Down the Whispering Well
Written March-May, 2008

Succor my skin, beloved,
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.

"You're different."

"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.

"I'll try."

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.

Thank you.

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—

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."

"Gloriously naked."

"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."

"Wise har."

He let out a huffed snort and kissed my forehead. "Wise-arse is probably more accurate. Sleep well, Vaysh."

"You too."

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.

"For what?"

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
not possible;
only truthful
if strangers(who
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.

I caressed the necklace in my fingers before putting it on and admiring it in the mirror which hung over the bathroom sink. After a few moments of staring at the craftwork, I went to my personal, small bag, the one I hadn't let anyone else meddle in, and withdrew the small tin of tiger balm crystals and a needle. Once I'd readied the drug, I shot it into my arm, letting the fierce calm of it ease through my body. I poured myself the last of the wine and drank it slowly, blissfully thinking of nothing at all.

* * * * *

I breathed enough to learn the trick,
And now, removed from air,
I simulate the breath so well,
That one, to be quite sure

The lungs are stirless, must descend
Among the cunning cells,
And touch the pantomime himself.
How cool the bellows feels!

~ from Poems: Third Series, Emily Dickinson

* * * * *

After a fortnight, we'd found a house to rent with three bedrooms and a walled patio out back. After three months, Firethorn and Jaffa had become mini-celebrities. The Fereliths did like well made, showy things, but they also loved music and to have a good time. There were a few clubs in town, but the music that Jaffa and Firethorn played wasn't usually in that kind of rock band genre. That said, once they'd gained some fame from their duets played out by the bobbing ships on the quay, one or both of them was occasionally pulled up on stage by a fellow musician.

I'd gone to Temple Radiant, an established club and bar, a few times. One night I'd been at the table, nursing a violently purple drink that reminded me of the Banshee Wails that Jaffa had enjoyed up north. I saw the lead singer of a popular band, Breath of the Dragon, encourage Firethorn and Jaffa to sing something more lyrical than the band's usual fare. To my ear, Breath of the Dragon's music bore an eerie resemblance to the yowling of cats in heet, but they had quite a following regardless. The singer invited the two from Castlegar up for a trio, with the band's guitarist picking subtly along in the background. Another band member, with similar colouring to Jaffa who always wore a knee-length tartan skirt, provided another layer of beauty by playing a silver flute that glinted under the stage lights. Firethorn and Jaffa were born performers, and the arms of Ferelithia and her decadent, thriving townhara enfolded them in a fond embrace. Strangely enough, I found myself drawn to Grimska's trade— that of candle-making, anyway. There were bazaars most days of the week and I went when it pleased me, doing a brisk business when I did. I pressed local flowers into the wax, or decorated the outsides of the wide columnar candles with patterns of herbs and spices. The latter could be found in plenty from the spice trade. Jaffa and Firethorn busked for the most part, until their growing group of fans found a regular venue for them and they started playing at a hotel bar every weekend.

The weather was mild, especially so compared to my time in the cold lands near Tollsend. We were drawing nigh to Natalia, yet again. I'd found myself in the first period of true calmness of spirit versus a deadness of heart since I'd died and been brought back. The seed that Velaxis had planted of quiet confidence in my elevated cate and reserve of inner strength, germinated at an unhurried pace. I chose to spend hours each week in practise and meditation. For the first time, I found that Thiede was sensing and actively looking for me in those esoteric lands. He was pleased, even warm in those invitations to see through him. I was invited to wear, for brief periods of time, the gossmer mantle of perception and breathgaze as I saw the world through his harish vision. I was with him in heady moments of purpose when he played the part in his first inception and harhune; the manchild was indeed beautiful, but this was no surprise. Thiede couldn't bear ugliness of any sort. I'll admit I was equally fascinated by seeing the Calanthe figure Jaffa and Firethorn had mentioned as having made such an impression on Abelard.

As the planet turned and spring opened her radiant eyes, I found that I began to set my sights on going to visit the land of Olopade. I hadn't said anything out loud to Firethorn and Jaffa, though Thorn's innate perceptiveness had picked up on some of my disaffections with the town. I found some of my former prickliness returning, and didn't wonder that Thiede was behind it. Tensions I'd locked away began to rattle around in their cages; the proximity to Immanion started to gnaw fearfully at me again and the thought of going as an emissary to a more rustic territory wasn't unwelcome.

Even Thiede doesn't forsee everything, though he could hardly have planned more fatefully the occasion that hastened my journey north. I'd been invited along with Firethorn and Jaffa to an impromptu art gallery. A companion to one of the couple's many musician friends put together an art showing of sculptures and other items deemed as art, involving paint, plaster, and fabrics from the burgeoning textile industry. It had been a fun evening with a lot of potent wine and some liquor that smelled and tasted of liquorice. Firethorn and Jaffa seemed very much in their own element. I was content enough to be alone, as I hadn't made the kinds of amicable relationships that they did and no one had come along to dote on me as Feslavit had. That was fine by me; the exercises of spirit were a solitary pursuit. Tonight I felt Firethorn and Jaffa reaching out to me, however, and though it brought with it a twinge of remembered loss, I pushed that to the side.

I'd had quite a bit of the liquorice-tasting liqueur, to the point that I wasn't entirely steady on my feet during the walk home. The air was warm, but not sticky, and my head cleared the closer we got to the lights of our cheery, inviting home. Jaffa and Firethorn had been especially affectionate toward one another all evening, sneaking furtive glances when apart but usually glued to one another's sides as though newly discovering each other's charms and compelling attraction. Jaffa headed straight for their bedroom once we came home. I was hardly surprised, and had turned to make my way alone to mine when a husky voice murmured in my ear, "Don't go, please. Be with us."

It was Firethorn, his lithe chest pressed up behind me, strong arms winding sensually to wrap at my waist as he nibbled on my earlobe. This was surprising.

"Thorn, now isn't a time for jokes. You've been eating each other up all evening. Go and enjoy yourselves."

"We want you," he insisted, the scent of wine from his breath ghosting across my cheek.

"You never have before," I said, placing my hands on his before he snuck them down any further. "Why are you so keen to have me tonight?"

"For starters, you're gorgeous."

"Oh, do go on," I drawled, trying to ease out of his grasp. It wasn't that taking aruna with them was totally out of the question. We were dear friends and I felt close to them on myriad levels, but the timing seemed strange. My perfidious body was already reacting to Firethorn's advances, perhaps a consequence of having been on another purposeful arunic fast.

"No, truly. Turn around."

I rolled my eyes, though of course he couldn't see the gesture, and did as requested. His expression was both playful and deeply contemplative.

"Firethorn, what—"

"Jaffa dreamed it, and so did I. Please, Vaysh, be a part of us tonight. It must happen with you."

"Thorn, you sound a lot like your hostling, obtuse and speaking in riddles."

His black eyes twinkled; he was dreadfully handsome. He'd made an impression even before his coming of age, and then… well, my taking of aruna with anyone in the past few years had been sporadic, at best.

"I am a lot like him. I've seen what must be, and you're a necessary, beloved part. Don't make me beg!" he pleaded. An aromatic scent of sandalwood and saffron wafted enticingly down the corridor. "Am I that unattractive to you?"

"God, no, it's just— unexpected," I said feebly before he'd brushed my hair out of my face.

He regarded me with the solemnity of a mage before leaning in. The kiss and shared breath were full of smouldering, reverential passion. I broke away for air, still uncertain why tonight I'd been firmly enfolded in his arms, and even less so why it seemed a sound decision to break my arunic drought with both of them at once. I followed him down the corridor and into their rooms. Jaffa's eyes shone with relief; his russet spirals tumbled down his freckled back.

"So you really were in on this, too?" I asked, allowing him to undress me after he shared breath with his chesnari.

"Oh yes."

Everywhere I saw candles that I'd made, their varied scents of pine and vetiver commingling with the spicy incense. The tan lines on Jaffa's skin were less noticeable in the dimmed light; Firethorn was already a burnished god. When Jaffa claimed my mouth, my senses reeled at the intensity of affection. It was as though he wanted to drown me in it.

"You must both have powerful dreams to want me, the dry and chaste one, joining with you," I said. I felt a pang of guilt when I saw how hurt Firethorn seemed at my words.

"You're far more selective, more cautious," he said, regret heavy in his voice. "We respect that. Will you gift yourself to us?"

"Sun, moon and stars," Jaffa said, his taut abdomen and stiffening ouana-lim pressing against me. His wide-knuckled fingers fanned out across the swell of my buttocks. "I'll be the ocean of lights, and you the comet, diving into me."

I let out an unsophisticated, garbled noise as I grasped the positions they'd envisioned.

"And he'll pierce me like the blaze of light at noon," Firethorn moaned from the bed, fully soume, wearing a set of beaded amulets I didn't think I'd ever seen before.

I was caught up in the waves of love and eagerness that sang in the air. The energies carried on currents from one of them to the other, and to me, and circling back again. We became a sensuous jumble of limbs and mouths; through the erotic fog I recognised I'd had more adventures than many in the garden of delights to be found in aruna with three hara. Now was certainly not the time to reflect on those faces and worshipped bodies from the past. Panting and wild-eyed, Jaffa shoved pillows under his rounded backside as Firethorn shared breath with me, his eyes dilated with pleasure. I noticed a damp trail on his cheek, and licked the salty skin.

"Tears of happiness," he assured me, and his voice didn't waver.

I kneeled at the vee of Jaffa's legs, taken aback at the breathtaking awe of him, spread out for me as only a harish banquet could be. He offered colourful, fragrant dishes as both soume and ouana. Firethorn enveloped the bright petaled coral of Jaffa's ouana-lim as I plunged into the narrow floods of his soume-lam. Jaffa's cries and Firethorn's punctuated, yelping groans vibrated in my ears. The sheer carnality was an explosion of delights. Each thrust sent molten desire winging to my groin where a maelstrom of release churned in wait.

I might not have recognised the moment of change in their communion if I hadn't experienced it myself. It was a lifetime and another corporeal body ago, but oh, the memory was branded on my soul. To withdraw from them completely would have ruptured the weave and weft of their union, and I was a thread on the binding. Now it all struck me like an axe-blow, all that Firethorn had implied but I'd not understood until this moment. I was breath to add heat to their fire, though the air was stuck in my throat. As though within myself I felt Firethorn's innermost rose flowering open, knew when Jaffa's spring uncoiled past sealed depths in his chesnari he'd never before touched. Firethorn bloomed. The thorns of memory wrapped around my heart and I bled myrrh, the sepulchre of my barren hollow annointed with spices for the dead.

What seemed a dozen aeons later, but was really only an hour or so, I sat out in the jasmine-scented terrace, chain smoking clove cigarettes, my eyes unfocussed. Jaffa came out to see me; Firethorn had the training and intuitive understanding to know I couldn't bear to be in his presence for a short time. He might try and offer kindness that would be too much like pity. Jaffa would only apologise, even though he didn't yet know why I'd left so abruptly. He pulled up a bench and sat down across from me, a chalice of wine in hand, held out in offering. I accepted graciously.

"What did we do wrong?" he asked, his anguish bone-deep. He was baffled, and hurt, the incomprehension skating over his features and residual euphoria that he'd doubtless feel for days.

"I'd say you did everything right. Firethorn's with pearl, wasn't that your premonition?"

His nods were slow, conflicted. I'd only just started my grieving process, yet again, but poor Jaffa… he didn't know what had caused me to walk so silently out of the room as soon as I safely could. He was glowing with their — our — aruna, and yet, I'd turned my back on them. I owed them an explanation.

"May I speak freely?" I asked.

"Of course. For my sake, and Thorn's— Vaysh, if this was going to affect you so negatively, why the hell didn't you say something? We wouldn't have asked you! You've got to believe me, we just didn't know. Please tell me what happened," he begged, concern blazing from his eyes.

I felt sturdy and solid and dead. I was a hewn tree, the rings all there to be seen, my tale to be told. What was the use in keeping secrets from them: from the grown harling whose Feybraiha I'd witnessed, the grown harling whose Feybraiha and flourishing love I'd missed? If I'd been paying more attention tonight, I would have picked up on the full fruit they'd offered, not just the beckoning skin.

"Ashmael and I almost had a harling. I was nearly with pearl. I should have been, but Thiede intervened at the last moment. Not in person," I assured him, almost laughing darkly at the look of stunned horror on his face. "From wherever he was, he was watching me all the time, memorising each atom, I suppose. At the time I'd thought he'd wanted our child to be conceived and raised in Immanion at a later opportunity. I still believe those were his thoughts when he threw up a barrier and Ash was stopped. For everything that Thiede can control, accidents of nature don't fall into that category. Now, thanks also to Thiede, I'm barren."

