Contentment

Contentment
by Wendy Darling (Wiebke)

Notes

About half-way through writing Breeding Discontent, I got an idea for a sub-plot that could development regarding Lisia and Cobweb and although it was somewhat explored within the story itself, that was just the beginning. This is the story of what happened after.

Alternate Universe Note
This story was written when Breeding Discontent existed as an online fan fiction novel, essentially a draft. It was also written prior to the publication of Wraiths of Will and Pleasure and any new Wraeththu novels. Because of this, it’s become an “alternate universe” fic that’s not entirely consistent, and in fact contradicts, what is now “canon.”

Characters
Cobweb, Lisia (original character from BD), Swift, Seel, harlings at Forever, harling and hara at Harling Gardens, former breeding facility staff.

Spoilers
Containers spoilers for Bewitchments of Love and Hate (Book 2) and Fulfilments of Fate and Desire (Book 3) in the Wraeththu trilogy.

Sequels & Tie-Ins
After this story, I couldn’t resist doing another sequel, so there’s also Perennials to read! There’s also Not Far From the Tree, which focuses on Pansea and Ivy.

Chapter 1

Morro, the night shift housekeeper, opened the door and immediately Cobweb stepped inside and set the stack of packages down on the entryway table.

For most of the afternoon he’d been out shopping in the Galhea markets. Much of what he’d been looking for he’d found easily, but two or three items had required more vigorous hunting and he’d worried he’d be returning to Forever too late. Not only did he want to have a bit of time to rest before dinner, but given present circumstances, being away from the house for any length of time made him nervous.

Fortunately he’d managed to find the items in question — except for the pearl buttons, which would have to wait — and make it back well before sunset. And since no servants had come running to him upon arrival, he knew that nothing had happened and everything was in order.

“Lisia is still upstairs,” Morro reported. “Would you like me to help you with these packages?”

Cobweb eyed the unwieldy pile of bags and boxes, which he’d brought from town on his horse, filling the saddlebags and straps. “Yes, I’d appreciate some help getting them up the stairs. As for bringing them in the room, I’ll do that myself.”

“Very well,” Morro replied agreeably. They each scooped up an armful and headed up the stairs. Cobweb felt the comforting presence of Forever around him. Although the house was quiet and empty, Swift and family being out of town, lately it had been the scene of so many pleasant days that contentment hung in the air like an invisible vapor.

At the top of the stairs Cobweb thanked Morro and accepted the rest of the delivery, balancing the pile against his body. He crept down the hallway toward the bedroom and poking his head inside, caught a glimpse of Lisia unawares — exactly what he’d been hoping for.

Nestled in the window seat, Lisia was leaning his head against the glass, gazing out into the backyard, his face relaxed, his eyes dreamy. His hands rested in his lap amidst the blanket he’d been knitting for the past week. Lovely soft gray wool, it was something Lisia hoped to finish in time for the harling on the way.

Slipping through the door, Cobweb quietly set the pile of packages down on the bed. Lisia immediately looked over, smiling brightly. “Ah, you’re back!” His hands went back to his knitting, picking up the needles and taking up the yarn.

“Yes, and I found everything you wanted,” Cobweb responded. “All the different types of yarn and thread, the fabric, the hats and socks and the needles. The only thing I couldn’t find was the buttons, but I can find those later, I’m sure.”

“That’s fine,” Lisia said in a voice that showed he was feeling rather dreamy and languid. Cobweb sauntered over and began to rub his lover’s shoulders.

“Thank you, dear.” Still working the wool, Lisia pressed himself against the ministering hands like a cat wanting to be scratched. “Mmmm, that feels good.”

Cobweb stepped back and looked Lisia in the face, which was happy and still serene although, as expected, a bit tired.

“How are you feeling today?” he asked, picking up the completed section of the blanket and admiring Lisia’s work. Like all his other pieces, it was of intricate design, produced as it was by someone who’d spent years honing his craft.

“Oh, fine. I was just knitting and then… I started daydreaming.” Lisia smiled and, dispensing with the needles, reached out to catch Cobweb’s hand. “About our son.”

Cobweb tugged on the hand and Lisia allowed himself to be pulled into a standing position, dropping the blanket onto the cushion. “Really? What exactly were you thinking?” Cobweb asked.

“Just… well, I was wondering what he’ll look like,” Lisia explained as he walked over to the bed and sat down. “You know, just what color eyes, his hair, who he will take after.” He straightened out his blouse, which revealed the thickness of his waist. Phlaar had estimated the birth would come in the next two to three days.

“Maybe dark hair with a blond streak, huh, Stripe?” Cobweb joked. He leaned over to kiss Lisia on the cheek. Stripe had once been Lisia’s teasing nickname among his peers at the breeding facility; now it was an endearment he’d grown fond of, at least when Cobweb used it.

Lisia kicked off his shoes and moved to lie down. Looking up at the ceiling, he returned to his thoughts of daydreaming. “I just don’t know, Cobweb. It’s all so strange. I mean, I’ve never thought of these things before — what the harling will look like.”

Cobweb picked up on his meaning at once. “Because you were never allowed to see them?”

Lisia nodded, his head against the pillow. “Not even the pearls. I used to think about them a lot, especially the first few, but eventually I had to give up imagining. I knew I wouldn’t ever get to see them.” His bittersweet tone was unmistakable and for a moment his thoughts drifted back to those darker times. Then a smile washed back onto his face and he patted his abdomen. “This is so very different.”

“Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it?” Cobweb asked, settling into the space at the end of the bed by Lisia’s feet. “Starting our own little family.”

Lisia reached out and took Cobweb’s hand. Cobweb was strongly aware of his happiness, feeling it through their bond, but any stranger could have seen it. “It’s wonderful,” Lisia sighed contentedly. “I never thought I could have a family. It’s just like I always dreamed, back when I would dream. I’m living in a house, soon I’ll have my own child who I can actually see and care for as my own, and most marvelous of all, I’m consort to–”

“You’re not my consort, Lisia!” Cobweb interrupted, gently taking hold of Lisia’s feet. “You’re my lover.” He squeezed the arch on one foot, then the other. “Equal, remember?”

