Tolrek clenched his jaw, trying to bear the unrelenting, intense pain in his arm. He’d severed the radial artery and vein in his left forearm, a six-inch laceration carved into his flesh. Darion frantically tried to stop the rapid bleeding. He’d ripped his shirt and was trying to tie the cloth around Tolrek’s wound.
The rebel moved his arm out of the way, causing beads of blood to splatter on the two of them. With his uninjured arm, he pushed Darion away. The effort put him off balance and he slipped in the blood that had streamed from his body. He fell down again and a jagged piece of the vase embedded itself deep into his right thigh. Getting up as quickly as he could, Tolrek went into a defensive stance. His level of fury momentarily silenced Darion. But the sight of more blood streaming from Tolrek caused him to keep trying to reason with the rebel.
“Let me help you,” Darion pleaded. “I’ll take you to a QikMed and—”
“I’m not going into any QikMed,” Tolrek told him, coldly. “I’ll heal the natural way, if only to leave scars and spite you. I want you to be reminded of what you did.”
“You need to let me take care of you!” Darion shouted. Tolrek began hobbling away from Darion, who couldn’t believe how obstinate the rebel was being.
He tried to steer Tolrek towards the nearest QikMed. Tolrek shrugged off his arm and pushed him away. Then he continued the slow journey to his room, not even considering the senselessness of his actions.
Darion’s concern for Tolrek was now edged with anger. He didn’t want Tolrek to continue resisting, making it more likely that the rebel would cause himself additional harm. The negotiator looked at Arjan and Halsam, who‘d come running after they heard the commotion. His eyes begged for their support and they nodded.
“Tolrek, will you let us tend to you?” Halsam asked, quietly. “We have to put you in a QikMed.”
“But I want the scars!” Tolrek shouted.
“Then, once the worse damage is fixed, we’ll take you out of the machine,” Arjan assured him. “Everything else can heal at a natural rate.”
“Please come with us now,” Halsam pleaded. “We can’t watch you suffer like this.”
Tolrek nodded, after registering the distressed expression on Halsam’s face. When he’d been in combat, he’d become used to more serious injuries but he understood how others could be alarmed by what they saw, especially civilians. He allowed the young man to lead him away to get medical attention.
Darion looked around, still unable to believe what had happened. Fei’s image appeared in front of him, her mouth twisted in disappointment.
“He might never forgive you,” Fei said. “And if so, you’ll deserve it.”
Darion closed his eyes, hoping desperately that Fei was wrong.
A day later, the last concern on Darion’s mind was Tolrek’s forgiveness. He was more worried about the rebel’s recovery. Darion was pacing outside Tolrek’s room. Earlier that morning he’d brought a physician in to examine Tolrek but the rebel had refused. He would only allow Halsam near him and, finally agreeing, the physician had overseen Halsam as he handled Tolrek’s wounds. The young man was once again in the room, checking on the rebel.
Darion was eager to see Tolrek and the rebel’s anger had decreased. However, he still wasn’t letting the negotiator near him and Darion accepted this. While he could easily access any room, as it was his house, he didn’t want to cause a larger rift. Instead, he walked back and forth repeatedly, waiting for an update. As he was healing, Tolrek had developed a fever and had continued to resist having the QikMed completely heal him.
“How is he?” Darion asked, before the door had closed behind the young man.
“Much better. His fever is down and he’s getting more sleep.”
“I wish he wasn’t stubborn.”
“Yes, Sir Darion. I understand.”
Darion was going to ask for more information about Tolrek’s health when he paused, assessing his servant’s demeanor. Halsam was stiff, his usual happy disposition gone. He was also avoiding Darion’s eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Darion asked.
“I am angry with you, Sir Darion. You shouldn’t have disrespected Tolrek. To publicly humiliate him…”
“You should not speak to me in that manner.”
“Would you rather me pretend that what you did was right?” Halsam’s voice trembled, even as he asked the question. He’d never openly stated any displeasure with Darion.
“I own Tolrek,” Darion responded. “I decide what is right.”
