“What did you and Ashrom discuss?” Darion asked, as he and Tolrek drove to Tezza’s business.
He’d remembered that his older brother had invited Tolrek to his home; the negotiator was curious about their conversation.
“We didn’t cover much,” Tolrek answered, smiling secretively. “I did get to see pictures of you. You were adorable as a baby but quite awkward as a teenager. That stage was such a pity.”
“Ashrom didn’t show you pictures of me. Be serious. What did you two do?”
“I’m not telling you anything, other than to say that I wish I had siblings.”
“Well, they’re not as easy to deal with as you might think,” Darion told him. “Hmmm…you’ve never met my twin sister, Aleena.”
“I hope you understand why. When you first came to live with me, there were so many uncertainties. Introducing you to my family, at that point, would have been too casual. There are still those in Vaironia who think you have more freedom than you deserve. Some would prefer that you have none.”
“Oh but one always has freedom, Darion.” Tolrek nodded sagely. “It is a state of mind.”
“Yes, of course,” Darion replied. He smiled at the all-knowing expression on his lover’s face.
“Let’s keep with the theme of freedom,” Tolrek told him, seeing a perfect opportunity. “I’d like to go to the Nielou Bazaar.”
“You’ve raised this topic already. I’ve refused your request.”
“That was yesterday’s answer.”
“And today’s. The market is too chaotic. You could easily be hurt; the culprit would disappear into the crowd. My answer is still no.”
“We’re moving on to a different subject. My Grandmother Melrena is back in Tildar. If you remember, she sends me those special chocolates.”
“Oh yes. For that reason alone, I already like her.”
Darion chuckled, knowing how much Tolrek had enjoyed the treat. The rebel seemed the farthest from being a national threat, when he was busy consuming the treats with unabashed bliss.
“I want us to visit her,” Darion explained. “She would never forgive me if I didn’t see her. She’ll let me know when it’s best. We’ll go to the secluded area of Loeda, where she lives. By boat and by car, it’s about a five-hour trip from here. We could use faster transportation but the sights along the way are amazing. I want to show you more of Tildar.”
“Darion, why didn’t we visit your grandmother earlier?” Tolrek asked. “We’ve been here for over a month already.”
“I’m not the irreverent grandson you’re making me out to be, Tol. Gran was teaching a three-week seminar. She used to be a negotiator for Tildar. She retired from that but now she teaches in different parts of the galaxy.”
“Did she teach you?”
“Maybe I’ll pick up some things from her, so I can better handle you.”
“I welcome you to try,” Darion said, laughing.
“You’re definitely fascinated with technology,” Tezza said.
Darion, Tolrek and Tezza were in the Emporium’s office. Tolrek was eagerly examining some drawings, as well as a few gadgets that were in various stages of prototype production. He turned a sphere around in his hands, his graceful fingers activating it, causing it to spin in the air. In a childlike, computerized voice, it announced that it was ready to play a game of hide and seek. Tolrek instructed it to turn off. Then he looked over the specifications for its creation, as he replied to Tezza.
“Yes,” he admitted. “I’m glad Darion brought me here.”
“I haven’t made him happy lately,” Darion confessed, ruefully. “I thought I’d make up for it.”
“What exactly did you do, Darion?” Tezza asked.
Tolrek paused in his exploration of another robotic figure, looking expectantly at Darion, who began a halting explanation.
“Well, I became a little bit um, caught up with uh Jarrick and—”
“Ah! Say no more,” Tezza held up a hand to cut him off. “That’s all I need to hear. I saw the way you and he were the last time you came here.”
“How did they act?” Tolrek questioned.
“That’s all in the past,” Darion quickly stated.
“Make him pay…a lot,” Tezza said to Tolrek, who laughed heartily. “Buy one of everything in the store.”
The negotiator groaned, knowing the rebel didn’t need any encouragement for a reprisal.
“After what she just said, I shouldn’t have you around her,” Darion informed Tolrek. “But I need to run some errands. I want you to stay here.”
“Are you trying to foist him off on me?” Tezza demanded. “I don’t babysit rebels.”