Pushing back against the pillows, Lisia sat up. “I remember. You know what I mean, though.”

“Yes, Lis.” Cobweb stood. “Now let’s see about going downstairs for dinner. Yarrow should have it ready by now, as it’s nearly dark.”

“Mmmmm, another of his wonderful soups?” Lisia asked, slipping off the bed and stepping into his shoes. “I loved that soup last night. Soup’s really the best thing for me to eat, you know — easiest for me to digest.”

Cobweb took his lover’s hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Yes, Doctor, you’ve mentioned it a time or two.”

Lisia laughed softly as they walked around the bed towards the door. “Am I that bad? Repeating myself?”

“No, no, it’s just funny. I’m sure you know what you’re talking about,” Cobweb assured. When it came to hosting, there were few hara more expert than Lisia, who had birthed 24 in only six years.

As they passed through the doorway, Lisia paused and put his hand on the door frame.

“What is it?” Cobweb asked, reading the discomfort flickering across the hostling’s face.

Lisia dropped his hand and shrugged. “Oh, nothing, just my back. It’s just a little backache.” He moved down the hallway.

“Swift had that,” Cobweb pointed out. “Remember? I thought it was because the pearl was so large.”

They descended the staircase together, Lisia slightly ahead. “Oh, it’s possible, I suppose, although it’s not always just the size of the pearl. It’s a combination of things. I always found hosting in winter caused it; sitting around so much, catching chill.”

“Hmmmm, that makes sense… but you haven’t been ‘sitting around’ very much, at least up until a few days ago.” Cobweb argued. Before his son and son-in-law had left on a visit to Immanion, Lisia had been up and about playing with their two-year-old harling on a regular basis.

“I suppose it’s all relative,” Lisia reflected. “The first few years I hosted, we never had to work much at all except for helping out with other hostlings’ births, so usually it wasn’t too uncomfortable. Later on when things got desperate I had to do a lot more work. Then I’d get backaches from working in the fields, digging ditches.”

Lisia’s eyes had grown dark as he recalled the painful memories. He had nearly miscarried his last pearl from being forced into strenuous labor half-way through his term.

“Anyway, back to my point, I think this backache comes from sitting all day knitting. That and perhaps the chill by that window.” He sat down at the table. “If it weren’t so cold and growing dark, I’d suggest we go walking.” He paused for a moment, obviously considering the possibilities. “Maybe we could do some dancing tonight,” he suggested.

Cobweb had to laugh. “Dancing? Lisia, you truly are unique. But we can dance if you like.”

“Thanks.” It turned out he was thanking both Cobweb and the servant who set down the bowl of soup before him. “After dinner?”

“After dinner.” Cobweb nodded and gave the servant a few instructions. “And I’ll give you a nice hot bath and then a healing back rub,” he promised.

“Good,” Lisia pronounced, “because I want to get rid of this ache before morning. The birth will be tomorrow.”

Cobweb stopped eating. “Phlaar said two to three days.”

Lisia helped himself to another spoonful of soup before replying. “Well, I know better than Phlaar. It will be tomorrow.” He noted Cobweb’s skeptical expression and added, “I have a feeling.”

Cobweb smiled, conceding Lisia’s intuition was probably worth trusting. “Ah, a feeling. And what else, pray tell, do you have feelings about?”

“Oh, I’m also sure Phlaar won’t make it in time,” he said, his hand unconsciously rubbing his abdomen. “It will probably be very quick.”

“I can imagine, given your experience. I suppose it will be like Seel’s,” Cobweb guessed. “His was only 15 minutes.”

Lisia snorted and shook his head. “15 minutes? No, I mean faster. Probably. Maybe five minutes. My last few almost fell out — be ready.” His look went serious. “And please, until then, don’t leave me alone.”

“I won’t,” Cobweb vowed. “I promise.”

“Good, because I want you to be there. For our son.” He extended his hand across the table, taking Cobweb’s hand. “And for me.”


Chapter 2

When later on it came time for dancing, Cobweb and Lisia moved into the lounge, where they made their own music, both literally and figuratively. Lisia decided to sing his own tunes and even managed a few of the dance moves he had learned as a child at the breeding facility. Once Lisia began to deliver the slower ballads, they took to slow dancing and then inevitably, sharing breath on the sofa.

“You make me so happy,” Cobweb purred, his hand resting on Lisia’s abdomen as he felt the slight movements of their pearl. “I think I’m going to love being a father.”

“I’m sure you will,” Lisia assured him. “Although you know, after this you could always be a hostling again if–”

“Tut, tut, tut, my dear, let’s concentrate on the here and now.” There was another movement, this one stronger. Cobweb smiled. “Right now you are the hostling and we’re taking it one harling at a time.”

“I know, I know, it’s just that I’m Ulani now and it would be easy for me to–”

“Yes, I know, Lis, you’ve come a long way. I’m very glad of it.”

Twenty years earlier, Lisia and Cobweb had both been in very different places, even if they were not different hara. Their characters had remained the same; it was only that circumstances had allowed them both to grow in ways neither of them could have expected.

When Cobweb had left Harling Gardens with Swift after their initial visit, he and Lisia had parted on very good terms, to put it mildly. Over the course of his visit he’d grown sympathetic toward the uniquely strong, yet sheltered, hostling who had managed to save the lives of so many helpless, innocent harlings. He and Swift had both worked to educate Lisia on some of the basics of Wraeththu and offering Lisia an idea of what he and his harlings could become, now that the truth — and support from the Parasiel and Gelaming governments — was available.

On his last night, Cobweb had given Lisia a different sort of education altogether. For Cobweb it had been an act of compassion and sheer hedonistic pleasure, while for Lisia it had been a major event in his life. It was the first time Lisia had ever been ouana or experienced aruna in its true form, not as a part of training or as a means of conceiving a pearl or as a stolen moment of illicit pleasure. Lisia was flattered and delighted by the experience and based on that, and earlier discussions, he had made Cobweb several promises.