"Oh God," Jaffa said in a thick voice, weighed down by the crush of his feelings. "Thiede is a fucking sadistic bastard."

Firethorn, I reached out in mind-touch, gentle and welcoming. I felt outside of myself, watching as I played the part of tragic victim of circumstance. This would be my coup de grace before I left. I didn't trust myself to stay much longer after the harling was born, and to stay sane. I'd like for you to hear this as well. Will you join us?

Moments later he rushed out to the tiled patio, kissing all over my head and the palms of my hands. "I didn't know!" he said, miserable.

"You couldn't have. And for all I know, Thiede planted those dreams in your head, and I really was supposed to be an element to the harling you've conceived."

"Tell me everything. If you're willing to share."

For the first time since my forced rebirth, it seemed as natural as breathing to talk about Ash, about how we'd been drawn together, of our conversations with Thiede and Arahal. I told them about the forced aruna wth Thiede, of our bed as a pyre, the aftermath, and my inability to host life anymore. It was only toward the end that I realised I was fingering the pendant Feslavit had given me, the phoenix warm against my fingers. I spoke for a long time, and as the words and scenes fell from my tongue, I sensed them sinking away. They weren't too deep; when I was put to bed, fussed over and coddled as though I were the one with pearl, I thought I saw my memories like bright fish swimming under a protective layer of ice. For the first time in months, or perhaps ever in this new-not-new self, I drifted to sleep with a smile on my lips.

* * * * *

Firethorn's gestation passed quickly; he and Jaffa now had fans painting their portraits, leaving wreaths of olive branches or flowers. I was as enthralled and captivated as anyone else, having only ever seen one har undergo the trial and joy of being with pearl. It was fitting that Thorn, himself such a novelty, would be the first in Ferelithia to create life that way. It wasn't like a human pregnancy and he wasn't rotund, but the swelling was noticeable and they became full-blown celebrities.

Even as all of this unfolded, I'd continued with my spiritual meditations, readying to return to the north. I wasn't rude, or cold, but I was growing distant. My arunic energies were seeped into this to-be harish life, but he wouldn't be mine. The pain of being around the two of them with their son would be too much. I might be a martyr, but I had decided to take my sackcloth and ashes far away. After seeing this Phade individual in the tower where Thiede had ensconsed him, I'd return to the fortress near Tollsend. Feslavit would understand; I respected his ability to know me so thoroughly and not blanch at the wretchedness and occasional white-hot anger I possessed. I didn't miss him, but I had to admit that I looked forward to his company, whenever I did return.

When the time came for Firethorn to deliver, I took the role of priest, lighting the incense and invoking the angels to guard over the birth. Jaffa was beside himself at Thorn's cries, but he had what seemed to be a relatively easy time of it. I chanted over Firethorn and kept wiping the sweat from his face; Jaffa gave words of encouragement and at last held up the shining pearl, its outside covered in sticky fluid and some blood. As though made of solid gold, I carefully sponged it off while Jaffa made sure Firethorn didn't need healers of any kind— he seemed to have torn a bit, but the bleeding stopped and he insisted his body would heal of its own accord. His hair was plastered to his face with sweat, the sheets were soaked with the pungent fluid that had protected the pearl inside his body. I suggested that perhaps we could carry Firethorn to the bath, and Jaffa agreed. The exhaustion and struggle of expelling the pearl had taken its toll; easily I laid him in a tub of warm, aloe-infused water. The pearl was kept in someone's arms all the time. The shell grew hard within a few hours, its shining integument compelling and exquisite. None of us ever wanted to let it out of sight.

"Stay with us as long as you can bear it," Jaffa said quietly as Firethorn napped that first afternoon. "I want him to know your presence, your voice, your love."

"I'll do what I can," I said simply, tugging on the phoenix that lay on my chest.

I spent the night in their bed— thankfully it was made for larger hara and there was space for the three of us and the pearl. Firethorn recovered his strength over the next two weeks, and their groupies came by in droves to see this exotic jewel. Many of them brought gifts: little wood carvings for toys; infant-sized clothes with beautiful handiwork, embroidery and smocking; small shoes with beadwork to commemorate Thorn's ancestry.

I felt nothing but a bottomless affection for the yet-unborn harling, and hoped beyond all sense that I wouldn't be overcome by sorrow once he emerged into the world. I was at the bazaar, having had an exceptionally rewarding day of trade, when Firethorn cried out to me via mind-touch that the pearl was splitting open. I rushed home as fast as I could, but the process was faster than I'd imagined. Once home, I threw down my satchel and called their names, but the house was quiet. I strode quickly to the enclosed back courtyard and there they were.

Firethorn had made a hanging wicker chair while with pearl, industrious no matter his condition, and he and Jaffa both sat in it, holding the harling. I walked over and smoothed my hand over his scalp, the rich mahogany hair wavy and fine in my fingers. The child had stuck its tiny fist in its mouth and was gumming at it. Jaffa looked as though he'd burst open with pride; Firethorn glowed with untarnished joy.

"You should hold him," he said, turning the harling around so he looked up at me. His eyes were an arresting light blue-grey; bright wolf eyes that had no harish sentience behind them. He was breathtaking, and alien. Despite that, I wanted to bury my nose in his scent, and hold him tightly to my chest, whisper to him every joyful secret I possessed.

Firethorn lifted him up. He was naked and perfect and warm and made a muted sound of distress during the short journey from his hostling's arms to mine. I held him carefully, gazing at his face and the animal intelligence behind the wide, light eyes. I was unable to see similarities of Jaffa or Firethorn in him yet, aside from his hair. I arranged him against my shoulder so I could stroke his back, softly swaying from side to side as I looked down at the new parents.

"He's absolutely perfect," I said without a baleful or envious thought. "Those eyes— I could stare at them for hours. He doesn't have our sense yet, does he?"

"I don't think so," Jaffa said, holding Firethorn's hand as they slowly swung in the chair. "Firethorn knows a lot more than I do since he spent so much time with Lemuel when he was first born."

"You'll see light behind them in a week or so," Firethorn confirmed. "He's a miracle, an enigma. And he doesn't look a thing like us!" he said with an easy laugh. "I'm sure his skin will darken over time, and his hair is a mix of ours. The bright eyes, though… maybe he'll have a calling to spend his life near the water."

The harling squirmed and I adjusted him in my arms, nuzzling gently and breathing in his clean scent, of innocence and hope. "Have you chosen a name yet?"

I'd heard them volley a variety of possibilities from a bevy of cultures, both human and Wraeththu. To me, the harling was terribly exotic, and in my heart I hoped they'd picked something that sounded spicy on the tongue. If they'd chosen more demurely, though, obviously it was their decision.

"Yes. You'll like it— you don't filter your thoughts as well as you think," Jaffa said with a laugh low in his chest. "Yazdyar. No doubt he'll end up as Yaz for most of his life, but I think it suits him."

I raised my eyebrows, delighted. The harling kicked his short legs and grabbed a fistful of my hair. "Yazdyar," I repeated slowly. "It means…?"

"Friend of angels," Firethorn said, smiling broadly and reaching out for him. "I need to feed him."

Grudgingly I gave him back.

"I'm afraid that there's going to be a lot of hara coming to visit," Jaffa said apologetically. "Everyone wants to see what a harling looks like." A wry smile tugged one side of his lips. "Don't let them run you off. But you're not staying long, are you?"

My sleeping tiger of melancholy had been sweetly roused at the first touch of Yazdyar's impossibly soft skin. No, I couldn't stay here or I'd be eaten alive by regret and resentment.

"No. Thiede needs me. For what I'm not really sure, but I know I'm meant to go back up to the fortress. I love your son, I do, you both must know that," I said, my voice charged with grief.

"We know," Firethorn said softly. "He wouldn't be here if it weren't for you."

"You don't know that."

"We're pretty damn sure," Jaffa said stridently. "How can I change your mind? It's not right, your heeding Thiede's beck and call when he's ruined you!"

"Thanks," I snapped. "Obviously I'm not that ruined if you meant what you said."

"Oh fuck," he groaned, grinding his fingers against his forehead. "I didn't mean it like that. I'd just feel better if you were with us."

"It would be too hard." I noticed I was tugging at my hair again and forced myself to stop. "Thiede's beyond love or hate; don't waste your energy on it. I've been summoned back north, so that's where I'll go. It's a brave new world in Almagabra, and I have more to see. Besides, Feslavit will probably do summersaults when I show up."

Firethorn gave me a heartbreaking, rueful look. "You hate being this close to Immanion and not being allowed to see Ash."

"Thiede is too fucking cruel!" Jaffa shouted, and the harling started to cry.

"I am Thiede's," I said, brushing angrily at the damp in my eyes. "I'm going out tonight. Don't wait up."

"Our door will be open," Thorn promised, easing out of the chair to walk around the patio, making soothing sounds until the infant's crying had subsided.

I spent the early evening packing while Jaffa lurked, wanting to be helpful but afraid of tripping over his words again. I went to Temple Radiant and danced until the sweat poured off of me, and then took a last walk by the quay. Deliberately I commited the sound of water gently slapping against the boats to memory, mooring the scents and effervescent frivolity in a harbour deep within myself. When I returned home, I stopped into Jaffa and Firethorn's room since the door was open, just as Firethorn had said. Yazdyar lay on his back, soft blankets around him and a mobile of birds hanging above his wooden cradle. I ran my thumb over his feathery eyebrows, careful not to wake him. Wordlessly I cast spells of protection and devotion until I was drained and my eyes burned with unshed tears.

* * * * *

Too long and quickly have I lived to vow
The woe that stretches me shall never wane,
Too often seen the end of endless pain
To swear that peace no more shall cool my brow.
I know, I know—again the shriveled bough
Will burgeon sweetly in the gentle rain,
And these hard lands be quivering with grain—
I tell you only: it is Winter now.

~ from "Transitions," Dorothy Parker

* * * * *

"Hello, sweetheart."

If Tassia felt insulted or upset by my affectionate murmurings, they were thankfully kept hidden. The sedu nosed at my shoulder in greeting, and I patted at her flank. I had woken early to the sound of Yazdyar's cries, and sought out Thiede in the land of the mind where I suspected I could find him. He'd been waiting, and gave me all of the details I needed: where to find my sedu, a vision of the town of Samway in Olopade, what it looked like and an approximate path in the Otherlanes. I was a bit nervous, having never travelled alone to a geographic location I'd never been before using those crazed paths in the universe. Thiede reassured me that Tassia knew the way, even though I did not. I kept my good-byes brief, hugging first Jaffa and then enfolding both Firethorn and the harling together.

"Please write, or send word somehow," Firethorn pleaded, wiping a small piece of fig off of the infant's mouth. "Don't just vanish, that's not fair."

"Life's not fair," I said dryly, but I kissed him on the cheek. "I will if I can. Take care of each other."

Tassia allowed me to saddle my small packs into the saddlebags, and we trotted out of Ferelithia to be away from prying eyes. The sensation of opening my mind to Tassia was as comfortable and easy as drawing back a curtain. I held onto the reins and off and up into the charged ozone we went.

Olopade seemed far more solid, earthy and unforgiving as the area further north with the Tollsend hara. For all of the frivolous activities the Fereliths took so seriously, it had been a place with more malleability, or fluidity. The change in terrain put a dull flavour on my tongue through no real fault of its own, not helped by my lack of sleep and general irritability. Due to a variety of factors, it was perhaps inevitable that Phade and I got off on the wrong foot and it was never righted. He rode out to meet me as I approached the stone walls of his tower, untouched, apparently, by harish qualities. He was swarthy, but handsome as all hara are. Thiede had told him next to nothing and he peppered me with questions after the merest of social niceties had been observed. His disappointment that I'd not come from Thiede's elite ranks of Gelaming, nor from Immanion at all, he didn't attempt to hide. Phade did possess enough decorum to give me a tour of his small estate and then took me into town, filling me in on the background of how his clan had come to be there and how they'd battled the humans through will of mind, not gun or sword.

"But you have humans living in Samway!" I exclaimed as we rode our horses back to his stone tower.

"Yes— we Wraeththu have a long lifespan, so it appears, but we can't procreate, or haven't figured out how, so we need human males to incept. It's their choice, but they've begun to grow up in our midst and nearly all of them choose to become har."

"And the women?" I kept my knowledge about harlings and being with pearl to myself. My instincts told me it would be too much for the har to digest.

He shrugged, relatively uninterested in their plight. "It's a rough turn of luck for them, but it's peaceful here, and they're not abused."

"How thoughtful," I said, the words oozing sarcasm, but my sentiment bounced off of him.

