The blood pounded so loudly within the walls of Forever that I squeezed
my eyes shut and threw my arm over my head and ears to block out the
ambient noise. I half-feared the emotional strain would rend apart the
structures; walls would crash, roofs cave, windows shatter under the
intensity. How could it not, this human habitation groomed to harish
citadel, now throbbing with forces surely it couldn't hold at once
without some eloquent threnody of collapse? We were all of us here; the
beams would buckle with a beautiful splintering. Cobweb, its soul: me,
its heart: Terzien, its brittle skeleton: Thiede, the omnipotent
observer and weird breath of life. I surrendered to sleeplessness; the
ghosts of generations gibbered silently at the spectacle sheltered under
the eaves and tiles, walls and hybrid ambiances.
Seel murmured in his sleep when I carefully eased out of the bed. I caught a faded phrase of protection and smiled at the unintended gift. My traveling cloak lay in a puddle on a chair by the door. I took it, quietly opening and closing the door before padding down the corridor. The kitchen was empty and this surprised me. With so many hara here and the tension of the prior few days' events thick and nautilus-like, chamber after chamber of it, I'd expected half of the household to be sitting around the table. Instead, it was still, though peace had been driven far away and I had no idea when it would return. Mostly I was grateful not to find Thiede sitting with his lacquered-toed feet resting on a chair. He was here somewhere, but I was glad not to have stumbled on him in a doubtless lurid dressing gown, gazing up at the moon. I found a bottle of sheh about half full and tucked it under my cloak, toeing into my shoes in the front entryway and then went outside.
My steps, unsurprisingly, took me out to the summerhouse, eerie and beckoning as it had been throughout my youth. The night wasn't overly cold, but certainly not an environment in which to venture without a coat. I listened to the sound of the rugged soles of my boots on the gravel and then how my steps were absorbed into the sussurative grass as I neared the building. No interior lights had been lit, but within a few steps of the door which drooped lazily from its hinges, I knew my hostling was there. My heels crunched on some broken glass; I was no stealthy jungle cat now, merely a har who was unduly pleased to find a kindred spirit with whom to talk.
He was comfortably reposed, his legs pulled up under himself, an expectant magnetism in his eyes. "There's room for two," he said with a languid pat to the space by him, barely discernable in the murky dark.
"Thanks." I made my way over as quietly as possible, feeling as I always did that this was a sanctuary, a place where lives were made and broken. I winced when the chair creaked, but Cobweb didn't seem to be worried, so I sank down by his side. For all of his intuition, I didn't believe that my hostling truly read minds, so I explained a little bit of what was keeping me awake, and how my heart beat for Seel alone.
"We're going to be blood bound. By Thiede," I elaborated.
Cobweb made a noncommittal noise, a mordant upturn to his exquisite lips.
"Thiede made me want him. For years. And he forced Seel into the bargain. I know that," I said, fingering the bottle, moonlit and luminous green. "But now he loves me. Or so he said. Once."
Cobweb barked a laugh at that, but in that moment I knew well my hostling, and knew his thoughts weren't overtly malicious. "You're infected by Cal, he's infected by Cal. All shall be well."
I scowled at him, then spontaneously laid my head on his shoulder. "I love him regardless. Thiede will leave, the Gelaming will return to Immanion—" Cobweb's body tensed at the word Gelaming— "we shall remain. There's Azriel to think of. Thiede decreed that he be made, but just because Seel hosted my pearl wouldn't mean he'd acknowledge he actually has feelings for me. He was manipulated, before, but he was nearly Uigenna. He wouldn't allow himself to be bound to me if he didn't truly care for me."
Cobweb's silence held us together, warmly, in its shroud. "And I am Sulh. But if Thiede had commanded me to ride naked with bells on my ankles into the former citadel of Fulminir like Lady Godiva, I could no more have said no than a trained dog."
"You're not helping," I murmured, willing away the troubled visions that had crept into my head at the mention of Fulminir. That conquest was mere days ago, another jagged cut into the naïveté I'd held about the world.
"Oh," Cobweb deadpanned, his elegant fingers reaching out to caress the back of my hand. "Forgive me. Yes, Seel is beautiful, and I can tell he cares for you. But he's strong-willed, and he has a wide streak of resentfulness. Then again, he is hostling to your Azriel, and he's a lovely harling. Though goodness knows what effect growing up with Tyson will have on him."
Cheekily, I turned my head and bit at Cobweb's shoulder. He pinched at my thigh above the knee and I yelped.
"Tyson can't help who his hostling is," I said, the words lame even to my own ears.
"No. It's Cal. We're all tainted by him, every one of us." His tone was rich with bitterness as he eased the bottle of sheh out of my hands and drank from it. "This blood binding ceremony. Does your consort even know its happening, and soon?"
