“Did you take up bird-watching, ‘Mando?” Izdahl asked.
He picked up Armando’s binoculars. Armando had set them down on a dresser, when he’d returned from his trip to the Ymir Briger.
“No…I…” Armando hesitated.
He was reluctant to explain. As he tried to get his thoughts together, he stared at the architectural drafts on the desk in front of him. His eyes traced the lines, as he ran through Izdahl’s possible reactions to the truth.
“Armando?” Izdahl prompted him.
“Dagmar gave them to me,” Armando slowly explained. “I went to see where the Ymir Briger was. I was, um, looking at the statue of Zaitis too.”
“Alright,” Izdahl murmured. He took note of Armando’s demeanor. The architect was staring at him, head tilted to the left side, chin raised. Izdahl had learned that this was one of the ways Armando expressed his stubbornness. He took a moment to consider the tone of his next words. “Is there any particular reason why you didn’t want me to know?”
“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you. You don’t like Dagmar; I try not to mention him.”
“Well, don’t let my dislike for him cause you not to be straightforward with me.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you!” Armando exclaimed. He quickly stood to face Izdahl, surprising his lover with his strong display of annoyance.
“I didn’t say you lied,” Izdahl tried to sooth him. “It’s just that you hesitated and I had to prompt you. What if your decision had gone the other way?”
“Are we seriously having this conversation?”
Izdahl studied Armando’s face for a moment, taking in his agitation. He wondered if he should let the topic rest but decided to push forward. Especially on this matter, he didn’t want Armando to think that showing anger would be a way to automatically end a discussion.
“Yes, we are talking about this.” Izdahl nodded emphatically. “We should. You know I still think Dagmar’s dangerous.”
“And you won’t stop believing that. So, it’s pointless to talk about him with you. We’re finished.”
Armando waved one hand dismissively. Then he sat back down at the desk. He returned to his task of reviewing the drafts for the first inter-territory design competition. The previous week, the Inter-territory Architectural Design Committee (IADC) had released the building scenarios. He and Jonas had pulled together their team to begin creating the plans in response to the scenarios. Now, Armando was reviewing their progress. Or, at least he was pretending to do so. He was unable to completely shut out Izdahl. Already, he felt as if he had been too harsh.
Izdahl went over to Armando and rested his hands on his lover’s shoulders to get his attention. It took some self-control for Izdahl not to apply force, as he believed Armando’s actions had been unnecessary.
“Love, please listen,” Izdahl said, keeping his voice calm and measured. “I’ll do my best to manage my anxiety. Just please don’t brush it aside, as if it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sorry,” Armando told him. “You’re right.”
He paused, waiting to see what Izdahl would do next. Izdahl didn’t say anything else. He opted to leave the issue alone for the time being.
While he changed out of his suit, Izdahl watched Armando work, still bothered by their conversation. Then, he went to take his shower. As water cascaded down his body, he thought about his exchange with his lover, which had been surprisingly heated. He was unnerved by the quick rise of Armando’s anger. He wondered if moments of strife like this would occur. He was concerned that, somehow, Dagmar’s actions were designed to create conflict. He speculated that the Kelcho’s ultimate goal could be to separate him from Armando. He would do everything he could to stop that from happening. Armando meant too much to him.
Later that night, in bed, there was still some unresolved tension. Armando, feeling that the disagreement was his fault, reached out first for Izdahl.
“I was worried you were still angry with me,” Izdahl whispered.
“I was thinking that you had a reason to be upset.”
“Any anger was only because I’m protective of you,” Izdahl assured him. He held Armando tightly, as he slipped inside him.
Not even the fervent loving by Izdahl could protect Armando from his recurring nightmares. The architect was now awake, staring out of the bedroom window.
“I obviously need to work on my technique,” Izdahl said, watching Armando. “You should still be deep in peaceful slumber.”
Armando turned to look at him, smiling sadly. He truly wished that he hadn’t been pulled out of his sleep. However, this time, his dream had involved him being tortured. Though it hadn’t lasted long, it left him shaken.
