Izdahl’s patience was running out. He’d been as polite as possible but he was having difficulties navigating the space around him. On all sides, there were people eager to be near him.
“This is the price of fame, my son,” Hadil teased, pinching her son’s cheek.
Squeals of delight and laughter came from the multitude of young fans that surrounded them. Once he’d announced that he would participate in the Elite Fire Sparring, his popularity had significantly increased. Sometimes, the attention became too much and he had been trying to minimize his appearances in public.
He’d become quite familiar with the craze surrounding the Elite Fire Sparring. As a youngster, he’d had his favorite athletes of the game. Growing up, he’d sometimes imagined he’d be the focus of that kind of admiration. However, he’d never considered the magnitude of what that would mean.
He’d taken his mother to lunch at the main plaza in Tesha. Their attempts to leave the area were now severely slowed. A crowd had gathered, once various people had recognized him.
He spotted five members of the plaza’s security staff heading towards him but he waved them off, not wanting their presence to bring more attention to him. He then tried to calm the crowd and steer his mother away from the scene.
“He’s available for autographs!” Hadil exclaimed, instead of following her son’s lead.
“Mother,” he grumbled, through clenched teeth.
There was pleading with him not to leave.
“How can you turn them away?” Hadil asked him. She looked up at Izdahl with seemingly innocent eyes.
Shaking his head at her mischief, he laughed softly and decided to stay. While he was taking pictures and giving autographs, some of his supporters became too excited and agitated others. He paused what he was doing to gain control of the crowd.
“Everyone, please be quiet. I need you all to listen to me.” Izdahl looked intently at those around him. “I’m willing to stay a little longer. But if anyone is becomes unreasonable, I’m leaving. Is that clear?”
There was a chorus of “Yes.”
Satisfied that things wouldn’t get out-of-hand, he and his mother remained at the plaza to please his fans. Some even asked for Hadil’s autograph, as they’d remembered her prominence in the Nitelge community, especially as a healer. Izdahl grinned as he watched her enjoyment.
Almost three hours had passed, before Izdahl was able to return to his parents’ home. Hadil ruffled his hair, as she set down a plate of his favorite cake in front of him, trying to lift his mood. Between working full time at the company and spending most of the remainder of the day practicing with Metienne, Izdahl had little to no energy. Hadil could see the fatigue in his eyes.
“You must learn to balance,” she told him. “I know it’s taxing but you have a following. It’s important to cherish that. You could influence so many.”
“I’m not trying to rule the world, Mother.”
“I wasn’t taking it in the direction of being a megalomaniac,” Hadil told him, laughing.
When Izdahl only grunted in annoyance, Hadil’s next words were heavy with meaning.
“Son, you must realize how easily you can crush someone’s hopes. Many look to you because you are of a ruling family. However, more admire you for what you are doing, separate from being an Amasi. I know that has always been important to you. As someone who wields the elements, and especially as a Core Guardian, brushing aside those who hold you in high esteem is not the right thing to do.”
Izdahl was saved an extended lecture, when his father arrived home. Jaxon kissed his wife, as he sat next to her.
“You have that look on your face like your mother has just lectured you,” Jaxon said to his youngest child. He loosened his tie, as he gauged that he’d been correct about his guess. There was a petulant expression on his son’s face.
“He needed to hear my words,” Hadil said to her husband. Then, she looked pointedly at Izdahl.
“Well, you can’t be in worse trouble than I’ve been in lately,” Jaxon assured Izdahl.
“Careful,” Hadil told Jaxon, as she smoothed a few strands of hair off her husband’s brow. “I might still be a little upset with you.”
Izdahl leaned forward, as he sensed that there was an interesting story.
“Your father and I went to a fundraiser last weekend,” Hadil explained. “He became a bit too flirtatious with an old flame.”
“Well, I like to keep your mother on her toes,” Jaxon said, making Hadil and Izdahl laugh.
“So you were flirting!” Hadil exclaimed. “You’ve finally stopped denying it.”
“Yes, but you became so fiery over my denials,” Jaxon replied in a crafty tone. “That did have its benefits.”
Izdahl was surprised at Jaxon’s unabashed response. He laughed at his parents, guessing the direction last night’s argument had gone. He’d grown up listening to his mother and father banter but some instances were more entertaining than others. People rarely saw the playful mischievous streak of his father. Many never realized that one of the planet’s most successful business moguls had some roguish traits.
For her husband’s smug retort, Hadil punished Jaxon in a way she tended to reserve for him. Jaxon winced hard and cursed. Then, he convulsed, as his eyes were forced shut by the pain.
“Hadil, I told you I don’t like that!” he roughly scolded his wife, who didn’t look the least bit remorseful.
Hadil had reached out with her ability and constricted Jaxon’s spiritual energy, which was excruciating for him. As a respected healer, she usually channeled her gift into assisting those who were acutely ill. Occasionally, she also used her talents to discipline her children and express displeasure with her husband.
