Rexines strummed and plucked at his barbol while I waited to hear a
familiar tune. As the lilting, sinuous melody rose like incense smoke, I
realized this was something new he'd been crafting. Given its
sensuality, the modulations slithering one to another in a provocative
series of quiet, daring combinations, I was certain that it would get
transcribed and given to one of the surists. Still, it was just the two
of us in this moment, both infected with the spirit of impromptu. I
crooned a melody without words and let my body hold sway as I told a
tale of aruna taken at dawn, a gold anklet given in affection. When
Rexines brought the song to its close I ran my fingers through my hair,
easing my hood back over my head and wiping at the beads of sweat that
had formed at my temples.
"That was inspired," Rexines said, taking a cloth to rub down the strings on his barbol.
"I could say the same," I retorted, pouring us each a cup of sweet wine from a nearby jug. "Pity neither you nor I will ever actually get to perform anything like that."
He looked over at me, one dark eyebrow raised. "And why do you say that?"
I fidgeted with one of my bracelets. "Because it's too good. If you play it for Hephas, he'll fall in love with it and only the therunans will get to dance to it. You know I'm right," I said, strangely irritable given the joy I'd felt in our unchoreographed duet.
All at once the reed-door was pulled open and one of the young hara from the Braga's court stood silhouetted in the mellow sun of mid-afternoon.
"There are some foreign hara near the southward docks," he said excitedly. "The Braga sensed them three days ago, and he'd like for you two to go and bring them in. They seem to have much to trade, and are of a tribe he's never seen before."
I glanced at Rexines, trying to cover my disquiet. As Froia, we did have our share of hara from varying tribes — or hara without tribes — who wished for our assistance to navigate the swamps of our home. We'd not had visitors for a while, however, and my curiosity soon overcame my unease.
"Chithra, do you need to make any preparations?" Rexines asked me as he stood, putting his instrument in its handcrafted case.
"No. Well, I should get some water for the travel jug."
The young har appeared to be satisfied with our response and he gave me a wide grin. "You'll bring them directly to the court, of course," he enthused. I didn't doubt that the fact that it was an unknown tribe made him giddy with anticipation. Our people don't interact with other Wraeththu all that often, so novelty of this type was exceedingly rare.
"Yes, we do know protocol well, Lunul."
I noted the edge of irritation in Rexines' voice, but the youthful court-har only made a gesture of thanks and closed the reed-door again. Rexines let out a sigh, adjusting his robes with the elegant fingers that could produce such evocative music from his instrument.
"You really don't mind?" I said as I padded over to him.
"No," he admitted, welcoming my lips to his with a low murmur of pleasure.
We shared breath for a short time, a token gift of flesh to accompany the gift of artistry. He was a not-infrequent rooning partner of mine, but neither of us felt drawn to become chesna. As we headed to the raft, I pondered that in silence.
Our ways made sense to me, of course; Froia are communal for the most part, with a hierarchy obvious to those of us who live in Orense and the surrounding smaller enclaves. Those of higher caste were observant and intuitive and had selected the few hara elevated to the rank of theruna. They tended to live alone. Those in the household of the Braga lived with him, and the rest of us had our own small reed-houses, though there were some groupings that vaguely echoed what would have been described as a family in human terms. Only a few harlings had been conceived— nearly all of us had been incepted and found our way to the peaceful, demure clan that hid away in the rushes. We danced and made music, studied caste magic, wrote, fashioned gold jewelry of exquisite beauty and complexity, and were told of events out in the rest of the world by visiting hara. There were almost no Froia who had tasted the bittersweet wish for exclusivity implied in a chesna bond, though as the years had passed, we'd seen more than a few in other tribes.
Rexines and I took turns rowing the hour or so to the shore where the alien hara would be found.
"Three days to wait," Rexines murmured, evaluating the back of his left hand. "I'm surprised the Braga didn't send us out yesterday."
"Maybe he was being prudent?" I suggested.
"If they had any kind of harmful intent, he'd have let them wait until they gave up," Rexines said confidently. "I'm thinking I should get a tattoo," he went on, stretching out his arm so that his hand was now in front of my face while I rowed.
"Yes. A crane. Like Scarab's. It's not a literal drawing, but more symbolic."
I made a noncommittal noise. "Given the number of rings Scarab seems to have collected and wears on his hands, I'm surprised that you noticed the tattoo at all," I said, smirking.
"It's not as though you don't have your share of lovely decorations," he reminded me.
"Many were gifts," I said in my defense as we came around a bend in the waterway and could at last see the shore. He turned to look at the quickly approaching hara, encouraging me to row faster.
"We'll get there soon," I muttered. I was nervous; dragonflies had apparently decided to lodge in my belly and I found I was out of sorts. I'd met Varrs and Unneah, one memorable Kakkahaar and dozens who seemed to belong to no particular tribe. Why I felt on the cusp of a great portend I wasn't sure. I navigated the raft to the dock, trying not to stare at the three hara of incomparable loveliness. They all had dark hair pulled back in intricate braids. The one who stood in the middle had strips of vivid blue teasing his hair; there were a few rogue strands around his face that had escaped the braid. Though the air was heavy and still, the tendrils waved gently against his pale skin like rushes in a current.
Power and sensuality shimmered around him; it was as though he stood in the prismatic light of a thousand glistering diamonds. I was utterly lost, my heart thudding madly as I watched this vision of harish splendor pick up his leather bag and sling it across his chest. Rexines thankfully wasn't as affected by the new hara, though I did see his appreciative gaze glide over their tight leather pants. The snakeskin pattern worn by the har with the blue in his hair was nearly my undoing until Rexines, in a hushed voice, admonished me.
"I didn't bring a drool cup, you know."
I was too caught up in my maelstrom of lust and serendipity to come up with a snappy comeback. I was stricken with a despaired craving for a taste, an exotic flavor heretofore yet unknown on my tongue. I had a sudden remembrance of my first aruna, of being soume and how I'd writhed, knowing that some hidden, new part of myself needed to be sparked to life by another's intimate touch. As the three Colurastes — as they'd identified themselves — arranged their belongings and selves on the raft, I despondently realized that my yearnings for this one har scorched me with that same arunic desire. Aruna after my inception had been a given, though it had been a tortuous wait; that this exquisite creature would ever notice me, given the many more charismatic Froia he would soon meet, was not.
Rexines eased the raft from the shore and formally introduced himself, as did I.
"My name is Eleu," one of the Colurastes said. He had nearly black eyes and a thin nose, and he emanated an aggressive sensuality. He gestured to his right. "This is Ahalenia, and our son, Lemuel."
I allowed myself to gaze fully at the har with the blue tendrils in his willful hair, tucking away his name like a gift to be opened in private. I didn't wish to be rude, so I addressed a question to Ahalenia, who was just as arresting as the other two Colurastes but somehow less intimidating.
"Is your tribe from the south?" I asked, self-consciously tugging down the hem of my left sleeve. "I know of the Kakkahaar, but you're the first of your kind to travel here."
He regarded me like a sleepy jungle cat. Evidently I didn't pose much of a threat to anyone in their small entourage.
"The Colurastes are in the northeast of Megalithica," he said, fingering a stack of delicate rings on his right hand. "Eleu and I left them some time ago and were living in Castlegar with a mix of hara of various tribes. We decided to travel back toward our tribe, but we may settle somewhere else for a time. We're not known for communal living, as you seem to be." The comment was said without judgment, and my glance drifted over to Lemuel to see whether or not he would elaborate further, but his expression remained impassive.
"Why do you cover yourselves?" Lemuel asked, lounging back on the raft with his legs apart, his fingers splayed on his kneecaps.
"Well," I said slowly, "I guess it's that we're not that showy. All Wraeththu are beautiful, but for us there's no need to show off our bodies. Not that there's anything wrong with you doing so, of course," I continued, not fully realizing what I'd said until Ahalenia's lips quirked into a smile and I heard an embarrassed sigh from Rexines.
Once we'd rowed them safely across the marsh, we escorted them to the Braga. I'd let Rexines guide the conversation after my unintentional gaffe, though I felt Lemuel's eyes on me, or imagined I did. The Braga's court-hara whisked away the Colurastes to get cleaned up and clothed in the robes of our tribe, known as oulla. Rexines was merciless in his innuendo-saturated comments, which I ignored.
