Darion hurried out of the room after Tolrek. He found the rebel a short distance away, leaning against a wall. The negotiator had intended to offer comfort but the belligerent expression made him hesitant to be soothing.
“Good job,” Darion began. “That was subtle.”
“Why did you follow me?” Tolrek demanded. “Did you expect to see me crying?”
The rebel’s tone was defiant but Darion heard the sensitive undercurrent of it. He responded to that, instead of what appeared to be open hostility.
“No,” Darion murmured. “Are you alright?”
“As if you care.” Tolrek looked at him, suspicion in his eyes. Then, he straightened his uniform and put back on his hat.
He began to walk away. Darion watched him go, struggling with his feelings. There was so much he wanted to discuss but it wasn’t the best time or place. He decided to focus on handling the most pressing situation.
“Wait!” Darion called out. “After everything, you’re just going to leave…again.”
The rawness in his voice surprised him. He was thankful for the level of restriction on the top floor. Sensitive matters were often discussed in the various conference rooms. As a result, few were permitted to be in the area, unless expressly authorized. During a time like this, when he was struggling so acutely with his feelings, he didn’t want others to witness it.
Tolrek stopped and turned to face him.
“Not too long ago, you were trying to shut me out,” the rebel coldly reminded him. “Now you’re suddenly concerned. Make up your mind. Besides, right now, I’m in no mood to rehash what happened.”
Darion sighed, confused about where to take the conversation next. He was just grateful that Tolrek remained in the building. Various topics ran through his head and none of them seemed like ones he should be discussing right at that moment. Tolrek watched, fascinated by the rare sight of the negotiator’s indecision.
“You’re standing there like a…like a misplaced aristocrat.” Tolrek said, laughing.
“What do you mean?” Darion asked, chuckling.
“You look so regal but… baffled,” Tolrek explained.
“I can’t pretend I always know what I’m doing.”
“Sometimes I’m surprised I can affect you at all,” Tolrek admitted. “You usually appear so aloof, so closed-off.”
“Being that way serves me well.”
“Does it? You’re much more sensitive than most would ever know.”
“And I prefer them not knowing. Now, let’s talk about what you just did in the meeting. Beilon has worked hard to get you that pardon and—”
“I’m still a pawn, Darion.”
“There isn’t shame in being a benefit to your country. You joined the military. I went to the security branch. We both understood we’d be used. This is our reality.”
“You know me so well, do you?” Tolrek jabbed. “Why couldn’t you see that I’d ask Beilon to remove my Pet status?”
Darion flinched and looked down at the floor.
“At least return so Meric can’t spin this as you being a mindless, violent brute,” he requested. “It’s best to know what else is being planned.”
“I can talk to Beilon later.”
“Get back in that room and give me some time to think,” Tolrek ordered.
“Why am I even trying? You’re always going to do your own thing anyway. I should have learned my lesson a long time ago.”
Darion returned to the conference room. Meric was just coming back from being in a QikMed; he gingerly touched his previously damaged face.
“Has that coward fled the building after his assault?” Meric demanded of Darion. “Is he too wretched to face the penalty?”
“There will be no consequences,” Beilon stated.
“You can’t expect me to—”
“I outrank everyone in this room. You, Meric, are here because you’ve not been stripped of your authority…yet. I assure you, the Prime Minister’s patience with you is almost non-existent. Tread carefully.”
“I do have some concerns, Beilon,” Urdana said. “Is Tolrek truly reasonable enough to be around others? Given my position, I simply can’t have him randomly losing his temper like that.”
“I’m not surprised this happened,” Beilon told her. “Tolrek hasn’t learned how to harness his abilities.”
“What does that mean?” Parbina asked.
Since the fight between Tolrek and Jarrick, there had been much speculation about Tolrek. However, few had been able to determine how the rebel had not only survived such damage but had also inflicted a significant amount of his own.
Beilon began to explain more about Tolrek’s background.
“On his father’s side, Tolrek’s people are of the Adrati Clan, from the mountains of Ledano. The members of the Adrati tend to isolate themselves in that area. In terms of strength and cunning, think of them as the Tildari. The Ledani have been engaged in a civil war for the past 30 years. Tolrek’s father was an advisor to the last king, who was assassinated. When his father was murdered, his death ended the isolationist stance of his clan. Most of the members have been pulling the country together, while others have searched for Aerik’s wife and two children.”
