Tolrek had decided to continue the conversations with his mother and sister. He was once again in Beilon’s office, which is what the official required when the rebel met with his family. Tolrek was digesting the information his family had already given him and was preparing to learn much more.
“Ledano has shut itself off from the outside,” Sheyla explained. “I barely get any news about what’s happening but I know many people are suffering. Those who killed our father are still running the country.”
“The nation has changed so much,” Ranai added. “It isn’t the place where I grew up. And, our family has lost a great deal. I’m surprised that we finally had a chance to be together.”
“We were given this opportunity because it advances Beilon’s plan,” Tolrek reminded her. “We mustn’t forget that. Don’t be complacent. I don’t want either of you to be at a disadvantage.”
Tolrek was aware that he and his family were receiving privileges because he remained an asset to the Vaironian government. He also knew that Beilon regularly spoke with Ranai and Sheyla, trying to find out as much as he could. The rebel hadn’t yet learned what the official’s ultimate goal was but he remained vigilant.
“I’ll remember your concerns,” Ranai said. “I will be careful. Still, I am happy to have this chance.”
Tolrek smiled, realizing that his tone might have been a bit sharp. His mother had gone through decades of heartache. It was understandable that she would take joy wherever she could find it.
“I can’t believe we’ve managed these meetings, given Tolrek’s actions,” Sheyla stated, sounding annoyed. “Orzon, my husband, was helping me follow you at the bazaar.”
“I did detect your presence,” Tolrek said, his suspicions confirmed.
“We thought it would be our best chance to contact you, since you were alone,” Sheyla told him. “Then, suddenly, you were calling attention to yourself by fighting. You’re so reckless!”
Sheyla shook her head. Her annoyed expression was one an older sibling would level at a younger one. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Tolrek chuckled, remembering the brawl with Jarrick.
“It’s not as if I meant to upset your plans,” Tolrek said, taking in the vexation on Sheyla’s face. “Anyway, what is your next move?”
“Orzon was abducted two days after the bazaar. I’ve since learned that he was taken back to Ledano but I don’t have an exact location. As soon as I can, I’ll return there. Since I’m sure Father tried to prevent the coup from happening, I feel that I have to do something for our country.”
Ranai wanted to protest her daughter’s plans. However, when she saw the stubborn expression on Sheyla’s face, she knew there would be no reasoning with her.
“I can’t help you, at least not right way,” Tolrek admitted. “I’d need to find out more about the situation. Besides, I have other immediate responsibilities here.”
“Of course,” Sheyla replied. “I understand. Honestly, I’m surprised you’ve been open with us.”
“You don’t have a cold heart,” Ranai said, smiling at Tolrek. “Nor can you be taken for granted. You know the truth when you hear it.”
“Knowing the truth and doing something about it are two different things, mother,” Sheyla chided gently. “Tolrek has already carved out a life for himself. He’s not interested in our problems.”
“Is that true?” Ranai asked, her eyes searching his face.
“Yes, for the time being,” Tolrek told her. “I’ll continue serving in the Vaironian military, at least until the conflict with Ersha is resolved.”
“How can you still be so loyal when you were imprisoned by Vaironia?” Sheyla asked.
“It’s more complicated than some people realize,” Tolrek assured her.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I can’t get into that.”
“And your relationship with that negotiator, is that complicated too?” Ranai questioned.
“I can’t get into that either,” Tolrek replied, smiling sadly at his mother.
“Do what you need to do,” Ranai told him, squeezing his hand. “Sheyla and I will support you.”
“Don’t be so quick to volunteer me, mother,” Sheyla complained. “I can only handle a few lost causes at a time.”
“Tell me how you really feel,” Tolrek said, laughing. “Please don’t hold back.”
“Tezza for the win,” Tezza exclaimed, elbowing Ashrom in his side and laughing.
She reclined against the couch, looking quite pleased with herself. She was visiting Darion. Ashrom, who’d accompanied her, was doing his best to ignore her smug countenance and Darion’s accusatory look. Darion had just been told about the events behind the visit. It turned out that Ashrom had lost a bet to Tezza.
