in sizzling drops of musky happenstance.
Lick gauzy flames, sear my bones,
Bathe me in fecund tears of myrrh and exaultation—
gnaw, ravenous, on my transmogrified soul.
I'll dance with you, my firebrand,
Down the whispering well.
There, enrapt, we libertines
Will sing the stars indivisible, you and I,
suckling on voracious delight.
My heart, my drum—
Immortal, beat in me the tattoo of forever.
* * * * *
The air was different that day. Unseen wings beat a thrill of anticipation into the usual stillness; the wind-chimes tintinnabulated in silvery agitation. I was lifted from my cocoon, held up for the duration of the short walk to the bath. I couldn't stand unaided, my legs had transformed from slender but muscled to white spindles. I grimaced as I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, though my heart seized with anguished joy each time I was able to do so. I had died. I knew it. My brain hadn't surrendered the memory of the excruciating pain of the branch as it had crushed me, my sight and feeling seeping away, of Ashmael's voice, so wild and full of hurt
I let the warm tears spill over, as they always did, now that I'd recovered enough for these new eyes to work. I was here, and not-here; the silent, efficient hara kept me drugged after my initial screams of agony had been too much for them and my other keeper to bear. Thiede would bring order to this impossibility. He would come in with a serving-tray of coral, he would drape an amulet around my neck, a chambered nautilus like my hollowed soul and he would breathe life into this husk, this miraculous aberration, my somatic re-creation.
"Why?" I asked the unspeaking hara through my tears, but they didn't pause. They bathed my weak body, rubbing my near-useless limbs with oil before artfully arranging my hair with ribbons of white, and tiny opalescent beads. I begged for more drugs, for anything to slow the panicked tattoo which threatened to overwhelm my re-made heart. Pity me, for God's sake, the Aghama's sake, pity ?
A quicksilver slide of the needle and my breath no longer thundered in my lungs like a thoroughbred racing across a field. Perhaps Tassia could bear me away
I was an abomination, and yet, as I drifted into the languid haze of disembodied thought, I couldn't help but love myself and the demiurge who had made me again. Head lolling, I peered dazedly at my arm— tears meandered down my face at the sight of flawless, pale skin. No inception scar marred my forearm; no vibrant braid of ink to boldly proclaim my love for my chesnari remained. Apparently the voice of all physical flaws was to have been silenced. This body, this mute skin, this was Thiede's doing.
Did I captivate him only when voiceless?
Soft footsteps padded through the open doorway. He stood at the end of the bed, his palms pressed together, his long, steepled fingers pressed against his cheek. With his head tilted as it was, he looked for an instant like a child about to say his prayers. His eyes— a thousand sunlit mornings glowed there; I flinched under the shimmering, proud lanterns that shone in his face.
"You shall be above all others," he promised, approaching me with the lethal, captivating grace of a lynx. There was no softness in his tone; the words rang in the air, a regal pronouncement. I was brushed with the scent of saffron dawn as attendants removed his clothes and I was laid bare for him.
"Thank you," I croaked, my voice an elegy in dust. I was un-dead. I was moulded clay. I lifted my eyes as his lips hovered above mine, the faint scent of his breath enough to kindle an explosion of sparks in my groin.
"You were extraordinary, even before," he murmured against my parched mouth. "You will pass through fire as a phoenix, rising from destruction to become beauty beyond measure. Taste me. Savour the mystical bittersweet, the grand mystery of our kind."
Thiede was a swooping hawk, a plunging crane. I flew with him, his taloned fingers in my hair, his words and sighs keening through me, teasing forth the bloom of my resurrection. He was molten air, a demonic angel as he joined our bodies. Cataclysmic eruptions of fiery quakes burst my limbs, they tore at the marrow in my fragile bones.
I was consumed. I burned, and the pain went so far beyond anything I could bear that my sense tried to flee. From deep within me, below my simmering organs, I felt my soume-lam liquefying. My veins bubbled with lava. The lambent, molten gold of Thiede's essence purified and incinerated me. I screamed, but the sound came from a ruined throat, drifting off like a mote dancing for a moment in sunlight. I left my body for a time, relieved at being able to escape its scorched remains. Even in the midst of his passion, however, Thiede's presence was aware. He knew I was away, trying to sever my soul from myself, and with the thundering wings of his spirit, he pulled me back. The scent of incense had been overtaken by that of charred flesh; I ached to surrender, to die again, to blaze like a comet and vanish into the cold, bodiless quiet.
As I dully registered the end of the ordeal, of curtains drawn and cleansing air, I clawed at the ravishing nothingness, but it was taken from me. Thiede was too much. I was only a har; how could I truly survive such an assault? From the beginning of time, the joining of mortal and immortal has brought only ruin. The sun itself had penetrated me, or so it felt. I begged for the elusive gift of death with hoarse gasps of mind-touch.
"You will be perfect."
Thiede's words hung, incandescent in the air, before I was allowed to pass into oblivion.
* * * * *
The walls, I finally decided, were celadon. Countless days had whispered quietly past, much like the hara who continued to take care of this immobile, marionette body I now inhabited. Thiede held the strings, but given his absence, I'd guessed mordantly that he'd found another plaything. I was a crumpled, broken puppet, condemned to die — again! — this time within the pacifying, light green walls of my sepulchre. It had been many days since Thiede had taken aruna with me, though aruna couldn't begin to describe the trauma and devastation of that act. Despite how reconciled I was to the obvious fact that Thiede's lovemaking was mutilating and toxic, I continued to hope that in my final hours, he'd sit at my side. I longed for him to blow into me with his breath of refining fire, and at last release my spirit. For good.
Ah, the blessed slip of the needle. Icy fingers traced every path within my ruined frame and I drifted into the caress of a damasked void.
* * * * *
"I this "
With the eloquence of an imbecile I stared at my reflection, the murmured words stumbling past lips full and desirous. My skin glowed as though in the night I'd been rubbed down by angels, burnished with celestial dust. Slightly unsteady on my feet, I grabbed at the edges of the heavy frame of the looking glass. I couldn't stop staring at the gorgeous, unearthly beauty that regarded me with such wide, laughably starstruck eyes.
"God, you're vain!" I said, breathless, but how could I not be? I was perfection; I'd lain with a god — he needn't try and hide that from me, he'd burned away so much of my ignorance — and like a snake shedding dull, dead skin, I glistened, shining and reflecting sunlight from some mystical, unseen realm. In the midst of this narcissistic orgy, I began to flex my spiritual muscles, carefully evaluating my auralic energies from head to foot. I came to my powerful sexual pool, the source of such former pride. Once I'd realised I'd not died, and jumped out of bed to become ensnared by my own reflection, I'd thought immediately of Ashmael. I'd had an explosion of erotic images, all to do with him and our joy filled reunion, showering gifts of my ascended caste and newfound generative
I shrank back from the mirror in blistering shock. My legs were suddenly not strong enough to hold me up. Tentatively I reached into that core, tried to tap into the procreative realm I'd come to know the few months before my first death. I cried out at the unresponsive touch. It was horrific, like discovering my arm had been cut off, yet I could sense it there. Choking, crying, the euphoria of former moments blew away as insubstantial and fleeting as smoke when a candle is snuffed out.
I screamed my anguish, a roaring cannonball of thought and despair. "Thiede! Thiede, I— Ashmael, Ash, my heart, my only, Ash, oh fucking god "
Sobbing, I collapsed in a heap. Moments later, a flock of hara rushed in, hoisting me up from the floor that I'd battered with my fists, tears running down my face. I felt Thiede walking toward the room and a frisson of fear blazed down my spine. I pulled myself together, still clawing at my hair and letting the hara wipe my nose.
"Vaysh," Thiede said sternly and I broke down again. He carded his fingers through my hair, his luminous eyes boring into me, assessing my condition. Perhaps he'd known as soon as this new form had emerged from its grey chrysalis.
"Vaysh, I know you almost better than myself," he said, the warm tones of his voice resonating in my shattered spirit like the radiant notes of a cello. "Do you know what I've accomplished? Do you have any idea how much I poured into you, to make you from the inside out? The hours, and days I spent watching you, knowing you, as you strutted around Castlegar like a baron."
I didn't believe he meant any harm by the words, he was simply putting me in my place, reminding me that had I not been deemed worthy, I'd be dead, truly dead, mouldering in the ground on the mountain
"No more of that," he chided, his expression more inscrutable and less inviting, though his voice still held affection. I leaned into it, desperate for his validation, for more proof of his devotion, as though all that he'd given me wasn't enough!
"You are dead to him. He went quite mad with grief, and I allowed it, but he is now in my employ. I have encouraged him, through gentle methods, to put you in his past. You are also to remain as an exalted member of my house, but I do admit, your role has changed due to your condition."
Fear and rejection churned through me, a crashing waterfall of failure. "You haven't told him?" The words were rusty nails, dragging, bloody, on my tongue.
Thiede's eyes flashed sparks of annoyance. "No. I will not. It is of no relevance to him. You are mine, Vaysh. Only mine, until I see fit for you to be with another. Do I make myself quite clear?"
I nodded, though how I had the strength to do so, I didn't know. The world was a freezing rain of disbelief.
"I'm not heartless, my dear," Thiede crooned, enfolding me in his arms, a rare, spontaneous act of affection. He drew abstract, fluid patterns on my back as I stood immobile in his arms. "I have many plans for you, and I won't make you do them alone. I've decided that two of your companions from your isolated haven can be with you, for a time."
I felt dull and unnecessary, a pretty but useless fragment of shell, washed up on a beach.
"Aren't you going to thank me?"
I pulled myself back from him, bereft and mourning, but I straightened my spine to gaze at him as best I could. Even now I find it nearly impossible to look into his eyes for very long.
"Thank you, Thiede," I whispered, viciously suppressing the unexpected barrage of memories of his aruna. I'd been tormented by the licking flames of his passion; they had seared me with wildfires of pleasure as well as the pyres of destruction. He expected me to let go of my past; I realised that I had to, or go utterly mad holding out hope for a reunion with my chesnari. I sensed a warning in my thoughts. Thiede could feel my tenacious heart wanting to reach out for Ash, even though it was impossible. Thiede had said not to; therefore, I mustn't. The desire to reunite with him guttered feebly as Thiede's fingers held me fast. I forced a silent snarl, and it went out.
* * * * *
A few days went by, and then a few more, drifting like the soft snowflakes so often visible from the window. I thought I would go insane. The glow faded from my skin, but it still held more lustre than before. My hair was vibrant red, but Thiede hadn't changed it forever. He'd chosen not to re-create my tattoo when he'd somehow made me this second time, but in an oversight, perhaps, he'd left me with the blond interlopers forever ready to reclaim their position. I began truly questionning my sanity after a time; Thiede was gone, though he'd promised to return after he dealt with an 'unfortunate occurrence.'
For him, of course, that could have been a squabble amongst his engineers at Immanion— or it could have been notice of a Wraeththu-created holocaust. I wasn't to know.
The attendants in this frigid hideaway kept mostly to themselves, though I did unearth a tiger lily among the docile orchids. One held my gaze; he seemed more substance than shadow. He came to my rooms one day when I had applied the infernal red dye to my hair, my scarlet badge of self-defined individuality. He hung in the doorway of my bathroom, watching, his leonine hair tamed into a thick braid currently draped over the front of his shoulder.
"What?" I snapped. It was one thing for me to know I remained in some way under Thiede's constant vigilance, quite another to have no bodily privacy from his snooping servants. I was a viper that day, ready to sink my fangs into whomever dared to get too close. It made me reckless and coarse. I let my heavy bathrobe fall open, caught the har's eyes, and inexorably guided the path to my soft ouana-lim in its thicket of butter yellow curls.
"I'm not a natural redhead," I snarled. To my surprise, the har with his proud, Nordic features grinned lasciviously.
"This I already know," he said. The crisp, sweet tone filled my senses with the memory of a mouthful of tart apple. "Most of you I know well. The red, is good. Shall I clean out for you?"
I was so taken aback at his friendliness and foreign syntax that it took me a moment to follow the logic of his stilted conversation. "Oh. Rinse it out of my hair, you mean?"
"I suppose. Yes."
He strode into the room, the long hem of his robes fluttering at his ankles, unwilling to move far away from their shapely architecture. He was no Ashmael; that gash in my heart could never be healed. But he knew what I was, and despite that, didn't flinch as he eased my head back against the sink, rinsing away the dye. I purred quietly at his strong fingers working against my scalp.
"Shall wash too, yes?" he asked, hope nestled in the glacier green of his eyes.
"I'd love that," I said without shame. It felt like a lifetime since I'd been touched and not suffered agony as a result. He lathered up my hair, the pleasant mix of sandalwood and pine a sublime unction. By the time he'd finished his ministrations, my stinging anger was gone. With gentle but commanding motions, he sat me in a chair and towel-dried my hair, then began combing out the tangles with a conditioning balm.
"What's your name?" I asked, regrettably tardy in the question.
"Feslavit, I am," he replied, sliding the comb from my head down my back.
"How? I am har, I serve Thiede. I make sure you, new butterfly, don't fly into walls and get hurt. Or try to fly away." He placed the comb on the marble sink, moving around to kneel between my legs, creating a harbour for himself by draping my bathrobe around his back.
"There's nowhere for me to go." I left my hands clasped in my lap. "No one here has dared to get this close to me, not voluntarily," I said thickly.
