Rick stood in front of the large windows, wanting to bang his head against the glass, but instead, he chose the more sane route of enjoying the view. From this height, he could see Cajara’s capital city directly beneath him and out to the flat open spaces and rolling iridescent hills of the countryside. The city itself was a crystal garden with buildings cut into elegant curves, seamlessly morphing from one shape to the other. In between them were small forests of hue-shifting Cajaran trees. Above it all, sky towers were hung delicately like chandeliers by large hover glyphs.
An unconscious smile softened Rick’s sharp features, and for a moment, the city’s beauty let him forget the unpleasant company he was with. Almost. His eyebrow twitched as a loud and deliberate cough from behind him made certain he did not forget.
“I’m sure the view is great, Rick,” Kelarg said, needlessly clearing his throat again. “But we were having a discussion.”
Rick ignored him, choosing instead to continue to look out the window. Kelarg waited for him to respond, growing more irritated with each passing second. He glanced at the table where the food he had ordered for them lay neglected, and though it would have seemed impossible, his irritation grew more. One plate was half eaten, the other untouched, both with a combined price that could pay the rent of a modest house on a poor colony planet.
Kelarg clenched his fists. “Rick, we need…”
Rick sighed, interrupting him. “Please remind me what we were discussing. The poison seems to have affected my memory.”
“Oh please, you didn’t even touch the plate.” Kelarg scoffed, waving his hand over the table. “And besides, poison…” his fists clenched tighter because the poison had cost even more than the meal, “… is merely a formality.”
“Really?” Rick asked with an air of disinterest. “I guess blocking the trade lines of colony planets is also a mere formality for Kelarg’s Galactic Trading Company.” He mocked, then turned from the window to face him.
Kelarg flinched as their eyes met before quickly composing himself and giving what he hoped was an effortless smile. “Look, Rick, it’s nothing personal. Believe it or not, I have the best intentions for Pilan, but we had an agreement, and they decided to back out from it without fulfilling their end of the deal. It’s bad business on their part. Don’t you think so?”
Rick watched him for a moment, letting the silence drag until he saw Kelarg’s fingers begin to twitch. He smiled, and though he didn’t feel even the slightest bit of humor, countless millennia of life had allowed him to perfect the forgery of a smile. It must have looked as genuine as he expected because he sensed the nervous energy around Kelarg relax. Rick’s smile broadened.
He leaned his back against the window. “So, in response to them backing out of the trade deal, you employed not one, but ten Iclaxian world-destroyers to surround the planet?” His tone was cheery.
“Yes, simply to frighten…”
“Oh? Frighten them into handing over what they agreed to?”
“Exactly. The contract laid out the terms transparently, and they signed off on it. I…”
“The contract which gives you the exclusive rights to buy off their planet’s unique resources for one-fiftieth the price you are selling it for? That same contract you forced them into five years ago by threatening them with world-destroyers, much like the ones you have surrounding their planet right now?” The pretense of a smile dropped from Rick’s face, leaving it perfectly neutral. “Are we speaking about the same contract?”
Kelarg bristled at the obvious disdain. He let out a short breath. “You know…” he began to say, his voice shaking in anger, but before the rest of the words could escape, he bit down hard on his lower lip and turned his back to Rick, preventing him from seeing the blood drip down his chin. He wiped it off with a napkin from the table, then picked up the bottle of Arel and poured the light blue liquid into his cup. It fizzled up and bubbled to the rim. Kelarg inhaled the sweet scent deeply and attempted to reign in his anger. This fragrant wine, made from berries found on Pilan, along with the planet’s rare blue wood, had brought the greatest growth to his businesses in the last five years. For five years, Pilan’s pitiful government had borne the weight of his boot on their economy without once daring to even murmur a hint of complaint. Yet, his hand trembled. Yet, Rickandel Lupaine had returned to the galaxy less than a month ago, and Pilan was the latest in a series of maggots that had suddenly decided to grow a spine and start complaining.
