“Izdahl, why must you be such a meddler?” Syrik demanded.
Izdahl had been eating his midday meal in Tanyuri Park, located at the center of the city, when the severely annoyed figure of his older brother loomed over him. Syrik sat down and glared at him, awaiting a satisfying answer.
“Can I get the background story as to why you’re so bothered?” Izdahl requested.
“First, I am well past ‘bothered.’ Second, it’s only because we’re in public why I haven’t punched you in your mouth.”
“Then I thank our seven deities for your restraint,” Izdahl remarked, used to his brother’s threats.
“This is no joke. I want an explanation as to why Armando Medina is coming to dinner, at my house, in two nights.”
“Kiana was obviously upset last month. She wanted to reach out to her brother again but she wasn’t sure what to do. I just gave her some advice and encouragement.”
“And now that damn human—”
“Don’t speak of him as if he’s filth.”
“To me he is. He rejected us, Izdahl, while we were dating, when we married, as we enjoyed our first year of marriage. I don’t want him in my home. If it had not been for you, I would not be in this situation. Oh, and you’d better not ‘happen’ to stop by during the dinner either. I won’t have you causing me more strife just to create a matchmaking opportunity for yourself.”
“It’s not about you. I’m doing this for Kiana. If you were half the life mate you thought you were, you’d reconcile with Armando. He’s her only remaining relative. Don’t you want your children to know him? Do you want Kiana to cry herself to sleep again? You’re the one who told me she was doing that—and you didn’t sound happy about it.”
Syrik thought back to the months where he’d been unable to console his wife. At nights, when the two of them should have been making love, or planning their future, Kiana would be sobbing. His usually vibrant wife would huddle against him, her distress pulling at his heart as he held her close. In the end, he hadn’t been able to do much to make her feel better. He’d steadily grown angry at the source of his wife’s pain. He’d been on the verge of truly hating Armando and Kiana would never stand for that. No, he did not want to return to that time.
“Have some lunch,” Izdahl offered, pulling Syrik out of the period of sadness, “Kiana made it as her way of thanking me.”
“If I didn’t know you liked Armando so much, I’d worry about your closeness with my wife.” Despite his comment, Syrik consumed some rice and the perfectly spiced meat of the vardak, a large, grazing animal.
“Oh shut up. I could have had her if I so desired.”
“You must really want a broken jaw today, Mr. Should-Have-Been-A-Girl.”
“I wish Mother hadn’t told that story,” Izdahl said, laughing.
The brothers sat silently sharing the lunch Kiana had prepared.
“Thank you, Armando,” Syrik said.
“For removing my stubbornness, an obstacle to my happiness.”
“You’re welcome and um, if you do happen to mention my name at the dinner, I wouldn’t m—”
“I knew you were trying to get something out of all this. I just knew!” Syrik exclaimed. Izdahl laughed and punched his brother in the shoulder. Then he grew serious.
“Sy, I have a matter to discuss with you. We’ll have to talk about it in private.”
Syrik pulled his coat more tightly around him. He wasn’t sure which was more unsettling, the sharp Arlkan wind that had just blown through the area, viciously challenging the trees, or the expression on his brother’s face.
Izdahl was trying his best to remain polite, though he was highly annoyed with his family’s latest visitor. Dagmar Havad, the silver-haired patriarch of one of the nation’s most prominent families, was freely giving his view on humans.
“How accommodating are we to be for these pests? We’ve allowed them to stay on our planet for over four centuries. The only reason they even found us is because our planetary cloaking device was damaged. Had their airships been passing by at any other time, it’s doubtful any of them would be here now. Nosy meddlers. They should have stayed on their own world.”
This was not the first time the Arlkan senator had made such remarks.
The conversation in the Amasi household had started off innocuous enough, a spirited but reasonable discussion of politics. Jaxon, Izdahl and Syrik had suspected that the optimistic tone of the gathering would soon change. Dagmar was often vocal about his dislike of humans.
“Couldn’t one argue that they were meant to meet us and vice versa?” Izdahl asked, hoping to stem the negative tide. His eyes locked with Dagmar’s unflinching green ones.
“One could argue many things,” Dagmar dismissively replied, “That doesn’t mean that one would be correct.”
“It has been over 400 years since the humans arrived and we are still adjusting to them,” Jaxon stated, “Yet, it could be a much more difficult process.”