“Hey, don’t talk about me like that,” Tolrek jokingly grumbled. “I really looked forward to coming here. Darion said many good things about you.”
“Well in that case…” She started to guide Darion to the exit of her office. “With you gone, it will be easier to get juicy details out of him anyway.”
“Don’t go too far in what you say,” Darion warned Tolrek.
“Oh stop playing. You have no secrets from me,” Tezza said, slapping him on his rear. “And you were so hot in the video!”
A twinge of jealousy surged through Tolrek. Darion, reading the expression in the rebel’s eyes, grinned and wrapped Tezza in his arms. Dipping her backwards, the negotiator brought her up again to face him and gave her a kiss on her cheek. She punched him in the stomach.
“Don’t use me to make him envious, you oaf.”
“Too late! I’m going to leave you with an angry Tolrek.” Then he grew serious and whispered into her ear. “Please take care of him. I’m very nervous about bringing him to the city.”
“I adjusted my security measures the moment I knew you were coming,” Tezza assured him. “He’ll be safe.”
Darion nodded and left to meet with an informant Tezza had located for him.
“Will you tell me where he’s going?” Tolrek asked. “He was really worried about bringing me here. This must be something serious.”
“I can’t tell you.” Seeing the look of concern on his face, Tezza tried to reassure him. “Darion can take very good care of himself.”
“I know but he’s keeping something from me. He jokes around but for the past few nights, I’ve woken up to find him brooding.”
“And why do you wake up in the first place?”
“I don’t sleep well when I know he’s worrying,” Tolrek replied. He rubbed the back of his neck and grinned sheepishly, embarrassed by the admission.
“Tolrek, it’s not my place to tell you what he has learned,” Tezza said quietly. “But I know that you’re at the center of it.”
“Will it change things between us?”
“That will depend on you two…I’ve said too much already. Damn you for being so attractive!”
Tolrek laughed, appreciating Tezza’s attempt to lighten the mood. He decided he would get answers from Darion later. He had another matter to discuss with Tezza.
“Will you help me?” he asked.
“I want to get Darion a gift, a portrait you’ve made.”
One of Tezza’s hobbies was to create paintings that were self-portraits of her working on some of her creations. She didn’t frequently make those pieces but when she did, people were eager to have them. She preferred to speak to buyers in private and the paintings had been exchanged for many things, from money to rare items from various planets.
“Tezza, I want to get it for him with money I’ve earned,” Tolrek continued. “It wouldn’t feel right purchasing anything with his money. Anyway, I know he admires your paintings. When we entered the Emporium, he stood for a long time and stared at the one by the door. I’d like to get that for him.”
“And just how do you propose to pay for it? It’s one of a kind. Don’t think I’ll give you a discount.”
“I understand,” Tolrek said, laughing. “If I can do some work at your business, that would be great.”
“Is this a ploy to get money to escape?” Tezza narrowed her eyes, assessing him.
“No. I’d really use the money for the gift. Besides, when I’m no longer imprisoned, it won’t be because I had to run from anyone.”
“Do you consider yourself imprisoned, Tolrek?”
“You know what I mean but let’s not focus on that right now. Can we make a deal?”
“Yes, on one condition.”
Tezza moved closer to him and rested her hands on his shoulder. He prepared himself for something significant, based upon the intense look in her eyes.
“You and Darion must re-enact all the things on that video. I really like this one section, where he has you up against—”
“Alright,” she said, chuckling.
They discussed the terms and came to an agreement. She had one of her assistants remove the painting from the front entrance, shortly before Darion returned. It was replaced with an electronic scrolling screen about upcoming crafting workshops at the Emporium.
When Darion returned two hours later, Tezza and Tolrek were in the middle of reviewing her plans for future projects.
“Did you cause trouble, while I was away?” Darion demanded, giving Tolrek a mock scowl.
He grinned widely at the rebel, a bit too widely, not being able to hide his growing anxiety. The information the negotiator had found out caused more troubling questions to start spinning in his head. He feared what the ultimate answers would be and needed to do his best to hide his worries.
