Two hours into Tolrek’s time at the market, Darion’s concerns were validated. The rebel was being followed. Tolrek was certain of this. When he stopped periodically to examine or buy products, he’d seen several figures also pause nearby. These people weren’t merely on the same path as him. When he’d suspected he was being followed, he’d purposefully completed a convoluted course of travel.
One of the individuals, concealed in a dark blue cloak, was particularly adept at shadowing him. He wondered if he should handle the situation directly. However, he wanted to be prudent. His knew that his actions could cause trouble for Darion.
He opted to go to one of the more popular venues, wanting to have many witnesses, in case something did happen. He spotted a tent that featured a martial arts exhibition, one of the main attractions at the market. Various individuals, decorated in the same green and gold colors of the tent were encouraging people to enter. Tolrek went into the pavilion that was quickly filling. He made his way to a seat and hoped he could get away from his trackers.
“For now, you and Tolrek will remain on Tildar,” Beilon informed Darion.
The two were having a conversation during a secure videoconference at Tezza’s office. She sat nearby, having been brought in to update Beilon on what she’d helped Darion to learn.
One of Tezza’s contacts had confirmed that several individuals, as yet unidentified, had shown increasing interest in the rebel. In addition, they had requested numerous tracking devices and weapons of a quality few merchants could supply. The individuals had pretended that their purchases were insignificant but the materials, and the enormous price they’d been willing to pay, had not gone unregistered.
“Darion, I want you to be even more vigilant,” Beilon ordered. “There are fewer constraints on protecting Tolrek, if you stay in Tildar. However, be mindful that the influence of those on Vaironia who want him dead is spreading.”
Meric Treih, in particular, had become more vocal about wanting Tolrek back in the VSB’s prison. He was also agitating for the Krezka pilots and their families to be taken into custody again.
Darion sighed after hearing this bit of news. He wondered why Meric was so determined to make his life more difficult.
“What are Treih’s grounds for wanting all of that?” Darion asked.
“He’s using the excuse that the pilots and families might still harbor resentment; he thinks they could be plotting against us. There’s some evidence of that but those individuals are being addressed. The situation doesn’t warrant the extreme steps Meric wants to take. Tolrek returning to Vaironia will only incite things further; more citizens than before are in support of him.”
Many more Vaironians had become sympathetic to the Krezka pilots over the past year. Previously hidden details about the treatment of them had been leaked by an, as yet, unidentified source. Evidence of a clandestine plan to steer the country towards blaming the pilots for losing the last war had appeared in various media. As a result, many Vaironians were angry with the government about what they had learned. Coupled with the constant residual fears about what Ersha was capable of doing, the level of tension in the country had doubled during the past two years.
Numerous protests had started, with some being focused on detaining the pilots again and others supporting the rebels. A few of the protests had resulted in violence, as law enforcement tried to contain the demonstrations. Beilon had determined that Tolrek’s presence in Vaironia would only fuel the situation. The unrest had prompted him to send Darion and Tolrek out of the country.
“Tolrek will be more of a target if he returns,” Beilon continued. “However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are already agents on Tildar. Regardless, if Tolrek stays where he is, at least for a little while, I’ll have additional time to deal with the conditions here.”
“Yes sir,” Darion responded. “And I’ll keep working on the tasks you’ve given me.”
“Remember Darion, you must keep Tolrek from calling too much attention to himself,” Beilon sternly told him, emphasizing the gravity of the situation. “I know others are aware of his location but let’s not have a fiasco.”
“I understand, sir.”
The martial arts exhibition at the Nielou Bazaar was well underway, the performance having captivated the audience. The presentation had begun with a sparring demonstration from the most distinguished of the newest Tildari military cadets. They had illustrated the techniques they had learned over the course of three months. Then as the show progressed, the more highly-skilled members of the military took the center stage.
After the performance, the master of ceremonies pointed out six training circles where those who were interested could learn sparring techniques. Tolrek eagerly took advantage of the opportunity, for several reasons. He had a deep fascination with Tildari forms of combat. He was familiar with the different types of the country’s martial arts but he wanted to hone his abilities. However, of greater importance, he’d be a more difficult target for anyone following him.
He surveyed what was going on at each training area and then headed towards the one that he felt would be the most rewarding. It didn’t take long for him to prove himself a worthy challenger, even to the experienced facilitator. He managed to kick the instructor completely out of the ring, sending him awkwardly crashing onto his backside. And just because he could, Tolrek arrogantly kept his foot high and extended in perfect form for several seconds after doing so.