There was barely any distance between Halsam and Darion. He could feel the negotiator’s anger rising. Despite this, Halsam felt it was important to speak his mind.
“If you’re so callous, I’d rather not continue to live with you.”
“Do you remember the terms of your contract?” Darion asked, his eyes narrowing.
“I’m to live here for three years. I will be your servant, and, should you find me suitable, I’ll be your assistant at the VSB.”
“And are you prepared to throw away the opportunities I can provide?”
“Yes, if I can no longer respect you.”
Darion noted how Halsam was now looking him directly in the eyes. Was this really the same timid young man who had entered his home almost two years ago? Darion smiled, proud of the changes he was seeing.
“Come Halsam, tell me more about Tolrek.” Darion’s anger had disappeared, replaced with the realization that Halsam had a point. “After that, we’ll talk about the work you’ll do for me at the VSB.”
Halsam had not been prepared for this. He’d thought that he’d gone too far, especially since Darion had already been agitated. Halsam was pleased with Darion’s response and in return, wanted to do his best to ease the negotiator’s worries about Tolrek.
The two took a stroll outside, speaking of the rebel’s condition. The crisp, cool air heralded that fall was on its way, as Halsam explained Tolrek’s current mindset.
“I thought he was more resilient,” the young man said.
“Because of being in the military?”
“Yes but he’s been sicker than I expected.”
“He’s not invincible,” Darion murmured.
“I know but…” Halsam swallowed. “I don’t like seeing him this way. What you did affected him in ways that surprised all of us, especially him.”
“I haven’t figured out the boundaries with Tolrek. Maybe that was the mistake from the start.”
“ I’d be grateful if I were you,” Fei interjected. “I’ve scanned Tolrek’s wounds. I’m surprised things have turned out as well as they have.”
“So, you’ve decided to speak to me again,” Darion said.
“You’re lucky I haven’t electrocuted you in your bath. You have, after all, put my sparring partner out of commission.”
“I’m ever so sorry,” Darion replied, derisively.
“You won’t be so smart-mouthed, once Tolrek fully heals.”
With that, Fei gave an evil, theatrical laugh and her shimmering image disappeared.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Halsam heard. He looked up to see Tolrek standing right by him.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed yet!” Halsam exclaimed. He started to get up off the floor to lend Tolrek support but the rebel put out a hand to stop him.
“Don’t panic. I can handle everything just fine.”
“Oh yeah. I’ll remember that the next time you’re doubled over in pain.”
Tolrek laughed and slowly, aching all the while, settled himself down next to Halsam.
“How much have you done?” he asked, as he watched the servant tighten a bolt on Zan Hilo.
“I’ve finished assembling the left arm. I couldn’t work on the torso because that’s too complicated for me…Wait, you don’t mind that I did any of this without you, do you? I—”
“It’s not a problem, Halsam,” Tolrek assured him. “I’m only surprised you’re this interested in the Krezkas.”
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to construct them. I just never took my interest far enough.”
“Maybe overtime I can show you more,” Tolrek offered.
“I’d like that.”
The two worked in silence for a while and then Halsam brought up the pressing matter that was on his mind.
“Tolrek, you have to face him at some point.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
“I’m glad to see you’re almost fully healed,” Halsam said, laughing. “I’ve missed your rudeness.”
“Sorry. You’ve taken great care of me…About Darion, I’m not ready to speak with him.”
“He feels badly about what he did. These past few weeks, he’s looked kind of haunted. I don’t think he meant for any of this to happen.”
“Well, he shouldn’t have made the video.”
Darion replayed the incident with Tolrek. He’d thought that, perhaps, he should have forbidden Halsam from discussing the reason for his arrest. But pride had kept him from doing so. Why should he have to forbid a servant to do something because he feared the reaction of his Pet? It incensed him that he wasn’t in control as much as he desired.
It was stifling being at home, knowing that the one he wanted was physically within reach. Yet, emotionally, Tolrek was far away. Darion needed to get out of his house. He went to where he could usually find comfort when he’d made poor choices.
A short while later, he was in his parents’ kitchen, discussing his current predicament. As he ate the fruit pie he’d often requested during his childhood, Darion momentarily closed his eyes with pleasure.