When he’d begun dreaming that night, he was immediately taken to a scene where he was chained to a metal platform. His body was already bearing the marks of various whippings. Deep lash marks crisscrossed his skin in a series of angry, red patterns, which revealed that the whip’s wielder, whose face he could not see, had shown little mercy. He pulled against his metal bonds but his body too weak to make a difference.
There had been no indication of why he was being punished.
He’d managed to stop dreaming just as the unidentified wielder was preparing to beat him again.
He’d needed to escape the images in his head. And since he couldn’t completely do that, he at least needed to be away from where he’d slept. This previous dream had been the worst so far. He realized that he’d come to accept being chained and in the cage. Being outside of the cage and restrained on a table, vulnerable to anything and anyone amplified his anxiety.
“Armando,” Izdahl called softly, as he walked to stand behind him, “I really want you to see Great Aunt Sunja. Please love.”
“You know I’m against that. I wish you would stop pushing the matter.”
“I only want to take care of you,” Izdahl assured him. “It’s truly for the best.”
He went to kiss Armando but the architect turned his face away. Because of how Armando had acted earlier that evening and his actions now, Izdahl lost his patience sooner than usual.
“You insist on being childish and, at times, children must be disciplined.”
Izdahl reached for his belt that was hanging on the back of the armchair by the window. Armando slid away from him, going towards their bed. Izdahl snapped the belt menacingly, the rich, aggressive sound of the leather traveling through the air.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Armando said, narrowing his eyes.
“You should know me better than that,” Izdahl remarked, laughing.
“Izdahl, this is no time for games. I—” The slap of leather against Armando’s bare buttocks stopped his words. Fire spread through his skin as he stared at Izdahl, surprised that he had carried out the threat. “You hit me. You really hit me.”
“Oh, you have such brilliant powers of observation…”
“Why did you do that?” Armando demanded. He tried to snatch the belt from Izdahl. When his lover didn’t let it go, that only frustrated him, causing him to become furious. “I told you I didn’t want to have that damn discussion!”
“You keep avoiding the subject.”
“Stop bringing it up!”
“It’s important,” Izdahl insisted. “You can barely get a good night’s sleep with those nightmares. I’m trying to do everything to help you. Yet, you keep pushing me away.”
“Maybe I’ll deal with this on my own.”
“The hell you will. You’re going to Sunja and that is final!” Izdahl shouted.
“I don’t need anyone prying in my brain.”
“It’s a safe process and you will undergo it. You’re just afraid of what you’ll learn. At least you’ll have answers.”
Armando now shook with anger, fuming because he felt Izdahl was being overbearing. Seeing the displeasure on his lover’s face, Izdahl tried another tactic. He reached out to touch Armando, wanting to pull him close, wanting to coax him with words of love. The architect recoiled from the attempt and the action gripped at Izdahl’s heart. Izdahl sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I’m going to sleep in another room,” Armando told him. “You’d better leave me alone.”
In the morning, the circles under Armando’s eyes had darkened. He hadn’t been able to fall asleep for the rest of the night. He left for work without saying anything to Izdahl, who watched him leave, trying to think of a way to convince him.
A few days later, when Izdahl went to The Gathering, they still hadn’t reconciled. When Izdahl returned from the festivities of the New Year, he opted not to address the matter. He knew that sooner or later, Armando would reach a breaking point. Until then, no amount of prodding on his part was going to change his lover’s mind.
The two returned to enjoying each other, focusing on what they agreed upon, instead of any issues that could pull them apart.
Armando couldn’t seem to stop himself. For the past month, he’d repeatedly visited the Ymir Briger site. Several times, after work, he’d felt an urgent need to see the statue. Unsure of what was driving him, he’d kept this activity to himself. He knew it would only worry Izdahl. Perhaps, he thought, Izdahl even suspected but had chosen to stay silent about it.
Again, on a perfect spring afternoon, Armando was looking down at the broken pieces of the likeness of Zaitis. Over the past few weeks, as barren as the area was, it had become a sanctuary for him.
“What is it about this place?” Armando asked himself.