The instructor laughed and shook his head. He was slightly annoyed, but was unable to keep from admiring Tolrek’s technique. Onlookers clapped and laughed, entertained by the rebel’s antics.
Tolrek was reaching out to help pull up the instructor when Jarrick loomed over the fallen facilitator.
“Have you no pride?” Jarrick demanded of his subordinate.
“Sir, I apologize.” The instructor stood quickly, brushing off his uniform.
The friction crackled in the air and other nearby participants stopped and turned towards Jarrick and Tolrek. “
What have we here?” Jarrick sneered. “Isn’t it Darion’s little Pet? And you’re all by yourself. Did you run away?”
“I have no business with you,” Tolrek replied curtly.
Tolrek remembered Darion’s warning not to engage in a fight with Jarrick. He started to move to another demonstration circle, wishing that Jarrick would go away but his path was blocked.
“Maybe I have business with you,” the official taunted loudly. “Are you trying to avoid me? Is that what they teach you in Vaironia? How to run?” Jarrick opened his arms wide and slowly turned in a circle. He shouted to a now eager audience. “Would you like to see Tolrek Marou, the great Vaironian rebel, fight me?”
There was a cheer of interest.
“We already have fans,” Jarrick noted. “Are you going to disappoint them?”
“I believe I’ll sleep just fine tonight.”
“Of course, cowardly prakchal,” Jarrick sneered, using the pejorative word for foreigner. The rude term sounded similar to rakuchal, the Tildari word for garbage.
Tolrek knew that Jarrick’s aim was to get him to display his anger. Instead of giving Jarrick the satisfaction, he merely laughed and began to walk past him. Then, Jarrick clamped his hand on Tolrek’s shoulder.
The rebel paused, having an inner battle about what to do. Part of him wanted to mash Jarrick into the ground. The other part remained concerned about Darion’s reaction. He and the negotiator were beginning to get back on good terms, having refreshed their relationship. He was reluctant to ruin the progress they’d made. Yet, he thought that Jarrick was deserving of a pummeling.
“Best that you know your place, prakchal,” Jarrick continued to goad.
He moved away from Tolrek, preparing to strike at the rebel. He saw that words alone were not going to affect him. Curious, Tolrek didn’t leave. He waited, wondering what Jarrick would do. He soon found out, being able to dodge Jarrick’s first kick. The second one, he blocked with his right arm. He felt the force all the way through his bones. He was reminded that the Tildari reputation for being powerful was well-earned.
“Still not going to challenge me?” Jarrick asked, his voice sounding deceptively calm.
“Darion ordered us not to do this,” Tolrek replied quietly. As detached as his tone sounded, he could feel the urge to fight rising. He enjoyed a good confrontation and Jarrick certainly deserved to see his skills.
“Do you always listen to Darion?” Jarrick asked, laughing.
He sent a vicious jab that slammed into Tolrek’s chin. It set the rebel’s head to ringing, which in turn knocked out any reservations he had about fighting.
Jarrick had a natural advantage, being almost a foot taller and at least 25 pounds heavier than Tolrek. However, while Jarrick was provoking him, Tolrek had made calculations about his opponent’s abilities. He had already seen Jarrick practicing with Darion and he could pick out the areas where the Tildari official was weak. He planned to exploit them.
“So you’re serious now,” Jarrick commented, noticing the inflexible expression that had come across Tolrek’s face.
Nearby onlookers made a wide circle around the two individuals, interested in what else would happen. The rest of the audience that was further away leaned in or changed their positions to get a better view. Those who were the furthest from the promising fight looked up at the massive televisions. The cameras had zoomed in on the two opponents.
“Aren’t you worried that I’ll defeat you?” Tolrek questioned.
“You, a mere Pet, walk around as if you’re still a soldier, even a Vaironian one. I’m not the least bit worried.”
“Then, why don’t you show me how much better Tildari are, Jarrick?”
After finishing their conversation with Beilon, Darion and Tezza made their way to the Neilou Bazaar. Darion was lost in thought about the information Beilon had shared. So, he didn’t hear Tezza’s question until the third time she asked it.
“Darion, let me try this once again. How are things between you and your rebel?”
“I came to my senses and Tol’s not one to hold a grudge, at least not against me.” Darion chuckled. “He finds me too irresistible.”
“Oh really and when’s the last time you slept with him?”
Darion shifted uncomfortably in his seat, unnerved by the bold question. He was used to Tezza being straightforward. This particular question, however, hit the bone.
“Actually, it has been a while,” he finally admitted.
“Oh be quiet. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“If you say so. Darion, you’re so use to getting your way. Yet, Tolrek has made you work to not only get him but to keep him.”
