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Chapter 8

The afternoon passed quickly and before Kyle knew it he was sitting alone in the abandoned grounds. Everyone seemed to have someplace to be, or at least knew someplace where they could be. Even Noirah had meandered off on an unspecified errand. So Kyle was left to his own devices. He had tried to navigate the halls back to his room with a strong desire to nap, but somewhere along the way he got lost. After one too many left turns, he found himself in a desolate hallway. Few people were walking around here; the office doors were mostly shut. But there at the end, a door hung ajar and from it Kyle could hear a familiar voice shouting. He snuck up and looked into the crack. There in his sightline was Edward looking like a wild man. He could only see the shoulder of the other man, who was seated behind a desk. Edward quickly let him know who the other was.

“You can stop this, Silver. My brother shouldn’t be leaving on this mission,” Edward charged. He slammed his hands on the desk and leaned over in a threatening manner.

“He is still a Guardian, right? Am I mistaken?” Silver drawled out slowly. “Or does your brother deserve some sort of special treatment, some immunity from the dangers of his career?”

“What he and all of those men deserve is some thought before we act. You’re shipping them out for your own benefit!”

“The kingdom’s benefit. That’s their job, to protect the people from threats and we have one up north.”

“Threats exaggerated by you in order for you to make a show of strength by throwing our men at it. You are going to cause unnecessary casualties and destruction.”

“And I believe that you’re minimizing the threat up north,” retorted Silver with a sharp edge to his voice, an edge that clashed with his relaxed posture. He leaned back further in his chair and grinned. “We were supposed to have word days ago from General Su and we’ve heard nothing. We have no idea what’s become of our army. That troubles me, as it should you. I can assure you that I don’t allow my personal feelings for an individual to cloud my judgment.”

“Don’t you? You haven’t made any decisions based on your dislike of me?” Edward challenged.

“You can’t believe that I put hundreds of lives in danger over someone like yourself? I’ve never had a coterie of friends or enemies for whom or against whom I base my decisions. I act for the people,” Silver snapped back.

“For the people?” Edward spit out, turning away from the desk with his hands thrown in the air. Kyle quickly pressed himself against the wall so as not to be caught eavesdropping. “Everything you and your faction have done has been to solidify your own positions.”

“I won’t deny that some of my actions have mutually benefitted myself and the state, but some of us weren’t plucked out of a crowd at a young age and set on the cursus honorum; some of us have had to work to get where we are and I won’t apologize for manipulating my own success.”

“Would you like me to apologize for my education? Or because some individuals in high places recognized my political acumen?”

“Of course not, Edward. What I expect, however, is that you respect me as though I were one of your little clique. Don’t you dare walk in here making demands of me, especially since I’ve yet to hear a legitimate reason why you think that I should delay the deployment of our troops north.”

There was a pause and Kyle peeked in again. Edward’s back was once more facing him. Kyle crouched down low to the ground and continued to spy.

“Edward, give me a reason. I’m not an unreasonable man. Unless you feel apprehensive about sharing?” Silver prodded smoothly.

Edward shook his head and gripped his hair with a hand. He thought about the apprehension that Wes had shared with him and knew that Silver would never accept his brother’s intuition, despite the fact that Edward would bet his life on his brother’s opinion on military matters, an unfortunate intuition that even Su had recognized. And then he thought about everything that he knew, most of which he couldn’t share, not if he wanted to keep himself in a place where he could get things done. When he saw Silver’s lip twitch, he got the sense that the man was ready to feast on any sort of information or confession that Edward might offer up. He’d not allow Silver to force his hand and, in the meanwhile, he hoped that he was protecting the right people in keeping their confidence and that any sacrifice might be minimal.

“Shelby, I’m only asking for one more day. Just give General Su one more day to get back to us. If Wes leaves, the palace might be left unnecessarily vulnerable. One day,” Edward urged.

“I don’t see that the palace would be vulnerable,” Silver paused, “They leave tomorrow.”

Edward took a step toward the desk, but realized that he could do nothing more. Shelby had won. Edward straightened his tie, and smoothed out his ruffled hair. Without turning, he started to move backwards toward the door. His finger shot accusingly at Silver and Edward found himself smiling.

“The world will discover what kind of man you are, Shelby. It won’t be too long until everyone sees what I see,” Edward stated in a low tone.

“And I believe the same holds true for you, Edward,” Silver countered. “I suppose we’ll see whose power base can provide better protection. As I see it yours is getting smaller by the day.”

Edward turned, swung open the door and nearly tripped over Kyle, who stared up sheepishly at him. Quickly Edward shut the door, put his finger to his lips, grabbed the boy by the upper arm and started to guide him back whence Kyle came. Kyle obediently followed, taking quick steps to keep up with the other man’s pace. Once they turned a corner, Edward released his hold on Kyle, but indicated that he should continue to follow. The further they walked, the denser the crowds became. Several people smiled and greeted Edward, but instead of regaling them with his typical charm, he urged on the young man beside him.

They finally made their way to a shut office door, which Edward unlocked. He then hastily shoved Kyle inside, closed the door and locked it once more. The office was dimly lit and threadbare. The desk displayed its age, marked with scratches and rings where cups had spilled over. All Edward’s papers and journals were locked in its drawers, which hadn’t always been the case. The rug’s colors were faded and here and there one could spot a stain of time. A large mahogany cabinet, placed behind the desk, stole the attention of one’s eyes. Behind the locked, leaded glass doors were pictures of Edward and his family, mostly of him and Wes. By the time that Wesley had graduated from the military academy, their parents had disappeared from both their photos and their lives. After their deaths, Edward took it upon himself to be the protector of his brother and strove ever harder to succeed: their parents worked to their dying breath to give them the opportunity to dream and the brothers swore that they would realize those dreams for their parents. In a corner, on a low bookcase, sat a record player with a fairly extensive collection beside it, which Edward had procured through connections. Above that hung Edward’s degree from L’Academie des Arts et des Lettres (for a new university in a new world the founders thought French would offer the institute enough prestige, but without the pretentiousness of Latin). Two busts with placards on their pedestals were placed on either side. One was of Plato; the other of Raphael More, the founder of this world. Illuminating these stone heads were beams of sunlight that filtered through large windows which offered an amazing view of Kallipolis: the office might not be much, but everyday Edward could look and remember why he fought what he deemed a worthy fight.