One of those promises had been to stay in touch. He would surely have his hands full getting the new school off to a good start, but he would try to send letters. He’d talked about it very excitedly as Swift and Cobweb had left for Galhea. Why was he so excited? He’d never written a letter before, because up until a week prior, he’d never had anyone to write to. He would write as often as he was able to find time.

Back in Galhea Cobweb had gone back to his everyday life of running the Forever household and caring for four-year old Tyson. Between the several important political meetings the house had hosted and the increasingly advanced level of Tyson’s formal education, carried out by Swithe and Moswell, the weeks flew by for Cobweb and thus when Lisia’s first letter arrived in mid-winter, it was a surprise to learn that three months had passed.

The letter had arrived along with a packet of additional, more formal reports that Lisia and Harling Gardens staff had prepared for Swift and the Parasiel administration. Swift had teased Cobweb about it slightly, noting that Lisia obviously was still quite thankful for the “gift” Cobweb had given him. Cobweb dismissed this with the power that any parent has to ignore his children when they go prodding into his personal life. He had taken the letter into the sitting room, where he read it curled up in a chair by the fire.

Dear Cobweb,

Here is the letter I promised you, now that I have a moment to actually write it. I think I told you before, but I’ve never written a letter before because before I never had anyone to write to. I’m happy that I can send out a note like this and actually say I know someone who lives in the “real world.” Some of the new hara here have told me that Harling Gardens isn’t really the real world and I can see how it’s true, since we’re so isolated and specialized in what we care about, but writing you, I at least can feel like I have a small involvement in the outside world.

So very many things have happened here since you left. The plan Swift and I came up with has started to happen and gradually this is becoming the school we had dreamed of. Branad and Effrana, the Gelaming who moved from Immanion, are both working here now and starting a month ago we had our first classes with real teachers. We have five teachers so far, including Effrana, and Branad takes care of the smallest harlings. We also have new hara who do the cooking and cleaning and several others who are helping just to run all big parts of the school, like managing supplies and deciding how we should plan our garden in the spring so we can grow food for ourselves. We’ve also been able to come up with some ideas for our memorial to the lost hostlings, which we hope to build once the snow melts and spring comes.

I’ve been spending a lot of time working with the teachers planning out lessons and ideas for the harlings’ future education. I admit there’s a lot I need to learn because I’ve never been a teacher before, but as you know this place has always been a school and so I have that experience to use. It’s interesting to learn what the other hara think the harlings should learn about, seeing as they have a different background than I do and so they have different expectations. In general we don’t have too many conflicts, because what they say sounds sensible, but sometimes I tell them they are being very prejudiced, not understanding that I may not know much but that I understand a lot about these harlings. Still, they usually listen to me since I am considered the expert.

Part of the educational work we are doing that I find very, very interesting has to do with caste training. So far we have one har, Adoxa, whose job it is to carry out caste education. He’s the one who’s been working with the harlings who’ve passed their Feybraiah, plus a few of the older harlings who haven’t, since we think that some education will come in very useful to them, especially during their Feybraiah.

Adoxa has also worked with me and believe it or not, he told me something very surprising, which is that even though I don’t have any training, I “test” as Neoma. Actually he said that some of the things I can do, like open my own seal, are above Neoma but because I am missing a real caste education, I can really only be called Neoma. Right now he’s going back and teaching me everything for Ara and Neoma, making sure I learn it before I go learn anything higher. He says I’m a good student, with a lot of “pure-born” talent. (Do you know I never heard the word “pure-born” before? I thought everyhar was like me.) Anyway, Adoxa says that in a few months, after working more, which I have been doing a little each day, I will probably be Brynie. I am very happy at this, because the more I talk to the other hara, the more I realize that I can be more than I thought I could. I hope someday I can be Ulani and be very powerful.

Writing about Adoxa also reminded me of three other staff hara we have here. As you probably know, Swift asked Seel for some help arranging to have some hara from Saltrock come up to Harling Gardens to serve as counselors. At first I didn’t know how I felt about this but now that I’ve met them, I think they’re very kind hara and they seem to be doing a good job. A lot of the harlings have had problems coping and even though I help them as much as I can, Swift was right when he said I needed real counselors. It’s a huge job just to make sure they feel secure and don’t get too sad about things, especially horrible things like what happened to the other hostlings and why we were abandoned. Most of the older ones, including what are now our young hara, are having to not only go to classes for basic education and caste training, but think about their whole lives. Everything has changed for them and some of them are confused now that they can have a choice about their lives.

I can understand how they feel, of course, since my life has completely changed yet again. I feel like I’m a whole new har almost, with so many choices and opportunities I never had. A lot of the changes make me really happy, but I guess you know me well enough to know I can’t help but be sad sometimes, and you know why since I talked about it with you and Swift. I keep thinking about everything that happened to me, even though I try not to. I feel very regretful and stupid for how I acted even though I didn’t know any better. Still, when I have these bad feelings at least now there is one counselor, Malorie, who has been there to help me. He says I’m actually doing very well all things considered.

Oh, and speaking of doing well, one other nice thing is that finally I’m feeling better — I mean not just my mood but my body. It took a while, but now I have an appetite and eat as much as I used to. I’m not nearly so bony as I was and my hair is shiny again, which is wonderful. I also have a lot of energy. It’s funny and I almost don’t want to think about it, but I thought about how I feel now and realized I haven’t felt so good in years, even before I started hosting, since this is really the first time since I was a harling that I am healthy but not hosting or waiting to host. Hosting takes a certain amount of energy. I don’t exactly miss hosting, although I still feel strange not doing it when before it was such a huge part of my life. Even not attending births anymore is a change for me.

Something else I am missing somewhat is aruna, because even though I never had it much before, almost only for conception, I still want it. The problem is, I don’t really feel very comfortable being with any of the other hara in that way. The only times I have shared aruna has been with Adoxa, since that has been part of my caste training. I must say that Adoxa isn’t quite as good as that har Vlaric I used to share with, but he is a lot more honest. He tells me he is training the young hara and sharing with them and he never makes promises or tells me lies, just shares aruna, which is enough.