By dinnertime he'd appeared to have overcome his keen disappointment that Thiede hadn't sent one of his inner guard. Phade had changed tactics and seemed determined to try and seduce me instead. Having nothing else better to do and nursing my newfound strength in being inaccessible, I played with him. I teased and flirted, squashing down faint shivers of revulsion when he actually touched me. I kept it up all through the meal and on until after dinner drinks by the fire in his surprisingly vast library. I was genuinely curious about the walls of bookcases and nearly exclusively human tomes he had shelved; by asking about them, he kept his tongue, for a time, out of my mouth and speaking on topics that I found of interest.

"Homeopathy?" I queried, handling one of the slim volumes I'd plucked down from a shelf.

"Yes. All communities need healers, and these books are beautifully illustrated," he said, radiating pride I almost found endearing. "These large volumes are on magic, at least as the humans perceived it, and over on that shelf I have some masterfully decorated atlases. Perhaps you could show me where you come from, originally?" He infused the words with intrigue, though no doubt he really did wonder about my origins.

"Perhaps tomorrow. It's been a very long day for me, and I'd be grateful for Oxnard to show me to my rooms."

I saw his face fall at that; if I'd asked him to escort me he would doubtless have seen it as an invitation to other activities. That I'd specified one of his household instead didn't dampen his enthusiasm for long, however.

"I'll summon him. I would be most grateful for you to share breakfast with me in the morning. Are you an early riser?"

He'd drawn closer, the decanter of not-exactly-dauthi poised above my glass. I placed two fingers on top of it to prevent him from pouring any more.

"I tend to sleep late if given the chance. I wouldn't want to keep you from your business in the morning."

Phade wasn't giving up so easily. His staff were all appealing — it was a hallmark of being har, after all — but I knew I far outstripped them in looks and manner. He would shake my tree until the fruits he desired fell into his awaiting hands; I could smell the pungent scent of his tenacity.

"You won't," he insisted, placing the liquor on a serving table. "Besides, you're so pale; you should go out riding with me beyond the lake into the base of the mountains. The fresh air and sun will do you good. The wildflowers are unbelievable this time of year. A circus of colour."

"I'd be happy to discuss that with you. Tomorrow," I said firmly, stepping away from him and giving the door a meaningful glance. "Is Oxnard coming? I really do want to get to bed. Travelling the Otherlanes is tiring, and it's been a full day."

"Oh. Yes."

I sensed Phade reaching out in silent communication, all while planning his next move to entice me to take aruna, or share breath, pin me against the wall— I would have none of that.

"Do you mind if I take this with me?" I asked, smoothing my fingers down the curved glass of the decanter.

"Wouldn't you rather take something with more… fire?" His gaze was smoky and probably erotic to others, but he did absolutely nothing for me.

"No, but thank you. You're indeed a thoughtful host. Ah, there you are," I said warmly to his aide, a young har with wide, brown eyes and fawn-like, cautious mannerisms.

"Make sure Vaysh isn't lacking any comfort," Phade dictated, though the innuendo wasn't lost on Oxnard, whose ear tips flushed an appealing rosy colour. He escorted me to my room, up one more floor with a view of the town in the valley below, though it was nearly all dark.

"Would you like a small fire? Phade said you've come from further south and might find our weather chill," he said, busily arranging a jug and basin, glancing at me with bright eyes, expectant and missing no subtle action on my part.

"A fire would be most appreciated, and then I'll free you from your responsibilities to me."

"As you wish."

The fire was lit and I poured another glass of the clear spirits before standing in front of the fireplace, grateful for the warmth. The weather was mild for them, and would become warmer while I stayed, but there was something about the stone walls and floor that leeched away the heat. Oxnard lingered in the doorway, again asking if I was in need of anything, but I dismissed him with a generous smile. Once alone I slumped into a chair that had been thoughtfully pulled up close to the hearth. Phade was no enigma; after being around Jaffa and Firethorn for months, his similar forthrightness and lack of duplicity was reassuring. If he continued to try and get into my trousers or bed, though, that would get tiresome. That was future trouble, though. In addition to learning well the lesson that anything I loved could be taken away at will, I'd also taken to heart the adage of living in the moment at hand. No doubt there would be more difficulties in my future, but for just this moment, this hour before sleep claimed me, I was not in active strife. That was enough.

I remained in Olopade through the autumn and into winter until Natalia loomed its head, yet again. Throughout those many months I'd written to Firethorn and Jaffa once or twice, and had also begun practising again regularly at a shooting range. Usually I went with Oxnard, or one of the other house-hara, but I did go out with Phade on more than one occasion. I wanted him to know well that I was a good shot. He made a wisecrack about being surprised that such a snow maiden had my skill with a rifle, but he shut up once I'd turned the gun on him, aiming squarely at his heart.

"I'm no woman, Phade," I said, freeing the safety latch and feeling a flush of dark satisfaction as the colour bled from his face. "I'll thank you never to call me that again, especially when I'm armed. And I'm always armed."

"It was a joke," he'd spluttered through temporarily stunned lips.

"I hope so."

The unfortunate side-effect of that particular display of cold power was that Oxnard heard about it and I had to become almost rude in turning away his advances. It was when Phade refused to quit talking about me having both heart and genitals made of ice that I packed my bags.

Phade I would not miss, though I'd grown fond of Oxnard. After the initial three months of relentless pursuit and my equally resolute refusals, Phade had decided that there was something quite troubling and wrong with me. Then the self-declared Master of Samway decided I was both troubled and frigid, most unnatural in any Wraeththu. I'm pretty sure that I'd shared breath with Oxnard on a couple of occasions simply because I knew the news would get back to Phade. By this time I'd turned down several offers of aruna by a bevy of hara, including the endearing Oxnard, who was genuinely worried. I reassured him that it was part of my training, and that I was drawing strength through abstinence, but he let me know he was available and cared for me should I ever change my mind.

As we approached the shortest day of the year, I decided it was the right moment to take the few days' ride back to the place of my own rebirth. I was curious as to Thiede's whereabouts and activities, plus I'd been in Phade's territory for quite long enough. I'd felt a keen snap in communication from Thiede, as though he'd been stretched to his limit by something and sprung off in its pursuit. In meditation, I wandered throughout the paths of knowledge and space; I wasn't alone, but I also wasn't powerful enough of a presence to be noted, except by Thiede. His absence puzzled me, but I'd not sensed pain or trauma of any sort affecting him, and so I didn't worry overmuch.

Since I couldn't seem to get in touch with him, I found myself facing the prospect of returning to the land outside of Tollsend on a conventional horse. I sent out a tentative, curious tendril of thought toward Tassia, but didn't feel the sedu's presence and gave up, resigned. One night a couple of days before the date I'd set to leave, I dreamed of Velaxis. There was that avenue, though I'd never caught a whiff of his aura in any of my mind travels. It seemed to be more prudent to travel on one of Phade's hardy horses than to try to contact the enigmatic har in Immanion. He was still presumably Thiede's assistant, and if Thiede was busy with some all-encompassing enterprise, chances were that Velaxis also had a hand in it.

I could not have guessed the truth with even the wildest flights of fancy, but I grew to cherish the lack of foresight.

The morning I was set to go, a sumptuous breakfast was set out for me, once again in Phade's private dining area. We were engaged in barely civil banter, he still trying vainly to find out why I was leaving before their winter festival.

"It will be much more fun than anything you could expect up in that colder north, especially from what little you've told me about the hara there."

"Phade," I said calmly but with a voice sharp enough to cut glass, "you seem determined to insult every aspect about me: my companions, my dress, my pursuits, my spiritual endeavours, even my choice where to spend Natalia."

There was no verbal apology, but the faintest shadow of true regret stole through his gaze before vanishing. "Everyone has a skill; that's mine."

I let out a sigh despite myself and poured more coffee. Just then Oxnard came in through the open door, excitement and concern battling for supremacy in his cautious face.

"Phade." He nodded in his direction. "Vaysh, one of the stablehara came to get me. Your special horse— Tassia, I believe you called her? She just appeared from the forest, walking," he clarified.

My heart soared at that cheery news; perhaps she'd opted to take a more conventional route to get her bearings in this land with its first deep snowfall of the season. No matter her reasoning, I was greatly relieved.

"She's being well taken care of," he went on hurriedly. "So perhaps you could stay through the afternoon? Or until tomorrow?"

Phade's irritated glance slid over him like oil across water.

"No, but I appreciate Phade's and your reluctance to see me go. I have business up near Tollsend. Thiede needs for something, even though I'm not certain what it is."

"If the others he bosses about look anything like you, he's welcome to send his whole army to visit next time," Phade drawled.

"I'm sure Thiede is well aware of your hospitality," I said, sneering over my plate. "But I'll be certain to tell him of your open arms policy."

I got up from the table, the admittedly tasty breakfast now churning with an unpleasant motion in my stomach. I knew there was a momentous event awaiting me at the fortress, and had thought I'd have a few days on horseback to ready myself. Now I could be there on the stone steps again in mere minutes. There was little I was unprepared to face anymore, however, so I ignored the lurking nausea and butterflies, made certain I'd removed all of my belongings from my room in Phade's tower, and headed out to the stables. There were to be no clinging, weepy good-byes, only my good riddance. Seeing Tassia improved my spirits, however, and she seemed happy enough to be with me again.

"So. Whose are you when you're not with me?" I asked aloud and she gave me a hard look, as much as a sedu can. I'd opened my mind so it was wide and clear, like the early morning spring sky in Ferelithia, bright and cloudless. A ghostly flicker of a face, handsome with almond-shaped eyes dancing with intelligence, shone there, and then dissipated. Whoever it was, the har was unknown to me, but I nurtured my own unique connection to Tassia, tucking it into a hidden fold of my heart.

I was bundled up; the cold tried to slip its fingers under my collar, or around my ears where the flaps of my hat didn't quite reach. "We're going to see Thiede, and you know that, don't you?"

Tassia whinnied softly, snorting so her breath came out in visible puffs. I placed my foot securely in the stirrup and swung my other leg up and over, situating myself on the saddle. With an affectionate pat on the side of her neck, I placed my memory of the stone fortress on display. A thin smile settled on my lips when I realised I'd also envisioned Feslavit and Kervad on the steps, there in my mind's eye.

We burst down from the Otherlanes onto a landscape white with snow, not far from the fortress. As Tassia canted and slowed to a walk, I looked around. The sun was out, though it was the tepid, insubstantial sun of winter. Two hara came bustling out from the solid oak front door, both clad in furs. One seemed more familiar than the other, and I took a cleansing breath. It was strange after so many farewells to be saying hello instead to someone who knew me. I dismounted, giving Kervad a wide smile before he embraced me, an unexpected air of solemnity around him. He held me closely as I noted his again-familiar scent of cinnamon and pine, wondering what had come to pass to be treated this way. After a time he pulled away, tilting his head as though evaluating me.

"It's good to see you again," I said. Noting the har behind him looking expectant, I told him that if he wished to take in my things, I would be most appreciative.

"Welcome back, Vaysh," Kervad said, his melodious voice still harbouring some secret. "Thiede is here— he said that we should expect you. Let's go in out of the cold. We should go to the ground floor library; the fire there's blazing. I remember how quickly you get chilled."

"Thank you. Shouldn't I go see Thiede, straightaway?"

He'd taken my arm, guiding me up the stairs as though I'd never been there before. "No," he replied. "He'll be down for dinner, later on this evening. There's something I need to tell you."

We both stamped the snow off of our boots and hung our heavy coats on the wall hooks that lined the entrance hall.

"So I gathered."

Throughout this brief and cryptic exchange, I'd wondered where Feslavit was. Maybe he was waiting to surprise me; it didn't seem like him, as direct as he was, but maybe things had changed. Perhaps he now had a consort or become chesna with someone, and Kervad felt — wrongly — that he needed to soften the blow.

"Where's Feslavit?" I asked as I sat in one of the overstuffed chairs.

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about."

A-ha, so I was right. "He has a chesnari?"

"No, Vaysh. He's dead."

I looked at Kervad, waiting for a deep stirring of emotion to come at that shocking news, but none flooded through me. Right at the moment, curiosity burned the most. It was hard to kill a har; I should know.

"What happened?"

He'd crouched at the side of the chair, his gaze trained on mine to look for any crazed responses and to make sure I was coping. When he saw I wasn't going to fall apart, he stood and pulled up the footrest, sitting on it.

"It was an accident— nothing more. Last summer he'd been doing some repairs up on the roof, lost his balance, and fell. He broke his neck, all very fast, no pain."

I nodded, now unsure of my feelings, as the suddenness, and tragic unpredictability of his accident reminded me of how I'd died. Though for Feslavit, there wouldn't have been a particular har to go mad with grief, at least not that I knew of.

"Thank you for telling me." I looked down at my interlaced hands. "Did he have someone who mourned him especially?"

