"So. How long before the scorpions arrive?" Cobweb asked, picking up a cup of tea with steady hands.
Ithiel raised a tawny eyebrow. "A few days yet. Our scouts intercepted them on the very southern borders. Their leader is with them."
Cobweb shuddered, gooseflesh washing along his forearms despite being covered by layers of silk. "Him," he muttered, looking into the cup all at once to see if there were messages to be read, but the leaves were silent. "Why did he come?"
"He didn't say much to the patrol." Ithiel gave Cobweb a sympathetic look. "Lianvis, much like you, is a force unto himself. We are allies, as you know."
"We're overrun," Cobweb snapped. "I'll be courteous. I always am, even when— after all that Gelaming," he finally concluded with a venomous hiss.
"I believe he's coming because he's looking for someone. A har that used to be close to him but vanished a few years ago. He hadn't been told about Terzian's death, so now he wishes to give his condolences in person on top of his true purpose."
Cobweb fixed his old friend with a brittle stare. "I can't imagine that desert sorcerer could miss anything going on in his tribe, much less an actual har."
Ithiel took a deep breath and let it out again, his gaze flitting around until it alighted on a bottle of sheh. "I'm only telling you what's been told to me." With an agile hand he poured himself a drink and helped himself to two green olives from a plate sitting between them.
"Thank you for that," Cobweb said gloomily. "At least Swift and Azriel aren't here."
"Isn't Seel with them?"
"Of course. I dislike saying his name aloud." Cobweb sniffed and finished his tea. "Bryony?" he called, uncertain whether or not she was in the house, or out working in the garden, a task he knew she enjoyed.
"Yes?" Her voice sounded from the staircase.
"We'll be having guests soon. Kakkahaar. Please get—" He turned his focus to Ithiel. "How many are there?"
"Three rooms ready," he continued. Daintily he dipped his pinkie fingernail into the dregs of his tea, nudging at the soggy elements before giving up on seeing any messages of merit. A thought occurred to him, and he yelled toward the staircase again. "I know it's nearly summer, but they're hara from the desert. Be sure that their fireplaces are cleaned and stocked with wood. They dislike the cold."
"I'll take care of it," her bodiless voice replied as Ithiel quaffed another healthy serving of sheh.
Cobweb looked silently at Ithiel for a time, sitting in a companionable silence.
"Would you like for me to stay with you tonight?" Ithiel asked, keeping his voice low, his light eyes full of concern. "I would never wish to intrude—"
"Impossible, and you know that." Cobweb reached out his hand to stroke his fingers along the back of Ithiel's as he held his glass. "You've always been generous in your affection with me, and for that I'm grateful. If Lianvis himself is coming, I think I should save my energies. Once they've departed, that's another story."
With a nod, Ithiel accepted the gracious and doubtless temporary decline. "You know where to find me if you change your mind. Or just want a companion. Aruna doesn't need to be included."
A low, heated smile caressed Cobweb's lips. "I know, but lying next to you, you always prove to be such a compelling distraction. Thank you. I actually think I'll go for a ride."
Ithiel looked startled, then his expression lit up with delight. "You haven't taken Clover out in weeks. He'll love it. I'll go and alert the stablehara."
Cobweb nodded, idly picking up a fork and rolling some of the remaining olives around on the china plate. A ride would do him good. A visit from the leader of the Kakkahaar, especially without Terzian's presence, he doubted would be.
* * * * *
"Wine?" Cobweb asked, pouring two glasses before the Kakkahaar leader nodded. "It's made from a vineyard in eastern Megalithica. Phoenix Rising, I believe. It seemed appropriate."
He lifted his glass, gazing steadily into Lianvis' eyes, so cold and piercing like night winds in the desert. Cobweb refused to show any weakness in front of this one. He'd consulted his cards and they had urged extreme caution, except the one in the South house. To his shock, it bespoke of intimacy.
"To independence," Cobweb obliquely toasted.
"I'll drink to that." Lianvis tilted his head with an elegant gesture before swallowing a mouthful of the robust claret. He paused, and then lifted his eyebrows in acknowledgement of the wine's quality. Cobweb sipped at his, waiting for whatever platitudes the thaumaturgist might care to bestow.
"I am so sorry to hear about Terzian," Lianvis said in a low, smoky voice. "He was a commanding presence, an exceptional har. Doubtless you feel the loss keenly."
"Only every fucking day," Cobweb replied blithely as though discussing the pattern on the drapes shading the window. He turned a piercing eye on his guest. "The air today is warm, a perfect day for a walk. Sometimes the walls of Forever press down on me, a sentiment you probably can't comprehend."
Gracious and calculating, Lianvis took a restrained drink before letting his gaze rove around the living room.
"No. I'm a nomad. The walls of my tent flutter and breathe. I sense that your home has eyes and memory, which could easily become oppressive, especially with recent events. Yes, let's walk."