There wasn't an official tribal welcoming of the guests for two full days. I'd obsessed about Lemuel, but not told a soul. It was a gathering of most of the tribe and Rexines had been selected as one of the players for the chosen theruna. Nepopis came out into the sacred hush, awaiting the incense and softly clapping hands as the sign to shed the chrysalis of his robes. I was as captivated as anyhar else; the thrumming of heated scents pulsed in my blood as I knew it did to all else in attendance. Though I'd seen the theruna dance his story dozens of times since my inception, each time his eloquent body told a variation on the theme. Despite the compelling eroticism of his lithe physique, I found myself surreptitiously looking at the trio of Colurastes. When Nepopis selected Eleu as recipient of his arunic gifts, I felt a bracing wind of relief in my chest. To my admittedly untrained eye, Lemuel did appear to be more in need of the vigors of aruna. That being so, my selfish heart was a taut bowstring, pulled and held until I might have an opportunity to relieve his draught, away from prying eyes.
* * * * *
Reaching down, I picked up another soaked strand of reed and began weaving it into the hole in the side of Bedrosia's dwelling. Like Nepopis, he was a theruna, living on the periphery of our tribe. A pair of battling dragonflies fought in iridescent jags as I worked, humming under my breath. Low trills of one of the marsh-birds were met with the occasional belches of frogs. A tinkling melody played on Bedrosia's wind chimes; I daubed the sleeve of my oulla across my forehead to wipe away the sweat.
"Chith? Company's coming," Bedrosia said in a voice bright with intrigue.
"One of the Colurastes. The hungry one."
My pulse began to race as I finished my repairs.
"So you saw that, too?" I asked, evaluating my handiwork and deeming it acceptable.
"I did, even though I stayed out of sight. He'll be here soon; I'll go inside and steep some tea."
"Great," I muttered, adjusting my robes and shielding my eyes from the glittering reflection of the sun on the waters. Lemuel approached on a small raft, his torso covered in our oulla, though as he drew closer, I saw patterns of color around the neckline and sleeves. As a tribe, the Colurastes seemed to thrive on decoration, so I supposed I shouldn't have been surprised at the turquoise and amber beading he'd sewn into the simple garment. The paddle dipped and slid through the water; even such a mundane act was suffused with elegance and beauty. I was captivated.
He didn't smile as he pulled up to Bedrosia's deck, but his relief was palpable.
"Chithra," he said, tilting his head to look at me. "I thought you said you lived near the other dancers."
"I do." I held out my hand and helped him out of the raft until he stood on the slightly swaying deck. "I'm helping Bedrosia with some repairs. He's making tea. I guess you wanted to see him."
I tried to cover the disappointment in my voice, though it was only natural he'd come to one of the therunans to seek aruna. I'd have done the same, in his place.
"Well, yes. But I'm especially glad to see you, too."
His eyes, unlike those of his hostling or father, were an olive color, flecked with gold.
"Oh." I found I wasn't at my most eloquent.
"Come in," Bedrosia said, making an understated greeting from his sheltered doorway. "Both of you."
The subdued stillness of his living area was a welcome calm. Bedrosia served us both iced drinks in decorated glassware, a far cry from the utilitarian ware I was used to seeing. Lemuel took a sip, nodded affirmatively, and then placed the cup on the floor to the left of his bared ankle. Black hairs lay tantalizingly across the bone; I forced myself to focus on the flavor of the tea and wished that I had something clever to say.
"I have a small pool out at the edge of my deck," Bedrosia murmured, his voice easing through the room like a sunbeam across the floor.
Lemuel's eyes lit up. "It's nearly tropical here, at least that's how it seems to me," he said, the animation in his voice reflected in his gestures. "Was that an invitation to go and swim? You Froia aren't exactly blatant in the messages you send," he said, quirking his lips. "Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean to imply Fuck. I don't know what I'm saying. Pool?" he confirmed, standing up.
I did the same, eager to be helpful, even if it was to guide him into the theruna's arms.
"Chithra, take Lemuel to the glorified tub." Bedrosia's dark eyes glittered with mischief. "It's nothing to write home about," he said ruefully.
"Doesn't matter. Sounds great."
I stood still, trying not to gape as Lemuel pulled the simplified tunic over his head and undid the waistband for his lower robes. Within seconds he was naked and gloriously so. His ouana-lim hung heavily between his legs like a stalk of amethyst. He caught my indiscretion and a heated, longing expression flared to life on his face. I kept on my robes, as was custom; Lemuel's disappointment that Bedrosia and I remained dressed would have been comical if I hadn't desired him as I did.
We all slid into the small pool of cool water. Lemuel eased around as much as he was able, an otter happily in his element. He came to rest between us, sitting quietly until with a wounded sound, he leaned over to Bedrosia, his lips grazing the theruna's cheek.
"May I share breath?" he pleaded, and was rewarded when Bedrosia turned and cradled Lemuel's jaw. They kissed and shared breath while I watched. Bedrosia's enthusiasm stoked my twin fires of envy and passion. At last Lemuel broke away with a satisfied gasp. He turned to me, his bright eyes undressing me as he reached out a hand to stroke the side of my face.
My glance flickered over to Bedrosia who made a deep, joyful laugh. "Oh Chithra. We're in for a memorable afternoon."
I looked at Lemuel, the uncertainty evident in my gaze because he eased over and sat in my lap, straddling me. Thrumming pressure built in my groin as he brushed his lips across my cheeks and then hovered above my mouth.
"I crave to be soume, and my lake is dried up," he murmured. "I need you both. It's been too long since I took aruna and it wasn't just me taking care of myself. Would you be ouana for me, both you and your companion?"
My heart thudded in my chest as I allowed my fingers to drift down to his thighs and curve of arse, holding him to me.
"Of course, tiahaar," I said helplessly. "You're beautiful. I've wanted to take you to my bed since you got here, but others are more skilled."
He pressed his lips to mine and I opened my mouth eagerly. Lemuel's tongue slid into my mouth; I tasted the flavor of our tea before his passion transformed to a torrent of images as we shared breath. Behind the erotic kaleidoscope of what he hoped for — both Bedrosia and myself inside of him, an act I'd never even conceived, much less could believe possible — he tasted of cinnamon and verdant shadows. Lemuel was vibrant, panting his desire into me like incense.
I broke away, looking first at him and then Bedrosia. "Can we really do that?" I asked, nuzzling Lemuel's ear and letting out a moan as his questing fingers stroked my arousal through the water and the impeding fabric.
Bedrosia's heavy-lidded eyes filled with promise.
"You really want me, too?" I asked Lemuel. My body wanted this exquisite creature to be elevated to pleasure that I'd caused, but my mind still found it more likely he was taking pity on me, poor naïve Froian who was a tagalong.
"More than you can know," he said, his voice husky and sending a jolt of lust to my stiffening ouana-lim. "You don't seem to realize how erotic you are. I'm glad you were here; I'd've sought you out sooner but I needed to learn the body language of your kind, to know whether or not you might take aruna with me. To let me share what gifts I have."
I could only manage a strangled cry of consuming want. I wanted him on my tongue; I wanted to bury myself between his legs, to worship at the succulent temple of his soume-lam, and cause him to burn with the heat that had melted my inhibitions.
"My bedroom, I think," Bedrosia said, getting straight to the point.
I was still a bit in shock; thankfully Bedrosia and Lemuel helped me out of the pool and we headed to the theruna's private rooms. Lemuel's silky adulations rained on my ears as he took off my robes. I'd become a python, unleashed; I didn't know what to do except to lie on top of him, grasping at his flesh, intertwining his fingers in mine, my ouana-lim carving a groove next to his hipbone.
"Both of you," Lemuel moaned, nibbling at my ear.
I shook my head, possessive and jealous.
"Chithra," Bedrosia murmured, bringing me back to myself. I'd never been like this; my rational side tried to beat sense into me, but the drumming of aruna beckoned louder. I was its slave; Lemuel and Bedrosia my masters.
"He yearns for you," Bedrosia said encouragingly. As I scooted backward, kissing the lean expanse of his thighs, I felt Lemuel's scorching gaze. He was a writhing, wanton creature. I licked and sought out his sikras with my fingers. His taste was lemonysweet on my tongue.
At last Lemuel yelled hoarsely, "Both of you! For Ag's sake!"
