“Look at how she’s growing,” Armando exclaimed.
He, Izdahl, Syrik and Kiana relaxed on a sunny day in the couple’s backyard.
He and Izdahl were viewing the numerous photographs Kiana and Syrik had taken of their daughter. Nyrese was now two months old. Her features were more defined and he could see that she was a solid combination of both of her parents.
“I wish we had come earlier,” Izdahl said. “We could have seen her before Mother and Father took her to their place.”
“They still feel guilty about missing her birth,” Syrik explained. “Remember, they were away on a trip; they thought they had more time before she was born. They keep trying to make up for it, which works nicely in our favor.”
“Like today, we could have you two over,” Kiana added. “We should do something entertaining.”
“How about we play a water game?” Syrik suggested.
“Oh, he’s going to bring up his favorite pastime,” Kiana noted, dramatically rolling her eyes. “It wasn’t enough to go to the arena to play. He made a course in the backyard.”
“You know you love it,” Syrik replied, squeezing his wife’s small body to his. He nuzzled her neck, making her laugh.
Armando, still unused to seeing such affection shown to his sister, coughed disapprovingly. Then, catching himself, he laughed and apologized.
“She’ll always be my little sister,” he explained, accepting the good-natured teasing that Syrik sent his way. “I’ll forever be protective of her.”
“And I too protect her in my own way,” Syrik replied.
“Sometimes you go too far,” Kiana told him. “Why can’t I have my water cruise?”
For almost six months, she had wanted a water cruiser, a recreational vehicle for diving. She was eager to return to exploring a bay that was an hour’s drive away. Her previous one was well past its year of service. She’d intended to buy a new one but Syrik had asked her not to do so.
“When will your water cruiser arrive?” Izdahl asked. “I know you wanted to go with me.”
“Talk to Syrik,” Kiana responded. “He cancelled my order for the third time. Imagine the nerve.” She turned to face her husband. “I think you’re being overly cautious. Your mother said that she—”
“My mother is Nitelge and our females are more resilient, even after childbirth,” Syrik reminded her. “You are a frail human. Both of you, however, are stubborn. My response remains the same; wait a little while longer.”
Izdahl and Armando looked at each other. Entertained by the light argument, the two laughed at the couple’s stubborn expressions.
“Sy, I promised I wouldn’t use it until after I was fully recovered,” Kiana told him, her tone changing to one that was more conciliatory. “I need to do something completely unconnected to being your wife and to being a mother. It’s not that I don’t love you or our baby. But—”
“I understand, Ki. The cruiser is arriving next week.”
“You put me through all of that just to—”
“Well, you brought the issue up in front of others,” Syrik admonished her. “You know how I feel about our private concerns being shared. Let that be a lesson to you.”
“I’m sorry,” Kiana murmured. “You’re right.”
“Besides, you know in the end I always spoil you,” Syrik added.
“True,” Kiana responding, tenderly stroking her husband’s cheek. “Thank you, love.”
Izdahl looked off into the distance and smiled, as a pang of deep longing pulled at his heart. He wondered if he’d ever have that kind of argument with Armando, whether or not it was in private. It wasn’t so much the arguing he’d enjoy; it was the realization that they could show such concern for each other.
“I’m sure we can do something better than watch you two bicker,” Armando teased.
“Ah yes, I forgot that we had guests,” Syrik joked. “Let’s play a game. It is simply called ‘Trust’ but it is quite difficult. We play in pairs. The ‘guider’ sits on a platform that is surrounded by an air bubble that the ‘wielder’ creates. The wielder has to move both the bubble and the platform with the guider on it. The wielder closes his or her eyes and listens to the guider, who gives instructions about which way to go. Naturally, the first team to finish the course wins.”
Armando looked at the playing field. It was a long pool with a canopy suspended over it. There were two sections to the canopy, each identical to the other. Within the sections were numerous zigzagging, thin, plastic cylinders that had protruding thorns. If a bubble touched the thorns, it would rupture, sending the guider plunging to the water eight feet below.
“Does a team automatically lose if the bubble bursts?” Armando asked.
