Dagmar was eating his dinner alone. As he chewed a piece of the well-seasoned meat his chef had prepared, he pondered his current circumstances. He still didn’t know where Volpe was. Having him on the loose could unravel decades of scheming.
One of his rare moments of mercy was allowing Volpe to live, as he was his son, born from a Terada mistress. Dagmar had been focused on marrying Hadil and having her bear his children. So, he hadn’t claimed Volpe, though he’d paid the mistress well enough to raise the boy. The Kelcho wished he had opted for different choices long ago.
The decisions about his former mistress and Volpe weren’t the only ones Dagmar was now regretting. He’d arrived at the conclusion that he’d severely miscalculated in a variety of other ways. He considered more of his decisions during the last few decades, wondering how he could salvage all of his work. He’d planned to distance himself from the events he’d set in motion against the Medinas but that was proving to be more difficult than he’d anticipated. While he still had an alliance with the Teradas, Balvan and his brood hadn’t proven useful lately. Rasmus and Khalaf, in particular, were avoiding him and Balvan hadn’t made any attempts to explain. Dagmar felt it was beneath him to ask why.
He wondered if there wasn’t ultimately some greater plot. Perhaps the Teradas were thinking of betraying him. However, he had enough dirt to bury the entire clan, should Balvan forget his place.
For the time being, Dagmar had to deal with the most immediate annoyance. The blood replica of Armando was laughing. Sitting on the edge of the dining room table, it casually swung its legs, peering at him. Its mirth was annoying Dagmar, who was tempted to crush the life out of the creature. He still hadn’t been able to bend the replica to his will. He wouldn’t have minded killing it now but he was concerned about the repercussions. It had taken years to gather the resources and a significant amount of mental fortitude to cast the spell. As it was a forbidden one, the negativity that could generate from undoing it could have more far-reaching effects than he’d anticipated. He wasn’t pleased that what he’d created was sitting there, watching him with penetrative eyes and a sardonic grin.
“I sense that Armando is growing stronger,” the blood replica said. “And you still don’t know how to use me. Soon, it will be too late for you to understand.”
“I’m closer than I was a few weeks ago,” Dagmar replied smugly.
Volpe almost changed his mind about speaking to his mother, Melis. He’d remained in disguise and, for the past week, had visited her bakery. She hadn’t changed much, other than a few fine lines around her mouth and her vivid green eyes. Her laugh was also still a full cheerful sound, as she joked with various customers.
He watched her for a while longer, then finished his last bite of fruit pie. He’d just put down the fork, when another plate of the dessert appeared in front of him. His mother sat down and smiled softly.
“I’d know your energy anywhere,” she said, being mindful not to identify him. “You owe me an explanation.”
Volpe smiled and then his smile turned into a grin.
“I was always bad at hiding from you.”
“Is that what you were doing for all of those years?” Melis asked quietly.
“No; it’s very complicated.”
“Of course. It wouldn’t be any other way with you. You were gone for so long, though.”
She tucked away a few strands of her long black hair that she’d styled into a bun, forcing herself not to reach out and grab her son into a warm hug. He was the most important person to her and she hadn’t seen him in almost 30 years. Now, here he was, disguised and breaking her heart with his sudden presence.
“It’s quite the tale,” Volpe admitted.
“I want to hear it tonight. Promise me.” Melisa clasped her slender, graceful hands in front of her, once again trying not to make any gestures that would give away Volpe’s importance to her.
“Will you make my favorite meal?” he asked.
“Only if I like your explanation,” she replied, making him laugh.
“I should go,” he said, his tone becoming somber. He learned forward and his voice became quieter. “Until I figure out my next steps, I don’t want to appear in public too much, not even in this form.”
They set a time to meet and Volpe stood to leave. Melis feared for his safety but swallowed the words she wanted to say.
“I know,” Volpe told her. “But I’ll see you soon.”
Volpe sighed, as he poured tea into his mother’s cup. He was being lectured, something that hadn’t happened in almost three decades. He knew a scolding was the least of what he deserved, given the trouble he’d caused for himself, his loved ones and the Medinas.
He’d just finished explaining to his mother why he’d been away for so long. Horrified at her son’s actions, she’d been speechless at first. Giving her time to process what he’d told her, he’d brewed tea. She’d paced back and forth, a range of emotions going through her. Her reaction had finally come.
“How many times did I beg you to stay away from him?” Melis demanded.
