Ashrom carefully monitored the conversation between Tolrek and Kyan. He narrowed his eyes, as he processed the comfort level that was being established. He wondered what developments would come out of letting them meet.
When he saw that Tolrek and Kyan had paused their conversation, he went into the room to speak to them. The two stood, as he walked towards them.
“I’d like to take him outside,” Tolrek said, resting an arm around Kyan’s shoulders.
“You’re not going to corrupt him, are you?” Ashrom asked.
“Would I do something like that?” Tolrek responded, laughing softly.
“I’m reluctant to let Tolrek influence you.” Ashrom addressed Kyan. “I can only imagine the kind of plans he’d hatch.”
“Give me some credit here, Ashrom,” Tolrek requested, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I’ll wait until he’s at least ten, to show him the best schemes.”
Kyan was looking up at Tolrek, with a grin on his face, as he listened to the interplay.
“I would expect no less,” Ashrom said. “Still, I’ll be going outside with you.”
“Seriously?” Tolrek asked, raising an eyebrow. His tone changed to a dry, obnoxious one. “Do you think I have Alrak Nor camouflaged? I’ll toss Kyan in my Krezka and take off.”
“Did you really bring Alrak Nor?” Kyan asked, excitement and awe in his eyes.
“No, but I promise I’ll show you it, someday.”
“Adults are bad at keeping promises to me.” Kyan’s tone was somber.
Ashrom and Tolrek looked at each other, the playful mood suddenly gone.
“Come on, Kyan,” Ashrom said quietly. “We’ll spend some time outside.”
Ashrom observed Tolrek and Kyan, as they played with Najrina. They were on the security compound’s large, enclosed field. Kyan would try to run past Tolrek and Najrina, dodging the two of them. He’d laugh loudly, when Tolrek would grab him or Najrina would carefully tackle him. When they took a break from their game of tag, Kyan showed Tolrek the martial arts techniques Ashrom had taught him. It was during that demonstration, when Darion found Ashrom. The negotiator had returned from a briefing with the Vaironian Prime Minister, Beilon and other high-ranking VSB officials. He’d received strict directions to let events with Meric proceed, as the Tildari desired.
“Tolrek and Kyan seem to be getting on well,” Darion remarked, pushing the heavier matters out of his mind, for the time being. He perused the collapsible wooden table near Ashrom, which had water and a selection of fruits. After getting a snack, Darion sat next to his older brother.
“Yes,” Ashrom agreed. “It’s just what Kyan needs. He’s usually too somber for a child. I understand why but I don’t necessarily like it.”
“It’s funny hearing you say that, considering how serious you were growing up,” Darion noted. “And, you haven’t changed that much.”
Ashrom nodded, admitting that Darion was right. The two sat in silence for a few moments, until Ashrom found a way to broach the subject he wanted to discuss.
“How are your robotic parts?” Ashrom teased, referring to the extensive repairs of Darion’s injuries from the explosion. “Are you doing well?”
“Everything’s perfect, including my new anger chip. Fury protocol commencing in 3, 2, 1…”
Ashrom smiled and adjusted his position to face his younger brother.
“Since your health is so great now, you should speak with Mother and Father.”
“I just knew you’d side-swipe me with that issue,” Darion complained. He rolled his eyes, as he crushed a few berries between his teeth.
“Father was especially hurt by your words,” Ashrom continued, ignoring his brother’s response. “His actions came from a good place. It was difficult for him and Mother to hold back, for as long as they did. It’s the same for Aleena and me. The only reason we delayed is that Grandmother sensed there were larger issues. She has been advising Behadan Kyniska on the Ledani matter. Many of Grandmother’s former diplomatic contacts, on and off the planet, were instrumental in putting us on the right path to the truth. If Father had been able to get his way, he’d have dealt with Meric, even while you were still recovering. That might have cost us significant information about Ledano.”
Darion did his best to push away the resentment he still felt over his family’s meddling. Despite wanting to be obstinate, he knew Ashrom was right.
“The honoring ceremony for Grandfather will happen soon,” Ashrom told him, quietly, giving his sibling an expectant look. He’d read the resistance on Darion’s face.
“I understand, hakyon,” Darion said, his words solemn. “I will make my amends.”
“Good. If Grandfather Vadim were still alive, he wouldn’t want such tension in our family.”
While Tildari loved ones who had died were remembered year-round, a special ceremony took place every seven years to commemorate their passing. Darion resolved to apologize to his parents, before the important observance of his paternal grandfather’s death.
“I feel ashamed that his ceremony slipped my mind,” Darion said. “Even with all of this chaos, I should know better.”
“Well, there is much going on and I’d have reminded you, anyway. It would do Grandmother’s heart well to see you there, and, naturally, the rest of the family too. Aleena, Kano, Ziilin and little Ralvo, are coming to visit Prymar and then attend the ceremony. This will be Ralvo’s second trip to Tildar. I can’t believe he’s going on five already.”
Darion laughed softly, thinking of events from years ago.
“I remember when Aleena was still pregnant with Ralvo, there was some serious confusion for Tolrek. He hadn’t met Aleena yet. He saw us talking outside and got jealous, after he left me. He thought that I’d started a relationship and that I was swiftly heading towards fatherhood.”
“Your rebel does jump to some interesting conclusions,” Ashrom noted.
“Yes,” Darion said, chuckling. “Well, in his defense, he was driving by the house and saw us talking from the side. So, he wasn’t sure that the woman was Aleena, until she made me ask him to come to Prymar’s going-away party. She still teases me about that.”
“And she definitely passed on her mischievous side to her oldest son.”
