Disclaimer: This fictional world and all therein belongs to StormConstantine. I merely play here and intend neither harm nor gain. I am deeply grateful to her for the fact that she actually lets us do so with her full consent.
Thanks to Wiebke for beta reading this story; she caught my small mistakes and encouraged my characters and ideas wonderfully.
At first, it seemed he just took his own sweet time. Then, he obviously procrastinated, after which he simply failed to turn up. He could be reached all right, open to prodding and nudging like all his fellow creatures, but he just wouldn’t react. Not at all. He merely puttered about his business; not badly, really, not selfishly – never that! – but simply and prosaically, as if it was just another job. He did all that he was expected to – apart from that one thing that gave meaning to all existence and that was his alone – and one other’s – to do.
Hanging timelessly in a web of its own enormous power, suspended and content in the continued unfolding of the world, the sublime mind did not really miss its earthly, fleshly mooring points – until, all at once, it lost its oceanic patience. Contracting, concentrating, it made its way down the tendrils of power, touched some outlets until it found a suitable vessel, and slid right in. It could afford the additional time it would have to wait now; now, the truant would be brought to heel. The mountain, so to speak, was well underway to the prophet’s hideout…
If you believe the silly old song that “it never rains in southern Almagabra” – forget it! When I was leaving the palace after my audience, it was raining as badly as it had ever rained in the Gimrah plains on a very, very wet spring morning. Well, not my audience, really; I had been there with a whole bunch of provincial dignitaries. It was one of those occasions scheduled years in advance where you’d do exactly as you were told in order to get noticed for a moment. The Tigron was bored to distraction; most of us were only marginally more amused. I didn’t even know what I was there for; the appointment had been scheduled for our house something like half a decade ago, and whatever it was my consort had wanted from the Tigron, it was forgotten – my consort had died in a fall from a horse two winters back. My sons were busy with the foaling season, and I had time on my hands, as I’d never been much help with the rough side of animal reproduction and weren’t needed. Now, my mission was over; our house had been very suitably represented at court, and the gift of half a dozen fine and talented Faraldienne yearlings had been well received.
Taking a bunch of skittish young horses, however gifted, over land by other-lane would be utter foolishness, so we’d come by sea, travelling calmly on the surface of the planet. My attendants had gone back the same way, looking forward to a leisurely voyage at the time of year when everyone else was busy – on top of having seen the capital of the world, too. I claimed I was going to stay a few days longer, perhaps, and then go home with Stella, my mare who’d helped to keep the young ones disciplined, via the other-lanes. In truth, I doubted whether I’d ever be back. Cyriel was dead, my sons didn’t need me, really (I had never been good at practical things) and my daughter had gone to her training at Shilalama in Roselane – I was, in the middle of my life, suddenly utterly at loose ends. As long as I answered my family’s loving but perfunctory enquiries over the thought transference network, I was free to do whatever: get some higher caste training, spend an entire year in a Grissecon Temple, wander back into the southern deserts where I’d once come from.
The liberating loneliness was aggravated by the rain, really. Although I didn’t know what to do with my life, all the 80 or so years still ahead of me (Aghama willing), I definitely knew what to do next: get out of the rain.
The streets were deserted – very wisely, hara stayed out of the rain. I had been so eager to leave my former life for the unknown, however, that I felt I couldn’t stand another day and night at Phaonica’s common guest house with my compatriots who’d been at the mass audience alongside of me. I hadn’t even looked what the weather was like. Only now, as I was passing the majestic and forbidding crenellated red brick walls of Lower Phaonica with its administrative buildings and power hubs, the rain was starting to get at me. From the sea, Immanion was all bustling city, lofty avenues, tree-lined streets and remarkable history; here on the back side of the palace, hara were actually working.
There was a cab pole flashing its signal of low-intensity power ahead of me – but of Immanion’s famous historic Grissecon-powered public transport system, there was no trace. Too many of them needed at once, I guessed, what with this awful rain – nobody in his right mind would want to walk a step outside in this if he could ride a cab. Although the har – the hara – waiting at this pole definitely needed the cab more than most, I thought. At their sight, my heart instantly melted with sympathy.
The har didn’t even have a cloak; he stood there, just letting himself and his precious burden get soaked through. His hair was longish; colour or style could not be discerned right now as it was only wet and snaggled, nothing else. It stuck to his face and his clothes; it stuck to the bundle in his arms of which only two small hands clawing into the wet hair were visible, all else concealed by a large, wet blanket and a small, wet woolly hat. The har tried to shield the harling from the rain with his body, but miserably failed. He held the little creature intensely, possessively, but ineptly – clearly not yet used to it. At the sound of Stella’s hooves, the har lifted his head, regarding me with enormous, passive sea-green eyes, hopeless and resigned. The harling turned his head as well; he pointed at the horse and chirped, grinning at me widely with his four perfect little teeth – by the Aghama, the little one could be only hours old! His eyes, I could see from here, were amber. His woolly hat was dripping into them, but he didn’t mind – he was seeing the very first horse of his young life, I suspected, and he liked it.
I brought Stella to a halt.
“Can I take you anywhere?” I enquired of the har. The harling, at the sound of my voice, squirmed to reach out towards the huge and beautiful animal, smelling sweetly of hay – and almost succeeded in falling out of the har’s arms. He held the little one in front of him, both arms curled around the wet blanked, pressing its delicate content gingerly and insecurely against his chest. He had no control, really, over the wiggling harling. I held on to my saddle horn and leaned down to catch the little one before he fell. I grabbed him by his wet-through, too-large clothes, hoisted him up onto the saddle bow and secured him with my cloak, just as I’d always ridden with my sons when they were that small – with my sons, and with Maryam. This little one was just har, though – after having raised Maryam, I felt could pick a little Kamagrian out of any multitude of milling children. They were ineffably special. This one was not; he was cute, and peered at me, the eyes rapidly learning to focus. By the Aghama, he must have been hatched this very morning!
The sea-green eyes of the grown har never showed any panic – after all, this was Immanion. Not everything was perfect here, perhaps, not by a long run, but nobody would harm a harling. Confusion, perhaps disbelief at my offered help, was all that I read in them.