Oh, well, somebody is at the door now, probably wanting to ask me something or have me go somewhere, so I think I’ll stop this letter now and just say that I hope all is well with you. I’ve been told that I probably will be visiting Galhea in a few months so I’m sure we’ll see one another soon.

Yours truly,
Lisia

Chapter 3

Four months later, Cobweb was standing by the main door to Forever waiting on what he knew was coming. When the moment came, he turned the enormous door handle and pulled inward.

“Tiahaar Cobweb!” exclaimed the startled messenger. “I– I– How did you know I was coming?”

“What news do you bring?” Cobweb replied, not bothering to answer the question since the messenger would no doubt manage it on his own. Cobweb’s intuition was legendary.

“The party from Harling Gardens has arrived, Tiahaar.”

Cobweb abruptly took a few steps forward, looking down the walk and over to the road. “Have they?” He sighed dramatically. “Well, I don’t see them here!”

Once again the messenger was thrown off balance and again began to stutter. “H-Here? Why– Why of course not, they were taken to an inn, The Greedy Har. Was this not the plan?”

Cobweb crossed his arms and scowled. “No, it was not. Obviously someone has not been relaying my messages correctly!” When the messenger flinched, Cobweb was quick to add, “And by that I don’t mean you, just someone.” Cobweb could be cruel but was also capable of compassion.

The har was relieved and immediately set about correcting the error. Tiahaar Lisia had been promised a guest room at Forever during the entirety of his stay and he and his things were to be brought up to the house as soon as possible. The messenger rushed off to his horse and rode down the drive at a brisk pace.

Once Cobweb slipped back inside, he set about making sure the house was ready. The entire household had been anticipating Lisia’s arrival for weeks, as it was more than a personal visit. The Parasiel House of Choice was in session and with Swift and Seel leading the proceedings, the coming week was scheduled for official hearings on a project the government had been working on for months: Harling Gardens.

Lisia was not the only har who would testify. For the past seven months, since the Gelaming army had come across the breeding facility in the northwest mountains, hara had been working across Megalithica to track down the many hara and numerous harlings who had left it behind after the fall of Fulminir had forced them to desperate measures. It seemed most of the group had covered their tracks well, but one administrator, one doctor, and two hostlings had been located and brought in to testify. The two staff members would be put on trial.

It had been a week and a half since Cobweb had received an unexpected summons to the office. Even before he entered he could hear the chimes of the thought transference unit noisily announcing an incoming message. He strode in and with one glance from Swift, knew the message was for him.

He acknowledged the message and immediately he was hailed by a clear mind of what was obviously a high-caste har. This was Adoxa, the caste educator. He was not, so he explained, the one who wished to communicate with Cobweb, but rather had merely placed the call, opening a channel for another har who required that assistance: Lisia.

Cobweb was impressed. No doubt Lisia had managed to reach Brynie already, for communicating via thought transference unit required a high level of concentration. Cobweb himself still had little experience with the unit, as it had been in the house for only a year and a half and was not something he often used himself. Smiling to Swift, he prepared himself for the communication.

For a moment the psychic line was filled with something like static but then out of it Cobweb caught the distinctive mindvoice that could only be Lisia.

“Cobweb! I recognize you!”

“And I you. How are you?”

Cobweb was old enough to remember being human and having a telephone. As always, he was struck by how much that form of technology differed from this one. He was not, after all, hearing Lisia’s voice, but rather his projected thoughts, amplified over the miles.

For Lisia it was all new. “Very well. The school is successful.”

“You will be visiting Galhea?”

“Yes, in two days the Gelaming are taking me down.”

“How are you coming?

There was a pause and the static briefly returned. Finally Lisia came back. “Excuse me, I am new to this. How am I coming? They say the other lanes for a few hundred miles, then we will ride over land. They want me to see forests and fields and regular hara.”

“I think it will be good for you,” Cobweb encouraged him. “Once you arrive, you will be welcome at Forever.”

“Thank you, Cobweb. Now I will go. I simply wanted to say hello — and prove to Adoxa that I could use this machine!”

“Until then,” Cobweb said in farewell. He couldn’t help smiling at the interaction.

Now he was back at the door waiting for the messenger to return. A full hour had passed and although his intuition told him the messenger was about to arrive with Lisia, he wondered why it had taken so long. Finally he heard the sound of horses and flung open the door.

All around the entrance the grounds had been landscaped and planted with flowers, which were now beginning to flower with the coming of spring. There at the edge of the drive the messenger had dismounted and was helping a har off his horse. The har was obviously inexperienced but the messenger managed to get him down with a minimum of fuss.

“You brought him back, Tiahaar Edva!” Cobweb exclaimed. “I was beginning to worry!”

Suddenly the other har spun around. “Oh, Cobweb!” The look on his face was one of pure surprise. A moment later Lisia was flying down the path, leaving his bags behind in a heap on the ground.

They embraced. Cobweb noticed that Lisia’s hair was wet and bound into a tight braid wound with black cord. Surely he had been taking a bath at the inn. He didn’t even need to ask why it had taken Edva so long to bring him back. No doubt Lisia’s first trip had taken its toll on him and he had needed the brief relaxation time.

“I’m so glad I made it!” Lis proclaimed, pulling back. “Although I think I could sleep for a week!”

“Ah, well, we can take care of you here. Come in, Lis, we have so much to talk about.”

By the time Edva had finished picked up Lisia’s baggage and hitching up the horses, the two other hara had already disappeared into the house.

Chapter 4

Lisia was standing in the main hall gawking as Edva brought in his bags.

“So this is you home?” he gasped, turning to Cobweb.

Smiling slightly, Cobweb nodded and gestured for them to walk up the staircase to the second floor. “Since shortly before Swift was conceived, yes, this has been my home. It is part of me.”

Half-way up the stairs Lisia was still swiveling his head to take it all in. “It’s amazing. I used to imagine houses like this but I didn’t really have a very good idea. It’s so big and–”

“Empty,” Cobweb finished for him as they reached the top landing. “Compared to what you’re used to, I’m afraid it might seem a little quiet here. Although perhaps that would be a welcome change?”