“It depends on the level we set. Are those the rules we want?” Syrik replied.
“It’s Armando’s first time playing. Let’s only do the basics,” Kiana said. “Even if your bubble pops, you can keep trying.”
“What’s the prize?” Izdahl questioned.
“If we win, you take care of Nyrese for an entire weekend,” Syrik quickly stated. “Kiana and I need some intensive couple time.”
“Honey!” Kiana stared at her husband in shock.
“I’m serious. I adore and cherish our daughter but it’s as if she knows we’re about to make love. She chooses that exact moment to demand our attention. It happens too often to be random. After all, she’s half-Nitelge. She was born with mischief!”
Kiana laughed and approved of having babysitting as the prize.
“And if we win?” Izdahl asked.
“Oh! I want to pick what we get,” Armando said, sounding especially eager.
Izdahl’s heart was warmed. He filed away the charming expression on the architect’s face for later thought. Sometimes Armando just didn’t know how appealing he was.
“I’ll let my partner decide,” Izdahl said. He looked expectantly at the architect, who was struggling to make a choice.
“I can’t think of anything right now,” Armando finally confessed, laughing, “Sorry.”
Izdahl threw his hands up in the air with mock exasperation.
“You pick,” Armando challenged.
“I don’t know either,” Izdahl admitted.
“Well, it doesn’t matter!” Syrik scoffed. “You’ll fail anyway. Let’s get started.”
A short while later, the competitors were ready to play.
Armando was staring at Izdahl with concern. It was alarming to be floating five feet above water that was ten feet deep with only a bubble of air between him and a sudden bath.
Izdahl smiled reassuringly at him and said, “I’m quite good at this game.”
“But I’m better!” Syrik pointed out. “All your pride will belong to me.”
He sent a gust at Armando, shaking the air bubble. Izdahl struggled to maintain control but managed to do so.
“You’re being ruder than usual,” Kiana chastised her husband, jokingly. “Play nicely.”
Armando noted how comfortable his sister was and resolved to be as calm. Once the game began, he focused on his task, putting his trust in Izdahl. Armando was quite pleased with how things progressed, especially since this was his first time playing. Izdahl responded quickly to his directions and they were able to avoid several catastrophes. They presented a solid challenge for Syrik and Kiana, who had to concentrate more than usual, though they had become experts at the sport.
While Armando and Izdahl were impressive, eventually, there was one costly mishap. Armando had not realized how close he was coming to one of the pillars, so fixated was he on the finish line that was just a few feet ahead. When the bubble popped, he was unprepared, landing in the water, swallowing a great deal of liquid. He came up, half sputtering, half laughing. He swam to Izdahl, who helped him out of the pool. Then, they watched Syrik and Kiana successfully complete the course.
“I’m sorry Armando,” Izdahl said, looking achingly contrite.
“It’s alright,” Armando assured him. “We should practice. I want to get better.”
“It seems that you almost drowned,” a victorious Syrik said, as he tossed Armando a towel. “That would have been really horrible; one less person to babysit Nyrese.”
“He was not drowning!” Izdahl exclaimed, laughing and pushing his brother aside. “Get away from him and stop gloating.”
“I think he’ll always punish me for not originally supporting the marriage,” Armando said knowingly.
Kiana laughed and nodded in agreement. Given her understanding of her husband; there was truth to Armando’s comment.
“You three are so cruel to each other,” she said. “I don’t know if I want my daughter around you all.”
“We’ll be a good influence on her,” Armando promised, laughing.
It was the evening of the birthday party for Kelcho Xersa Amasi. Izdahl and Armando were driving to the location, the reception hall at the center of Tesha.
“So, tell me a bit about the Kelcho,” Armando said. “I only know a little.”
“Well, she’s quite impressive,” Izdahl began. “She can handle anyone and anything. That reminds me. Since Syrik is obnoxious to you sometimes, you might enjoy this story. You know that scar he has over his left eye? GG Xersa gave it to him.”
“What you mean?” Armando asked. “What did he do to deserve it?”