“Come on up, I’ll take you out of this rain and home,“ I offered, bending down again, the harling snug and safe in my cloak between the saddle horn and my belly. The har bent down to retrieve the blanket that had fallen into a puddle. It was a faded orange hue, with large yellow dots on it, spattered with mud and dripping constantly. Tucking it under his arm, he gripped my proffered hand, we pulled – and nothing much happened. Seemed this har didn’t know how to get on a horse.
“It always looked so easy when the nobility was doing it in the sunshine,“ he murmured apologetically, his voice low and a bit roughened. The hostling, I decided from this evidence; he must have screamed the house down when delivering that pearl. I untangled the harling from my saddle horn, took him into the crook of my arm – the little creature, warm and damp now, was already fast asleep – and jumped off the horse in order to help the hostling up. He, however, wasn’t ready yet – he was looking at my face under the hood.
He had seen it was dark-skinned but now, close by, I could see he found me fascinating and exotic. Hara come in all hues, of course, but my skin is pitch-black with an almost bluish sheen. I come from a tribe in the Southern deserts, right at the circumference of the Earth. My people had converted from human tribe to harish tribe as a whole back in the Aghama’s time – all the young males being incepted at once, as our tribal legends says. Human traditions and harish traditions had combined to form a close-knit backwater that I fled even before my Feybraiha – on account of not wanting the mighty tribal leader they’d chosen for me to perform on that occasion.
Gimrah had become used to me, Phaonica was too sophisticated to show real interest in the colour of my skin, (for that, it would at least have to have been blue), but this har stared. I could see he liked what he saw. Despite the rain, I shrugged off my hood to let him look his fill before he joined me on Stella’s back. From the movement, the harling woke. He looked up at my face and grinned, grabbing – like all small harlings I have ever known – for the multitude of small, coloured beads I wear at the end of my braids. Back home in the Southern desert, that hairstyle is commonplace. Cyriel found it so exotic when he met me that I’d kept it ever since, despite the trouble it is to get it done at our out-of-the-way estemble. And the harlings, as I said, love the colour, the glitter and the whispering sound of the beads.
I grinned, letting them see the whiteness of my teeth and the little gap between my front teeth, inheritance from my human forebears. I could see the hostling visibly brightening at my optimism. Cheering people up is what I’m really good at, Maryam always claimed – she said it was my task in life. In family quarrels, I am routinely accused of being useless and impractical – little Maryam always felt she had to stand up for me. “He makes us feel good,“ she’d say, “you can’t do that, you can only work and shout.” Well, she was exaggerating a bit but then, she was only six months old at the time and not yet in possession of her full wisdom. Later on, it became a quote used to stop any of my sons to rebel too tempestuously against me. Although she was the youngest, of course everyone listened to what the little Kamagrian had to say.
The wet har smiled back at me and the harling, giggling despite the unabating rain, grabbed for my braids again, succeeded, and yanked – making me yelp. We laughed out loud, the little one joining us although he couldn’t yet have the slightest idea what was so funny about it, and the mood was broken.
“How do I get on this,“ the hostling said, shyly, huskily. I smiled at him again and told him to put one foot in the stirrup – no, the other one, or did he want to ride the horse backwards? He blushed a little – his skin was rather fair, but ruddy from the cool rain – and tried again. He pulled at the saddle horn, I unceremoniously pushed at his bottom, and up he went. He didn’t even fall off on the other side as I’d seen many do. He landed with a slight plonk; Stella turned her head to look at me, deep hurt in her dark eyes. I held out my hand and scratched her nose for a bit; the harling, totally absorbed, reached for the horse as well and I let him touch her, leaning forward with the little one safe in my arm. His small fingers touched her nose, and she very gingerly nibbled them. The harling was entranced. The hostling, however, gave a little frightened groan – strangers weren’t frightening in Immanion, but large animals from Jaddayoth were quite another thing..
I tenderly separated harling and horse and told the hostling to take his feet out of the stirrups so I could get on. He did, fist white-knuckled at the saddle horn, and I mounted behind him, putting the harling into his free arm and securing us all with my cloak, making sure that neither of them got dropped accidentally. A minimal mental command to Stella, and we were off again, down the wide, rainy Immanion street, along the red brick wall of Phaonica’s business end.
From where we turned the next corner, I could see an enormous crystal cupola rising over the wall, shimmering faintly with the enormous amount of magic power stored and routed there. I thought of all the aruna needed to make that amount of power and had second thoughts, for a minute, about embarking upon a mission of mercy when I should really have headed for the nearest Grissecon Temple and let myself go seriously wild for a time before doing anything else. I had not lacked since Cyriel’s death, of course – but I felt like luxuriating in my harishness for a bit. It seems my fate to always be landed with cute harlings instead of beautiful hara, though. Perhaps it is just my inner nature to attract the little ones.-
I couldn’t tell, really, if the sea-green-eyed har in my arms was beautiful after all. In any case, what with a harling, he was most probably spoken for, perhaps even bonded. His hair smelled damp and was unpleasantly cold and wet where it touched my throat. The little one slept, and Stella just ambled along.
“Where are we going?” I remembered to ask, tearing my eyes off the sparkling crystal dome.
“Wherever it’s convenient for you to drop us,“ the har answered, modestly. “Where are you headed?”
“Nowhere, really. I am at leisure to take you anywhere you want.“
“Anywhere? For that, you would need a Faraldienne!” he laughed. “Short of that, home would be enough.“
“She is one, actually,“ I nonplussed him. “So, where do you want to go now?”
“Still home,“ he laughed.
“Where is that? Should we stop and turn around?”
“This is quite okay. Just follow this road until you reach the big shop with the red sign – that’s the Aphaia Centre, if you’ve heard of it.”
Of course I had – who hadn’t? I nodded, hoping he’d feel the movement, and waited for further instruction.
“I live in one of the courtyards behind it, a few streets back from the avenue,” he said. “When we come to the Aphaia Centre, you just turn left afterwards – I’ll tell you where exactly to go, it’s a bit complicated.“
“Must be great to live so close to it,“ I ventured, hoping he’d tell a bit more about himself.
