Darion was giving Halsam a warning look. His former apprentice was making a request he didn’t like. Halsam had also brought along his girlfriend as support. For the past twenty minutes, Halsam and Aiza had been trying to convince Darion that they should have a role in the planned mission.
Tolrek was sitting across from Darion, as they all ate in the dining room. He observed the interaction with amusement. He wondered if Halsam and Aiza would be able to break through what he’d dubbed “The Wall of Darion.” His lover’s face had been composed in an insurmountable expression that he’d witnessed on several occasions. He didn’t want to dash the hopes of the young man and woman but Tolrek already knew that their earnest request would be denied.
“We’ll be useful,” Halsam pressed.
“Yes,” Aiza added. “There must be something we can do, Darion!”
“You shall remain in Vaironia,” Darion responded firmly. “This isn’t some opportunity for adventure. There are significant consequences. If either of you get involved with this mission, in any way, let alone set foot in Mekria, I’ll—”
“Peel your skin off…” Tolrek suddenly interjected with enthusiasm. Seeing that Halsam and Aiza visibly recoiled, he smiled and expanded on the imagery. “It will be with a rusty knife that has been dipped in venom!”
“I don’t need your help with threats, Tolrek,” Darion assured him, which only caused him to laugh.
“I do have an important task for you two,” Tolrek commented, becoming serious. He stared intently at Halsam and then Aiza. “I want you to spend some more time with my mother. I think she’d very much like you to increase the frequency of your visits, though she’d be shy about asking. There still hasn’t been any news about my older sister. Mother needs to be distracted from her worries.”
“We’ll definitely help,” Halsam said, realizing that his attempts to sway Darion were pointless.
“I can just imagine the rest of the stories she has about Ledano,” Aiza said, grinning with excitement. “We’ve heard a few of them from her already.”
“Along with keeping Ranai company, especially when we leave, you can take care of Naj,” Darion added. “You’ll be suitably occupied.”
Naj, who’d been at Tolrek’s feet, gave a low pitiful rumble, as if she didn’t want him to go without her.
“I’m going to miss her so much,” Tolrek said, affecting a distraught appearance. Then, he added, with an obnoxious grin. “My hettira, not my mother.”
“I’m telling,” Darion joked.
Then he changed the subject, asking Halsam and Aiza about how their fledging careers were going.
At his next briefing with Beilon, Darion learned that the previously planned mission had to be changed. The political landscape, and therefore the strategy, had shifted.
“We have no choice but to recalibrate our plans,” Beilon gritted out.
He stood looking out of one of the windows to his office, watching the last light of that autumn day disappear, as the capital began to welcome the night.
He and Darion were having a conversation that had started after their regular workday had concluded. Darion had gone to Beilon’s office to bid him goodnight but his mentor had begun to discuss the recent developments with Mekria.
Beilon’s frustration was flowing into Darion, who’d realized that Mekria’s latest actions were sudden, bold and unexpected. They’d thought it would be possible for Darion, Tolrek and a small team to go in and retrieve Meric. However, Mekria had begun stationing their most elite soldiers right at the edge of their border with Vaironia, which the Mekrians were calling “mere training exercises.” The VSB understood that it was really a willingness to become aggressive, as tensions were escalating over the dispute about Meric and primarily Vaironia’s annexation of Ersha.
“Our forces have been instructed to be careful about the response they show,” Beilon continued. “We want to see how far the Mekrians will take things. They appear to be under the impression that our recovery from the war with Ersha makes us much too weak to annihilate threats.”
“So, for the time being, we’ll only wait?” Darion asked.
He was hoping that wasn’t the tactic Beilon would advocate using. Darion wasn’t particularly in support of that type of plan, as he was eager to address what had happened with Meric. He’d reached a mindset where the fears he’d felt for months were easing away. To hear that he might not be able to deal with Meric sent anger drilling through him.
Beilon turned to look at Darion and read his expression. He went over to where the negotiator was sitting and squeezed his shoulder, lending him support.
“Darion, I understand your concerns,” he said, as he sat down across from his protégé. “This afternoon, I spoke with the PM about another operation. Instead of sending in you, Tolrek and a few others to focus on Meric, we might be able to act on a larger scale but in several stages. As you know, since the attack on the capital and the attempt on the PM’s life, I’ve considered multiple options. We’ve wanted all of the Mekrian territory for a while. If we get that, we’ll be 1/3 of the planet.”
“The other countries might become agitated,” Darion reminded him, as he poured a drink for his mentor.
There were seven other nations on the planet which had vast amounts of land, while ten more had minor regions. However, none of them currently commanded the same amount of terrain as Vaironia. In addition, Vaironia’s army was larger and more powerful, especially because of the Krezka pilots.
“Even so, we still have our alliance with Tildar,” Beilon said. “I doubt any of those countries will attack. I don’t want the Mekrians becoming like Ersha and being a violent problem for over a hundred years. I’m not inclined to leave them alone because they won’t extradite Meric. Knowing him, he has probably been pushing to gain a high leadership position in Mekria. I don’t have confirmation of that but it could explain how Mekria is acting.”
“Would you like me to negotiate?” Darion asked, as a gleam of interest came into his eyes.
“Meric wants you dead,” Beilon responded drily. “Or did you forget that?”
“He has always disliked me.” Darion shrugged nonchalantly. “He’d welcome the opportunity to sit across from me and try to prove that he’s better.”
“It would be foolish of him to be so out in the open. Some days I do want to send a sniper and pick him off. It wouldn’t be the solution everyone involved wanted but it would lessen the pressure I feel about Tildar. Its eyes are still upon us to see how we deal with what happened to you. It has been surprisingly patient.”