“Word of advice,” Edward started, taking a seat on the edge of his desk, trying to expel some of the tension still coursing through his body. “Hide better when you eavesdrop. It significantly reduces your chances of getting caught.” Edward pointed to a chair in front of him, “A seat?”

Kyle obeyed the suggestion and sat.

“Uh, that was Silver,” Kyle stammered, trying to squelch those familiar butterflies of shame he got when he was caught doing something he shouldn’t.

“Yes,” Edward affirmed. “Now how much did you hear, Kyle?”

“How much hearing wouldn’t get me in trouble?” Kyle retorted respectfully.

Edward rubbed his temples, staring down at his knees, “You’re not in trouble. I’d be a hypocrite to punish others for overhearing things.” He leaned over his legs and put a hand on each of Kyle’s shoulders, pressing down heavily. “I warn you, Kyle: be careful. You don’t want to get mixed up with the wrong people or get caught hearing things ears shouldn’t hear. People know who you are and, the gods, Christopher would go apoplectic should he hear that you got entangled in my mess.”

“My dad? Should he hear? Like he’s alive to hear?” Kyle asked, sitting up in his chair.

The question hit Edward and he blanched, surprised that he let the words slip out. After years of carefully skirting around the Christopher issue, he just made one stupid mistake, but then of course he would in front of Christopher’s son. Perhaps he wanted to. He placed his hands on other side of him on the desk and leaned back unto them, looking up at the ceiling. How to dodge this gaffe? “Did you know that your father and I have known each other since we were, eh, about so big,” his hand indicated down to his knees, “Yes, never met a man quite like he. He and I used to get a lot of things done here. The palace changed quite a bit with his departure. We were so young back then; we had grand visions that one day we’d be in control of it all.”

“God, just tell me if my fracking father is alive!” Kyle shouted, almost rising from his chair. His voice softened when Edward grimaced. “I at least have the right to know whether or not my father’s alive. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

Edward sat still for a moment, thinking about what the boy should hear, and what Christopher might want him to say. Being an adult should make decisions clearer; they never were. If anything they were harder as understanding made what was right ever more muddled. Sometimes he felt like a better man for seeing the world in its confusing light. Or maybe he was just lying to himself. Maybe he though the right choice was uncertain because he chose the wrong thing on purpose.

“Kyle what I am going to tell you does not leave this office. Don’t go running off to tell Noirah because it would do her no good to know. Do you swear to me that what I say in here does not leave your mouth?”

Kyle nodded, gripping the armrests tightly. “I promise. I will not tell her that you’re about to tell me that my dad’s alive.”

“Yes, well, gave it away, didn’t I? Been hiding that for years. Actually, feels good to get it off the chest.” His attempt at levity didn’t seem to appease Kyle.

“How do you know? Have you spoken to him? Do you know where he is? Can I see him?”

“No, sorry to say. I don’t actually know where he is currently. Haven’t spoken to him very recently. We’ve been keeping our distance.” Edward dropped his voice, “This cannot get out because he’s still a wanted fugitive. And as I helped to arrange his departure, I’d be arrested for abetting a fugitive. Then other things might come to light that could make me look treasonous myself. If people know, then everything that he and I and others have done for eighteen years to keep him safe could be for naught. Do you understand?”

Kyle shook his head dumbstruck. “Does he know that I’m here?”

“I can’t say,” Edward replied ambiguously. “Your being here certainly changes things.”

“Can I ask you something?” Kyle asked.

“I haven’t stopped you yet.”

“Well, my dad, I get that he was someone and that cause of his family, or being a Leonard, he could do things or was powerful or something. I just don’t get how he goes from being someone important, this great guy everyone loves, who wants to save the world, to being wanted for treason. What did he do that was so bad to warrant an arrest?”

Edward rubbed his knees with a sigh. “A fall from grace isn’t all too hard to achieve. We all teeter on that precipice so that it takes only a moment, a word to push us over. And here, everywhere really, people constantly strive for more, for power, for something. You build alliances. You make your moves. And rhetoric, that mighty weapon, can change the world, a person’s life. Scary thing words are. Little bombs you throw out. They can inspire men to be brilliant, but awful too. Say a few words, spark a few minds to do the dirty deeds that you want your own hands to be clean of, stand on the pedestal inculpable of the chaos that your few words, cleverly strung together in neat little sentences, created. Nothing scares me more than a clever man with some clever words and a desperate need for power, guided by the belief that that very power is owed to them.” Edward looked Kyle in the eyes. “I’m not faultless myself, neither was your father. Sometimes you think that you’re the good guy, the hero, but the next day you wonder if you aren’t. Sometimes you hear what others say or how easily the people believe in your worst and you start to wonder if maybe they aren’t right? Which one of us is the villain, if any are? Do we reach the nadir of humanity simply out of a desire to do what we think is right and good?”

The air hung silent. Edward could feel the warmth of the sun on his cheek. He turned his head and stared out the window for a moment. His decisions affected all those people and people beyond, not only in distance but in time. Children born ten, fifty, one-hundred years later, what he did today affected them. His decisions affected the boy in front of him. In his heart he believed he was right, but his head told him to be wary, never be complacent with himself. Well right or wrong, his current opinions were certainly unpopular these days. Landing on the losing side got him a nice demotion in office space. Did he miss some of the size and ostentation of his former office? Sure. But at least this one let others know that he would voice his opinion regardless of its popularity and suffer the consequences. He and many his colleagues wore their change in fortune like a mark of pride, which, so he heard, sometimes comes before the fall.