He complied effortlessly. “I don’t go there much; not much time for that sort of stuff. I spend most time at work – that is, I used to,“ he added, dejectedly.
“What happened?“ I encouraged him.
He nodded with his chin in the direction of his sleeping harling. “He happened. I can’t come back to work for six months now. They say having delivered a pearl has done things to my energy conduits that could be dangerous to all of us on the team.“
A-ha. Power worker. That explained many things.
“The boss even bawled me out for not telling beforehand as it could have been dangerous in an emergency – but I didn’t know!” He pleaded. “He just didn’t believe me I didn’t know at all! Said that only happened in old legends, hara delivering pearls without the slightest idea they were going to.“
I couldn’t very well believe it, either, but I kept my mouth shut. If anyone would manage it, it would be a totally self-absorbed power worker with his head up in all the sparkly clouds. You had to be a bit mad to do the job in the first place – all that knowledge and trained perception, and then do nothing but let other hara’s magic flow through you all day, controlling the crystals, routing resources and requests. It was supposed to be glorious, of course – and if he’d come from an unsuccessful attempt to go to work when I’d met him, he must have been working in one of the power hubs of Lower Phaonica, which made it even more glorious. I wouldn’t take such a job for anything in the world – I’m sure it’s really infinitely boring.
Something impels me to be always especially cheerful around harlings and their parents. “Well, if you were that surprised, do you have everything you need for the little one, then? Can I help you to get something from the local harlingry or so? You’ll need a lot of clothes before the little one is grown; they shoot up at an enormous rate. If you look away for minute, they’re an inch taller already”.
He giggled, actually noticing that this was a joke. “Or do you have enough help?” I added, fishing.
Astonishingly – especially for a power geek – he laughed, getting my meaning at once. “No, I am doing this all of my own. No consort, nothing – I don’t have the time for that sort of thing! Didn’t, rather. The little one was conceived at the Grissecon Temple, actually”.
Inseminating a stranger during power-raising aruna at a Temple? Without him ever noticing? That sounded curiouser and curiouser. You had to be immensely powerful to accomplish that, Algoma, probably aiming for Nahir-Nuri already. And if you were in caste training for Nahir-Nuri you wouldn’t bother going to a common Grissecon Temple, either, where the energy wafting off any har at aruna is harvested off for everyday use – that is what the power workers work with, of course. Here at home in rural Gimrah, we don’t have them; every Grissecon ritual is used for its special purpose, mostly physical healing.
But large places like Immanion or Oomadrah or Ferelithia, or the large cities of Megalithica and all over the world really, they are run on this. Couldn’t exist without. Nahir-Nuri and their apprentices, though, would use their finely honed abilities for more carefully chosen purposes. To blast it off with a stranger right into the public power conduits would be a terrible waste of resources, like using a thoroughbred Faraldienne to carry large sacks of potatoes to market. And if we hara had learned anything from the bad example of the humans, it is to preserve or resources – as Cyriel always used to say. But even so, if he’d probably just needed his rocks off urgently and more roughly than planned and ordered high-caste Grissecon would get him – what in the world possessed him to impregnate his unknown partner with his powerful seed? Had he been insane, perhaps?
Much more believable to think the har was lying – even to himself, probably. And to suspend someone with such a fracture in his self-knowledge for half a year, expecting him to get himself together again during that time, was only too natural. Without a doubt, the scene with his boss today couldn’t have been very pleasant. What a pity for the little one to be welcomed into the world in this way. Well, I’d try and pamper him a bit, if the hostling would let me.
The little one was waking again, grabbing for my cloak as if trying to look out – curiosity awakening early; good for him. I pulled back the warming cloth to let him see the world, letting go of the reins to help the harling sit up in front of the hostling – who grabbed for the control of the horse, believing me to have let go unintentionally. Stella, intelligent enough to forgive mistakes by the untrained, just snorted in protest, touched my mind the briefest moment for reassurance, and went unerringly on her way. I untangled his hands from the reins, closed them over the little one, and took control of the horse myself – all of us accounted for.
The har’s hands had been cold and pliant, unsure of what was expected of them. Now he held on to the harling with trepidation, not quite able to find just the right amount of strength to hold him secure without hurting him. Silently, I told Stella to stop for a moment.
Again, I wrapped my hands around the har’s shivering hands. The blunt fingertips were red from the cold, the hands narrow, palely mottled and small in my own – my heart opened wide toward this bewildered stranger. The Grissecon temple could wait; before that, these two could use my help. Anybody could make aruna power, but how many had raised several harlings and a Kamagrian, as I had?
“Don’t be frightened about doing this wrong,” I told him. “Just follow your instincts, the way that you learned to follow your instincts during aruna. Don’t bother to think too much how to do things right; just do what needs to be done every single moment, and you’ll be all right. You love the little one, and if you do whatever your love for him tells you, you can’t go far wrong.”
I stroked his square, bony wrists with my long dark finger to make him relax his tense grip; shivering, he huddled back into my arms, brushing through my face with a swathe of wet, sweat-smelling hair that stuck to my nose. I willed myself not to pull away. Instead, I leaned forward to give him the support of my warmth.
With a very small voice, he said, “I don’t know that I love him – he’s the most beautiful creature in the world, but he’s so new and surprising, and I don’t know him and have no idea what to do now. How can I say I love him – he frightens the hell out of me! I have never felt so helpless.”
He started sobbing into the harling’s woolly hat, making the little one nervous. This was getting complicated; sitting three deep on a stationary horse in the middle of a busy thoroughfare while one of us was having a nervous breakdown didn’t seem a very good idea. I told Stella to get a move on while I held on to harling and hostling, trying to calm both of them with my mind. The little one reacted with surprising ease; the har was at first startled to find me in his mind and then relaxed into the emotional warmth I was projecting. He held on.
“You love him, no doubt about that,” I calmed him while Stella was walking along much more briskly. “You need some help and encouragement at first – nobody should have to do this alone. But I’m here for you and will see to it that you’re all right, so don’t panic, trust your feelings, and if in doubt, ask me.” I hadn’t known that either, until I said it out loud.
“But you won’t be there for long, won’t you?” he asked, with resigned hopelessness in his voice. “You must be busy with your life and the hara who share it.”
