Darion sat in his car for a few moments. He realized that the things Tolrek had brought back from their trip were still in the car. He didn’t know what to do. And then it occurred to him that Tolrek’s belongings were the least of his concerns. On the other hand, keeping them would only mean that he’d have more mementos from the rebel. He decided that the fewer reminders he had, the better off he’d be. He gathered the rebel’s items and took them inside the VSB, leaving them with the guards. Then he went back to his car, preparing himself for the lonely drive home.
Darion put his address into the vehicle’s navigation system.
“Take me home,” he said, activating the autopilot feature.
The words sounded empty. Home would not be the same now. He closed his eyes on the way to his house, trying his best to block out the many images of Tolrek.
Beilon had promised himself to have limited involvement in whatever happened between the rebel and the negotiator. Yet, even he was intrigued by the force of the emotions that had just occupied his office. He was unable to resist the urge to be inquisitive.
“Are you even going to be of any use to me?” he asked Tolrek.
“What do you mean?” Tolrek demanded.
“You should see the look on your face,” the official told him. “Leaving him must have been quite difficult for you. I’m not at all surprised that you developed feelings.”
“Well, this separation is for the best,” Tolrek responded quietly.
“Does knowing that make it any easier?”
“Of course not. He didn’t realize it was coming but it had to be done. Our relationship can wait. There are other issues.”
A slight smile crossed Beilon’s face, as he shook his head in disbelief.
“After what you just did, do you think he’ll welcome you back into his life?”
The pain of the official’s words cut into Tolrek, aggravating the already exposed, raw nerves from his parting with Darion.
“Sir, if you don’t mind, can we discuss the plans?” Tolrek’s question was clipped and tight, containing the barest amount of respect for his superior.
“Naturally, Captain Marou,” Beilon replied, laughing softly.
He did find the situation highly entertaining. However, he still had enough consideration for matters of the heart not to be completely ruthless. He returned to the focus of their meeting, presenting Tolrek with his mission.
Lost in thought and tired from the recent events, it took Darion almost ten minutes to comprehend that his car was going off course. He checked the navigation panel and saw that he’d already passed the exit he usually took.
“Adjust course for home,” he told his vehicle.
It didn’t listen to his command. He attempted to do a manual override but that failed. Instead, the vehicle continued winding its way in the opposite direction of Darion’s house.
The communication panel flickered. It turned on, revealing the face of Meric. He looked particularly pleased with himself.
“Welcome back to Vaironia,” Meric began, his voice coated in derision. “I knew you couldn’t hide on Tildar for too long. I also imagine that you’re worried, since you’ve lost control of your vehicle.”
“What do you think you’re doing, Meric?” Darion demanded, his voice full of barely restrained fury. There was simply too much happening to him today.
“I’m about to claim something I’ve wanted for quite a while,” Meric replied. Then his face grew gaunt with confusion and concern. Blinded by his need to surpass Darion, he hadn’t taken a good look inside the car. It was only when he did that he saw he’d miscalculated.
Darion threw his head back, laughing loudly when he discerned what Meric had tried to do.
“He’s no longer my Pet.”
Darion found it comical, when the color quickly drained from Meric’s face.
“Exactly what do you mean by that?” Meric practically snarled.
“Clearly you were misinformed. You can check the Pet Records if you want. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been updated already.”
“Where is he?” Meric shouted.
“Obviously not with me, you ass,” Darion told him. “Now release control of my vehicle and I’ll ignore this mistake of yours, at least for the time being.”
Meric narrowed his eyes, the evidence of his rage showing as his neck and face reddened.
“How magnanimous of you,” Meric replied, contempt in his voice. The screen flickered and then the angry face of the official disappeared.
As Darion made his way home, he thought about the timing of Tolrek having his Pet status removed. He wondered if Tolrek had determined that a faction would try to claim him so quickly, upon returning to Vaironia. Darion cursed, thinking that this was something he should have considered. He wondered where his mind had been those past few weeks.
After some moments of perfect stillness in his head, he had his answer. He’d been too worried about the immediate danger of losing Tolrek from the things he believed he’d done wrong. He hadn’t been focused on staying steps ahead of his main opponent. His guilt about the way he’d acted with Jarrick had kept him preoccupied too. Otherwise, he would have recognized the signs of what Tolrek was planning. Or, so he told him.
He spent the rest of the ride home contemplating how he would manage himself from this point.
When Darion hadn’t returned with Tolrek, Arjan, Halsam and Fei had opted not to ask any questions.
“I’m sure you all wanted to know but thank you for not ambushing me,” Darion had told them. While having dinner one night, he’d begun to discuss what had happened. Several days had passed before he’d acknowledged the major change that had taken place. “Obviously, you’ve seen from the news that Tolrek is part of the military again.”
The three had remained somber for a while, their mood matching Darion’s.
During the daytime, Darion could occupy himself with the preparations to fight Ersha. However, the nights were particularly difficult. He’d had all reminders of Tolrek removed from his home but the memories were not so easily displaced. There were nights he found himself wandering towards the room where Tolrek had stayed, at least until the rebel had began spending time in Darion’s bed.