Beilon added that news about Ledano was scarce but Vaironian operatives had been able to learn that the country was on its way to being stabilized. Vaironia could now move forward with the interest it had in that area. There was a plethora of resources and the Prime Minister was eager to see how the country could benefit from an alliance in another sector.
Darion listened carefully, the intended results of several tactics coming together. Understanding the calculations that were going on inside his head, Beilon looked at him pointedly. The official wanted to have a candid conversation with him later, as he had a greater role for the negotiator to play.
“Our immediate concern is dealing with any repercussions from Tolrek’s pardon,” Beilon reminded the panel. “Let’s discuss some options.”
Before Beilon could continue, Tolrek entered the room again. Urdana immediately focused on him, the first to reprimand him for his response to Meric.
“One of my responsibilities is to oversee the mental and physical health of the Krezka pilots,” she reprimanded him. “Don’t make me sanction you for how you acted. I need to know that you have yourself under control.”
“Yes General Thane,” Tolrek responded quickly. “I apologize for disrupting the meeting.”
“Even after all these years, you’ve barely changed from being that obnoxious cadet I first met,” Parbina said. The tone in her voice wavered between exasperation and approval.
“I hardly think you should be encouraging him,” Meric complained. “I don’t see the humor in being mauled.”
“Then you should have defended yourself,” Tolrek told him. He could feel his anger rising again, merely from looking at Meric’s face. He bit down on his jaw, in an effort to restrain himself.
“Urdana, you should have arrested him,” Meric stated, refusing to be silenced by opposition in the room.
“Careful Meric,” Urdana warned him. “Tolrek’s family is directly under my protection; you should have known better than to threaten his relatives. If anything, I could be taking action against you.”
“Ridiculous,” Meric sputtered. “He should be court-martialed for conduct unbecoming of an officer. I’ll bring this matter directly to the Prime Minister.”
“Try that and I’ll order Tolrek to choke you again,” Urdana told him.
Beilon pinched the bridge of his nose, letting out a long breath.
“Let’s please remember that we actually are professionals,” he said. “Focus on why we’re here.”
Meric was about to continue his protest, when Beilon leveled a warning gaze at him.
“Don’t forget the leverage I have against you,” Beilon stated.
Meric fell back into his chair, forcing himself to be quiet. He glared at Tolrek, who returned his gaze of anger.
The conversation continued without further interruptions.
After the meeting, Beilon asked Darion to stay for an additional discussion. The two ordered lunch, speaking of the events of the meeting. Then, Beilon raised the topic that was the reason for asking Darion to remain for a longer conversation.
“I want you to understand the connection between the major moving pieces,” Beilon told the negotiator. He slid a piece of paper across to Darion.
It was a flowchart containing the starting point and the end goal for what Beilon had been planning for almost five years. It included having Darion oversee Tolrek, learning more about Tolrek’s background, watching his progress carefully, finding his mother and sister, keeping the two women under Vaironia’s protection and having Tolrek reconnect with Ledano.
“Tolrek had come to my attention when he was still at the academy,” Beilon explained. “However, it wasn’t until the fight with Jarrick that I could confirm what I’d suspected about him. It had been quite fortunate the level of interest you took in him and vice versa. You were someone who could bring out his potential.”
Seeing what equated to years of his life laid out on a paper shook Darion to his core.
“I’ve been a pawn in your long-term plans,” he murmured, his voice constricted.
“Yes. All along you’ve both been assets of the VSB.”
Beilon continued to explain the minute details of the plan. Tolrek had received his pardon and been reinstated into the military, with the express intent of it generating the amount of news it had. A great deal of information connected to him was released, including that his mother and sister were in Vaironia. It was likely this information would reach Ledano, even if it was just a trickle of news, due to the civil war. The country would then pay close attention to what was happening with Vaironia. The goal was to handle Ersha with Tolrek spearheading the most destructive parts of the attacks. Ledano would likely take notice, due to Tolrek’s link to a prominent clan. Tolrek would then be the foothold into Ledano.
“I wish you had laid this all out for me earlier,” Darion told him.
“You simply weren’t ready.”
Darion was about to protest, when Beilon refilled his wine glass. It was the opposite of what usually happened, when the negotiator was with his mentor.
“This is the only manner of apology you’ll get from me.”