Here I was, not even having looked at his face properly, my nose in his less-than-sweet-smelling hair, and I was almost promising to look after him and his son for as long as they’d need me. I doubted my own sanity for a second, but then the right words found me again.
“I’m here to cheer you up; that’s all I have to do right now. My daughter always tells me this is what I do best.”
I felt his astonishment at the mention of my daughter; curiosity got the better of him. “Did you host her, or father her?” he asked in wonderment. All sorts of superstitions spring up around Kamagrians and their parents, all of which I found to be extremely loosely rooted in fact – but still rooted there. What the particular Immanion beliefs on this issue were, I had no idea.
Still, I answered straight away. “I hosted her, and one of our sons before her. My consort hosted the other harlings, as pearl-bearing came considerably easier to him than to me. When I wanted to know it again after all, the result was our daughter – and when we had her, we didn’t make any more. She kept us all busy.”
The har lowered his head, as if to hide his envy at my family – regardless of the fact that I couldn’t see his face in the first place.
“Oh, they’re all grown up now, Maryam is in Roselane, and I’m at loose ends”, I assured him, cheerfully not mentioning Cyriel as not to get him down with tragedy. The hostling didn’t ask any further, fearing, I suppose, a sad story of estrangement and loss he would then be expected to understand and sympathise with. I let the issue slip until some more convenient time later – if it ever came along.
Stella had turned left at the Aphaia Centre and now stood, awaiting further instruction; I would have to pull the dejected young hostling back into the outside world. “Where do we go now? Don’t tell me, just think of the way,” I instructed. He was Pyralisit like me, after all, even if, at the moment, he was a bit under the weather emotionally. I easily reached into his mind and made the connection to Stella, retreating from their communion.
“So this is how you ride them,” the har said in pure wonderment when the horse went on her way without hesitation. She shook her mane as if in mirth, the coarse white hair flying into the harling’s face. The little one, tickled, just giggled and put out his dimpled little hands for the horse’s mane. Grabbing over the saddle horn, he sat up on his own and stuck his slightly reddened little button nose out into the fascinating – albeit dripping – world. The hostling held him by the waist and took a deep breath.
“Seems he knows already what he wants,” he commented, rather heartened.
I laughed. “Yes; that, too. And you know just as well what to do; never fear. And then there’s so much help if you know where to look, quite apart from me – you know that. And I’ll show you the rest.”
I had told Stella to be on the lookout for the common sign for a harlingry, which here in Immanion didn’t look much different from the icons used in the towns and cities around the Sea of Shadows that I knew, and now the mare stopped right in front of the door to the shop. It was on a corner, in a homey, unprepossessing building. The windows were framed in faded dark green, and the walls of the house were a yellowish taupe.
“One block further,” the har protested, confused as his description to Stella had been clear for him.
“We’re exactly where we should be,” I said, sliding off the horse and taking the little one down after me. I had him sit on my lower arm, steadying him with the other hand, and looked into the perfect little face again. His eyes were truly amber, with the tiniest violet flecks, and when he grinned at me with his six little white teeth, the most delightful impishness crept over his expression.
He reached up with both arms, grabbed for my beaded braids again, and pulled me down, but gently, giving me a diminutive hug. I smiled into his face from close by, and we both giggled softly together – after all, harlings need the occasional cuddle just as much as food, clothes and an education. With a little delighted shriek, the small creature sank his teeth into the tip of my nose. I yelped, and we both laughed some more.
Stella reminded me, and I reached up to catch the hostling just as he was trying to slide off the horse on his own. A bit haphazardly, he landed beside me. He came barely up to my armpits, large masses of wet and neglected hair still obscuring my view of his face as he pressed against me for a second. Nose peeking out from the hair, he murmured against my chest, “I have no idea who you are, but thank you for being such a good friend to us both,” before looking up into my face. His nose was jarringly too large for the rest of him, but the enormous sea-green eyes made you want to drown in them. I leaned all the way down to gently cover his lips with mine. They were a bit cold and slightly rough, and weak with welcoming relief.
He tasted of crystal and wide open spaces in the cold, a taste the colour of his eyes. Beneath his new and temporary befuddlement, I tasted the clarity of his purpose and the arrow-strength of his power, and I knew he was telling the truth to himself and to the world: he hadn’t planned this, and he had had no idea until the pearl had wanted out a few nights ago. There was a memory there of amber eyes captivating him, and of ecstasy; of magic amber eyes that deepened into violet during aruna; of glowing eyes that turned his will to water while the fiery ouana-lim below gave and gave and gave in fierce and endless concentration that sent tsunamis of rapture through the tidal sea of his soume self. That had been the moment, but he hadn’t known then. He knew now, and remembered through our shared breath.
“Excuse me,” said a small voice somewhere in the vicinity of Stella’s tail.
I gently released Cael’s lips – his name came to my mind unbidden and almost as a matter of course – and turned around, putting the harling deftly onto his hostling’s arm. They gazed at each other in new wonderment, Cael and his as-yet unnamed little son. A small harling, perhaps two years old, stood there, not daring to push past us into the up the stairs to the harlingry. He was a bit lacking in the upper lip department, but otherwise quite winsome in a commonplace blond Gelaming way. Exasperation at grown-ups and their strange rituals blocking his way clearly showed.
“We are sorry,” I said, letting him pass with a bow. He shot up the four easy stairs and vanished inside with a clanging of the doorbell.
“Let’s get this over with,” I said to Cael. “I really want out of this cold, and find a warm place to stay. Where I won’t have to leave before this rain stops.”
I led the way up the stairs and into the harlingry. Here in Gimrah, they of course belong to the estembles and work on a communal basis, free for everyone, but in most cities you have to pay an initial fee and membership dues to avail yourself of the services of a harlingry. Shining Immanion was no exception here. I readied my purse so lack of funds would not be an issue for Cael and his son – what point is there in giving away your time and your heart but stinting on the spinners? Cael, coming up behind me, must have seen my gesture and gauged its meaning. When we entered through the green double doors, of which only one half could be opened now, he gave me a little shove in the small of my back.