Perhaps the question was really too gruesome, but after half a year with Phade, my self-censoring had become rusty. Kervad took one of my hands, rubbing warmth gently into my cold fingers. I'd forgotten about the arresting green of his eyes; he seemed more mature now. He could well have been a special companion to Feslavit, who'd certainly had a heart expansive enough for at least two.

"No, no one particular har. We all took his death hard. It had been a luxury, you know, being Wraeththu, nearly impossible to kill. And yet, all it took was a misstep on a tile. Thiede had just arrived and was engrossed in this secretive project, but he'll want to tell you about that in his own way." He brought my hand to his face, clasping it there as a young child might. "Feslavit loved you, and never apologised for that. We would've sent word to you about the news, but didn't know where you were, and Thiede indicated without words not to trouble you. I'm glad you're back now."

He kissed my palm with his full lips like plump pillows, and stood up. "I'm here whenever you need me. The day is yours. If you'd like to see Feslavit's memorial, I'll be glad to take you to it, or you may want to go around the grounds at your own pace. It's been snowing a lot, though."

I nodded again, my competent speech having swum away from me into some other pool for me to access later.

"Look," Kervad went on, "this is all a big shock, no doubt. I'm not as naïve as you might think; I could tell you didn't ever plan to blood bind to him. Someone else had that place in you. You seem…" He stopped, fumbling for the word he wanted. "You seem more whole than when you left, but still haunted. Maybe that's why Thiede beckoned you to return, so he could polish you, or something like that. I don't know," he said with a rueful, soft laugh. "I'm fascinated and at times obsessed by him. But his attentions can be too much to bear, and I want to hide. There's nowhere to go, though. He seems to know about everything."

Blinking slowly, I pushed myself out of the chair, caressing the line of his jaw, overtaken by spiritual exhaustion. "You're right. There is nowhere to go. For me, even death was no escape. He brought me back."

Kervad leaned in and shared breath with me; surprisingly, I didn't find it intrusive, only warming with the silky heat that resided in him, like russet, fire-lit fox fur. "You'll find out soon enough, but Thiede did so again. You're no longer the only one."

* * * * *

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus

~ from "The Waste Land," T. S. Eliot

* * * * *

He was still drugged, Thiede's newborn, the beautiful etching of love brought to full flower and lying motionless in bed. I'd asked to take care of him alone during this early morning shift of attendance. I knew why I'd done it; I had to draw swords and battle the demon that raged in me. If I didn't, I'd kill him, this Pellaz creature, this re-creation of harish life Thiede had been tending for five years as I'd tended to Thiede. Gently, with hands warmed by angora mittens, I turned him onto his stomach, cradling his head so it was placed sideways on the pillow. There were special oils for his skin, precious salves to make certain any sores were healed. Pellaz was still too thin, but he'd not been out of his glass embryo but for a couple of months. Many times I had wanted to kill him, to smash down his delicate nostrils with a pillow, and simply say his heart had stopped. It wasn't all that improbable; perhaps I, too, had walked daringly on the diaphanous bridge between life and death for weeks and weeks before I'd really come to, before Thiede had…

I brushed out Pellaz's long black hair, thinking idly to having seen his chesnari's rocketing descent to madness years ago through Thiede's eyes. Just as Ashmael had recovered, so would Calanthe. At least Ashmael hadn't gone insane and killed someone. No matter what delusions Cal believed, Pellaz had suffered an accidental death. Feslavit, too. With practised fingers, I rolled Pellaz over so he was face up again, tending to him as though he were a harling, a not yet sentient creature. He was fragile and precious and loathsome. He was an aberration, just like me, and still unable to talk. Hands steady, the mittens gone, I massaged the saffron oil into his chest and biceps. He was such a wiry thing, a true dark butterfly whose wings could snap without much provocation. Attraction and revulsion; I knew him as well as myself, and yet not at all. It was eerie, the similarities between our chesnari, Cal's crazed despair and Ashmael's reported shattering after I'd died. I wanted Pellaz to suffer bitterly, to drink the same vinegar and gall that had been poured down my throat. And yet, I considered him to be the child of my spirit. Feslavit had ministered to my flesh, those years ago, and now I cared for Pellaz.

My heart was bound; years of trailing behind Thiede in body and mind and isolating myself in the fortress and her grounds had sterilised the messy desires and angers I'd felt the first couple of years after I'd been remade. I'd vivisected the pulsing organs of want and craving; my soul had been smothered, cauterised, frozen. Now Thiede was preparing for his sacred union, his grand arunic fire with such an insubstantial body.

I don't know what possessed me, but I undressed and crawled into bed with Pellaz, this charge of mine. I hadn't craved harish contact in years, and even the thought of aruna caused a film of bile to line my throat. I forced away my memories, refused to project forward, only held his bony frame in my arms and serenaded him with a tune that had flowed from my tongue. I found an unexpected eroticism in this illicit act, my ouana-lim growing heavy but not rising, only asserting itself so I was aware of its presence. Pellaz's hair was beautiful, nearly blue-black and fine as corn silk. When I recognised the song I was singing as a lullaby I choked up for a moment. The trickle of emotion seeped away, and then I was clear again. It was a duet Firethorn and Jaffa had sung, one that their fans had loved to hear, a lilting a cappella tune of love and the wind. In a soft voice, I crooned it to him, entangling my fingers in his hair, hoping to carry his brutalised spirit on a breath soft as jasmine.

Four days later, dressed in purple robes of a martyr acolyte, I handed an amethyst phial to two of the househara and offered Pellaz up as a sacrifice to Thiede. Only too soon after the act I was called in. The appalling, horrific stench of charred flesh and smoking blood made my stomach turn and writhe with nausea.

"Don't try to move," I said, wishing anyone else on the staff were here doing this, not me. "Open the window!" I yelled curtly to Kervad, while with the skill of a surgeon I forced a tube down Pellaz's throat so he could breathe.

"Don't move," I repeated, though the blistered, cracking skin that covered his abused body made that impossible. It took every shred of caste energy in me not to run screaming from the room, my head suddenly flooded with memories of how I'd felt. I was again flayed open by the remembrance of crashing cymbals, of every fibre of thought screaming, Die! Let me die!

"I don't ever want to have to do this again," I ground out through a jaw clenched tight with revulsion. Pellaz's eyes rolled back; I panicked, afraid we were already losing him to a second death, but he held tenuously onto the razor-thin cord to life. Kervad reassured me that Pellaz was stable. He did everything but remind me aloud that I had survived the same holocaust, and he'd been there to see it. At last I felt I could leave the room, my body sagging with exhaustion and weight of memory. As though sleepwalking, I went to my room and bolted the door. I knelt in front of my toilet and vomited, my stomach heaving up the coffee I'd drunk; I'd not been able to force anything else down before I was to be called on for that ceremony.

My hands were shaking so violently I almost couldn't get my private bag open, a few crystals of the tiger balm still shining like phosphorescent gems in their tin container. I walked on my knees to a bottle of dauthi on a small bookshelf and drank a couple of burning swallows, which almost caused me to vomit again, but I forced it to stay down. Once my nerves had calmed somewhat, I was able to get my drug ready and I shot it up between my toes. The needle rolled onto the stone hearth with a delicate clatter as I wrapped my arms around my knees and buried my face, rocking like an abandoned child. I was out of my mind with grief and terror, sickened at what Thiede had done a second time, even though I'd known it was coming for years. What it Pellaz didn't survive it? A black stain of misanthropic fury bled from the chewed up screams in my head. If Pellaz died, would Thiede try again? How many burned out, beautiful husks had to walk this earth before he stopped?

The tiger balm had only just pierced me with its fearsome, tranquil claws when I heard the pounding on my door.

"Vaysh! Let me in! Dammit!" Kervad's voice was frayed with worry.

On unsteady legs, I hobbled to the door and pulled back the bolt, composing myself as I did.

"Fuck, you scared me," he said once he saw I stood straight, though doubtless my red eyes and breath that reeked of liquor revealed more accurately my inner chaos.

"I'm far stronger than you take me for," I said frostily, but I melted somewhat under his only too knowing gaze.

"Nobody said you were anything but a pillar of strength," he reminded me, leaning comfortably against the doorjamb. "Nobody here, anyway. I'm sure this has brought back a flood of thoughts about your life before. Look, may I come in?"

"I'd rather you didn't," I said, firmly holding my ground. "I'll be in to care for Pellaz as soon as I wash my face."

"Vaysh, our best healing hara are with him right now. He's swimming in drugs and they did stasis chanting over him. Why don't you let me tuck you in and you get some rest? I know you'll keep vigil with him after that, but you've got to take care of yourself or you'll absolutely fall apart."

He was right. "Well, when you make it all sound so logical…"

I stepped back away from the door and let him in. The drugs I'd injected into myself had finally done their duty and I was nothing like the tragic, sobbing wreck when I'd first fled back to my rooms. Kervad tended to my bed while I took the needle with me into the bathroom to clean it and take care of my other ablutions.

Kervad, too, had been engaged in his caste work and was close to me in strength, an Algomid. With a wave of his hand my candles were lit, the overhead chandelier dimmed, then sputtering out. I crawled gratefully between the crisp sheets, bundled up in a flannel dressing-gown and long stockings made of softest wool and silk. I allowed Kervad to play with my hair for a time, my hands pressed palm to palm under my pillow.

"I could stay," he offered. "Of all nights, you should let me heal you, strengthen you with aruna." My gaze flitted up to him, and he read the answer in my eyes. His response was sorrowful, but understanding. "I had to ask."

"You often do. You're so good to me."

"Yes, but you keep me distant in ways you needn't. I'd never make any demands on your heart."

"Only because you already have your own seat of friendship there and you know no one will topple you from it."

A low chuckle spilled from his full lips. "True enough. Go to sleep, then. Pellaz will be watched carefully until you arrive, and every minute until you determine he's stable enough to leave."

"I simply can't think about that part of it right now."

It felt like pushing closed a steel door, tonnes of weight relentless on my mind, but I couldn't let my anxieties about going to Immanion overwhelm me, not before I'd even left the fortress. It hadn't even been two hours since Thiede had taken his transmogrifying aruna with the har from southern Megalithica— there were literally miles to go and enough potential wars on the road. I couldn't afford to expend energy putting on my emotional armour to battle wraiths occupying my vivid imagination.

"I know. I'll get you in a few hours, bring you some coffee." Kervad kissed my forehead, his luminous green eyes a haven of tenderness. In another lifetime I could have nested in his spirit, but I had devoted myself to Thiede solely in recent years. Until now, that was, when he'd demanded that I turn that attention and care on Pellaz.

"Thank you," I murmured.

Alone in my room, I began shaking again. Kervad had thoughtfully put a small glass with some dauthi on my bedside table. I got up onto my elbow and drank the strong alcohol, relishing its fiery slide down my throat. After placing the glass back down, I huddled under the covers, wishing sleep would come.

* * * * *

"Tomorrow, we shall leave here," I told Pellaz, patting at his legs. His dark, dark eyes followed me and I heard his whimpers, but I had no consolation. There was none for me. At the end of our journey together — assuming he and I both survived it — I would be a cast-off nobody and he would be King of Wraeththu. I wasn't going to coddle him, though the pain in his voice curled in my blood like smoke. He had made an indelible mark on me, the only other har alive who had seen what I had seen, had experienced the obliterating arunic cataclysm with the Aghama. It was everything and nothing, this integral link. Right now I was Alpha and he Omega, and yet, if all went to plan, within a fortnight or three weeks, our roles would be entirely inverted.

I was mulling all of this in my head, the stones of thought so well-tumbled in my brain that they were polished gems. I took a draught of wine, evaluating my hanging clothes, and tried to decide what to take with me. A faint rustle of silk sounded just behind me and I turned. It was Thiede. I gasped in shock, the glass falling to the floor with a melodious crash.

"I would trust him with none other, you know. You're my prince, a keeper in the sanctum of my thoughts."

My heart had leapt into my throat at his sudden proximity; I'd nearly hyperventilated until my pulse slowly ratcheted down. Thiede was far more familiar to me now, and I'd grown accustomed to many of his proclivities and at times disconcertingly normal mannerisms. That said, his appearance could still be shocking.

"I'm sorry to startle you," he said benignly, but not convincingly, "but I have things I must tend to and you need to pack. We've gone over the route, and where the station houses are. You'll need a key to get in, though."

From within a deep pocket in his claret robes, he withdrew a well wrought silver chain with a sturdy, unornamented key, a pentacle dangling alongside it. I forced out my hand to take the key. Turning over the knobbly metal in my hands, I realised I really was going to leave him and this fortress, yet again. I wondered who would take my place at his side.