Izdahl chuckled and recounted the tale. Syrik had unwisely, remarked that Xersa’s way of managing the clan was too benevolent, that it would cause others to think that the Amasis were weak. He was 14 at the time and he severely lacked knowledge about how to run a clan. Xersa was not pleased with his outspokenness. Without touching him, she spun him into the air and made him crash headfirst into a marble column. Syrik passed out and had to be revived.
“When he recovered, he apologized,” Izdahl continued. “GG told him to reconsider just how benevolent she was. Then, she banned him from her sight for a month. Everyone, including my parents, accepted what happened. Sy always speaks carefully around her now.”
“I can understand why, after something like that!”
“I’m not telling you this to scare you,” Izdahl said, quickly. “She treats everyone well, unless someone becomes especially unruly. I suppose her fairness, even in punishment, is one of the reasons why she is the longest reigning Amasi Kelcho.”
“Would you ever be the leader of your clan?”
“I’m not prepared for that position.”
“But do you aspire to it?” Armando asked.
“I’ve thought about it several times,” Izdahl admitted. “However, I’m not sure if I could balance as many interests as GG Xersa does.”
They rode in silence for a while and then Armando brought up what had really been on his mind.
“Izdahl about what happened at your house…”
“Do we have to discuss that now?”
“Yes. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to come over for a real dinner. As I recall, you sent me home hungry.”
Izdahl tried not to grin but couldn’t prevent it. Then he started to laugh outright.
“What?” Armando asked.
“As I recall, I was the one who was left hungry.”
“I know and I declined because…I guess we are going to discuss this. I thought if things went any further, that would be too much for right then. I believed you might regret—”
“Izdahl, I’m an adult. I’m not breakable.”
“I assure you to a fully aroused Nitelge, you are. That’s why I wanted to wait until we were prepared.”
“What do you mean by ‘prepared’? How exactly do you…”
“Let’s just say that we’re quite…ardent. Those who are not Nitelge can be taken by surprise, even after believing they are ready.”
“Well, I very much appreciate you caring about my delicate nature is a priority,” Armando said, chuckling.
“I’m not trying to be insulting. It’s just that there have been some Nitelge and human mishaps, which ended in visits to the hospital.”
“Why do you sound intrigued, instead of worried?”
“I don’t know,” Armando practically whispered, also mystified by his nonchalant attitude. Then he slid Izdahl a flirtatious glance and told him boldly, “I’m usually a prudent man. Maybe you’re a bad influence.”
Izdahl grinned, making a note that he might not have to be as tentative with Armando.
When they arrived at the reception hall, Izdahl pointed out his great-grandmother. Dressed in a black gown, her silver hair offset by golden jewels, she was surrounded by numerous admiring humans and Nitelge. Her rich laughter could be heard, as she charmingly engaged her guests.
“How old did you say she was?” Armando asked, incredulous.
“She turns 168 years old today.”
“Of course.” Izdahl tuned into Armando’s heartbeat, hearing that the cadence had increased. “Armando, are you nervous?”
“No.” A blush came to Armando’s face.
“Oh, I see.” Izdahl looked at him accusingly. “Then you find my great-grandmother attractive.”
“That’s absolutely ridiculous. I would never—It’s—Be quiet!”
Izdahl laughed, elbowing the architect in his ribs.
Armando stared down at the floor, thoroughly embarrassed. The truth was that he found Xersa to be stunning. She did not look as if she was almost 170 years old. While her hair was silver, her face barely showed significant signs of aging. Had she been a human, her face would have been that of an athletic 35-40 year old woman. And, Armando could not explain it, but Xersa’s face looked extremely familiar. Admittedly, he had seen her on several occasions in magazines, on television, etc. However, being this close to her triggered a memory of which he could not quite make sense.
“Armando, did you hear me?” Izdahl touched the architect’s shoulder, bringing him out of his musings.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“We should go speak with GG.” Izdahl motioned for Armando to follow him and the two of them walked over to the guest of honor. The others around Xersa quietly parted to make way for them. Many had noted that the two had arrived together and wondered how deep of a connection existed between them.