“The fact of the matter is there should have been no ‘process’ for us to endure. Of all the demons in this part of the universe, we, the Nitelge, are the most powerful. What do the humans offer us? They cannot fly of their own accord. They are not telepathic, not telekinetic; they possess no ability to truly handle magic at even the most basic, respectable levels. It’s a wonder some other entity didn’t pick them off already. Yet we have allowed our planet to be overrun with them.”
“Relax Dagmar,” Jaxon said, “there are only 250 million of them. Our children alone outnumber their population.”
“And speaking of our children,” Dagmar further complained, “many of them are eagerly playing with the human spawn.”
“Perhaps that’s because children, Nitelge or not, aren’t as prejudiced as adults,” Izdahl responded.
“Furthermore, some Nitelge are even reproducing with these humans,” Dagmar continued, as if Izdahl had not just spoken. All three of the Amasis bristled, knowing that Syrik was the target of that comment.
“I understand your views,” Jaxon said smoothly, before Syrik could rudely display his opinion of Dagmar, “but please do not insult my family members.”
“Perhaps I am too…passionate about this topic,” Dagmar said, smiling at his childhood friend, “I just want to make sure our culture is moving forwards.”
“It is, bit by bit,” Jaxon assured him. Then he swiftly changed the topic, turning the group’s attention to The Gathering. There would be two weeks of feasting, reconnecting with colleagues and the forging of new alliances.
Izdahl had gone to this annual event for 16 years, since he’d turned 14, the age at which one could attend. His family, and many others, truly looked forward to going and this time was no exception. Yet, even as he contemplated how much he’d enjoy the Gathering, he found his mind being pulled to thoughts about one particular human. He hoped the object of his concern was, unlike Dagmar Havad, making progress at becoming more open-minded.
Kiana’s grin greeted Armando moments after he rang the doorbell.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Kiana said, hugging him tightly.
“Did you think I wouldn’t?” he asked.
“Part of me was unsure,” she admitted, “But I have my answer now.”
“Oh, really? How do you know I won’t turn around this moment and leave?” Armando teased her. She smacked him on his arm and he pretended to be hurt.
“I’m still not sure if this is such a great idea,” Armando said, as Kiana ushered him inside, closing the door.
“Maybe, you’d feel more relaxed if you weren’t so formally dressed,” Kiana said. She undid his tie, knowing how much he disliked wearing one. She laughed softly at the steps he was taking to make this occasion as nice as possible, even going to the point of making himself uncomfortable. “You don’t need this.”
“That’s good. Besides, Syrik might use it to strangle me.” The comment earned him another smack on his arm.
“I’m still nervous,” Armando confessed, folding the tie and putting it in his pocket.
“You should be. My husband is, after all, a huge demon.”
“Kiana, you’re not making this any easier.”
“Well, Syrik is nervous too,” Kiana whispered, laughing softly.
“That does help,” Armando said, grinning down at her.
From the top of the black marble staircase, Syrik viewed the interaction between the siblings. Kiana gave him a look of encouragement and he descended the stairs. Armando watched Syrik’s progress, thinking again of how daunting the demon was but if he made Kiana happy, there had to be some goodness in him.
“Welcome to our home,” Syrik said, sounding a bit stiff.
“Thank you for inviting me,” Armando responded, his tone also stilted.
“We can go into the living room, while the chef finishes the meal,” Syrik said, as he led the way.
“Now, both of you better behave yourselves,” Kiana warned, as she settled herself into her favorite chair, “I’m pregnant but I can still do much damage.” She shook a fist at Syrik and Armando. They chuckled, glad that Kiana was attempting to keep the mood from becoming heavy.
A short while later, they were enjoying their meal. Things were progressing fairly well, the conversation consisting of light topics.
As Syrik heard Kiana laugh at a joke Armando made, he was considering the negativity his next words might cause. Yet, he felt that he could not hold back and so he decided to speak his mind.
After putting down his utensils and slowly wiping his mouth, he began to voice his opinion.
“Look, Armando, this is awkward. I can’t sit here and pretend that I’m not…annoyed with you. I started dating your sister almost four years ago and it took over two years for you to meet with me. We all know how that went. Still, I invited you to go to our wedding but you rejected my offer. Now, I’m having this dinner because it is, hopefully, a step towards positive interaction with you but I needed to speak about the anger I feel.”
Armando chewed slowly, giving himself time to think of how to best respond. When something came to mind, he wiped his mouth and put down his napkin.
“Everything that you’ve said is true, Syrik. You already know the reasons why and I cannot apologize for them. If you were seeking an apology, I will not give that to you. It would be an empty one. Part of me still feels justified in my actions.”