"Why do you have to send me?" I kicked the glass shards off to the side so I could stand nearer to him. "I thought you had more uses for me here, with you. Once Pellaz has come out of his body's chrysalis—" I paused; it was the most delicate way I had to describe the fundamental change that had assaulted me, "he'll hardly need my guidance. Kervad is an excellent healer; Phade can hardly be turning cartwheels at the prospect of my return. And I'll be of no use in Immanion."

Thiede's talon-like fingers stole through my hair and I teetered between wanting to lean into his touch or to pull away.

"You have a connection with Pell. Yes, Kervad or any of my elite hara here could journey with him. But he needs to walk in your footsteps. You've bonded with him, despite yourself. Don't think it's escaped my notice. It pleases me, a great deal," he purred, drawing his hand down and across my shoulder before striding away to sit gracefully in my chair by the hearth. "Phade's no match for you, and perhaps you still have those companions from Castlegar who live in Ferelithia. No, no one can go except for you, my winter crocus."

"What if he's…" My voice failed until I cleared my throat, and I wrung my hands. "What if he's like me in every way? Don't tell me you'll make me find out by trying to… to be with…"

"No, Vaysh. I wouldn't ask, and I know he will be whole. I only ask that you keep an eye on him once his body has fully resurrected. He, like you, is an exquisite beauty. Unlike you, he's far more impetuous, even brash."

My mind flitted back, somewhat sluggishly, remembering a few of the decidedly unconventional interludes I'd had, but I had to concur that I now preferred to be left alone and had become predictable. I projected a surface that was unbroken and hard, the better to protect the few treasures locked in the darkest recesses of my heart.

"He has a compassionate heart and will be the kind of leader Wraeththu needs. He'll need you, too; he'll chip at your proud defenses. You shall not abandon him, or be cruel to him unnecessarily."

"I can't be his fucking friend!" I exploded. "Not him! He'll be everything I was supposed to be! You're asking me to do the impossible," I said, the words becoming thick and syrupy in my throat.

"I only ask because I know you'll excel. Pellaz must always have you. Your fidelity must be complete."

"But you have my fidelity!" I said, anguish frothing against my ribs in foaming waves.

"Your loyalty is a wider expanse than you're recognising. Enough. You need to ready yourself for your journey. You're the only one to do this," he repeated emphatically, rising and walking to the door that led out to the corridor. "I trust you. You'll not betray that."

I was shaking, trying to cobble together my composure when he turned. "Take Orien's talisman. I trust you to know if and when the right moment comes to give it to him."

In the next breath he was gone. My skin flushed hot, then cold; a panoply of churlish phrases and flights of fancy jumbled in my head. Common sense soared in, saving me from myself. I was the only one. I would adorn myself in the well-oiled leather of my martyrdom and take Pellaz to Immanion. Once safely delivered, I could go… nowhere. I was now bound to Pellaz. Immanion— my throat closed. I'd been so obsessed by Pellaz and his condition, I'd not spared a thought for the one person who might cause me to dissolve into fragmented shards, melting under his shining rays of rejection.

Let him be on campaign in Megalithica, or up in Freyhella, or Sulh, anywhere. Forever, I begged to any deity but Thiede.

* * * * *

Four interminable days of travel after embarking from Thiede's to get to Phade. At least I had Tassia; not that we conversed, really, because we didn't, but she was a comfort nonetheless. Pellaz was strapped onto a horse, but he rode awkwardly, and became weaker and weaker. I'd done the same, I supposed, though I'd undergone that mortifying period tended to by Thiede's hara in a plush bed. The cold was bitter, ceaseless and numbing. I worried about Pellaz constantly; not so much his comfort, since I knew he suffered and I couldn't alleviate that, but that the jostling and unforgiving winds would drive him mad. Our water skeins froze and I had to dash them against trees so I could drink needed water and ensure both Tassia and the other sedu, Peridot, had all they required. I daubed at Pellaz's frozen eyelashes and cracking lips before cautiously letting him drink. I was careful not to let him see the ferocious anxiety I carried, and I also hid the bonds of care which tethered me to him.

The third night I could barely sleep, I was so worried. Pellaz was weaker than ever, and the tiny flames of survival I'd checked for every time I glanced in his face had guttered. I wondered if his unceasing thoughts turned around and around to the unthinkable trauma that had been wrought on him. Without will to live, there remained only my healing spells and I couldn't be at all certain he'd still be alive when we reached Phade's tower. I injected him full of the necessary drugs; there was solace in that. Once I was certain he was unconscious and far, far removed from his corporeal self, I uncovered him and worked oil into the mangled, misshapen form that lay on the bed. I vowed never to tell anyone of my sacrifice for him; I cried silent tears as I thought back to myself and ahead to what was to come. I was essentially alone, and I let the grief loose. Tears made scalding razor tracks down my cheeks even as I bolstered up my emotional defenses. I sang to him; I breathed just above his mouth, trying to fill his shallow lungfulls with visions of light and growing things even when winter, as always, resided in my own heart.

After a heart-stopping cross over a river on a bridge so narrow even Tassia quailed, we made it to Olopade and Phade's personal domain. He knew I was coming, as before, but not why— just as before. We got on similarly as before: barely civil. I was pleased to see Oxnard still in attendance, and many of the hara I'd come to know in the past, but my focus was on Pellaz. I brushed off all but the most pressing questions until I could get a good look at my changeling. I took him to his room, ignoring Phade's uncouth comments about the corpse I'd brought. Pellaz was ashen, his skin rubbery and grotesque, a crazed potter's attempt at a harish body.

Phade insisted on staying in the room as I unwrapped and cleaned my mute, overheated patient. Ghoulishly attentive, Phade attempted to trip me up so I'd reveal something beyond the vaguest of commentary. I was invigourated by his chatter, using it to re-animate my quieted mind after several days spent essentially alone, all while evaluating Pellaz's condition. He would emerge in the next few hours, whole and golden, I felt it. Twisted though the sentiment was, I felt excitement for him. I bathed him tenderly with pine-scented waters, worried at the effect the too-sudden change in temperature was having on him. Phade irritated me until I finally shooed him out, at last able to ease Pellaz into the body-hugging feather bed. After our days on wooden planks with pallets that barely passed for mattresses, this would feel truly like heaven.

Pellaz was safe. This most potentially disastrous part of our journey, at least, would have its happy ending. Tucking him in with practised fingers, I glanced at his eyes, hoping not to find worn, dispirited orbs. He seemed on the cusp of a great sleep, but inhabiting himself. The change could only have been noted by someone attuned to his every nuance in those expressive but nearly dead eyes, and I was that someone.

"Pellaz," I whispered, suffocating my relief, "You will sleep now; it is time. We got here in time."

He'd slipped into unconsciousness but his breathing wasn't laboured, and I took that as a good sign. I decided to treat myself to a blistering hot bath, if I could convince someone to ready enough hot water for one. I walked over to my rooms, quite near to Pellaz, and once in the unadorned stone enclave, was reminded of more reasons why I'd suffered no pangs of loss when I'd left the last time. I wished to avoid Phade if at all possible, which left Oxnard, or another house-hara would hopefully not be abrasive. I'd just opened my door to go in search of some assistance when a har came toward me with a decanter and glass on a serving-tray. I waved him in and asked about the possibility of getting a hot bath.

"We do have running hot water," he said, obviously miffed at my assumption that they didn't. "The fires down in the kitchen have been stoked since you arrived, so you should be able to clean up after your journey. Phade asked that I bring this to you."

"Thank you. Phade has a good memory."

I had my two large saddle bags to sort through, and busied myself at the task until the shuffling of the hara's feet forced me to look up. "If you would, please light a fire in the antechamber, after that I'll no longer be in need of your services."

He seemed only too happy to run off once the fire started to crackle; Phade really had remembered a lot, as I picked up on the note of sage coming from the washing-room. It was going to be a long couple of days; the sooner we were able to leave Olopade, the better. I went to the tub and figured out how to get the hot water to come out, leaving it running while I returned to my rooms and poured myself a full glass of spirits. My hand crept to my chest, feeling for my amulet. My fingers curled around the phoenix, forcefully removed from around my neck and cleaned by Kervad's well-intentioned attention to detail and his care for me. After a deep swallow, I spread the wings of my mind-thought and alerted Thiede to Pellaz's status, and confirmed I would share with him the proper outcome once I saw the reborn king-to-be with my own eyes. Thiede was appreciative, but pre-occupied; I felt as briskly dealt with as I'd treated Phade.

And so it begins, I thought, fanning the bitter flame before savagely stamping it out. This wasn't about me. Never again would it be; all thoughts like that needed to be locked far away and the key melted down. I took my drink into the cramped water closet and treated myself to a bath, washing away my anger as best I could.

"I want to see the whole world."

"No one will stop you! It's yours for the discovering. Just take your gun."

A narrow nose nudging under my ear, thyme and fir scent in his hair. "I want the three of us to go. I'm happy to be the third wheel, and I know you don't mind."

A creeping, slow smile. "I don't."

I banged the back of my head against the porcelain of the tub, trying to beat out the memories of Parallax, doubtless resurrected the closer I got to Immanion and Ashmael. I took deep breaths, using my years of study to imagine myself as a frozen, undisturbed lake. Before the water in the bath turned cold, I'd pushed the painful remembrances away. I stared at the heavy-beamed ceiling, casting inner spells to protect myself from any more ghosts of my past.

* * * * *

He whistles and he runs so hold him fast
Breathe the burn, you want to let it last
He might succumb to what you haven't seen
He has a keen eye for what you used to be

~ "A Time to Be So Small," Interpol

* * * * *

Ferelithia was an explosion of colour, scents and harish pheromones after years near Tollsend and the few days in Phade's tower. Thiede had been right to warn me about Pellaz. Despite his apparent mourning for his chesnari and ruminations on how Calanthe had suffered after his first death, every glance, inflection, gesture, hair toss— it all screamed "bed me now" to my sensibilities. I rued my lost opportunity of smothering him in his pre-transformed state, and then threw the pointless regret into the wind of inevitability like a handful of black confetti. Our first night in Ferelithia had been a continuation of the duel from the morning in Olopade; our verbal swords crashed together. My lip was still sore and my jaw throbbed from when he'd hit me, though I hadn't given him the satisfaction of tending to it in front of him. I'd feared he was going to physically assault me a second time and decided to surrender instead. Pellaz had seemed surprised and foolishly let down his guard. He asked questions about Calanthe and I served up answers on the sharpest skewers I could. My faint hopeful yearning for true companionship with him had been ground into the rubble of my independence when I'd first laid eyes on him, beautiful beyond words and Thiede's success. I left him in his room at the inn to mull over how broken and emotionally pulverised Cal had been, smiling coldly to myself at the nightmares I hoped he would suffer through the night.

He despised me, made fun of me, had no respect for me, was rightfully scared of me at times, and yet, continued to try and violate my privacy. Pellaz was up to his own eyeballs in self-adoration, but as we journeyed closer to Immanion, thankfully some of his righteous aggrandizing drifted off of him. I could sense that the seriousness of the task he had to complete encroached on his flights of fancy; he knew this interim period would be brief because Thiede would only wait for so long. He gave me a headache. The insufferable days of Phade and him ganging up on me was enough to cause me to grind my teeth in my sleep. I'd had the sense to buy some herbs when we'd been out in the markets and I treated myself to a bracing facial steam with the fragrant herbs thrown in. I'd relaxed enough to contemplate sleep, at least. Thiede had packed me off with plenty of currency, so I'd also splurged and had a small bottle of the liquorice spirits sent up to my room.

As I sipped the liqueur, mindlessly running my tongue over the cut in my lip, I decided to take care of myself in another way. I'd not been a faithful correspondent with Firethorn and Jaffa, but I hoped they were still here. I sure as hell wasn't going to introduce Pellaz to them, but he didn't warrant constant minding. I evaluated the dry skin on my hands before realising that actually, yes, he probably did need my constant vigilance. If Thiede wished, he could damn me through eternity, but I wasn't about to spend every moment with Pellaz now that he was the golden, luminous creation and not the battered har I'd nursed and tended.

My years with Thiede had made me far more adept at mind-touch, as well as blocking others from doing so, and I stretched out as unobtrusive a mindwhisper as I could toward Firethorn. Almost immediately I heard his voice joyously in my head.

Vaysh! Are you here? In Ferelithia?

Just his voice, so welcoming and familiar, made me smile. Yes. I'll apologise for not keeping in better touch in person. Would it be an intrusion—

Come here tomorrow for breakfast!
he interrupted with enthusiasm. Jaffa and I demand it. Yaz, too. You won't believe him— he's a precocious terror and I think I'm going to have to sedate Jaffa once Yaz's Feybraiha starts.

I'd love to come over. Are you still in your old place?