“You’re here!” Xersa exclaimed, warmly embracing Izdahl. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
“GG, this is Armando Medina,” Izdahl said, introducing his companion. Xersa turned her attention to the architect.
“Oh. I know. I have much to discuss with you. In the meantime, dance the flamenco with me.”
“I…” Armando wasn’t sure what concerned him the most; the stunning matriarch’s penetrating glance or her clear intent to have him dance with her.
“Don’t resist,” Xersa said, not permitting Armando to refuse. “We’ll have a grand time.”
Armando looked back helplessly at a grinning Izdahl, as Xersa brought him to the dance floor, firmly making both of them the center of activity. She requested that the nearby musicians begin a robust flamenco.
Armando was familiar with the basics of the dance, his parents having taught him several of the Spanish styles. As a child, he had enjoyed watching his mother and father dance with friends at gatherings, sometimes being confident enough to join. Even in adulthood, he had continued to hone the skill, wanting to keep a connection to those he had lost. And, though he was no expert, he was able to keep a striking balance with Xersa.
While he was going through the movements, he noticed the shawl that Xersa was wearing. It was made of black silk with hand embroidered golden flowers. Painful nostalgia hit him so strongly that he struggled to stay on beat. Xersa’s shawl was the same as the one his mother had often worn. Olivia had been wearing it the night she died. Armando had managed to grasp it in his hands, as he was being pulled away from the scene of his parents’ death. During the many nights he had cried himself to sleep, he had held the shawl to him and wished that his parents were still alive.
The dance ended and Armando bowed. He was going to ask Xersa about the shawl when she stopped him.
“We will talk later tonight,” she promised, gently patting his hand. “I would love for you to stay after the party. As I mentioned earlier, I have so much to say to you…For now, I have other guests who require my attention.”
“Yes, of course,” Armando said, bowing to her.
When Xersa walked off to speak with other attendees, Armando returned to Izdahl, many questions on his mind.
“Madam Xersa said that she’d like me to speak with me tonight.”
“It would be worth your while,” Izdahl responded emphatically.
“Do you know what she wants to tell me?”
“Perhaps but I’ll leave the divulging to her…In the meantime, I’ll introduce you to several of the humans and Nitelge. They might become helpful to you, personally and professionally.”
During the next hour, Izdahl took Armando around to various individuals. The architect noticed that Izdahl was quite popular. Some of the guests were very persistent in their interests, openly flirting with him. Armando began to feel the sting of jealousy and tried to push it away. When someone’s affection towards Izdahl was uncomfortably ardent for the architect, he turned his mind to his questions about Xersa. Outwardly, he appeared to be engaged in the discourse around him.
Over the course of the party, guests left until only Xersa’s closest family members and friends remained. They sat for a while more, discussing a multitude of matters until almost all of them, including Izdahl, took their leave. Before going to his home, he promised that he would return to pick up Armando, whether it was later that night or in the morning.
Izdahl pulled Armando aside to say goodbye.
“Izdahl…” Armando began tentatively. He was curious but felt some unease about the situation. “I…This conversation with Xersa…Maybe…”
“You’ll be fine ‘Mando,” Izdahl told him, using that nickname for the first time.
“I’ll see you soon then,” Armando said, looking at him shyly.
“Of course.” Izdahl planted a swift kiss on the architect’s lip, surprising and delighting him. “Could I ever really forget about you?”
Armando was nervous, as he sipped a glass of water one of Xersa’s servants had brought to him. Xersa was studying him. Unable to bear the scrutiny, his eyes shifting from her penetrating eyes to the numerous objects in the room; many were from places he had never traveled.
“Be still, Armando. You have no reason to feel apprehension.” Xersa smiled softly and sweetened her tea, stirring the hot liquid slowly as she determined how to begin her explanation. “I’ve wanted to have this conversation with you for several years now. However, I have been reluctant to do so. I believe you understand why.”
“Yes,” Armando admitted. “It’s because I wasn’t willing to listen.”
“True but all that matters is that you are here now. I am glad about this. So, I shall begin.”
