed. “It’s different being recognized for something that’s not connected to my family. I’m used to my achievements beings tied to the Amasi name. Forgive me for the attention this is bringing to us…”
“I could…but it’s more fulfilling to punish you,” Armando told him.
Over the past month, it had become quite a task to adjust to the amplification of Izdahl’s emotions. The Shield Fragment had proven to be a blessing and a curse. Armando was looking forward to the day when he could get all the benefits of living with a Core Guardian without any negative side-effects. The publicity was yet another layer he had not originally anticipated having to handle.
“What are you going to do?” Izdahl asked, intrigued.
“Don’t worry but you have it coming…Ah! That damn picture in the shower. You better not have really been touching yourself in front of that photographer—or anyone else who was there. Izdahl, I just…You know what. Never mind. Fuck!”
Izdahl couldn’t help but chuckle at Armando, delighting in his possessiveness. For that transgression, the architect slapped him on his rear, the soap and water making the smack that much more painful. Izdahl was surprised at the power behind the strike.
“Listen, ‘Mando, just remember how much I love you…And those pictures were taken about six months ago. You’re the only one who knows where the newest mole is.”
Armando laughed. It was true. The previous night, he’d discovered a new one on Izdahl’s left testicle. He made a journey downwards to see what else had developed.
Xersa contemplated what her four advisers had told her. She’d just finished a meeting with them. They had informed her that a day ago Dagmar had taken Armando to Meino.
Not for the first time, she gritted her teeth, thinking of how her great-grandson had made this turn of events possible. For over a decade, Dagmar had been trying to create a replica of the Ymir Briger. Xersa had been successful in preventing that from happening. However, with Izdahl’s actions after the concert, she’d lost some of her influence. Now, it seemed as if Armando had become a pawn for Dagmar. Still, she was hopeful that Dagmar had not learned just how important Armando really was.
Xersa sat quietly in her office, carefully contemplating her next steps. She decided to put the matter of Dagmar and Armando aside, for the time being. There was yet another issue. Today, she had also received the results of the Shield Matching. Xersa did not relish giving Izdahl the news. He had two possible partners. He would have to sleep with both of them during a Resonance Ceremony to determine who would be his most compatible Shield Partner. The process was likely to be unbearable for both him and Armando.
Xersa opted to wait until after The Gathering to tell Izdahl. There was no point in ruining his New Year’s celebration.