Guilt crept gingerly down toward my stomach. "Um, no. Though I think he won't be surprised. Should I suggest it? Even if Thiede hadn't promised him to me "
My hostling lay against the mouldering chaise, slowly shaking his head. "Promised to you? He really does rule us all! How maudlin."
"But Seel loves me!" I insisted, shifting to sit cross-legged, tugging my mussed hair out of my collar. I'd come straight from bed, ungroomed and disheveled. "So maybe he was pushed into it originally, but we'll be happy together. Both of us, and Azriel, and Tyson, and you." I paused. "And everyone in Forever."
"Terzian won't approve." He spoke with a detached resignation that shocked me.
"I don't want to talk about him."
"He's your father."
"Not quickly, Swift, and we both know why he's hanging on."
I took another swig of sheh, grimaced, and put the bottle off to the side. Cobweb sat quietly, a still-life portrait, beautiful and remote.
"Cal isn't the devil come to life in harish form," I offered.
"Others would say otherwise."
"Oh Cobweb," I moaned, throwing myself into his lap as though I were still a harling, though I was taller than he was now by several inches. "I don't care what Terzian thinks. I want you to tell me that you'll spread good omens on our joining, that it will be sunny and there will be jugs of fragrant wine and Bryony will cry and we'll all live in peace."
His fingers carded through my hair, tender and deliberate.
"You know I can't tell you that."
"Then lie to me."
"You know I'd never do so." Still his fingers wove under my hair, massaging at the base of my skull. "I will wish good fortune on you," he said, his voice tranquil. "These have been very trying times, and I know well that we're not out of the woods yet. But you, my son, for you of course I wish happiness." He sighed. "It will be a Gelaming affair, I suppose."
"I will always be a Varr," I said stubbornly, though the image of Thiede standing before us, his long teeth glinting, an unmistakable, deadly peacock did give me pause.
"Then I shall grant you Varrish blessings." He squeezed gently on my shoulder. "Come, let's give sleep a chance to find us, back in our beds."
I unfurled from his lap and held out my hand. He took it, draping his arm through mine as we walked through the hushed night. I'd tried not to obsess over Thiede's words at Fulminir, and given all that had happened in only a few days with Terzian's return, they'd remained dormant. Now, though, after Cobweb opened the front door, kissed me on the cheek and sent me to bed, I found Thiede's nonchalance of giving and manipulating hara like property to be distasteful, even if I suffered the indignity of being pleased by this particular result. Being joined with Seel, whether in Grissecon, or aruna, or for the remainder of our known lives in blood, it was certainly not a mere trifle.
I thought we understood each other, he'd said. No, I could never understand him, although I did hold on to a flimsy hope that he'd take pity on Terzian.
I relieved myself in the downstairs bath and climbed the stairs to the rooms where Seel and I were staying to carefully crawl back into bed. I tried not to wake Seel but he turned over, eyes open though heavy-lidded with drowsiness.
"Where'd you go?" he asked, yawning, and then enfolding me in his arms.
"Out to the summerhouse. Couldn't sleep," I mumbled into the warm musk of his neck.
My eyelids drifted shut, but my mind still pondered questions I felt I should ask in this mystical, pre-dawn hour. Seel hadn't gone to sleep again; his breathing gave that away.
He made an indistinct noise.
"I know you and I were both manipulated into being attracted to each other, at least at first. You've confessed that you have genuine feelings for me do you trust me?" I placed a chaste blossom of a kiss on his collarbone. "Do you feel I'm worthy of being more than a consort?"
Seel took in a long breath and exhaled it slowly, letting his fingers drift down the ridge of my spine. "I've seen forced joinings, Swift," he murmured into my hair. "I vowed never to take part in anything so barbaric."
"So you don't want to be publicly bound to me?" My insides were churning, but a thread of rightness about it all clung tenaciously around my heart.
"It's not that. I do care about you, very, very much. Whether or not Thiede's hand is involved." Seel's hand gripped my hip. "You seem so young to me, sometimes. Am I who you want? I have dark rivers in me, you know."
I sensed the tides were turning, and nestled even more closely to him. "I never thought you were simple, or anything other than who you are. I have a temper, too."
Seel made a scoffing noise at that.
"I'll be interested to see it. For now, though, let's sleep. Goodness only knows what the new day will bring."
"I can speak with Cobweb about the blood-binding ceremony, then?" I asked, insinuating my leg between his muscled limbs.
"Part of me thinks he's already been planning it, but yes. Let's do it and be done. I'm not totally comfortable with it, but you do have my heart, at least most of it. What a mess. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"More than ever," I said, snuggling into his lithe form.
Getting Seel to admit his true feelings was like pulling teeth, but I knew he spoke from the heart. I pulled the words around me like a blanket, and sank into sleep.