He knew. It was the statue. Even now, he couldn’t take his eyes away from it. He watched the force field around the statue pulse repeatedly. The statue really did seem to have a life of its own. Armando wondered what it would look like fully assembled.
Suddenly, the field shuddered violently. Armando’s heart skipped a beat. Then the force field pulsed again, even more violently. Armando gripped his chest, as shooting pains ran through his heart. He held onto the railing, trying to remain steady but trembling and swayed on his feet.
Armando lost his footing. He twisted and turned in the air, trying to protect himself as he plummeted almost 30 feet to a ledge below. He landed on his back and his head slammed into the center of a boulder. His eyes clouded over and then closed, as he lost consciousness.
Izdahl spotted Tai Makari, his assistant, waiting anxiously by the door of the conference room. He nodded to show he was aware of his assistant’s presence. Then, he focused on concluding the meeting with his newest clients. They were representatives from an up-and-coming venture that would specialize in interplanetary travel. He had negotiated with them to supply Amasi Inc., with 12 luxury airships for 9.5 billion Arlkan Kabari. His father would be quite pleased. However, at the moment, the success of the deal was the last thing on his mind. Izdahl bid his clients goodbye and motioned for Tai to come into the conference room.
“Armando has been badly injured,” Tai quickly informed him.
Izdahl felt his heart skip a beat. Had he heard that correctly?
Tai nodded, confirming what he’d said.
“What happened?” Izdahl asked. “Where is he?”
“He fell from a cliff, near the old Ymir Briger site. He’s at the central hospital in Meino. Kelcho Xersa already knows. She instructed me to make arrangements. You have permission to use a portal to get to him.”
Under usual circumstances, access to portals was restricted. And, on most occasions, the Nitelge could only use a portal to go where they had previously been invited. However, there were exceptions. Izdahl had been allowed to use a portal to go to Armando.
Izdahl hurried to the portal transport room with Tai.
“Does Kiana also know?” Izdahl asked.
“Yes. She and Syrik were still away on their vacation but they’ve been contacted…”
“Thank you, Tai…”
His assistant entered the coordinates for him. A few minutes later, a gateway opened and a nurse was waiting to take Izdahl to Armando’s hospital room, giving him an update on the way. When Izdahl arrived at the room, he hurried to Armando’s bed. Armando’s eyes were closed. His skin was almost as pale as the white blanket that covered his body. The starkness of his lover’s features caused Izdahl to fear the worst would happen.
“Mr. Amasi, he’s in a coma,” the lead physician explained. She consulted Armando’s medical charts again, trying to see if there was any new information she could gather from what she saw. “We’re unsure of all the reasons why. Among some fractured bones in his arms and legs, he did suffer quite a devastating concussion but that does not, in and of itself, automatically induce a coma. We’ll be getting results of various tests back shortly.”
“Who brought him to the hospital?” Izdahl asked.
“Kelcho Havad,” she answered. “He has already returned to his residence.”
“I see.” Izdahl made a note to address Dagmar as soon as possible. This was all too convenient. For the time being, he turned his full attention to Armando. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“We’ll have to continue to monitor him. We’ll keep you updated.”
“If you’re finished for now, I’d like to be with him.”
“Of course, Mr. Amasi.”
When he was alone with Armando, Izdahl tenderly kissed his lover’s forehead and then his lips. He pulled a chair to the bed and rested his head on the blanket, as he held onto one of Armando’s hands. Tears spilled out of Izdahl’s eyes.
“My love, please wake up.” he whispered.
It had been almost two weeks since Armando had slipped into the coma and there had been no change. Still unsure of exactly what had happened, his doctors had continued to run tests.
Kiana and Izdahl had remained by Armando’s bedside, comforting each other as they waited for news. Over the course of the weeks, family and friends had come to see Armando, offering Kiana and Izdahl all the support they could.
The two would only leave Armando’s side when it was absolutely necessary, mainly to sleep. They would then go to a room that adjoined Armando’s to rest or to talk with those who came to visit. There was enough space for a closet, two beds, two dressers and several chairs.