Bedrosia eased himself underneath so that Lemuel lay on his back on Bedrosia's stomach, legs wide. Bedrosia's luminous turquoise ouana-lim entered him as Lemuel let out a soft cry of pleasure.
"You. Chithra. Please," he begged, and my lust soared free.
I crawled on top of him, aflame with powers that only a theruna could alight. Though it seemed unnatural at first, I had to trust in my new lover's cries. With slicked fingers I guided my ouana-lim gently next to Bedrosia's, easing my hard shaft into the tight velvet of Lemuel's soume-lam, whimpering at the exquisite friction. What we were doing seemed like taking part in a well-choreographed dance, Bedrosia and myself filling Lemuel with affection and tamed ferocity. How he could bear both of us at once I wasn't certain. He sent me an image on his breath of himself with a crafted recreation of an ouana-lim of great size, and I was reassured.
My mouth hovered inches from his full lips; he squeezed his soume-lam and I groaned into his mouth.
"Need you both, for now. Roon me. I need it," he gasped.
I wanted him only for myself, and yet my flowered ouana-lim pressed up against Bedrosia, also buried in the decadent heat of Lemuel's soume-lam.
Trust me, Bedrosia said via mind-touch, the words stroking my passions to a more fervent height.
I love him. The words shamed me. And I'm lost.
He knows. Fill him with me, and then you'll find your way.
The furnace of Lemuel's body was delicious agony. I shared breath with him, taking solace in his desperation, feeding on the blueflame of his intensity until the tension roared to its fevered pitch. I felt the frenzy of his release, whipped nearly senseless by it and grateful that Bedrosia was there to guide all three of us through the aftershocks. I didn't know what possessed me, but I found myself clinging to Lemuel, arms and legs draped over him, breathing deeply of the musk that hovered over his skin.
There was uncoupling and an arranging of arms and legs and a cloth delicately wiping us up. I sagged against Lemuel, anchoring my fingers to his scalp. I was only half-surprised when I felt his hair slide down my arm and loop protectively around my bicep. It was a part of him, and seemed natural. I leaned over to breathe in the scent of sandalwood, snuggling close before sleep claimed me.
* * * * *
After that, I didn't see Lemuel for three days. Rexines was sick and tired of me mooning over him, though he did keep his commentary about exotic hara mostly to himself. No Froian would have been able to vanish so effectively; I would have tried to seek him out, but I was still raw in some ways and uncertain about whether or not what I'd engaged in with the elusive Colurastes and one of our theruna had been only to salve Lemuel's longings. I'd felt that it was far more than that, but how could I know? Instead, I channeled that pent-up anxiety and frustration into my dancing. My wrists, ankles and hips seemed to have been possessed by Lemuel's touch; my arms were still haunted by the clinging touch of his intuitive hair.
On the fourth day I'd had enough. I took one of the rafts and paddled myself inland to a sequestered river, desperate to be away from our enclave and to be able to swim again. At one point I batted away some marsh-flies and Nepopis' voice sounded in my head, though it wasn't direct mind-touch.
You're seeking purification. He is there, too.
That brought me up short for a moment, then I dismissed it as probable wishful thinking. I landed my craft, mooring it to a disguised but Froian-recognized point and plodded into the forest. Once I'd spent several minutes wandering the familiar dappled paths, serenity seeped back into my blood. Seeing the verdant banks of the river felt like a reunion with a lover; I eased off my hood and shed my oulla, folding the cloth as I always did. Habit.
It felt so freeing to be in these elements, and it was with a sigh of pleasure that I eased myself into the waters. Our culture was one of structured layers, like the onions I'd savored as a human, ages ago. There was beauty and nuance to be seen externally, but so very much more to be discovered over time and with attention to subtlety.
I splashed around for a bit, laughing at the dragonflies that danced or fought along the banks. When I felt I'd drunk my fill of the cleansing ambiance, I swam back to where I'd started out. I shook out my own dark ringlets, rubbing at my eyes and stretching upward, raising my arms to our spirit god. As I swung my arms down and then returned to a standing position, I felt an intense gaze on me. I mouthed the end of our prayer, my eyes glancing to the right and left, and then I saw.
Lemuel sat, wearing his infernal snakeskin-looking pants and nothing else. No flames licked about him, no divine chorus sang, and yet—
"I'm sorry I didn't come to see you," he said simply. Black and aquamarine sinews of hair teased around his shoulders, beckoning to me. "It was a ritual we do; I couldn't tell you, but you found me instead."
"I did," I choked out, having realized with a start that I was naked in front of him.
"I'd begged my dehar." He said it without shame; he seemed awfully matter-of-fact. "I didn't know whether or not he'd listen to me, not here, but apparently I'm still one of his chosen ones."
Now I was parroting him. Despite being inarticulate, I felt more and more comfortable both with my nudity and how much I seemed to mean to him.
"I'm a pure-born," he said, unfurling from the ferny undergrowth and picking up my robes to hand to me. "You seem to have a few; more than our tribe would have." His voice harbored melancholy I could nearly taste on my tongue, bitter and bark-like.
"Why is that?" I asked, dressing myself and sliding my sandals back on. Colors played in his olive eyes; I felt a warmness of heart at seeing tendrils of his long hair reaching tentatively toward me.
"We're an isolated tribe by nature. My father and hostling broke away. Well," he admitted with a raised eyebrow, "they were actually banished."
"That sounds like quite a story." Feeling brazen, I pulled him toward me. He stared, but with affection. "Just a moment," I murmured, feathering my fingers over the prominent bones of his cheeks to his eyes. Once they'd fluttered closed, I kissed both eyelids, breathing softly above them. "You can entertain me while I row us back in my raft."
He laughed, a sensuous sound that rang overtones in my chest.
"I'm stronger than you, Froia."
In seconds I had my hands around his biceps. In equal time, his hands were clenched at my waist, braids of hair gripping my throat like vines. Wide-eyed, I stared at him. The cornsilk of hair slowly crept away, and I let out a deep breath I'd not known I was holding.
"You have an unfair advantage, Colurastes."
He loosened his grip. With my mind's eye, I lapped up his beauty and begged. Aruna with him, now. He intuited my unsent message and I clung to him as we stumbled over to the nearest tree. I'd become fully soume, a relentless throbbing in my groin.
"You need me," he husked, and I nodded. Of course I needed him. Needed his ouana-lim thrusting in me, my back arching into the tree behind him. I tore off my robes as he unlaced and then peeled his leathers down his thighs. He sent fingers questing for the damp folds he knew he would find, and rumbled appreciatively at the contact.
"Chithra," he breathed.
"Lemuel," I murmured, my soume-lam aching as his fingers stroked my ripe skin.
"Raise your legs," he said and I did, hoisting my legs and wrapping them around his waist.
He angled his hard ouana-lim and slid into me with a deep thrust. Again and again, I shuddered with the raw ferocity of him as he took me hard against the tree. He kissed across my neck and then sucked on the skin like a parched vampire. I let out staccatoed cries of pleasure, feeling him pierce me with such depth. Sharing breath was an open-mouthed, panted curtain of desire dancing between our faces. Within me, the star blazed, desperate to draw out his flickering tongue. Our aruna was savage and greedy; his tempo grew more jerky and I yelled a ragged slew of "ah!"s against his head. His hair caressed my feverish skin until a keening sound soared from his throat. He struck deep, the tongue snaked out and release sparked through me, an amber explosion of ecstasy. Lemuel's mouth feasted on mine, cinnamon-tart waves of his arunic energy flowing through me, over me.
Once I'd caught my breath I realized I'd bruised my back and Lemuel's arms were shaking with exertion. I unhooked my ankles and eased down my legs while he pulled out of me. I still felt a phantom fullness between my legs. Lemuel wiped the back of his hand across his sweaty forehead; his opalescent fluid was trickling down my inner thigh.
"You seem to have freed my inner beast," I said, my voice raspy.
He was strangely pensive, as though wanting to choose his words carefully. The turquoise ribbons of color in his hair seemed to glow, and they captivated me. He captivated me. But I was sticky and well-used, and his silence was making me nervous.
"Let's wash up," he suggested, wincing a bit as he took off his shoes and tugged his tight pants all the way off of his legs.
"Are you okay?" I asked as we walked the short way back to the river.