It felt like betrayal, the way my body reacted to his proximity, but how could I resist? Ashmael had buried me. Thiede wasn't going to tell him I lived, and he seemed determined I should never see Ash again. I had to start thinking like Thiede, or the Wraeththu ruler I'd been initially christened, even if the crown had been yanked away before it had ever been put on my head. The thin layer of ice I had for protection cracked as Feslavit continued to regard me with concern.
"You are beautiful," he mused. "And you have suffered, here." He placed his palm just above my groin; I closed my eyes for a moment, willing away the anguish at the truth of his words. "We should go for a walk outside. Too long you stay cooped up, like bear in winter. A very thin bear," he said with a melodious laugh as he stood up, walking away and into my chambers.
I followed, tugging my robe closer around me. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth and I went to stand in front of it while Feslavit summoned and then dispatched a fellow serving-hara.
"It's spring!" Feslavit announced, pulling open the milky velvet curtains so that sunlight sprang into every corner of the room. The light was muted; crossing my arms across my chest, I joined the sturdy har at the window. I'd never thought to look outside until now— apparently I was in a tower. A forest perched along the border of a stone wall, the dark green sentries standing in at least a foot of snow.
"Spring?" I exclaimed. "Where the hell are we?"
Feslavit chuckled again, seeming more and more to me like a Viking from human lore. I gravitated to him; I've always been drawn to those whose strength complements rather than challenges my own. He respected my instinctive need for distance, however. Instead of drawing me to him, which I could tell he wanted to do, he inclined his head and cautiously approached me via mind-touch.
Do you mind if I speak with you like this? he asked, all at once able to communicate with the subtlety we couldn't while using my native tongue.
No, but thank you for asking.
The serving-hara arrived and spread out clothes for me on the bed: silken leggings and undertunic, woolen trousers and overrobe; a pair of fur-lined boots and a fur-lined cape with a hood completed the ensemble.
My coat and boots are downstairs, near the front entrance, Feslavit explained as I began putting on the layers of clothing for our walk. We're in the North, as you can tell. Not right next to the Freyhellans, but across the waters from my people. No geysers here, he said with an amused shrug. No earthquakes, but also no banshees or watchers in the mists above the steaming pools. Maybe one day I can take you there, but for now, you need to get some fresh air. It'll be good for you.
Does the snow ever melt? I asked with some trepidation.
Yes. For a while in summer and autumn. The stars at night are amazing as well. Dancing flames in the heavens, the auroras. I saw them at my birthplace, too.
We walked through the fortress, as I could now tell it was, a mixture of human and harish enginering and design. Feslavit was right; I did need to get out. My brain and body had been in such shock, I'd been functioning on only the most basic of levels. Thanks to this har with an impish smile and no fear in his heart, I was able to breathe in the air of this new world, cold and bracing with the sharp clarity of a dagger point. Feslavit's breath hung in front of him with each exhale, his cheeks and nose pink with the bright chill.
How do you feel about horses? he asked as we clomped along a cleared-off path that headed to what were obviously stables.
I glanced up at the cornflower blue sky, shielding my eyes from the dazzling expanse and breathing in deeply. The faint tang of hay and equine musk reached me and I let out a sigh.
"I love horses," I admitted, revelling in my body, at the pleasure of stretching my limbs— until I thought of Tassia, and Ash, and Immanion. The wounds will never heal, I thought wildly to myself in despair.
"Vaysh," Feslavit said aloud as I cobbled my feelings together, wrestling them back under control. I hadn't even known that Thiede had told them my name.
"Vaysh," he repeated and I stopped my strides.
"What?" I was cross, but didn't apologise.
"Look at me."
I did, turning, my gloved hands shoved into the pockets of my coat. His face was a symphony of caring, but an undercurrent of sorrow flickered under the surface.
"Life gives surprises. Some good, some terrible. Today, we ride. Be here, yes?" he intoned, resting his own gloved hand splayed above his heart.
A slow smile lit on his lips, but didn't journey fully to his eyes. "It is enough for now."
In the stables he let me pick a horse, which I did after seeing which one was his choice. We rode for an hour or so through the hushed woods to a mostly frozen lake, though he pointed out darker smears on the surface where patches out in the centre would soon melt. He pulled out a flask of some kind of brandy as we let the horses wander at the lake's edge. They drank the water which lapped with a sussurative tongue at the black earth of the shore.
"I'm sore!" I said with a laugh after I took a drink and handed the flask back to him. "I was used to riding, before, but my muscles are out of practise."
"I shall give you rub down, after we take care of horses," he said slyly.
I arched an eyebrow at him. "You'd best be careful. You're spoiling me," I said, running my tongue over my lips and enjoying the spark of lust that lit up the ice-like green of his eyes. As quickly as it had come, my playfulness vanished. I was no longer made for the delights of aruna; I had somehow to freeze that part of me away, or at least my soume aspect. I gestured at Feslavit for the flask again, looking out at the lake and imagining myself like it: barren, frozen, imprenetrable. I would need a lot of liquor before I tried to allow even this attentive har anywhere near me in an erotic sense.
I was so caught up in my inner turmoil and revulsion at the uncertain condition of my inner sexual organs that I didn't notice Feslavit had moved until he'd wrapped his arms around me. He stood behind me, a solid, comforting body. It made me want to cry, but I was determined not to. I was stronger than this. I would learn to master myself; it was that or a lifetime spent like a snivelling, lovelorn pathetic excuse for a har. Vivisected heart or no, my pride would have to serve as my source of strength.
Let's go back, Feslavit said in mind-touch, pressing his face gently next to mine; I'd lowered my hood once we'd stopped at the lake. I don't want to get in trouble for you having over-exerted yourself, unless it's through pleasure, he said, his voice almost as intoxicating as the brandy.
I can't make you any promises, Feslavit. I may be cold as stone, I replied softly, hearing his low sigh in response.
I've been told I have a fiery tongue, he said, provocative and full of longing.
No promises, I repeated before disengaging from his embrace and clicking my tongue at my horse.
That evening after dinner, I settled down with a book. I'd not been like Ashmael; even as a human I hadn't spent much time in studies of any kind, but with my new awareness brought on by my caste ascension, I felt drawn to learn. After a little while I threw the book down in frustration. I wanted a heavy tome of harish wisdom, but such things simply didn't exist then.
"Feslavit?" I called.
Feslavit? I tried again. I'd decided that with paper and ink and apparently all the time in the world, I could write down what I knew. The Kakkahaar, especially, had taught me much that I knew I should commit somewhere other than my own memory.
Yes, my firefly?
I wrinkled my face at the endearment, and pitied him for falling for me, if indeed he had. I didn't believe that Thiede had given his blessing to any kind of lasting bond with one of his serving-hara, no matter how deep the rivers of Feslavit's kindness.
I'd love to get my hands on some paper and something to write with. Could you bring that to me, as well as a bottle of the strongest liquor you can find in this fortress?
I sensed his hesitancy, his worried caution. I'll be there with what you ask in a few minutes, he finally responded.
I sank into the chair, the soles of my bare feet propped up in front of the fire. Feslavit arrived after a short while, dressed in a sky blue tunic and tight leggings, his hair unbound. He was stunning, and he knew it. His sights were set on me; once he unpacked his satchel I saw he'd brought all that I'd requested, as well as a phial of oil and two sprigs of purifying sage. He placed the papers and rag-tag collection of writing implements on a side table before unscrewing the top off of a slender bottle of a clear liquid and pouring a tumbler full for me. He let his fingers rest on mine as he handed the glass to me, and I smiled in gratitude.
"May I close door?" he asked, pulling some errant hair out of his eyes and behind his ear. "I would still like to give you massage."
"Sure," I said, taking a mouthfull of what was, indeed, potent alcohol. I coughed at the burn, chasing it down with even more so that the warmth spread as quickly as possible.
"No getting drunk!" Feslavit chastened as he lit the dried sage, murmuring faint prayers under his breath in a language I couldn't begin to comprehend, sanctifying the perimeter of the entire room. He then waved it in a series of patterns over my bed before blowing it out. It was a heady, pungent scent, one I was glad to smell again.
"What do you want to write?" he asked, pulling over a chair and helping himself to a moderate serving of liquor.
"The lessons I was taught."
"May I?" he asked, gesturing at my feet and his lap.
I nodded, and another phial of oil came out of a hidden pocket in his tunic. He rubbed the fragrant clove-infused oil into my feet as I talked and talked. I told him all about the practices the Kakkahaar had taught our small group, about energies of earth and celestial motions, of focussing the mind and spirit, to reach out in strength, or anger, if one needed to cause harm. I started to speak about Grissecon — by this point, he'd massaged up my calves and his deft fingers were making their way past my knees — but I stumbled to a stop. Hastily I rebuilt the walls against my inner pain, though it scraped at them, crying to get out, wanting this har to take it from me.
"Vaysh, please," Feslavit pleaded as he kneeled between my legs for the second time that day. His warm, softened hands crept up behind my pelvis, his thumbs held tightly to my hipbones, covered only in the heavy bathrobe.
"Share breath with me," he murmured. "I want to worship you. Please. I am not your other, I know, but I can bring you pleasure "
I didn't resist. We tumbled onto the floor, sinking into the thick, large rug in front of the fire. I felt like a voyeur of myself, rather than an active participant. We shared breath, and I was filled with the soaring arctic sky and the beating heart of the sea. I found that I was docile, my body willing to react to his touch as long as I kept all emotion locked away. I could give him nothing but tears, and I couldn't bear the thought of drowning him in my sorrow.
I'm stronger than you think, he said, nudging gently at me through direct thoughts. I won't continue on unless you're with me, sharing yourself, no matter how bleak you think you are. Anything else would be pelki, and I'm not that much a slave to my desires. I won't force you, never. But I—
Feslavit. I ran my thumb across his high cheekbones, noticing the smattering of faint freckles that dotted the bridge of his nose, making him even more endearing despite my wishes that he weren't so earnest. All I have is pain. It isn't right. I don't want to give it to you any more than I want to feel it.
Let me try. You're too beautiful to be locked away, a butterfly under glass.
I prefer to be soume, I said to him directly, swallowing down the bitter gall that threatened up my throat. It was my strength. I had such control, such deep reaches of power. Now, nothing.
I beg to differ. He'd pulled me so we lay on our sides, his questing fingers stroking my ouana-lim. He breathed warmly into my ear, sent his tongue around my sensitive earlobe, trying to see if he could stir to life my petaled organ. His own ouana-lim was quite stiff; I wasn't sure what to make of that, since it had been obvious from our exchange earlier this morning that he knew I was damaged. There is strength in your ouana side as well. You're not dead to aruna, Vaysh. I'll show you.
I had never been passive in aruna. As Feslavit kissed down my body, pushing my dressing gown aside so my torso was bared to him, I found that I had to engage myself. He mapped the terrain of my chest and abdomen with trails of kisses and wet licks until he buried his face at the juncture of my thighs. For the first time since I'd become har, I wished I'd only known what it was like to be solely male even as I knew I didn't wish that at all. He pleasured the soft sacs below my ouana-lim, making contented, humming sounds as he sucked them into his mouth one at a time like plums. His fingers tugged gently in my blond curls before grasping at the base of my shaft, which finally responded to his insistent attentions.
"I want to taste you, too," I said, unsurprised at the tears that welled in my eyes. I might have been able to take physical pleasure in this, but the psychological cost was profoundly dear. "You're wearing too many clothes."
"Vaysh," he said reverently, placing a kiss to the rounded head of my ouana-lim before sitting back on his heels. He pulled the tunic over his head to reveal a well-muscled upper body and nipples of tawny brown. They each sported small gold bars through them. It looked barbaric— and titillating, even through my tears. He saw that the piercings had caught my attention and he smiled seductively, licking his thumbs and rubbing at the nubs until they hardened on his chest. He made short work of removing his house-shoes, socks and leggings, standing for my inspection. For a moment he looked lost, and tentative.
"Do you like?"
I glanced down at my ouana-lim, so often retracted and not prominent in my fond memories of aruna, and saw it twitch slightly. It engorged even more as Feslavit turned predatory, slinking down to the floor to lie on his side, kissing my tear-stained cheeks.
"I do. This is tearing me apart, but I'll do it," I said, choking on the words, bittersweet and crumbling on my tongue. "I want to. Turn around so I can taste you at the same time," I said, my voice ragged.
We feasted on each other. Feslavit was right; I did still have a tremendous reserve of pleasure and strength in my flowering ouana-lim. He was attentive and skilled, coaxing it to life until the petals unfurled and he was able to plunder the hidden fruit, to suckle on the fleshy crown. I cried out around my own mouthful; like Parallax, his ouana-lim was quite wide in girth and I had to soften my throat to take him fully. The fluid that seeped from the top was like honey, without a trace of bitterness. My soul ached. My usual pounding core of passion was muted, but I felt that I needed to know what it would be like from now on if I ever did this again.
You're nectar, so exotic and delicious a meal, Feslavit panted in my head. Will you fill me? I want to be soume for you. Just feel how ready I am.
Licking around his vivid ouana-lim, still savouring the musk, peaty flavour of his soft skin over hard rod, I cried. I'd said that all I had was tears; I was a sea of conflicting feelings crashing into each other, desire and loss. I eased two fingers past the slick folds of his soume-lam and he gasped. My shaft slid from his mouth as he got up on an elbow to gaze, wild-eyed at me.