Tolrek could sense Darion’s strain, though he didn’t know the circumstances. The rebel made a note to dig into the issues later. For the moment, he would be as lighthearted as he could.
“Of course I caused trouble. How could you leave me with this perverted woman?”
“Perverted?” Tezza complained.
“Woman?” Darion joked, copying Tezza’s tone.
He quickly avoided her roundhouse kick that was aimed at his head. Catching her foot, he pulled her to him. She allowed it, though they both knew she was more than capable of getting out of his grasp. They had spent decades training in martial arts, sparring and causing each other numerous aches and pains from those sessions.
“I think we’ve overstayed our welcome,” he said, laughing.
“I’m glad you can take a hint,” she responded. “Ashrom is coming here in about 15 minutes. Your brother’s even more draining than you are. Imagine that!”
“Ashrom is visiting with you, is he?” Darion gave her a teasing wink. “Which one of your contraptions will you use on him?”
“Pffft! I’ve given him more than enough chances.”
“One more might not hurt. All of the Navarr men are worth the trouble.”
“Do you think that’s the case, Tolrek?” Tezza queried.
“I only know one Navarr man well,” Tolrek replied, smiling. “And that one is worth it.”
“Damn good answer,” Darion told him, savoring the compliment.
“Maybe I’ll try again with Ashrom,” Tezza mused.
At that moment, her computer announced: Sir Ashrom Navarr has sent a message. He says he will arrive at the Emporium in ten minutes.
“I guess that’s our final cue to go,” Darion told her.
“Before you do, I need help around the place. Can you bring Tolrek here during the day? I have some tasks for him.”
Darion looked at Tolrek, surprised. He surmised, correctly, that the rebel had done some recent negotiating. He was about to ask why Tolrek didn’t clear it with him first.
“Don’t even think about protesting,” Tolrek cut him off. “You still have amends to make for how you acted with Jarrick.”
“I…” Darion let out an exasperated breath. “Well, alright.”
“Fantastic,” Tezza responded. “We’ll work out a schedule later…I’ll walk you to the door.”
“Before I go, thank you, Tezz,” Darion said. It was for many things and she nodded, understanding the deeper meanings.
As Darion and Tolrek were leaving the building, Darion paused at the doorway to the Emporium.
“Tezz, you sold the painting?”
“Yes, a few hours ago.”
“Are you serious?” Darion cursed. “I really wanted this one. Who bought it?”
“I’m not telling. Besides, if I know anything about this individual, it’s that he won’t sell it to you.”
Tolrek and Tezza looked at each other, issuing a challenge to not commit some revealing act.
“Tol, do you know who bought it?” Darion questioned.
“Not as well as I should.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing,” Tolrek murmured, looking down at the floor and smiling.
Darion touched his forehead to his grandmother’s. It was the customary Tildari manner for greeting the eldest member of a family. They stated the words that accompanied the gesture.
“I will share my wisdom with you,” Melrena Navarr said, hugging him tightly.
“And I will respectfully accept,” Darion replied, smiling.
A unique sense of peace always came over him, when he was in his grandmother’s presence. He considered her to be quite influential in his life, in some ways, more than his parents.
With an undeniable intelligence, Melrena was mainly responsible for the level of introspection and inquisitiveness in her three grandchildren. In their youth, Ashrom, Darion and Aleena had spent many summers traveling with her. By the time they were in their teens, they had visited almost all sectors of the galaxy. She used nearly every occasion as an opportunity to teach them, whether at home or in the capital of a nation where she was conducting negotiations.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” Melrena said. “For seven years, you haven’t returned to your place of birth.”
“I’m sorry, Gran.”
“No matter.” She gently touched his cheek. “I’m still really proud of you. I wish your grandfather was here to learn of all of your accomplishments.”
Darion looked down at the ground, the mention of his Grandfather Vadim causing him momentary sadness. Vadim had passed away ten years ago. Darion remembered how supportive he’d been when Darion spoke about wanting to go to Vaironia. He’d been the one to encourage him the most.
“Well, I’m sure he continues to watch over us,” Melrena said. She turned her attention to Tolrek. “Which is why he must know that this is definitely the one who has your heart.”
