"You let him go?" Salidar asked. His expression was a mixture of confusion and anger, "I gave you a gift, one you said you wanted, and you just let it go?"
Maxthane recoiled under his father's gaze. They had been at this for several minutes, and Salidar had yet to let Maxthane speak. Not that he had tried to. He knew better than to interrupt his father's rants, regardless of the topic. Salidar wasn't looking for a response; he simply wanted to let off steam.
This new question was different though. Salidar had finally calmed down enough that he was no longer speaking, and instead, he was looking at his son in bewilderment, as Maxthane fidgeted with his hands. Maxthane looked up at his father's face and whispered, "Father, you don't understand. I had to."
Salidar ran his right hand through his hair, and then let it rest on his neck for a moment as he stared at Salidar. "Just tell me why," Salidar pleaded in exasperation. "You're right that I don't understand, in fact, I'm completely blown away by your actions. I thought you were attracted to him. Didn't you want him to stay?"
"Yes, I did," Maxthane replied, looking away from his father to the window that Styx had escaped from several hours earlier. With a sigh he explained, "But not caged. I'm . . ." His emotions were confusing to him, and he didn't know where to begin with explaining them to his Father.
Salidar wasn't about to let the topic go without an answer. "You're . . . what?" He asked, and to his credit, he managed to control himself well enough that it sounded supportive and patient. As Maxthane continued gazing through the window, the silence dragged, and he hoped his father would remain patient while he sorted through his thoughts.
"I'm not only attracted to him," Maxthane admitted at last, "I'm in love with him. I can't even begin to explain it."
"You're in love with him? How is that even possible?" Salidar scoffed. "You couldn't have spent more than an hour with him in total. Plus, I think you're a little young to know something like that with such certainty."
"No. You don't get it," Maxthane countered, annoyed by his father's attitude. "Normally you understand what's happening, but not this time. I knew the moment that I looked into his eyes. The connection was undeniable—instinctual and complete, like I've never felt before. Haven't you ever been in love?"
Salidar looked at him as if through new eyes. This was the second time that Maxthane had proved to be less than fully obedient, and Salidar wasn't sure how to handle it. If he continued to allow Maxthane the freedom to explore his true self, then he would eventually lose his grip on the boy, and he wasn't sure he was prepared for that. Still, the question Max raised was thought-provoking.
"Honestly?" Salidar asked, settling back on his heels as he stared off into space, considering a distant point in his memory. "I'm not sure. I don't even think I was in love with your mother. The only things I've ever loved are you and power." That comment led Maxthane to turn around so that he was looking up at his father's face again, searching for the sincerity he desperately wanted to find there. Salidar didn't disappoint him, but though his usual reservation kept him from showing it in his expression, his eyes betrayed his true emotions on the subject. "I've tried to do everything I could to achieve power and make you happy, and usually I thought I was doing the right thing."
"Normally you have," Maxthane admitted, "at least as far as I've ever seen. And in all honesty, I'm really glad you listened to me and let him leave the arena. I'm sorry that letting him go upsets you," he added with a blush, though his eyes flashed defiantly as he continued, "But I'm not sorry that I did it. He couldn't bear being caged, and I wasn't willing to crush his spirit. That would have meant destroying the very thing about him that I love the most."
"All right, I think I understand. You know I don't have much of a problem with the fact that you let him go," Salidar conceded with a smile, "It's good to show mercy from time to time. It helps you earn the respect of the people. I'm glad that you chose to follow your heart, even if I don't fully understand it."
'Thank you, father," Maxthane replied, "If I could explain it any better, then I would."
Salidar extended his arms outward to offer an embrace to his son, and Maxthane took the opportunity without hesitation. Despite his generally reserved nature, Salidar had always had a soft spot for his son, he didn't anticipate that ever changing, regardless of the path Maxthane took through life. He realized that relinquishing control over his son's life would not be the end of the world, but it would allow Maxthane to follow his own path.