There was a knock on his door.

“Darling, the door is locked and I hear that you have Kyle Walters in there with you. Do please open up, people are beginning to stare,” a commanding, feminine voice called from the other side.

Edward held up his left hand, pointing to the golden ring, “What’d I tell Noirah, married man. That’s the lady herself.” He jumped off the desk to let his wife in. She stood in the doorway with her arms crossed.

“Telling secrets, dear?” she asked with a mix of humor and reprimand in the words

“Never, my dove, simply explaining to the boy about the power of speech,” he replied swiftly, giving her a kiss on the nose.

“And you would know.”

“I would. Got you to marry me, didn’t I?”

“Well a terrible combination of your rhetorical skills and poor judgement on my part. I was young and in love with the idea of disappointing my parents.” She smirked and strode past her husband into the office. Edward closed the door so that it was still slightly ajar. No need to arouse suspicion.

Upon first glance, many people might overlook Clarissa Foster: she was petite with a deceptively youthful face, dewy skin and rosy cheeks. She had bright blue eyes that she could make light up if she needed to and a smile that she could manipulate to appear gleeful and innocent. As much as it irked her that people still addressed her as ‘little lady’ or ‘sweetheart,’ she was able to prey on people’s underestimation of what she could do. Let everyone judge her as silly and frivolous, she’d slowly get her way in the end and no one would quite understand how it happened, most certainly not the old men in power who wolfishly ogled at her like prey. If you looked closely, however, her eyes belied a constant cold calculation taking place right behind the blue irises. She never stopped analyzing a situation, although she rarely betrayed the thoughts in her head. Even when she stood beside you in a room, you couldn’t imagine that the sweet girl beside you was plotting your ruin and would come away smelling like a rose. She won the game because she understood the rules better than the people who created it but could appear absolutely confused by their complexity. Some called it deceitful: she called it survival.

“Kyle Walters,” she stated, standing in front of Edward’s desk, staring down at the boy in his chair.

“Um, yup.”

“Clarissa Foster,” she stuck out her hand. Kyle was surprised by the strength of her grip. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” She let the hand fall and then looked over his head to Edward. “I do believe that we were supposed to meet several minutes ago, or did you forget?”

“No, I just bumped into a delay,” Edward retorted, having come up from behind to place a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. The boy looked up from his chair and felt very much like a small child whose parents were arguing while he was in the room. It was a strangely foreign feeling.

“Of course, and I don’t blame you, Kyle.”

“Thanks?” he offered meekly, although she continued to speak over his interruption.

“But, if everything is settled, how about you and I go grab a late lunch and chat. I haven’t seen you all day and I was just wondering how things are going – ”

“My dear, he saw me with Shelby so we don’t need to use code, but I think that we should talk. I have some concerns myself after I bumped into an old friend of ours.” He smiled warmly but his words were strained. Clarissa reciprocated his smile while tilting her head to the side.

“Darling, whatever you heard was nothing but a rumor, but if you’d like I’d certainly be open to discussing what you heard,” she answered sweetly.

“That sounds wonderful.” Edward squeezed Kyle’s shoulder lightly. “I suppose we need to cut this short, Kyle. Sorry about that.”

“That’s fine.” Kyle stood up and awkwardly smiled at Clarissa and gave hearty goodbye with a vigorous wave of the hand and then headed to the door. Edward stopped just as he was about to reach the doorknob.

“Remember what I said, Kyle,” he called from the middle of the room. When he heard Clarissa cough, he added. “Never split an infinitive.”

Kyle scuttled from the room and the door shut behind him. Out in the hall, Kyle was left to wonder if Edward’s words were code for something. He had no idea what to do with himself, much less how to split an infinitive. Did he mean don’t talk about his dad? His alive dad? The whole world kept moving, but Kyle had the biggest secret of his life and he couldn’t tell anyone. Well, he’d probably tell Noirah. Who was he kidding? How could he keep something like this from her? His head was about to pop with the information and he knew that she would be just as excited to know. Where had she gone off to anyway? He looked around at all the people and realized he didn’t know any of them. He didn’t know where he was. As much as he kept learning, he found that he was no less lost.

“Kyle!” Kyle raised his head and saw MacCartney running across the hall towards him. Kyle couldn’t help the smile that broke out. Someone found him because here people actually sought him out.

“Hey.” Kyle said when Mac stopped beside him

“You talking with Ed?” Mac asked, gesturing his head toward the door.

“Yeah. Yeah, it was nice. He’s a nice guy. His wife is – I don’t know how to describe her.”

“I bet you’re just too polite to describe her as you want,” Mac snorted. “She’s someone you should watch out for. Type of person you find a lot of around here, always hunting for a way to climb another rung on the ladder. Come on, let’s get out of here. All these official types can wear on a guy.” Mac began to guide Kyle through the halls. He turned down one corridor after another and Kyle wondered whether his friend had any idea of where he was going or if he just spent his days wandering from here to there without a care about where he would end up. His face seemed content enough. “You know, I could probably get ahead like that. Become a politician. Be like Anna, whom I love. Don’t get me wrong, but who, it’s like, why are you working so hard to impress these snakes when they tolerate you at best. Now me? I say they can all go to Hell, the lot of ’em. They all act progressive enough, but any one of them sees actual poverty in human form and it’s like they’ve been introduced to walking bacteria. They’re color blind because they don’t get what color means. Equality is a lot easier to say than to enact. I don’t have it in me to pretend like I’m not what I am or that they’re in any way better because they grew up knowing who their parents were or they lived in a house and went to school. And let me tell you, Noirah was the worst of all. She referred to me as ‘it’ the first couple months I was here. She’s a nasty piece of work, hateful. She used to go stomping around the palace, a little thing with the same upturned nose. Thought everyone owed her something because she was a Tillard and her daddy was chief advisor. They got theirs.” Mac started chuckling to himself. Something behind him caught his eye and he surreptitiously peeked. His face lit up. “Look, Kyle, I get you. She’s the first person you met here and you feel like you owe her something, but you don’t. You’d be doing yourself a favor if you cut off ties with her. That girl is going to drag you down.”