It was yet another night that Darion found himself in that room, sitting on the bed, thinking of when he’d been able to watch Tolrek sleep peacefully. He looked up at the large screen television mounted on one wall. He remembered that Fei had shown Tolrek images of him relaxing in the bath hall. That had ultimately caused the rebel to seek him out. It hadn’t been much longer after that when they’d slept together.
He felt his loins stir at the images that flashed through his head. Then he cursed, upset that he’d only succeeded in tormenting himself. There was no truly satisfying way to take care of his need. So, he stretched out on the bed, letting the waves of the memories of Tolrek wash over him.
“Darion, I heard what happened.”
“Jarrick, did you call to gloat?”
“No. But was it really a surprise that he left you?”
“How did you find out?”
“Why didn’t you tell me yourself?”
“Because I don’t want to have this conversation,” Darion said sharply. “I don’t want you digging around in my wounds.”
“I called to offer you support. If you want me there on Vaironia—”
“Oh now you’ll step foot on the planet, now that I’m at my weakest!”
“It’s not like that. I only—”
Jarrick wasn’t able to continue his explanation. Darion abruptly ended the phone call. He was cursing, incensed about his circumstances when Halsam requested his attention.
“A package arrived for you,” Halsam explained. “It’s from Tildar.”
“What is it? I wasn’t expecting anything.”
“It appears to be a painting.”
Darion unwrapped the package. Tezza had sent it and it was the same painting he’d wanted to purchase months ago. He flinched inside, his wounds still unhealed. At work and at home, he couldn’t escape reminders of his ex-lover.
“Halsam, put it someplace where I can’t see it,” Darion ordered.
“Like where?” Halsam asked, faltering. “I don’t know…”
“In the room where Tolrek stayed,” Darion replied softly. “I need to stop going in there.”
A few days later, Darion received a video-call from Tezza.
“I believe that your gift arrived,” she said, smiling brightly. Her smile slowly faded, as she saw the displeased expression Darion’s face.
“I’m not sure why you think I would be happy about it,” he told her.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, first of all, I thought you’d already sold the painting.”
“I did,” she assured him. “I had a contract with the buyer. He even worked for me for some time.”
“Who was it?” Darion asked, wanting to be certain.
“You and I both know that I don’t have to say his name. He didn’t really leave you, D. He just ‘rearranged’ your relationship a bit. I know it’s hurting you. You’ll understand in time.”
“Were you aware of what he was planning?”
“I had my suspicions…”
“Would you have told me if you’d known for sure?” Darion shouted.
Tezza laughed and shook her head.
“Honestly, no,” she replied. “And shouting at me isn’t going to intimidate me, you big oaf.”
“Stop grinning,” Darion told her coldly. “This isn’t the least bit amusing.”
“Of course it is. I agree with what he did. Now, you can have a relationship on the best of terms. Or, are you only sure of yourself when he’s under your boot? That can’t be healthy.”
“I don’t need you trying to psychoanalyze you.”
“Pfft. You’re not as deep as you think.”
“Look, what do you want from me?”
“I want you to listen to me. He paid for the painting last week. He told me to deliver it for your birthday. Obviously he still cares about you.”
“That doesn’t make what he did excusable,” Darion protested. “I was completely blindsided.”
“It’s up to you how you handle it,” Tezza told him. “If you want to be bitter and keep him out of your life, then fine.”
“Why are you so damn eager to defend him?”
“Because I would have handled things the same way. Stop being impossible and enjoy the rest of your birthday. I wish I was there to bake your cake but I’m busy dealing with your brother’s bruised ego.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Tezza explained that Ashrom was currently upset with her. He was unclear about the nature of their relationship. He wasn’t used to expressing his emotions so openly. It caused frustration to spread and had created several arguments in the past weeks. Tezza was patiently working through the issues with him.
“What is it with you Navarr brothers? All the signs are in front of you. Yet, you still can’t see how much someone loves you.”
Tezza signed off, leaving Darion with those words to ponder.
It was two months after Tolrek’s return to the military when Beilon allowed him to see his family. There were few conditions he was ill-equipped to handle. He was facing one of them now. The two women standing in front of him caused a storm of feelings inside him. Anger, confusion, and apprehension were the ones he could identify at the moment. He was still unsure that any of what was happening was real. So, he appraised the women with suspicion, trying to keep his emotional distance from them.
The fact that Beilon had insisted that the meeting take place in his office did not help. Though the official had left the room, Tolrek felt that his every move was still being watched. It made him even more cautious. That tentativeness colored the entire conversation, at least at first.
“My name is Ranai,” the older woman began haltingly. Her dark-green eyes assessed him before she added, “I’m your mother.”
“I’m Sheyla, your older sister,” the second woman explained. She had a guarded expression and stayed near the door, as if she was ready to seize any opportunity to escape.
Tolrek didn’t respond. He only continued to view the women with skepticism.