Darion murmured a complaint. Melrena laughed, knowing that she had embarrassed him.
She welcomed them inside her home, which was decorated with elements from the various places where she’d been. Some of them Tolrek recognized. Many were new to him and she could see his interest.
“Tolrek, I’ll give you a tour later,” she promised, leading them to the living room. “First, let’s talk and eat.”
She clapped her hands twice, her multicolored bangles reflecting the light. An android servant brought a tray containing food and drinks, placing it on a table. Then she instructed the robot to get some fresh vegetables from the garden and begin preparing dinner.
While the three of them spoke, the focus being on the events from her latest trip, Tolrek studied her. He found her to be comforting, associating her mannerisms with wisdom and kindness. There were lines around her eyes and mouth, which he attributed primarily to laughing. Already he could see that she had a calm, pleasant personality.
“Have you had much of a chance to travel the country?” Melrena asked him.
“This is really about getting Tolrek out of Vaironia,” Darion explained, pouring her some tea.
“Yes, I remember you telling me that. Still, you can take him to the Nielou Bazaar.” Her brown eyes brightened, as she spoke of the market. “It’s a magnificent sight. There are individuals from numerous cultures. There are also martial arts tournaments. Every year, the Tildari army has exhibitions, since our style of fighting is renowned. Plus, the entire place is bursting with products from all over the galaxy. If you know what you’re doing, you can even outright charm some of the vendors. A few years ago, I was able to talk a Leptian merchant into giving me a 75% discount on this silk cord.” She motioned to the golden strand that was intertwined in her long, braided white hair. “The threads are from a silk worm that is incredibly rare.”
“Grandmother, even the smallest win excites you,” Darion teased.
“It was hardly a small win,” she lightly chided her grandson. “I debated with this vendor for over 30 minutes! Do you know how much these costs, even on Leptia? Humph, give me my due…Tolrek, from what I’ve learned of you, you appear to have some skills. Who knows what you could convince someone to do?”
“I would very much like to go,” Tolrek began. He paused for dramatic effective. “However, Darion won’t let me. It’s so unfortunate.”
Darion frowned at him, realizing what the rebel was trying to do. Tolrek smiled with as much innocence as he could assemble, given his motives.
“Why not?” Melrena asked her grandson, who sighed.
“It could be quite dangerous.”
“Even with all the technology you have, in order to know his whereabouts?”
“I do have great technology but I need to be prudent.”
Darion slowly shook his head, signaling that he did not want to have this discussion. However, his grandmother ignored his indication, pressing on with the conversation.
“Being prudent doesn’t mean you have to deny him such a unique pleasure. Must this only be about you?”
“Grandmother, Tolrek’s circumstances are distinctive.”
“Are you not the one who helped to create those circumstances?”
“Yes. However, had he not rebelled—”
“He would not be your lover,” Melrena finished, deflecting what Darion meant to say. “Aren’t you benefiting from his rebellion? Did your status not increase? Is he not registered as your Pet? Isn’t permitting him to go to the market the least you can do?”
“Tolrek’s safety trumps any value he could gain from going there,” Darion responded firmly. “He is ultimately a prisoner of Vaironia. I only have so much leeway.”
“What about finding out just how well you can protect him? Shouldn’t you test the strength of the opposition and your security features? Do you doubt your ability to see to his safety?”
Melrena stared pointedly at her grandson, daring him to break down her logic.
“At times, yes, I do doubt it,” Darion admitted. “He’s prone to stubbornness.”
“And we come back to his rebellious nature, of which you were already familiar.”
“Alright,” Darion ground out. “I’ll allow him to go for one hour.”
Melrena gasped dramatically, making it clear that she was shocked by Darion’s stinginess.
“How unfortunate and embarrassing! I thought you had more regard for him.”
“Two hours at the most.”
“Four because of the video.”
“The one where you humiliated him. Surely your memory is not failing you.”
“You know about that too?” Darion grunted in exasperation. “Never mind…”
Darion looked at Tolrek, who was offering no help. Instead, the rebel had been keenly observing, hoping he could later hone his techniques. “I’ll allow him to go to the market.”