“It is worth it.”
“I hope you still feel that way when you find out more about Tolrek.”
“You mean regarding his background?”
“Of course. And you’re not the only one who thinks he might be more than he seems.”
Darion knew that Tezza was correct. In the past few weeks, there had been increased attempts to hack into the security system in Darion’s home in Vaironia and in Tildar. Due to Reya’s abilities, the hackers had failed and she was trying to find the source. Kejaro, with Arjan’s assistance, was also gathering intel.
Darion had kept all of this from Tolrek, believing that telling him would prompt a discussion that the negotiator didn’t want to have. He needed to be sure that the clues he’d received so far were leading in the direction he thought. It was possible that Tolrek was not from Vaironia and if that was truly the case, it meant that a series of other things about Tolrek’s life might also be inaccurate. Many suddenly seemed to want to know more about the rebel. And, not all of the curiosity about the rebel was connected to the power he wielded with the Krezka pilots.
The fighting between Tolrek and Jarrick had become more aggressive. Tolrek’s face was now pressed into the dirt, the Tildari soil grinding on his teeth as he strained. He was furious that he hadn’t yet broken free from Jarrick’s grip.
Twisting Tolrek’s left arm while pulling, Jarrick achieved his goal when Tolrek grunted in pain. The rebel’s arm came out of its socket with an audible pop. Jarrick laughed, believing that Tolrek would soon surrender. The Tildari officer had consistently had the upper-hand so far.
Jarrick stood up and stared down at Tolrek, pleased with himself. Tolrek glared at him. Holding his swinging and damaged left arm, he looked around for a sturdy structure to help him fix his shoulder. He spotted one of the supporting beams for the tent and ran towards it, slamming his injured shoulder against it. Onlookers stared at him, cringing. Some were impressed, nodding and murmuring their appreciation. All wondered what would happen next.
Tolrek felt his joint snap back into place and his level of anger went up. He turned to Jarrick, who cursed at the rebel’s tenacity.
“You shouldn’t have stopped your assault,” Tolrek told him. “Now I’m no longer playing.”
Jarrick soon found out that the rebel was telling the truth. His movements became faster; the battle fervor in his eyes was at a stage that surprised Jarrick. Tolrek gained an advantage, returning the favor of damaging Jarrick’s left arm but to a greater degree than his had been injured. There was a snap and one of the bones in Jarrick’s arm broke so violently that it ruptured the skin.
“I bet that hurt,” Tolrek said. “Guess you’ll have to bear the pain. Let’s continue, shall we?”
The sound of Jarrick’s arm breaking had only spurred the rebel. He was now in a zone where few things could stop his onslaught. A series of kicks to Jarrick’s midsection had him floundering.
Shock was now on Jarrick’s face. It was rare for him to be humbled by anyone, especially a foreigner and one of a smaller build. He was at a disadvantage, with Tolrek intensely focused on doing more perfectly-precise harm.
“Where’s your fucking taunting now?” Tolrek demanded. He laughed, as he watched Jarrick stagger to one side after a punch to the midsection. He enjoyed seeing the Tildari show signs of fatigue.
“Bastard!” Jarrick shouted.
He hated Tolrek’s cocky face. Almost every time he saw it, he thought about the rebel being the one Darion loved. He wanted to beat the life out of Tolrek. He swung his good arm at Tolrek, who dodged it.
“I’m just going to let you wear yourself out trying to win. I bet you can’t—”
Jarrick’s right foot silenced Tolrek with a kick to the head. For a few seconds, Tolrek couldn’t see out of his left eye.
“If you think a broken arm is going to stop me, you don’t know shit about me.”
Instead of being bothered, Tolrek laughed, wiping away the blood that was now running down one temple.
“It would seem that we’re not finished, Mr. Abires.”
“As usual, D, you bring such excitement to my life.”
After finding a parking spot at the bazaar, Darion turned off the car’s engine. He looked over at Tezza, who was steadily grinning at him.
“I’m glad my complicated situation amuses you.”
“Well, it is funny,” she told him. “I mean, for you to fall in love with Tolrek, of all people. He represents so much trouble that could come your way, if it hasn’t already.”
“Even if I could go back in time, I’d make the same choices,” Darion assured her. He added the next part quietly, honesty infused in his voice. “Tezz, he means a great deal to me.”
“Well, let’s see where your sweetheart is now.” She activated her locator. “I’m still surprised Tolrek let Reya put the nano-trackers in him.”
“It was that or he’d stay on Vaironia.”