“I understand that you might not believe anything we say,” the older woman said, giving him a shy, hesitant smile. “But will you at least please listen?”
“I’ll give you a few minutes,” Tolrek replied.
Ranai began to wring her hands and then, overcome with emotion, she covered her mouth, muffling a cry of anguish. Sheyla went to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, providing comfort.
Tolrek watched the two women, feeling them pull at his heart. He cursed softly, hoping that this was real, that it hadn’t been staged by Beilon, or even worse, by Darion. If that was the case, he felt that this was something he could not forgive. Both Beilon and Darion knew how important family was to him. He’d tried to forge one wherever he went, first the orphanage and then the military. It was because he wanted that family connection why he was willing to listen to Ranai, as she began to explain.
“Until a few years ago, I wasn’t sure that you’d survived,” Ranai told him. “For your safety, I didn’t find out where my servants took each of you. My hope was that one day I would see you and your sister again. Over three decades have passed for that to happen but I still consider myself to be fortunate.”
Ranai went over to Tolrek. Slowly, even though she was aware that he might pull away, she reached out to touch his cheek. When he didn’t move, she reached up her other hand and held his face in her hands. Tears slowly began to slip down her face, as she saw the resistance in his eyes soften and disappear.
“I see myself in you,” Ranai told him. “But now that I’m finally able to stand in front of you, you mainly look like Aerik.”
“That must be the name of my father,” Tolrek said, allowing himself to be drawn in by the woman’s emotion. He wanted very much to believe her, wanted to find the place where his story began. “But what is our family name?”
“Adrati,” Ranai answered. “It has been respectable for centuries. Well, that was the case, until it was tarnished during the coup. Those against your father ruined our family’s reputation.”
“Is Tolrek the name you gave me?”
“Yes, it was the last thing I did before I had to let you go.”
“And what about Marou?”
“I have no idea how you received that.”
“What happened?” Tolrek suddenly demanded. “Why did you abandon me?”
“I didn’t abandon you, Tolrek. I had to give up you and Sheyla. There was a coup and your father was killed. They came after our entire family. Sheyla had just turned two and a week earlier, I’d learned that I was pregnant with you. Some of your father’s servants were able to help me get out of the country. We ran and hid for almost a year. I had to give up both of you. You were just nine days old at the time.”
“I found Mother three years ago,” Sheyla said. “I’d been hiding on Mekria again, after almost being caught on Ledano. I’d spent most of my childhood at an orphanage on Mekria. I’d constantly asked about who I was. As much as I’d searched, I couldn’t find anything concrete.”
Sheyla explained that the director of the orphanage where she’d grown up had been dying. As one of his final actions, he’d begun to put the pieces of her past together for her. He’d given her the letter that she’d been gripping in her hands when she’d been left on the steps of the orphanage. It was the only clue to her identity. When she’d read the letter, it hadn’t answered all of her questions but it had given her a place to start.
The orphanage’s director had set aside money to help Sheyla find Ranai. Six years after beginning her search, she had found her mother. From Ranai, Sheyla had learned that she had a younger brother. After making sure that Ranai was safe, she’d begun another search, with only Ranai’s belief that Tolrek was part of their family as a guide.
“What made you think I was related to you?” Tolrek asked Ranai.
“I believe a mother knows her son, even when she’s been forced to give him up.”
“I honestly can’t say I feel a connection to either of you,” Tolrek admitted, finally sitting down. “And I barely know anything about Ledano.”
“I’m not expecting you to be able to process all of this at once,” Ranai soothed, seating herself next to him. “Just promise me that you’ll hear what else we have to say.”
“Hello Darion. I heard what happened.”
Darion tried to stifle a sigh of annoyance. He’d become tired of people contacting him, beginning a conversation with those very words. For the past month, almost all of his interactions had started that way. Some people asked out of genuine concern. Some merely wanted to satisfy their curiosity. Then, there were those who surprised him, ones he hadn’t thought would care. The individual who had most recently uttered those words was none other than his brother.
“You usually don’t care about these kinds of things,” Darion replied, trying to keep his tone cordial.
“Well, maybe Tezza is changing me,” Ashrom told him. “In fact, I thought that I’d take a trip. I haven’t been to Vaironia in quite a while.”
“There’s no reason for you to visit me,” Darion said, his tone frosty. He believed that at least part of his brother’s time on Vaironia would be spent lecturing him. He didn’t want to hear about the many ways Ashrom thought he’d mishandled this situation.
“It’s not all about you, arrogant fool,” Ashrom answered, laughing. “I haven’t seen the rest of my family in a long time.”
“Sorry, hyakon,” Darion murmured. “When are you arriving?”
“In another two weeks. Tezza will be coming with me. There are some things we need to tell you in person.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s the one who helped caused the mess. She’ll have to explain it.”
“Can you at least tell me what it’s about?”
“No. That would only anger her. You and I both know it’s wise to avoid doing that.”
Darion laughed, having complete understanding. He and Ashrom had scars from childhood to prove that infuriating Tezza was not prudent.