Lisia laughed softly and nodded. “Yes, perhaps. Although despite everything, I’ve been missing home ever since I left it.”

They were now standing at the entrance to the bedroom. Cobweb took the bags from Edva and thanked him. “Shall we?”

Lisia immediately gravitated toward the bed. “Thank you for your hospitality. My goodness…” His voice trailed off as he eyed his luxuriant surroundings — the full red velvet drapes, the dark, carved furniture, the rich coverlet and plump pillows. “This is just incredible. I’m almost embarrassed to stay here!”

“Nonsense!” Cobweb scoffed, setting down the bags by the dressing table. “You of all hara deserve to stay here. And besides, that’s a very comfortable bed. I assume the travel took something out of you?”

Lisia allowed himself to sag theatrically. “Yes, a bit!” he laughed. “Can I sit down?”

“Certainly, feel free.” Cobweb took a chair as Lisia hopped up on the bed. Just as he’d reported in his letter, the erstwhile hostling was indeed appearing much healthier than at their prior meeting. His flesh had filled out and his body had lost the sharp angularity and boniness that had come from several months’ malnutrition and near starving. Cobweb also noted the numerous pieces of jewelry on Lisia’s ears, neck and wrists; clearly the hostling had regained some pride in his appearance and had taken to dressing in the manner he’d always been accustomed.

“It was a hard trip,” Lisia sighed. “When they took me through those ‘lanes’ — I thought I was going to die, I swear!”

“It is a bit overwhelming,” Cobweb agreed.

“A bit? No, it was really overwhelming for me. All the harlings are going to want me to tell them about it, like it’s a magic story or something!” Lisia smiled thoughtfully, his gaze shifting inward as his mind apparently returned to Harling Gardens, with which he was understandably preoccupied. “Afterward we had to cover a couple hundred miles on regular horses through all sorts of places like I’d never seen before.”

“Forests? Towns? Rivers and lakes?” Cobweb found it fascinating, though sad, that this was the first time Lisia had ever left the grounds of the facility.

“Yes, all of those, and I think the towns were the most amazing part. I guess I hadn’t expected for there to be so many different kinds of hara.”

“Oh, yes, there are all kinds,” Cobweb commented. Just then he heard a noise coming from downstairs. “Ah, Tyson and Azriel have just returned. I’m sure they’ll be up in a moment.”

Lisia smiled as true to Cobweb’s word, the harlings immediately scampered up the stairs and burst into the bedroom. Tyson’s hair was spiked wildly in all directions as he gawked in the doorway, not expecting a visitor. Azriel, meanwhile, quietly slipped onto Cobweb’s lap.

“Hello, Tyson. This is Lisia, our guest.” Lisia dipped his head in acknowledgement.

“Oh, I didn’t know when he was coming. Az and I were down in town with Byrony at the special carnival they’re having and had such a good time with all the other harlings in town, so many of them, more than I’d ever seen!” Tyson enthused.

“That’s lovely, dear. I’m so pleased you enjoyed yourself.” He gestured for Tyson to come forward. “Now I’d like you and Az to go have a bath and clean up. In a couple hours it will be dinnertime.” He rubbed his grand-harling’s head with affection. “OK, Az? You’ll have a nice bath?”

The harling popped down to the floor and was immediately out the door, while Tyson lingered a moment longer. “It was nice to be around all those other harlings,” he remarked. “I hope we can do that more often.”

“I’m sure you will,” replied Cobweb sincerely. Tyson had increasingly been expressing a desire to break out the isolation in which he’d initially been raised, now wanting to spend more time with other harlings. “It’s good for you, Ty, and it’s good you enjoy it. Now hurry along to make sure Az doesn’t overflow the tub again!” Cobweb winked and with that Tyson was out the door.

Lisia meanwhile was still sitting on the bed, his expression amused and after following the interaction. “So nice to see your harlings after hearing about them. Is Azriel always so quiet?”

Cobweb laughed. “Oh, no, it’s just that you’re new. Probably also he’s tired out. Sometimes Tyson doesn’t realize how hard it is for Az to keep up, although I’d think Byrony would have kept an eye on th–”

“I tried!” Byrony cut in, poking her head in the door, then stepping in fully to straighten herself out for the guest. “They were just awfully rambunctious today. On the way home we went by a mud puddle from yesterday’s storm and it was a miracle I kept them out of it.”

“Thank you, Byrony.” Cobweb was glad the housekeeper had been able to step in and take what normally would have been his place, with Swift and Seel already occupied and him needing to stay at the house to meet Lisia. “Byrony, this is Tiahaar Lisia, of Harling Gardens.”

“Ah, wonderful,” Byrony said, stepping forward and offering her hand to the strikingly soume har. “I’m the housekeeper. Swift and Cobweb have told us all so much about you. Tonight Yarrow has made an special dinner for you, saying it’s time you got a taste of some good home cooking!”

“I appreciate it. I hope I won’t be too much of a burden on the household.”

“Oh, no, no, we have guests on a regular basis. Just make yourself at home. I’ve got to go make sure those two get their bath.” With that Byrony offered a nod and backed out the door down the hall.

Just as Cobweb had expected it would, Lisia’s expression was one of puzzlement. Cobweb raised a questioning eyebrow. “You must have told me this before, but I think I forgot,” Lisia began. “Byrony is your housekeeper and–”

“She’s human.” Cobweb finished.

“Yes.” Lisia’s mind was obviously turning the matter over. “On the way here, in the various towns, I didn’t really see any humans. The guides explained they’d all ‘gone’ — and yes, I know what that means. Anyway, I think I might have seen a few in town just now but not close up. They don’t look quite as I expected.”

Cobweb shifted in his seat. “Oh? Well, true, your head was probably full of all sorts of fantastical ideas. Really though there aren’t many big differences, certainly not between men and hara — not physically. I was once a man. Women have more differences, as you saw with Byrony.”

“Yes.” Lisia shook his head as if clearing his thoughts. “It’s just strange. But I supposed I’ll have to get used to strange. It’s certainly better than being sheltered the way I have been. I want to know what the world is like!”