Kyle shrugged uncomfortably, unsure what to say. Yeah, Noirah could be a snob, she proudly averred the fact to Kyle, but everyone had their faults. She wasn’t that way with him, not always. He wasn’t Mac; he saw something different in her, something better, something better than she let herself believe she could be. Plus over the past few days, he knew deeply that she wouldn’t do anything but defend him. So why was it so hard for him to do it now? Maybe because it was nice to have people want to befriend him. Maybe because he knew she wasn’t perfect so it wasn’t that hard to give Mac what he wanted.

“I guess that sometimes Noirah can be a little difficult, but –” Kyle started sheepishly.

“Difficult!” Mac exclaimed. “Ah, she’s this walking mass of hate and vile. Come on, Kyle, you travelled with her. You must have caught of whiff.”

“Ok.” Kyle started. “Sometimes she wasn’t the most pleasant person to travel with. And she did scare a beast.”

“I bet she did,” Mac interjected.

“But you know, she’s really not so bad.”

“You’re too nice.”

“She said that too,” Kyle said.

“Did she now? Would you like to know what else she thinks about you?” Noirah interrupted from behind the two.

Kyle wished the ground would just open up and swallow him. Anything would be better than the onslaught of guilt assaulting him at the look she gave him before she turned around and sprinted away with the loud clacking off her shoes.

“You knew she was there,” Kyle accused in a strained voice.

“A little,” Mac confessed glibly. He leaned against the wall and smirked. “I did you a favor, Walters. You might not think it now, but you’ll thank me.”

Kyle couldn’t loathe him more. He withdrew without another word and ran after Noirah. He was certain Mac had shouted something at him but he wasn’t listening.

It wasn’t too hard to catch up, since Noirah had slowed down. Her breath came in gasps, but that was hardly due to the pace of her escape.

“Go!” Noirah shouted, charging ahead to her room. Kyle ran up beside her, determined to stop her before she was able to lock herself up.

“We need to talk about this.” Kyle said, grabbing hold of her arm. She dug her nails into his hand and painfully pried his fingers from her.

“Don’t you dare touch me,” she growled. Kyle had never been more frightened of her.

“Fine, but just give me a minute to explain myself,” Kyle begged.

“Why should I give you anything?” Noirah demanded, angrier than Kyle had ever seen her, but momentarily willing to hear his case.

“Because I’m sorry.”

Noirah stood silent for a moment, ruminating on Kyle’s words, words that stung hard because they were so close to truth. She bite the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Slowly she nodded her head and replied. “Sorry, huh? That’s great. You’re sorry. You know what I’m sorry too. Yeah, I’m sorry that I ever trusted you. Or that I ever thought that maybe, the gods, I thought maybe we were friends or something. But the moment I turn my back! And with him!” She stopped. Her hands ran through her hair, almost pulling the strands from her scalp in frustration.

“We are friends,” Kyle insisted, desperate to hear some gleam of hope for forgiveness. “I’m real sorry about it, Noirah. I am. I just didn’t know what to do.”

“You could have stood up for me. You don’t think I know most of what he said is true. But if you were my friend, you would have defended me!” she cried out.

“It’s not that easy.” Kyle shot back.

“Yes, it is,” she exploded.

“No, it’s not!” Kyle retorted “It’s hard being friends with all of you when everyone seems to hate everyone else.”

“Then don’t be. No one told you that you had to be friends with anyone.”

“I’m not not going to be friends with these people just because you don’t like them,” Kyle asserted, frustrated that he couldn’t contain his own annoyance at everything from seeping into his voice.

Noirah’s cheek twitched. “That’s not what I meant.”

Kyle took a step to her and she took one away. He couldn’t think of any words.

“If that’s all, I have places to be,” Noirah said coolly, some of her anger having already left, only to have a deep melancholic understanding fill the cavity its absence left.

“You know, I’d choose you, even now. I can be friends with them and still choose you,” Kyle said earnestly.

Noirah shook her head. “Well lucky for you, I don’t reciprocate the sentiment. You’re off the hook.” Her voice dripped with the frost that had infected her back at home. She looked at him once more and knew that no matter how much she might hope that things could be different, she’d always be tainted inside. Something had burrowed deep inside and it wouldn’t go away. She, however, could and so she did, leaving Kyle behind.

Kyle thought about following her once more, but this time saw that it was better to let her go. They were angry, she was angrier, and his mother always told him never to fight like that: you could leave things irreparable. But watching her walk away, he knew that she meant more to him than Mac’s acceptance or maybe even more than Felicity’s hand in his. And now one stupid moment, one stupid error could ruin everything. Things shouldn’t collapse on moments. They were just too small.

He walked through the halls, not recognizing any of the faces that were passing, though they all seemed to recognize him. It was beginning to irk him: everyone gaping as though he were different, some strange exotic creature. What he wouldn’t give for anonymity. He shoved his hands in his pockets and put his head down, ignoring everyone, wishing that for a moment he could disappear and have some privacy. If only he could be his old self, the old self who seemed to melt into walls and blend in with the breeze. Then he bumped into someone.

“Watch it!” the person shouted out.