I nodded, and we shifted. Through his will, and due to his enormous control, his ouana-lim sank gracefully down; I bit at his nipples, rolling the metal bars against my tongue. With a blind ferocity I'd not known I possessed, I thrust into him and began rocking deeply, digging into his body again and again. Feslavit growled his approval and grabbed my hands, pulling me down to share breath. It was a crazed, savage coupling. He milked pleasure from me even as I was wracked with ecstatic guilt. His body thundered; I was tossed and battered until we were catapulted to completion. Together we crashed into our release, shattering in spumous magnificence before collapsing in a sweaty jumble of limbs and matted hair. Trembling, I eased from the tight confines of his soume-lam, my own organ throbbing. It was, as I thought later, the first time in this new body that my stalk had been enveloped. Through a haze of bliss and exhaustion, I decided it would be the last.
In the dark of night I awoke suddenly. I was alone, though Feslavit had been loath to return to his own chambers. My head ached; I'd drunk myself into a stupor before stumbling into bed. Teeth chattering, I got up and paced to the window to see the waxing moon: beaming, luminous and unreachable.
"You'll be my only lover," I said softly, hugging my arms around my chest until the cold quickly drove me back to my bed where I huddled under the sheets and furs. Uneasily, and with dreams haunted by Ashmael and, strangely enough, Arahal brandishing a sword draped in ivy, I slept.
* * * * *
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
~ "The More Loving One," W. H. Auden
* * * * *
As time passed, despite continuing to swim in deep waters of ennui and futility, I found myself nesting. The problem was that I had nothing of my own. Thiede and his attendants made sure I lacked for no necessity, and my growing drive to domesticate wasn't stifled. The weeks blossomed into the brighter months of summer and I became more attuned to the subtle workings of the hara. I learned many of their names, and eventually asked Feslavit if I could go with them to the nearest town.
"I would love to take you," he enthused, his verbal skills in my language having improved over our time together. We weren't chesna, of course, nor even that close of confidantes, but he was a friend, a lively companion, trustworthy and exceedingly patient. We'd taken aruna a few times, in the same manner as before, but I'd brooded after each liaison for days. Locked away in my room, I'd get drunk on the liquor they called dauthi. Feslavit, it appeared, was biding his time, certain that I'd eventually come around and be like a normal har. I'd simply tried to quit thinking, instead indulging in the activities allowed to me given our location. I knew that the serving-hara went to a town to get supplies and to trade, and I'd grown sick of staying at the fortress, its grounds and the nearby slumbering forest.
Feslavit roused me from bed early on a day near mid-summer; I'd had rather a lot of dauthi the night before and let him spend the night after I'd pleasured him orally. He'd been reduced to babbling all sorts of heated nonsense in his native tongue. I found healing in the act, and smirked at the knowledge I could turn the powerful har to jelly with tongue, teeth, and oiled fingers. I didn't allow him to reciprocate, but he was placated at the very rare opportunity to spend the night in my bed.
"Get up, star eyes!" he said, yanking down the covers.
"Fuck! You're cruel and wicked," I groaned, grasping at the rumpled bed linens that still smelled of him, of clove and moss.
"You want to go to market. We must get ready, and you said you want to look your best. You are always beautiful, though," he said warmly. His voice, still roughened from sleep, was like suede drawn softly across my skin.
"You flatterer," I groused.
Still, I got up and shuffled into the bathroom as he lit the fire. He left instructions with one of the hara before heading to his own rooms. It was summer, but it little resembled the season as I knew it from my former life— except for the insects. They'd emerged when the snow melted, but thankfully hadn't made life too miserable. I found my nerves were buzzing; this was the first time I'd ventured out into the world in this body, internally ravaged but externally perfected by Thiede's touch. I applied a few cosmetics, braided whispering tendrils in my hair, and debated what to wear. At length I settled on leather trousers, soft and supple that I knew showed off my legs, a blouson shirt, vest, and brought a woolen travelling cloak in case we didn't return until late. The sun almost didn't set, dipping to the horizon to tease at it before beginning its slow ascent again. It was disconcerting, but I'd grown to enjoy the nearly continuous sunshine.
Feslavit let out a low rumble of frustrated lust when I met him at the stables. "You you're a ruby, a fox. You will feast on my heart and then race away," he said, gathering me into a tight embrace.
"I take it you approve," I said provocatively, giving his backside a playful squeeze before kissing him on the cheek and wriggling out of his arms.
Several coaches had been readied; in my exploring, I'd discovered that perhaps due to the isolation, there was transportation beyond individual horses for summer and winter travel, well-tended carriages and sleighs. I assumed that Thiede, when he did make bodily appearances, came via sedu. As our small entourage rode off and away from the stone citadel, I revelled in the bright sun, at the scent of fir and lupine, and the miraculous ability to cross my ankle across my knee and breathe deeply of it all. Theide had sent regular messages to me via mind-touch and even in my dreams, I believed, reassuring me that he had plans for me. I was treasured even if I was flawed and unable to serve as archon or whatever titular name he would use in his realm in Immanion. That gnawing ache, however, remained in me, resistant to forces negative and positive. I dulled it with dauthi or poked new sores in it spending nights chain-smoking cigarettes and tormenting myself with images of Ash. Doubtless he was rooning with abandon, having been forced to leave me, literally, in the dirt.
I shook my mane of hair, clearing my head of recent depressing remembrances and situating myself on cushions provided for the ride. There were four other hara in our carriage, and two up front to manage the horses. The serving-hara engaged me in conversation for a time, then spoke amongst themselves, their words drifting around the creaks and squeals of the wood as we travelled to the harish hamlet of Tollsend. They all spoke a language that I didn't, though I'd decided to learn it on my own just so I could know whether or not they ever gossiped about me. I'd brought one of the vapid human books with me in case boredom set in, but I didn't touch it. Feslavit and I talked about the herb garden we'd been cultivating, and then he asked for a tale or two from my past. I was careful in what I told, as I didn't want to go on about Ashmael. I knew he sensed the absent presence which loomed, massive and elegiac, when I spoke. I'd had my share of experiences on my own, however, or with others in my clan, and in Castlegar. During the ride I shared a few stories and encouraged him to do the same.
It was a market day; hara were out doing business, delighting in each other's company, all under the blue sky scrubbed clean of clouds. I'd been given a bag of coins and a cursory overview of the costs of things. After the weeks — months? — I'd spent in the subdued stronghold of my rebirth, this was a feast of sight and sound. I gorged myself, literally and figuratively. I ate well at our fortress, but I couldn't resist the roasted lamb, seasoned and served on herbed flat bread. The hara of this area were easy on the eye: oval-faced, a wide variety of hair and eye colours, wearing brightly patterned fabrics and often bursting into song in pairs or quartets. Ale, wine and dauthi was in abundance, as well as jewellery and leather goods crafted by artisans.
I found myself at a jeweler's stall, fingering a beautiful piece of amber, creatively held in silver. Its body was flanked with upturned wings of tiger's eye, with actual beady eyes of garnet— a phoenix.
"That is no butterfly," Feslavit said in my ear, his voice doubtless meant to sound enticing, but I'd buttressed myself against the effect.
I'd remembered a ring of citrine Ash had bartered for me, his powers of persuasion over the artisan more efficacious than mine. I'd had my heart set on it for some time but hadn't come up with a satisfactory trade. I'd begun to think I was going to have to resort to sycophantic means when Ash produced it as a gift. I was filled with morbid curiosity: did someone else in Castlegar wear it now? I thought of Cloudblaze, and hoped perhaps it had found a home with him.
"I'm no butterfly, either," I replied to Feslavit, placing the amulet back on its pillow of cobalt velvet. "If anything, I'm a fallen star. I could wear a rock around my neck for symbolism."
"Do not be so black," Feslavit scolded. "You breathe, the sun shines, you have new inks, and decorations for rooms. I know you bought burgandy leather boots, too. And you have my company!" he said, smiling broadly, taking my arm. "It is a good day!"
I shook my head at his zealous mission to restore my happiness. Yet, how could a sieve hold goodwill even as bountiful as Feslavit's?
"A good day, indeed. Those boots are works of art," I agreed, unable to stop from grinning when he growled in mock exasperation.
There was no laziness to be found; with such short months of relative warmth, even a gathering like this vibrated with frenetic energy. It was invigorating and draining, all at once. I'd not been around such continuous frivolity and noise in what seemed like forever. I filled a flask with wine and the two of us walked over to an artist, sitting on a natural stool — a portable tree trunk — painting the view of a small lake and swans gliding on its peaceful surface. For a long time I stood, watching the har sketch on large sheaths of parchment, using black charcoal and an umber pencil. Feslavit grew tired of that and wandered off, promising to return. I took sips from my flask, standing nearby after ensuring I wasn't making the har nervous or annoyed. I found myself engrossed at the smooth strokes and twitchy jabs of shading that spilled across the paper.
"What is your name?" he asked without looking up. "I've not seen you before. I'd remember if I had."
Startled, I glanced around, but he was indeed talking to me. "Vaysh," I replied. "You're quite skilled. And you are?"
"Who I am is not important. But you'll find that my chesnari, Grimska, is. He can sell you something to declaw your demons."
I stood up straighter, haughtiness creeping stealthfully up my spine, steeling it. "I beg your pardon?"
He stopped his sketching and turned to look at me. His golden eyes were feral, and uncannily old; I felt the night of aeons in him, a primeval tiger seeing through to everything I kept closeted away, even my anguished heart.
"No one — nohar — can take your pain away. It radiates from you, if one is attuned to such things," he said in a rich tenor.
"And so what if it does?" I said frostily, clutching my wine and trying to ressurect my protective barriers.
"Go and speak with Grimska. Be discreet. Where you live there's no shortage of nosy busybodies."
"I'm well aware of that."
The artist's expression softened slightly. "It's a shame I've not seen you before now, in the flesh. Too soon the sun will begin her retreat and our trading will become infrequent. Perhaps I'll see you again at the solstice."
"If you know me so well already, you'd know you can't possess even a part of me," I challenged him, taking in more of his appearance. His skin was a tawny brown, a constellation of freckles decorating his handsome face.
"I don't wish to possess, only make things more bearable. See Grimska. He's near the blacksmith."
I took a long drink from my flask as he regarded me. I didn't see pity, which was gratifying, but neither did I feel any empathy from him. It was unsettling; if I'd had feathers, they would have been ruffled.
"Go before your comrade returns," he suggested.
Without a word, I recapped my flask and made my way to the blacksmith's tent. The noise and number of hara facilitatied my mingling without actually being noticed as I looked for— I didn't know who I was supposed to find. A cherubic, jovial-faced har stood, leaning under an awning in front of a booth selling scented candles and incense. His provocative smile drew me over, thugh it seemed incongruous that he would be dealing in whatever seemingly illicit drugs the artist had thought I'd benefit from.
"How much coin do you have?" he asked under his breath, his gaze sliding quickly over me like a wave ebbing back from shore.
"I'm not telling you that," I snapped, keeping my voice low. "I presume you know I'm not here for your more obvious wares."
"I know who sent you. I'll sell you four gold koseks worth; enough to last you a decent spell of time, if you're judicious. You have needles in that den of stone, right?" He'd moved behind his shelves, discreetly glancing about to make sure he wasn't being watched.
"I can get my hands on one," I said boldly. "Look, we're Wraeththu. We don't have laws. Why are you so secretive?" I'd begun sniffing at some of the sturdy pillar candles, having decided I'd buy a few for my room, and some fronds of incense for good measure.
"Not just anyone can make this. We prefer to keep our clientelle exclusive." He straightened up, showing me a black, satin-lined tin with a dozen or so opalescent crystals. They glowed with inner light, not pulsing, but a more fluid, soft shimmer. "You can pick out a few tapers, they're complientary."
"Why me?" I asked, no stranger to drugs, though I'd not found the need for many since I'd become a har.
"Noric dreamed about you. He said you'd be here today, and he thought he'd offer it up if your pathcrossing felt auspicious. Apparently it did. Your actual coming to me was your choice," he said with a delicate shrug of his shoulders. "But no coincidence."
He eased the tin into my palm and I slid it into an inner pocket inside my vest. I put the rather exorbatant amount of money on the wooden conter; in an instant, it vanished. "Let me wrap your candles. Your companion is seeking you; Noric let me know. About the drug: melt it down, then inject it. It can't change the past or present, of course, but it will sand off some of the roughest edges."
"You are Grimska?" I asked, my nerves alight with the rush of doing something of my own volition.
"Oh yes." His expression grew playful, and tender. "Perhaps I'll see you again at Natalia."
The word was a perfectly-aimed throw to the gut. I winced. For fuck's sake, I swore at myself. Bury your past. You must, no matter the cost.
"Did I say something wrong?" Grimska asked, genuinely concerned. He was far more emotive than his artist lover.
"I died the day after Natalia," I whispered, the words tasting of metal, as my own blood had when it had filled my mouth. I knew I sounded utterly insane and I didn't give a damn.
Grimska looked up, startled, but continuing at his task. "Evidence would suggest otherwise," he quipped.
"You have no idea."
* * * * *
The rest of that all-too-brief period of light was tolerable, even pleasant at times. I wrote, learned the language being spoken around me, went on long horseback rides, and shored up my spiritual training. I had periods of merciless melancholy, and drank vast amounts of wine or dauthi, sometimes not leaving my room for days at a time. Feslavit had to repair my door, wrenched off of its hinges when I wouldn't answer it after a week's-long drunken funeral I nurtured in my heart. I couldn't open the door; I'd passed out. It takes a lot of alcohol to render a har unconscious, but I learned well how much it took for me and I created my own private stash. The drugs I had, whatever they were, I hid carefully away with a procured needle, figuring I might even wait for a celebratory occasion to try them out, should I ever again have any reason to celebrate.