"Oh yes." His feral grin was reassuring. "Might need someone to massage my arms and thighs later, though."
"I have healing oils."
He nodded; we rinsed off in a companionable but still heavy silence. It wasn't until we were over halfway back to my home that Lemuel at last spoke up again. True to his word, he'd outbid me in regards to brute strength and was rowing our return craft.
"I don't really know how these things work with your tribe," he said awkwardly in contrast to his sleek and sure movements on the oars. He fixed his gaze on me and I met the challenge. "I want to live with you. You alone. Chesna may be a dirty word for your tribe, or simply unheard-of, but I would have you, should that be your pleasure."
An icy thrill coursed across my skin. He was a tumultuous loveliness, but what did I know of being in a true partnership? The oars dipped into the water, rose, and sank again in a fluid rhythm.
"Chesna?" I clarified, and he nodded.
"I'm a pure-born, so I don't know anything other than Wraeththu. But I can understand your hesitation. I'm a Colurastes. Sometimes, but not always, we pair up."
As the boat moved through the water, I felt my heart begin to beat in time with Lemuel's rowing.
"I'd be honored. But I've never done this."
Lemuel's eyes sparkled. "Neither have I. I didn't expect to get here and fall for someone like you. For you. Seems as though the Ag wished it, or something. Maybe my dehar."
The linen chafed against my skin, and all at once I longed to be naked again.
"You've undone me," I whimpered, my fingers tugging at my long sleeves. I was so dark compared to his olive skin; my hair was a mess, and yet the cinnamon flavor of his being hovered around me. I wanted to become an exhibitionist, wanted to be taken, wanted to possess him though we're Wraeththu. Possession isn't supposed to be a part of the equation.
His gaze raked over me, his attentions resting at my groin for some time, causing my ouana-lim to stir.
"You're insatiable!" I laughed.
He shrugged, interrupting the flow of his rowing. "Just a healthy har who'd been without aruna for a while. And you inspire me."
Lemuel pulled up to the pier where Rexines and I shared a lodging. I didn't sense his presence, but that didn't mean he wasn't there, perhaps taking a nap. Once moored, Lemuel helped me out of the raft and I walked to the door and unlatched it. Rexines wasn't there; I asked Lemuel if he wanted a cup of tea.
"Sounds good," he said, smiling warmly.
Cheered, I busied myself lighting the small fire and putting on the kettle. "Please make yourself at home." My heart thumped a bit loudly at the implication of the words. "This could be your home," I said half under my breath.
"Or maybe we can make a new one for ourselves," he replied, coming to stand behind me and putting his arms around my waist. I leaned back against him, his lithe and comforting presence.
Our reverie was broken when I heard Rexines steps on the small landing. He opened the door and saw us; Lemuel had started to move away but I held him to me. Rexines' eyebrows shot up and he gave us an incredulous look.
"You've returned!" he said in a dramatic tone. "Both of you. You seem quite cozy. Or maybe it's afterglow?" he suggested with a smirk. Lemuel moved to stand at my side, keeping an arm draped at my waist.
"You know I'd never roon and tell, but yes," I said, certain that I was beaming.
Rexines' gaze was transfixed by the Colurastes. I suddenly realized that he was only wearing his snakeskin pants, which left nothing to the imagination.
"Do I make you uncomfortable?" Lemuel asked.
"No. Well, I am Froian. We just don't wander around half-naked."
The kettle began to whistle and I reluctantly eased out of Lemuel's arm.
"I don't know that I can ever get used to wearing the robes that you do," he said. There was something in his tone that caused my pulse to speed up. I poured the tea and handed him a cup, now feeling a bit anxious.
"But it's how we are," I said, motioning him to the couch where Rexines had gone to sit.
"Would you still be so modest if you went somewhere else?" he asked, blowing across the tea.
"Somewhere else?" Rexines was shocked. "We don't travel for the most part. Other hara come through here."
"Yes, but surely you'd at least want to see other places, right?"
The question was directed at me and my mouth went dry. I sipped at my tea, a torrent of wild thoughts taking flight in my head. Lemuel's expression grew cautious and I took his hand to reassure him.
"I'd honestly never thought about it," I said. "Your coming was so unexpected, as are my feelings for you. I…" my voice trailed off as I looked over at Rexines.
"You've really fallen for him," he marveled. "Even after he just vanished?"
"I had a ritual to perform," Lemuel said defensively. "I explained that to Chithra. It was not intended to slight him or anyone else."
Rexines made a hmmm'ing sound. "You're quite distracting. I don't suppose you'd mind wearing the oulla, at least while I'm around?"
Lemuel let out a barely audible sigh. "No, I guess not." His hair waved slightly as though expressing more of his disapproval. He put down his tea and I hurried to fetch him one of mine. Once he was robed, Rexines seemed to relax.
"You haven't answered my question," Lemuel said as Rexines brought out his barbol to practice.
"About wanting to leave?" He nodded, gently swirling his teacup. The familiar sound of Rexines playing his instrument caused melancholy to well in my chest. "I certainly don't want to force you away from your tribe, I wouldn't dare presume that you would. This is pretty shocking to me as well, but I know I couldn't live my life here."
Rexines stopped playing and he gave me a hard look. "Chithra, you barely even know him. How could you even consider leaving us and going off into the wilds with him? He's not like us!"
"I know that," I snapped, surprised at how much I wanted to protect this fragile beginning. "He's not a sorcerer; I'm not under a spell."
A few strands of Lemuel's hair had wound themselves around my arm and Rexines' eyes grew wide. I had to smile at that and clutched at the tender rightness of being with Lemuel, no matter how unlikely or crazy it seemed.
"Chithra, you'd miss our culture. Do a dance with me." Rexines turned his attentions to Lemuel, and I sensed a strange vindictiveness in my housemate I'd seen only on the rarest of occasions. "You've never seen him do one of our dances, have you, nedbriar?"
Lemuel frowned. I'd not known him for long, but I could nearly see whiplike flares of anger lashing out at having been provoked.
"You know I haven't. I'd like that, very much. But what name did you call me?"
"Nedbriar. Outsider. Non-Froian," I explained, glaring at Rexines. "Why are you being so rude?"
With practiced movements he began playing one of my favorite dances, one that tells of our love of the cranes that live and fly about our waters.
"Because I'll miss you," he said brusquely. "Come on— show your new companion just how talented you are."
"Please dance for me."
Lemuel's gentle plea was enough for me temporarily to flow beyond my confusion of feelings. Off came my oulla; normally I'd have had on a loincloth, but I didn't want to take the time to get one since Rexines had already begun the music. I tuned out everything except the lyric undulations of his playing, my body turning and diving, arms intertwined then unfurling as though to soar across the waters. As I danced, I looked at Lemuel, seeing him through the same eyes as the rushes are beholden to the cranes. My hips circled and my torso beckoned him; I was the bird, he the marshy nest of home. I'd never thought of this dance as erotic, but its message was changed as I performed for this exotic creature. A backbend transformed to an exhibitionist's act, the swaying of my head now an invitation to desire. I could tell when Rexines felt the change as well, though he dutifully finished the piece as we feel it's an insult to our dehar to abruptly stop any dance once started, if one has an audience. The spirit of the dehar is there, too, and wants to see it through to the end. Once it was done, I quickly reclothed myself, wrapping on a loincloth first this time.
Lemuel sat in appreciative silence before giving Rexines a challenging look. "He's very graceful."
"Yes, I know." Rexines sounded beaten. I shook my head and re-lit the fire to make more tea. "Nohar else can intuit what I'll play, what movements will fit my music like a silken glove."
"It's his skill, then, that you're afraid you'll miss so much, if we go away?" Lemuel's voice was now threaded with compassion; there was an unraveling in his defensive cloth.
"We were rescued by the Froia at the same time," Rexines said, placing his barbol back in its stand and confronting Lemuel like a tigress protecting a cub. "Incepted in the same wretched badlands, both nearly dead, Wraeththu blood dripped into our gashes but no proper aruna afterwards. Froia didn't always live out here, and they saved us from starvation, madness, and the torture of being caged by humans for days. I will miss him because he's like kin."
I'd begun to shake; he'd rattled open locked cells of memories. Lemuel's expression was one of shock. He stood up, pushing back the hood of his oulla as though his hair needed to breathe.