He confirmed that, and I promised to be there in time for their second cup of coffee. We wished each other a good night and I allowed the sneer to settle contentedly on my lips. Pellaz would be only too grateful for time away from me, and the feeling was mutual. Let him go and do what he wished for a half-day: get his nails painted or get drunk or have leather pants made to fit him that left nothing to the imagination in watermelon pink. I had my own secrets to keep.

* * * * *

Mornings in Ferelithia are magical— serene, but with a restless undercurrent of activity which increases as the sun climbs to her zenith. I took in deep breaths of air, heavy with the salt of the nearby sea, but a chill wafted through it; this wasn't the height of summer. Only two or three industrious sellers had begun setting up their stalls for the day's trade; I glanced down the main thoroughfare and decided to take back streets as I wasn't keen on being recognised. Not that I would. Five years had gone by, and from our wanderings yesterday, it seemed there'd been a tremendous influx of hara and human women from when I'd lived here before. Pellaz could go and discover more of its frippery on his own. I'd left a message and a bag of coins for him with the bartender, sidestepping his questions and hoping that Pellaz had enough common sense to do the same. I'd be back by noon; where I went was my affair.

The front door at Jaffa and Firethorn's had been painted an eye-popping, robin's egg blue; words in a script I didn't recognise danced along under the eaves in a bold fuchsia colour; each of the wooden shutters flanking the windows was painted a different, vivid hue. It was unconventional, to say the least, but I found myself smiling because it certainly suited them. I knocked and paused, hearing a padding of feet come toward the door. It opened and my greeting for Firethorn died on my lips. The harling's wolfish light blue-grey eyes gazed curiously at me— I looked at him and then further down at a slate coloured cat who purred, making figure eights about his ankles while Yazdyar and I evaluated each other.

"Hello, Yazdyar," I said finally, placing my hand at my heart in an ancient gesture of introduction. "I'm Vaysh. Your hostling and father are expecting me."

"You look just like the portrait Firethorn painted of you," he said before picking up the cat and draping it around his shoulders. A beaming smile transformed his features and he pulled me into the house by the hand. "It's just Yaz. I only get called by my full name if I'm in trouble. I'm glad to meet you. Thorn and Jaffa told me that you were here when I was created, and I'm sort of a part of you, too."

"That's generous of them to say," I remarked dryly, noticing his wavy mahogany hair was in two simple braids, much as how I remembered Firethorn's appearance when he'd made his unforgettable arrival to Castlegar.

"Father's off at a job, but Thorn is setting up an excellent breakfast out in the courtyard."

"Off at a job?" I asked a bit stupidly, navigating a half-familiar maze of furniture to get to the back patio.

"Yeah. He's a builder. All the rich hara want him. He makes really unique and beautiful woodworks. Gazebos, chests of drawers, tables and chairs, even a few houses."

I pondered how well such a career must suit Jaffa when Firethorn strode over to me from a table set in the shade.

"Oh Vaysh, I can't tell you how much it means to see you again!" he exclaimed warmly, holding me in a tight embrace. I worried when you told us Feslavit had died and you got all secretive. He leaned back, his hands sliding down to rest at my waist. "You look—" Concern clouded his striking, hawkish visage, which seemed unchanged since I'd seen him last. "Vaysh, it's like the flame in you has been snuffed out. What's he done?"

I rested my forehead against his, greedily absorbing the waves of healing energy and affection that poured from him. "I haven't changed, not really," I mumbled. "I've had to put up with an unpleasant travelling companion, but it's nothing I can't handle."

"Serafina, get down! Bad cat!" Yaz scolded. My gaze drifted over and I saw the cat running away from the table with a piece of something from the spread in its mouth.

"But Vaysh," Firethorn continued on.

I shook my head. "Not now," I insisted. "I'm here to be with you and this gorgeous harling of yours."

Yaz grinned, his teeth gleaming. In the light I could see he'd woven coral beads through his plaits, and he seemed totally at ease with himself— not close to Feybraiha, then. That wouldn't come for another couple of years. He was a compelling mix of his strikingly different parents, which gave him a fierce beauty unrivalled by nearly anyone I'd seen.

"I'm hungry," he moaned plaintively. "Can we eat now?"

"Yes. Just go into the kitchen and get the burner for the coffee and put it in the middle there, okay?" Firethorn asked, kneading his fingers into the small of my back. He was hoping to peel away the layers he knew that I knew he saw shrouding my spirit.

Another time, I pleaded, leaning in to rest my cheek against his, hearing a faint noise of crockery being shifted around as the sound came through the open window to the kitchen. Tell me about you. It'll do more for me than you can imagine.

Aloud, I said, "I must be back at the inn by noon, but that gives you a good several hours to talk until you're hoarse. Where exactly is Jaffa, anyway?"

Firethorn regarded me with a compassion that gnawed at my carefully locked reserves before he stepped away. "He's off on this big building project. After Yaz was born, we stopped singing as much and then his woodworking skills became noticed and that was that! He's Ferelithia's most sought after artisan carpenter."

"This doesn't surprise me, somehow."

Firethorn smiled, and then walked over to the table where Yaz had placed the coffee carafe on top of a small stand with a candle burning underneath.

"Your house is very colourful," I said, hoping to engage Yazdyar in more conversation.

"It was my idea!" he said gleefully before biting into a ripe plum. "I think it's great. The words are a protection spell that Thorn taught me, but written in an old human script. I thought the letters were pretty."

"It's certainly distinctive."

"Jaffa about had a heart attack at first, but now he thinks it's great," Firethorn commented. "Now both we and the house are notorious."

"Is Yaz still the only harling, or are there others?"

Firethorn handed me a plate, glazed in a luminous jade. "There are only two others. Well, two now, but in another month there will be three." A secretive smile graced his lips. My eyes immediately went to his abdomen, which was taut as ever. His smile quirked lop-sidedly.

"Jaffa's the hostling," Yaz said, licking juice from around his lips.

"Oh. My." I pondered that while serving myself a small helping of the aromatic dishes: a creamy porridge, fruits, and warm sweet breads. "What an adventure for him! I hope he doesn't strain himself, while he's with pearl."

"No— he saw me through mine, and he's being careful. You'll have to come back again before you go so you can see him," Firethorn stated emphatically.

We spent a very pleasant few hours talking and eating. Yaz occasionally disappeared into the house and brought out treasures to show me as though I were an old friend. Being with them helped to smooth over the anger and frustration I'd had with Pellaz. Even so, my necessity to return to the inn was like a rash that itched with no salve. As it neared my time to go, it grew warmer; I took off my over tunic and saw Yaz's eyes grow wide.

"That's wicked!" he gasped, awestruck, pointing at me.

"What's wicked?"

"That pendant. It's really crazy."

I cocked my head, looking at Firethorn. "Is that a good thing?"

He sat back, crossing one leg atop his knee, amusement flickering in his eyes. "I'd say so."

"Here, Yaz." I unfastened the clasp and placed it in his palm. He'd come over to look more closely at it, holding it up so the sun shone through the amber.

"What is it?"

"A phoenix." I paused only a moment, feeling the echoing rightness of the gesture. "It's yours."

His expression was comical, his light eyes wide as saucers, mouth open like a fish.

"No, Vaysh," Firethorn murmured, his eyebrows furrowed. "Feslavit gave that to you."

"And now I'm giving it to your son. Here, let me put it on you."

Yazdyar stammered his thanks as I stood up, lifting the pendant from his upturned palm and settling it over his head. He gazed wonderingly at it, then up at me, gratitude glowing on his coltish face.

"Vaysh! Thank you so much!" He threw his arms around me and I held him close, leaning my head down to small the fragrant lilac in his hair.

"You're welcome. I wish I'd been here to be a part of your growing up."

"You've been with us in spirit," Firethorn said softly.

* * * * *

The next two days I kept closer tabs on Pellaz. The evening after I saw Firethorn and Yazdyar we went to Temple Radiant; of all the clubs in Ferelithia, it had become one of the most popular locales to be out on the prowl and to be seen by those who seemed to matter. Pellaz was full of self-satisfied glee when we finally crossed paths again late that afternoon, telling me he'd run into his human friend Kate. He informed me he was going to meet her at Temple Radiant that evening, and I insisted that I accompany him. He'd taken his sweet time coming back to the inn; I'd spent most of the afternoon waiting, wondering where he'd gone and I glowered at him when he rubbed my face in his discovery of his friend from the past. Out of the blue, however, he rummaged through a small bag and gave me a bracelet. It was a lovely, sturdy circlet of brass, finely hammered.

"Here," he said. "I bought you something. God knows why."

I took it from his outstretched hand, turning it through my fingers before sliding it onto my wrist. I spun it with my thumb, marveling at the coincidence of having given away one piece of jewellery only to have another offered to me from such an unlikely source.

"Thank you," I said, surprised at the brief flash of true gratitude to him that I felt. "I don't know why you got it either, but thanks. The metalwork is beautiful."

For a few moments he looked genuinely startled and at a loss for words. "You're welcome," he said at last, his dark eyes warm with something that might have been fondness. He pressed his luck far too quickly, however. "Where did you go this morning?" he asked, and my defenses snapped back into place with a resounding clang.

"None of your business."

"Fine! I'll just go fuck off then, shall I?" he taunted, running his fingers along the gold hoops he'd had put in his ears. Thankfully I'd seen no evidence of pink leather, but I hadn't investigated his room, either.

"There's no need to be vulgar," I snapped.

"There's no need for you to be so awful."

"Don't provoke me, then."

"All I did was ask you where you went! For God's sake! Vaysh, that's hardly an unexpected question."

"Maybe so," I countered, "but I don't feel like revealing that to you."

"You don't feel like revealing anything except that you have ice for blood," he said cheerily, striding off toward his room.

"I'm going with you tonight!" I called at his back. "We'll eat dinner downstairs. At eight."

"Whatever!" he retorted before slamming the door.

"I hate him, I hate him, I hate him," I said, the mantra running through my head as I decided what to do for the next hour and a half. While the idea of abandoning him to his fate and hiding out — even temporarily — with Jaffa and Firethorn had its appeal, I knew that wasn't really an option. Instead, I went down to where Tassia was boarded and went for a quick ride. She seemed grateful, and I felt I'd grounded myself at least a little bit. She expressed her readiness to return to Immanion, which sent tremulous icicles down my spine. It was all looming, ever closer: there would be no avoiding the disaster I'd imagined in a thousand moments of tormented imagination. Immanion would have Pellaz, and Pellaz would have me, no matter how loathsome the situation to both of us. It would be my own picturesque hell, done up in Thiede's marmoreal city on a hill with its palace awaiting its chosen one.

And there, somewhere, was Ashmael, unprepared to know that he would be confronted with the living dead.

* * * * *

We had both been singled out for greatness, Vaysh and I, and the harvest of this greatness had been emotional flaying. Yet neither of us blamed Thiede. He controlled us, bonded us to loyalty; now we had nothing, now we had everything; now we had nothing. It was endless.

~ The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, Storm Constantine

* * * * *

There are moments in everyone's life — or so I assume, I have only mine to go on — that tremble and throb with profundity even as they occur. This heart-stopping clarity manifests itself in making the moments slow down to a near-petrified speed, although even as the seconds are ticking by, one knows time hasn't truly played tricks. For me one of those moments occurred with the simplest of gestures, a faint touch, initially not even on my bare skin. Pellaz's hand came to rest on my back, and I didn't flinch. The soothing touch was just that; I wasn't shaking with revulsion at his splayed palm. In fact, ever since we'd seen Immanion with our own two pair of eyes, I'd felt a sickening, fearful shattering of my resolve to dislike him for what he was and how I'd come to have fealty for him.

As we'd spoken there, in my rooms in Phaonica in those first few hours, I allowed Pellaz to rub my back. I couldn't help my instinctual clutch at the hair at my nape when he wormed around on the bed to put his head in my lap. I felt a soft, warm rain in my spirit and I was filled with an equally diaphanous panic. Smatterings of abject fear washed away as the yet unnamed lord of Wraeththu lay in my lap and offered insights into why I was the way I was. I could barely hear him through my own torrent of worry; what had happened to my glacier-strong reserve? Had the phoenix pendant been a true talisman I'd forsaken too early? Who was I, or Pell, we two creatures who'd been re-created by will and loving breath, we who had died and now conversed in hushed tones in a marble sanctuary universes away from either of our former harish lives, much less our long-forsaken human ones?

"What color is it, naturally?" he asked, reaching up to tenderly entwine his fingers in my hair.

"Light colored," I offered, uncertain that I was even communicating aloud or via mind-touch. It was as though we had no need for speech, and yet, I knew that to him I was truly an enigma, a perplexing constellation, distant and cold. He wanted to raise me up into the clarity of a bas-relief, to plumb me like a shooting star with a blazing tail of light. He radiated sensuality; my body was far past true hunger for aruna, but his proximity and the strength from Thiede's essence broke down another ice shield; another floe drifted off and the blood roared in my ears.