Despite not actually doing all that much, the months went by rapidly. The chill returned on its nimble feet, and night ascended again to her throne, holding sway over more and more hours. The fertile lands settled under ever-deeper blankets of snow; the scepter of winter waved across the forests and lakes, rendering them mute. I felt as though I was in a waking sleep, my heart becoming dormant though Feslavit continued his earnest, futile pursuits. He felt like a brother, a concept which had no reality anymore that I knew of. I called him my golden shadow, my protective lion; he slept in my bed, but I rarely allowed anything remotely erotic. I did let him share breath on occasion, as I felt like a dry leaf scuttling over the stone floors if I went more than several weeks without any harish communion at all.
"What's the matter?" he asked one night, massaging clove-scented oil into my feet, a luxury I could never resist.
I'd been on edge, caterpillar-creepings of discontent and unease inching along my spirit day after day. I thought I knew the cause, but I hesitated sharing my thoughts, since they were such a fundamental part of me. They'd seeped from the wound for which there was no salve.
"It's Natalia next week."
A thick blond eyebrow raised. "And? That is good! Hara will come here, and there will be a grand, lavish party. I wil make sure you are glorious, even though no-one else may have you," he said warmly, though his own irony suffused the words and they hung, limp, like the wilted flowers on my dresser.
"You don't have me," I reminded him.
Feslavit let out a laboured sigh. "This I know," he said. "But I am closer than anyone else. I do not want to share."
"I don't exactly think there's a queue of hara lying in wait to carve pieces of me away. I know I'm not that desirable. But I was, once," I intoned, my morbid thoughts now fully in control.
"Stop speaking nonsense and riddles!"
"You were here when I was first regenerated, or whatever it was Thiede did. Weren't you one of the poor, unthanked hara who had to clean and tend to the filth and near-disintegration of my body after the aruna Thiede forced on me? You may have been one to shoot me up just to stop my screaming!" I said, eyes blazing and my jaw aching with tension. "You were there. I'm no riddle. I died the day after Natalia. The holiday makes my skin crawl. Just— go away, please."
I took deep, shaky breaths, my fingers digging so deeply into the flesh of my palms I thought I would draw blood. Tremours of anxiety shook me to my core; my composure toppled, smashing any sense of decorum.
"Vaysh, my firefly—" Feslavit began, worry sculpted in his features.
"I'm not your fucking firefly," I snarled. "I know you mean well, but I can't be what you want. Ever. You're too full of life for a catastrophe like me."
Warring emotions battled for dominance in him; for all of my angry bravado, I did feel a modicum of pity. He was proud, and I'd beaten him around the heart with a truth he didn't want to accept.
"I can help you," Feslavit growled, crawling up the bed. He straddled my lap and with the speed of a lightning strike, he'd thrown my hands beside my head, pinning me down. "I will do what it takes. I helped nurse you back. I wiped clean your oozing sores, I kept vigil even when I did not really know who you were, or why you were here."
I squirmed under him, but he was far stronger than I was. I'd let myself get quite weak. Obviously I needed to change that.
"You won't admit it, but I know you feel for me, here," he yelled, removing one hand to thump his chest. "You complete me. I adore you."
"That's your problem!" I said, gnashing my teeth. "Yes, I'm fond of you, but Thiede brought me back, and even though I didn't turn out the way he wants, he won't let me go. Don't you understand?"
The wail of my voice blew through the room like a gust of wind. "I'm Thiede's! My feelings are irrelevant! I only ever loved Ashmael but he buried me, don't you see?" I panted, frantically trying to calm the storm roiling in my heart. I tore my gaze away from his bruised expression, focussing on the window, on the heavy shadows in the velvet curtain. "Thiede won't tell him I'm alive. I was supposed to be king, or Archon, or who the fuck knows what. Now I'm supposed to do his bidding, at least until he does this again to some other hara, enough times until he succeeds. Then maybe I'll be released."
Feslavit sank down next to me, a kite falling gracefully to the ground in a dying breeze. "Oh Vaysh. I yearn to be with you," he murmured, stroking his fingers across my cheeks, wiping away tears I hadn't been aware of.
"There's only room in this bed for one martyr, and it's me," I said, attempting some humour, no matter how dark. All at once, I sensed a disturbance out in the nearby aethers. It wasn't Thiede, but I had the vaguest brush of a stirring of the Otherlanes, and a whisper of Tassia's unique intelligence. I sat up and jumped out of bed, rushing over to the chifferobe where my winter clothes hung.
"What the hell are you doing?" Feslavit asked, storming over to me.
"Someone's coming, on Tassia. The sedu I rode, back before. It's not Thiede, but I can't tell who it is. They're coming through the Otherlanes, from far away. Maybe it's Arahal," I mused out loud, jerking up my woolen trousers and shoving my arms through the woolen tunic.
"I will come with you. Ah— Nevrast!" Feslavit practically threw himself toward the door where the har stood, agitated and doubtless wanting to alert us that there was a churning in the sky, that guests were coming and none of us had been told. "I will go with Vaysh, outside."
They spoke some more in Nevrast's language, and I caught enough to hear Feslavit giving orders, but they were just as clueless as to who was coming, or how many hara were coming, why, anything of that nature. Feslavit went running down the corridor to his rooms as I quickly brushed my hair. Whoever it was, I wanted to look decent. To steady my nerves, I poured myself a healthy shot of dauthi and tossed it back. For good measure, I did so twice, my eyes burning as I swallowed down the second serving. As I strode down the stairs to the front door where my coat hung, however, I felt far more serene and ready to face whomever it was. Feslavit's footsteps came pounding up behind me. There was a buzzing of activity; we'd all been caught off-guard. It was unexpected and I was filled with no small amount of trepidation, though the edge had been softened thanks to the liquor.
I opened the door and walked outside. The stars were radiant in the sky, a million winking, dispassionate eyes scattered in the velvet night. Under their indifference, I stamped my feet along the path, waiting as I saw the disfiguring folds in the air, smelled ozone and heard the whoop of a voice both familiar and yet unidentifiable. There were three sedim, and one was Tassia. As the horses galloped toward us, the one in front, with his rider's flowing white hair and disaffected cool rendered him immediately recognisable: Velaxis. They all slowed to a canter, and then a walk, their breath huffing into the cold with bursts of white. Feslavit protectively stood to my side but just a bit in front as bridles and bits jostled, clinking in the harsh quiet after their noisy entrance into this part of the world.
"That was fucking unbelievable!" a cheery voice said, the tone like a wooden flute. Velaxis simply stared down his nose at me before sliding off his sedu with feline grace. The two hara behind him wore hoods, so I couldn't readily tell who they were. Chills stirred my blood and gooseflesh rose under my layers of warmth; there was a whiff of a reunion in the air and I wasn't at all sure I was sturdy enough to face it head on like this with no warning.
"Vaysh," Velaxis said, his voice smooth as satin. "You're looking better. I've brought two of your former companions, hara whom Thiede has determined would be a comfort to you, as well as of use to him."
"Oh my God," another familiar voice sounded. His breath hitched; a short string of invectives drifted into the wintry air like smoke. The hood was thrown back and vivid orange curls shone in the torches from the fortress entrance. "You're it can't be. I know he said, but I just couldn't "
The other har wasted no time. He swung his leg over the back of Tassia, who'd snorted at me in greeting, and rushed over to me. He was a blur of burnished skin, black eyes shining with tears before he was stopped by Feslavit's shove into his chest.
"Slow down!" Feslavit bellowed. "He is precious to me."
"It's all right," I mumbled, wracking my memories to place context on the handsome, hawkish face, cascading rivers of black hair, and wisdom that burned deep in his gaze, discordant with his youth. He was quite obviously an adult, though. His frigid hands cupped my chin as he marvelled at me and I grew increasingly uncomfortable. He was so much like Cloudblaze—
"Vaysh. I'm Firethorn. Jaffa's here, too. We're chesna. You look I "
"How many years?" I choked out. I'd always assumed Thiede had recreated me overnight, with powers I couldn't begin to fathom.
"How many years have we been together?"
"No," I spluttered, my knees already threatening to give out. "How many years since I died?" The words were a frantic rattle in my throat.
The world swam, and with tremendous gratitude, I passed out.
* * * * *
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb, make thee?
~ from "The Tyger," William Blake
* * * * *
"I'll be right down, I promise," I said cajolingly.
Feslavit gave me a dark, searching look. "You will not stay up here and get drunk alone," he declared, jerking a thumb at the door to my rooms. "I have broken it down before. I will not hesitate to do so again."
"I'll be down," I said, glaring right back at him. "And I'll be on my best behaviour. I just want to collect my thoughts. I'm ready to make some new memories," I tacked on, hoping his optimism for me would suck up that vastly untrue sentiment like a sponge.
He did, his features softening. "It is good your companions are here. I know you still have much to catch up on."
"We do. Ten minutes. If I'm not downstairs, you have my permission to kick in the door."
"You are beautiful," he said reverently.
"You're gorgeous and you know it," I said, moving toward my bathroom and shooing him away.
He had the decency to shut the door and the audacity to trust me. That took me by surprise. I'd only wanted the privacy to take care of a little business, namely getting out the drugs I'd bought during the summer and putting one of those crystals to use. Within a few moments I'd melted one of the crystals and shot it into my bloodstream, in between my big toe and second toe. The effect was nearly instantaneous, and wickedly strong. Yes, now I'd be able to cope with all of the carefree, drunk hara— thanks to the tiger balm, or some loose translation to that effect, I could be carefree, stoned, and drunk, too. Two shots of dauthi, and my nerves were limpid conveyors of calm.
I took a last look in the mirror and decided I was passable. Feslavit had demanded to do my hair, treating me like royalty, using wide heated irons to make loose waves and weaving in tiny azure ribbons. He'd wanted to dress me, too; I couldn't find it in myself to argue. In contrast with the feminine hairstyle, I found myself in skintight pants, my aubergine lace-up boots, a fitted shirt, unbuttoned to the waist, and Nordic-looking bronze armbands. In a fit of drug-propelled whimsy, I painted my lips bright red.
I strutted downstairs where the Natalia celebration was going on full swing. A glass of wine was put in my hand and I drank greedily. The transformation of the stone bulwark to a cheery, light- and foliage-filled chorus of inviting rooms was astonishing. I sensed my presence being sought out, and followed the summons. Unsurprisingly, I found I was in the doorway of one of the libraries, a blazing fire exuding warmth where Jaffa and Firethorn held court over the curious hara who'd been waiting for the party to badger them with questions.
"Ah! There you are! I was beginning to worry!" Firethorn's smile outshone even the huge candelabra hanging from the ceiling. Jaffa continued to keep me emotionally at arm's length; I didn't blame him for that at all.
"No worrying allowed. Even up here in this land of infernal cold hara can put together a fabulous party to chase away cheerless, bleak thoughts."
I gratefully accepted a refill on my wine but realised I needed to slow down or I'd be shunted off to my bed in a very undignified manner far too early. For all of the chemical reinforcements I felt I needed, I was pleased to see them. They were a part of my dead past, but they'd not been as inextricably linked to Ashmael like Parallax, or Vox and Polaris would have been.
"So!" I exclaimed, reclining on a wide, overstuffed chaise near the fire. "I expect a full report. Tell me what you've been up to, your adventures, the juiciest gossip from Castlegar. I'm ready to hear it now."
"You're certain?" Jaffa asked, nursing a lurid violet cocktail whose ingredients I couldn't begin to guess. "You've been running a bit hot and cold. I don't want you to pass out or go off into hiding again for a few days." He seemed to regard me like I was a freakish ghost, about to blow away or rattle chains at him at any moment.
"Thank you for your concern. I'd apologise for my behaviour, but I can't bring myself to do it," I said with a rueful smile. "I'd not been told you were coming. It was a shock."
"You're a shock," he said, agitated, before taking a swig of his drink.
"I'm just so happy to see you," Firethorn said, his rich voice like warmed caramel. I found myself leaning toward him, and then relaxing against him when he decided to lie down at my side. "There's so much to tell, but Jaffa's right; you probably shouldn't get it all at once."
"How's your hostling? And father?" I asked, easing some of his raven hair over my shoulder. I ran my fingers through the rivulets of beaded plaits.
"They're well. They have a huge garden they work with the Colurastes and Lemuel."
"Fuck," I swore softly. "He must be through his Feybraiha now." I shivered, and felt Jaffa's reassuring arm on my shoulder before he caught himself and put it back around his glass.
"I'm sorry," he said roughly, not able to look at me but seeking support from his chesnari. "I can't just— I mean, yes, it's you, I know it is, but—"
"I died. I can't forget." I sent out a prayer of thanks to the inscrutable Noric. Without the drugs, I'd have been a sobbing wreck, or worse.
"Parallax and I buried you. Ashmael couldn't handle it. He fucking fell apart," he said loudly, his eyes wide and bright with remembered despair. "It broke him. He wasn't the same. He was a zombie. It was terrible to watch—"
"Jaffa," Firethorn interrupted sharply, trying to rein him in. He sat up and I rearranged my upper body on some cushions.
"It's okay. I've not really been allowed to grieve, except by myself," I said. "You two make it real."