But there were still issues to sort out, and one, in particular, weighed heavily on Salidar's mind. It had been gnawing at him since the conversation had begun. "We do have one problem," he said as they parted from the embrace.
"What would that be?" Maxthane asked, anxiously waiting for Salidar to continue.
"I've already dispatched Fasha to track him down," Salidar explained grimly, "and Fasha isn't known for being gentle."
"Father! How could you?" Maxthane cried in horror, pulling away from his father. He cast a worried glance out the window before looking back to Salidar and shouting, "He'll kill him! You have to call him back!"
"How exactly am I supposed to do that?" Salidar asked as his face flushed with anger. The emotional outbursts that Maxthane were prone to of late were getting tiring. He had expected a negative reaction to the news, but this was unacceptable. "I specifically sent Fasha because he's the fastest," he explained with finality, "No one would be able to catch him. No one."
For a moment it seemed as if Maxthane might try to catch him on his own as he stepped away and climbed up to the window, hoping that he'd be able to see some sign of Styx moving in the dark. Salidar took a step forward, wondering if he would have to pull Maxthane back to keep him from jumping. Growling in frustration, Maxthane pulled away from the window and Salidar sighed in relief, though the action went unnoticed by Maxthane.
"What about your blood pact?" Maxthane asked in desperation, "Can't you order him back here?"
"He's already out of range," Salidar replied with a helpless shake of his head.
"That means you must have sent him after Styx a long time ago," Maxthane accused, shaking visibly with the anger that he felt, "Why? Why would you do that without talking to me?"
"I didn't intend to," Salidar explained, "I sent Fasha after Prism, but we now have reason to believe that they escaped together. One of the guards was incapacitated by Prism, but Styx was with him at the time."
"So, you sent an assassin after them?" Maxthane asked. "Why didn't you just call Dogo back? Wouldn't he have been enough?"
"Possibly," Salidar conceded, "but I couldn't risk it. Prism can't be allowed to reach the surface. If he makes it to Neredos, he could jeopardize everything!"
"Is that really such a terrible thing?" Maxthane asked without missing a beat. His expression instantly said he wished he could take the words back, but the harm had already been done. When what was said sunk in, Salidar's patience evaporated.
"How can you say that?" Salidar asked, quivering with anger, "We've been preparing for this for so long; your entire life even. We're so close to achieving what our ancestors have always dreamed of!"
Seeing that there was no longer a way out from this conversation, Maxthane allowed his own anger to guide his response. "At what cost?" He asked spitefully, "I certainly wasn't willing to sacrifice the love of my life to this dream of yours."
"Dream of mine?" Salidar scoffed, "I thought it was your dream too. My mistake. If you had reservations about what we were doing, you should have spoken up at the beginning. We're far too invested to stop now."
"I did speak up, but you didn't listen to me, so I stopped trying," Maxthane said dryly, shaking his head he added, "Every time I've brought it up, you've assured me that everything is under control."
"Everything is under control! I'm always in control!" Salidar shouted, and he raised his hand to strike his son, but stopped himself at the last second. He had never hit his son before, and he wasn't going to start now, regardless of how angry he was. "Do not question me, Maxthane!" He ordered instead, "At first I thought your insubordination was a sign of your spirit awakening, but I'm losing my taste for it."
Despite facing the wrath of his father to a greater extent than he ever had before, Maxthane was undeterred by his father's words. "What are we doing, father?" He asked, pleading with his eyes for Salidar to listen, "You're talking about unleashing demons on the people of Pentalus! You saw what that one did in the arena, and he's not even one of the strongest ones. Your plan could end up destroying the world. Are you prepared to risk that for your climb to power?"
"Yes," Salidar said with finality, "I am. And you had better get used to the idea, because you're not going to stop it." He didn't trust his ability to contain himself for much longer and he walked toward the doorway, but before he left he decided to add one final thought. "I'll give you some time to rethink this position of yours. In the end, you'll have to make a choice, Max. You either stand with me or against me. I urge you not to choose incorrectly."
