Tolrek was finding the visits with his mother to be vital. He was able to learn about his family and, by extension, learn about himself. The questions he’d had over the years were being answered.
Shortly after having dinner with Ranai and Sheyla, Tolrek and Ranai had settled into the living room of the house he’d purchased for them. Sheyla had been content to explore the city, her mind occupied with thoughts of her husband.
Once again, Ranai was filling in the gaps in Tolrek’s background. Tonight, she was particularly nostalgic. The anniversary of her husband’s assassination was the next day. For decades, she’d had to relive that time by herself, unable to speak with anyone. It was a relief to be able to speak of him.
“I grew up in a wonderful family and had virtually every privilege imaginable,” Ranai began. “Aerik arrived from the western region of Ledano and he barely had any possessions. He became one of the groundskeepers at my family’s estate when he was in his early twenties. I spent hours talking to him, much to the concern of my mother. There were many other things he was capable of doing. Overtime, he grew close with my family and particularly close with me.”
Ranai smiled, remembering the calm, confident nature of the man who’d won her heart. In time, she’d found that Aerik was a force of nature. He’d been able to persuade just about anyone to trust him. More importantly, he’d used that ability properly.
He’d had ambitions to shape the country, to give it a prominent place on the planet and then, hopefully, extend its influence to other sectors. When he and Ranai had spent time together, they would discuss the vision he had for the nation. Agreeing with his views, she’d used the vast connections she had to help him. Ranai had spoken to her father, Calden. Calden, who’d been an advisor to King Viyes Retani VIII, had observed Aerik’s success with gaining people’s confidence. He’d encouraged the young man to enter local politics and to create a name for himself. Over the years, he’d groomed Aerik, as he had recognized that Aerik would be an asset on a wider scale.
Aerik’s rise had gained him and Calden numerous enemies. The two weren’t content for the country to continue as it was, focusing on shutting out the rest of the world. They had made suggestions to their king, opening his mind to the possibilities of connecting to the planet’s other nations and then to other worlds. The Ledani who were more insular had grown increasing alarmed. The Kingdom of Ledano occupied a significant portion of the planet, making change that much more difficult. Over the course of a few years, high ranking officials who opposed the king had fermented a plot to commit regicide and assassinate those closest to him. One night, the faction had come for Aerik and Ranai, before they’d even known that the king and her parents were dead.
“I very much loved your father,” Ranai said. “However, there was one thing about him that scared me. His temper. I do not say that lightly. Many people believe they have a temper. However, they could not comprehend the damage your father could inflict. He never hurt me; he never hurt your sister. But I always sensed he had a deep, destructive rage in him. On the night of the coup, I saw what he could do. While it still frightens me to think of how ferocious he was, I know his ability was the only thing that saved your sister, you and me.”
When they had been threatened, a side of Aerik that Ranai had never seen came out. The anger that coursed through him, the drive to protect his loved ones, was fueled by a fury even he had not known he could reach. By the end of the clash in home, he’d been coated in the blood of his enemies. He’d killed all twelve of the assassins who had been sent to eliminate him and his family. However, the wounds he’d suffered had been too much for him to withstand. He had died in his wife’s arms, as she’d wailed. Grief burrowing inside her, she’d followed the plans she and Aerik had made, as they’d suspected there would be a coup. Ranai, pregnant with Tolrek, had taken her young daughter out of the country, protected by the two individuals she and Aerik had trusted the most.
“I never had the chance to bury my parents or him properly,” she said, her voice breaking. “I had to leave Aerik’s body there, on the floor next to that unworthy filth who tried to kill all of us.”
“You don’t have to continue,” Tolrek said. “This is too hard for you.” He held his mother as she cried, reliving the night that had led to many losses.
“These kinds of things are always difficult to discuss but I do want to tell you. You’ve lived all of your life without knowing.”
The two were quiet, as Ranai leaned her head against her son’s shoulder. She was thinking of how to broach the next subject, which had been troubling her for some time. Finally, she decided to begin slowly.
“Tolrek, I have been reading about you. I read of your fight with someone called Jarrick Abires. I saw the footage too. When you were fighting him, you reminded me of your father.”
“What do you mean?”
“You had a single intent. You would have killed him, if you were pushed much more. What exactly led you to reach that level of anger?”
“Darion had been hurt. I don’t know what came over me. I’d never felt that way. When I saw him stumble to the ground, bleeding, I didn’t feel like my usual self.”
“We must read more about Aerik’s people from Western Ledano. They are…they are not like other Ledani. When I was first dating Aerik, I did research on the region from where he came. I learned a great deal. However, I always felt that some things I could only learn from someone who came from that area. And Aerik was reluctant to answer all of my questions.”
“Have you known any others from Western Ledano?”
“No, they tended to stay isolated from the rest of us. Aerik was an exception. His curiosity led him to travel.”
Ranai became quiet again. She lay back against the couch and closed her eyes, trying to bottle the memories from all those years ago. When her breathing became steady and she drifted into sleep, Tolrek gently carried her to bed and placed a blanket over her.