"No telling of depressing news!" Feslavit said vehemently, striding over to us obviously on the warpath. "This is a celebration! Vaysh lives. He is more beautiful than summer roses. Don't you cut him open with tales of his old lover," he snapped. "I know I am not him. Never will be— Vaysh will tell you. Plenty of times. But I care for him anyway. I will protect him, from you if I must."
Jaffa blinked in surprise. Compassion settled on Firethorn's features like an eagle returning to its eyrie.
"You've suffered from your affections," he said, pity in his voice. "There is more to come. Vaysh will see Ashmael again, but it's going to be a ways off. I can't tell what kind of meeting it will be, only that it's inevitable."
"I'll what?" My heart pounded a fierce tattoo in my chest. "You're no fortune-teller. Do you have scrying beads? What can you possibly have seen about my future?" I asked, my voice rising with each rushed sentence.
"He has cards," Jaffa explained. "He's used them since before his Feybraiha. Cloudblaze has visions in dreams, why wouldn't Thorn have some of that ability?" He took a defensive stance next to Firethorn, who merely looked as though he wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
"I need another drink," I said weakly. "Tell me about some other hara, if you don't mind."
Jaffa was only too happy to forge boldly ahead, covering up the near-explosion between Feslavit and them. He spent a good while talking about the changes and constants of Castlegar. Arahal had quit visiting and Mabast had gone into a deep funk, finally going off to join Belvac and Abelard in Saltrock. Abelard had come back to visit a couple of times, the second occasion going on and on about a devastatingly beautiful, wild, scary and compelling as hell har named Calanthe.
"He's Uigenna! But Abelard said he seemed trustworthy enough. Apparently pretty remarkable in his recreational activities, as well."
"What'd Belvac think of that?" I knew Abelard better as he'd been my kinshar before we'd ridden to the sanctuary of Monarch and Kyrgian, but he and Belvac had seemed like mirrored, brooding, possessive hara.
"I suspect he joined in!"
"Don't be crass," Firethorn said reprovingly.
"I wasn't— I think it's the truth! Abelard's eyes lit up like fires when he talked about Cal— he had a bit of hero worship. He reckons we'll hear more about Cal, he's the kind of har who'll make a name for himself." He twisted one of his rust-coloured curls around his finger, released it, and began again with another spiral.
"What'd you think of riding the sedim?" I asked, tugging on a serving-hara's robe to get another refill. "Pretty amazing way to travel, isn't it?"
"Now I know why the hara at the stables loved it when Arahal visited. The sedim are so smart, and regal. The Otherlanes are impossible to describe, but you know what it's like," Firethorn said animatedly, but then his features grew more somber. "Vaysh," he said, the word sounding like a prayer. "Not tonight, but sometime, will you tell me what it was like, being in the beyond, out on the breath of the Creator?"
After a long pause, I nodded. "I'll tell you what I remember, now that I know I won't fall apart. There are some really beautiful walks to and through the forest, and we have plenty of winter clothing you can use. We should take a leisurely walk and I'll try to explain how it seemed," I said, lolling on my back. With the force of a cudgel, I realised I was pretty wasted and about to become an embarrassment. "I promise you I'll be a better host for you both. For now, though, I think I need to be poured into bed."
The air in the room changed; a chilling current swept in, preceding the har who appeared to be its originator. Firethorn's eyebrows raised and he wrinkled his nose. The expression was endearing and reminded me of how he'd looked when still a harling.
"What does Velaxis want?" he murmured.
"No idea," I sighed.
Velaxis' personality was so strong I didn't doubt that he could create his own weather. For all of that, he was exceedingly private; I felt I knew more about Thiede and his intents and purposes — about which I knew nearly nothing — than about the enigmatic har waltzing toward us. Velaxis: a kaleidoscope of subtlety; a bristling arsenal of brutal wit; sensuality— vital, compelling, and transient as a mirage. Respect for him was as natural as breathing, but I'd not trust to turn my back on him.
"Jaffa, Firethorn. A happy Natalia to you," Velaxis bloviated and they nodded their greetings. "Vaysh, I wondered if I might have a word? In private?"
"Certainly." I eased up to a full sitting position, determined not to slur and to keep my composure. "My rooms would probably be best. Thorn and Jaffa, I may not be back down tonight. Have fun, do." Firethorn discreetly helped steady my arm, getting up from the settee with me at the same time. "Were I you two, I'd mingle a bit; there's some intrigue here, like anywhere. A couple of the hara from Tollsend are particularly interesting. Maybe you can barter for a sketch from Noric, he's quite talented. Tall and thin with brown hair, unnerving golden eyes. Hard to miss."
"Thanks. I hope we'll see you again; the party's still going strong. But if not, we'll continue to get caught up tomorrow." Firethorn embraced me, and gave me a firm kiss on my cheek.
"I'll have another Banshee Wail for you," Jaffa said, grinning and clapping me on the arm.
"That's what those are called?" Velaxis raised an exquisitely arched eyebrow, snaking out his hand to snag Jaffa's glass and sniff at it. He blinked rapidly, and handed it back. "The mulled wine seems safe enough. Vaysh?"
"I've had enough for right now," I said solemnly.
Velaxis' cool expression evaluated me, then he headed for the corridor and I followed. I felt Feslavit's and Grimska's eyes on us as we headed up the wide, curved stairs to the upper levels, but I knew Thiede's assistant intimidated my appointed protector and he didn't say a word. The fire in my bedroom was still going, but I added a few sturdy logs to it and contrary to what I'd said, poured myself a small serving of dauthi. I settled into a chair, placing my boot-clad feet on the short Ottoman as Velaxis arranged his filmy, yet warm-looking robes and got comfortable in another chair across from me.
"You've been given the impossible," he said smoothly. "Not only are you a har, but you found favour so high with Thiede that he saved your spirit and re-made you."
I felt the stinging chastisement in his words; they struck and burned like nettles. I wanted nothing more than to slink into my bed, bury myself under the furs.
"The sun doesn't rise and set on Ashmael Aldebaran. And if you start talking human tripe about one true love, I swear by all things holy I'll scour out your heart myself. With my teeth."
"Why does that sound like foreplay?" I wished my self-censor hadn't wandered off somewhere between shooting up the tiger balm and my second glass of wine. The look of absolute surprise on Velaxis' face was worth the impudence, however. "Why do you care?" I went on, sinking deeper into my chair. "You dance for Thiede like everyone else. From your recent commentary, it's obvoius you're not here to offer to be a messenger for me, to convey anything to Ash, whom obviously you don't think much of."
A lazy, dangerous smirk eased onto his lips. His eyes glinted with mischief; it set me on edge far more than his usual stand-offishness.
"Dear Vaysh. Frigid, defensive, exquisite Vaysh. There is nothing obvious about me at all." His voice was a purr of smoke. "I could be a messenger; I could choose to bed Fate until he was crying out my name in ecstasy. I could, and do, keep secrets. From Thiede."
He sat back in his chair, dipped his finger in his wine and ran it around the delicate rim until a shimmering tone filled the room. When he put his finger into his mouth, his gaze held mine, strong as gravity's pull. To my shock, a faint stirring of arousal fluttered between my legs. Perhaps it showed on my face.
"I'm quite skilled in the arunic arts. I've no doubt I know what you want more than you know yourself. I don't say that to taunt you; aruna feeds us, and you seem like one starved. It doesn't have to be that way."
His voice had dropped, each word a warm trickle of wax, his own body an incense-scented taper. My mind recoiled; my traitorous ouana-lim began a hopeful retreat as my soume energies feebly asserted themselves. Velaxis was on me in a moment, a velvet whipcord of movement designed to prevent my cerebral qualities from getting the upper hand. He had the ringing chorus of dauthi and fading effects of the drugs on his side as well, but every action was calculated to be pleasurable, deft, and building up fires of passion I thought I no longer had.
"Don't speak," he cautioned me once we were in my bed, his naked body of purest marble poised over me like an angel. Delirious, I all but saw feathered wings unfurling from his shoulders. While his own expression was flushed but dispassionate, he said, "Your body has its own language. I can read the messages in your eyes."
I was compelled to watch him; he demanded it wordlessly. With lips, tongue and fingers, with breath tangy with cinnamon and mulled wine, he demonstrated his art on me, this cracked cup, this broken vessel. The tears came when he sank into me, though not from pain. I was famished, and my muscles, scarred but possessing some of their strength after all, milked nourishment from him. He rode deep; my seas weren't as dried up as I'd feared. We shared breath and I drank greedily of him, a strange mix of moonlit wind and greeny spike of holly. He gave and gave; he bore me up and with him, I soared until his crescendo pushed us to the point of rapture. To his credit, he also braced my fall. Dewy with sweat, the linens and furs on my bed a shambles, we tumbled down into each other's arms. Once my breathing had evened out, he traced the path of my lips with his thumb.
"We don't ever have to mention this happened," he said with a rare uncertainty, like an assassin whose hand has been stayed — even temporarily — by unexpected desire. "No doubt the vitality glowing in you will be remarked upon. Though maybe not to your face," he said knowingly.
A short laugh burbled in my chest and I pressed the palm of his hand to my lips. I covered the soft surface with kisses, and christened the tips of each finger with similar dry brushes.
"I didn't expect you to be like this," I murmured. "You're a rare gift—"
"I act of my own volition. Always," he said emphatically. "Unlike you, I belong to no one. In my own way, however, I see myself as your advocate. Just don't be ungrateful about your situation. It's highly unbecoming."
I started to say something, enough that the essence of Ashmael's name hovered there, and he silenced me.
"Enough. Thiede will have a Tigron, no matter what. It's no longer you, and as much as Ashmael desires the post, he's not chosen either. Knowing Thiede as I do, you can count on being there to care for the har Thiede selects after he's passed through the Aghama's fires. I know you know who he really is," he said, broking no protestation on my part. I wouldn't have tried to feign anything different. "You can warm to your new role, or you can close yourself off. You'll perform your duty either way. I would hope, after tonight, you'd choose the former, but such decisions are yours alone."
Though his essence still pulsed deep with me like a resonant heartbeat, I felt the cold encroaching. My pride kept me from tearing at him, at rolling him over, smothering him with the offering of my body, promising worlds and fidelity that weren't mine to give. He wouldn't have accepted, regardless. That knowledge allowed a delicate, frosty tendril to creep into my warmed spirit.
"You won't stay the night?" I asked as though there'd ever been any answer other than no.
Velaxis' look was of disappointed pity. "Why ask about things you don't truly wish for? I was flint for you, striking deep to kindle a flame. I'll know if you let it go out, but I won't judge."
With grace, tremendous efficiency and almost no time, he was dressed and on his way out of my rooms. "Good night," he said softly before he swept out, the sounds of the Natalia revelry punctuating my room until the door shut again.
I almost wished for a bruise, a memory, for there to have been roughness in our coupling. As he'd intimated, however, he'd known me more than I did myself. I'd been treated with the most supple of touches. Sleep wouldn't come for a while. With the bottle of dauthi at my feet, I curled up in a chair, staring at the dying flames, grinding the fine grit of Velaxis' proclamations between my teeth.
* * * * *
Once I knew myself, and with knowing came love
I would know love again if I had faith enough
Too far is next spring and her jubilant shout
So angels, inside is the only way out.
~ "Drought," Vienna Teng
* * * * *
Over the next several months, Firestorm and Jaffa, especially, got me out of doors much more often than I'd been inclined to before. During Natalia, while I was otherwise engaged with Velaxis, Jaffa had heeded my advice and spent quite a bit of time talking with Noric. The hara of Tollsend were only too eager to share some of the picturesque cross-country routes they travelled on skis for fun. I was very disinclined to enjoy such an activity. Going for a long horseback ride was one thing, but strapping on long skis and gliding along for miles just to look at the scenery out in the freezing cold, that seemed barbaric. It was good exercise, though, and once I quit getting so sore after each outing, I began to look forward to our excursions. There were wide bands of rolling hills under a vast, limitless sky. On the forest tracks, deer and the occasional wild boar could be seen unless we spoke too loudly.
Velaxis had returned to Immanion the day after our memorable evening and I began sensing Thiede's presence more acutely. His impressions were not like mind-touch, nor were they images I saw in dreams, but at times I felt as though I saw through his eyes. The intrusions weren't sudden or bold interruptions, but I did find I was drawn to meditations with more frequency than I'd engaged in the past. Dring those periods of inner qiet, he showed me what he wished to. I spposed it was his way of reminding me that I was never truly alone, as surely he could see into me at any point, but also that I was to know things that were of interest to him, all throughout the Wraeththu world— and some human establishments as well.
Jaffa, Firethorn and I, and sometimes Feslavit as well, ventured to Tollsend, spending several days in a row with Grimska and Noric. It seemed to be an organic evolution of friendship; my former companions from Castlegar were genuinely interested in these hara's introspective pursuits of art and candle-making. Noric and Grimska had many layers to their very different personalities, however; as the months went on and we had long conversations by firelight, more was revealed about them like peeling layers from an onion. Together we built a sauna. More days than not, we lolled around in the nude as sweat rolled down our faces and sprang out from all our pores. Noric had artist's eyes; he was the first to ask Firethorn and me about our flawless forearms.