Even after all these years, Izdahl was still mystified, and slightly terrified, by his mother’s power. When he’d made some extremely poor decisions in his youth and infuriated her, she’d literally brought him to his knees with the pain she’d caused. As Izdahl understood it, including his mother, there were only three people on the planet with the ability to touch someone’s soul. As if she knew her son’s thoughts, Hadil gave him a cryptic smile.
“There will be four soon,” she said.
“Mother do you mean—”
“Leave us, Izdahl,” Hadil cut him off abruptly. “I’m not finished with your father.”
Jaxon started smiling again; a gleam of anticipation had appeared in his eyes.
“You two are worse than Syrik and Kiana,” Izdahl grumbled, as he stood to leave. “I should go, before I see something I regret.”
“You already walked in on us when you were about seven,” Jaxon reminded him. He glanced slyly at his wife and added. “I was winning that time.”
“And, to further scar you, I’ll have you know you were conceived on the day I perfected my ability to touch souls,” Hadil said. “What does that tell you about the depravity of your father?”
Jaxon laughed loudly, as he and Hadil ushered their speechless son out of the house.
“I’ll be leaving to pick you up soon,” Izdahl said to Armando. “We should have plenty of time to get to Dima’s party. Can you still go?”
Izdahl had called Armando to remind him that they were supposed to be attending Dmitri’s 33rd birthday celebration. Since they’d planned to go together, Izdahl had driven Armando to work that morning and then headed to his own office.
“Don’t keep me waiting, sexy,” Armando said playfully. “I’ll see you soon.”
Izdahl grinned, enjoying his lover’s tone. They hung up, after they chatted for a few more minutes.
Shortly after the phone call ended, Jonas, who was the only other remaining person in the office, came to say goodbye to Armando.
“Give Dima my good wishes and tell him I’m really sorry I can’t be there,” Jonas said, as he settled into an armchair to chat for a few minutes. “I’d already had a family tripped planned and I need to prepare for it.”
“You’re going to see Felicia’s parents, right?” Armando asked.
“Yes and I always enjoy it immensely. Her mother spoils me and tells Felicia to be nicer.” Jonas chuckled. “It infuriates my darling wife.”
Armando grinned, thinking of the fierce words Felicia could release when she was upset with her husband. He knew though, that no matter how upset she became with Jonas, the couple was very much in love. Before he’d begun dating Izdahl, Armando had often felt wistful as he’d looked at Jonas and Felicia. Now, he understood the quality of what they had, as he was trying to build the same thing with Izdahl.
“Anyway, I need to get going,” Jonas said. “I promised Felicia that we’d finish packing tonight. Two kids will slow you down, especially when they keep jumping on the bed and jostling our clothes.”
When Jonas left, Armando continued to ponder his relationship with Izdahl. A twinge of guilt rushed through him, when he thought about what he was holding back from Izdahl. He still hadn’t told his lover what he’d explained to Xersa. He’d have to do that soon; once he found the right words.
The phone rang and it was his lover again.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” Izdahl sighed. “Father wants me to stay for another hour.”
“That’s fine,” Armando said, understanding the need to be flexible. “I’ll take a taxi to Dima’s party.”
“No; you won’t have to do that. Syrik and Kiana are going too. They’ll pick you up. They’re already on their way.”
As Armando waited for one of the elevators, the door to the other elevator began to open. For a brief moment, Armando imagined that Izdahl had been able to leave earlier. However, Dominic stepped out. His penetrating gaze landed on Armando and the architect felt a knot of dread gather in his stomach.
“Oh, don’t be so cold,” Dominic chided. “Aren’t I worth a few minutes of your time?”
“Dominic, please…” Armando’s voice trailed off.
Having him so near brought back the deep, dark apprehension Armando usually felt when he saw or thought of his ex-lover. He’d never been able to get over how abusive things had turned with Dominic.
Armando cursed himself at the rush of fear. His power to see people’s souls could be unpleasant, as it also caused dangerous individuals around him to send icy spikes of anxiety through him. The wave of malevolence around Dominic was a clear indicator of his destructiveness. The architect’s soul was trying to repel the negativity.
“I don’t think we ever really finished.” Dominic leisurely swept his eyes in a proprietary manner over Armando. With a sardonic smile gracing his face, Dominic reduced the distance between himself and Armando even further. “Something tells me that your body remembers mine.”
“I remember you hurting me,” Armando grounded out. “You need to get away.”
A wave of nausea coursed through him and he took a deep breath, trying to maintain control. He looked down at the floor, as his lower lip trembled and he squeezed his eyes shut. He felt angry with himself for his weakness. An elevator bell dinged, punctuating the tense moment.
“Get away from him!” Armando heard. His eyes flew open to see Syrik glaring at Dominic. “How dare you threaten someone under Amasi protection?”