“Mother, I really needed this,” he admitted, sighing. Saha laughed softly.
“Son, I just don’t understand the trouble you bring on yourself.”
“Neither do I,” Darion said, grinning back at her. “But your food always makes things better.”
“I’m glad for that,” Saha replied.
She cut another piece of the dessert and placed it onto her son’s plate. Darion eagerly ate more, enjoying the taste of the fruit from the Toska Valley, the most fertile area in Vaironia. While he was growing up, he had spent many summers there at his maternal grandparents’ home, sometimes helping his grandmother Mariska, as she made his favorite pie. She had passed down the recipe to her daughter.
“Has Tolrek fully healed?” Saha asked.
“Almost. I truly regret what I did. And I’m kind of ashamed of you finding out.”
“Well, the video was quite popular. Naturally, news of it reached my ears.”
“I didn’t know it would be so widely viewed. It wasn’t even intended for public viewing.”
“Do you know how it got out?”
“Several months ago, I lost a bet to Makdan,” Darion explained. “He has never been convinced that it was wise for him to have Tolrek as a Pet. He wanted proof of how in charge I was of him. I had to put together a video of our interactions.”
Makdan had been surprised and titillated by the video. He’d shared it with a few other friends and it wasn’t long before it was making its way to the internet. In Vaironian society, sexuality wasn’t frowned upon; blatant displays of it, in the proper venues, were acceptable. However, the content of the video was unexpectedly graphic, particularly given who was featured in it. It had gone viral in a matter of hours after it arrived in the public sphere.
“And, as a Navarr, you naturally had to make a bold statement.” Saha rolled her eyes. “I wonder who else is like that.”
“You and Father,” Darion replied, laughing.
“Yes, but we use our powers for good,” his mother teased.
“I’m actually embarrassed now that it’s out there,” Darion admitted.
“I imagine Tolrek feels worse,” Saha remarked drily.
Darion recounted the rebel’s reaction and his mother shook her head.
“I suppose Father knows too,” Darion mused.
“He found out from one of his friends. When he heard the news, he said, ‘The boy has made a spectacle of himself, again’ and then he moved on to another topic. However, you should really only care about Tolrek. I don’t think you’ve seen the full consequences.”
“Yes. I’d rather just get past them and mend our relationship.”
Saha studied her son’s face, seeing the strain of the last week. She reached out to stroke his cheek and he sighed. She knew that her next comment would hurt him but it was necessary for him to hear it.
“Son, until Tolrek is no longer your Pet, you won’t have a real relationship with him. Surely you understand that.”
“I’m not certain I understand anything right now,” Darion responded quietly.
“Other than your love of this pie,” Saha said, wanting to see her son smile, instead of looking so dejected.
“Yes,” Darion said, laughing softly.
“Let’s discuss other things,” Saha suggested, squeezing his hand.
“Like how your father brought back a Tildari hettira. He’s out showing it off now. My plan is to convince him to give it to you. I don’t have the energy for such a spirited animal.”
“How did he get the hettira?”
“He won it in a bet against the current ambassador from Tildar.”
For years, Ryam had brought home spoils from friendly wagers with a multitude of dignitaries. Never, however, had the prize been an animal. Of all the beings his father could have won, a hettira was certainly one of the most interesting.
The hettira was a large, beautiful feline creature that had originated in the Lura Savanna in southern Tildar. Over the centuries, the animal had been domesticated, respected and cared for because of its supreme loyalty. It was fiercely protective of anyone it strongly liked. Males of the species had a rich burgundy coat with amber eyes, averaging eight feet in length and being four feet tall. The females, with a blue-gray coat and green eyes, typically reached a length of six feet and were three-and-a-half feet tall. The longest living hettira had been a female named Giara, who’d been the pet of the seventh ruler of Tildar. She had reached 40 years old, 12 years past the usual lifespan.
“If Father will let me have the hettira, perhaps I can give it to Tolrek.”
“And what if he trains it to kill you? You know how loyal they are to those they favor.”
“Even at this time, I don’t believe Tolrek would do that.”
