“Do you have everything you need for tomorrow?” Beilon asked.
It was the night before the negotiations with the Mekrian representatives and Meric. Darion was in Beilon’s office, reviewing the main goals they had for the discussion. While Beilon was worried about how personally invested Darion was in the matter, he also wanted to give his protégé a chance to prove himself on a larger scale.
“Yes,” Darion responded quietly.
Beilon studied Darion’s face, wondering if he should ask the question that was on his mind. Darion’s trauma was still a tender topic. When the silence stretched to a rare and uncomfortable level, Darion looked at his mentor pointedly.
“I’m not that fragile,” he told Beilon.
“Then, can you assure me that seeing Meric won’t trigger anything?”
“Only the urge to beat him senseless,” Darion replied.
“You know what I mean,” his mentor pressed, though Beilon’s lips curved up slightly. He’d always appreciated Darion’s dark humor, as he shared a similar mindset.
“I’m fine,” Darion said. “I’m much better than I was even a month ago.”
Beilon nodded decisively. Then, he rose from his seat to leave the office for the night. Darion followed him to the door.
“I have a dinner appointment,” Beilon said, as they walked to the elevators.
Darion chuckled at the sparkle that had appeared in Beilon’s keen eyes.
“Tolrek doesn’t like you dating his mother.”
Beilon grinned, knowing that Darion was telling the truth.
“That brat tells me so every chance he gets,” Beilon responded. “Of course, regardless of what he believes, I’m not with Ranai to spite him. She’s a genuinely remarkable woman. We’ve both been through a great deal.”
While Meric was in the middle of enjoying a lavish feast, courtesy of the Mekrian government, a messenger stepped forward to complete the task she’d been given.
“Sir Treih, this just arrived for you,” the messenger said, offering a white envelope on a silver tray.
“Can’t you see I’m eating?” Meric demanded. “It can wait.”
“Sir, please take it.”
Annoyed by the persistence, Meric bothered to look into the eyes of the messenger and read fear on her face.
“Is it me you’re afraid of?” Meric asked, smiling.
“There are others with a much greater reach,” the messenger murmured; then she slipped away.
Meric opened the envelope. A small white card with stark black writing was waiting for him:
Your time has run out…
Meric crushed the card in his hand and tried to pretend it didn’t bother him. When he picked up his fork again, he noted that his right hand was shaking. As a diner next to him requested his attention, he did his best to ignore the dread he was feeling.
The card had no specific details that told him who was the sender. He knew that, given his actions during the past year, the threat could have come from a variety of sources, even perhaps some dining at the same table with him.
It was half-an-hour past when the negotiations with Meric were to have started. The two Mekrian negotiators looked at Darion apologetically.
“We truly have no idea where Sir Treih is,” the lead Mekrian negotiator stated.
The other negotiator who sat next to her checked for updates. Finding none, he confirmed for the others at the table that there was still no explanation for Meric’s tardiness.
Darion had been careful to manage his reactions, as he considered a series of possibilities, none of which he liked. The main factor that went through his mind was that the negotiations were a ploy to get him out in the open, so that Meric could make another attempt on his life. Each side had various guards posted in the negotiation room; Darion still understood that didn’t mean an assassination could not be carried out.
When his phone alerted him to a text, he picked it up, entered his security code and read the message. It was in another level of code which he deciphered as meaning that Meric was in Tildari custody. The former Vaironian official had been apprehended on his way to the negotiations. There was no chance he’d appear at anytime in the near future.
Darion wiped all emotion from his face and voice, before looking up at the Mekrian contingent.
“It appears that Sir Treih will not be joining us,” Darion stated.
At the announcement, the guards on either side braced themselves, picking up on the increased tension in the room.
The Mekrian negotiators looked back and forth at each other and then again at Darion. Their lead negotiator hurriedly tried to offer an explanation.
“Sir Navarr, we assure you that we had no idea that he would shirk his responsibilities,” she said.
Darion fixed her with an intent gaze, considering her words. Either she was hiding something or the Mekrians truly had no idea of what had happened with Meric.