Kyle was ready to shout back something terribly rude, but he couldn’t come up with anything. He was glad that he couldn’t when he realized that he had run into David.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. He was saying that way too often. His whole life felt like one giant apology.

The two young men, each clearly on edge, stood there for a moment, both wanting to move on with their business, but neither budging. Both found a neutral party, ignorant of their troubles to be a poultice to their stress. David broke the silence.

“I was just going to go meet Wes for something to eat. Uh, do you want to come? It’s a rather large gathering. You might enjoy it. It would afford you the opportunity to meet some more people closer to your age,” David offered meekly. Kyle looked up, surprised to see that David looked just about as awkward as he felt. Kyle Walters was being invited to a party with the guys and David was the guy inviting someone to a party. That never happened.

“Yeah, sure. If you don’t think Wes would mind.”

“No, no, not at all. With Wes it’s the more the merrier. Besides his greatest joy in life is trying to impress people and since you’re new, well, let’s just say that the rest of us know his act a little too well.” David laughed a little to himself. “Come on.”

Kyle dutifully followed. They walked from passage to passage in silence, one that neither minded until they came to a set of large doors that barely contained the noise on the other side. David put his hand on the doorknob but paused. He looked back at Kyle.

“You’re not shy, are you?” David asked with a voice that seemed to know the answer.

“A little bit, yeah,” Kyle replied. David nodded knowingly.

“Well prepare yourself,” he advised. When Kyle gave him the cue that he was ready, David pushed open the doors to reveal one of the palace’s banquet rooms, equipped with a long table thronged on both sides by nearly thirty young men. There, sitting at the head of the table, lounged Wes, by far the loudest of all. There was the clinking of glasses, filled with generous amounts of wine, sharing of plates, filled with generous amounts of food, a room, filled with generous amounts of life.

“Ah, there you are and you brought Kyle!” Wes stood up with a giant smile. He patted David on the back and then led Kyle by the shoulders to an already occupied seat next to his own seat at the table. “So glad you could make it. Hey, Steven, make some room.” Steven got up and made his way to another seat without any misgivings. When he sat once again, Steven turned to his neighbor and they both shared an excited whispered conversation with an occasional glance cast at Kyle.

“I could have sat --” Kyle started.

“I don’t think so. You are an honored guest, therefore you get the exalted seat next to myself.”

“He’s oh so lucky,” David muttered good-naturedly, taking his own seat next to Kyle.

“What was the hold up? Had to start serving the boys before you could come,” Wes asked, his tone only half serious, as his other half was influenced by an early jump on the wine.

“Father and I got caught up in a conversation,” David replied.

Wes eyed him, then smirked. “Couldn’t change his mind?” David shook his head, pouring himself a glass of water. His reticence spurred Wes to prompt him: “But you didn’t really try all that hard, eh?”

“Not particularly. Wes, there’s nothing we can do here. We need to go.”

Wes shook his head, while swallowing a piece of bread. “No, we don’t. Regularly, I wouldn’t disagree with either of you. It’s just I have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right. Silver put far too much pressure on the king to give his stamp of approval.” Wes stopped and swirled the contents of his glass, peering into it as though it might hold the answers. “It’d be nice to have old General Su back. Too much going on here without him. I’d like to hear what he might say.” Wes leaned back in his chair, resting his feet on the table, his pensive demeanor changing once more into his jovial, carefree persona. “But none of that matters now, we are celebrating and so let’s stop this talk and let me be drunk. It might be awhile before I can enjoy this again.”

“What are we celebrating?” Kyle asked, seeing nothing at all worth being cheerful about.

“Before every mission, a rarity at best, my junior officers and I gather together and indulge in some of the fineries the palace has to offer,” Wes replied tossing a grape in the air and catching it in his mouth. He grinned at Kyle like a little boy. “No better occasion for a party than man’s mortality. Carpe diem, as a wise man once wrote.”

“Mortality, like death?” Kyle asked paling. The closest he ever came to celebrating his mortality was his birthday, and his mom told him that they didn’t becoming depressing reminders of your quickly passing life until 40 – well, she pushed it to 50 after she turned 40. And there was that time the dentist had to put him under to remove his wisdom teeth. Kyle was certain that he wasn’t going to wake up. Thankfully, Dr. Morris proved a better dentist than Kyle estimated.

“Quit looking so sullen and morbid; I’ll start thinking you’re David.” Wes nudged Kyle’s shoulder with his foot. “This is what we do, Kyle. I chose this, we all did, and did so proudly. I appreciate that I can offer some protection to those who might not be able to protect themselves or their families. My life means a little more because it can give something to others. Besides, I’ve always been extraordinarily courageous. Like to live my life with no fear.”

“No fear? That right, Wes?” a young man yelled from across the table.

“Certainly did, Tommy. What of it?”

“I was just thinking of that night you met Kara.” The boy threw back the remnants in his cup and began to chuckle, as did some of his surrounding comrades. Tommy looked to Kyle and saw that he hadn’t any idea why the table was so amused. Since Wes had clammed up, Tommy took it upon himself to clue the young lad in. “Well you see, there was this dance some time ago, and we all went. Real important event, got dressed up nice and all. Nothing like a fancy soiree to get the ladies out and --”

“Ah, don’t be crude,” David groaned, rolling his eyes. The comment garnered him some laughter from the table and a few bread rolls aimed at his head, one which he deftly dodged, two of which were unavoidable.

“Don’t be such a prude, David. Anyways,” Tommy turned his attention once more to Kyle, who felt completely out of his element. He must have been faking it well, because nobody seemed to notice. “Wes had his eye on Kara for, the devil, since he was a private at least.”

“I was never a pirate!” Wes protested, raising his glass high in air and finishing the contents with a giant swig. He poured himself another glass as the story continued.

“I said private, sir.”

