“Did you see me?” Izdahl asked, excitedly, as he halted Koraiy.
“Yes.” Dmitri responded slowly. He looked around the expansive field, before adding, “I’m bothered by what you can do. You’re making a luraga rise in the air. I’m surprised you’re not at least getting a nose bleed.”
Izdahl avoided his friend’s eyes. When Dmitri realized why, Izdahl turned away from him to adjust the reins and saddle on Koraiy, though they were perfectly positioned.
“Izdahl, just how is all of this affecting you?” Dmitri pressed.
“Well, I used to get nose bleeds and I’ve lost consciousness several times.”
“You idiot!” Dmitri exclaimed. “I bet you didn’t have someone around, in case you hurt yourself.”
“No but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.”
“How would Armando feel about this experiment?” Dmitri clipped out, his brown eyes darkening with anger. “Do you think he’d like your damn trick?”
“Please don’t tell him. I have things under control. If he sees me now, he’ll worry.”
“And he’d have a good reason. I’m pretty sure not even Nitelge are supposed to make their steeds fly, especially while riding them.”
“I need what I do at the next Gathering to be impressive,” Izdahl insisted.
“Dying of a brain hemorrhage in the middle of performing this spectacle would qualify.” Dmitri threw up his hands in frustrated disbelief. “Seriously, Izdahl! Even as a human, I understand the power you’re using. It can’t be good for you.”
“I thought you’d be supportive.” Izdahl sighed.
“Iz, we’ve been friends for over 10 years. Surely, you know I’m honest. I always tell you, when you’re doing something stupid.”
“I get it.” Izdahl held up his hands in surrender. “Let’s compromise. I’ll work on my exhibition. You can be there, when I practice. Neither of us tells Armando, or anyone else.”
Dmitri’s brow was deeply furrowed, as he thought about what Izdahl proposed. Finally, he agreed.
“But you’d better keep your end of the deal,” he told Izdahl.
Dmitri went to Koraiy and petted him.
“Please take care of my friend, unless he’s leaving me all of his possessions. In that case, you can just toss him like garbage.”
Izdahl laughed and shook his head.
Armando had thought his day would be a pleasant one, as he was looking forward to relaxing with his lover. He’d taken some time away from the office, while Izdahl was spending the morning at Amasi, Inc., reviewing the newest transportation designs with his father and Syrik. Armando expected Izdahl to return home in a few hours. In the meantime, he’d been looking on the internet, trying to find a restaurant to order a healthy lunch for them. An unexpected visitor had jarred him out of his mellow state of mind. When he’d gone to answer the door, he’d become unnerved by the visitor who’d handed him an envelope.
Armando was reading the invitation again, as dread coursed through him. He wasn’t sure if his unease was because of who had sent the request or because of how it had arrived. Dagmar had dispatched Elij, his highest ranking assistant, to personally deliver a request to join him for dinner that weekend. The invitation bearing the seal of the Havad clan and the old-fashioned delivery method both carried gravity.
Elij watched Armando read the message. She remembered first encountering Armando when the shield dropped. She’d known of him, as Dagmar had mentioned him on several occasions. However, it wasn’t until the incident with the shield that she’d taken an interest in him. She’d researched his life and noted how important he was to various influential Nitelge, especially the Amasis. Unlike most individuals, she had significant opportunities to interact with the Kelchos. However, her access only took her so far and her sense of self-preservation kept her from prying too much. Still, pushing beyond her usual boundaries to find out more about Armando was becoming quite tempting. She sensed that he was at the center of several massive issues that the Kelchos didn’t want to become public.
As Elij viewed Armando, she cataloged each of his reactions, even ones he didn’t realize she could. She heard his heartbeat increase. When he finished reading the handwritten invitation for the third time, he blinked rapidly and his pupils dilated with fear for a few moments. A line of sweat had broken out above his upper lip. He couldn’t quite put all of the pieces together but Dagmar’s actions definitely bothered him. He felt the same way as when he dreamed of being held in that cage. While the dream didn’t happen as often as it used to, the dread he experienced whenever it did occur was vivid.
“Kelcho Havad looks forward to this event,” Elij stated, distracting Armando from his spiral of panic.
“It won’t simply be a dinner, will it?” he asked.
“That is not my place to say.” Elij gave him a small smile. “Please provide a response by the end of tomorrow.”