One early evening we'd been enjoying the heat and camaraderie of the sauna. We'd all gone outside, yelling and swearing various profanities as we dashed into the snow. After pausing to gape at the radiant blaze of stars overhead, back into the sauna we ran. I sprawled on a towel, but most of the others sat against the wooden walls, passing around a bottle of dauthi. It took a few minutes for my heart to slow back down to its usual, unnoticed beat from the crazed thumping after our excursion outside. As I leaned back on my elbows, I perceived that Noric's gaze had quite thoroughly lingered on Thorn, as though he were memorising every nook and slender plane, the laugh lines at his lips, and the dark freckles sprinkled on his reddish-brown skin. I'd had it in my mind that he might well be working on a secret portrait of him to give to Jaffa or simply to hang in his own studio. All at once I sensed the clamouring of questions that time and the liquor finally let loose.
"Firethorn," he asked, leaning in over his legs, "where is your inception scar?"
Jaffa's response was the most comedic; he sat up straigt, looking inordinately pleased and proud. Firethorn didn't think anything of it anymore, but his chesnari seemed to think it reflected favourably on him and his good taste — or being deemed worthy — that he was linked with a Firstborn. Firethorn eased his back against the wall, pulling his legs up and draping his tawny arms over his knees. A slow, infectious smile settled onto his lips.
"I wasn't incepted. I was born har. I keep forgetting that I'm still a bit of a novelty." He glanced over at Noric, whose expression was much like one who'd been told that, in fact, pigs did fly and a flock had been seen heading westward into the sunset. Grimska seemed similarly shocked, though his expressive face bore wisps of intrigue. Feslavit, after his time in Thiede's service, I had been sure would be unsurprised by anything. He stared, unblinking, until Firethorn let out a throaty chuckle and gestured for the dauthi from Grimska.
"Didn't mean to bring the conversation to a screeching halt!" he said good-naturedly, wiping the lip of the bottle before taking a swig and putting it on the bench below him.
"That's— fascinating," Noric said at last before his leonine eyes slid over to me. "You, too?"
I leaned my head to the side and wiped at the sweat clinging to my eyelashes. "No. I was incepted all right. Something else happened that makes Firethorn's gestation and birth seem like a run of the mill occurrence."
"One day, perhaps, it will be," Firethorn said with a shrug. "I don't doubt that Jaffa and I will host a pearl, or more than one. Maybe one apiece."
Grimska piped up. "I want to know more about that, but Vaysh, you can't just dangle something like that and not follow up. Explain, please. Then I need someone to tell me what the hell pearls have to do with anything."
Jaffa was in an exceptionally effusive mood, leaning over to kiss Thorn with a quick but passionate sharing of breath. I ruthlessly squelched any thoughts of comparison to past claims on my lips.
"Do you know anything of Thiede?" I asked.
"Not really," Noric replied. "From Feslavit we've figured out he's the master of your mini-kingdom over there, and he's quite powerful. I've noticed disturbances in the airs and strange energies from the fortress, but not all the time. Not in a while, actually. Who is he?"
"He is a supreme har." Feslavit spoke with reverence and awe. "He created Vaysh from shadow, spirit and memory."
Noric looked highly skeptical. "Beg pardon?"
I let out a laboured sigh. "I haven't actually asked him straight out, so I don't know details. What Feslavit says is correct. I died at Castlegar, but Thiede had plans for me, and apparently not even something as trifling as death was going to change them. Instead, something else unexpected did," I said, swallowing back the bitterness stuck in my throat.
"He you're regenerated? Brought back from the dead?" Noric's eyes grew wide. It was the most blatant shock I'd ever seen in his usually pragmatic expression.
"Yes. I don't know how; some harish miracle. It took him seven years, but I didn't know that until Jaffa and Thorn were brought here. Before, I had an inception scar and—" The vivid band of my tattoo flashed into my mind's eye, but I forced that anguish away as well. Velaxis' 'Don't be ungrateful' rang in my head. "I'm almost exactly the same," I finished, a bit lamely.
Grimska regarded me, the incredulty rolling off of him like his sweat. The silence became oppressive. Though I wanted to think even less on pearls and harlings snatched away from me, any topic seemed better than the thundering symphony of unspoken questions.
"You weren't alone before, were you?" Noric asked, an unexpected tenderness in his voice.
"I'm not discussing him," I said flatly. I wanted to scour my mouth with razor wire; anything to get the forbidden taste of Ashmael forever off my palate.
Grimska patted Noric on the thigh, and the topic was dropped. Firethorn stepped into the breach, elaborating on the genesis of harish-exclusive life, and his first years with his hostling and father. Jaffa couldn't resist interjecting his devotions to Thorn, about Firethorn's skills and harish qualities, all but stating outright that aruna with him surpassed any other experience: that Firethorn, in essence, was beyond compare. Firethorn's mouth quirked in a precocious grin, looking under his lashes first at Jaffa, and then bestowing a wide smile and shrug on Grimska and Noric. I had no doubt those four would be up all night together after that blatant display. More power to them.
They should invite Feslavit in, I thought, stifling my remembrances of Velaxis' tongue as it had mapped my body like an enthusiastic cartographer. I'd not let anyone near me since; not due to any false loyalty to Velaxis, but because I couldn't bear it. Aruna made me want to be soume, which brought me grief.
* * * * *
Another interminable winter at last began to thaw. After a couple of tantalysing false starts, the land warmed in earnest. The air filled with incessant dripping sounds as the icicles and layers of snow hearkened back to their liquid form. Faint plinking streams turned to rushing gullies. Vegetation sprang up from the ground; trees decked themselves in green finery. As the days grew longer, Firethorn enlisted the help of Kervad, a kinshar to Nevrast and companion of Feslavit, with the building of a greenhouse. Thorn seemed the most animated when he had at least one construction project going. On a mild afternoon in early summer, I joined Firethorn out in a section of woods near the garden. He'd decided to create a treehouse of sorts, which I thought was foolish, but his enthusiasm was contagious. From the platform he'd constructed, we could see the shining glass of the greenhouse, much like the one he'd fabricated in Castlegar. I asked him if he missed the mountain— Thiede hadn't told them what his plans were, only that he wanted them to be nearer to Immanion than Megalithica.
"I miss my father and hostling," he admitted. "I wish I could send them a letter or something. Maybe I can visit again, but I'm having a good time here. I do miss Lemmy a bit, too. He'll break hearts, that one."
I mulled over his comments, and thought of Velaxis, the har who said he acted on free will alone. The har who was the personal assistant to our godhead; our manipulative, far-seeing, loving and pitiless creator. But I'd seen weird mysteries in Velaxis' gaze, his pride and the flame of individuality that burned as brightly as Thiede's. Maybe he was the only har capable of withstanding a bout of aruna with Thiede. Why wasn't he made Tigron, then? Perhaps he'd said no. He was titanium and diamond, beautiful and with an almost alien strength, a harrowing vision of the indestructable.
"Why don't you write to them. Ask Jaffa if he wasnts to write to Wycker or whomever else. Just don't mention me; I don't think anyone there would understand. I think I know of a har who'd be willing to take a message to Castlegar for you."
His face brightened. "I can guess who you have in mind. He's an odd one; I can't place my finger on what it is. He has a quality to him that's unseen, like when you see a shadow out of the corner of your eye but when you turn— nothing."
"Like a vampire?" I suggested and he laughed uproariously.
Once he'd calmed down, he said, "Yes, that would explain a lot! Except you didn't have to wear a scarf around your neck the morning after Natalia. If he'd been a vampire, he couldn't have resisted you."
I gave him my best deadpanned expression. "If he'd been a vampire, I'd have been sucked dry."
Summer spread her arms over the countryside, and everyhar basked in the sunny days and relatively mild nights. A couple of weeks before the height of summer, Kervad convinced Jaffa and Firethorn to go with him to spend a day or two out by the sea. They in turn, without much provocation, convinced me to join them. Feslavit had gone off on some week's-long errand to Olopade, a harish territory to the southwest of us. He didn't volunteer what it was about, and I didn't press him. I'd never been to the beach, never in any of my former two lives, and I found I had butterflies banging around excitedly in my stomach the morning we set off. Kervad's hair, thick and straight and the colour of cornsilk, was pulled back into a wide plait, with a small cascade of blue hepatica flowers woven in. He sang as he rode and after a short while, Thorn accompanied him. When Kervad dropped out, Firethorn sang a bit on his own, a more earthy but no less joyful sound pouring from his throat.
Our path took us into an abandoned human town. As with all of them, it was in an accelerated state of decay. The empty stone buildings and wilted, but still-proud houses that hearkened back to a much earlier age, seemed less malveolent than some. Kervad confirmed this, saying, "Plague and fear drove most humans from this area before we came into being. It was long empty when we came on the scene. We've been fortunate and haven't had many skirmishes. It doesn't mean that humans won't return from the east, though. Their weather is much harsher."
The tang of salt lifted my spirits like dandelion fluff carried lazily on the breeze. Wheeling gulls cried to one another as they circled overhead. Even before I set eyes on the waters, I felt a lightening on my heart; it was as though I'd been carrying a boulder for ages and hadn't known it until all at once, it was taken from me. The cobblestone roads weren't the worse for wear, and the sound of our horses' hooves clopping on the stone sounded like music. A wide expanse of beach greeted my vision, a dun-coloured swath of sand, unspoiled and with tall grasses growing in tufts. Nearby were pine forests, their resiny fragrance beckoning me almost as powerfully as the pristine sand. I glanced over at my companions, who appeared to be as caught up in rapture as I was.
"What do you think?" I called over to Jaffa. The wind had picked up and it was blustery, yet bright and warm.
"Unbelievable!" he said, glee stamped on his face. "This is gorgeous!"
We spent the day frolicking in the water, eating, drinking and lying in the sun, though I made a shelter for myself as it didn't take long for me to get a sunburn. Around mid-day Kervad and Jaffa went and caught a few fish in a river that bisected the former human town. We'd brought along plenty of fresh fruit, bread, some sweet cakes, and plenty of liquor. As the day sped too quickly along to evening, it was decided we should spend the night. The wind had calmed as the day progressed and the horses were housed in a stable near the beach. Kervad said his kinshar had built the stable several years ago; most of the hara who'd gravitated to the fortress had been incepted near Tollsend but found themselves called to Thiede's vague summons.
The night was mild, and the sun didn't set until quite late. Jaffa made a fire on the sands and brought out a guitar— not his from Castlegar, but one he'd borrowed from another har from our stronghold. Firethorn had a wooden recorder-like instrument that Kervad had carved for him; the two played duets and Kervad sang a few songs as Jaffa attempted to accompany him with varying success. As the dauthi flowed, Kervad fashioned an impromptu drum from a piece of driftwood. To my own amazement, I found myself dancing, slow and sensual while Kervad drummed a hypnotic beat and Firethorn played a tune worthy of a snake-charmer. Eventually we settled down for the night, Thorn sprawled out at Jaffa's side, a small assembly of blankets discreetly covering them.
Kervad spread out his bedroll near mine while wordlessly propositioning me. He had dignity robed in a childlike naivite which suited him, though I found it paradoxical. That night, I also found him irresistable.
"It must be the sea air, razzing my common sense," I said as he fumbled with the inner flaps and laces of my riding pants. They were a bit complicated to unfasten, and we were all pretty drunk. "I don't do this anymore."
"Then this has been the best kind of excursion," he said, his green eyes shining delightedly. He acted as though he had a pile of gifts to unwrap, as opposed to just getting me to a full state of undress. "You should do this. We need it. You need it, just as you really needed to get away and to swim like a fish in the waters."
"It was freezing!" I reminded him as he straddled my lap. Behind him a gibbous moon hung low and oversized, a luminous voyeur above the horizon.
A saucy grin traipsed across his lips. "It's good for you." He let his hands and fingers to the talking for a time. I could tell he was being cautious; he was respectful and wary. He teetered between ouana and soume; he tried to pick up on my every nuance.
"Come here, meadow eyes," I said. They were an arresting emerald colour, with blue-grey around the pupil I'd noticed earlier in the day. He eased himself down on me, playful and eager like a puppy. "Just kiss me," I said hoarsely as his mouth hovered atop mine. "Kiss me so deeply I taste only you. We can share breath later."
Though I could tell I'd accidentally hurt his feelings, he agreed. I explained without words how much passion could be conveyed with only filaments of shared breath, letting the body and our tongues claim and nibble without an onslaught of images. I was an instructor— I was shocked. It emboldened me, though I wasn't so far in my cups as to consider being soume. Even the thought of it thawed open the wounds best kept in their frozen stasis.
"The ouana is strong in you," I noted, stroking slowly up and down his ouana-lim, enjoying the sensation of the soft skin over strong core, of teasing open the closed petals as he groaned his frustration and desire.
"And the soume in you," he panted, licking wetly up my neck to feast on my mouth. He shared breath more fully, spilling his passion and lavendersilk lust deep within my lungs. His own fingers found their way to card gently at the soft hairs around my ouana-lim, though it was plain he wanted to let them spelunk further into my hidden caves. "Why are you fighting it?"
My body had become used to long, self-decreed deserts of aruna and affection, but now my harish soul was deafening in its cries to be fed. I still rule you, I thought, allowing many pleasures but harshly freezing off the parts I didn't want to face.
"Kervad, now isn't the time," I said with tenderness, and a faint overtone of rebuke. "The fact that you and I are sweaty and naked under the moon is rare enough. I don't want to dig up spectres from my past."
"What?" His hand had ventured tenaciously between my legs; I gripped his ouana-lim, not to the point of pain, but enough for him to heed the warning.
"You're gloriously naked," he repeated, his errant fingers back around the base of my quite interested, pulsing ouana-lim.
"Have you ever tried aruna with both har as ouana?"