“He’s in the tent where the military exhibition is happening.”
“Naturally. I’m glad we’re in time to see some of it. It never disappoints.”
The two hopped aboard one of the many hovercrafts. These were transporting individuals from the parking areas to the various quadrants of the massive marketplace.
When Darion arrived at the main pavilion, he went through a series of emotions; surprise, fear, anger. His lover and his ex-lover were the center of attention, brawling for everyone to see. They were oblivious to the destruction they were creating as they punched and kicked each other, determined to cause further injuries. The attendees at the bazaar were scrambling to get out of their way. Stall keepers cursed in a variety of languages, as their goods were knocked to the ground and trampled.
“Oh shit,” Tezza breathed out.
Darion stared in disbelief as the path of demolition came towards him.
“Tolrek Marou!” the negotiator shouted repeatedly.
Tolrek ignored Darion, too eager to fight, his fist just having hammered into Jarrick’s face for the sixth time in a row. Jarrick stopped what would have been a seventh punch. An expression came across his face that Darion had seen when he and his ex-lover were teenagers. They’d gotten into a vicious altercation that had resulted in a two broken ribs and a fractured skull for Darion. The same mannerisms Jarrick showed when he was about to shut down his conscience had appeared. His stance had changed, becoming more stable. The aura around him had become more daunting and malice was rippling off him.
Tolrek didn’t know what it was like to be hit by a Tildari with unrestricted power and with no intention of exhibiting self-control. This was not Vaironia where Tildaris had agreed to minimize their power, sealing away the potency that could maim virtually anyone. Even then, they could be quite dangerous. Darion wanted to prevent Tolrek from taking serious damage; the kind of that could puncture organs and separate muscle from bone. He rushed between the battling duo, in an attempt to separate them. His timing was ill-chosen and only made the situation worse.
Jarrick released a fully-powered roundhouse kick at Tolrek’s head, intending to incapacitate him. The blow landed against Darion’s jaw, causing him to lose his footing and knocking him to the ground. Out of practice with handling such force, Darion’s head throbbed violently as the shock reverberated in his head and his vision disappeared for a few seconds. He coughed, as blood burst from his nose and his split mouth.
“Darion!” Tolrek, Tezza, and Jarrick shouted at the same time.
Seeing his lover down triggered a new level of animosity within Tolrek, a type not even he knew he was capable of reaching. Jarrick was going to help Darion when a vicious punch to his throat snatched his breath away. He was unsure of what happened and didn’t have time to process anything before Tolrek released his rage.
Tolrek was completely focused on Jarrick, only able to see the one who had hurt Darion. Jarrick could feel that the tone of the fight had changed. He was certain of it when Tolrek grabbed him by his head, slamming it against the post of a stall. He was forced onto the ground, a hand wrenching his good arm behind his back and snapping it.
Darion’s head was ringing and, while his vision had returned, those around him were nothing but blurry figures. He was still unable to see clearly. Realizing how dazed he was, Tezza was caught between checking on him and trying to calm Tolrek. She knew that the situation could get more dangerous. She chose to tend to Darion.
Eyes wide and fists still acting as merciless pistons, Tolrek’s punches had shattered several ribs, dislocated Jarrick’s jaw, broken his nose and were on their way to knocking his right eye out of its socket.
When Darion was able to get his bearings, he quickly assessed what was happening. This was not how he wanted to see his Tolrek.
“Tolrek, enough! Please! Listen!”
The words echoed in Tolrek’s head and he finally made the connection. Darion was safe. Tolrek came to his senses and he let go of Jarrick, who was now barely conscious.
“I understand,” Tolrek said.
He stood to find that a large crowd had gathered but that people were keeping far away from him. Some were staring at him, their mouths covered in shock. Some were undone by the sight of the beating, averting their eyes from the battered, crumpled body of Jarrick. Some had admiration in their eyes, impressed with Tolrek’s fighting prowess.
The security force at the Bazaar had arrived but was frozen. They were reluctant to engage Tolrek because of what they had seen and because they recognized Darion, Tezza and Jarrick.
“Remain where you are!” Darion ordered the security staff, displaying his identification badge to enforce that he outranked them. He wanted to make certain no officers would try to apprehend Tolrek.
“D?” Tolrek looked to Darion for guidance.
“We have to leave, quickly. Let’s go home. We’ll talk there.”
Darion turned to Tezza, who didn’t need to hear his words.
“I’ll see to Jarrick,” she assured him. “Get Tolrek away. Hurry.”
Their path unblocked, Darion took an arm of Tolrek’s, guiding him to the nearest transport.