“You go right ahead, Gurdah, and find us the stuff we need for the first few days while I clear up the technical details with that har behind the counter,” he nudged me. So he had caught my name from our sharing of breath as well, and so he had his pride. My experience and advice he might need, but my money definitely not – as a power worker, he would of course lack nothing. I went up between the aisles and turned around to see how he fared. He’d sat the little one on the counter and was discussing some longish form with the attendant. I got myself a large basket and started loading pre-prepared food for freshly hatched harlings, but got called back by the attendant. “You need to sign this first, tiahaar,” he called out, as if he was fearing I might disturb his merchandise and then leave without joining or paying.
“Don’t worry, I’m just helping my friend here,” I blithely called back.
“But I need both your signatures here,” the attendant sputtered. I put the basket down and walked back towards the counter, taking off my cloak as I went. I leaned my elbows on the darkly scuffed wood and let the har admire the muscles in my pitch-black arms, strengthened by years of handling horses and harlings. “Listen, fella, I’m just a friend. I don’t have to sign anything here. I am only trying to help due to my prior experience – although we do many things different in Gimrah.”
“I’d rather have two signatures on this,” the attendant whined. “If you’re helping your friend, you’ll certainly want to get things from here later – just sign here please. You friend’s consort can always come and sign the form whenever it fits his schedule.”
By the Aghama, this creature was dense! I could feel Cael tensing beside me, fearing to be forced to an explanation – again.
“Aren’t you listening?” I tried to distract the attendant. “Or have you perhaps discovered some flaw in my friend’s money?”
“Ummm, no,” the har deferred.
“Good.” I drew myself up to my full and considerable height and gave the attendant a wide grin. “Then we don’t have any problems here and I can go on and chose what my friend will need while you go through your little game of questions and answers with him.”
The harling, sitting squat on the counter, extended his arms to me, wanting to be held and reassured my irritation had nothing to do with him. I picked him up and returned to my basket, the little one riding my hip, clinging to my arm that steadied him and admiring the all-new world from his secure vantage point.
By the time Cael was through with the attendant and his long form (voices were raised a few more times, but I did not feel it necessary to interfere again), I had piled the counter with things we needed and was back in hindmost section near the swinging doors to harling care centre, choosing a musical toy with the little one – he wanted to hear the different melodies again and again and carefully singled out those he liked best – when Cael came and joined us. He squatted down, put his arms around us both and leaned his head against my back. “That har sure loves to screw commas,” he sighed. “Are we through yet? And don’t take the duck one; if I have to hear that squeaky melody again I shall scream. Hated it even when I was a harling myself.”
Perverse as all little ones – seems to be a law of nature nobody has a worse taste than your own harling – his son clung to the offending toy and dared his hostling to take it away.
“Bah!” he said, defiantly, brandishing the dread thing. Resolutely, Cael pulled it out of his hands and replaced it with a green froggy that played different calming water songs. “Here, you can have this.”
“Bah,” the harling said, heartbroken, and grabbed at the duck.
“Let’s take both and teach the duck some new songs later,” I suggested to close the matter and move us on, but Cael kept me from getting up and stuck his beaky nose conspiratorially into my face. “One important field on the form is still empty, and he won’t let me take anything until it’s filled. Name of harling, it says.”
I took this as a question. One hour ago, I’d not yet met them; and here I was choosing a name for the little one. That’s the kind of trust I inspire in hara; don’t know why, really. Maryam does have an explanation for it, but to me it sounds rather like mumbo-jumbo covering the fact she hasn’t the slightest idea.
I closed my eyes, breathing in the sweet smell of the harling through his wet woolly hat, and thought of a beautiful legend I had heard back home in the desert, of a lost little one left by the sweet water of a well, a lost harling bringing a plentiful bounty to the tribe that finally took him into its fold. “Silivrio, “ I said.
As we walked the final block, Stella was heaped with our purchases; this was undignified, but she took it in stride. She followed me without anyone holding on to her reins, while I carried an undaunted Silivrio on my back, and Cael lugged a large crate of some mixed fruit juice deemed especially beneficial for growing harlings. Passing the third colourful and inviting gate to one of the courtyard houses that dominated this part of the city, I asked him to stop and put down his burden. I untied my cloak and gently lowered Silivrio from my back, passing him to his hostling, and picked up the crate myself.
“I can do that!” Cael protested, but I couldn’t be swayed.
“Course you can, but it’s faster if I carry this, and I just want out of this soul-defeating drizzle, okay?”
He laughed softly, the harling giggling along just for company. “Fair enough,” he said. “Let’s hurry, then.”
We went around one more corner and then turned left into a courtyard with a dark violet gate. The courtyard where Cael lived was spacious and lush with spring flowers, the fountain in the middle of the small, daisy-spattered lawn turned off on account of the season and the rain. Trees and bushes promised shade for the summer.
Always, when I come to a new place which I anticipate growing to know very well, I try to commit the first feeling I get to my memory – I want to remember how it felt when it was all fresh and new to me, to avoid not seeing it later on when I would trot through every day, my mind running ahead of me and my feet carrying me unseeingly over the beaten path of many times before, many times afterwards. The first time, the last time – those are the times that count, the times that we remember a place we know or love.
When, carrying that infernal crate and Stella beside, me I saw this courtyard for the first time, , rain dripping off the leaves, running down the columns that held up the second-story balcony, cascading over the sandstone stairs that here and there curved down into the courtyard – giving each inhabitant his very own and private access to his very own and private rented rooms – I knew this was one of those special moments.
Cael led the way to one flight of stairs that was festooned with cacti dangling from the railing, standing on the stairs and growing high beside the banisters. He looked up at them and gripped Silivrio tighter. “Those will have to go, huh?” he said, wistfully.
Cheerfully, I asked Stella to stay where she was and carried the crate up the stairs. “No,” I pronounced, putting it down in front of the locked door and turning back down again to get more of the stuff. “You don’t have to go and sacrifice all that used to be important to you in favour of your harling. He shouldn’t have to pay for it later on, either. Life is dangerous, and Silivrio will just have to grow up with the knowledge that cacti sting.”
Indecisively, Cael stood on the top landing with the little one in his arm, not quite sure what he was expected to do now.
