Armando could have told Syrik that the dinner conversation would take a negative turn. Instead, he listened as the discussion about Kiana’s work schedule became a heated topic. He and Izdahl were joining Syrik and Kiana for dinner, as they had done periodically. Nyrese was spending the night at a friend’s house and the two couples took the opportunity to enjoy a meal without the young Nitelge, as pleasant as she was.
“You’re sometimes way too complicated,” Syrik protested to his wife, as exasperation filled his voice. He was trying to convince her to reduce the number of hours she was working, as she was further along in her pregnancy and her fatigue was growing. However, Kiana had other plans and believed she was a better judge of her capabilities. She had no reservations about making that clear to her husband, while also teasing him.
“I’m exerting myself too much, am I?” Kiana asked, as a gleam of mischief came to her eyes. “Well, I guess we can avoid each other tonight. I wouldn’t want my frailty to bother you …So, you can sleep in another bedroom.”
“What?” Syrik demanded, taken aback by Kiana trying to outmaneuver him, especially in front of company. “You’d tamper with our sex life to prove a point?”
“Yes!” Kiana told him, raising her chin haughtily.
Instead of capitulating to her show of craftiness, Syrik decided to taunt her in kind.
“I hope you’re not serious about that,” he began. “Because when you’re carrying my child, you’re even more sexually voracious than usual.”
Kiana narrowed her eyes. Then, she stood up and headed towards her husband’s chair at the other end of the table. He laughed and got up, quickly moving out of her reach. Despite herself, she began to laugh too. He went back to her and held her tightly, giving her a sound kiss on the lips.
“I don’t think we need to be around any of this…” Armando said slowly, as he pushed his chair away from the table. “Thanks for inviting us to dinner.”
“Oh stay longer,” Syrik gently chided him. “Have more dessert. Don’t let us being silly bother you. You should be used to it by now.”
“You don’t have a very good track record,” Izdahl noted, smiling at Armando. “Every time we eat here, something seems to happen that unsettles or surprises you.”
“What do you mean?” Armando asked.
“Well, you’ve had Nyrese steal your food and now you get to hear about your sister’s sexual appetite.”
“Thank you for putting a fine point on everything, Izzy,” Armando said drily.
“You know I don’t like that nickname,” Izdahl immediately responded. “I only put up with it from Syrik because he’s my ossti. I have limited range for doing anything to him. However, as you’re my lover, I can punish you!”
“Sounds kinky,” Syrik remarked, breaking into Izdahl and Armando’s conversation. Kiana, who was now sitting on Syrik’s lap, chuckled at the flush that came to her brother’s face. She used the prime opportunity to embarrass him more.
“Oh Armando, why are you so uptight? After your years with Izdahl, you should be much…looser.”
“Just shut up, Kiana,” Armando grumbled.
Syrik, Kiana and Izdahl laughed at him, enjoying his discomfort. When he stood again to leave, Izdahl grabbed his hand.
“You can sit on my lap too,” Izdahl said. The lust in his voice sent a thrill through Armando.
“We’re going home,” Armando informed him. He took a last sip of his wine and they bid their hosts goodnight.
Dagmar smiled with deep satisfaction, as he bade one of his many guests goodbye. The Havad clan was celebrating another year of having him as its Kelcho. So far, he’d received the amount of respect and tributes he’d expected. Some individuals had sought more private meetings with him, to solidify their place in the hierarchy he’d long-ago established.
From his location at the Kelcho’s table, he cast his eyes about the massive room, which was richly decorated with the red and gold colors of his clan. His place on a platform assured him a despot’s view of those who had come to the event. Multiple areas of the entertainment hall offered guests a high-quality selection of food, with a waiting staff prepared to make sure each guest had a memorable dining experience.
The sense of fulfillment Dagmar was feeling soon faltered, as there was an unexpected attendee. Tybris, his errant and unpredictable nephew, had appeared. Tybris made his way to his uncle’s table and bowed in a pretentious manner.
“Should I be pleased about your visit?” Dagmar asked, affecting a bored tone.
“By all means, be consistent, Uncle,” Tybris responded, mischief in his brown eyes. “Why start faking that you have feelings?”
Dagmar waved away the servants who were to the left and right of him, not wanting them to hear the insolence of his nephew. As the youngest child of his sister Devana, who’d married into the Nieri family, Tybris had retained most of the Havad traits. Perhaps he was too much like Dagmar, which had never sat well with the Kelcho. After all, Dagmar knew that he was incredibly ambitious.