Wes waved his finger in the air. “Point stands, never a pirate!” He leaned heavily towards Kyle, “Know this, Kyle, piracy is illegal. Severe penalties, don’t do it, not worth the risk.”

David’s head fell into his hands as his shoulder shook slightly with contained laughter. Even Kyle felt himself loosening up, finding it easy to be one of the guys. Well, once they let him in on their little party.

Tommy continued, “So, she was there. Looking, well like Kara. Beautiful girl. Real beautiful. Got to give it to Wes, fine taste. The Foster men and their women.”

“It is a difficult life. I will have you all know, I suffer greatly for my beauty,” Wes interjected to the jeers of them all.

“Will you let me finish the story, sir?” Tommy questioned agitated. In response Wes gave the young man a sloppy salute. “But we’re all there, cheering the colonel on and, mind you, he’s drunk at this point. So we finally get him going and he approaches her. And she starts smiling and who wouldn’t? Look at that face. An Adonis, if I ever saw one. They’re just standing there, and all of a sudden, he shudders and covers his mouth. We all have an idea of what happened, but then he pulls his hand away to confirm it. I’ve never seen the man move so fast. Didn’t see him the rest of the night. No fear then, sir?” Tommy challenged.

“Certainly so,” Wes shouted back, his face full of hilarity. “I’ll have you know, I saw her later that night. No fear. Just ought not kiss a lady when you’ve chucked in your hand.”

“No way. You were a mess,” David raised his head astounded.

“Completely. How do you think we finally got together? And honestly guys,” Wes leaned his chest into the table and in a low voice said, “I think I love her. All of her. She makes me feel complete.”

The whole table groaned, and once again food was projected into the air, all of which missed Wes. Kyle was amused as the man with great agility leapt upon his chair to snatch from midair a roll with a misguided trajectory and take a bite out of it. He then proceeded to flick it back at the offender who in turn ducked. Wes pointed his finger at one young man whose hands were edging to grab another potential missile, both warning him not to throw and daring him to give it a go. When the stand-off ended in the other’s surrender, Wes triumphantly fell back down unto his chair.

“What they’re not telling you is that Kara is General Su’s girl. Daughter, that is. It’s a tough thing to woo your commanding officer’s daughter; dangerous thing. He hasn’t killed me yet. If a war does happen, however, I imagine he’ll station me on the front lines.” Wes mused on this for a moment, “I believe that I shall perform brilliantly and win great glory. But enough about me – not that such a limit exists. So, Kyle,” he started, “what is it like on the Outside?”

Wes’ comment brought all eyes to the young man, who began to blush from the unwanted attention. The room imploded in silence, only to explode a moment later with a barrage of questions: ‘Do you really go to space?’; ‘Have you listened to all the music?’; ‘What’s the tallest building?’; ‘Do people really own robots?’;‘Do you have a piece of gum?’; ‘what about ferrets?’ Kyle’s eyes jumped from face-to-face. Everyone had open mouths pouring out a million more question.

“You see,” Wes added, noticing Kyle’s bewilderment, “we have some sense of your world. We’re not completely in the dark. We just don’t know what’s fact or fiction. Sometimes people really sensationalize. Like Eddy, the things he told me. He had me believing dragons existed out there for a while. It was a happy time. Dragons and sword fights. My type of world. What I wouldn’t give to slay a dragon for my Lady Kara.”

“Edward was telling the truth. We totally have dragons.” Wes’ jaw dropped in ecstasy and he whispered ‘no.’ Kyle nervously tittered. “Yeah, no, I was kidding. There aren’t any dragons.” He glanced at Wes to see if he was mad that Kyle made him the butt of a joke. Wes, however, exploded with laughter; the rest of the table joined in; and Kyle glowed. He had done it. He just made a whole table of people laugh at a joke. Wes roughly clapped him on the back.

“You amuse me, Kyle.” He draped a heavy arm around his shoulder and jabbed a finger into his chest. “See, Davey, you can still make mopey faces and have a sense of humor. Proof.” He lightly slapped Kyle on the cheek. “Now, please, the Outside. I’m rather interested in this space travel. That true?”

“Oh yeah, for real true. We go to Outer Space. I mean, not all of us, but trained people, astronauts. Not me, for sure. I just travel through space and time unknowingly, I guess.” He once again heard the joyous sound of laughter. Kyle was on a roll. “So, yeah, the Outside. It’s really not that different than here. Or well, it is. We have way more technology. We have these cool phones that you can do stuff on and I used to spend hours on my computer, but, huh, I haven’t even thought about my computer since I came here. I haven’t even thought whether anyone liked my Facebook update. But, I guess, being here, why would I? This place is really awesome and the people. I feel normal here with all of you. It’s really hard to explain. I always thought going to a different universe, I’d be lost and everybody would be like an alien, but we’re all kind of similar. Different, but similar. Like you could also be on the Outside, but you’d just have more stuff. Or maybe you’d be totally different. I think that I might be different here.”

“Interesting,” Wes smiled, “That makes sense, Kyle Walters. You’re very good at this, like a teacher or a swami. I feel enlightened.”

“Probably because you’re drunk,” David inserted. Wes once more filled the room with his booming laughter.

“That I am!” Wes raised his glass, “To life, my friends!” They all reciprocated the sentiment.

“Having fun?” David whispered. Even with the sidelong glance at his friends, Kyle could see that David was amused. Kyle nodded in affirmation to his question. “Yeah,” David agreed. “My idea of fun and theirs don’t always coincide, but these are a great group of people to have on your side.”

“Um, I have a question,” Kyle said, more to David than anyone else, but Wes’ ears heard his words and his mouth jumped in.

“Then ask away. I suppose you should be allowed to ask a question of us since we attacked you with so many of our own.”