Darion motioned to his colleague who had accompanied him and they stood together.
“Thank you for your time,” he said to the Mekrian contingent, preparing to leave. “We will address this later.”
After debriefing that morning’s situation with Beilon, Darion reluctantly listened to Beilon’s orders and returned to his home for the day. Despite Darion’s desire to stay at the office, Beilon could see that Darion wasn’t in a state of mind to stay calm for much longer. He’d sent Darion home, until further notice, wanting to give his mentee time to recharge from what he knew was a significant setback. In the meantime, Beilon would consult with the Prime Minister about how to handle the current challenge.
When Darion returned home, he immediately called his parents, as he suspected they’d had something to do with the day’s events.
Ryam’s face appeared on the large screen in Darion’s office. His visage was stern, set in a manner that Darion knew would lead to an argument. He wasn’t prepared to back down from one.
“Father.” Darion’s greeting was cold.
“Youngest son,” Ryam responded, mirroring his child’s tone. “If you’re calling to complain about Meric, I’m not interested. I gave you and the VSB more than enough time to deal with him. Now it’s Tildar’s turn and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Do you understand that this is humiliating to me?”
“I do. I expect you to handle it with dignity. The next time anyone is foolish enough to go against you, remember this feeling and react to the situation faster. Don’t let it escalate.”
“I was recovering from the attack on my life!” Darion shouted. The force of his anger made him rise from his arm chair, as he raged at his father. “Was I supposed to locate Meric, while I was in a regeneration tank?”
“Son, if you don’t sit down and lower your voice—”
“You’ll what? How dare you, Father? It wasn’t enough what Meric did, just to get to me. You had to damage my pride even more, by supporting Tildar in kidnapping him.”
“What is going on here?” Saha appeared at her husband’s side, having been drawn by the volume of the argument.
“Don’t try to defend Father,” Darion told her. “And, I know you had something to do with it. You two always act together.”
“Darion, be reasonable,” his mother beseeched him.
She seldom saw him this agitated and knew nothing good could come of it, especially given Ryam’s mood. She’d known that their son would contact them, soon after he learned what happened. While she refused to stall and not talk to him, wanting to avoid a massive family argument, she also didn’t want there to be irreparable harm. Given how the conversation was going, she wasn’t sure what the results would be.
“Many people were hurt in that explosion,” Ryam forcefully reminded his son. “This isn’t your personal revolution!”
“Fuck you, Father!” Darion roared, months of frustration and misery propelling his anger to a higher level.
His parents’ shocked silence reached across the thousands of miles. Then, Ryam’s face changed into a mask of wrath that Darion had rarely seen. Not caring, Darion abruptly shut down communication, punching the end call button with furious satisfaction.
Fei’s primary form materialized next to Darion.
“Did you just curse at and hang up on a former Vaironian ambassador and a former ruler of this sector’s only empire?”
“Shut up, Fei!”
Darion sat down and buried his head in his hands.
Until the moment Meric had slipped through his fingers, he hadn’t realized what his real goal was. He’d wanted closure. He’d wanted to punish the man who’d hated him for over a decade, who’d engineered the deaths of hundreds, who’d caused him to spend hours buried under bodies and parts of bodies, who’d forced him to struggle through months of painful physical and mental recovery. Now his own parents had stepped in and taken a prime opportunity from him.
He wasn’t sure how long he stayed in the same position, trying to shut out everything that had happened. It was Tolrek’s gentle hands on his shoulder that brought him out of his stupor.
“Beilon called me,” Tolrek said, quietly. “You’ll be alright.”
He was about to offer more words of support, when the videophone rang. Darion looked at the caller ID; it was Ashrom. He cursed, reluctant to answer because he suspected that his brother had participated in the abduction. Tolrek activated the call, denying Darion a chance to ignore his brother. Darion scowled at his lover, who only shrugged and stared at Ashrom expectantly, who had Tezza by his side.
“We wanted to check on you,” Ashrom said.
“You knew what Tildar was setting into motion?”