"Do you wish to be chesna with him?" he asked.
Rexines shook his head, giving me a baleful look. He was an open book to me; we'd never felt a bond like that, sparked by arunic passions, though of course we'd shared that countless times. In some ways we were like twins, as we'd fed on each other's blood when we thought we were dying in that nightmarish cement prison, shackled side by side. Too weak, abandoned, not strong enough to take aruna with each other so soon after our inceptions, Rexines and I had survived hell to be where we were now. I'd profoundly hurt him by being swept away like this: an outsider arriving, a bolt of lightning that had struck at my core. Rex thought I was dazzled by the play of electricity, and I'd be forsaken out in the world when this Colurastes tired of me; I'd be scorched ground, fodder for some other heathen Wraeththu to use me up. My calling to Lemuel was undeniable, but words to explain it would fail me.
"Rexines," I whispered and opened my arms. He approached me with trepidation, but I held him to me and shared breath. Through selected images I showed him Lemuel's sincerity, as much as I believed it to be, which was with each pulse of harish blood in my veins. Eventually he eased away and nodded.
"Tell me you'll return, please, just to visit," he begged.
"Lemuel and I haven't even talked for sure about leaving!" I exclaimed, though in glancing at my undeniable chesnari, currently making tea, by his relaxed posture and surety of movement I innately knew it would be soon. "I haven't said that I would."
Lemuel handed me a cup of tea before rubbing Rexines' back.
You haven't said so in words, but the seed is planted. We'll go together, it's as it should be, Lemuel murmured via mind-touch.
"Nothing against Chithra," Rexines said, obviously trying not to enjoy Lemuel's ministrations and failing, "but there are others considered more beautiful. Why him?"
Lemuel laughed, a musical sound in his chest. "I don't know. I saw him and then I dreamed about him. We take our dreams seriously. Who can say why you like onyx and I like garnet? I was drawn to Chithra's hidden fire. I wish to return to where I was a harling and came into adulthood, I can't stay in this realm of veils and marshes. I just hope he'll come with me."
I took a sip of tea, unable to look at anything save the golden liquid. Leaving was surreal; staying here while Lemuel departed was equally so. Fireflies seemed to be battling in my stomach.
"I should go see the Braga," I said, at last able to raise my head and confront both Lemuel and Rexines. "I'll do that now."
"Should I—" Lemuel started but Rexines interrupted him.
"No, Chith should go alone. The Braga gives good counsel. If he suggests it, Chithra can see one of the therunans as well. Their counsel's expressed a bit differently, but we trust them just as much."
I nodded vigorously, glad to have a plan and someone else to consult with. The Braga's young house-hara let me in with downcast faces.
"He knows why you're here," Lunul said, escorting me to the cozy waiting room for our tribal leader. "I don't want you to leave! I'd hoped you would be the one to teach me our dances." His sad eyes made my heart stumble. If even one of the young ones felt like this, how much more the knife must be twisting for Rexines.
The Braga bade me come in, his voice mellow and breathy like a wooden flute. I kneeled before him on a cushion and looked at him, pleading for guidance as he took my hands. The splendid gold on his fingers was warm; reassurance gilded his countenance and yet my loyalties continued to churn in my chest.
"Chithra, Chithra," he said kindly. "Don't be so conflicted, my dear. It's not a betrayal to being Wraeththu or Froian if you follow the keeper of your affections."
My eyes burned with unshed tears. "But what about Rex?" I asked, even as I tried to contemplate Lemuel leaving without me, and the deep grooves of despair that would be worn into my heart.
"You and Rexines are mirrors to each other in many ways, but now your paths are diverging. He's as strong in spirit as you are, and your friendship will reflect that no matter where you are. Either of you."
He squeezed my hands and I felt his power flowing to me. Peace drifted through me like diaphanous mist from a waterfall; he raised my hands so that I got up from the floor.
"Return to your home," he suggested, a solemn look on his decorated face. "I'll arrange for a departing ceremony."
With a brief nod, I returned to my raft and padded back to my house. It was a mere three days later that I found myself at a farewell ceremony. Lemuel's father and hostling would be leaving soon as well, but traveling a different path. In the smoky haze of incense, Lemuel and I sat side by side on our heels, robed, but knees spread wide. The Braga incanted loving words of safety as barbolists strummed and some of the flute-players joined in. Rexines chanted over us, placing ceremonial packages of sweetened bread and healing herbs at our sides. Then the Braga clapped his hands and both Nepopis and Bedrosia came out, dancing their unique, sensual stories.
"Chithra, you are soume, Lemuel har Colurastes, you ouana. Your fires shall now burn, tended and then quenched!" he called out.
Bedrosia was suddenly upon me, his lap covering mine. My oulla was moved with precision, still preserving dignity as only a theruna can do. Like a hawk swooping on prey, he thrust into me, holding my face and sharing breath. I grasped at Lemuel's hand; I'd seen Nepopis descend on him, though he must have swallowed Lemuel in his powerful soume-lam. I was ablaze in flames of red-violet and ruby, branded with protection.
Go with blessings, Bedrosia's voice sounded in my head, the scent of myrrh-tinged sunset filling my soul. Once, then twice he pressed deep into me and I bucked; on the third powerful push the tongue forked from his ouana-lim and surged against the lambent, aching throb within me. I exploded with the force of it; Bedrosia greedily swallowed down my cries as stars burst behind my eyes. My back arched as I was wracked with jolts of molten pleasure.
And then he was gone, off dancing and spinning as I sagged forward, covered and hooded, my sweaty palm in Lemuel's and my thighs quivering. It took several moments for my breathing to return to normal, and I held Lemuel's hand throughout. Once the ceremony was complete, everyone in attendance quietly left except for the young hara who served the Braga and lived in his residence. Ahalenia and Eleu padded toward us, and in their bone structure I could now readily see the source of Lemuel's own geometry of beauty. They helped us up from the floor, and then per an earlier discussion, Lemuel went with them for a last evening of discussion and whatever tribal partings they would engage in. Arm in arm I joined Rexines for a similar night of farewells.
Rexines and I didn't take aruna; after my experience with Bedrosia, my body was invigorated but the desire for that kind of intimate contact was temporarily extinguished. We talked and occasionally shared breath, our reminisces and hopes forming the weft and weave of our last night together for the foreseeable future.
"Send a message back, if you can," he said, no longer wearing his perceived abandonment like a crown. "I'll want to know you've gotten to this Castlegar place unharmed."
"I'll find a way, somehow," I promised him, easing my fingers into the tight, springy black curls on his head. "Lemuel says they have several wise hara, and I can work on my caste training."
He let out a low sigh. "Just don't forget our dances, and our music. You'll always be a Froian, and proud, I hope."
"Good. Teach our ways to one or two of those nedbriars, or if you and Lemuel have a harling "
The words ghosted across my cheek and my heart fluttered at the thought of creating life. "I'll honor our dehar and our tribe for as long as I live, regardless of where I am."
It felt like an oath, and his body relaxed at the potency of my words. I believed now that I could leave and still have his respect.
* * * * *
The journey was thankfully not an arduous one, yet it took a few days longer than expected to reach this fabled Castlegar on its mountaintop. I despaired, certain that we would run out of food and have to survive in the wild, though Lemuel had skills in those areas I did not. Walking up trails through woods with trees the like of which I'd not seen since before my inception, I forced one foot in front of the other. I still wore my oulla, while Lemuel had reverted to his favored brown leather pants and a flowing top. It draped from one shoulder to the opposite hip, leaving half of his torso bare.
"If I didn't have the skin of your back to inspire me, I'd have turned around days ago," I said through a dry throat.
"We're nearly there," he promised, turning to look at me, his own face haggard and shining with sweat.
Even his hair had lost its luster; he'd braided it and it lay limply down his spine. When I suddenly heard the sound of horses, I panicked.
"We've got to hide!" I hissed, pulling up my robes so I could run.
"No, no," he said, his relief palpable. "It's Cloudblaze. I sent him a message via mind-touch yesterday to tell him we were coming."
I gaped. "You must be of much higher caste than I am. I can't send my thoughts very far. I was best with Rex; now you know why."