Kelarg swirled the liquid around in his cup. Ohh, he had many choice words he would have liked to say to Rick, but instead, he downed the entire cup of Arel and poured himself another. He sipped this one calmly as he turned back to face Rick again.
“You’ve spent the last ten years in the binding. I can’t imagine that was easy.” He took another calculated sip of wine. “Most people are required to rest for at least a couple years before they get back to any work, but no, not you,” Kelarg said, tipping the cup in Rick’s direction. “Not you.”
“What can I say? The people love me too much. If they demand my presence, I can’t help but respond.” Rick answered.
“Ah! Yes! Rickandel Lupaine, the benevolent god of the galaxy,” Kelarg jeered. Ah, that one stung, he thought, and he smirked as he saw Rick’s first hint of irritation. It was small, barely a downward twitch of the brow, but even that filled Kelarg with perverse satisfaction.
Rick turned to face the window, and Kelarg smiled genuinely as he came to stand beside him, though not too close, and looked out at Cajara as well.
“I’m sure Cajara has become even more beautiful since the last time you saw it. I’ve been visiting often.” Kelarg pushed more as he realized he was getting under Rick’s skin. “Some new and more wonderful device, or trinket, comes out each year, and of course, the monarchy remains as dutifully as ever. A real example of leadership in Nol.”
Kelarg’s smile turned into a wicked sneer as a holo-banner floated by, advertising the upcoming birthday of the first prince. He sipped on his wine. The fizz danced pleasantly on his tongue but did little to quell his rising scorn. Deceitful, he thought. Deceitful liars, parading their disgusting morality and goodness around like a bunch of imps. He wished they would choke on their stupidity, and he couldn’t wait for the day when they would slip up and reveal themselves as the frauds they were. Oh, how wonderful it would be on the day that Rick Lupaine would have to rain judgment down on the planet he had practically raised and loved so much. He snickered at the thought.
“If your true thoughts are going to be so obvious, why bother with the fake words and compliments?” Rick asked as a small smile played on his lips. “Or maybe it’s another formality of yours?”
Instead of replying, Kelarg straightened his face and drank silently.
“Hmm, no response?” Rick said, then, after a moment of silence, continued. “Don’t visit this planet anymore. Your presence is a stain….”
“A corrupting stain Kelarg. Do not step foot on Cajara again.”
This time, his rage could not be contained, and Kelarg lashed out in a tone laced with scorn and contempt. “Ha! Well, I guess ‘god’ has spoken, and I must shivakin comply? Who do you think…?” Even as the words left his lips, he recognized their foolishness.
Kelarg’s throat dried up as he felt a shift in the air of the room. For a fraction of a second, Kelarg felt as though he was held in place, as the universe and everything within it had tilted its metaphorical head to face him. Rick’s expression and body language hadn’t changed at all, but the intention and flex of his powers were obvious. They questioned whether Kelarg was really willing to continue prodding and poking at Rick’s temper, and before he had the chance to form a conscious response, innate survival instincts kicked in to silence him.
“Go on,” Rick said. He was smiling again. A perfect forgery, and once again, Kelarg was drawn in, almost buying into the idea that he was speaking to an equal, but the lingering disorientation, and vibration of mana in the air, kept him in line.
He sighed and nodded. “I understand.” His voice was hard. “This will be my last time here,” he said. His throat was dry and clogged with fear and fury.
“Good. And while you are processing that, also process the fact that from this moment, your dealings with Colony Planet Pilan are over. Remove your world destroyers from the planet’s vacuum space.”
Kelarg’s eyes redden with rage, and his skin turned purple with barely contained fury. The glass in his hand cracked, releasing a thin, high-pitched sound that cut through the air. The air crackled with tension as fear and fury waged war within Kelarg. He turned and strode back to the table in quick short steps, then gently placed the cup down on it. Everything in him wanted to slam the cup, flip the table, and shove the poisoned food down Rick’s throat. But instead, he placed it down gently, then turned back, discreetly putting his hand into his pocket.