"The color of light…" he asked, and I shook my head.

"No, just sort of yellowish, only darker."

I let my hand drift down, and stroked his face, so warm and bronzed from our few days in Ferelithia. On the road, before we'd ridden into Immanion, I'd told him how I'd come to see him as my own, an extension of myself during his time of initial rebirth and those quiet, anxiety saturated days between the fortress and Olopade. Now I breathed in sacred air, reverently brushing the soft skin of his cheeks, drawing feather light touches across his eyebrows with the back of my fingers. As he looked up at me, tenderness reached up from his soul, and I felt naked, yet unashamed and unabashed. He didn't see this. It was enough for me to know with a surety I'd not felt since the night I bathed him in Olopade, cleaning his body of what little waste he'd created and reassuring him that all would be well: Pellaz did need me.

"No more than this, Pell," I murmured and he closed his eyes, an angelic smile on his face. Did he think he'd uncovered some secret of deepest ephemera or was he merely pleased with himself for having reached in past my barriers and found a warm, beating heart there? It was of no real import to me. We had survived our respective journeys and travails, endured separation from life itself, and despite our admittedly rough beginnings, I found that I believed he would no longer hurt me intentionally.

We stayed like that for a time, his smile softening to a bare upturn of lips as I let my fingers flit through his hair.

"I think some wine is in order," he said eventually, his eyes fluttering open.

"An excellent idea," I agreed.

He eased gingerly out of my lap as though afraid he'd never be allowed that close to me again. I didn't say anything, only raised my eyebrows slightly to acknowledge that I suspected I knew his thoughts. He stretched upward, reaching toward the ceiling. I watched his supple limbs as he sank down, easing out kinks in his spine and neck while I gazed impassively. I walked behind him out to the patio and it struck me that I couldn't imagine him physically naked anymore. He'd not known I'd lain next to him in his pre-sentient state, and then again when he was malformed, a mockery of the self he was now, when I'd cared for him those long days and nights to Olopade. I was brought back from my reverie when I heard Pell call to one of his servants. Moments later, a sparkling wine had been brought, two glasses poured. We toasted each other with somber faces, thoughts our hearts were light. It was a glorious evening; the sun's last rays suffused the clouds on the horizon with vibrant streaks of coral and lavender.

"Dare I ask what you're thinking?" Pell asked. I stood near to him, smelling the faint rose and sandalwood still lingering on him from his bath.

"Don't you assume I'm thinking about you?" I replied saucily. He laughed, a genuine, melodious trill that caused my mouth to quirk in a smile.

"Well, yes, of course." He turned to look at me. Now that the scales had fallen from my eyes, I could no longer feign blindness to how truly magnificent he was. An old, familiar despair crept with stealth from out of its unlocked cage. I would be forever with him, this wanton, desirable creature, so desperate to please. In his heart of hearts, he pined for someone who'd loved him, body and soul, as he once was. I was mirrored, in part, in his dark eyes.

"If thinking about me makes you look that melancholy, we're going to have to do something drastic between now and whenever my coronation takes place," he went bravely on, trying to lighten my mood.

"Oh, Pell. The sun doesn't rise and set on you. Yet," I said coyly, and was pleased to see I'd garnered a true smile in return. "I don't want to say too much aloud. This time with you, my not hating you, it's best for it simply to be, I think. Not discussed overmuch."

He nodded, and stepped close enough to rest his head on my shoulder. He was testing the waters; again, I hadn't flinched, or recoiled. I wasn't, however, about to go and invite him into my bed without so much as a by-your-leave as he'd done with that poseur in Ferelithia. I took a swallow of the crisp, effervescent drink. As the pleasant feeling buzzed in my mouth, it occurred to me that perhaps that was reflective of the savoury taste of trust.

* * * * *

"I'll want to talk with you when I get back. Please be here," Pell said, picking at his fingernails. The gesture was one I'd come to recognise as a subconscious, nervous habit.

"I will. Now that I know where every little thing is in your room, I'll go and make myself comfortable out on that settee in the main room. I've found a few books of interest. Go enjoy your lunch."

Pell snorted. "Right. Think positive thoughts on my behalf."

"Already done. You're going to be Tigron; it's time to show them why."

He gave me a ghostly smile, and then straightened his back, walking with outwardly confident strides as Cleis led the way to Thiede's apartments. I let out a deep breath I'd not realized I'd been holding, and massaged my upper back to get at the bony knots of tension I could feel there. I was restless and felt my skin was too tight on my bones. I rubbed at the goose bumps on my arms and found I'd wandered out to the terrace. It was an inspiring view, even if it seemed too perfect to be real. The sun warmed my spirit just enough to make me at ease again, and I summoned Attica to solicit a small lunch for myself. I had a small plate of cheeses and olives with some crescent-shaped herbed crackers. Every meal was exquisitely crafted, but also too perfect in its own way. I might well need to go out into the city to find a market and make some of my own fare, if such an act of rebellion were allowed.

There was a small carafe of wine with the meal, just enough for me to stop worrying about Pell facing the lions of the Hegemony. Book in hand, I lay down on the couch and read for at least a couple of hours. I'd been about ready to get up and sit back outside again when I heard the door open. Assuming it was Pell, I splayed the book open, spine up, and sat at attention. In the nanoseconds before I realized it wasn't him, but before I could fathom who it was, I recognised I'd been truly worried for Pell, and him meeting—

"Where's the master, then?" Ashmael said, his voice barely concealing his contempt until he saw me.

But he didn't.

Not really, I could tell, as my heart derailed into a frenzied thumping against my ribs. As the seconds careened to a halt, I memorised everything I could from where I sat, frozen as marble. His hair was shorter, worn with a perfected carelessness about his face and shoulders. He was dressed to intimidate, suave and using his height to his full advantage. That handsome face, the architecture of his strong brow and full lips—

I took in a shuddering breath, every nerve screaming into a terror more vivid and inescapable than the freezing madness of the Otherlanes. If I tried to travel without Tassia, this is how I would feel, I thought crazily; every atom would fly apart, hurtled into nothingness and swallowed by stardust eaters.

He didn't recognise me.

As I stood unsteadily, preparing to flee as quickly as possible, I saw the expressions on his beautiful, formerly beloved face change, chameleon-like. In only a few heartbeats I saw annoyance morph to confusion to incomprehension to abject denial. What spurned my feet was the disbelief and shadowed pain which settled there at last. Underneath it, the flickering embers of memory had sparked, if only for the most infinitesimal shiver of time.

I bolted.

Minutes, hours… centuries could have gone by as I cowered in the adjoining room. I'd run away like a scared rabbit, and I despised myself for it. Would Ashmael come after me? I paced, raking my fingers through my hair again and again, uncontrollable and unstoppable, a manifestation of the maelstrom of panic swirling through me like a tsunami. No, of course he wouldn't.

Fuck. I'm dead. I'm dead to him. He probably thinks Pell brought me with him and I just happen to look a lot like some har he used to know, used to love…

Oh God! I was dead to him. I heard his voice in the next room, its sneering quality, threaded with a commandant's sense of superiority. Pellaz was standing his ground— I simply couldn't snatch comprehension from the words, I was still in too much turmoil.

For fuck's sake! I raged at myself, clawing at the edge of a bookcase to force myself to stop. I needed to swallow some bitter, bitter truths, now that the moment of verity had come and I'd fled on the springy feet of cowardice. Pell would want to talk. He didn't need to know Ashmael and I had been chesna, Ashmael and I had been lovers, friends and confidants, Ashmael and I had incepted humans side by side, Ashmael and I had almost— Ashmael and I…

"Shut up," I hissed angrily at myself when Ash's dismissal registered on the periphery of my understanding. "Pull yourself together!"

Pell wasn't an idiot, he'd know Ash and I had a past of some type by my actions. I peered around the door— only Pell remained in the room.

"He's gone," he affirmed, waving at a chair in invitation.

"Thank God," I replied.

I think I spoke, and Pell spoke; the eddies and currents of conversation drifted by until he asked gently, "Is he your Cal, Vaysh? Was it the same for you?"

A thousand retorts, from witty to biting to insightful or maudlin crowded, jumbling violently on my tongue, and rendering me mute. I simply couldn't answer that. No, he wasn't my Cal— he'd been my Ashmael. My Ashmael. Ohgodohgod. I got up, paced again, picking things up and putting them down again, unable to be still, unable to articulate the raging storm of unspeakable answers. Was it the same? No, we'd been apart longer, and I'd had to live for years now with the knowledge that I knew Ash was alive and a privileged counsel for Thiede while Thiede didn't tell him about me. Was that crueler than Thiede not telling Cal that his former chesnari boy-love would be Tigron of Wraeththu? Would Ashmael ponder the impossible? Would he come back to find out, or simply chalk it up to a strange coincidence?

I couldn't speak much of it to Pell; I told him he'd guessed the core of it. I shared my fear, and saw that the violence of my own feelings was nearly enough to cause him to run from the room. He'd not been privy to how deep my emotions truly went. Had he been exposed, I'd no doubt he'd have run and hid behind Thiede himself. Pell tried to comfort me as I explained my fears of thawing, of breaking apart, and I told him it was half his fault. His laugh almost escaped. I realised I was in his arms; he was trying to comfort me. If I could have, I'd have made a bed of his chest and drawn his hair over me like a blanket. Instead I rested my head on his shoulder, chewing a strand of his hair as though I were an infant, or infatuated lover. So many words, sentiments, dizzying motes of fragmented catastrophes echoed in the room, the lingering overtones of a symphony come to its end.

"What did Ashmael say when he saw you?" Pell asked, his arm draped around me, the protective lioness.

I continued to stare, unblinking, off into the distance. "Say? What do you think?" I breathed; my chest rose and fell. "A long time ago, I died in his arms."

His fingers gripped me tighter; I sensed him wavering. He wanted to know how nearly parallel our lives were, now that I'd begun to crumble in front of him. I was afraid for both of us— we'd been in Immanion fewer than three days and I'd already had a breakdown. I felt no need to share the gory details, but neither did I wish for the question to remain between us like a boulder to be constantly sidestepped. He wouldn't ask Thiede. I was disintegrating; the trickling snowmelt of my reserves and the reverence of these strange moments carried me onward.

"We'd gone out that morning, the day after Natalia. We were in Castlegar— a settlement our two clans founded, up on a mountain plateau. We'd had an ice storm; I'd never seen anything like it. I made coffee… Ash doesn't — didn't — do well before his morning coffee. Everything sparkled— it was eerie, and very slick, as you can imagine. We went into the woods. I was ahead, a ways, and fell. And then, when I was trying to get up, I heard this deafening crack. I was still on hands and knees, I just kept sliding, and then… it was a huge branch, it crushed me. The pain of it took my breath away. I was in myself, and not, and things grew so dim. He got the branch off enough to hold me, but I was nearly gone. Oh, Pell. He begged, it was the last thing I heard. I'm dead to him, you do understand? He'll probably think it's a strange coincidence. Maybe I should change my name."

He made a strangled, keening sound. I knew his thoughts; would his reunion, if he had one, with the other part of his bruised and sundered heart, play out like this?

"You could be — I wish — Thiede knew you'd make a strong leader, a princely Tigron. It's in the way you hold yourself." Pell's thoughts drove ahead, though his voice remained hushed, the precious blasphemies for my ears alone. "I'd give it all to you, gladly. If I could see him…"

We curled together on the couch, survivors of experiences which kept us apart from all other Wraeththu, even as we remained intimate strangers to each other about so much of ourselves.

"Why that common singer, then?" No topic seemed taboo, in our time out of time. "He was pretty, but you'll attract that wherever you go."

Pell shook his head, the soft hair falling across my face. I had a sudden flashback to the night I lay next to him in his bed, cradling his delicate frame.

"Aruna's what it is. Necessary," he said. He gave a topcoat answer, knowing I sensed the pentimento he kept hidden. I didn't press him. "Vaysh, how long?"

Now it was my turn to shake my head.

"I could — you're nearly my caste. Thiede's physical influence—"

"No, Pellaz," I interrupted. "Not now. But now would be an entirely appropriate time to see what strong liquor the almost Tigron can have summoned." I turned my head so we could see each other. The rims of his eyes were slightly red; I leaned up to kiss his eyelids. "I plan to get quite drunk. It's no good having a breakdown if you can't forget it properly. Join me?" I asked, enjoying his plaintive sigh.

"I don't know if I can handle this side of you," he admitted.

"It won't last," I promised.