He nodded, and drew me to him as a magnificent chestnut horse with an equally awe-inspiring har riding it came into view. I had thought that Lemuel and his parents were somewhat alien looking, but this har outstripped even them. His skin had a reddish tinge; his high forehead and wide cheekbones were flanked by raven black hair festooned with rivulets of braids. Everything about him radiated benevolence and understanding, though he seemed fierce and full of ancient mysteries. His dark eyes looked through me rather than at me, reminding me of the Braga; I lowered my head.
"It's good to see you again," Lemuel was saying when I looked up again. The other har dismounted from his horse and I saw he'd brought another horse with him, a dappled grey.
"I was not sure when you would return, if ever," the other har said warmly, pulling Lemuel to him in an embrace.
I fidgeted with my sleeves, wondering if I could walk alongside them the rest of the way. I'd never ridden a horse in my life. The har — what had Lemuel said his name was? — turned Lemuel loose and gazed at me.
"I am Cloudblaze. Do not fear," he intoned as though he'd read my mind.
He opened his arms to me and girding myself with all the confidence I could muster, I hugged him. He smelled of pipe smoke and musk; his thumbs rubbed soothing circles into my back. When he drew back, he held me at arm's length, intrigue sparking in his eyes.
"Froia. I'm Chithra."
"Hmmmmm. Lemuel has chosen well, I see. Come, you will both want to eat and bathe and rest."
"Oh, yes," I moaned, and he made an amused noise.
"Chithra, you can ride behind me," Lemuel said, his voice far more animated now that his kinshar had arrived.
"I've never "
"It's okay. Just follow my lead."
I'll never forget that rocking, shameful ride to Castlegar, legs spread around this beast and clinging for dear life to Lemuel's waist. Our small entourage clopped up the trail, Lemuel and the hawkish har sharing stories, speaking names of hara I would soon meet.
"You will be surprised— we have two guests from Immanion," Cloudblaze said as we turned onto a human paved road, gaping rudely with zigzagging fissures.
"The Gelamings Ashmael and Arahal."
"Really?" Lemuel seemed incredulous. "Well, Mabast should be pleased."
"Who are they? Or what? Where's Immanion?"
I hated feeling so rustic. I vowed at that moment that while I would pray to my dehar and dance his dances, I would forsake my robes and dress more like well, less Froian.
"Don't worry, lithe one," Cloudblaze said. To my surprise, he didn't sound at all condescending. "We will take care of you after your long journey and then after a good night of sleep, introductions can be made."
"Thank you," I sighed, looking around as the famed stone buildings, homes and gardens that Lemuel had told me about came into view.
"Normally we eat as a group," Lemuel reminded me, "or used to. You and I will stay at my former house, unless somehar else has moved in?"
"No. I do not remain unconvinced that your father and hostling didn't weave some kind of spell on it," Cloudblaze chuckled.
"They kept some of their secrets even from me," Lemuel said ruefully. He let out a low sigh and patted the horse's neck. "I never thought I'd say this, but it feels good to be home."
Wide-eyed, I watched the hara of this mountaintop village go about their business; chatting, walking in pairs or groups; a few stalls were set up selling jewelry, leather goods and metalworks I couldn't recognize. We were on the main thoroughfare, the beauty of the stone structures reminding me of castles I'd read about in books when I was a human child. Groves of old trees provided shelter from the hot sun; newer stone houses of a more organic nature dotted the landscape further from the road. They seemed more harish and blended into the environment. I tried to ignore the inquisitive looks that I got, hoping to remain unnoticed as Lemuel shouted out greetings and fended off hara who knew him, saying we were exhausted and would meet up at breakfast.
At last we came to a wooden house that was nearly overgrown with ivy, a menagerie of human, harish and what I suspected were uniquely Colurastes tastes all combined. Gratefully I slid off the horse; my backside and thighs ached and I felt I could drink down a river.
"Thank you, Blaze," Lemuel said. "Do you mind taking Loma to the stables?"
"Of course not. Do you need assistance? I am happy to cook for you. I asked Vox and Polaris to put basic provisions in your kitchen."
"No thank you. I'll slap something together. As long as there's water and the generator works, we're set."
Cloudblaze leaned down and kissed Lemuel on the forehead, smoothing a hand across the back of Lemuel's head. Rings of silver and agate adorned several of his fingers.
"You are welcome here, Chithra har Froia," he said, his voice solemn. I nodded, gazing after him as he returned to the road with Lemuel's horse in tow.
"It's not the fanciest house in Castlegar," Lemuel said, quirking one side of his mouth.
"Any house with a bed. I'm so sore!" I complained, rubbing at my thighs and buttocks.
He opened the door and guided me through it. Once we'd dropped our packs with twin thuds, he took my face in his hands and kissed me. As his questing tongue sought my mouth and we shared breath, his affection and gratitude invigorated me. I was caught up in the smooth glide of snakeskin and firelight; he was foreign and yet tasted of home.
"I'll pour us some vralsfire, then draw a bath, and then bed," he promised.
"Nothing sounds better."
I anchored my fingers in the matted thick plait of hair at the base of his skull. His smile was like a hammock and I sank into it, cradled and safe, rocking gently on his breath. Later that night I struggled some with my breathing and felt that I had a fever, but I did some chants, which helped for a time. I convinced myself that it was a repercussion from our long journey, and was swept away into sleep.
* * * * *
There was an angel leaning over me, haloed in incandescent blue and speaking words of healing. Or at least he seemed to be such an otherworldly creature, his hands held over me, incanting words I couldn't recognize and energy pulsing from him like waves of heat from the sun. I blinked a few times, imagining that I saw his wings, wide and powerful from his shoulder blades. Was I dead? My mind suddenly kicked into high gear, frantic and racing, trying to snap the elements around me together into order like puzzle pieces. A soft, cooling cloth was wiped across my brow and I felt the tentative reach of silken hair slide reassuringly around my naked bicep. It was Lemuel. Had he died, too? The thought made my heart ache with sadness; I turned my head, hoping against hope to see him.
"No more vralsfire for you, Froia," I heard the angel say, his voice both businesslike and suffused with relief.
"What?" I croaked.
I hadn't died; somehar I'd never met before had been leaning over me and was now standing upright, rubbing feeling back into his fingers.
"Oh, thank Ag," Lemuel sighed, intertwining his fingers with mine.
It took me a while to grasp my surroundings, but I gathered that I was lying on a bed. The healing-har was giving me a look of curiosity and satisfaction, his hands perched on his leather-clad hips. He was powerful and knew it; I sensed his impatience at having been called to take care of me, whatever had happened. Lemuel sat at my side, his wish to crawl next to me caressing me with each breath he took. He'd been very worried; I remembered nothing after our drinks, bath, and sinking at long last into Lemuel's bed, holding my chesnari close and breathing in his familiar scent as I'd struggled with imagined fire in my veins and strained breathing. Sleep claimed me again; I put up no resistance.
* * * * *
"Get up, lazy!"
Lemuel's voice was darkly playful, heavy with relief. I groaned and stretched, wriggling my toes and fluttering my fingers above my head as though they were rushes in the waters.
"What happened?" I asked, feeling much more like myself and glad for it.
"Apparently Froia, or you, anyway, are allergic to something in the vralsfire that's served so often in Castlegar. Thank Ag that Ashmael was here. He's Gelaming, and his healing skills were such that he saved you from dying. Takes a lot to kill Wraeththu-kind, you know," he went on, sliding next to me like a snake, warm and sensuous.
"Yes, I know."
I tried to bat at him, but he pinned me down, decorating my face with desperate kisses.
"So don't ever, ever do that again," he admonished, only the flimsiest of cloth separating our groins. Back and forth he slowly rubbed, like a cat against a willing hand. He was soume; he desired me to fill him, but I really wasn't sure I was up to such a task. A delicious task, granted
"I won't," I vowed as he took my straining ouana-lim in his hand. My pelvis arched up and I felt the petals curl down around his greedy fingers. "Did I really nearly die?" I asked before he sank down on me and I was robbed of all speech.
His muscles grasped and he rode me as surely as he had the horse that brought us to Castlegar. My fingers were talons, embedded in his hands as he took his pleasure. I was a shooting star, sparking lights in him so that he cried out and I tumbled after him. Unconsciousness tried to draw me to her with entrancing arms but Lemuel had a stronger grip. He smoothed away his sweaty curls and poured himself on me, a welcome grounding.