"So, when it comes to choosing between power and me," Maxthane replied bitterly, "you choose power?"
"I choose the one that doesn't make me choose," Salidar answered flatly, "You're asking me to give up everything I ever wanted in life. I'm offering to take you with me on the rise to power, power that will one day be yours if you come with me. Who is being unreasonable here?"
"I don't think I can join you, Father." Maxthane shook his head and turned away, once again looking out the window with worry. "I'm not willing to sacrifice the people in the way."
"The ends justify the means, son," Salidar replied. It was the philosophy he had always lived by, and he didn't know anything different. He had always taught Maxthane the same, and he couldn't understand why his son would turn against him now. With a tone of finality, he said, "It has always worked that way. Hopefully, you'll realize that before it's too late."
Salidar stepped through the door and slammed it shut behind him. He didn't wait around to see if Maxthane would follow him to continue their debate. As far as he was concerned the matter was closed, and nothing Maxthane said would change that. He had worked too long and too hard at bringing this plan to fruition.
But he regretted that Maxthane couldn't see it that way. How could Maxthane not understand that he was doing this on his son's behalf? Ever since Maxthane was born, Salidar had been bent on providing the best life he could for the boy. If anything, it was Maxthane's existence that had spurred Salidar to pursue this course of action. He wanted to leave a legacy behind that would keep his son in a position of power for all of his days.
He decided that he would leave Maxthane alone for a few days and hope that he'd come around. There was a possibility that he was simply acting out due to the news about Styx. Hopefully, Fasha would let the boy go and dispose of Prism alone, but the chances were slim. Styx would be considered a security risk since Prism could have told him anything, and Fasha had only one answer for dealing with people who could compromise the operation.
There was one chance, he realized suddenly, and he hurried down the staircase. As fast as Fasha was, it still would take him some time to catch up with Prism and Styx, as they were not typical prey. Prism appeared to be a man of many talents, and he was certainly spry for someone his age. There was the possibility that he would be fast enough to maintain his lead for some time. There was also the fact that he had a guide. Styx was a Shade, born and raised. If anyone could avoid capture in this territory, it would be him. Working together they might be a formidable team, strong enough to outlast even Fasha's incredible skill. Perhaps he had been too hasty in sending the assassin to do the job. He would need someone that was both fast enough and knew the territory, and there was only one person who could do that. Dogo.
The only problem was that Dogo was no longer in the complex. He would be at his hovel in the Upper Shade, but that could prove to be to Salidar's advantage. If he could make contact, then Dogo might be able to catch them on their way up, and possibly before Fasha could catch up to them. If the plan worked, he would be able to both stop Prism and bring Styx back alive. Then Maxthane would surely be happy again, and they could proceed with the plan without tearing their family apart.
He hurried through the halls until he reached his destination. The sleepy guard snapped to attention as Salidar entered the room. The guard wasn't used to visits from the King himself, but Salidar ignored him anyway. Taking a sheet of parchment from one of the shelves that lined the south wall of the room, he quickly penned a note and then rolled it up, shoving it into a small round case that he picked up from the window ledge. He then handed it to the guard who stared at it in surprise.
"Have a bat deliver that to Dogo the Watchdog," Salidar ordered, waiting until the guard met his eyes to see the murder promised there if the guard should fail to follow Salidar's instructions. "Make sure it's your fastest one."
The guard nodded and took the scroll case, then headed up the small staircase in the room which led to a row of small cages. Each cage held a bat which had been trained to carry messages across the expanse of The Shade. Salidar used them on occasion to connect with his network of allies and spies.
He had spent his life becoming a master of manipulation, and he had never failed at getting something he wanted. He'd have his empire, one way or the other, and Maxthane would be a part of it. Obstacles were something to be overcome, and under Salidar's will, they always were.
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