Cobweb found himself self-consciously running his fingers through his hair when faced with the Kakkahaar's river of honey-coloured tresses. A vision assaulted him of a sudden windstorm, throwing Lianvis' light hair into a riotous tangle, and then caught Lianvis' secretive smile. Damn it all, Cobweb snarled at himself. He needed to shield his thoughts, even if it was with detached anger.
"Terzian has left a legacy," Lianvis stated as Cobweb glided at his side, planning to take them to the summer house. "That must bring you comfort."
Cobweb wanted to skewer him. This was obviously a test of some sort. Had he insulted the spirits here, or even of his early harhood in Sulh?
"Our son Swift is now bound to one of the Gelaming. Terzian has a highson as well. Oh the irony of that harling." Cobweb forced a deep breath, and formed the symbols of power against evil in his mind and projected them a few feet ahead of him. "And there's also Terzian's son with that devil spawn. Tyson cannot help that his hostling was that serpent. I believe you met Tyson during your initial visit."
"I did." Lianvis sounded amused, but trying not to come across as such.
"Have you ever had a chesnari?" Cobweb asked, turning an accusing face toward the nonplussed har. "Or known the miracle of being present at a harling's birth?"
"No, and yes," Lianvis replied, moving his hands to vanish into pockets hidden within his rippling shift. "I had a beautiful companion, but he was nowhere near my equal. I bought him from a passing group of his tribe who were only too happy to be free of him. He disappeared at the same time my tribe was troubled by the birth of a most disturbing harling. That's actually the purpose of my visit, to discern if any in the Varrish patrols have come across a lone Colurastean."
Despite himself, Cobweb's curiosity was piqued. "That would be something to ask Ithiel. Especially now that Terzian is gone and Ponclast overthrown, he's the eyes and ears of Varrish territory. But when did this Colurastean defect?"
Nonchalantly, one of Lianvis' hands reappeared to touch a talisman at his throat. "Nine years ago."
"Nine?" Cobweb was incredulous. "Why look now? He could be dead a dozen ways, especially on his own."
"No, I don't think he is." Lianvis tapped on his pendant again, his eyes focused on the path toward the summer house. "Things are stirring in the ethers, though I don't believe Ulaume has anything to do with it. I'd not ventured north to your territory since my initial visit. Perhaps the turbulences I felt were meant to bring me here to receive the rather important news of Ponclast's banishment and Terzian's death. Maybe it was you who summoned me here," he said at last, turning to look at Cobweb with eyes that now gleamed with heat.
"I highly doubt it," Cobweb said sharply.
"Oh, come now," Lianvis said, his voice as silken as Cobweb's flowing robes. "You and I both know you possess tremendous skills in harish seeing as well as understanding omens. I suspect you're adept at making hara quite uncomfortable if you wish it. But perhaps the opposite is also true?"
The glittering facades of the broken windows of the summer house called to Cobweb. This was his territory now. He commanded the energies here, and he was a different har from when Lianvis had visited before.
"I'm not sure what you've heard, and from whom." Cobweb straightened his shoulders, beckoning Lianvis to follow him on a slightly overgrown path until they reached the shelter. "And why ever would I summon you? If your pretty plaything left that many years ago, surely you've found other companions."
"I have, of course."
Lianvis stopped near the fountain, light coruscating in the dancing waters, and took Cobweb's hand in his. He raised it up to his lips, the heat of his breath from his nostrils tickling Cobweb's fingers. Lianvis' tongue snuck out to lick across his palm, the slick muscle journeying to the soft flesh of his knuckles and the sensitive shallows between them. Cobweb let out an undignified moan. He hadn't expected to be seduced! Lianvis' potency was intoxicating, though, dangerous and irresistible. It seemed a lifetime ago that Cobweb had taken aruna with a har whose aura blazed white-hot as Lianvis' did. In a way, perhaps this was inevitable. Powerful hara, regardless of tribe, seemed drawn to each other like magnets despite geographic distances. He looked into Lianvis' eyes, seeing in them the inky black of night, destruction and creation, a maelstrom of controlled power.
Lianvis drew Cobweb's hand down his throat to his chest, placing it above his heart so Cobweb could feel the steady beat of it.
"Your beauty is breathtaking," he said, stepping so close Cobweb could smell the wine on his breath. "But you're so much more than a pretty face, aren't you?"
"Yes, and I'll show you," Cobweb said in a low purr.
"I'm pleased to hear that."
Cobweb's body had decided for him, and being swept away by passion did have its own reward, no matter how temporary. His ouana-lim had receded almost as soon as Lianvis' tongue had begun caressing his palm.
Lianvis slid his hand behind Cobweb's waist, his gaze demanding. "My presence seemed to bother you before, during our initial visit. I can't tell you how excited I am that your opinion has changed."