“I’ll need to double-check a few things.” Armando replied, softly. “However, I believe my schedule’s clear.”
“If you’re able to attend, I’ll send transportation for you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Armando said quickly. “I’ll drive myself.”
His swift rejection of the offer caused Elij to laugh softly. She could feel the fear rippling off him. She wondered if humans knew how transparent they were.
“Thank you in advance for your prompt confirmation, Mr. Medina.”
When Elij had gone, Armando immediately left Izdahl a message. Once he was able to take a break, Izdahl returned the call. As Izdahl listened to Armando, he wondered what Dagmar was thinking. He was especially concerned because he hadn’t been invited. He didn’t feel slighted, since he disliked the Kelcho. However, the invitation put him on high alert; he didn’t want Armando alone with Dagmar.
“It won’t be long before I’m home, love,” Izdahl said. “We’ll talk about Dagmar more. In the meantime, please make sure you tell GG. Dagmar is seldom straightforward. He probably has some scheme in mind. Maybe GG can determine what’s happening.”
“I’ll contact Xersa, after I get off the phone with you,” Armando promised.
“Am I being paranoid?” Armando asked, the moment Izdahl returned home.
“What did GG say?” Izdahl asked, as he hung his coat in the hall closet.
“I didn’t get to speak with her,” Armando replied. “She was in an all-day meeting with her staff. I’ll try again later.”
“I’m sure she’ll contact us, as soon as she can. But before this conversation distracts me from my immediate goal, come here.”
Izdahl pulled Armando to him and kissed him deeply. The forceful kiss sent a shiver through Armando and Izdahl gripped him tightly. A flush of embarrassment came to Armando’s face, when their lips parted.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I ambushed you at the door and I didn’t even say hello. Go change and then we’ll eat. I’ve ordered from a Korean restaurant one of my staff recommended. You haven’t tried Korean food yet.”
“You remembered our goal!” Izdahl exclaimed.
During one of their earlier dates at a Peruvian restaurant, Izdahl had expressed an interest in trying food from all the human cultures. He’d tasted dishes from various places but it had seldom happened, his palate being used to Nitelge cooking. Armando had joined him in his goal and they’d made it through cuisine from over 30 of the human nations, each time randomly selecting a nation from what had been Earth’s continents.
After finishing their meal of bibimbap, bulgogi and several kimchi side dishes, they relaxed on the couch to discuss the latest development with Dagmar.
“It’s just that the timing can’t be an accident,” Armando said. “Dagmar’s dinner is the day after the anniversary of my parents’ death. After visiting their graves, I won’t be in the best state of mind.”
“I have a feeling that wouldn’t escape Dagmar’s notice. Maybe you can use the anniversary as a reason to decline politely.”
“I’ll see but I don’t want to talk about him all day.”
Izdahl reclined against Armando’s chest and sighed with contentment. At least until tomorrow, they could concentrate on each other. He’d known that working and practicing for the Elite Fire Sparring would be time-consuming. However, he hadn’t calculated just how much he’d be away from Armando. His love hadn’t complained, once he’d adjusted to the requirements.
“Thank you,” Izdahl murmured.
“For what?” Armando’s nimble fingers massaged Izdahl’s temples, further lulling him into relaxation.
“You’ve been very understanding about my practices.”
“If it’s important to you, then it is to me.”
“Do you still worry?” Izdahl asked, tentatively.
“Yes, more so now than ever. On the news, they talk about the contestants. Some of their partners have seen them practicing. Why haven’t you invited me?”
Armando paused his actions, as he felt tension slide into Izdahl. Izdahl sat up and faced him.
“I don’t want you to see how injured I get.”
“But I’ve seen you healing and—”
“That’s because Metienne required that I come home like that. It’s nothing compared to how I left her studio.”
“I want to go to your practice,” Armando insisted. “The competition will be soon. I don’t want to be like most spectators and wait to see you.”
“Armando…” Izdahl stood and began to pace. “There’s so much going on with you already. You likely caused the shield to drop. You can see people’s souls now. Dagmar is trying to—”
“I understand very well what’s going on in my life,” Armando responded firmly. “Why are you trying to shut me out?”