"There's something in the vralsfire that nearly killed you. So, no more for you. Coffee, water and wine will be your drinks. I can't bear to see you in a state like that again," he said, licking at the sweat on my face. "We do need to get you bathed and then we'll go to lunch and see Ashmael and the others. Ashmael is the one who put you to rights."
Lemuel's thighs clenched around mine and I drifted against his body like a branch bobbing on the waters.
"Just be with me," I suggested, gratified when he draped his torso over mine. This was where I belonged, in this sacrosanct lair for my jaguar, my lover.
"We can't lie in bed all day," he insisted. "I need to get some food into you and then you need to meet a bunch of hara."
"Ashmael," I said slowly. "He's the one who healed me?"
"Yes. He's Gelaming, the General of their guard, from Immanion. Over the ocean," Lemuel said as he stood, tugging gently on my hands until I was in a sitting position and then got unsteadily to my feet.
"He used to live here?" I clarified, shuffling behind Lemuel to the bathroom where he turned on the shower, making sure the water was good and hot before we both got in.
"Yep. He was in the original group who founded Castlegar. But then his chesnari was killed in an ice storm and he went a bit crazy. Then Thiede summoned him, and he went to Immanion. Took Parallax with him, too."
I was basking in Lemuel's attentions, limp and compliant as he washed my hair and soaped up my body under the delightful pressure of hot water.
"Why's he here now?"
"Don't know. Visiting, I suppose."
"And there's another Gelaming?"
"Yes, Arahal. I was only a harling when all of this happened, but he took a shine to Mabast, a Unneah. Then Mabast went to Saltrock for a few years. Now he's back, and Arahal visits him on occasion."
I watched Lemuel as he rinsed off, admiring his slender body, the dark nipples begging to be touched, and his muscular thighs. He had long toes and a smattering of hair decorated the top of his feet. His hair was quite long, hanging past the swell of his backside. Even when wet it was luxurious and full, shot through with bright blue and possessing a mind of its own.
"Like what you see?" he teased as he turned of the water, shimmying his hips so that his ouana-lim danced suggestively from thigh to thigh.
"I know. I'm just so glad to still have you," he murmured fervently, pulling me into a hug in his strong arms.
I didn't mind at all, even though my exposed skin was beginning to form goose bumps. He'd been frightened, and to be honest, a wisp of doubt about staying there crept into my thoughts. It found lodging in the crack of my self-assuredness of having left my own, but I tried to ignore it. There were other things to focus on: I was famished, and Lemuel said we should go to the communal lunch so I could meet our fellow hara.
"I'm terrible at names," I said, reaching for my oulla. I looked at it, and then reconsidered. Perhaps it was time for my robes to meet their fate, though I knew I'd feel underdressed without them.
"You're about my size," Lemuel said encouragingly. "Not everything I own is skin tight, either."
I looked askance at him. "Oh really?"
He quirked his mouth. "Yes. I'll find some looser trousers and a tunic for you. And you should have some jewellery. You all really don't adorn yourselves much, do you?"
"Rex was going to get a tattoo," I said defensively, holding up the thin linen shirt before going ahead and putting it on. "The Braga has them, and we love gold as anyhar would. What would you like to see me in?"
I had managed to slither into the pants which weren't as tight as I'd expected, thank goodness. Just saying Rexines' name made me homesick. I was newly troubled, realizing I'd nearly died thanks to this allergic reaction to their alcohol. Had I made some huge mistake?
"Chith. It's going to be fine." Lemuel walked over and enfolded me in his warm embrace. "I would have you dripping with jewels and paint your skin with gold, but I don't think that's your style."
I shook my head, inhaling the clean scent of his skin and the lilac in his hair from the shampoo.
"I'm pretty simple," I murmured against the side of his head. "But I wouldn't turn down a gift."
Lemuel laughed, a tender, mellifluous sound, and stood back away from me. He wore several rings, all silver with stones or engravings. He studied his fingers and then pulled off one that was my favorite, a filigreed band with an opal. He twisted it between thumb and second finger before placing it in my palm, his olive eyes bright with pleasure.
"For you, then," he said. "A symbol of my gratitude and devotion."
"For me," I echoed, trying it on a few fingers before keeping it on my right middle finger. It covered up a scar I had above the knuckle, a cat scratch from years ago. I let my gaze flit back to Lemuel, this lissome har who had so captivated me that I'd left my tribe and culture. I barely knew him, and yet, as ridiculous as it seemed, I'd surrendered my heart.
"Let's get to lunch," he said, running his hands through his towel-dried hair. "You're going to be a bit of a celebrity; might as well get it over with. But if it gets overwhelming, just say something, okay?" He was poised by the door, his hand on the doorknob. "I'm serious. Hara here are pretty laid back, but I doubt that any of them have met a Froian. And nohar thought I'd ever pair up, so you're doubly exotic."
"I'm not exotic!" I insisted as we walked outside. The day was warm and humid, the air humming with the busy travails of insects and chirping birds. "Especially within my own tribe. I'm a dancer, but that's the extent of how I stood out. I'm still shocked that you were drawn to me," I said quietly as we walked down the gravel path. Old trees sheltered our way, keeping the air cool.
Lemuel gave me a smile that made my knees weak. "I'm shocked, too. But it is what it is. My father and hostling told me a long time ago always to listen to my instincts, so I do. Cloudblaze said the same. He's practically another parent to me."
"He reminded me of the Braga," I admitted. "Or one of the therunans. What tribe is he?"
"He and his chesnari were of an ancient race when they were still human," Lemuel said, scratching his forearm. "I don't think as Wraeththu they really have a tribe. I suppose they're Castlegarians, or something," he said with a melodious laugh. "We need a name. I'll ask Ashmael about it; he's a founder, surely he thought about stuff like that."
We didn't run into any hara on the way, for which I was grateful. When I saw the dining hall I thrust out my hand to join Lemuel's. "I'm stronger than I look," I promised, and Lemuel gave me a reassuring smile.
"Strong or no, you're mine," he said, giving my hand a squeeze. "Oh! Ashmael!" he said, his spine snapping to attention. I did the same, only vaguely recognizing the Gelaming as the one who had pulled me back from the netherworld. He was strong and abrupt, an exclamation point; short blond hair, black leather and efficiency.
"Thank you," I said, lacking any eloquence, lowering my head in his presence.
"You're welcome," he drawled and I felt myself drawn into his speech like a leaf pulled into a current. "What are you doing here?"
What was I doing? Not even a few days here and I'd nearly been done in. The desire to return to the marshes bloomed in me, compelling and as harmful as nightshade. I stood in silence until Lemuel's hand snaked into my back pocket. "Lemuel brought me. I'm Froian; we don't usually travel. I suppose I'm an aberration."
Ashmael gave me a shrewd look. "A comely aberration. I wouldn't worry about it. Welcome to Castlegar."
"Thank you. You're one of the founders?" I asked as Lemuel guided me through the busy throng of hara over to where the food was being served. The scent of baked chicken and herbs caused my mouth to water and my stomach rumbled its discontent.
"Yes. I live in Immanion now, but my then-kinshar and many who are still here founded Castlegar. It's a place that holds many memories for me," Ashmael said, and I immediately thought of Lemuel's comments about his former chesnari being killed on the mountain. I didn't dare to ask him about that, it seemed far too personal, and the General was rather intimidating.
"So what brought you here now?" I asked as I served myself a healthy portion of chicken and potatoes, and then ladled some cooked carrots as well. "I'm glad you were here, of course!"
He gave me a pitying look. "I'm sure you are. I'd never heard of any Wraeththu being allergic to anything before, but we're still a relatively new race. We're constantly discovering new things about ourselves, and differences between tribes. I came here to get away from Phaonica for a little while; too much intrigue and I was losing my patience."
I followed Ashmael to a seat at one of the long tables and Lemuel joined us, chatting animatedly with the hara he'd grown up with.
"Is it bittersweet to be here?" I asked the General before realizing how intrusive a question that probably was.
"Bittersweet?" He arched an eyebrow, the black leather of his vest creaking suggestively as he turned to face me. "Well, yes, I suppose it is." He buttered a roll as my ears burned in shame. "More sweet than bitter, but I'd rather not go into all of that. Tell me about your tribe. You're rather an enigmatic group, and you're the first Froian I've met. Shameful, really."