Kiana held her breath, looking at her husband, her eyes begging him to move on to another matter. Her stomach twisting, she was expecting the fragile steps to reconciliation to crumble.
“Syrik…” she began.
“Are you staying for dessert?” Syrik asked, “Kiana made something she calls ‘strawberry shortcake’ using the strawberries she grows in our garden. She said that’s one of your favorite desserts.”
“As long as she put enough strawberries on it,” Armando joked, “If not, I have no plans to stay.”
Kiana let out a sigh, thankful, her remaining unrest about the night disappearing.
Dagmar Havad crossed his long legs and stared at Rasmus Terada, waiting for an update. The two were having their weekly meeting in his office, which was lavishly decorated with expensive furniture, where he’d be given information on the latest progress Rasmus was making.
“Izdahl Amasi has taken a strong interest in Armando Medina,” Rasmus stated.
“Why should that affect what I want you to do?”
“Well, if Izdahl becomes protective of Armando—-”
“I don’t pay you to give me excuses, Rasmus. If you cannot handle the matter, I will find someone else.”
Rasmus hated being in this position. He was tempted to tell Dagmar what he could do with his job. Yet, Rasmus also realized that succeeding at this task could increase his influence and that of his clan. So, he held back his anger over Dagmar’s tone.
“I will handle things,” he assured the official.
“When can I see more results?”
“In another week or so.”
“Don’t take too long. I want the full report on Armando’s bloodline soon. You’re holding up my progress.”
“I’ll have to travel farther than I anticipated. So—”
“So naturally you want more money for your expenses,” Dagmar sneered, once again testing Rasmus’ resolve, “You make it sound as if you have to go to another planet to find all the answers.”
“Well, Armando’s people are originally from Earth,” Rasmus joked feebly.
He almost fidgeted in his chair, studying the burgundy liquid in his glass, uncomfortable about how he was sounding. Had he been in a better position, he wouldn’t need to be acting like this around Dagmar. No wonder the powerful official spoke to him in any manner he chose.
“This should suffice for now,” Dagmar said, handing him three stacks of cash containing 300,000 Kabari, the Arlkan currency.
The amount was more than twice the money Rasmus usually had as a budget for his services. To see Dagmar handle it so casually made Rasmus, once again, think about how he detested his present station in life. Why wasn’t his family more prominent? Why couldn’t the Terada Clan be as ambitious as the Havads or Amasis or any number of families that were socially above his? Perhaps, if he were successful in his current endeavor, it would lead to an increase in his family’s stature.
“And there’ll be a bonus if you complete the next part of this assignment in three months or less,” Dagmar continued, “I did not want to put off my plans for that long but I sense someone is trying to get in my way. So, I will slow down the process a bit because of the delicate nature of what I am trying to do.”
“I’ll keep all of what you said in mind.”
“You do that. Oh, by the way, I suggest you clearly make Armando’s acquaintance. Use whatever means you have. I want him to know your face. I want him to trust you.”
Encouraged by the reconciliation between Armando and Kiana, Izdahl felt he could use this as a way to solidly bring Armando into his life and vice versa. But he had to act quickly. There were outside forces, some unidentified, which Izdahl felt could derail his plan.
He was now driving to the home of someone he thought would be instrumental in helping him. He stopped his vehicle in the driveway of his grandfather’s home, feeling confident that Erol Amasi would assist him.
After exchanging news with his grandfather, Izdahl turned his attention to the reason for the visit. After Izdahl gave his explanation, Erol Amasi sat quietly, studying his grandson’s features.
“He remains quite important to you,” he stated after a few moments.
“Yes, Grandfather. So, will you do me this favor? I know you enjoy your solitude but…”
“I’ll invite Armando to my home—as well as his business partner.”
“My focus is on Armando, Grandfather.”
“I’d be inviting Armando here under the pretext of discussing architecture with him. He has a business partner, who is also his best friend. It would be lacking in class not to invite both of them. It would also help to make it less obvious what the true aim is—for you to get into Armando’s good graces. Izdahl, all of this should be clear to you. Perhaps you are losing your cleverness because of this strong interest in Armando.”
“Perhaps,” Izdahl admitted, embarrassed over his misstep. His grandfather did have a better plan. “I will defer to your judgment.”
“As you should. This old mind still has some wisdom in it,” Erol said, chuckling. Then he grew serious. “I want you to be careful of what you desire, Izdahl.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve never seen you so centered on anyone. This companionship that you seek from Armando…I wonder about the places it will take you.”
“Grandfather, I…” Izdahl shook his head, at a loss for words.