The rooms of this type, which were connected to ones where patients were suffering the most serious of conditions, had a one-way mirror. Visitors could stay in them for the long-term, looking in on their loved ones, without disturbing them. However, those who were hospitalized would not be able to see their visitors through the mirror, eliminating the chance that any worried expressions would cause the patients additional distress. Candid conversations, where all concerns could be openly addressed, would also occur between the doctors, family and/or friends.
Izdahl was in the adjoining room now, speaking with his mother, who had come to bring him lunch. She’d also been attempting to get him to go outside for some fresh air. He had refused. However, he’d at least agreed to eat the lunch she’d prepared for him, a simple but favorite meal of his that consisted of spiced grilled beef and rice.
“I just came from seeing Kiana and Syrik,” she told him.
A few hours ago, Syrik had finally been able to talk Kiana into returning to their home, if only for one night. But she had not gone without protest.
“How are they?”
“Naturally, Kiana’s still upset with Syrik. She really didn’t want to leave…Your father and I will continue to watch Nyrese, so that Syrik can tend to Kiana.”
“While I ache over this, I can only imagine what she feels,” Izdahl said.
“Yes…She’s quite worried that Armando’s condition will worsen. She spoke of her fears of losing him, of being the only Medina. It was best for Syrik to take her away. It will be easier for him to help her forget her pain, at least for a while.”
Hadil became quiet, giving Izdahl the time he needed to vent his feelings. When others had been around, especially Kiana, he’d done his best to keep his fury under control. But as his mother, Hadil knew the rage that was building inside him. Finally, the tirade that he’d held back for so long came. He hurled the plate at the wall, the remainder of the food splattering against it. The plate shattered, the pieces of it falling to the floor.
“Mother, I’m so angry at Dagmar, even at Armando! I was certain he would be injured in some way. And all of this time, I’ve been powerless to do anything, powerless to make any accusations because I’ve had to observe some damn protocol. If Dagmar was standing in front of me right now, I’d snap his neck. I know he’s responsible.”
Izdahl’s fists were clenched, his chest heaving, filled with rage and remorse.
“Those feelings are understandable,” Hadil responded calmly, as she cleaned up the mess. “However, you must remember to restrain yourself…Son, I will watch over Armando. I want you to return home. It’s best that you get away from here, if only for an hour.”
“Mother, if he wakes up and I’m not here, I’ll never forgive myself.”
Hadil touched her son’s cheek, wishing that she could remove his pain. She brushed away the tears that now slipped down Izdahl’s face.
“I believe Armando will begin responding to us,” Hadil assured her son. “His physicians will learn something soon.”
“Mother, we Nitelge are supposed to be so powerful. What is the point of us having all of these healing abilities and yet we can’t even…” Izdahl’s words trailed off, as he let out a huff of frustration.
“Love, remember, humans are quite delicate. We have to be careful with how we take care of them.”
“This is unbearable! Why won’t he awaken?”
“I hate Dagmar. This is his fault.”
“Izdahl, I don’t want you to do anything unreasonable. If you go after Dagmar, you have no idea what the consequences will be.”
“I don’t care!”
“Of course you do. You’re just unable to manage your worry. That’s why I’m here to help you.”
“Do you know what it’s like to have to be in Dagmar’s territory, knowing that he is behind all of this? Maybe the doctors aren’t trustworthy, maybe they know exactly what’s wrong with Armando and how to fix. They could even be making his condition worse. Armando should not be here!”
Izdahl had wanted to move Armando to the main hospital of Arlka. However, the doctors had strongly advised against this, explaining that the transfer might prove to be too stressful.
“Izdahl, this is a delicate situation. If we even insinuate the things you’ve said, it would be a serious affront to Dagmar. You must remember that he is a Kelcho.”
“I am sick of respecting his position!”
“Let’s not think of the worst,” Hadil said. “Besides, I doubt Dagmar would go that far. He likes to take risks but to go to this level…the repercussions would rip the Havad clan apart. Xersa only has so much patience and the Amasis are much more powerful than the Havads.”
“Perhaps Dagmar needs to be reminded of that.”