“Your parents had been attacked after a conference with Nitelge and human community leaders. There was an ugly battle that night. My husband, Kehalos, and Marishi, Erol’s wife, also died. I carried you and your sister to safety. You were both understandably frightened because you saw some of what happened. Since the experience was so traumatic, I believe you two blocked out much of what took place.”
“Do you know who caused the deaths?”
“No. Many lives were damaged because of their actions. It is unforgivable. To this day, the answer remains hidden but I will learn who it was; the offenders will be punished.”
Armando heard the conviction in her voice and he believed her words. However, his confidence in her didn’t make him more willing to be open with her. He remained silent and Xersa sensed that he was still anxious. In an attempt to sooth him, she began to hum a tune, one that he realized was strangely familiar.
“I’ve heard that before, when I was a child,” he told her.
Xersa was pleased that the tune had stayed with him.
“It’s a lullaby. We Nitelge sing it to our children. When you and Kiana were young, I would watch over you. Sometimes your sleep was troubled. Both of you would have nightmares. Armando, your memory of the death of your parents was the strongest, so the images in your head were the worst. I would sing this song, sending my voice all the way to your home from mine.”
“You could have helped my sister and me so much more!” Armando told her forcefully, suddenly overcome by the throng of emotions. “It sounds as if you and my parents were close. Yet, when they died, you and your clan kept Kiana and me at arm’s-length for decades.”
“You, Kiana, Syrik and Izdahl actually knew each other as children. You played together quite a few times. However, after the death of your parents, you separated from Nitelge as much as possible. Still, everyone in my family has watched over you two, in one way or another for quite some time—some members longer than others. We did not abandon you.”
“Well, why didn’t you ever come to our house?”
“Dearest, please listen. Your uncle demanded that my family leave you alone. He’d always had a strong dislike of us and the loss of your parents did not help. I believe he encouraged your aversion to us.”
“Why didn’t you let me know any of this earlier?”
“I was in conflict. I felt partially responsible for the death of your parents. Had we not had that meeting on that night…I felt deep inside that something was not right. Yet, I still had that gathering…” Xersa paused and let out a long breath. The fierceness of the emotions in Armando’s eyes were reminding her so much of Olivia. His fervent nature was so much like his mother’s. “Armando, let us move forward. Though you were lost for a while, you are now able to see that not all Nitelge are heartless and destructive.”
Armando nodded, stating, “Yes, I’ve changed my views.”
“No,” he admitted, his face going red, “Sometimes, I slip but I’m improving.”
“Look at you blushing,” Xersa teased.
“Well, you make me nervous.”
“I don’t know. Your presence is just…a bit intimidating.”
“You need never feel any fear of me, Armando. Remember that you are always welcomed to ask for assistance from my family. The Amasis will support you.”
“Thank you,” Armando murmured.
Becoming lost in thought, he began absentmindedly playing with the fringed edges of Xersa’s shawl. She smiled at his innocent action, knowing the question that would soon follow.
“The shawl you are wearing tonight, where did you get it?”
“Your mother and I went to the central market one day. We wanted to put aside the intense discussions about the rift between humans and Nitelge. Olivia had recently found out that she was pregnant with you. I had recently learned that Izdahl would be born. The shawls caught both of our eyes. She said that one of her strongest memories was of her mother wearing beautiful ones. So, she always associated nurturing with them. We purchased one for each other to celebrate the new lives that would become part of our world.”
The tender way Xersa was looking at him, a supportive expression he had not seen for decades, caused tears to spring to his eyes. He quickly turned away. Xersa took his face in her hands, watching his tears flow.
“I regret my hatred,” he admitted. “I didn’t know what to do! There weren’t any answers. My uncle barely spoke of what happened. I’ve just learned more about those events from you than I ever did from him. He was never that close to us but he was the last relative Kiana and I had on this planet.”
“I understand that this must be so difficult for you,” Xersa told him, gently squeezing his hand. “As I said, you have the support of the Amasis. By the way, speaking of my family, if you have not noticed, you have definitely been of serious interest to Izdahl, since his university days, actually.”
Xersa looked at Armando out of the corner of her eye, smiling.
“Why are you mentioning this now?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she answered, casually. “Do with it what you will.”