Chapter 5

An hour later Cobweb had just finished showing Lisia around the house and grounds when Morro approached them back in the guest bedroom. “Excuse me, Tiahaar, but Swift and Seel have just arrived and are waiting for you in the dining room. Yarrow has prepared an excellent meal.”

Once Morro had gone, Cobweb turned to Lisia, who had been lying back enjoying the luxurious bed. “Ready?”

Lisia flashed a smile and sprang out of bed. “Of course! There’s so much I want to tell Swift!” He was halfway out the door when Cobweb grabbed him lightly by the shoulder, indicating he should stay. “What is it?”

“Oh, I just thought maybe you might want to comb out your hair a bit,” Cobweb said. “It seems to have gotten a little tangled from your rolling about on the bed.”

“Really? Well, we had better fix it then but,” Lisia paused, a saucy twinkle in his eye, “perhaps you could help me muss it up again later?”

Cobweb went to the dressing table, where Lisia had previously laid out his personal items. “Perhaps.” He picked up the comb, his back still turned. “I’m surprised you’re being so forward, Lisia.”

Lisia came up beside him. “Well, so am I… but it just seemed natural to say. I… I mean I always used to flirt like that and– well, not that this is the same but I wrote you how things are at home, how I–”

Cobweb prevented Lisia from further explanation by placing his fingers over his mouth. “Hush. I understand. Later. Now let me comb this so we can get down to dinner before it gets cold.”

Dinner was a splendid affair — rather too splendid, according to Lisia, who repeatedly protested that he was in no way worthy of such a special celebration. Of course Swift insisted otherwise, telling him over and over how delighted he was to have him visiting and how glad he was to be able to help Lisia out in a more personal way, beyond directing money, staff and supplies towards Harling Gardens.

Seel had already heard quite a lot about Lisia and was likewise pleased to be meeting him in person. For his part Lisia seemed to regard Seel with marked fascination, the explanation for which came out during the course of dinner, when they were all making conversation.

Seel had been going over an important political discussion he’d had with a member of the House when suddenly he’d interrupted himself to warn Azriel, “Stop that! No more playing kicksies. That goes for you Tyson. Show Lisia how sweet you two can be.” He beamed at his son and reaching over, stroked his cheek, making the harling giggle.

When Seel looked back to the table he saw Lisia chewing on his food but obviously thinking more about something else — from the direction of his eyes, Seel, who decided it was time to speak up. “Tiahaar Lisia–”

“Lisia is fine,” the house guest interrupted softly.

“Ah, well, Lisia.” Seel thought of how he should put it. “What I was going to ask you is, is there some reason you keep looking at me… funny? You’ve been staring at me all through dinner.”

“Seel, you’re so paranoid!” Swift burst out. “He hasn’t been staring.”

Lisia laughed nervously. “Well, actually, Swift, I have been,” he confessed. “And before you get mad, Seel, it’s nothing bad, it’s just…”

“Just what?” Seel demanded, curious.

Lisia rolled his eyes up look at the ceiling before gazing back levelly. “It’s just that I know you’re a hostling and I’ve never seen a hostling who looked like you before.”

Seel didn’t quite know what to say at first and there was a moment’s silence. “Oh. Well, I’m sorry if I’m not the model Varr hostling.” Ever since coming into power alongside Swift, Seel had been faced with a certain number of hara who had trouble accepting him as a hostling because he did not fit the strictly soume role.

Lisia’s face was aghast at his apparent faux pas. “Oh, no, no, Tiahaar Seel, please don’t be sorry, I wasn’t thinking that… Oh, no, no, I’m just trying to understand things more, see things. I just only know what I’ve grown up with and what I’ve learned the past few months. Now that I’m out in the world, I’m seeing new things.”

Yarrow arrived with a large bottle of sheh, which he proceeded to pour for the adult hara; for the harlings he poured a favorite drink of sweetened currant juice. Seel took his glass and raised it. “To new things.”

“To new things!” they all toasted.

A short time later the glasses were empty. Lisia let out a satisfied sigh. “You know, I really must thank you for that drink. It’s been such a long, long time since I had anything fine to drink like that — any alcohol.”

“Ah, of course,” Seel responded. “I’m not surprised you didn’t have any up in the wilderness.”

Lisia gave him a contradictory look. “No, actually we did have it, it’s just that I personally haven’t had any in a long time. Although we did run out finally — couldn’t afford it.”

“Oh, but before that, you kept wine and spirits?” Seel queried.

“Yes, but even then I didn’t get to drink it,” Lisia sighed. “The wine was mostly always kept for the administrators and soldiers who came. They wouldn’t let us drink, you know, because we were always–” It was at that moment that Lisia appeared to notice Tyson and Azriel. “Because of health reasons — they didn’t want to risk it.”

Tyson was not easily fooled. “Cobweb, I don’t understand what Lisia’s talking about. You said drinking sheh was fine, not dangerous. What’s he mean about not being able to drink it?”

Cobweb, adept at soothing his always-inquisitive harling, had an answer ready. “Oh, just that sometimes certain hara can’t drink it because it might make them sick. Don’t worry, though, as normally you know when that’s true.”

“Oh.” Tyson conceded the point easily, apparently not deeply interested enough to continue questioning, which he could easily have done.

Finally they were all through. Seel and Swift agreed to put the harlings to bed so Cobweb could spend some more time talking with Lisia. Once they had gone Cobweb asked Lisia if he’d like to go back to the bedroom. The answer was a sharing of breath. “That might be nice. Especially now that I’ve had my sheh.”

Chapter 6

Having discreetly slipped out of the guest room after Lisia expressed a desire to sleep alone, Cobweb awoke the next morning in his own bedroom.

It was to be a busy day for Lisia, his first appearance giving testimony before the House, and once he was dressed, Cobweb decided to go by and invite him down to breakfast. Aruna the evening before had been relaxing and fulfilling for both of them and Cobweb was eager to continue their friendship and help him experience the world outside Harling Gardens for the first time in his life.