“I’m not sure how seeing me fight like that will affect you. I’m worried it will trigger some ugly memories for you. Metienne and I don’t really hold back. There’s a side of us that comes out and I think you’d be…”
Izdahl stopped himself from speaking any further. Armando thought for a few moments, putting together the pieces of what Izdahl wouldn’t say, then he voiced them.
“You think I’ll be reminded of the night my parents were killed?”
Izdahl nodded and then he tried to choose his words carefully. He was at a loss, as he looked into Armando’s piercing eyes. He knew expressing his feelings could lead to an argument and he was too tired to have one, even though the issue was important.
He didn’t need to explain. Armando had already tracked his thoughts and the deep frown his lover was giving him promised that there would be a disagreement.
“Don’t you dare,” Armando said. “I am not fragile. I am not—”
“Can we take a step back from this conversation, please?” Izdahl held up his hands to ward off the fierce response Armando was about to launch at him. “I’m not focused enough to handle it. Let’s agree that today will only be about good things. That was our original plan.”
Armando was tempted to insist that they continue their conversation but he heeded the plea in Izdahl’s eyes. He stood and went to his lover. Izdahl held him tightly, burying his face in the crook of Armando’s neck. Armando stroked Izdahl’s back and ran his fingers through his hair.
“When you find the right words, let me know,” Armando told him. “Just please don’t let your fears put distance between us.”
Izdahl nodded and then lifted his head to look at Armando. He smiled, as he began to tease Armando with light, playful kisses. Izdahl gripped Armando’s hand and led him upstairs, looking forward to spoiling Armando and reducing his stress. They spent hours in their bed. It wasn’t until the early evening that they left it, showering and then heading to a movie.
Xersa stood on her balcony, sipping a glass of wine and looking up at the stars. She took a deep breath, letting the crisp night air of the capital flow through her. She thought of the message Armando had left for her. She wasn’t sure what Dagmar’s ultimate goals were but his most recent actions were setting her on edge. She knew she wouldn’t forgive herself if Armando was hurt, or worse, in the political tug-of-war going on between the Kelchos. Decades ago, when she’d laid Armando and Kiana’s parents to rest, she’d promised them she’d protect their children. That hadn’t been easy with Armando, as his prejudice against Nitelge had shut her out for years. Now that he’d become so trusting of her, she didn’t want to do anything to ruin that. She was reluctant to have him around Dagmar but knew that doing so would likely help reveal the other Kelcho’s greater aims. Deciding to move forward with her plan, she called Armando. She had to leave a message.
“Go to Dagmar’s dinner,” she stated firmly. “Be on your guard but definitely accept his invitation.”
Armando adjusted his suit for the second time, as he waited for the doorbell to be answered. Surprise flooded him when Dagmar appeared, instead of one of his staff members.
Dagmar smiled pleasantly at him, ushering him inside.
“You seem nervous,” the Kelcho noted.
“The last time we spoke wasn’t under the best of circumstances,” Armando reminded him.
“It’s not my purpose to cause you concern. Perhaps you’ve been influenced by the Amasis’ low opinion of me. Nevertheless, tonight is really about some harmless questions and answers. We don’t even have to get to them right away. I could give you a tour of my estate. It’s a beautiful place, and rich with history, though I hardly sound humble stating that.”
“Kelcho, if you don’t mind, I’d just like to have the conversation. No tour. No dinner.”
“Come now, Armando. Why would you insult me in such a manner? Izdahl’s lack of respect for me must have transferred to you.”
A flush of embarrassment rose to Armando’s face.
“Perhaps we can compromise,” Dagmar suggested. “We’ll skip the estate tour and have the conversation with dinner. We’ll even eat in one of the smaller dining areas, closer to the kitchen. I wouldn’t want you to be overwhelmed by the opulence of the main dining room.”
More embarrassment flooded Armando, when he realized the Kelcho was teasing him. He knew he was coming across as paranoid but he couldn’t stop himself.
“I confess that I remain concerned about my reasons for being here. It’s difficult to enjoy your company because of that.”
“The alternative was calling you in front of the Council of Kelchos and subjecting you to hours of interrogation. If you find me intimidating, imagine also facing six of the most powerful Nitelge.”
“I understand,” Armando murmured, defeat threading through his words.
Dagmar stifled a smile. Satisfied that Armando was in a vulnerable mental state, the Kelcho eagerly proceeded with his plan.