"The world has changed," Cobweb murmured, pressing his lips to Lianvis' mouth to prevent further conversation. The kiss burned, hot and needy. Cobweb felt branded by Lianvis' lust, transformed to living incense, light and sacramental. His soume-lam pulsed in time with his heart as they shared breath. He tasted shifting sands and leaping flames. At last he broke off the kiss, desperate for air. Lianvis' eyes glittered as he stepped back and shed his tiered caftan. He emerged from the cocoon of clothes, lithe and feral, his pellucid skin gleaming in the light of midday. Lianvis was a puma, strongly sinewed and graceful— and soume.
"You like what you see, I trust?"
Lianvis stepped close to pull at the sash at Cobweb's waist, insinuating his hands to smooth across Cobweb's abdomen. The Kakkahaar's fingers rested on Cobweb's hips as the silk whispered open, exposing his groin and legs. Lianvis' gaze raked down Cobweb's body as he said, "You are indeed an extraordinary har."
Cobweb glowed at the compliment. He knew well the effect he had on various hara, but it had been quite some time since he'd been naked and aroused in front of somehar completely new, much less Lianvis, who was ravishing in a nearly forbidding aspect. He fingered the thin gold chain draped enticingly on Lianvis' waist, threaded through a ring that pierced his navel.
"We seem to be at an impasse," Cobweb said, nuzzling Lianvis' neck, sucking at his tawny skin. "I'm sure your 'lim is as virile and inspiring as the rest of you."
Lianvis moved his hands to cup Cobweb's jaw, kissing him fiercely. Almost despite himself, Cobweb found his body reacting to the images Lianvis revealed to him. As though diaphanous veils uncovered the bud of his ouana-lim, it grew and asserted itself between his legs.
Never fear, Lianvis said seductively via mind touch, his hot hand coming gently to stroke along Cobweb's rising spire. I'll make sure you're still in one piece at the end.
Cobweb was dizzy with the energy that sizzled around Lianvis. They broke apart, breathing heavily, long enough for Cobweb to sink to the ground, dimly realizing the Kakkahaar had conjured a cushion of some kind. He kept his eyes fixed on Lianvis, his hungry expression changing to one of rapture as he sank down onto Cobweb with a hiss of completion. Their coupling was a storm of carnal delights, sometimes rough and turbulent followed by lapping waves of unbearable tenderness. Lianvis rode like a skilled seafarer, then with a cry Cobweb tumbled them over, spearing into his hot, grasping depths. He visualized the singing notes of Lianvis' sikras, striking against them time and again until he was moaning, his head thrashing from side to side. When he couldn't bear holding back any longer, Cobweb cried out, the butterfly tongue sprang and struck deep in Lianvis' core. The air crackled around him, Lianvis' inner grip convulsing like a velvet gloved hand clutching for dear life.
It took several moments for Cobweb's vision to clear— phantom sparks still danced around them, and his skin felt scorched as though a dragon had breathed on him. Dazed, his thighs trembling, he lay down on top of Lianvis, resting his head on the welcoming hollow of his neck and shoulder. After a time Lianvis stretched out his legs, as his ankles had been clasped around Cobweb's waist. Once uncoupled, Cobweb got up on an elbow to look at Lianvis, somewhat disappointed to see that while his hair was a wreck, his expression was still smug, rather than relaxed.
"Yes, you are extraordinary," Lianvis repeated, letting his fingers trace down Cobweb's temple to his lips.
Unable to resist, Cobweb sucked two fingers into his mouth. The action garnered a pleased rumble from the Kakkahaar, who let his eyelids slowly shut, and he stretched languorously against Cobweb's frame.
"You're often soume," Lianvis stated, his face finally softening into sated lassitude.
"Yes." Lianvis' fingers had moved away to rest possessively on Cobweb's hip. "My soume tendencies are more dominant, though that was partially encouraged by Terzian."
"The Varrs appear to have held on to rather human-like polarities," Lianvis observed. "But you haven't always been a Varr, have you?"
"What makes you say that?"
"I make it a practise to notice subtle things. You've adapted superbly. That's obvious. But I'd noticed your gestures, your own talismans. The other Varrs didn't seem as intuitive to outside forces are you are. You're more superstitious."
"I am Sulh," Cobweb said proudly. "Though it's been many years since I left there, and I don't know how I'd be received if I ever chose to return."
Lianvis slowly eased up to a seated position, taming his hair into a semblance of order with his fingers. "Well, I'm pleased that you're not across the waters." He gave Cobweb a satisfied smile that slowly became predatory. Like an uncoiling serpent, Lianvis spooned back at Cobweb's side, allowing his fingers to skate to Cobweb's pelvis and twine in the springy curls there.
"And I'd be even more pleased to experience your soume side."
Cobweb hadn't been with anyhar so insatiable in ages, and was hardly surprised when his ouana-lim began its retreat. Fixing Lianvis with a sultry smile, he slid his leg over Lianvis' thigh, allowing him full access to the hidden treasure between his legs.
"I'll try to make sure you're still in one piece at the end."