“Yes. If I thought otherwise, I would have had him removed from your home already.”
“Mother, you would step into my life like that?”
“Do you doubt me?” Saha asked, one eyebrow raised.
“No,” he admitted.
“Well then, at any rate, the hettira would be a perfect pet for Tolrek. I know he doesn’t have many privileges, which is understandable. But some pleasure for him is necessary—and I don’t mean the carnal type you’re so eager to provide.”
“Maybe I can make amends by giving him the hettira, as well as letting him have more privileges a little later.”
“I think that would go a long way to preserve your sanity. If Tolrek’s not happy, neither are you. That’s quite clear.”
Tolrek was in the kitchen eating lunch, when he heard some commotion. Curious, he followed the sounds of laughter to the front of the house and saw Halsam playing with a small, furry animal.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
His question caught the creature’s attention and it scampered over to him, its thick furry tail swishing back and forth. It walked around Tolrek, sniffed him and then rubbed itself against him. A rich, deep, purr came from the animal.
“Is this really a hettira?” he asked, still in disbelief.
“Yes,” Arjan answered, looking warily at the creature. “Darion had her delivered here just a few minutes ago.”
“She’s already causing damage. She knocked over the vase near the door.” Halsam grinned cheekily. “Who else destroys vases?”
“Watch it,” Tolrek grumbled.
He picked up the animal, estimating that she weighed about 20 pounds. It would be several years before she reached the usual 350 pounds.
“There’s a note about her being a ‘new addition to the family,’” Halsam explained, reading the message that had accompanied the animal. “It says Darion will tell us more when he returns.”
“So he just expects us to deal with her?” Arjan asked.
“She won’t be a problem,” Halsam replied, “She’s trained. It’s in the file Darion sent. Plus, there are some basic materials for her, food and such.” Halsam motioned to the food and toys for the animal.
“Then I guess you’re part of this crazy group now,” Tolrek said, tickling the hettira under her chin. Her rumbling purr became that much louder.
Tolrek was relaxing in his room. The hettira was resting peacefully at his feet. He had chosen to name her Najrina, meaning “rare jewel” in Vaironian. He thought the name fit perfectly because of the brilliance of her eyes. Naj, as he had shortened her name, had been in the Navarr home for two weeks and had hardly left Tolrek’s side.
Outside the door to Tolrek’s room, Darion was pacing again. Though Tolrek was actually spending less time in his room and eating some of his meals with everyone else, things were still strained between him and Darion. The negotiator took a deep breath, preparing to talk to Tolrek, wanting to ease the tension. He’d almost decided how he wanted to start the conversation, when Halsam requested his attention.
“What is it?” Darion demanded. Halsam paused, unsure why Darion sounded annoyed.
“Kejaro has arrived.”
“Yes, of course. I forgot that I’d called him here. Send him to my study…and Halsam, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“Was that an apology, my great lord?” Halsam joked.
“You’d better stop letting Tolrek influence you!” Darion threatened. Halsam grinned. Then he left to do the negotiator’s bidding, as Darion walked to his study.
A few minutes later, Darion and Kejaro began their discussion about the results of the informant’s most recent investigation. The two spoke for about an hour, with Kejaro informing the negotiator about a group of influential Vaironians who believed Tolrek was getting better treatment than he deserved. The faction’s view was that his actions against the government warranted his death; they were still advocating for it. Kejaro described the individuals involved, the amount of sway they had and what would likely be their next steps.
“What’s the plan for how to handle all of this?” Darion asked.
“Since Tolrek remains one of the main government assets, I’m authorized to take things to a higher level. So, improve your security. Your robot guards should have their baseline response be more aggressive than it is now. I recommend that the same happen for Fei. Arjan should also stop holding back when he teaches you martial arts.”
“So then you know he’s not strictly a chef.”
“I know about all of the members of your household,” Kejaro said, smiling softly. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to properly advise you.”
“Yes,” Darion laughed. “Please continue.”