He shook his head, a boyish smile on his face. "Why would anyhar do that?"
"Because it feels incredible." I kissed along his jaw to the sensitive skin of his earlobe. "And because it's what I want to teach you."
A faint sigh ghosted over my shoulder, but he soon forgot any disappointment once I'd arranged us side to side and head to groin in an unbroken loop of bliss. Like the rest of him, the scent between his legs and the taste of the flowered flesh was of musk and fragrant thyme. We each banqueted on the full fruits of the other's ouana-lim; he was fierce and yet worried about his technique. Finally via mind-touch I forced out, You're doing everything right. Be natural. This is aruna, too.
Once he trusted me, he licked and kissed with abandon until the fiery circle of our commingled pleasure consumed us both. We were hurled into the white explosion of release, a noisy enterprise muffled somewhat due to our full mouths. He seemed almost sheepish afterwards, wanting to cuddle up next to me. I suspected he'd not been so taken by surprise since his initial experience. I hoped he wouldn't read signs into our coupling that weren't there, and to my relief, he didn't. He pointed out constellations to me in an increasingly sleepy voice as I told him the names for the patterns as I'd been taught. I'd nearly closed my eyes to sleep when a star shot down the far right of the sky, its red trail gleaming for precious seconds before it vanished.
"A shooting star!" Kervad said excitedly, though through a yawn. He nuzzled at my temple, decorating the side of my face with slow kisses. "They're good omens."
"For what?" I asked, genuinely curious.
"For everything. For travel and personal destiny. You can make wishes on them, too."
He'd draped himself half on me, and I'd pulled our blankets over top of us. I hadn't slept out of doors since the scouting party that had led to that first meeting with Thiede, long ago. I let out a deep breath, exhaling those memories to make room for new ones in this moment of peace.
"Do you have a list of wishes?" I asked softly, turning on my side in his arms to get comfortable.
"No, I'm pretty easy-going. I believe in bringing my wishes and hopes to life on my own."
He let out a huffed snort and kissed my forehead. "Wise-arse is probably more accurate. Sleep well, Vaysh."
When I awoke the next morning I was alone, my head full to bursing with the wild courses of dreams I'd had in the night. The remembrance of them was vivid and unshakeable for a time as I relived them before their clarity dimmed: I'd walked past Firethorn and Jaffa, rooning up on the platform of the treehouse, Jaffa standing with Firethorn behind, Jaffa's face in ecstasy as he took both roles as soume and ouana. Venturing up toward the fortress I'd looked at the garden, overflowing with vegetables as though no-one had tended it in years. When I opened the door, once inside I was back in the upper astronomy room at the heart of Castlegar. I'd busied myself at the telescope while Velaxis, suddenly in the room with me, had me point it to this constellation and the next, calling them by names I'd never head of and showing me an astronomy book I couldn't read. 'Didn't you learn anything?' he asked, exasperated, but all of the pretense and haughtiness had been washed away from him, and I cried at how beautiful he was. He consoled me, rocking, because I'd crumped to the floor, crouched at his feet until he'd pulled me up into his lap like a child. I sobbed and sobbed while he shushed me. 'Your beauty lies in tragedy,' he said, as though I'd feel better. In the dream I had felt comforted, and wandered off, finding myself in the dilapidated farmhouse on the Varrish border. It was night and the moon shone so brightly that everything had shadows, a chiarascuoro landscape of silvers and greys. There was a regular thudding sound followed by cracking. Curious, but not frightened, I'd wandered around the side to see Ashmael chopping wood with his sword. He smiled at me, his face smudged and his hair long down his back. 'We need to build a fire,' he said. 'Okay,' I'd replied, looking for an axe and pulling my hair back. 'I'll do it,' he said, and gratefully I'd stepped over to him, letting him braid my hair.
On the beach, my eyes gritty with tears I must have shed during the night, I tried to sort through what it all meant and decided it was just a dream, filled with the snippets of memories brought back by sleeping under the stars. I did feel a tiny flicker of intimacy with Jaffa and Firethorn that wasn't warranted, as the memories of powerful dreams like that seem like truth.
"How'd you sleep?" Firethorn asked, a blanket pulled around him as Jaffa worked the fire. I'd guessed Kervad had gone to tend to our horses; he adored them and was quite often at the stables when Firethorn hadn't conscripted him to other enterprises.
"Pretty well," I said, stretching. "I had a huge, crazy dream, though. You two were in it."
"Dare I ask what we did?" Jaffa asked with a lopsided grin.
"Well " I let my voice trail off.
"All that after the aruna you took?" Firethorn tossed out, his eyebrows raised in mock disbelief. "I'm surprised you dreamed at all. I bet Kervad slept like a log."
"I'm full of surprises," I drawled, heading over to the woods to take care of my aching bladder.
* * * * *
I went back to the welcoming, abandoned town and long spit of high sand dunes with its pine forests several times that summer. As the season waned and the air grew full with the buzz of preparation that autumn heralded, Feslavit and I made a trip out together, just the two of us. We took a tent to shelter us from the cold now that the days and nights were far more brisk. We walked along the shore, lost in our thoughts, when a roiling cloud appeared in the distance down the strand. I stopped in my tracks, my mouth suddenly dry. I knew of only a few people who travelled by sedim, and one I hadn't seen in quite some time.
Sure enough, with a grand, elegant leap from the aethers, Thiede came down onto the beach towards us. Both he and the sedu radiated their regal resence as the horse galloped nearer us, slowing to a walk as they approached. Thiede looked around at the sea, and setting sun, smiling benevolently as though giving it all his approval. I tried to quell the fear that raced in me; I had no idea what thoughts went through Feslavit's mind.
"Hello Vaysh, Feslavit," Thiede said warmly, patting his sedu and shaking the ice crystals out of his vivid hair. "This is a picturesque beach. Not as warm as I prefer, but a beautiful location nonetheless."
I didn't know what to say. I was at a loss as to how to act around him, even now when he had cast off his intimidating luminous, god-like presence that so often blazed around him. Right now he was in a more simple guise of har, but he was here for a reason.
"I'd never been to a beach until this summer," I finally forced past my stiff tongue.
"I love the water," Thiede said wistfully, pulling his cape around him and dismounting onto the sand. I was sure he'd come from Immanion, far to the south. "Balmy water, that is. Feslavit, your homeland has all kinds of natural hot springs and pools, doesn't it?"
"Yes, and geysers. Lots of hot pools, mineral waters, but also glaciers and ice. I thought it was beautiful."
"The place of my birth was decidedly not," Thiede declared, and the sentence was spoken such as not to invite any questionning. "However, now I surround myself with beautiful things and gorgeous hara, who are building an exquisite city of dreams. That's not why I'm here, though."
The ozone scent had faded; his sedu nosed at his hair and a knowing smile graced Thiede's face. I suddenly wondered if they communicated even when not traversing the wild madness of the Otherlanes. I couldn't imagine one of those otherworldly creatures as a pet; they were far too regal and proud for that. A companion, of sorts?
"There's a frivolous area to the south, Ferelithia. Nothing too scandalous, yet, but I hope there will be. I'd like you and the two from Castlegar to go and spend some time there. I'll see much of it through you; I can't seem to stay incognito for long and I'm curious," he said, amusement flickering in his eyes.
I simply couldn't look him full on for more than a few seconds, even in this demure state. Still, I indicated I'd heard and approved, as though I could do anything else. Moments later I glanced over at Feslavit, who seemed quite vexed.
"Why do you not send me, too?" he asked, moving by instinct nearer to me. The occasions we shared a bed were platonic, but his hopes and devotion ran as deep as the ocean. "I take care of him."
Thiede's eyebrow raised; the sedu wandered a few steps away to graze on some nearby grasses, blowing in the wind.
"Vaysh. Do you need taking care of?"
I disliked having to be rude outright, but there was nothing for it. "No. He knows that. He cares for me; there's a difference. It's loyalty."
"I need you here, Feslavit," Thiede insisted.
His ability to stand up to Thiede was inspiring, even if unwarranted. I was more nervous about getting closer to Immanion, even though I knew full well Thiede wouldn't let me anywhere near Ashmael.
"To run the household. To make sure the hara of Tollsend and other nearby towns don't get soft. I picked you and planted you here. I thought you liked it?"
Thiede had drawn closer, and cupped Feslavit's strong jaw in his hand, the long fingernails pressing slightly into his skin. Feslavit quailed, but remained stalwart in his convictions.
"I do," he said, his voice low and respectful. "But Vaysh has my heart. Even if he doesn't want it."
A short, heavy sigh came from Thiede's lips and he rolled his eyes. "You're sentimental, and needlessly tragic. I'd so hoped that hara wouldn't sink so quickly back into the ridiculous affectations of humankind when it comes to relationships."
I'd begun tugging at the hair behind my ear. I caught myself doing it; it was a nervous habit.
"Vaysh is lovely, though overly maudlin and stand-offish without reason. I adore you, too, though," he said to me silkily, "otherwise you wouldn't be here now. But I want your eyes and ears in Ferelithia for a time, and then I think you should get to know your neighbour Phade in Olopade. Don't talk back to me, Feslavit. I won't have it."
The hand on Feslavit's jaw had been brushed down his long neck, the back of Thiede's fingers smoothed past his throat. With the last two sentences, however, Thiede's eyes sparked the faintest silver anger, and his palm smacked above Feslavit's heart. His gesture caused Feslavit to swallow hard, his Adam's apple jostling noticeably.
"So! It's decided," Thiede went on, his jovial demeanour bursting from him like an oppressively bright morning after a night of too much dauthi. He stood between us, draping an arm over our shoulders like a swan spreading her wings over goslings. Thiede's scent was of orange and cedar; he smelled of golden smoke, released from the driving passions burning ceaselessly in his blood to beautify, englighten, rule, and subdue.
"We all deserve happiness," he said brightly. We watched the waters lapping at the sand, a biting wind hitting us with a gust from the north. "And I shall be happy once my chief engineer stops hounding me for a street plan. I thought that was why I brought him on. I'm far more interested in the design of the palace, and keeping an eye on some promising hara in Saltrock and your own Castlegar. Though I've already brought the cream of that crop across the Girdle of Tiamat."
He drew away, my banging heart slowing down from its frenzy once he wasn't right next to me. He paced the few steps to the sedu. "Velaxis will be here in a day or two. Be ready to go; he'll bring sedim for the three of you. I'm sure Tassia will enjoy seeing you again."
My gaze followed him as he swung gracefully onto the back of the horse, inclined his head in farewell, and raced down the sand. The gravity-defying creature leaped joyfully into the air, and the turbulent rippling in the aethers stilled.
Feslavit turned to me, forlorn. His voice was leaden with resignation. "You are leaving, foxglove."
"So it appears."
He nodded, and took my hand. We walked slowly back toward the tent, Feslavit kicking viciously at the sand.
"I will help you pack."
* * * * *
i not not you
deep our most are
(and so to dark)
~ from "once like a spark (XXIV)" by e. e. cummings
* * * * *
"More coffee?" Firethorn asked, walking around the small table with the carafe as though he were a serving-hara.
"Yes, thank you." Velaxis held up his cup.
I watched their exchange with bemusement. Firethorn — and Jaffa — were fairly informal in their interactions with nearly everyone, regardless of intimated rank or station. Firethorn was intrigued by Velaxis, more so after, months ago, I'd confirmed that we'd taken aruna together. Velaxis had also carried letters back and forth from the chesnari to Thorn's parents and Jaffa's brother Wycker on two occasions. Now we were off on this new adventure, or so they saw it. I saw a large chessboard, with pieces being moved from square to square. I was a toppled King, put back onto the playing field as a pawn. Velaxis seemed to care about me, though, the Queen lingering behind me with more strength, and flexibility of movement. I accepted a refill on my coffee while stopping the chess analogy. The next piece I would wonder about was the Knight, and that wouldn't do, especially now that I'd be living ever nearer to him. Not that it mattered.
"What's Ferelithia like?" Jaffa asked Velaxis, who blew across the top of his cup before sipping the hot liquid.
"Warm. Colourful. Light-hearted. You'll fit right in." Jaffa started to frown until he realised Velaxis wasn't making fun. "I'm not Thiede. I am his closest assistant, but that doesn't mean he and I sit around over bottles of wine while he tells me every detail and every thought going on in that phenomenal mind of his."
"I didn't think—" Jaffa started to say before Velaxis interrupted him with an easy wave.
"I know you didn't. You're refreshingly transparent. You and Firethorn, both. The more Immanion comes together, with the harish pangs of its court and citizenry, the more potential for factions and unrest. Thiede's going to put himself in a bind, and he knows it, which is why he's doing things which don't necessarily seem to make sense."
"In plain speech, please?" Firethorn asked, shaking his head. "We're nobodies, really, just friends of Vaysh."
The unspoken 'and Ashmael' sounded in the air as clearly as the ticking of the wooden clock on the wall. Velaxis gave me a brief, sympathetic glance before soldiering on.
"Thiede wants his best and brightest hara near to him. But he also wants hara with those qualities he values to be spread out all over as our race thinks about settling down and not acting like savages."
He pressed the few crumbs on his plate onto the pad of a long, pale finger, and then sucked them off gently in his mouth. This time Thorn gave me a furtive smile, but his was of the 'nudge, nudge, wink' variety. Doubtless he thought Velaxis and I would get to Frerelithia and spend a night engaged in mind-boggling passion. I'd been able to tell from the moment Velaxis had shown up an hour or so ago that this trip was strictly for business.