“Oh, well, thanks.” Kyle once again looked around. This time, however, much of the table had returned to private merriment; although he overhead a few complaining that he hadn’t actually answered any of their questions (‘a half a piece of gum would have sufficed;’ ‘do you think dragons are like ferrets?’). “I was just, well, what about the maybe war thing, is there one coming? That meeting, this morning, it seemed like things are messed up? And Noirah’s said things to me. But it’s like, no one’s said you’re at war, but maybe I don’t know what war is.”

David looked over to Wes with a sharp eye. Wes paid no attention, caught up in his own thoughts as he rolled Kyle’s question around in his brain.

“Would you call this war, Davey boy?” Wes asked sincerely.

“I don’t know if we should be discussing this.” David looked to Kyle apologetically. “Not that I don’t trust you but much of what is happening is confidential. Even I don’t know everything,” David added meekly.

“Trust?” Wes pshawed the idea and with a wide flourish of his arms declared, “In vino veritas.”

“What does that even mean?” David asked exasperated.

“In wine there is truth.” Wes answered, missing David’s point entirely. His puerile grin once again graced his face as he was filled with the pride of his knowledge. “Ever hear that, Kyle? Remember it, in vino veritas. It’s Latin, so it’s smart. Brains and beauty? I’m practically a god.”

“I know what it means, Wes. I passed Latin. I just don’t understand what you mean.”

“I mean,” Wes turned dramatically to his friend after sharing with Kyle a look which expressed a shared annoyance at the ignorance of good ole Davey Boy. Kyle bit back a laugh. Wes proceeded, “Wine brings out the truth. If he” –Wes’ finger shot out to point at Kyle. Without Wes’ attention as to where he was pointing, Kyle nearly got poked in the eye -- “were an evil spy sent here to fool us all and garner information to bring back to his cronies, we would know by now because he would have said something. That is what I mean.”

“But you’re the one who’s drunk,” David adeptly pointed out.

“Ah, that’s true.” Wes swung around to face Kyle once more, “That is veritas. And truthfully, there isn’t much to what’s happening. There’s been tension building for years now. People aren’t happy. Our kingdom has stepped over the bounds in certain cases and now finally...KaBoom. There have been attacks on civilians, small rebellions in the outer regions, resistance building against us. The Northern Realm has been waiting for some show of weakness, our relations are strained to the brink, so who knows how they’ll act. All in all, I’d say this is one big mess. Don’t know if it’s war, nothing officially declared, but it certainly doesn’t feel like peace. Does it, Davey?”

“No, it doesn’t,” the younger man muttered sadly. He thought back to his conversation with his father, to all the conversations that he had heard, and rubbed his eyes, feeling very tired. He wondered if peace was only ever an illusion, the hope which fed the human race. The thoughts in his head slowly, pensively made their way to his mouth. “Politics and ideals, those fueled the flames of contention. We never intended to have a military here, but then all the ideas popped up. Whose policies are best, whose government? One must fight to be right. You can’t help but imagine that it doesn’t matter what constitution we have, what government: so long as we have our human nature, the world will end in flames with peace lying bloody on the ground, trampled by the feet of those racing to make their ideal utmost. Utopia, the great place that no one can find. Not here, not anymore. What need would there be for a Guardian if everyone did right by his fellow man? What would we guard?”

David’s words hung like a heavy cloud over the three of them.

“The gods, I forget how morosely poetic you can get. Dampers a party.” Wes smiled benignly, too used to David’s fits of moodiness and his excessively pessimistic diatribes. He slapped the younger man on the back. “Cheer up, pal. Your father has been at it night and day, something good has to come of that.” Wes took a sip and then thoughtfully added, “or else everything will come crashing to the ground. We’ll see.”

“But I do see,” Kyle said, surprised by the confidence in his voice. “I do see that it won’t because there are people like you. If there are only a handful of people who want to guard that little bit of good that’s out there, then it’ll never completely crash to the ground.”

Wes reflected on Kyle’s word with an appreciative warmth in his eyes. “I’ll drink to that.”

David frowned. Once upon a time he used to believe the same thing.

*

Once David and Wes had been called away on official business, Kyle opted to part as well. Even though the room had protested and proclaimed their desire for his presence, the night had drained Kyle. It was tough work fitting in. He smiled as he remembered Wes trying to put on a sober face.

“This isn’t good, Davey boy, my second right hand, no, no, that’s called the left hand, picked the wrong doorknob. If it’d stop floating I’d have a better shot at it.” His hand had shot to his mouth. “Are my lips moving? I don’t know if I’m thinking or speaking. Really not good.”

After wandering for some time, whether by Fate or by an unconscious desire born of guilt, Kyle found himself in front of Noirah’s door. He stood outside it for a moment, not positive what he should do. He knew that she would be angry, but he also knew that she should be. He had done wrong and now he would rectify the situation, no matter how painful it might prove to be. No fear, as a drunk man once said. Every moment was a battle for something better.

Taking a deep breath, wishing that he had partaken in the glass of wine which Wes had offered to him, he knocked on the door, ready to fight for their cause, for friendship.

“Go away.” he heard Noirah’s distinct voice growl.

“It’s me, Kyle,” he answered.

“I know, Kyle. You’re the only one who would pay me a visit. So, I repeat, go away.”

“I can’t. We need to talk.” There was no other sounds. Kyle reached out and took hold of the doorknob and attempted to turn it. It wasn’t locked, which was a good sign. If she really wanted to be left alone, she would have locked it. Right?

“Hey,” Kyle offered as he peeked into Noirah’s room. She was curled on her bed with her back to Kyle. There was no indication that she had even heard him come in, though Kyle knew for sure that she most definitely had. He let a minute or two flicker past. Then with measured steps he made his way over to the bed. His journey was arrested by a sharp glare from Noirah, who had turned to face him at the sound of his footsteps. They were locked in a stalemate.