Syrik quickly moved forward, intimidating Dominic with his height.
“Do anything and I’ll have you arrested for assault!” Dominic responded.
“You’ve clearly never had the assault you deserve,” Syrik said. He laughed and his fangs descended. The action unsettled Dominic, which stunned Armando, as he’d rarely seen his ex-lover bewildered.
“Just because you’re an Amasi doesn’t mean—” Dominic’s blustering ended, when Syrik’s hand flashed out, cutting Dominic off by squeezing his throat.
“You’re in Amasi territory.” Syrik’s tone was low and forceful. “You should be careful. Now go, before I fly you to the roof and throw you off.”
“You wouldn’t d—”
“Go ahead and finish that sentence,” Syrik said, grinning widely and beginning to release his wings. “You’ll regret it.”
Dominic straightened his expensive three-piece suit and roughly pressed the button for the elevator. He stepped into the elevator, when the doors opened. Syrik watched him with a cold, calculating expression in his eyes, until the doors closed.
When Dominic was gone, Armando leaned against a wall and shook his head.
“Do you want me to call Izdahl?” Syrik asked, as he rested a hand on Armando’s shoulder.
“No,” Armando said quickly. His brow wrinkled, as he worried about his lover’s reaction. “And please don’t tell him. He’ll probably go after Dominic but I can’t let that happen. Izdahl needs to focus on training for the tournament.”
“My brother can solve two issues at one time.” Syrik shrugged nonchalantly. “He’d be happy to use Dominic as a punching bag.”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want. And don’t tell Kiana either!”
“I know others like him. He won’t stop bothering you, unless you send a strong message.”
“I’ll think about the best way to handle it,” Armando promised. “Thank you for helping.”
“No problem,” Syrik said. “Come on. Kiana’s waiting for us in the car.”
Izdahl walked into the boisterous atmosphere of the Russian bar where Dmitri was having his party. The bar had been reserved for the night and drinks flowed freely. A decadent array of food was also provided and eagerly being eaten by Dmitri’s numerous guests.
Vasily, the establishment’s burly proprietor, waved Izdahl over to where Dmitri and his closest friends were sitting at the table of honor.
“You’ve made it!” Dmitri exclaimed, when he saw Izdahl. He sprung up from his chair to give Izdahl a fierce hug. Izdahl grinned, noting the deep flush that was on Dmitri’s face.
“You’re drunk so early?” Izdahl asked, incredulous. “You can’t possibly last until the morning.”
Instead of replying to the teasing barb, Dmitri patted Izdahl’s face affectionately. Then he traced his fingers over Izdahl’s mouth.
“I kissed those lips in college,” Dmitri said, as he began weaving on his feet. Then, unconsciously slipping into Russian he announced, “I kissed a Core Guardian’s lips!”
Deeply inebriated, he started to move as if to press his mouth against Izdahl’s. Acting quickly, Armando stepped between Dmitri and Izdahl. He turned Dmitri around and guided him into the waiting arms of Liya, his girlfriend of almost six months. Dmitri had finally managed to woo the first violinist of the Preva Symphony and she was incredibly tolerant.
“I would be upset, if you weren’t so handsome,” Liya teased Izdahl. Her green eyes, which were filled with cunning intelligence, swept over Izdahl’s attractive frame. “I completely understand why he’s still a bit smitten.”
Her sultry compliments were at odds with the cool professionalism Izdahl was used to seeing during rehearsals.
Armando laughed at the stunned expression on Izdahl’s face. He was glad for the distraction of thinking about the earlier troubles with Dominic and, more importantly, the matter he’d have to discuss with Izdahl very soon. For the time being, he opted to relax and enjoy the party.
“You’re not going to get out of my grip,” Izdahl assured Armando.
He and Armando were playfully wrestling, as Izdahl showed his lover some of the techniques he’d learned from Metienne. Early that morning, they’d returned home from Dmitri’s party and were still in an energetic mood. Izdahl currently had Armando firmly pinned under him and was nibbling on his lover’s ear.
“I doubt Metienne taught you to bite people,” the architect grunted out. “Especially in bed.”
He struggled to move from under Izdahl, veins popping out in his forehead and neck because of the effort. Frustrated with his lover, Armando unwittingly used some of his new powers.
A sharp spike of pain flew through Izdahl’s head and he felt his energy falter. He let go of Armando and tried to sit up, as another wave of pain sped through him. He shook his head clear and realized Armando was looking at him with alarm in his eyes.
“Izdahl, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”
“Armando, what’s wrong?” he asked softly. “Did you have something to do with what just happened?”
“Yes,” Armando admitted. “I didn’t mean to do that. I…”
“I really need an explanation here,” Izdahl told him.
“I know and I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
“Now would be a great time,” Izdahl clipped out, sensing that he wasn’t going to like what he’d hear.