Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 02 Inescapable Fate

~Chapter Two~

~Inescapable Fate~



“Ah, just the man I wanted to see.”


Zain didn’t even glance up from the file he was looking over regarding the proposed acquisition of Larimar Industries by the Jericho Foundation conglomerate.  Last year when his father had turned the day-to-day operations of the main corporation over to him, he’d thought that it was a huge honor: an acknowledgement of his abilities and the efforts he’d put in ever since graduating from college.




Now he knew it was no such thing.  Acting as the CEO of the Jericho Foundation conglomerate was challenging in a completely perfunctory kind of way.  Add to that the responsibility of being the tai-youkai’s heir-apparent, and it meant long work days with very little in the way of distraction.  Maybe that had been Heller Jericho’s ultimate goal . . .


“And why were you looking for me, Jamison?” Zain asked in a decidedly distracted manner without bothering to look away from Larimar Industries’ expense reports from the last few years.


“I wondered if you could help me out.”




Jamison chuckled.  “But you haven’t heard why I’m asking,” he chided, obviously believing that Zain would be intrigued by whatever it was his friend was trying to con him into doing.


“I’m sorry,” Zain remarked without sounding the least bit contrite.  “If you haven’t noticed, I’m buried already, and even if I weren’t, I would be soon enough, or did you forget the annual summit?”


“Nope, didn’t forget that,” Jamison went on, flopping into one of the thickly appointed chairs across from Zain’s desk.  Slouching back, letting his long legs extend out in front of him, he entwined his fingers over his chest and grinned at Zain in a very self-satisfied sort of way.  “Hanging out with a bunch of really boring, really stuffy, really pompous youkai?  I’d think about passing on that, if I were you.”


Zain shot him an unimpressed glance and finally dropped the papers in his hands for the duration.  “Even if I wanted to, I cannot.  Anyway, state your business so I can say no and get back to mine.”


“I’ve been put in charge of arranging a special guest performer at the Conservatory.”


Zain blinked since Jamison’s answer wasn’t exactly what he’d come to expect from his friend.  “How did that happen?  I thought that the head of the department always took care of that.”


“You’re right.  Normally, he does.  Seems that he’s asked me, though, to approach a certain someone about coming in for a few minutes, maybe an hour . . . Play something, chat with the students, make nice-nice . . .”


Settling back in his chair, Zain almost smiled—almost.  “And you honestly think that I have time to indulge you?”


“Come on, Zain.  God only knows that you rarely get away from here, and when you do, it’s to go home for those absolutely asinine meetings that your father insists upon having.  You haven’t been on a vacation since we graduated from the academy, and I’m not asking you to take one now.  Just take off a few hours to help me out.  Besides, I know damn well that playing relaxes you, so what would it hurt?”


“Surely there are far more accomplished musicians out there,” Zain pointed out mildly.


Jamison shrugged, as though the entire matter were already settled.  “There are, but none that I know, and it seems that Professor Crenshaw has heard great things about your skills.”


“From you, no doubt,” Zain grumbled.


“Not from me—well, not originally.  Apparently, Headmaster Foight told him about you a few years ago.  Said you could have made a career of it if you’d wanted to . . . if you didn’t have something bigger already planned, anyway.”


“Leave it to that crazy old man to say something like that,” Zain remarked with a shake of his head.  “I really don’t have time.”


Jamison sat up straight then leaned forward, elbows on his knees, long golden hair falling into his face over his shoulder as his startling yellow eyes took on a heightened glow, like pinpoints of light in the darkness.  Those eyes were a trademark of a true fire-lynx-youkai, after all . . . Zain knew that look well enough.  It normally led to one kind of trouble or another . . . “I’d consider it a personal favor.”


“You already owe me enough personal favors,” Zain pointed out reasonably.  “I don’t really need another one.”


“Maybe not, but I do,” Jamison persisted.  “It’s just one afternoon.”


Zain heaved a sigh as he propped his elbow on the arm of the chair and curled his fingers over his lips.  “When do you need me to do this?”


“Whenever you have free time,” Jamison replied as a broad grin broke over his features and he hauled himself to his feet.  “Just let me know.”


Zain stared at the door for several minutes after his friend had taken his leave.