“Go on, unlock the door already so that at least some of us get out of the rain”, I said, and he complied, his translucently pale cheeks blushing a mottled red.
Next, I brought up the folding bed. I took the little one from Cael and carried harling and bed inside while the hostling continued to unload the horse down in the courtyard.
Inside, I found a spacious and beautiful room, with large potted palms, marble floors and generous windows that afforded a spectacular view of the Aphaia Centre’s architectural splendour. Low furniture invited you to sprawl luxuriously about the room. However, the last inhabitant appeared to have been a small tornado, enjoying the company of a sizeable earthquake. Floor and tables were dotted with used cups and plates; half-read books and discarded magazines were strewn all over the lush carpet in front of the large grey fireplace; discarded clothes and rather ugly blankets piled up around the sofas, and someone had apparently broken a glistening black vase, a wake of shards trailing all the way to one of the doors to the left.
After depositing Silivrio on a sofa that was thankfully free of broken pottery I chose a spot near the window and shoved the debris aside with my foot, clearing enough space for the folding bed. Its sides were made of sturdy but transparent mosquito netting, allowing the harling an almost unobstructed view of his surroundings while not giving him any mean of egress – at least not until he was a bit older. I picked Silivrio up from the sofa and deposited him in his new bed, accompanied by a smelly blanket he had grabbed on the sofa. He sat there, staring after me as I went out the door again to collect the rest of what we’d brought home.
“I put him in a safe place so we can get this done,” I reassured Cael who was carrying a bag of harling clothes up the stairs and rather stared at my harling-less reappearance. Before we were done, two more bags, three boxes and a feeding chair as well as my own packs went up the stairs.
“Where can I stable the horse?” I asked Cael, mentally preparing for a lengthy explanation and expedition.
“Continue around the next corner; there’s a livery stable there for this whole block,” Cael replied at once. A livery stable per block? This was unexpected luxury; nothing but the best for the rising young power workers of Immanion, it seemed. So I went and made sure Stella was content and comfortable – of which the horsy har at the stable repeatedly assured me. There were some fine animals there, but the har was obviously excited and happy at having a Faraldienne to visit. “Don’t spoil her too much,” I laughed, leaving.
When I returned to the courtyard and up the staircase with the cacti bravely weathering the unceasing rain, I felt the weariness all though my body. That very morning, I had stood before our young Tigron and bowed to his cool loveliness while he affected almost not to see me, despite my spectacular appearance. Since then, a whole new life – however temporary it might turn out to be – seemed to have accreted around me.
Cael was on the floor, open bags all around him, looking for a feeding bottle. He was dripping onto the marble. Some islands of disorder had futilely moved around a bit, and all the doors to the smaller rooms – a tiny kitchen, a luscious marble-tiled bathroom, and a rather austere bedroom – had been thrown open. Every corner was inhabited by a mess similar to that in the main room.
I bent down to help Cael. In the rising warmth, the har smelled rather rankly of sweat and blood and the indefinable juices of procreation. It was a natural smell – but not one that should be kept around too long.
I picked up a bottle from among the packets of harling food and put it into Cael’s hand, standing up and crossing over to the folding bed, where Silivrio sat, staring at his surroundings. When he’d left here this morning, he’d still been too young to notice anything, now, he took it all in avidly, grinning at the world with his eight perfect little white teeth.
I plucked him from his bed and began to take off his wet clothes. Apparently, some neighbour had lent them in the hurry – they were much too large for the skinny little harling. When I took off his woolly hat, I noticed that his hair was curly and reddish, the exact colour of his amber eyes – a beautiful effect. The translucent paleness of his skin he’d inherited from his hostling, but with those eyes and that hair, he’d be spectacular in a few years. This one was destined to break a few hearts in his life, I was sure of that.
I dropped the clothes on the floor for later collection, turning the little one in my arms until he was buck naked, and took him to the bathroom. I ran warm water into the basin and washed him all over, cleansing off the rather harsh smell of the woolly hat and the rain.
Cael trailed after me with the bottle he’d filled with some of the juice from the crate. Silivrio marvelled at the ruby colour of the liquid but didn’t yet associate nourishment with it. “What should we give him to eat?” Cael asked me. “All those packets are just plain confusing.”
“Nothing,” I answered. “When did he hatch? This morning?”
“Yes, just before sunrise,” Cael answered.
“We’ll have at least till tomorrow morning until he gets hungry, and when he does, he’ll tell us in no uncertain terms – the wail of a hungry harling is like nothing else in the world. The juice will do for now, but let me dry him off first.”
I bent to pick up a towel from the floor, but dropped it again, as it was stiff from something unnamed having dried in there. Cael found me a clean one from a cupboard. I let the water out, lifted the little one high and wrapped him in the towel.
“Go ahead and have your own bath,” I said to Cael, who thankfully started to fish some clothes and towels from the tub, then ran the hot water and dropped a handful of blue-green powder into it while I got some nappies and clothes for Silivrio from our shopping and got him dressed. Unselfconscious as any urban har who frequents the Grissecon temples from time to time, Cael discarded his wet clothes and slipped into the fragrant, steaming water while I tried to organise a corner of the bathroom for Silivrio’s things. From the main room, I brought in an occasional table and a small rattan bookshelf I’d emptied of its content, and arranged everything that needed to be on hand.
When I turned around to look at Cael and ask if it was okay this way, he’d utterly relaxed into the bath, almost floating on the warm water, his long hair snaking through the liquid that was exactly the colour I knew his now closed eyes to be. I decided to give him a bit of privacy and took myself, the harling and the bottle of juice to the main room, closing the bathroom door as we went.
I picked my way to the sofa in the middle, threw off everything and installed myself with Silivrio on my lap. We spent a very comfortable half-hour while he learned to drink from the bottle and hold it on his own – it was one of those split, rounded ones that can be held even by the smallest hands. Swallowing and tasting fascinated him, although he didn’t seem very hungry or thirsty yet. While we were at it, I heard Cael run more water twice – seems he liked his bath hot.