Two months ago, the pair had gone on a sexual hiatus, making a bet about who would break first. If Ashrom had won, his prize would have been for Tezza to buy him a new cruiser. He’d wanted to travel through the Wilean Desert, which was located in a southeastern section of their home planet. Tezza’s chosen prize was the trip to Vaironia, with Ashrom covering all expenses.
The catalyst for Ashrom’s defeat had been one that Tezza had planned for some time. She’d pretended to be too fatigued to return to her place for the night, sleeping at Ashrom’s home. The following morning, while he’d been calmly reviewing the news of the day, she had emerged from the shower, finding him in his study. Her wet, smooth skin had tantalized him as she‘d bent backwards, giving him quite a view of her level of flexibility, among other things. He had coughed, reading the same sentence over again and again, as he’d pretended that he hadn’t noticed. So, she had adjusted her tactics, straddling him, teasing him until she’d completely broken his already severely weakened resolve.
“Ashrom, when you called me, you made it sound like it was your idea to come to Vaironia,” Darion said.
“Details, details,” Ashrom responded, waving a hand dismissively.
He selected a piece of fruit from the tray that Arjan had provided them. He chewed slowly on his snack, as images of loving retribution against Tezza played through his head.
“I give him credit for the fight he put up; it was quite valiant,” Tezza said, squeezing one of Ashrom’s thighs.
Darion noted the ease between his brother and his long-time friend. It reminded him of the banter he’d had with Tolrek.
“Tezza, it seems that you have quite a bit of influence with my brother,” Darion murmured. Then he took the opportunity to tease Ashrom, even as he formally addressed his older brother. “Hakyon, are you in love with her?”
“Absolutely,” Ashrom responded. “And she knows it.”
The speed and the strength of the definitive answer pleased Tezza. She understood that he was usually quite private about his sentiments, even with his family sometimes.
Hearing the depth of Ashrom’s feelings, Darion thought again of the one who mattered deeply to him. Ashrom tried his best to give him support, as he could read where his sibling’s thoughts had wandered.
“Tolrek has a plan,” he said. “He didn’t tell you but trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
“He hasn’t become interested in anyone else,” Tezza added.
“How do you know?”
“His activities are all over the news,” she told Darion, as evidence for her belief. “He has many admirers but the attention is never reciprocated.”
“Even if that’s so, it doesn’t mean…” Darion’s voice trailed off. The pain of the subject matter was on the surface for him again. Over the past few months, he’d managed to avoid addressing it, pretending that not much had changed in his life. “I want to put this topic aside.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Tezza said, seeing the pain in his eyes. “I’ve wanted to apologize for some time now.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s something I might have set in motion.”
When Tolrek had worked at the Emporium, he and Tezza had spent many hours talking. Darion was often the topic of conversation. Tolrek had expressed the conflict he felt about their relationship. He wanted to be with Darion. Tezza understood but had pointed out that it could never happen in a way that mattered, as long as Tolrek remained Darion’s Pet. She’d also reminded him that several factions wanted to use him to influence the course of events. And it was likely that someone would hurt Darion to get to him. She’d expressed that for him to be with the negotiator completely, he had to figure out a way to leverage his abilities. The tides were changing in Tolrek’s favor. He could use that but the timing had to be correct. Tolrek finally admitted to her that he had already considered those circumstances and that he knew what he would do.
“His aim was to protect you and, hopefully, to be with you on equal terms.”
“You mean you knew what he’d do when he returned to Vaironia?” Darion asked.
“No, Darion. I wasn’t sure.”
“But you did have some idea,” Darion stated coldly.
“Yes,” Tezza murmured.
“As one of my closest friends, you couldn’t have told me where things were headed? You couldn’t bother to help me avoid what I’m feeling now?”
“Darion, in Tezza’s defense—”
“Ashrom, she has no defense!”
Tezza flinched at the uncompromising anger in Darion’s voice. Even so, she pressed on with the other things she wanted to say.
“I don’t like to see you wallow in self-pity,” she told her longtime friend. “If you would stop and think, you’d realize the depth of Tolrek’s feelings for you.”
“But I do realize it! That’s why I miss him so much. The least he could do is contact me.”