“I just get so tired.” Noirah looked away from Kyle and began to inspect the ceiling. He could see a little bit of her float out of the room. This Noirah, so despondent, freaked Kyle out. Where had that girl gone, who sparked with energy, in whose eyes flickered frightening flames? Kyle wasn’t quite sure how to handle her in this state. So he did what his mother always did when he was depressed: he sat down beside her on the bed and began running his hand through her hair.

Noirah’s hand shot back and caught Kyle’s as she turned around to face him, her eyes strained to lock into his. “Don’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

A queer sort of smile played across Noirah’s lips, as her eyes began to drift to the ceiling again. “And I am incredibly lonely.” She gave a pitiful sigh, a sigh of pity meant more for herself than as a means of snagging Kyle’s sympathies. It was just the sort of sigh anyone who’s felt lonely finds hard to keep inside, as though your very breath is trying to escape you. “I never thought I minded so much being alone until now. Until now I thought that I was just alone; I thought that I made the choice. But you know what I discovered here? I discovered that I’m not alone, I’m just lonely. I don’t even like people very much, but I can’t help see them and sometimes wonder why not me. Why am I always by myself? Why was I born with…” she trailed off. Kyle wasn’t positive if she stopped because she had nothing more to say or if because words were simply inadequate in getting the point across. Kyle did understand. He spent his life feeling that way. No, he had his mother. He never felt alone because she always stood at the ready to take his hand.

Noirah rested her head against her pillow and looked up at him. She could feel that same ache that had bothered her all day, a day which she spent for the most part alone in this room. For a few days she had felt like a different person and stupidly let herself be beguiled by hope. Now she knew that she would leave this place like she had two years prior, alone and uncertain about what sort of life she might possibly forge for herself. He was the only one who came, and maybe the only one who cared, but that would stop. If he was friends with those people, then he wasn’t going to stick with her. Why would he? The stories would keep being told; those voices telling him she wasn’t worth it would only get louder. Could she blame him for running when she’d run away from herself some days?

They were silent for a second and then Noirah couldn’t contain the question any longer: “Why do you like her?”

“Huh? Who?” Kyle grunted back, surprised by the sudden (and yet not all that unsudden) shift.

“Guess,” she replied dully.

Was it always going to come back to this? “I don’t know.” He paused. No, he could list the reasons in order, and somehow he knew that Noirah knew that too, “Fine, because she’s real nice --”

“And pretty.”

“And I really like the way she laughs --”

“So pretty.”

“And, this may surprise you, she’s smart, she really --”

“Pret-ty.” Noirah lilted in a high sing-songy voice.

“And we have...” Kyle held up his hand before Noirah could say one more thing, “And she’s pretty, fine? She is. She’s probably the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen up close. And let me tell you there were a lot of pretty girls back where I’m from. But she’s like, I don’t know, it’s like there’s always a little ray of sunshine around her. And no matter how many pretty girls I’ve seen, none have had that, well that kind of glow.”

“You don’t think that I have a little ray of sunshine?” Noirah asked. Sarcasm coated the words thickly enough that Kyle knew old Noirah had reappeared.

“Not a ray, but the sun itself,” Kyle replied. He shifted closer to her. “But we’re okay? We’re still friends? Cause I could tell you all the reasons I like you, if that’d help.”

She shook her head with soft eyes, softer than Kyle had ever seen them, “Yeah, we’re friends,” she affirmed, wondering whether she might ever have to ask the same question of him one day, not that she’d ever degrade herself to beg or apologize. No, she would never ask because if she had to, she would already know the answer.

“Good.” Kyle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Time stopped. Not a week had passed and neither teenager had felt more comfortable than they did right then, right there, with each other.

“Yeah, we’re good,” Noirah repeated. Suddenly she felt pathetic there on the bed, ashamed that Kyle had seen someone that she rarely found in her own mirror. She sat up and shoved him away. “You better get out of here. Felicity might get jealous.”

“I don’t think she would,” Kyle retorted.

He stood up, but before he left, he decided to give a gift to show just how much he meant what he said.

“Get lost on your way to the door?” she teased.

“Just for that maybe I’ll keep my secret to myself.”

She shot up in her bed. “What is it? I’d apologize, but I don’t know how. Take pity.”

He snickered. He taunted her for a few seconds with the idea that he might just leave. But when her whining sounds proved too much, he caved and shared, “So, Edward let me know that my dad’s alive. Promised I wouldn’t tell anyone, especially you.”

Noirah nearly jumped off her bed. “The gods, Kyle, that’s amazing. You have a dad! You must be thrilled. Your natural dullness hides it well.” She frowned. “Ed said not to tell me?”

“I think that he was trying to protect you, and yeah, I think I am pretty jazzed about it but like, Edward doesn’t know where he is and I just have this feeling that he’s hiding something.”

Noirah leaned back into her pillows, troubled and a little puzzled. “Yeah, must be.” She looked over at him. “Your life is very complicated. I don’t know how I remain friends with you. Too much work, if you ask me.”

“I bet.”

She pulled the covers over her head. “Now go away. I’m tired and it’s unseemly to have a boy in my room. The people will talk.” Her head peeked out with a smile on her face. “Congrats again, pal. I think I’m feeling happy for you. Hm, strange new feelings.” With that she ducked back under her covers, but hardly ready to fall asleep. Her mind was running laps.

Kyle left and trudged back to his room. The nagging lethargy that cropped up at the end of dinner took him wholly within its grasp. The days never got shorter here or easier to navigate. Tonight he’d pray that, when he woke up tomorrow, life might be simpler. Maybe he’d pray for world peace, at least peace in his world, at least peace for the people in it. Everyone could use the illusion. What he would really hope for was to see his dad, safe and sound. He’d pray to have his family back.

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