I stumbled over the words, but managed to elaborate about my tribe to this imposing, fiercely handsome har.
"Don't forget to eat!" Lemuel chided after a time. "He needs to get his strength back, Ashmael."
"I know," he said with a smile. It transformed his face, formerly so stern, into one of kindness. I could see why he'd been one of the leaders; I'd have followed him in a heartbeat, his presence was that commanding. I took to eating with gusto, trying as unobtrusively as possible to take in all of the hara nearby. Two hara were particularly striking, absorbed in each other. One had a waterfall of silver hair and a strange latticework of leather straps adorning his torso. Despite his exotic apparel, the word 'Gelaming' rang in my head. Next to him was a har with a wide chest and strong arms adorned with copper bangles. Though they were conversing like everyone else at the table, I felt I could see their bond to each other, and marveled at it since they seemed to be so different from one another. Much like Lemuel and myself.
"That's Arahal, in the straps and feathers," Lemuel said quietly in my ear. "And Mabast. He's the Unneah I told you about. Quite a ferocious pair, though Arahal's been at Thiede's side since nearly the beginning of Wraeththu. He visits when he can."
"How can they bear to be apart?" I asked. "It's obvious even to me how devoted they are."
Lemuel shrugged, a possessive gleam in his eye. "Don't know. I certainly wouldn't want to live on a different continent from you, but Thiede has a way of convincing hara to do what he wants. Or he did."
I felt another wave of homesickness, missing my robed kinshar and our strong coffee and the sound of water lapping at the reed-house I'd shared with Rexines. Lemuel subtlely smoothed his hand on my back, reassuring me.
"It'll get more comfortable, I promise. I adore you, don't forget. The hara here will get to know you and you'll fit right in."
I gave him a skeptical look. "I'm so much darker than everyone else, and no one here can play the barbol. I'd really like to do one of our ritual dances, but who could play for me?" I was getting worked up and knew it, so I took some deep breaths and focused on cleaning my plate. The food was delicious and hearty; finishing my lunch was an easy task.
"There's no shortage of musicians here," Ashmael said, his voice full of sympathy. "And one things that makes a place like Castlegar or Saltrock so special is the variety of hara who live there. Lemuel, for instance," he went on, gesturing at him with his fork. "There aren't that many Colurastes around, really, much less a pure-born. There was Firethorn, Cloudblaze and Firestorm's son, and Jaffa. We even saved a couple of near-dead not-quite-Varrs back in the early days." I could see the faraway expression haunt his eyes, but it passed quickly and he resumed his usual commanding demeanor. "Variety is the spice of life and all that, Chithra har Froia. Just don't drink any more vralsfire."
"Never," I vowed.
He evaluated me with his piercing blue eyes. I didn't doubt that with his abilities he was assaulted by my increasing desire to flee. Maybe he could even smell it clammy on my skin, like sweat.
"I don't know you well, granted, and you've recently had an experience none of us wants to go through. I'm a soldier, but I have no more wish to die than the next har," he said, slicing an apple with an ivory-handled knife. "It takes a lot of nerve to act on affection alone, to blindly follow the winding path of your heart's deepest desires, especially as Wraeththu." Once again, he seemed to be looking at his past, and his tone deepened; the words were like the rich earth near the river. "Regret leaves messy wounds that can fester, or, if you're lucky, eventually be healed. We're resilient beyond just our physical selves, even if it seems like our emotions can burn us alive. If you feel you've been branded by a particular har, that maybe you're a bit insane for wanting to follow him absolutely anywhere, I would say that you should trust your instincts. I know what I'm talking about."
I couldn't bear up under his brooding scrutiny right then, so I nodded, murmuring, "Thank you, Ashmael. I needed to hear that."
He bit into an apple slice with a crunch. "I thought you might."
* * * * *
The afternoon was a blur as I was introduced to dozens of hara and escorted all over the mountaintop grounds. I told my story again and again in increasingly abbreviated forms until I found that I was exhausted by it all and didn't want to say another word. Except to Lemuel, anyway.
"Here— we're close to Blaze and Firestorm's house. They won't demand anything of you, we can just relax for a little bit before dinner."
I gave him a frantic look. It had been so illuminating to see Lemuel in an element in which he was dazzlingly comfortable, but I was overwhelmed.
"Can't we eat at your house? Or even picnic somewhere, away from everyone?" I pleaded as he came to a stop on the path. "I'm trying, I really am, but I don't want to explain myself any more today. And I can't remember the names of half the hara I met. I'll just embarrass myself."
"No, you wouldn't, but I'm sorry. I've pushed you and that wasn't fair of me. I just wanted to show you off," he said earnestly, his unbound hair rippling in its own current of will.
I couldn't stay frustrated with him, not when he took my hand and whispered a kiss across the palm. He then turned it over so he could run his tongue over the ring I wore that he'd gifted to me earlier that day, eons ago.
"I want to dance for you and to my dehar, without instruments," I said, pulling him to me and breathing deeply of his potent scent of musk and lilac. "I have the music in my heart. Ashmael said there was a clearing, a space on the edge of the mountain where you can see down to the valley and gaze at the stars. That is where I want to perform my ceremony of gratitude, but you'll have to take me there."
"Perfect." Lemuel clasped his hands around my waist and nipped tender kisses on my neck. "And then I'll take you, there on the grass under the stars. We'll sacrifice our seed to the Castlegar earth."
"Don't you ever think about anything else?" I asked in mock exasperation.
"Of course I do," he breathed hotly into my ear, causing a flare of lust to frisson down between my legs. "I think about you rooning me until I'm as boneless as a snake."
"That's still aruna, and we're out in the middle of a road!" I said helplessly, my body reacting to his words and his slick tongue delving into the sensitive skin of my ear.
"And you, no longer all covered up."
"Don't remind me. I feel half-dressed, and you're undressing me with your words, and mouth, unhhhhh ." My voice tapered off as I melted against him, but then I forced myself away. "Let's get some food at your house, then once night falls I want to dance for my dehar. And you."
He nodded, drawing a finger down the side of my face. "Thank you for trusting me," he murmured, affection blazing unabashedly in his golden-green eyes.
"I didn't stand a chance, not from the first time I saw you," I said ruefully. "All tight pants and pouty mouth and wild hair."
I played with a thin plait he'd tucked behind his ear and he smiled, feral but loving at the same time. More and more easily I could translate the myriad tales of expression written on his features, though I didn't doubt that learning the full vocabulary of his body could take a lifetime. An unpredictable, passionate lifetime. He seemed to be savoring the same joy in his own spirit, and he looped his arm in mine as he guided us in the direction of his house.
"You're like the cranes, but you spread your wings and flew further than you ever thought you'd go."
"I miss the water," I admitted. "That may never go away."
"Dance tonight," he said vehemently. "Give your pain and longing to your dehar, and I'll try to make you forget anything that he doesn't seem to take."
I wanted to reply as we walked along the dirt trail, but the words that came to mind were ridiculous: either I would sound like something out of the human romance novels my sister used to read, ages ago in another lifetime, or they'd be flat. How could I say there were tawny flames of hope and optimism flickering in my veins? That I wanted to map every inch of him, that I was desperate to be told every secret of his tribe he could share, that perhaps we were quite mad to be together and despite the sacrifices, we might end up disillusioned and heartbroken? Eventually I spoke up with steady truth, trusting the simplicity of sentiment.
"Between the two of you, I'll be well taken care of."
He tugged our elbows together so that I was right next to him, our hips bumping as our strides drew more parallel. "You came with me; I vow to the best of my ability to respect our differences and honor this journey together. I'm not at all perfect, not by a long shot, but I'll try not to be selfish or hurtful."
"I vow the same."
As he slid an arm behind my back, I sent out a silent prayer of gratitude to my dehar, and a wish for comfort to Rexines as well. That night I did dance, and Lemuel hummed the tune he'd heard only the one time. I spun under the stars and then our bodies soared together in motions as old and tumultuous as the first waves.
Nohar knows what the future will bring, though as time has gone on, I've gotten used to Cloudblaze sharing his dreams and visions. My yearning for the marshes has faded, though I know it will never go away completely. As the ivy clings to our house, Lemuel and I have grown together; with him I flew to his mountaintop land, and, like him, the plateau of Castlegar is faithful to me.