“Darion, we lost Tildari citizens in the attack too,” Ashrom reminded him. “Did you think the Behadan had infinite patience? You had almost a year, only because Father requested more time.”
“At this point, I need to look forward,” Darion stated coldly. “Clearly, some of my family and friends are more interested in humiliating me than helping.”
“That is not the case!” Tezza exclaimed. Ashrom rested a hand on her arm.
“You are not prepared to listen,” he told Darion. “So, we should end the call.”
Tezza’s and Ashrom’s images abruptly disappeared off Darion’s viewing screen.
“Don’t,” he warned Tolrek. “I just want to be alone.”
“Alright,” Tolrek responded. He started to leave. He was at the door, when Darion called out to him.
“Tol, I’m sorry. Please come back. I’m really confused and angry right now.”
Tolrek paused by the door.
“You can’t take out your stress out on me,” he firmly told his lover.
Darion went over to him. Pulling Tolrek against him, Darion kissed him on his neck. Inhaling his partner’s scent, he felt himself beginning to relax.
“I can salvage the situation,” Darion said, after a few moments. “I didn’t act too surprised when Meric didn’t appear. So, the Mekrians likely believe I was in on the plot. It hasn’t even hit the news yet. Both of our sides have been doing a good job containing the situation. We need to make the most of the calm, before the general public finds out what happened.”
“There’s the wise negotiator I know,” Tolrek gently teased, as he turned in Darion’s arms.
Darion smiled and rested his face again in the crook of Tolrek’s neck.
“Can we just stay like this for a while?” he asked. “Can we just pretend I don’t have a vast mess to clean up?”
Before Tolrek could respond, Najrina pushed her way between him and Darion.
“I guess that’s the answer,” Tolrek replied, laughing.
Naj brushed her head against Darion, requesting his attention. He patted her affectionately and she pushed up on her back legs. She rested her front paws on Darion’s wide shoulders. Darion gently thumped her strong muscular sides and she purred loudly. Then, she went back down on four legs.
Glad for the distraction from the looming issues in his life, Darion collapsed onto a nearby couch and closed his eyes for a few moments. Naj settled her head into his lap and lay on her stomach. He stroked his hands through her fur.
“Remember her first month?” Darion asked Tolrek.
“Yes, she kept on trying to take a bath with me,” Tolrek responded, laughing. He made himself comfortable in an armchair across from his lover.
“And she stole some of Arjan’s best cuts of meat,” Darion reminisced about the feline by his side. “He quickly learned not to turn his back on her.”
“Speaking of Arjan, are you going to replace him?”
“Arjan is finding a replacement for me. He has a few trusted contacts; he refers to them as ‘mercenary chefs.’ So you know what they really do. I always need people around me who are resourceful. Anyway, I’ve joked with Kejaro about stealing my cook. He responded that maybe I should have slept with Arjan and he wouldn’t have abandoned me.”
Tolrek laughed loudly.
“Do you think I’m enough to convince Arjan to come back to us?” Darion asked, with mischief in his eyes.
“I don’t like sharing and neither does Kejaro. Let’s not test those boundaries.”
Tolrek stood to leave and Darion grumbled in disappointment.
“Can you stay the night?” Darion asked.
“I really have to get back to the base. Night exercises with the new recruits are in an hour.”
“You came here despite that?” Darion asked, rising to face him.
“I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
Darion smiled, warmed by Tolrek’s words.
“Will you come back home?” he asked.
“It will be pretty late, probably early morning. I’m tough on the recruits but I need to be there for morale. It will be their first set of night exercises and they’re scared shitless, even those who pretend they know it all.”
Darion understood that Tolrek had to take the matter seriously. Tolrek was overseeing the country’s most demanding and elite defense program. Of a class of 50 Krezka recruits, 17 had resigned from training and 5 had died. The ones who would make it through these maneuvers still had significant obstacles ahead of them. On average, a class of recruits with huge dreams in their hearts dwindled to a final 15 who would graduate.
“I’m sorry,” Darion said. “I know how important this is to you. I hope I didn’t distract you.”
“You’ve got it wrong. Everything else is distracting me from you.”