“We needed money and he had it. He was willing to pay for my skills!”
His stubborn expression was a mirror of his mother’s. After a few moments of glaring at each other, she cursed.
“Volpe, I suppose this was all inevitable.”
“I knew what I was doing.”
“No, you did not! I rarely ask you not to do things. However, staying away from Dagmar was one of my most important requests. Maybe if I’d told you everything, you would have listened.”
A dark mood moved through Volpe, as he saw the strain come across his mother’s face.
“Dagmar is your father.” She said the truth plainly, not wanting to hold him in suspense. Besides, there was no delicate way to put it.
“I always suspected as much, from the way you talked about him. Does he know the truth?”
“And he left you to stumble, even though he…”
“He always sent money,” Melis corrected him. “I only used it for special occasions. The rest of it, I saved. When you and Farai planned to get married, I was going to give all of it to you. Then one night you disappeared and I didn’t hear anything from Farai either. I thought there would be news soon but…” Melis’ voice tapered off.
“All of these years, you could have used that money, lived an even better life than you do now,” Volpe insisted.
“My business is doing well. I had more than what I need from that alone. I couldn’t spend Dagmar’s money, knowing that he ultimately didn’t want me. He was in love with Hadil Amasi and I should have known better. I don’t regret having you. I just wish he could have been the father you deserved. You could have made different choices. However, just like Dagmar, you were always too focused on money and power. That abject greed is why you ended up taking the kind of work you did. This is why for 30 years you were away from me! Don’t you dare lecture me about taking care of myself, when you didn’t care enough to do the same.”
Volpe gripped her to him and she cried against his chest.
“Mother, I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you, only because you’re my favorite child.”
“I’m your only child,” Volpe responded drily. “Wait. Did you end up having more?”
“No,” Melis responded, giving a broken, watery laugh. “You are enough of a problem. What will you do now?”
“I’m going to use Dagmar’s enemies to my advantage.” Volpe encouraged his mother to sit down. “Tell me more about the Amasis. They appear to be the most powerful clan.”
“You’re going to that clan?” Melis asked, incredulous. “After killing the Medinas? Have you forgotten they were under Amasi protection?”
“I’ll take my chances,” Volpe replied, no room for negotiation in his voice.
“You continue to be an enigma,” Sunja said, as she sat across from Armando.
The previous day, her assistant had informed him that Kelcho Sunja would meet with him, to discuss how he’d brought down the shield around Zaitis. However, since the Kelcho was quite busy, he’d needed to travel to the other side of the planet, where the primary Ziyad territory was located. They were in Sunja’s home, situated in the room she used for meditation.
The scent of calming incense infused the sparsely decorated room, relaxing Armando, at least as much as he could be, given the circumstances. He’d just finished explaining to Sunja about the falling of the shield. While it had been quickly repaired, news of what happened was still in circulation. More than anyone else, he wanted answers about what he’d been able to do.
“Let’s dig a little deeper,” Sunja said, after calculating a series of possibilities. “We need answers and you have to be open to finding them.”
“I am,” Armando insisted, defensiveness crawling into his tone. “I’m not trying to be difficult.”
“Don’t take that as an insult,” Sunja said, patting his hand for comfort. “Now, let me begin my search.”
She put out her hands and turned her palms upward. Armando placed his hands in hers and closed his eyes, as she had done. Soon, he felt the tendrils of her powerful energy sliding across and through his brain and wrapping around his heart.
Sunja gasped, as she stumbled upon a dark, foreboding wall in a section of Armando’s mind. It hadn’t been there the other times she’d done this technique. She also hadn’t seen anything like it with others she’d analyzed in the same way. Her energy wasn’t allowed to go beyond the wall. Her brow furrowed in frustration, she continued to try to gain access, curious if the answer she was seeking was pass that space. She sent more energy but the wall stayed firm.
She knew she needed to maintain a delicate balance, as not everyone could withstand her techniques. Armando especially didn’t like the process and only tolerated it because Izdahl and Xersa had requested it. Determining that the circumstances were too important to fail at getting answers, she increased her waves of spiritual power.
A small portion of the wall began to crack. Then, it quickly fixed itself. A wave of angry energy swept through Armando. Without knowing how or why he did it, he violently severed the link with Sunja. The force of his rejection vaulted her ten feet away. Black flames rolled across her skin, as she tried frantically to extinguish them.