He went out on the balcony, staring up at the stars. The cool night breeze stirred his hair, as he thought of what Ranai had told him. The conversation with his mother had answered several questions but it had raised more. What had she meant about his father’s people? What was her concern about Aerik’s rage?
“I’m proud of you,” Darion told Halsam. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
Halsam basked in the praise of his mentor. The graduation ceremony had ended and he was enjoying the reception with the rest of the former apprentices. Over the years, he’d matured into a confident individual. Darion could not believe that the young man standing in front of him was the same meek person who’d barely been able to look him in the eye.
“Thank you for everything,” Halsam said. “I know that I sometimes tested your patience.”
Darion laughed at the amount of times he’d had to restrain himself from berating Halsam. He’d known that being too hard on the young man would only make him retreat more. He’d sensed that Halsam had dealt with enough harsh criticism from his father. Halsam had been wary to subject himself to the care of someone with such an imposing presence as Darion. However, he’d been well rewarded for it and pleasantly surprised that, while Darion had high expectations, he was also reasonable. Now, because of his support, Halsam had been able to get a position in the government. The young man would now spend two years as an intern. He’d go through rotations in four different sectors of the government. The areas where he’d spend his time had been selected by him, based upon recommendation for the seven officials who had interviewed him.
Darion was giving Halsam tips for the internship, when a familiar voice interrupted them.
“Don’t be that impressed with yourself,” the two heard. “Or, I’ll put you in another headlock.”
Halsam and Darion turned to the person who had spoken. Each showed very different reactions; one expressing excitement, the other removing all emotion from his face.
“Tolrek!” Halsam exclaimed. Without hesitation he hugged Tolrek tightly. “I’m glad you could come.” Halsam had invited Tolrek to the graduation but had little faith that he would appear. He knew that Tolrek was quite busy.
“I wish you still feared me,” Tolrek said, laughing. “It’s hardly professional for you to act this way.”
His face reddening, Halsam composed himself.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that I haven’t seen you in about six months, well, not in person,” he said, giving Tolrek an accusatory look. “You’ve been in the media quite frequently.”
“You could have contacted me.”
“I didn’t know if I should,” Halsam murmured. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted any connections with us anymore. I figured since you left Darion, you certainly wouldn’t care about…” Halsam’s voice trailed off, as he realized how bluntly he had spoken. He flinched when he looked at Darion, who was not pleased with him. One eyebrow was raised and the glare he’d elicited over the years was now aimed at him yet again.
“I see you continue to say inappropriate things,” Tolrek teased.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Halsam said by way of escape. He hurried off.
“Well this is awkward,” Tolrek stated. “I suppose you’re not particularly pleased to see me.”
“I’m not,” Darion assured him.
“Why don’t you just forgive me?” Tolrek asked, grinning. “I did reach out to you. You hung up on me.”
Darion glanced around, now aware that they were a source of interest. Numerous people were keenly listening, trying to glean information from the conversation. The negotiator guided Tolrek over to a more secluded area of the ceremonial hall.
“You’re the one who left,” Darion reminded him.
“You should understand my reasons, D.”
“You could have given me a clue!” Darion shouted. Then he quickly controlled his voice. “Do you know how I felt after your surprise announcement?”
“I know it was difficult. Despite your anger, I noticed that you haven’t replaced me.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Then who are you with now? Jarrick?”
“I considered it.”
“But I’m damn irreplaceable, aren’t I?”
“Arrogant, as ever.”
“I couldn’t have gotten through everything without my arrogance,” Tolrek pointed out.
“Good for you,” Darion replied coldly.
“Why do you have to pretend? If I didn’t mean anything to you, why did you keep the painting?”
“I went by your house in the city. I saw the painting in your study.”
“Fei let you into my house?” Darion shouted.
“Of course,” Tolrek replied. “She doesn’t hold a grudge like you do.”
Darion cursed in disgust.
“I didn’t keep the painting because you bought it,” Darion spat out. “I kept it because Tezza made it.”
“It’s clear you’re too agitated for us to talk, especially here,” Tolrek stated. “I’ll see you later, sooner than you wish.”
With that he turned and walked away. Darion watched him and sighed. He would see Tolrek sooner than he wished; in fact, he’d see him the very next day.
“Hello Darion,” Tolrek said quietly.
Darion pretended to be reading his notes for the upcoming briefing. He tried his best to ignore the return of the pain he’d believed he’d suppressed. Tolrek sat by him, making it impossible for his presence to go unacknowledged.
“What is it?” Darion asked, testily.
“Nothing. I just wanted to see if I could still affect you.” Tolrek gave Darion a cheeky grin. “I came early for the meeting because I remember your habits. Being on time is the same as being late to you. At any rate, I thought we could speak.”
“And what exactly would we need to discuss, other than our reasons for having this meeting?”
“You and I,” Tolrek replied simply.
“You made sure to end that, remember?”
“I wanted to talk more about why. You’ve never really given me the chance to do that.”
“Why would I want to hear your lies?” Darion asked, his voice cold and steady. “It’s going on a year, since you left.”
“Hardly. It has been exactly 6 months, 17 days.”
“No, 6 months, 18 days.”
“I don’t count the actual day of separation.”