Heller might not be too pleased about his promise to appear at the Conservatory.  There was a good chance that the current tai-youkai would think that the entire thing was a waste of time, and considering that he was never a big proponent of Zain’s piano lessons as a child and throughout his youth, it wouldn’t surprise Zain if there ended up being some kind of disagreement over it when he found out about it.  But Karis had insisted that her son would learn some of the finer arts, especially when he’d had to start training to fight from the time he could stand on his own two feet.


But Zain did enjoy playing piano, and Jamison knew that.  Zain didn’t doubt for a moment that the offer to play stemmed more from Jamison’s belief that Zain had all but given up the instrument when he had inherited the Jericho Foundation.


True, he didn’t have nearly as much time to sit down and play as he once had.  Still, sometimes in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep, he’d find his way to the piano in his living room, sometimes spending the rest of the night, just hammering out songs that he’d learned years ago.  It soothed him, helped him to deal with the sometimes nearly overwhelming stress of his life, especially when he thought about the things that would come.


To be honest, he’d never really known a time of real freedom, hadn’t ever questioned the things that had always been simple fact to him.  Some might hate the idea that his entire life was already planned out with precious few variables.  It didn’t bother Zain nearly as much as it weighed upon him, the inevitable questions like, would he be a good tai-youkai?  Capable, certainly.  Years of training for it had already assured that.


The tai-youkai.  The great being.


It was a station designed to keep a certain level of order over them all.  Youkai, the creatures of legend . . . Centuries ago, back in the old days when humans had roamed the earth like they were destined to own it, the youkai hadn’t existed in the way that they did now.  Some of them had been relegated to bedtime stories, to the overwrought imaginations of countless humans.  When guns were invented, a great number of his kind had perished.  Humans feared what they could not understand, hated the very thought that something more powerful might well exist, and to that end, many of the youkai were destroyed out of ignorance.  Luckily for them, they were resilient.  Stronger, faster, more powerful . . . That’s what had saved the youkai in the end.


Youkai was a Japanese word, but it was the best one to describe what they truly were: mystical creatures, neither good nor malevolent.  Other regions possessed youkai; they were beings that had existed upon the earth long before humans, and would continue to do so long after the humans were gone, but the highest of them had originated in Japan, and it was the old country that had nurtured them and had, ultimately, given them rise to power.  Some possessed creature spirits, like Jamison—mononoke, the Japanese called it.  Some youkai were the embodiment of nature’s elements, able to harness and use those elements at their whims.  Zain was both, and he was neither.  His family had descended from the inu no taisho—the leader.  It wasn’t a direct line, but his family had retained the powerful aura—youki—of the one both feared and celebrated as the strongest of them all.  If Zain were to claim lineage, then it could be said that he was inu-gami—the dog god—but that wasn’t quite right, either.  The dog spirits gave him power, certainly, but the ability to control other elements gave him finesse.  He, his father, his grandfather, had all lost the classification of being one kind of youkai or another, to the point that they did not possess any inherently dog-like physical traits, though they did retain the heightened sense of smell most common to their kind as well as the razor sharp claws, the slightly elongated fang teeth.  Those things were fairly common amongst the youkai in general.  Unlike a true dog-youkai, however, Zain did not possess a dog-form, so he couldn’t transform in that manner.  Like his father, though, he could transform himself into an energy form—that was to say, he could dissolve his body to move with frightening speed for short periods of time—which was something that only true descendents of the legendary greater-youkai could do.


It was interesting, really.  Over time, the lesser-youkai had all but vanished.  They had been too weak, too stupid to avoid the fate that had destroyed a vast number of them.  The ones that remained were mostly the greater-youkai—the ones who closely resembled humans and possessed the intelligence and the forbearance to continue to exist.  In some cases, just the heads of the most powerful clans managed to survive.  The rest of the lower forms were either killed off or they had devolved over time until they were no more than animals with no sense of awareness of where they had come from, of what they had once been capable of doing.