Erol smiled. In time, Izdahl would come to understand and Erol hoped his grandson would make the right decisions. Otherwise, for so many, the repercussions would be devastating.
“For now, let us discuss other matters,” Erol suggested.
Late in the evening, when Izdahl drove home, his grandfather’s earlier words came back to him. What did they mean? Unable to figure it out, he pushed it aside for the moment, looking forward to issuing the invitation to Armando…and his business partner.
A few days after sending the invitation, Izdahl received the answer he was hoping to get. Armando and Jonas would meet with Erol Amasi. And Izdahl would use that to his benefit.
When Armando and Jonas visited, Erol’s knowledge and charisma kept the architects enthralled for hours, as Izdahl knew would happen. They spoke of his favorite buildings, his strongest challenges accomplishing his architectural visions, how Armando and Jonas hoped to see their business expand and about the upcoming opening of the project for Preva University.
Through it all, Izdahl served everyone, using the chance to further study Armando. There were so many times he ached to pull Armando aside, kiss him, and have their tongues start a loving duel that their bodies would finish. It took surprising strength and self-control to be around Armando, to calmly pour wine for him, to offer him more of the cuisine that Izdahl had painstakingly planned. All this was done, Izdahl hoped, without revealing the vigorous need that was steadily growing inside him.
Late that night, after Erol had bid everyone goodnight and Jonas had driven away, Izdahl requested Armando’s attention. They paused at Armando’s vehicle and he stared expectantly at Izdahl.
“I wasn’t sure that you and Jonas would accept,” Izdahl said, after a few awkward moments.
“Well, your opinion of us Nitelge…”
“I…” Armando looked down at the ground in embarrassment. “I’ve done some changing.”
“I know. That’s the main reason grandfather agreed to meet with you.”
“I wanted to say thank you. Your grandfather mentioned that it was your suggestion to invite Jonas and me here.”
“It was not a problem,” Izdahl assured him, “We have both been interested in the work you do…”
More cumbersome silence followed as Izdahl had second thoughts about what he was next planning to do. Before he could lose his nerves he handed Armando a dark blue feather with a silver tip.
“I wanted to give you this,” Izdahl said.
“Why this? Why now?” Armando asked.
Izdahl gave him a secretive smile, one that surprised Armando with how much it stirred his loins. It took him back to the chamber music concert where he’d seen Izdahl play the cello for the first time.
“I just thought it was time to let you know.” With that, Izdahl let his wings appear, unfurling and then proudly snapping them. Armando was mesmerized, as he watched the vivid dark blue, silver tipped vision on display for him. He ran through several emotions—confusion, desire, and finally anger.
“Forgive me for the deception…” Izdahl begged, when he saw Armando’s mounting fury.
Armando cursed in severe displeasure and quickly got into his car. As he drove away, he could see Izdahl in his rearview mirror. He was standing there, regret and sadness in his eyes. And Armando tried not to care, oh how he tried. But he arrived home with the pained expression of Izdahl still on his mind.
Despite hoping that sleep would free him from the images of Izdahl, Armando dreamed of him. The architect awoke, gripping the sheets, the evidence of his unwelcome delight on his skin and sheets. He groaned as the last ripples of his orgasm cascaded through his body. Then he buried his face in a pillow, disgust warring with pleasure, as scenes from his dream surfaced repeatedly in his mind.
This was not the first time Armando had dreamed of Izdahl but it was markedly different from all the others. He’d never had a release until now. Before this, there had been a chance to downplay the infatuation, an opportunity to let himself believe that the erotic imaginings were merely a manifestation of his need to be with someone. It just so happened that the focus was Izdahl Amasi and it did not have to mean anything; it really did not. Yet, to have his body literally show proof of what he was trying to resist was a reason for concern. He could, until now, believe the dreams were insignificant.
He got out of bed, moonlight gracing his body, which was glistening with the sweat created by his nocturnal desires. Still fighting the images, he changed his sheets. Wanting to further remove the plaguing visions from his mind and body, he went to take a bath. It did not create the effect that he desired. Instead, he found his hands sliding to the juncture of his thighs, his eyes closing, his breathing becoming heavy as he thought of Izdahl Amasi. What the demon must look like unclothed. The sounds that would come from him while in Armando’s bed. The flushed look on his face moments after his release. His strong wings wrapping around Armando, pulling the architect into yet another journey to sexual fulfillment.
Armando trembled when he peaked, from the pleasure but also from his fear. He knew that a process he could not completely control was firmly underway.