Cobweb tapped at the bedroom door. “Lis, are you up? It’s Cobweb.”

“Come in!” he called. When Cobweb came in, Lisia was at the dressing table already in a blouse and long skirt, his face made up for the day. He’d reshaped his long light brown hair into a convoluted bun at the back of his head, sticking it with hairpins. He turned away from the mirror. “How do I look?”

Cobweb moved in closer. “Confident and beautiful.”

Lisia grinned and modestly looked away. “Thank you. I’m trying to be sure I look all right for the hearing.” He got up and went over to the bed, where for the first time Cobweb noticed sheets of marked up paper scattered all over. Lisia picked up a notebook and began to gather up the papers, stuffing them inside the cover. “I woke up early to review my notes and come up with a final outline of what I want to say. Hopefully that goes well too.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will,” Cobweb said encouragingly. During the hearing Lisia was expected to deliver a narrative on the basics of his life at the facility, and give an accounting of the present situation, and plans for Harling Gardens’ future.

“Maybe…” Lisia sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Maybe it will. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve told a lot of people already, so that part’s easier, but this is all so official. It feels so final to me, like what I say here is going to affect things for a long time.”

“Probably it will,” Cobweb said. “I hope it will. There should never be a need for a place like Harling Gardens.”

Lisia was away at the hearings until late afternoon. Cobweb stayed home, painting in his workroom. Tyson was busy with lessons and Azriel accompanied Byrony on a trip to the markets for household supplies. All day long his mind kept going to the hearings, imagining the scene and what Lisia would be saying. He also found himself wondering what he would say in his place.

Cobweb had never been placed on trial in such a way, never forced to give testimony before a hearing. There had been some talk of it, rumblings among some of the Gelaming as well as former Varrs, but Swift had used his authority to squash the possibility before any serious debate arose. No one ever asked Cobweb what he knew of Terzian’s activities or those of other Varr leaders. For this Cobweb had always been grateful, as for him it was not something he wished to discuss. No one could possibly understand what he had gone through anyway, the choices he had made, and so to explain it, especially to an audience ready to assign blame and guilt, was not a desire of his.

Finishing up the painting he’d worked on, around three o’clock he decided to take an hour’s horseback ride through the countryside. It was lovely to have such freedom, to have the harlings safely cared for and for the terrors of war to have finally disappeared. No longer was Forever a haven of peace amidst war; now it was the center of a more peaceful, hopeful world. Out in the woods Cobweb enacted a small ritual for Lisia’s benefit, praying that, just as he’d said that morning, there would never be another Harling Gardens. No more war, no more bondage. Those days would be behind them.

Returning to the house through the fields behind, Cobweb was able to sense that the harlings were both at home, out in the garden. They were with Lisia. He left his horse with the stable hand and stealthily made his way down the garden path, wanting for a moment to observe how Lisia and the harlings were doing together.

They were all settled into a corner of grass by a densely landscaped section of the garden. From Azriel’s alternately rapt and delighted expressions, along with Tyson’s more skeptical smirk, it seemed Lisia was telling a story, animating it with his hands. Lisia had let down his hair and looked very comfortable.

Azriel let out a squeal and clapped as the story apparently came to an end, jumping up and wrapping his arms around Lisia from behind. Edging in closer, Cobweb saw that Tyson had a pad of paper and had actually been sketching during the story. Azriel, seeing his grandhostling, giggled and scrambled behind a bush, pretending to hide, while Tyson, not seeing Cobweb approach, began to talk.

“You’re so good with Azriel, Tiahaar Lisia,” he said.

“Thank you, Tyson. He’s a very good harling. So are you.” Lisia glanced up at Cobweb, now only a few paces behind, although Tyson still didn’t see him.

“Well, not everyone is so good with harlings,” Tyson elaborated, Azriel meanwhile darting out to scurry behind another flower bush. “You must be a great hostling. Do you have a lot of harlings?”

Cobweb winced at the question. Lisia’s face froze for only a moment, however, hardly long enough for the child to have noticed. “I am headmaster at a school in the northwest mountains. There are over 180 harlings at Harling Gardens.”

“180! Whoah, I can hardly believe it — that’s a lot of harlings!”

“Yes, but we have a lot of hara looking after them. That’s why I’m so good with harlings. Still, coming here– Ow!” Lisia jumped and twisted around as Azriel tugged forcefully on his hair. “Azriel, stop that! It hurts!”

“But I wanted to braid it!” he cried, surprised and holding two clumps of hair in his small hands.

Lisia reached over and swept Azriel onto his lap. “That’s very sweet of you, but I think before you do that, you ought to get a comb and some ribbons. You can get some from inside and then I’ll show you how to do it. If you want to look nice for dinner I could ever put braids in your hair. Would you like that?”

“Would you really!?” Azriel asked excitedly, running towards Cobweb as soon as he saw Lisia begin to nod his head.

When he ran into Cobweb, he found himself stopped in his tracks, albeit briefly. “Tyson,” Cobweb called out, alerting his harling to his presence, “go with your brother to help him find what he needs. Go in my room to find one of the smaller combs and take some ribbons and things. You know where it is, but Az is a little small to reach them.”

With both harlings disappearing into the house, Cobweb approached Lisia and slipped down onto the grass beside him. Lisia was looking relieved the harlings had gone.

“Lis, I’m sorry about that,” Cobweb began, apologetically.

“About what?” Lisia leaned over to exam a flower at the edge of the lawn.

“The harlings — really I’m sorry Tyson had to ask you that question.”

Lisia straightened and shrugged. “Oh, he was just being a normal harling, always curious.”

“But asking you if you had harlings…”

“Is normal,” Lisia finished for him. “It hurts me to think about it but I have to think about it every day. I gave testimony on it in front of a few hundred hara today. Anyway, it’s always on my mind. This was just another example of it.”

He sighed, pulling a section of his hair over his shoulder so he could work on the knot Azriel had put in it. “Speaking of examples, I must admit I’m still trying to understanding how this… ‘family’ works. You said for Tyson to go help his ‘brother’ but Azriel isn’t really his brother, is he? He’s his–”

“Tyson is Azriel’s half-uncle,” Cobweb cut in, “if you want to split hairs. Around here it’s always been easier just to say they’re brothers. They’re practically brothers, close in age and living together.”