As centuries had passed, the relationship between humans and youkai had progressed, though a certain level of separation still remained.  Youkai in general were not bothered by the humans, regarding them as little more than the transient beings that they were, while humans tended to shy away from the areas that were more heavily dominated by youkai presence.  Whether or not they still harbored the old-fashioned resentment that had led to eras of war in the past, they seemed content enough to keep to themselves.  It worked well.  Some countries were even run by human governments, especially in areas where youkai were scarce.  Most, however, were run by men like Heller Jericho: appointed by the inu no taisho, and these men, the tai-youkai, selected their own to oversee districts on a more personal level.


But the fragile peace between human and youkai was something that was a fine line to walk, even in his house.  That humans worked for the tai-youkai was meant to show that the two really could coexist.  Some of the humans thought that it was little more than a show of certain repression, to keep humans in the roles of serving the youkai.  Zain knew better.  Many of those humans in their employ were the ones who had helped to raise him, caring for him in the capacity of nannies and tutors until he was old enough to attend school.  Employees, maybe, but . . . but Zain could recall more than once when he was small, the nurturing care he’d received, and it had never crossed his mind back then to ask if the gentle hands that had dabbed at a scraped knee or the arms that had hugged him when he had been afraid were human or youkai.  It simply hadn’t mattered.


Still, the truth of it all was something that was easy to overlook as just a given.  The strongest of them were always the ones given power, and however they chose to wield that power was by their own personal choice.  A few, like Heller, were given to letting the youkai exist with as little interference as possible.  It was also the general belief of the reigning inu no taisho, as well, to live and let live—or die, if that was the case.  As a result, there were moments of unrest, but those situations usually worked themselves out, and the hostility of their kind was more satisfied than if someone tried to tell them how to live.  As brutal as it could be, there was a certain level of necessity to it, too.  After all, youkai as a whole could exist for centuries at a time, and the stronger the youkai, the longer they lived.  It was the check-and-balance of their existence.


Most of the youkai were more content to live their lives and let others live their own—something else that had helped them to endure when the humans first rose up against them.  It created a kind of natural balance.  Occasionally, there were those who sought to upset this balance, but the ones foolish enough to challenge the current reigning house always learned the error of their ways, especially if it came to the point where one of them would issue formal challenge.  The rules of the challenge were absolute: one winner, one loser, and the loser paid the price with his life.  Youkai who were weaker would always lose to someone who was stronger, and the house of Jericho?


Well, in the history of youkai on the continent known as North America, no reigning Jericho had ever, ever lost a challenge fight . . .






“You look like you’ve lost a little weight.”


Kendall Farington blinked and set down the brightly polished silver fork, forcing a smile that she wasn’t really feeling as she lifted her gaze to meet Tucker’s.  “Do you think so?  I’ve been eating all right.”


Tucker didn’t look entirely convinced, but he didn’t argue with her, either.  “No one eats ‘all right’ during exams,” he chided with a little grin.  “So how were they?”


“I did well,” she remarked, slowly, methodically lifting the fork once more and pushing the food around her plate.  “I got a top mark in my chamber music class.  They’ve asked that I play at a recital next month.”


“That’s great!  Father will be pleased to hear that.  Have you told him yet?”


Shifting slightly in her seat, Kendall willed her smile to brighten and tried to shrug in a nonchalant way.  It struck her, just how odd it really was.  Tucker looked so much like their father that it was almost frightening: platinum blonde hair, just a few shades darker than Kendall’s, the same blue eyes that were so dark that they often seemed black, the same facial features, the same tall, stocky build,  and yet, he was as different as night and day . . .  “Oh, he’s so busy, you know . . . It’s not a big deal.”


“What?  Are you kidding?  It’s a huge deal.  I wouldn’t wonder if he would drop everything just to be here for it.”


Giving up all pretenses of actually trying to eat, Kendall set her fork down once more and slowly shook her head.  “It’s fine, Tucker,” she said a little more sharply than she meant to.  “Don’t bother him with something so insignificant.”


Letting out a deep breath, Tucker leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest as he nodded tightly at the waitress who interrupted long enough to refill their water glasses before offering them a curt bow and backing away from the table.  “Care to explain to me why you don’t seem to want to have anything to do with Father since Mother’s death?” he asked almost casually after the waitress had dismissed herself.


She opened her mouth to protest but closed it with a sigh when Tucker leveled a no-nonsense look at her.  “It’s nothing,” she lied.