Darion laughed softly.
“Yes sir, I understand.”
“Now, what’s your next step with Tolrek?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do. You’re just being stubborn.”
“He doesn’t make things easy.”
“And he never will. By the way, keep in mind that he’ll probably want to go to Ledano. If the country becomes safe enough for his mother and sister to return, he will want to take them there.”
“Will you permit him?”
“It’s not so much a matter of permitting someone like Tolrek to do anything. He’ll follow orders but everyone around him needs to be aware that he’ll crush protocol when he desires. Fortunately, he knows when to do that wisely. He didn’t go so far with the rebellion that his actions couldn’t be reshaped as an advantage for us. The Ershans fear him. We’ve had several high-ranking defectors feeding us information. The consensus is that they acutely remember how he led the Krezka Pilots. They believe that someone like him, bold enough to rebel against us, will destroy them during this next wave. The End Game with Ersha is coming.”
“Captain, Halsam Odeen is here to see you,” Tolrek’s assistant informed him.
“Give me about five minutes. Then bring him in here.”
Preparing for his visit with Halsam, Tolrek shut off the video he was watching. It was a recent television special, a profile that included Darion. The focus was on Vaironians with a biracial background. Few were as prominent as Darion. Tolrek hadn’t spoken to him in almost two weeks, other than to exchange official information. Their conversations had consisted strictly of the strategy for dealing with Ersha. Having such recent footage was soothing to Tolrek. He sighed, still ambivalent about what to do with his feelings.
“Naj, what do you think?” he asked his pet. She nuzzled his hand and purred. “Yes, I’m sure I’ll figure it all out soon.” He pushed aside thoughts of Darion and prepared for his visit with Halsam.
“I see you’ve managed to stay out of the VSB prison,” Halsam teased Tolrek, as he entered his office.
Tolrek stood and embraced him in a tight hug; then he ruffled the young man’s hair, making him laugh. Over the past few months, Tolrek had begun to think of Halsam as a younger brother. Whenever their schedules permitted, the two would meet.
“It’s all about taking calculated risks,” Tolrek informed him. “Maybe someday you’ll be good at doing that.”
“Maybe,” Halsam said, sitting down across from him.
He filled Tolrek in on how his internship, and his life in general, was going. However, as always, their topic of conversation turned to Darion.
“I hate to keep asking you about him,” Tolrek began. “I don’t want you thinking it’s the only reason I speak with you.”
“I don’t mind. Darion is doing well. He’s actually in a meeting with Beilon. This past week they’ve been having lengthier discussions than usual.”
“Naturally,” Tolrek responded dryly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were a couple.”
“Better not let Darion hear you say that,” Halsam said, chuckling. “For years, he’s had to deal with people speculating.”
“Yes, I did bring up the subject with him a while back. He was offended. He thought I was insinuating that he’d screwed his way to the top. I have to admit, I was trying to goad him a bit.”
“You?” Halsam feigned shock. “No. What a surprise…”
“Ah, I see your sarcasm has improved, young one. There’s nothing like working for Darion to bring out that skill.”
At the VSB, Halsam was now the direct apprentice of Darion. Between working at his home and now being the negotiator’s assistant at the office, Halsam had picked up some of Darion’s habits.
“I really admire him. He’s demanding but it’s because he knows I can handle it.”
“And what does he have you doing?” Tolrek asked, nonchalantly.
“Well…” Halsam hesitated. He wondered if he should tell Tolrek.
“Good for you,” Tolrek said, noting that the young man was taking his time in answer. “No matter how much you trust someone in the workplace, you must always consider what to say, when to say it and where to say it.”
“I do trust you,” Halsam assured him. “It’s just now a reflex to think twice.”
“That’s exactly how you need to be. Next time, don’t hesitate. Just change the topic. If the person insists, make it clear that the issue is closed…Darion is being a great mentor to you. I respect him very much.”
“Even when you’re furious with him?”
“I haven’t met anyone who has affected me like that,” Halsam admitted. He stood and paced the room, thinking of the young woman who had his attention these days. “Well, there is someone but she’s so stubborn.”
“And why is that automatically a problem?” Tolrek asked.
“It makes it difficult to talk to her. I’d be so embarrassed if she wasn’t interested.” Halsam rubbed his head sheepishly. “It’s kind of awkward telling you these things.”