When I was sure little Silivrio had mastered the principle, I put him back into his bed and began tidying up around the room. I collected everything that had once contained food or drink and carried it to the kitchen sink without looking too closely, covering it all with sudsy water to soak. I collected all the clothes and towels and blankets in a heap and then went to look for a basket large enough for all the laundry.
I made the mistake of looking in the bedroom, which was a scene of rank desolation. It was very small and had been designed, at a time when Cael could spend time and attention on such things, to be austere and calming – a place for rest, not recreation. But now, the monochromatic carpets on the floor had been spattered with blood, food and coffee, clothes had been haphazardly pulled from the tall, forbidding wardrobes, and the bed had been transformed into a nest. The whole place stank to high heavens.
First, I opened all the windows, rain or no rain. Cael had a few large baskets stashed away in his closet, so I started to throw everything into them, collecting the most revolting items first as to get it over with.
Carrying the last basket from the bedroom, I accidentally stepped on one of the black potsherds – which proved to be elastic under my foot. Expecting hard and getting soft, I almost toppled with astonishment, basket and all. Silivrio giggled over his bottle – he found it all very funny, naturally. I managed to put the basket beside the door with the others, trying in vain to ignore the evil stench that hung around them, and then turned back towards the mysterious leathery potsherds – that turned out not to be broken pottery after all, but the discarded shell of Silivrio’s pearl.
The texture of hardened leather and the almost metallic black sheen was unmistakable, really – I wondered how I could have ever thought it a broken vase. I think I just hadn’t wanted to believe it, seeing the pieces so irreverently strewn from the middle sofa to the bathroom door. This was something to be treated with respect and ceremony, not to be dropped on the floor and thrown out with the trash, and it pained me to imagine how alone Cael must have been with his pearl and then his harling that he hadn’t even been able to collect the broken shell. Carefully, tenderly, I collected the thing in a stoneware bowl that I’d freed from nothing worse than a few brown apple cores, and took it all into the bathroom to ask Cael what he wanted to do with it.
The drowsy har in the hot bath barely looked up when I entered; he flinched, however, at the wailing scream the harling sent after me. Seems the little one wanted to keep an eye on what was going on. I put the bowl on the table where I’d arranged Silivrio’s bathroom things, and went back to get him. Harling under one arm and bowl in the other hand, I sat down on the rim of the bathtub and cleared my throat.
Cael opened his eyes. They were deeply drowsy and very relaxed, the sea-green darkening into turquoise in the steam. He grinned at us from under his prominent nose and said “Hi there,” in a low and almost flirtatious voice. The harling tried to reach for his hostling with such an enthusiasm that I had to grip hard to keep him from falling into the water. I deposited the bowl with the broken shell on a corner of the tub and held on to the little one with both hands. Cael lifted a languid hand from the water, very red now with the heat, and tickled the harling’s nose; the little one giggled, clearly pleased by this contact with his hostling.
At last Cael noticed the bowl and sat up a little, his hair streaming water as he rose from the tub while the pale ouana-lim that had bobbed almost inanimate on the surface was pulled under and sank into the opaque blue-green of the bath water. “Oh,” he said.
“What do you want done with this?” I asked him outright. “I don’t think I should just take it out with all the other things that are broken.”
“By no means – that would be irreverent. As if this wasn’t anything special. Let’s just keep it in this bowl on the mantle until I can think about it.” He lifted out a wetly shimmering arm and took one piece from the bowl, moodily turning it over in his hand. “Strange to see it in there, all broken and lifeless, after I’d spent a week entirely focused on it. I’m sure it was the strangest week of my life; I didn’t recognise myself any more. Frightening, really, how the instincts took me over.”
I allowed Silivrio to touch the hot water with his hand – but not more, of course. Cael smiled at the minuscule splash the harling caused, then the bigger one as he tried again. From a third time that might have done damage, I prevented him. He squawked, but didn’t protest too energetically.
“When it began, I was sure I was going to die. It was the middle of the night, you know, and I woke up from the pain of my belly rupturing from inside out. I sent out a Call for help to any healer – they must have heard me screaming inside their heads all the way to Phaonica, really. I’d never seen the one who came before and don’t think I will again. When he told me I was having a pearl, I didn’t even believe him – I really didn’t. But through the hours, when he stayed with me and encouraged me, it all became real. And when the thing was finally out, I just wanted to be left alone and told him so and said, no, he shouldn’t get anyone to help me, I would call my friends when I needed help. At least he insisted on sending a formal notice to my boss. Later on, I found I just couldn’t be bothered, and didn’t feel like explaining it all, so I didn’t call anyone.” He closed his eyes and sighed.
“I didn’t want to see anyone. I just wanted to huddle in corners and brood over this glistening, swelling, softening, ripening black thing. I curled up with books and blankets and cocoa and soft music and was content. I know I should have called for help, and I’m sure my friends would have been glad to come, but I didn’t really want to – I know it’s a terrible mess now, and I’m really sorry that I let you deal with it. I don’t know what happened to me in that week. As if all my energy was flowing into that black thing and I had nothing to spare for anything else – not even to call for help and explain what I wanted done. I certainly had no thought or anger to spare for that har from the Grissecon temple who caused it all. I hope you don’t think I’m always that lazy and indolent, Gurdah.”
“Lazy has nothing to do with it,” a calmed him. “Everyone does it when he’s had a pearl – I know, I’ve been there twice, and tidied up after my brooding consort a few more times. It’s just that you shouldn’t have to do this alone. What about your family – father, hostling, brothers?”
“No brothers, and my father lives in Ferelithia now. My hostling went east a few years ago to raise his caste and only sends a few short messages every month. Anyway, even if they’d been here, I wouldn’t have wanted them. Sorry for the mess – that’s all I can say.”
I laughed aloud, putting him at ease. “You’ll be sorry yourself before we’re through cleaning it all. Speaking of which, can you move your pretty behind out of the tub so I can clean myself up a bit before we continue with all this,” I gestured broadly in the direction of the main room and quickly put my hand back on Silivrio who was trailing circles in the water, “all this stuff,” I concluded lamely. I was still rather wet and beginning to feel it. Cael rose like a mythical water spirit, hair streaming and torrents running off his reddened flesh.