“If it were nothing, you wouldn’t be upset,” Tucker pointed out patiently.  “Come on.  Don’t lie to me.”


The darkened room dimmed her vision as the painful sounds of labored breathing filled the unkind quiet.  “Play for me, Kendall,” she’d said, her voice little more than a whisper.  “I want that to be the last thing I hear . . .”


Kendall blinked back the memory, stared at Tucker for a long moment.  Platinum blonde hair catching the light filtering through the windows, bathing the table in the small bistro with a brightness that fake lighting could never achieve, he gazed back at her with the same blue eyes as their father.  Funny that the similarities ended there.  There was never the same blankness in Tucker’s eyes—a blankness that she had always understood meant that Titus Farington was looking through her at whatever it was that he deemed to be more important: a business meeting or the tai-youkai’s matters.  How often had her mother told her that she should not bother Titus?  That being in charge of the western region was an important job, after all . . .?


Giving herself a mental shake, Kendall sat up a little straighter, pushed her plate away as she let her head fall to the side, her gaze not leaving Tucker’s, even for a moment.  “Tell me something, Tuck . . .”


He almost smiled at the nickname she always used for him when she was small but hadn’t really used in years.  “Okay, Dolly.”


“When you inherit Father’s position, are you going to become like him, too?”


Her question seemed to catch him off-guard.  “What do you mean?”


Offering him an off-handed shrug, she finally let her gaze drop away in favor of refolding the crisp, white napkin.  “He didn’t go see Mother the entire time she was dying,” Kendall said softly.  “Not once.”


His sigh was soft, almost weary.  “Father’s a busy man,” he replied, his voice sounding older, more tired than it should have, given his age.  “I’m sure he wanted to.”


“Hmm . . . Then you have more faith in him than I do.”


“He was busy, and—”


“Too busy to walk up one flight of stairs, to at least look in on her?”


Tucker had the grace to look uneasy at that, but he tried to force a smile meant to placate Kendall, she supposed.  “Are you sure he never did?  Father . . . He’s never been one to show emotion, especially in front of us—you.  You know that.”


Kendall shook her head.  “Actually, I don’t.  I can’t say that I know a single thing about that man, Tucker.  Unlike you, I’m just a daughter—beneath his notice—and I always was.”


Just what could he say to that?  It was true, and he knew it, too.  Tucker was the child Titus had wanted: his heir, and Tucker was the one who had spent most of his time in his father’s presence, being groomed to one day take over the responsibilities that went with his station.  Kendall was an afterthought.  Her mother had said once that her pregnancy with Kendall had been a gift, of sorts: a little trinket to pacify a wife who had longed for something more than her husband had provided.  That she had been born a girl was just icing on the proverbial cake, but Titus had seen fit to leave her in the care of her mother and the countless nannies and governesses that had paraded through her life at one time or another.


“I think you’re underestimating him,” Tucker said gently, his eyes glowing with a certain light that meant that he was not pleased with the current topic of conversation.


“Did he move his girlfriend into the mansion yet?” she countered.


For a moment, Tucker looked surprised.  “What do you—?”


Kendall almost smiled at the expression on his face.  Pained, that’s how he looked—sad that she’d found out something that he had been trying to hide from her.  “I’m not a fool, Tucker, and Mother wasn’t, either.  She knew.  Of course she knew.”


“She comforts him,” Tucker said, his tone almost apologetic.


“Don’t make excuses for him,” she retorted, her voice lowering to barely a hiss.  Unable to hold back her own emotions, unable to accept the reasons, her hands shook, and she clenched them together in her lap.  “He never loved Mother.”


“You know that’s not true,” he chided, his tone softer than his words.  “He loved her very much, and she never held his work against him.”


Standing abruptly, Kendall paused long enough to grab her purse and sweater before pausing to utter her last words in parting.  “Yes, well, maybe she should have, Tucker.  Maybe she should have.”






“I’ll expect you to be home promptly by seven.”


Rubbing his forehead as he stared at the pile of files atop his desk, Zain considered declining his mother’s ever-so-gracious ‘invitation’ to dinner for about ten seconds before he slowly shook his head.  Arguing with a woman like Karis Jericho wasn’t exactly a good idea, and worse, if he did try to get out of it, he was most certain to receive a phone call from his father that would not be nearly as pleasant.  “Seven.  Absolutely.”