“Unlike giving me a bath the first night you met me?” Tolrek asked, as one eyebrow rose.
Halsam laughed loudly. “When you put it that way…”
“Exactly. You have an opportunity to get to know…What is her name?”
“Aiza Korstin. She just started her last year at Chreba Academy. She’s studying aeronautics and has an especially strong interest in how the Krezkas function.”
“Then you already have an advantage others wouldn’t have with her. You need to learn how to leverage your resources.”
“Can I see your Krezka?” Halsam asked. “Maybe I can mention that to her.”
“Absolutely. You can tell her I gave you a tour of it. I’m surprised you didn’t ask months ago. I know how much you like the machines.”
“Will you take me up for a flight?” Halsam looked at Tolrek beseechingly. “I think that will impress her even more.”
“Tell you what. If you can agree to get that ‘stubborn woman’ to go on a date with you, I’ll take both of you up in a Krezka. It won’t be mine; just a training one.”
“Oh come on, Tolrek. I just told you I feel like an ass around her.”
“You’ve heard my terms. I’m not changing them.”
“You sound like Darion,” Halsam grumbled. His dejected expression reminded Tolrek of when he’d first met him.
“Tread carefully and straighten your backbone,” Tolrek said. “I’ll be stretching protocol to let you accompany me into any Krezka, let alone my Alrak Nor.”
“What about Naj? I heard there’s a specially designed area for her,” Halsam responded, his expression quickly brightening. “Is that true?”
“Yes. She’s a real trendsetter too. She does her species proud. The other pilots have tried to coax her to go with them. She won’t.” He looked down at Naj, whose head was resting on his right foot. She purred loudly at him; then she rolled over on her stomach to be petted. “That’s right. You know I’m the best.”
“I’ll try to earn the honor of going up in a Krezka,” Halsam said, laughing at the display.
“You have one week to accomplish your mission.”
“Alright. I accept the terms.” Halsam looked at his watch. “I need to get back to the office. Darion’s expecting me soon.”
“Then I’ll see you in a week. Bring Ms. Korstin, or don’t come at all.”
“I hear you,” Halsam said, chuckling. “By the way, do you want me to tell Darion anything for you?”
Tell him I miss him, Tolrek thought, And that I wish I’d handled things differently.
“No, there’s nothing at all,” he responded said, a rueful smile on his face.
“There’s a party at his place for his nephew tonight.”
“And I’m supposed to just show up there?”
“Can you not handle a mission like that?” Halsam challenged.
“Did you know a blast from a Krezka’s cannon will vaporize someone?” Tolrek asked, quickly ushering Halsam out of his office. “Don’t make me show you!”
When Tolrek was alone again, he thought about his next steps. He was sorely tempted to go to the party. Then he shook his head clear. He didn’t know if any good would come of it. He wanted Darion to be the one to reach out now.
“Am I late?” Darion asked his sister. He looked at his watch, hoping that he hadn’t missed any part of the surprise for Prymar.
Aleena was holding the party at Darion’s house, as it was larger than her own. They were expecting a fair number of guests.
“No, you’re actually early,” Aleena told him, laughing. She pulled several bags out of her car. She’d returned from buying a few items. “Kano took the kids on a day trip, so I could finish preparing. They’ll be back in about an hour.”
“Do you have everything you need?” Darion asked, as he took the bags from her. “Is there anything else I can do?”
“Arjan has been incredible. Fei has managed the serving bots; I’ve barely had to do anything. I’m expecting others to start appearing soon.”
“Oh good,” Darion said sighing. “Today has been so hectic. I thought I had to be here at 6 PM and when I saw it was past that time…”
“Darion, relax,” Aleena told him. “You haven’t even entered the house. Take a deep breath.” She pulled her twin brother in for a hug.
“Sorry. I’ll forget about work for a while and focus on the party. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Aleena said, patting her stomach. She was six months pregnant.
Darion and his twin continued to speak, with Aleena giving him an update about baby names. She and Kano still hadn’t chosen a name for the son they were expecting but they had narrowed it down to three possibilities.
Both were unaware that they had an audience. Tolrek had driven by the house three times, still indecisive about speaking with Darion. When he’d seen Aleena and Darion together, his insides had twisted. Misunderstanding the scenario, he’d driven off. He’d believed that Darion was with someone, someone who was carrying his child.