“Prymar has been doing well at the academy? The last time I talked to him, it was around his birthday.”
Darion smiled as he thought of his nephew, who was now a teenager. Prymar had been excited to go to the same rigorous academy the Tildari side of his family members had attended.
“He struggled at first,” Ashrom explained. “There was some bullying because he’s part Vaironian but I’ve addressed that. Aleena and Kano wanted to fly here but I asked them to let me handle it. Now he’s much more confident and showing that true Navarr spirit.”
“Practice for when you have children?” Darion teased.
“Perhaps. Tezza and I have had the marriage and children conversation several times.”
“And here I thought Tezza had good judgment,” Darion joked.
“Will you find time to talk to her too? She’s been feeling guilty about her part in all of this.”
“I don’t know how I put up with so many meddling friends and family,” Darion said, letting out a dramatic sigh.
“It’s out of love,” Ashrom said. “Speaking of love, there’s a matter of the heart where I really need your help.”
“With what?” Darion asked, his interest piqued.
“With Tezza.” Ashrom paused and gave a self-conscious cough. Darion grinned, knowing his brother was about to be quite revealing.
“Go on,” Darion encouraged.
“Well, Tezza and I have talked about our future but we’re dealing with a rough period right now. One of her exes is trying to get back into her life.”
“Is it Enjisa?”
“Yes,” Ashrom said, surprise flooding through his voice. “How did you know?”
“Well, she was Tezza’s first love. She was to Tezz what Jarrick was to me.”
Ashrom let out a long, regretful sigh.
“I feel that I might have lost an opportunity with Tezza. My feelings are not where she wants them to be. We aren’t moving at the same pace.”
“Do you still want her in your life?”
“Of course,” Ashrom admitted.
“Then act like it. I made Tolrek a priority.”
“After he left you,” Ashrom said.
“Well, yes but he and I have a more complicated situation,” Darion responded, laughing. He looked out at Tolrek, who was now lying on the grass and having a chat with Kyan. “I think we’ve come to terms.”
Though Tolrek was aware that Darion had arrived, he focused his attention on Kyan. They lay side by side, soaking up the sun, as Kyan became more talkative.
“I saw videos of you,” Kyan said, smiling. “I liked what happened with that Jarrick Abires.”
Ashrom had allowed Kyan to go on the galaxy-wide-web, after Kyan had endured a serious battery of physical and mental tests. They’d made a deal that after the tests, he’d be permitted two hours a day to be on the web. Most of the time, he’d watched videos of Tolrek. He’d found Tolrek’s fight with Jarrick and it had become a favorite of his.
“Darion wasn’t very happy with me,” Tolrek said.
“But you won.”
“Yes but the circumstances that caused the fight were difficult. So, at the time, I really didn’t think that I’d won.”
“But you did!” Kyan insisted. “That Jarrick was crushed.”
“Don’t be so bloodthirsty,” Tolrek chided, making Kyan laugh. He poked Kyan in his side and the boy doubled up, continuing to grin.
“This is the most fun I’ve had here,” Kyan said. “Still, I want to be back with my team.”
“Yes, I was in House Diadein.” Kyan said. “Saimon used to look out for me. I bet he’s worried. I learned some of my special techniques from him. Most of the older fighters in my group were nice to the younger ones but Saimon was my favorite.” Kyan’s lower lip trembled and he fought back tears. He sat up and slid away from Tolrek. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“It’s alright,” Tolrek murmured. “I won’t respect you less for crying.”
“I don’t care about your respect,” Kyan said, stubbornly. He brushed away large teardrops that had began to roll down his face. “And I shouldn’t even be crying. I don’t need you being nice to me!”
“Fine.” Tolrek gave Kyan a mock scowl. “Then, I’ll go talk to Darion, while you roast in this Tildari sun.” Tolrek studied Kyan for a few moments, then added. “Want to meet Darion?”
Kyan bit his lower lip for a moment.
“You don’t have to,” Tolrek said. “But he’s pretty awesome.”
“Alright,” Kyan agreed.
After meeting Darion, Kyan went back to his room, as everyone agreed that he needed some space. While he had been more open than usual, it was clear that memories of his previous life were still difficult for him to manage.
Darion and Tolrek turned their focus to one of the major tasks at hand, accessing the information Kyan had provided about the experiment. Ashrom granted permission and helped them review the intel, highlighting the most important details.
Ledano’s four most prominent families were Amehdor, Diadein, Nytos and Vedri. Kyan belonged to House Diadein and had explained its structure. That house had a total of 120 genetically engineered berserkers, who were divided into three clusters of 40. Ranging from ages 5 to 25, the berserkers each wore a red, blue or green collar, with the symbol of their house engraved on it. The collar contained various types of information about them, such as their pedigree and championship record.
Each week featured televised sporting events, where the fighters who were age 15 and older did combat with weapons. Those between ages 7 and 14 also had to put on exhibitions but were permitted to have hand-to-hand bouts. The youngest berserkers underwent intense training to prepare them for when they would be part of the games. Kyan had explained that some of the fighters had become quite popular. Still, while they liked the fame, that didn’t mean they always enjoyed their overall circumstances.
Tolrek cursed as he thought of the lifestyle the fighters were forced to lead. He wondered what happened to them after 25. Kyan hadn’t known. He’d heard rumors that they went to the daycare centers to help raise berserkers who were under 5 and begin preparing them for transfer to their clusters. However, Kyan wasn’t certain.
Tolrek was especially concerned about what happened to those who didn’t meet the expectations of their houses, the ones deemed unfit for the rigorous program. A series of the worst possibilities were bombarding his mind.