Kelarg smiled, though, to his dismay, his voice trembled slightly as he spoke. “What happens if I refuse?”
Rick was still facing the window, and if Kelarg could have seen the expression reflecting back, he may have immediately given up the whole endeavor. Rick’s face, so unfamiliar with the act of frowning, looked alien, even to himself, as a deep crease formed between his brows, and his lips turned downward. Rick allowed the foreign expression to play on his face for a moment, studying how just a few muscle movements could make him look so terrible. He sighed and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to admit it, but maybe Kelarg was right in one respect. The binding wasn’t a place one could spend ten years in and then just think everything would be business as usual once they returned to Nol. He would have to plan for a short vacation, he thought, as he opened his eyes and relaxed into an easy smile.
“If you refuse? Ha ha, is that a joke?” Rick laughed, though he cringed internally at the boorish way he was throwing his power and status around. They both knew from the moment they met how the conversation would go.
As Kelarg had stated, the whole meeting was simply a formality, but there was usually an attempt at elegance and grace in how they interacted. Kelarg would play at trying to convince Rick with smiles and gentle prodding. Rick would allow Kelarg the illusion of choice and agency in the decision to back down. But it had been over ten years since they’d last played this game. Kelarg had forgotten how to spot his moment to bend while keeping his pride, and Rick was evidently too tired to be pretend-equals today.
Rick continued. “You and I both know that the reason I haven’t dismantled and destroyed this mob you call a trading company is because some of your more reputable businesses are the backbone of a few worlds. But, if you want to continue to be difficult, I think I might finally find the time.” He smiled.
Kelarg spat a laugh filled with scorn and malice, but he spoke quietly, still shaken by his experience of Rick’s irritation. “Do you really think things are the same as when you left? You think I will just roll over and heel? Just because you command it? Rick, the House of Lupaine cannot reign over the galaxy forever. Soon, we will shake loose this hold you have.” He braced himself for another flex of power, but nothing happened.
“I look forward to that day,” Rick said dryly. “But well, that’s obviously not today, so if you would be so kind, re-call your ships.”
“Prince Sol,” Kelarg shivered as he said the name but continued. “has destroyed many planets, and you and Marviel have done nothing.”
“You are not Sol,” Rick said. The eyes that gazed at Kelarg were unmoved.
Kelarg didn’t reply. Instead, his hand wrapped around a gem in his pocket. Once he clutched it in his fist, the gem activated, turning cold to the point where the moisture on his palm froze and stuck to it. Small sharp needles protruded out and sunk into his skin. The gem began drawing in his blood and body heat. Kelarg felt the life draining out of him, but it only lasted a moment, and in his next breath, the gem began replacing what it took with power. Kelarg watched Rick watching him and sneered. He knew Rick could sense what was happening, yet the man remained unbothered. Cocky bastard, Kelarg thought, and Rick raised a brow. Even with the extra power, Kelarg couldn’t hope to harm Rick, but it was certainly enough to boost his own telepathic powers to send a message.
“Destroy the planet.” Kelarg’s message boomed in the heads of the world-destroyer’s crew light years away.
Rick shook his head. His expression was one of pity, the kind reserved for small children or animals who didn’t know what consequences their actions would cause them.
Kelarg gripped the stone tighter, drawing as much power as possible, then smiled. It was too late now for Rick to do anything. He’d won. He sneered. “This is simply how I do business, Rick, and anyone who…” he started to say.
His eyes widened to see that he was speaking to a suddenly empty room, save for the fading residue of golden light hanging in the air. He doubled over, convulsing, then fell to his knees. The now burning gem rolled out of his hands. It overloaded and shattered as it failed to withstand the force of Rick’s telepathic message, which shook Kelarg’s skull.
“Get off the planet, and as we’ve agreed, do not return,” Rick’s voice said. Eventually, the message and power faded, but Kelarg was left gasping and writhing on the floor for minutes after; his body and mind forcefully subdued.