“Why can’t you contact him?”
“Beilon has forbidden me,” Darion muttered.
“I didn’t know he was so soft-hearted,” Ashrom said, as he laughed.
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No. Think about it, little brother. Beilon has virtually guaranteed that Tolrek would stay on your mind.”
“I’d hardly call that soft-hearted,” Darion grumbled.
“Isn’t it? Did he forbid Tolrek to contact you?” his brother pressed.
“Not that I know of.”
“And wasn’t it Tolrek who left?”
“If Tolrek does contact you, wouldn’t that be important?”
“Maybe…” A small smile spread across Darion’s face.
“Okay, I think you get it now,” Ashrom said. “I won’t have to spoon-feed you any longer. However, out of curiosity, why haven’t you gone against Beilon’s orders?”
“Following his order suits my pride,” Darion replied stubbornly. “Besides, as you clearly know, Tolrek was the one who left.”
“I hope that kind of thinking works for you,” Tezza teased. “At least it sounds like you’ll stop this pathetic moping.”
“You know what, Tezz, sometimes you’re a real pain the ass.”
Ashrom halted Tezza’s reply by holding her hand and bringing it to his lips. Her attention now off Darion, she looked at her lover.
“Sweetness, can you give us some time alone?” Ashrom asked. “I need to fulfill a promise to you.”
Understanding what he meant, Tezza stood to leave. She gently stroked his cheek and then leaned over to give him a kiss.
“Thank you for listening,” she told him. “Have your brotherly bonding. I’ll see you two in a few hours. I promised Reya we’d have lunch together, at least, that’s our official story. Be prepared to bail us out of jail.”
“I’d prefer not to have to do that,” Ashrom said, laughing.
When Tezza had gone, Ashrom cleared his throat.
“There’s an issue we’ve never really discussed,” he began. “It’s about those years when we didn’t speak to each other.”
“That’s not how I remember it,” Darion responded. He was already feeling guarded. He knew the matter that Ashrom was about to raise. Previous conversations about it had not been pleasant.
“Fair enough,” Ashrom admitted. “I’m the one who cut off communication.”
“Yes, before you said that you wished our parents would disown me.”
“I was very angry with you, Darion.”
“And disappointed,” Darion added quietly.
“Yes, but I still cared. I was worried…Now, I have some things to show you.”
Ashrom opened up his computer tablet. He accessed file after file about Darion. He’d followed his younger brother’s career, collecting photographs, articles and video clips.
“You kept all of these?” Darion asked, surprised.
“Why? I never thought you’d care.”
“I always paid attention to you—and Aleena.”
“Yes, to compete, to show how much better you were than us…”
“No,” Ashrom told him, firmly. “You two are twins. It’s hard to be your sibling. You both were also very independent and when you weren’t standing by yourselves, you were depending on each other. I didn’t know what to offer you as an older brother.”
Darion sat quietly, stunned by the truth that had finally come from him.
“I’ve often measured myself against your level of success,” Darion confessed.
“There was never a reason for you to do that.”
Darion surveyed his brother, pleased with what he had revealed. He was glad that Ashrom had initiated the reconciliation.
“Did Tezza encourage you to do this?” Darion asked, as he refilled his brother’s wineglass and then his own.
“Yes. It’s difficult to stay closed-off with her. Now I’m much more open.”
“Ash, I think she’s good for you.” Darion smiled. He realized that he hadn’t used his brother’s nickname in almost ten years. Ashrom laughed, the same thing going through his head.
“Tezza has been good for me and Tolrek has for you.”
“But it has been almost three months. I haven’t heard anything from him. I’m on auto-pilot. I’m tired of believing he’ll contact me…”
“Give it some more time,” his brother encouraged. “Fortunately, there are important matters to occupy your time.”
Ashrom’s words reminded Darion of what he had spent the past several months doing. The day after he’d returned to Vaironia, Beilon had explained that his duties were being realigned. He was no longer to focus strictly on negotiating. Beilon wanted him to branch out and develop more talents. His primary projects were to help finalize the battle strategy against Ersha, as well as oversee the acquisition of QikMed technology from Tildar. To accomplish the tasks Beilon set for him, he had been working overtime, days and weekends. This was a rare weekend when he wasn’t at his office or in his study, focusing on his assignments.