Karis laughed moments before the line went dead, and Zain snapped the cell phone closed with a heavy sigh as it dropped from his fingers onto the desk.


He should have known.


Then again, considering he wasn’t exactly surprised, he guessed he had realized it on some level all along.


You know, I understand that Marner’s daughter is currently staying at their estate nearby.  Spending the summer there with her mother—shopping or something like that.  Your mother even mentioned inviting them to dinner sometime soon . . .”


“Sometime soon,” he muttered under his breath as he shoved the quirk of irritation away.  He could think of a million things he’d rather be doing than to make the two hour drive out to his father’s estate, just to sit through dinner with his mother’s idea of an eligible bachelorette and her mother, who was likely going to be trying everything possible to sell her daughter as the perfect companion for the future tai-youkai . . .


Still . . .


You might as well resign yourself to the facts,’ the voice of his youkai-blood spoke philosophically—it was a voice that every youkai possessed, though some were more attuned to it than others.  Zain, as a rule, normally tried to ignore his, mostly because he found whatever the voice had to say normally to be things that he either already knew or just didn’t care to be reminded of.  Sometimes it even worked . . . ‘Eventually, you’re going to have to take a wife, and you know as well as I that there are a million reasons why that may or may not have a damn thing to do with feelings or love or even mild fascination.’


Maybe . . . but I’d hardly say that I’m desperate at the moment or anything.’


A very definite snort from the voice.  ‘Your father wants to secure the line of succession, and can you blame him?  Look how many wives it took him to get you.’


That isn’t exactly true . . .


So what was?  Heller had admitted once that his first marriage had been a disaster, mostly because he hadn’t even met the bride until the day they were wed.  At the time, there was a rising insurgence of unease in Europe because the tai-youkai had been defeated in a challenge, and the youkai were not very happy with their new leader.  Despite being an ocean away from it all, however, there had been many who thought that Heller ought to interfere to try to ensure a level of peace, so he wasn’t exactly in a good place to be trying to cater to a new wife, either.  From what Zain had been told, the woman had left him after a few weeks of his perceived indifference, though it had taken another twenty years to get her to agree to file for a divorce.  It made sense.  Being the wife of the tai-youkai held a lot of sway, even if they weren’t living together, much less talking to one another.  The second wife had stayed a little longer and had bore twin sons, as well, but they weren’t Heller’s, even if she had tried to pass them off as his.  That was stupid, really, considering that youkai didn’t have any trouble in ascertaining their own offsprings’ scents.


Karis had told him before, too, that she had hated his father from the moment she’d met him.  Her favorite words to describe him at that time had been stuffy, overbearing, pompous, self-righteous . . . So it was a huge surprise to everyone when the two had actually fallen in love—albeit much later after the wedding—and only then had Zain come into the picture.


To be honest, the idea of marriage just wasn’t one that Zain really ever thought about.  Considering he’d always figured that eventually he would end up with a wife that he barely knew, he never saw the need to bother with worrying over it.  It was all politics, anyway: strengthening one’s position through ties of marriage, and sometimes, it was even used to genetically enhance one’s offspring.  Zain’s background was strong enough that this particular reason wasn’t one that was necessary, but it wasn’t unheard of, especially in families that were weaker in abilities.  No, it was more likely that youkai were offering their daughters up in the hopes of securing a more powerful bloodline down the road, and as distasteful as Zain found it to be, there were the questions of whether or not Heller wanted to chance strengthening a family that might not be entirely devoted to the current tai-youkai, as well.  Political, social, monetary advantages—these were the reasons that usually went into the consideration of marriage.


The long and short of it was that the reasons for marriage were many and varied, and it was not often that the idea of love even came into the picture, at least, when it came to the aristocracy.  Divorce was not uncommon, especially after the birth of an heir.  He’d heard before that the second or third marriages were made more for love matches than anything else, and in a rather twisted kind of way, Zain supposed he could understand that, too.  After all, if the first marriage was meant to produce the necessary heir, then that was all that was needed, wasn’t it?


<<<  01: Breakfast of Champions

03: Intrigue >>>



All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.



posted by Sueric at 12:11 am  

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