“Change Halsam’s training,” Kejaro said. “I believe he’ll excel, if he’s pushed more. Let me train him. Extend his lessons from twice a week to four times. Then have him spar with a more advanced guardian robot…Now, regarding Tolrek, he’s actually his own security system. If he ever gets the urge, he can eliminate everyone in this household, except you…maybe.”
“I’m well aware of that.”
“Yet, you made that video of him,” Kejaro quipped, surprising Darion.
“I am never going to live that down,” he grumbled. “At any rate, have you found out specifically who’s plotting against Tolrek? You said earlier that you believe things go deeper.”
“I don’t have confirmation yet but I’m close to an answer.” Kejaro paused, knowing his next words would not sit well with Darion. “I’d like you to take Tolrek out of the house.”
“No,” Darion said immediately.
“Now wait,” Kejaro requested. “Please hear what I have to say. We need to test the faction’s willingness to act. The best way to do that is to have Tolrek in public, even for short periods. I know you’ve been keeping almost everyone away from your home, especially your family. However, I want you to give Tolrek more exposure.”
“Not to my family, not yet. I don’t think he’ll do anything but…”
“But the faction could use them to get to him and you.”
“Well, how about during a trip to the Seal Center?” Kejaro looked at his calendar. “You have another appointment in two weeks. Security is still strong there.”
Visiting the nearest Seal Center was something Darion was required to do once a month, due to his heritage. Tildaris were one of the most physically and mentally strong inhabitants in the Elfraine Galaxy, able to overpower many of the sector’s inhabitants. It was common for other nations to require them to make accommodations for this fact and Vaironia was no exception. One hundred and eighty years ago, Vaironia and Tildar had signed a treaty, an agreement where those with Tildari blood would seal a certain percentage of their power. In return, Tildari who lived in Vaironia could remain with fewer restrictions than other immigrants.
Though Darion had undergone the sealing process for almost ten years, he wasn’t fond of it. The process was incredibly painful and the side-effects, including nausea and blurred vision, could last for several days in the weaker of the Tildari.
“Let me think about your idea,” Darion told Kejaro. He was reluctant to have Tolrek out, especially when it involved a trip to the Seal Center. Darion was worried that a faction might attack while he was recovering from side-effects.
Towards the end of their conversation, Darion and Kejaro sorted out the details of how the household’s inhabitants’ training should progress and how the home’s security would be changed.
“Thank you Kejaro,” Darion said, as the two left his study. “You were well-recommended by Beilon…But, um, make another crack about that video and you might disappear.”
Kejaro laughed and nodded, thinking, yet again, that Darion was quite an interesting client.
After Kejaro left, Darion was occupied with the many things he had been told. He walked around his grounds, determining what he wanted to do. He sighed when he realized what task he really needed to handle first, reconciling with Tolrek. He decided he’d speak with Tolrek that night. Before that, however, he’d have dinner.
After sitting through another meal with Tolrek absent, Darion went to soothe himself in the bath. He closed his eyes, letting the warmth wash away the ache he had for the rebel. He wondered why he had let himself believe this was the standard Master/Pet relationship. He had deeply hurt Tolrek’s pride. Had he been in the rebel’s position, he would have reacted with similar fury. He wasn’t sure how he could properly make amends. Besides Tolrek’s reaction, he was also concerned about Beilon. His superior had not said anything yet. However, he was expecting some kind of response.
A sharp twinge at the back of his neck caused him flinch. His vision blurred and he shook his head, trying to clear the problem. It didn’t work and drowsiness started to overcome him. He stepped out of the bath and went to a nearby bench, trying to get his bearings. It was at that point that Tolrek sauntered into the bath hall, looking quite pleased. Had the rebel been less focused on revenge, he might have been distracted by the delectable image Darion presented.
“We have a score to settle, negotiator,” the rebel stated, a sadistic twist to his mouth. “Fei, do as we planned,” Tolrek said.
Those were the last words Darion heard, until he found himself waking up in the Punishment Room. From the platform where he was bound, he glared up at Tolrek, pulling at his arm and leg bonds but failing to release himself.
“Concerned about what will happen?” Tolrek mocked. “Don’t worry. Later, you can watch it all on video.”