“Oh, you are so caring.” His grandmother smiled brightly at him, a twinkle of satisfaction in her eyes. “I knew I had a positive influence on you.”
Darion shook his head at how easily she had disarmed his arguments.
Melrena then looked at Tolrek, her eyes piercing him.
“I hope you don’t think I didn’t see through your plan. I recommend that you work on your negotiation skills. I won’t always be present to assist you.”
“Yes ma’am,” Tolrek said, laughing.
Darion grinned at his lover, glad that the rebel had been scolded.
The two stayed at Melrena’s home that night, dining and talking some more. Melrena treated Tolrek to embarrassing stories about Darion in his youth, including an incident that involved Mekrian fire ants in uncomfortable places.
The next morning, when Darion and Tolrek departed, the rebel was quiet and pensive for much of the ride home.
“Tolrek, is something wrong?” Darion asked.
“I was imagining what it would be like to have a family.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the visit would cause you to feel badly.”
“I don’t feel that way, really. I haven’t met all of your family but it’s clear you’re well-loved…Even if I can’t have that, I’m glad that you can.”
“You are well-loved, Tol,” Darion murmured. “By me.”
A small, slightly forlorn smile appeared on Tolrek’s face. He turned away from Darion and looked out of the car window, becoming lost in his thoughts.
Darion’s heart was heavy. He’d been quite open with Tolrek just now. Yet, his words went unacknowledged. It stung. It was not as if they’d never exchanged verbal expressions of love. Perhaps deep down inside Tolrek was still holding resentment about Darion’s actions with Jarrick. Darion hoped that was not the case.
“Four hours, Tolrek. No more. I expect you to meet me right here.” Darion motioned to the point where they were standing.
“Yes, I know. I already heard you,” Tolrek responded. “Anyway tell me again how I should buy things?”
Tolrek was aware of the process, as Darion had explained it during breakfast that morning. However, the rebel was trying to distract him from the remaining misgivings he was having.
“After you pay for your items, give the merchant the location of that pavilion.” Darion nodded towards a large pavilion, which was a short distance from where they’d parked. “Anything you buy is delivered there, unless it’s something you eat right away, obviously. When you first purchase something, you’ll get a receipt that has a number at the top. All your other receipts will have the same number. That identifies your items in the pavilion as yours, since your purchases will be labeled with the same number. We’ll pick up everything at the end of your time here.”
There were a series of pavilions set up in the various parking lots, which would be delivery areas for purchases. Shoppers would not be burdened with their purchases, as they navigated the market.
“That’s nice and efficient,” Tolrek said, smiling a little too widely. He was doing everything he could to remain on his best behavior.
“It is, especially since thousands of people are here.”
Darion looked around again, reconsidering his decision. Realizing this, Tolrek stifled a grumble, eager to leave before the negotiator changed his mind. The rebel glanced around impatiently, wanting to explore the numerous sights and sounds around him. Not too far away, he could see one of many lines of vendors. The nearest section contained food, where the closest dealer was selling skewered beef with rice. The scent of it was tantalizing Tolrek and he could almost taste it. He was eager to hurry off and haggle for what he hoped would be one of many worthwhile items. Instead, he had to wait and listen to Darion’s lecture.
“And Tolrek, be careful,” Darion continued. “Just because you’re on Tildar doesn’t mean the danger is gone. I can’t believe I’m even allowing you to do this.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.
“I’ll be fine,” Tolrek quickly said.
“Remember what to do in case of trouble.”
“Darion, if I can pilot a Krezka, I can damn well…” Tolrek stopped, deciding that any rudeness could make Darion cancel his plans. The negotiator was looking at him with a raised eyebrow, daring him. The rebel smiled widely again at him, changing his tactics. “Of course, I’ll heed what you have said.”
“Good. Then you can go.”
Darion watched him leave, wondering if he’d regret his decision. Pushing aside his apprehension for a while, he steered his vehicle away from the market, thinking about another difficult issue. He needed to speak with Beilon. The official had contacted him about possibly returning to Vaironia sooner than he had expected.