The other nations in the sector remained well-aware that Tildar was quite protective of anyone with Tildari blood, regardless of where those individuals resided. For someone of Darion’s background to have been targeted was especially infuriating. Darion had repeatedly beseeched his family and friends with powerful connections to the Tildari government to give him room to work against Meric and his factions.
“Tildar has been considerably patient,” Darion agreed. “But that does have its limitations. The honor of my family matters too.” Darion sighed. Then he returned his focus to the former Vaironian councilor. “Meric detests me enough to take a big chance. We should exploit it.”
“If we do what you want, Tolrek is going to be very upset,” Beilon said, as he started to grin.
“Yes.” Darion chuckled. “He was looking forward to a more violent confrontation.”
“Maybe there’s a way to resolve three issues,” Darion mused.
“What do you mean?” Beilon asked.
“I could negotiate with Meric. We’ll also put Mekria in its place and give the other countries notice that Vaironia is not a weak nation, even while we’re recovering.”
“My goodness. It sounds like you’re truly back!” Beilon said, as his lips curved into a sly smile.
“You were already thinking of how to wrap up multiple challenges, weren’t you?” Darion asked.
“Of course.” Beilon accessed his tablet and sent an electronic file to Darion’s tablet. “Fill in the details and get your strategy back to me by noon tomorrow. We’ll take it to the rest of the security councilors and update them. They’ll likely have some suggestions. After that, we’ll brief the PM.”
“What are you doing?” Tolrek asked, as he settled on a couch in Darion’s study.
“Refining a strategy,” Darion explained.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, as a headache barreled through his skull. He needed to be more mindful of his health. There were still some repercussions from the explosion that Meric had caused.
“Relax with me for a bit,” Tolrek suggested.
Najrina requested Darion’s attention too. He smiled, as the hettira purred when he petted her. He opened a drawer where he kept a packet of jerky that he knew she loved. She carefully took three of the treats from him. Even with her delicate motion, her sharp teeth were a reminder that she could switch from domesticated to vicious, the moment anyone important to her was threatened. Darion spoiled Najrina for a few minutes more, and then looked at Tolrek again.
“I think I’ve actually finished with my task for tonight,” Darion told him. “Come here.”
“No; you come here,” Tolrek teased.
Darion laughed and walked over to him. Tolrek stretched out and put his head in Darion’s lap. Darion leaned down and brushed a kiss to his lips, causing Tolrek to smile.
“How was work today?” Darion asked.
“Actually kind of exciting. The repairs on Alrak Nor are almost complete. I’ve been able to make a few recommendations that the engineers accepted. My Krezka took quite a beating in the last round of the war but he’s strong and he’ll be better than ever.”
“Good. I know how important he is to you,” Darion said, picking up the habit of personifying Tolrek’s Krezka in the same way his lover did. Tolrek smiled, appreciating the level of respect.
“I imagine he’ll be needed again,” he said.
“It’s likely. Our directive has changed.” Darion filled in Tolrek about what method the VSB might use to deal with Meric, Mekria and the other nations.
“As long as I get to fight some more, I can be reasonably flexible.”
“Yes, you warmonger,” Darion teased.
He grew serious again, as he studied Tolrek’s face. Dealing with international tactics was easier than handling the uncertainty he felt about his relationship with Tolrek.
“Do you want to move back in here?” Darion blurted out. He’d wanted to ask the question for quite some time. “I know you sleep here often but we haven’t officially decided how we’ll move forward.”
Darion’s words hung heavily in the room, as they considered why Tolrek had left in the first place.
“Do you want me here permanently?” Tolrek asked, tentatively.
“Well, your quarters on base are quite comfortable,” Darion responded lightly. “Maybe we should move there.”
“Your bed is much larger. Najrina can be greedy; she commandeers my bed.”
As if she wanted to get back at Tolrek for the comment, Naj prodded him, and then attempted to jump onto his stomach. When he warned her to stay down, she opted for another tactic, swatting him in a sensitive area hard enough to make him fold up in pain.
“Good girl!” Darion told her, chuckling.
“Don’t encourage here,” Tolrek grumbled. “Or, I’ll have her trample your private parts.”
“But you really like my private parts. So you’ll suffer too…Anyway, let’s get back to our earlier topic.”
“My answer is yes but definitely not as your pet. I hope that’s clear.”
“Very funny.” Darion flicked Tolrek on his forehead. “Let me know when you want to return and we’ll make arrangements. Can you stay tonight?”
“No. It’s not practical right now.” Tolrek explained, as he reluctantly sat up from his very comfortable position. “New Krezka recruits. I get to haze them a bit. It starts with Naj prowling their quarters two hours before they believe they will be waking up.”
Darion laughed softly at the gleam of mischief in Tolrek’s expressive dark-green eyes.
Tolrek ran his hands through Darion’s hair and pulled him close for a kiss. Then he looked deeply into his lover’s eyes.
“D, whatever happens next, I just need to know you’re ready, that you’re fully healed.”
“You mean from our breakup?”
“I wasn’t referring to that but I suppose what I said applies to it too. I really meant the conflict with Meric.”
Darion heard the concern in Tolrek’s voice and eagerly reassured him.
“I’m ready. I’ve been ready for a while now, not as soon as I’d hoped, but I need to finish this. I’m not happy with this latest change because I’d struggled to mentally prepare for the previous plan. Still, maybe this is a better one and we’ll meet the objectives we have.”
“You know you have my support,” Tolrek said, as he rested his forehead against Darion’s. “I’ll go at any pace you want. With handling Meric and with our relationship…”