“It’s just that you didn’t bother to come to any of the last ten celebrations of my control of the family,” Dagmar stated. “So, I didn’t expect to see you at this one.”
“You’re much closer to death now,” Tybris said, with a dark playfulness. “I figured I’d show my face.”
Though his nephew made his comment sound like a joke, Dagmar didn’t put it past him to be telling the absolute truth.
“Careful, Tybris,” Dagmar said, his voice cold and steady, filled with a threat. “I’m giving you your one and final warning.”
“Strange…I thought you were delivering your warning by having Rasmus visit me,” Tybris said. “I didn’t appreciate that, dear uncle. If you had doubts about how I was managing any territories, you could have just been direct. Instead, you sent him to my area to investigate.”
“Where is Rasmus by the way?” Dagmar asked stiffly.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? I’ve had him locked away for the past few weeks. Clearly you have no concern for him. I guess your information network isn’t all that strong either, or you’d have known I was keeping him…Thanks for the gift.”
Before Dagmar could say anything else, Tybris casually turned away to mingle with the rest of the crowd. He smiled, as he thought of the flare of alarm that had appeared in his uncle’s eyes at the news about Rasmus. Tybris knew that Rasmus had such sweet secrets and he was planning on getting all of them.
Xersa watched with pride, as Armando opened himself to the Book of Truths, consuming the vast amount of information it provided. When the glow from the book changed from dark blue to gold, she leaned forward in anticipation. The long hours of work with him were now beginning to show their true value.
Very few had been able to get to the level Armando had reached. While those who were permitted access to the tome could get it to respond, Armando’s focus was especially keen. The book sensed this and its secrets pulled him in even further, hungering to reveal themselves.
A trickle of blood fell from Armando’s nose and landed on the page he was reading. He lost his concentration, as his hand flew to his nose. He looked at Xersa and saw the concern written on her face.
“We will stop for today,” she said, giving him a tissue.
“But I can go longer.”
“No, Armando. You’ve been pushing yourself harder than usual.” She gently rested a hand on his arm.
“Alright. I understand.”
“I also want you to go to the doctor. This is the third time your nose has started bleeding during these sessions. I want to make sure that you’re in the best health possible.” She held up a hand to stop his protest. “Listen to me or I’ll tell Izdahl. You know he’ll never let up, until you do what you should. Besides—”
Xersa abruptly stopped speaking. The drop of blood from Armando was spreading, and turning itself into chilling script. Armando followed Xersa’s line of vision and his eyes widened.
Keep the balance or the Stealer of Souls will appear.
Xersa swallowed, as fear rose in her throat. She read the words repeatedly and then looked at Armando.
“Why did that happen?” he asked. “What does it mean?”
Xersa’s eyes slid away from him, as she thought of how to phrase her answer.
“Please, tell me,” Armando pressed.
“The Stealer of Souls is based upon a legend. Given your connection with Zaitis and the Shield, the Stealer of Souls is what you can become, depending on how you respond to your awakening power. If you become unbalanced, you can separate a soul from its body.”
Armando was silent and then he voiced a question that he’d never asked anyone.
“Is it people’s souls I’ve been seeing? There’s a glow around everyone; some have it stronger than others. I can even see it around Kiana’s baby. She has her glow but then her child has a separate one.”
“When did this ability start?”
“After I fell from the cliff near the Ymir Briger.” Armando looked down at his hands.
“Why didn’t you tell someone?” Xersa implored, her voice strickened.
“Because I was scared,” Armando responded quietly. He avoided Xersa’s eyes. “These kinds of things aren’t supposed to be happening to me. I am human!”
Xersa reached up and gently held his face in her hands.
“Part of you is still closed off to what is possible. You must tell me about things like this. You must tell Izdahl too. He cannot support you, if you keep such matters from him.”
“I will,” he said, looking quite sheepish.
“I must inform Sunja. This is an unexpected development.”
“Xersa, do you think I would ever…ever take someone’s soul? I can’t imagine how I could be driven to do something like that.”
“I will speak honestly with you,” Xersa responded. “I have seen people do extraordinarily horrible things, under the grip of extreme emotions. Make no mistake. These abilities you have are a burden but you have the support you need.”