* * * * *

Black is the colour most individuals associate with mourning, but for me, it is dark purple, the shade of a dark aubergine. Cool and dark, rich and presumptuous, the historic colour reserved for kings. Green was what I preferred to dress in, it suited my skin and the vivid red of my dyed hair. The days went on after my so-soon confrontation with Ashmael and I realised that he really wasn't going to seek me out. Jaffa had been distant at first, so in my logical mind, I knew it was unsurprising that even if Ashmael did ask enough questions and discovered that Thiede had done the impossible — twice — he would stay away for a little while, getting used to the reality now presented to him. Days passed, and still no word. Ashmael had to know, and it was then that I had another mental collapse, though I did so away from Pell. I couldn't bear to talk about it. In my fevered imagination, I'd never gone so far as to consider what it might be like, living inescapably in this city of enlightenment and puppetry and bearing the responsibility I did. Ashmael wasn't out on campaign, he was actively questionning the competency of the future Tigron, also my confidante and friend. Ashmael had someone living with him, perhaps someone he was chesna with. Pell had only disparaging remarks about this har Phylax who'd been of such a nervous bent Ashmael had sent him away during Pell's visit.

The awful, incontrovertible truth I had to learn to live with draped my heart with an indigo shroud: Ashmael had moved on. I had died, he had continued living his life. I was years behind him in that regard, and blighted socially for a multitude of reasons. I felt shunned, feared, respected and invisible, all at the same time. Pell was generous during those weeks; he kept me occupied with tasks and intrigues to keep me involved but away from the Hegemony, and respected my need for silent, tear-filled dirges alone at night. I was girded in melancholy; violet carapaces of grief protected my raw emotional wounds while I yearned for them to knit together.

As hara from faraway lands began arriving for Pell's coronation, activity around us in Phaonica continued to ratchet up into an ever-increasing buzz of activity. It's hard to describe the bludgeoning that Pell suffered when Seel arrived three days before he was to take the title of Tigron, and Seel told Pell what Cal had done. Self-exiled in my own maudlin tower, I tried to be a comfort or at least an understanding companion. We stayed drunk for two days, a carnival of despair.

The coronation day came. My colours were those of sacrificial blood, of sunburnt earth. There were hundreds of attendees and I tried to visit with many of the ones who'd journeyed the farthest. To them I was a mere har, though one very close to the Tigron, and they could chalk up my solitary, enigmatic persona to my elevated status. Seeing Ashmael, catching his unguarded look of revulsion before he threw up his own shields — the disgust morphed to a distaste — the sutures in my wounded spirit ripped apart. His eyes gleamed with unrest, his gaze burned, luminous with sickened disbelief. I let his name crumble to cinders on my tongue.

We would never again dwell in the delights of each other. There would never be a reunion.

Despite my tear-blurred vision, I took the darkest route back to Phaonica. I was vespertilian, a fluttering creature desperate to return to the sanctuary of my rooms. I held enough clout to find a serving-hara willing to bring me two bottles of something strong; I didn't care what they were. I'd lived in Megalithica, I'd lived in the cold place, I'd spent time in Olopade, in Ferelithia; nohar would speak down to me that night. I'd been flayed open, and I was going to daub salve on those wounds alone.

Except that, despite all of the razor wire boundaries I'd tried to erect to protect myself, Pellaz returned. He was all I could have been, all that I should have been, and I found myself grateful that he was himself, and I was mine, all mine. I was drunk, I was strong, I was soume, and welcomed him into me, this flesh of my spirit. He said he took advantage, but who is to say? I knew exactly what I was doing. I drew him in, the challenge in my eyes. Before he could opt otherwise, he was in my arms.

There is no shame in being oneself.

. : ~ Epilogue ~ : .

"It's so hard to believe this is already happening," Jaffa said through a mouthful of some kind of fruit tart. "It seems like only a few months ago he was a harling, being chatty and getting into everything, and now he's going to take aruna for the first time."

I gave him a smile, fidgeting with the brass bangle I wore much of the time, Pell's first peace offering. "I remember your Feybraiha," I said softly. "What a time that was! You were so moody, and then that night when the storms came, and you chose Abelard. I was quite shocked."

Jaffa grinned wolfishly at the memory. "I knew to heed my instincts. Besides, I turned out okay. Abelard was the one my body knew would be right. Yaz let us choose for him. Actually, he asked us to, but we'd had a sense of the right har and Yaz is, um, quite excited."

"I would be, too. He's striking, and easy on the eyes."

"It's the hair," Firethorn commented, having stepped over to join our conversation.

"Well, yes. Not just anyone could pull that off, but it's flattering on him," I said, looking at Lidka, Yaz's to-be aruna partner. He had long, wavy hair, a vivid orange colour with bright turquoise streaks around his face and across the bottom six inches or so. He was one of Jaffa's and Firethorn's artist friends, and someone who'd been a fan of theirs since their early days in Ferelithia. Yazdyar kept giving him hungry looks, and I was grateful to see that the older har was aware and through his own body language, was sending reciprocal messages.

"This is a lovely party," I went on, swirling my wine a couple of times before taking a sip.

"I'm so glad the Tigron let you loose so you could be here," Firethorn said earnestly, slipping his hand behind my waist and resting his head on my shoulder. "You and Ashmael, both."

I let out a deep breath. Ashmael was here, in another part of the courtyard, speaking animatedly to one of Jaffa's engineering hara. To me he radiated 'Gelaming Royalty' in a way I didn't believe that I did. I'd learned how to wield my power in a far more unobtrusive manner, but Ashmael always stood out, especially when decked neck to toe in black leather. He was devastatingly attractive, and he knew it. I had a niggling need to go and talk with him; it was still so awkward and painful, though.

"Why doesn't he accept you?" Jaffa asked, newly upset for me, and Ashmael's insistence on keeping his distance from me. "He should be ecstatic! I mean, I know I wasn't the best about things when I first saw you, but still."

I took another swallow of wine. I would bear the bruises of Ashmael's disgust and rejection for many years, I was certain of it, but a tiny seed of peace had been planted in my soul.

"I'm just unnatural to him," I said simply. "I'm damaged, and I know I'm different than I was in Castlegar, or even before that. I do hope he'll be less repulsed over time. He'll be going to Megalithica; no doubt that will make things easier."

Firethorn's hand squeezed comfortingly on my hip. "I'm sorry things haven't worked out. I think he's a fool."

"He can't help it," I explained, marvelling that I was instinctively defending him. "I'm a monster to him, or was. He's better about me now, but I don't think we'll ever friends. I've had time to get used to that."

Jaffa glowered; I knew it had been Firethorn's decision to invite him at all. He was more of a peacemaker, while Jaffa's loyalties had resolutely swung to me after our time together. He'd come to terms with me and my rebirth, and he was content to let Ashmael stay out of their lives if he was unwilling to do the same.

"He's not the same har I knew and looked up to," Jaffa said, his words scornful.

"We've all changed, quite a bit," I murmured.

Ashmael stood alone, at ease with himself until he glanced over at our trio, when he blanched just slightly. I saw a flicker of remorse, enough for me to decide to cross the yawning chasm of only a few yards. "I'll be back shortly," I said, easing out of Firethorn's protective hold.

"You're more beautiful than he is," Jaffa said fiercely, under his breath. "And you were a part of Yaz's conception. He's not done that."

I wasn't as strong as I wished, and memories still buffeted me when I saw him, causing me to wall myself off and become snappish and irritable. On this day, the love and affection of Jaffa and Firethorn, and even Yazdyar's obvious happiness kept me from becoming icy. I walked slowly over to Ashmael, seeing his guard go up but I accepted his change in demeanour without surprise.

"I hear you'll be taking your troops to Megalithica soon," I said, noting he relaxed a fraction since I'd not brought up anything overtly personal.

He nodded, and looked around at a nearby table where there was a half full bottle of wine. He refilled his glass and offered to do the same for me. I held out my glass, both of us careful not to get too physically close.

"We'll be leaving in a couple of weeks, as you know," he said briskly. "There's a part of me really looking forward to teaching the Varrs a lesson. Though we may be there for a while. It could end up that we play a waiting game, but even that has its appeal. Immanion can get to feeling like a fishbowl."

I huffed a laugh. "That's true."

I paused; we really didn't have all that much to say to one another, but at least in this moment when I gazed into his face, I didn't see him recoil as he had that first year or so.

"Yazdyar is really something," he said, his words thrumming with intrigue. "Quite a potent mix of his hostling and father."

I nodded. "And so at peace with who and where he is. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he becomes as prominent here as his parents, in his own right."

Ashmael made an affirming noise, and then glanced at me again. The openness on his face shuttered closed. Inwardly I winced, and felt my own expression harden.

"I hope things go well with the Varrs," I said, hating him for a moment when I saw his relief that I was leaving.

"Yes. Well, Thiede has some unexpected plans hidden up those velvet sleeves of his. They'll be surprised, to say the least."

"Most hara are."

I turned and made my way over to Yazdyar, who was reveling in the attention and thoroughly enjoying himself.

"Thank you for coming," he said brightly, his attentions continually drawn to Lidka, now walking over to take his place at Yaz's side. "It wouldn't have been right if you weren't here. Why'd Thorn and Father invite the Gelaming General, though?"

"He was a part of our past. You are the present." I cradled his head in my hands, brushing kisses on both cheeks. "I'll issue an invitation to come to Immanion, soon. Tonight, enjoy yourself. I can tell you'll be well taken care of."

Lidka arched an eyebrow at me in thanks.

Yaz enfolded me in a crushing hug. "Thank you for the phoenix. I still wear it every day. Thorn says it was given to you by somehar who's dead now, but he loved you."

"He did," I said softly. "You're going to have a very interesting life, and I plan to keep up with you."

"You'd better." He clung to me, and then loosed his hold.

I made my goodbyes, informing Jaffa and Firethorn that I'd have a proper invitation to Immanion sent in the near future.

"Are you sure you won't stay? There's plenty of room in our bed," Firethorn said warmly.

"No. I have an appointment in Phaonica, but thank you."

I left the frenetic activity of Ferelithia behind me as I rode Tassia through the Otherlanes back to Immanion. She was given to her usual groom, and I made my way back to my apartment. Pellaz had a dinner function with some dignitaries from Sulh, and would be occupied for much of the night; that was part of the reason why I'd arranged the appointment I had, as I knew I'd need it and this particular har was, by design, the utmost in discretion. He arrived as the clock tower bell tolled nine, precisely on time. Velaxis was never late, never early. I admired that in him, among other things. His cool gaze evaluated me before a sun-warmed smile captured his lips.

"The party went well, I take it," he stated, and I nodded. His perceptiveness rivaled mine, but in this realm, I still needed infinite guidance. "You'll need to ride me, hard."

"Are you a horse, then?"

"Finer than any sedu." His expression was sly mischief, and I adored him for it. This was business, of a most intimate venture; as I had in the past, I trusted him fully. "I'll just get you out of these bothersome robes."

"What, no riding crop? Or spurs?"

"I think we've beaten that analogy to death. Hush, Vaysh," he crooned, and I became grateful putty in his talented hands. "All we ever have is now, and for now, you've invited me to care for you. Let me do so."

I did ride him, hard. My body milked its pleasure, and his serpent tongue flickered deep within me, a web in my stratagem, a soothing weft to my weave of pain. We spoke for a time afterwards, sharing some wine a thoughtful servant had placed beside the bed.

"I've said this before, but you're enchanting," Velaxis said tenderly, tucking me into my crisp sheets. "Please call on me at any time. Though I do fear I'll be sent to Megalithica with the troops and much of the Hegemony."

"I'll miss you," I murmured, cocooning into my burrow of pillows.

"At least someone will," he sighed, though his words were surely ironic.

We weren't outwardly friendly outside of the occasional invitations I issued to him for his arunic skills, but within the safety of my apartment walls, I allowed myself to remember our interludes from the past. Velaxis and I were both very private hara, and neither he nor I wished to provide any fodder for gossip. He also seemed to be fond of Caeru, whom I'd grown to dislike more and more since his arrival in Phaonica. Still, Velaxis could keep his mouth shut, and his expert touch was a balm I enlisted from time to time.

"Stay, just until I fall asleep," I pleaded. He did, spooned behind me, drawing fanciful patterns on my back and spinning wild tales until I drifted off. I awoke in the dark of night, startled at the sound of someone in my rooms. It was Pell, drunk and seeking a trusted companion. His consort certainly didn't count. I managed to ease him out of his shoes and formal robes and he curled against me, murmuring his thanks. I breathed in his scent, saffron and spicy authority, and chanted brief incantations of protection over him. As moonlight spilled across his brows, furrowed even in sleep, I wished him peace, hoping some would be gifted to me as well.

. : ~ end ~ : .

If you enjoyed this, please let me know! Email is thevina33 [at] gmail [dot] com.

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