"Well, I don't like being uprooted after not even a year, but if we're supposed to go, then we will," Jaffa said nonchalantly, until a look of horror flew across his features. "He wouldn't split us up, would he?"
The pang hit my heart with the strength of a firebolt.
"Thiede does not care so much for hara and their loves." I turned in shock to look at Feslavit after his comment. He shrugged mordantly. "It is true. He does not have a chesnari, he thinks that is too much like humankind. We can pair off, or have multiple loves, it is of nothing to him. Am I not right?" he asked Velaxis sharply.
The unflappable har seemed monentarily as at a loss for words as everyone else. Velaxis was closest to Thiede for a reson, however, and he smoothed over the upset in a flash.
"You of all sentimental hara should know that isn't true," he said brusquely, pushing away from the table to stand up. I'd never seen Velaxis when he was on the defensive, though it rippled and transformed to power. He stood straight as an aspen, the words cutting to the quick; they were talon strikes of a panther. "He doesn't have the luxury of giving his heart to only one har, but you, Feslavit, you know his feelings for Vaysh weren't sterile in the least or he wouldn't be sitting here now. We hara have tremendous capacity in all things: love, hate, jealousy, art, catastrophe and bliss. You are fortunate to be har, and I'd thank you not to speak poorly of the one who gave you such gifts. I'll be outside. It's time to go."
The four of us looked at each other in the ensuing silence after Velaxis strode out of the room.
"Well," Firethorn said, all eloquence.
"C'mon. Guess we shouldn't draw this out." Jaffa got up roughly from the table, obviously unsettled. He pulled Feslavit into a hug after he, too, had moved to stand. "Thanks for everything. Tell Grimska and Noric good-bye for us. I bet we'll see you all again."
"Perhaps." Feslavit's voice was heavy with a rasp, due to keeping his feelings shunted off to the side. I knew that caustic sensation well.
"Kervad, too," Firethorn chimed in as he made his way to the entrance hall.
I was left alone with Feslavit, who resembled a dog recently kicked by its master, whimpering in a corner wondering what he'd done wrong.
"I'll be back," I said, though I had no idea whether or not that was true.
"I hope so." He held me in an embrace. Strangely, I felt like the one with strength and I let it flow into him as we shared breath. "You have part of my winter," he said sadly as I pulled away.
"It suits me."
He ran his thumb over my cheekbone, just looking; memorising, perhaps. I would miss him in a way, but if there was one lesson Theide seemed determined to beat into me, it was that of impermanence. There wasn't anything else to say, and I was thankful he'd not become mawkish. It might come later, but I wouldn't be there to see it.
The Otherlanes filled me with the jewels of their madness, and even the alien affection of melding thought with Tassia lightened my spirit. Ferelithia was warm, and sunny, a lifetime away from the cold dirzzle we'd left behind outside of the stone fortress. Sun poured generously down as we exploded victoriously onto the red earth. Firethorn had whooped his exaltation; though I'd not yelled, a similar cry of happiness thrummed in my blood. Jaffa's copper spirals glistened with the clinging frosts of the universe, his freckles standing boldly across his face which began to flush with the sudden increase in temeprature.
"Where are we going to stay?" I asked Velaxis, nudging Tassia forward so we walked next to him. The town ahead had a stone wall, but the salty scent of the sea and perfumes of flowers pulled invitingly with the strength of a hundred magnets.
"There's an inn with a keeper who keeps his thoughts somewhat to himself," Velaxis said, lightness in his expression. Going through the Otherlanes seemed to put everyone in brazen spirits, even if it did fade away quickly. "I'll be going back to Immanion as soon as you're settled."
That answered my unasked question. I hadn't thought there'd be a repeat of that time at Natalia, and while I was relieved, a part of me regretted it, too.
The town was the antithesis of the cold land where I'd been living, though Tollsend in summer was vibrant in its own way. We hadn't packed all that much; Jaffa and Firethorn hadn't brought a lot from Castlegar though they now had heavy furs and some tokens from their time with me in the north. At an inn set away in a quieter part of the vivacious city we got comfortable in our two rooms while Velaxis sat downstairs in the bar. Our next step was to stable the sedim for a few hours while Velaxis gave us a hasty overview of the town and discreetly handed us each a purse heavy with coinage I didn't recognise.
"It's enough to get you all on your feet. You'll need to find some trade to engage in after a while, but there are plenty of jobs and you each have skills that are needed in a growing city like Ferelithia. The Fereliths are showy and like fine things."
"So— this is it?" Jaffa asked, scratching at his scalp, and then guesturing vaguely at the cobbled streets, the red-roofed houses sitting sleepily under the warm sun.
"For now," Velaxis replied cryptically. "I think you'll enjoy being here; the hara are easygoing in temperament. You and Firethorn will fit right in."
I felt out of place, but was determined not to let my emotions get out of control and consume the well-being that had nestled in my chest.
"Vaysh, I'd like to go back to the inn and speak with you alone."
I nodded my acceptance; Firethorn said they'd come and get me for dinner. They took their leave and wondered off down the street, Jaffa's arm slung around Thorn's waist. Though a study in contrasts, with Firethorn's ruddy skin and dark hair, and Jaffa's pale complexion and orange ringlets, their hearts beat only for one another. Melancholy creeped back out from its sanctuary and settled in my pulse, almost purring. Don't be ungrateful, I heard, again.
I snapped out of my reverie; Velaxis' true voice was in my ear.
He regarded me dispassionately, for which I was grateful. He was an enigma, but I trusted that almost more than any other quality that could have been more blatant, and therefore, more false.
"Let's go. They have quite good wine; I'll ask for some from the innkeeper and we can have some out on the balcony."
As we walked through the cheery streets, I found myself more at peace in his presence, willing to ask questions I hadn't before. "What do you really think of Immanion?"
He leveled his gaze at me, one eyebrow raised. Black pearls were woven into his white-blond hair; for all of the Otherlanes travel he'd undertaken today, he looked as polished as ever.
"I think it's too early to tell," he said evenly. "It's being shaped differently because you're not there as Tigron. I don't say that to make you feel badly," he went on in haste.
I was stunned, and almost gaped at him. He cared about my feelings —? He was also probably one of the only hara there who had any idea whatsoever that I'd been intended to lead, or act as a a figurehead, anyway.
"I don't," I finally said. "But thank you for saying that. Your kindness means a lot."
A rare, open smile graced his lips. "I have reserves of tenderness for you. You didn't ask for the hurts that have come to you, and I can only guess that at times you feel you've been put in an untenable situation."
By now I was flabbergasted. "That's an eloquent way to put it."
We ambled down the street, the inn ahead and on the right. I'd seen hara from tribes I knew I couldn't identify, some dressed in quite gaudy attire. There were also a few human women. I felt sticky and out of sorts, like I'd faen into a web of disorientation and each glance around confirmed I couldn't get out. Until I looked over at Velaxis, that was, who'd changed in moments from tentative ally to anchor. My frantic needs must have been glaring to him, though he merely took my arm and guided my faltering steps.
Once at the inn he purchased a bottle of white wine and asked for two glasses. The innkeeper gave us a knowing look, but made no lewd commentary. My heart was starting to race; I wondered just what the fuck was wrong with me. I wasn't driven like this anymore, I was in control, dammit, I was
When the door shut I was on Velaxis with the passion of the near-dead on his saviour. He managed to get the bottle and glasses safely out of the way, but only just. My eyes were blinded by tears; I needed proof that I wasn't as broken as I felt. I ached for him to breathe on the tiny spark he'd lit three-quarters of a year ago. I was near a breaking point, of sanity or despair, I wasn't sure and didn't care.
"It's okay, let it out," Velaxis said, his voice a lusty growl though his eyes harboured deep caring. I made wordless cries of anguished need, of frustraton at our clothes and the consuming, burning want that throbbed angrily deep between my legs. There was so much that had been taken from me, and this, too, would leave a gaping wound, but Velaxis understood. He wouldn't tell and he wouldn't lie and he wouldn't placate and he wouldn't take anything but pleasure— and that was enough.
Clothes were torn away, lips claimed and the breath gusted out of him, filling me with his unique taste. He bit and sucked at the base of my neck. For a few seconds I thought back wildly to the vampire joke Firethorn and I had shared. I was soume and ready to devour him; he intuited everything. As before, I was transparent to him; he knew what I was scrabbling for even as he rutted against my hip, my back pressed up against the unforgiving wall.
He was stronger than he looked, or I was lighter than I realised. When he shared the images he did, I groaned at the rightness of it and demanded he hoist me up so I could wrap my legs around his waist. He angled his vibrant ouana-lim and thrust into me, hard. It was sublime; I was greedy and raucous and grabbed his hair in my fists.
"Ow, that hurts," he said through gritted teeth.
"Sorry," I painted and realised even in my lust-drenched haze the strain on his arms. "Can we go to the bed?"
He carried us over, still joined, each step jarring his shaft against my inner muscles. It was madness, and exquisite agony. Velaxis sat and fell backwards, letting me ride him, to consume him with the clenching maw of my soume-lam as long as I could.
"Let it out," he said again, his voice gravelly with his own passion. "You're not dead inside. Let me burn for you."
"God!" I cried out, unable to look at the heat radiating from his gaze. "I'm not strong enough."
"You. Are," he grunted, his calm mannerisms lost, his attentions focussed solely on taking me to a point of near-brutal ecstacy. Torrents of memories battered me like hailstones. Velaxis was a dark angel, his wings of desire beating like a thunderous heartbeat. He burst into orgasm, and the energy drove me through my own release. Half-crazed, I cried out Ashmael's name.
Breathing heavily, the room slowly re-asserted itself into my reality, as well as the very non-Ashmael face looking up at me.
I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I practically frothed via mind-touch.
"Vaysh, it's okay," Velaxis said aloud, using his hands to soothe me, clasping mine in his. I crumpled, all dignity lost as I tried to extricate myself without damaging his quite beautiful ouana-lim and wishing a hole would appear to swallow me up.
"Fucking hell," I murmured, curling up into a ball, my language hearkening back to my earliest harish days. "I'm so fucking sorry."
"Look at me."
I had no pride; I couldn't bear to do so. He had — again — reached out in ways no one else could, and I repaid him by calling out
"Was there a ritual saying when you were incepted?"
I was so surprised at the question I feebly turned over. "In blood, in fire, into forever," I said automatically, wishing for a knife to gouge a new scar, or to cut out my heart and offer it up.
"Interesting. Are you Uigenna?"
"I just called you by my ches— my former chesnari's name, and you're asking about my tribal background?"
"I needed to distract you. It worked," he said, a smug satisfaction in his voice. His face was flushed, his silken white hair a tousled, sensual mess. He didn't seem offended.
"I think I need a towel," I said, suddenly sheepish but sensing my dignity crawling back out from under whatever rock it had taken shelter.
Velaxis nodded. "I'll pour us some wine. I do want to talk with you; that wasn't a lie. I could tell that you needed to unleash yourself first."
"There's that eloquent language again," I said, startled that I was jovial enough to be flippant. His arunic skills were singularly effective; as I toweled away the evidence of our coupling, I had a moment of sadness that the force of his seed didn't stay in me. I couldn't create life, but everything else from Velaxis' body seemed to have healing effects on me. Maybe some of the fluids from within his forceful organ flickered deep within my scarred soume-lam, tiny embers of light in such a dark place.
"Thiede is going to need you," he said after we'd dressed and sat out on the balcony. The wine was crisp, and welcome. Creepers with trumpet-like, crimson flowers wound themselves up a drainpipe, adding colour and a sweet aroma to the ambiance.
"You will know what to do when those times come. Don't try and shut him out. First off, it's fruitless. Secondly, even though your experience with him was traumatic "
I was gratified that he fumbled for an appropriate word.
"Your caste was propelled forward because of it. There's a tremendous amount of strength and spiritual sophistication in you. Away from Feslavit, who was very kind, but he wanted to coddle you, you can explore those abilities. I hope you will; you'll need them."
I'd remained silent, sipping the tart wine. Velaxis had scoured me out with our aruna; his shared breath had cleansed away accumulated despondency and wiped away the stagnating pools of ennui. I owed him the vitality I felt, the ability to really listen and take my upcoming tasks to heart, whenever they did occur.
"I will. Thank you, Velaxis," I said softly, resting a hand atop his and giving the fingers a gentle squeeze.
He curled his fingers around them; I craved their warmth. He gifted me with a brave smile and I was heartened. "The name you shouted," he said. "It wasn't so much for love, or loss of it."
"It wasn't?" My voice cracked.
"No, Vaysh. It was a battle cry."
* * * * *
I begged off of dinner that evening, fabricating stomach cramps. Firethorn insisted on coming into my room and seeing me in the flesh to make certain I hadn't made my lodging into a den for brooding. The scent of aruna still hung tenaciously in the air and a secretive smile of approval flitted on his face.
"Okay. But you're having breakfast with us tomorrow, no matter what."
I agreed demurely and he left. With a deep exhale, I went over to my bag. After Velaxis had taken his leave, I'd crashed, sleeping for a couple of hours, quite an extraordinary feat for me. I opened the rugged pack to find my sleeping clothes and my hand closed around a delicate piece of silver. I pulled out the amber phoenix pendant Feslavit had caught me admiring over a year ago. The amber, tiger's eye and garnet were as beautiful as I remembered when I'd first seen it. I found the acompanying piece of paper after rummaging a bit through the pack, just a simple note.
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