I had a quick bath after this, not taking time to soak thoroughly as I’d get hot soon enough from all that needed to be done. For one that had risen from brooding over a pearl only this morning, Cael bestirred himself quite energetically, although he frequently had to rest and curled up on one of the sofas with Silivrio, watching me sheepishly as I continued.
At some stage during the afternoon, we went out to get something to eat, ending up with a few bowls of noodles and vegetables that we took home instead of eating it in the tavern – Silivrio was getting too fidgety and tried to demolish the tablecloth.
It was getting dark when I returned from downstairs, just having hung up the last of the washing. The rooms were clean now and looked the way they were meant to, apart from the harling things hogging space in every corner – but that was actually making the somewhat overly stylish place more cosy, I thought. A fire was going in the fireplace, unsecured, though – the next day I would have to show Cael how to screen a fire with power so the harling couldn’t try and touch it. At the moment, however, he wasn’t yet able to crawl about, so the lesson could wait.
Cael was curled up on the sofa again, reading a large book bound in dark leather. Silivrio had fallen asleep lying sprawled over his hostling’s chest. On the table beside the bottle with the juice, there was a large pot of hot tea, a half-filled mug and an empty one thoughtfully set out for me. I filled it, took a careful sip, and sat down on the other sofa with a sigh. I just sat there and idly watched the dusk over the Aphaia Centre, the flames in the fireplace, and sweet Cael almost asleep over his book.
You know how they say that all hara are beautiful, and how that sometimes seems more of an affirmation than a statement of fact? Well, Cael really did need some affirming, what with his slight build, skinny limbs and large nose; but the overall effect was very moving. Now that his hair was almost dry, it had turned into an enormous shimmering, honey-coloured mass that made you want to bury your face in it. He’d put on the most perfunctory of clothes, just a tight black vest and a flimsy little excuse for trousers, hanging deep on his jaunty little low-slung hips, just ever so slightly rounded to remind you what his body had gone through these last few weeks. His bony ankles in coarse warm socks moved me to intense tenderness. He was deeply seductive and sweetly lost at the same time, and I decided to do something about it.
I drained my mug, put it on the table and stood to collect the soundly sleeping harling off his hostling and put him into his bed, where he snuggled against the blanket that still smelled rather rankly of Cael, and slept on. It was then that I noticed something glinting below the bed, a little something that I must have missed when I had cleared the space at the beginning.
I picked it up; it was a crystal of the kind you use to store short messages or music. It wasn’t marked. I tossed it to Cael, who caught it with his book. “You wouldn’t want to lose this”, I said, expecting to get it tossed back and be told where to put it. Instead, Cael rolled it wonderingly in his hand. “It’s not one of mine; I don’t use this kind,” he mused. He held it out in his flat hand and let his breath pour over it. A mist rose from the crystal and formed a figure hovering above the table. Message from a high-caste har, very intricately done, I guessed.
The figure wore a cloak with the hood over his head, but he looked just wet, not really mysterious – even the Nahir-Nuri were affected by the weather, I noted with callous satisfaction. From the hood peered a longish face, pale, with intense amber eyes. “Hello Cael,” he said. He smiled, showing an alarming amount of teeth for just one face. “By now, the pearl should have hatched, so you know that our brief encounter had consequences you knew nothing of at the time. I promise you, I did not plan to leave you in the lurch like this, but I really have to go and deal with some unforeseen problems, so I trust in your capability to get by. Of course, I’ll be back, explain everything and put things right if they have gone awry in the meantime. Meet me at the main square in Phaonica for the midwinter Festival, at the ceremony with the Tigron. It’s a bit trite, I know, but it’s a good time and place to find each other again. Don’t bother to look for me, I’ll get to you. And bring the harling. I’ll take over from there. Don’t worry, Cael; all will be well. In the meantime, I am sure, you’ll have capable help and shall lack nothing.” He grinned again, outsmiling any shark, and vanished. On Cael’s hand, the message crystal evaporated in pretty sparkles. Nahir-Nuri, indeed! I felt my bile rising.
Cael just lay there, staring unseeing into his hand. “Who does he think he his”, he mused, deeply troubled. “Landing me in this mess and then going, ‘Just wait, I’ll take care of it, but not right now’ – he expects me to hang around until he in his high-caste wisdom reappears and takes over my life some more –“ his voice rose and he rose with it from the sofa “– who the hell does he think he is to believe I’m even interested to have another go at his dubious attentions – he expects you to keep me warm and the little one fed until he comes to collect us like so much left luggage –“ by now, he fairly shouted, standing in the middle of the room, enraged.
Silivrio shifted uneasily in his bed, so I went over to calm his hostling down. I took him in my arms and held him firmly, feeling the hipbone pressing against the muscles of my thighs, the whole skinny har sinking into me, easily exhausted by his anger. He looked up, letting his luscious hair flow down his back, slow and sensual like honey. The glow in his sea-green eyes grew softer, sensual, enticing. He lifted his chin to tempt me with his lips.
“That Nahir-Nuri can get lost, Gurdah,” he declared. “I’ll much rather have you, and I’ll keep you.” Craning my neck downwards, I gathered his lips with mine, tasting again the crystalline clarity of his soul. The reddish cloud of anger dispersed through our shared breath, all the confusion drifting away like mist before his untainted resolve. I let my hands slip under his flimsy vest, feeling the pliable strength of his spine, the sweet sway of his hips as his soul was heating up for me. Now, I did bury my face in his hair, and it smelt sweet now, a sensual variation of what had been harsh and ripe before. He pressed his formidable nose into my chest and let his hands wander up to my shoulders.
He pulled me down, and we shared breath again. He was pulling at my shirt, wanting to get at me there and then. Effortlessly, I lifted him up. He squirmed, but then complied, expectant. I carried him over to the bedroom, leaving the door ever so slightly ajar; I let him slide out of my arms onto the bed and quickly discarded our clothes, lying down with him and welcoming him inside me, nourishing his bewildered soul with my soume submission.
Afterwards, he slept, curled up slight and defiant inside my long and rangy limbs, daring the world to touch him and trusting me to keep him warm.
I would, I swore to myself, cradling the breathing, pulsing reality of his body in my arms.
To Be Continued?