Maybe Ashrom and Tezza are right, Darion thought.
Beilon was being merciful; he was occupying Darion’s time. There were few instances, at least during the day, when he was able to think of Tolrek.
The caller didn’t have to identify himself; Darion knew. He remained quiet, unsure what to say. He wrestled with his anger, his pride and his pain. He was glad that Tolrek had called but the rebel had left him. There had been no warnings, at least none that he could figure out. He’d gone over everything he could consider, trying to see where there had been a hint of what Tolrek had planned to do. He’d thought that if he couldn’t find an answer, then many other things Tolrek had said and done had been empty too.
“Darion, say something,” Tolrek prompted.
“It appears that military life suits you, Commander,” Darion finally responded. “I wish you well.”
His tone was all business, giving no indication of the connection between him and the rebel.
“You should understand my position. I only—”
“Surely you have more important things to do than bother me. I bid you good night.”
Not wanting to hear anything else from Tolrek, Darion abruptly hung up.
Darion was having his weekly briefing with Beilon. Among other things, the two were discussing the situation with Meric Treih. Darion was especially interested in finding out Beilon’s views on the next possible steps for Meric. Given his recent activities, the official was under investigation for the possibility that he was inciting citizens to oust the Prime Minister.
“What do you think he’ll do now?” Darion asked.
“He’ll likely use the investigation to his advantage,” Beilon replied. “He claims that he is merely representing the views of those without the same political authority he has.”
“A likely story…I wonder if he would have made an attempt at abducting Tolrek. He was furious when Tolrek was no longer my Pet.”
Darion had informed Beilon about when Meric had commandeered his vehicle.
“It would have been better if he’d gone further than that,” Beilon stated, sighing. “However, unfortunately for us, he realigned his tactics.”
“There should have been sanctions for his actions,” Darion huffed. His annoyance about the official’s boldness was rekindled.
“I understand but our options are limited. The Prime Minister isn’t ready to do anything else against him. Besides, I want him to remain where I can keep an eye on him. He’s arrogant enough to stay in his position, despite the fact that he works against me. Sooner or later, he’ll make a mistake.”
For the time being, Darion would have to wait. He realized that the prudent thing to do was to follow Beilon’s lead. As eager as he was to have Meric removed from office, it would have to be done in such a way that wouldn’t create more supporters for him.
Beilon studied Darion, realizing that he was wrestling with what he wanted to do, versus what he should do. When he saw the deep frown leave the negotiator’s face, he smiled.
“There’s no need to worry,” Darion assured him. “I won’t jeopardize your plan for handling Meric. I just ask that I have a main role in it.”
The two were silent for a few moments, each thinking of the possible scenarios that would take place over the coming months. They had many interests to juggle.
“Even with everything else that is happening, I’m sure your curiosity is getting to you,” Beilon said, breaking the silence. He looked at Darion expectantly.
“Yes, well that’s true,” Darion began, haltingly. “How are Tolrek and his family?” He hadn’t spoken to Beilon about the rebel, since Tolrek had returned to military service. That didn’t mean Tolrek was far from his mind.
“I was wondering when you would get around to asking about him,” Beilon stated, looking at him pointedly. “At any rate, things are going quite well. As stubborn and ungrateful as he acts, I know he’s pleased to have met Ranai and Sheyla. He regularly visits them, even asked if I would have dinner with his family.”
“He wanted me to answer the questions they have.”
“News of Sheyla’s husband, among other matters. They wanted to know if I could offer assistance.”
“And what did you say?”
“I gave them an unofficial answer.”
“Do you have any other questions?” Beilon asked. The look he gave the negotiator made it clear that he wouldn’t respond to Darion’s previous query, at least for the time being.
“You sound quite partial towards him,” Darion stated. He wasn’t sure he liked this new develop.
“I am with both of you. You have the drive this country needs.”
“Should I be concerned about what you’re planning for us, Beilon?”
“You should always be concerned about what I’m planning,” Beilon said laughing.