“You’re just trying to contradict me.”
“Fine. You’re right about the time. I’m glad that you’ve been counting too.”
Darion was speechless for a moment, suddenly becoming aware that he’d played into Tolrek’s hands.
“I don’t have time for this,” Darion told him.
“Then, please make time. How about we have a real talk tonight?”
“I have plans. She won’t be happy if I cancel.”
The words echoed in Tolrek’s head. He hadn’t heard that Darion was seeing anyone. He searched his mind to see if he remembered anything about that. Darion looked at him out of the corner of his eye. He gave the rebel a secretive smile, enjoying his bit of cruelty. He hadn’t elaborated that his sister had invited him over. It was a surprise party for Prymar, who had been accepted to Kalvor Academy on Tildar. Darion opted not to supply the additional details, preferring to let Tolrek’s mind race with all types of untrue scenarios.
“You’re with someone?” Tolrek asked slowly.
“Perhaps I am…” Darion responded cryptically. “Did you really think my life stopped because you left?”
Tolrek was about to press for more straightforward answers when Beilon, Meric and several other officials filed into the room, cutting off the conversation.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the repercussions of the news that had been released the previous day.
Darion just wanted to get through the meeting as quickly as possible. Beilon was sitting to the right of him. Meric was sitting across from him. Tolrek was to his left. Several others were in the room but Darion’s mind was actively engaged with mastering his reactions towards Beilon, Meric and especially Tolrek. He could already feel that the pressure in the room was rising. He sensed that tempers, long-restrained, would reach their breaking point.
There was a volatile mix around him. It was just a matter of time before personal conflicts were made plain in the meeting. The tension in the room rose even more when Beilon replayed footage from the previous night:
“Tolrek Marou has been pardoned by the Prime Minister,” the newscaster announced. “Marou spent almost three years as a VSB prisoner. Sources informed us that the best-case scenario for the government was to have Marou remain in their service. While some citizens are disgruntled about the change in Marou’s official status, many are just relieved that the nation has him again in the military. On a lighter note, of special interest is the Tildari hettira that is almost always at his side. Like the former rebel, this creature can be unpredictable.”
Darion had observed the confrontational expression on Meric’s face, when he had entered the room. The crease of anger in the official’s forehead only became more pronounced, after the footage was played.
“I should have been told that he would be pardoned,” Meric bit out.
“You must understand that you’ve lost confidence with the Prime Minister,” Beilon said pointedly. “You should be glad that you were invited to this meeting.”
“I see nothing wrong with respectfully questioning our leadership,” Meric defended himself.
“It’s the manner in which you chose to do it,” Parbina reminded him. “For a while, you were actively working against our interests.”
“That’s not how I see it,” Meric replied stiffly.
“No matter,” Beilon continued. “You’re aware of the Prime Minister’s pardon. You’re expected to play your role and help manage any fallout. Of course, you do have the choice to resign from your position.”
“And leave our country’s defense to you,” Meric scoffed. “Obviously you don’t take the matter seriously. You have some barbaric, filthy—”
“The only filth I see is you,” Tolrek remarked. The calmness in his voice belied what he was truly feeling inside. The last thing he’d wanted to do was be in a meeting with several individuals he felt were absolutely ineffective. To make matters worse, Darion was pretending not to notice his existence.
“Might I remind you that I’m an official of the—”
“You know I don’t care,” Tolrek interrupted him.
“You are required to listen to me,” Meric clipped out. “My position holds that authority.”
“Did you forget that I rebelled against this entire government?” Tolrek asked coldly. “What makes you think that you pose any kind of threat?”
“Oh but I am a threat. And if you want to continue to see your mother and sister, you’d—” Meric was unable to finish his sentence.
No one in the room was prepared for what happened next. Tolrek not only had closed the distance between him and Meric, he had snatched him out of his seat and pinned him to the wall. Pushing an arm against the official’s windpipe, Tolrek began to rob Meric of air. The official struggled, unable to do anything about it. His feet dangled in the air, as his eyes rolled back in his head. He clawed at Tolrek’s arm, trying to release himself. Feeling deep satisfaction, Tolrek pressed more firmly, watching the official approach the point of passing out.
“Don’t you ever cause them harm,” Tolrek warned.
The fury that rippled off him surprised everyone. They froze, unsure what to do. Finally someone found the ability to speak.
“Tolrek, stop it now!” Darion shouted.
Tolrek gripped Meric’s collar and threw him aside. The official’s face hit the edge of the table, the bones in his nose splintering. Blood flowed from the wound, running into Meric’s mouth.
“I told you he was a menace,” Meric spat out to everyone in the room. He turned his attention back to Tolrek. “I just wanted to see another display of your abilities. You are indeed a danger to others. You should be locked up again.”
Tolrek looked at Darion, the expression in his eyes undecipherable to all others. Darion knew he was asking for help, not with Meric but with the confusion he was feeling over his reaction. Darion had seen the same look when Tolrek had come to his senses after the fight with Jarrick. Tolrek was overwhelmed by the power he’d shown. Without another word, he hurried from the room. Darion followed him, all of his reasons for shutting Tolrek out were forgotten.