“I guess that makes sense. It’s just that we never–” Lisia paused, a catch in his throat.

“Never…?”

“Never thought of ourselves like that. I never had a family, any ‘brothers.’ It was just hostlings and then everyone else.”

At that point Azriel could be heard singing out from inside the house, a silly song about braids and flowers, and thus the conversation was ended. Lisia’s pained expression morphed into a confident smile and soon both harlings were leaning how to make proper braids. Cobweb, listening in, was not thinking so much about Tyson and Azriel as he was about the harlings who were absent: Lisia’s 24, none of whom would ever know him as their hostling.

Chapter 7

As more hara continued to make their way into the hall, Lisia sat stiffly in his chair staring at his hands, which were tightly folded in his lap.

At Swift’s urging, Cobweb had decided to accompany Lisia to the portion of the hearings devoted to the testimony of former breeding facility hostlings and staff. The night before Lisia had been sullen, obviously dreading the proceedings. Waiting for the audience seats to fill up and the House of Choice to convene, Cobweb felt almost as enthusiastic about being there as did his companion, but he was prepared to offer any support he could. “Do you have any idea who exactly will be testifying?” he asked.

“No, I don’t,” Lisia replied softly, not turning his head. “I suppose if I had wanted to, I could have asked specifically and gotten names, but I decided not to, as it would have distracted me from my own testimony.”

Cobweb nodded and cast his eyes over the assembly. The hall had been constructed the winter before as a place for the legislative chamber to have its meetings and for large public forums. Rectangular in design, the room had been designed with a podium, stage, tables and witness stands at the front, then half a dozen rows of seats and tables for House members, with the remaining seats set up for public audiences. Almost all the House members were there, talking to one another, while the public was still filing in down the aisles. Cobweb and Lisia sat off to the side in the row immediately behind the legislators.

Lisia was obviously tense. Cobweb endeavored to get him at least talking about what was on his mind. “So,” he began, “what are you personally expecting as the result of these hearings?”

Finally Lisia stopped looking at his hands and lifted his head. “Well, for the two hostlings, I hope to have them able to share their experiences and then be moved on to re-education and freedom the way I have been.”

“And the other two?” Cobweb prompted. “The staff?”

Once again Lisia looked away, this time somewhere across the room. “I’d like to see them punished, of course,” he replied.

“I see,” said Cobweb, whose mind could not help but think of the punishment the Gelaming had delivered on the Varr army, in particular Terzian. “And just what form would this punishment take?”

For a long moment Lisia did not respond, although obviously he was considering the matter. Finally, chin resting in his hand, he admitted, “I’m not exactly sure. The Gelaming and Parasiel have both told me that it’s going to be something more than just purely punitive, but has to teach them something, force them to see the ‘error of their ways’ and evolve.”

He glanced over to Cobweb. “I really don’t know what that would be. I mean, a part of me wishes they could really understand how it was for us hostlings — maybe force them to bear a couple dozen pearls and then not let them–”

He broke off, closing his eyes, clearly stopping himself from going too far with his remarks. When he opened his eyes again, he continued levelly, “But on the other hand, it just sort of seems like that’s all behind us and anyway, it could have been a lot worse for us. So I’m not sure what would be appropriate. Still, I want them to at least admit what they did!”

Cobweb said he could well understand that. He was about to say more when just at that point the session was called to order. Swift and Seel were sitting together on the stage with the top legislators. Chairs scraped against the floor and the babble dropped as an elegant, willowy har took to the podium. This was Gella, once a consort of a Varr general and since the Fall risen to the position of being a respected politician in his own right. Gella called the first witness, a har by the name of Springtime.

The har was ushered in through a side door and brought to the witness stand at the front. Petite with insanely bounteous blue-black curls, Springtime arranged his long skirt around him as he sat. He pointedly avoided glancing in Lisia’s direction.

Gella began the question and answer session. “Good morning, Tiahaar.”

“Good morning.”

“First, allow me to introduce myself,” the House member began. “I am Tiahaar Gella.” To Cobweb it was clear from Gella’s body language and voice that he was going out of his way to be even more soume than usual, probably to make the former hostling more comfortable. “Now please tell me, Springtime, is that your real name?”

The har’s expression was indignant. “Yes! Of course!”

Another member of the House stood. “Excuse me, but I’d like to point out that we can easily verify this by asking our previous witness. Tiahaar Lisia?”

Not having been expecting such a question, Lisia was surprised and stood up nervously from his chair. “Yes, that is Springtime. He is four years younger.” As he spoke he was staring right at the witness stand; Cobweb noticed that Springtime looked the other way.

Gella resumed his questioning. “All right then, Tiahaar Springtime, let’s begin. Now to confirm some basic facts… like Tiahaar Lisia, you were raised at the facility now known as Harling Gardens?”

“Yes,” he conceded.

“Like Tiahaar Lisia you were raised to be a hostling?”

“Yes.”

“And you produced harlings at the facility?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“A total of eight.”

“Over what time period?”

“Two years.”

Just as when Lisia had delivered his testimony, there was much murmuring in the crowd. Every har there wondered how any har could produce so many pearls. “And how old were you when you bore your first pearl?” Gella continued.

“About nine.”

Once again there was an audible reaction among the assembly. It wasn’t nearly as loud as when Lisia had spoken, but nevertheless, the admissions were shocking.

“Order!” Gella cried, staring down the House and audience members before refocusing his gaze on the hostling, who by that point was staring into his lap, disliking the attention. “So, Springtime, so far your story is sounding very much like that of Tiahaar Lisia. Would you agree with that statement?

“I suppose.”

Gella moved closer to the witness stand. “Now let me ask you a personal question — more personal, that is.” He paused, briefly glancing out over the assembly. “How did you feel about having pearls?”

Springtime looked up and said flatly, “Fine. I wanted to have them.”

Gella’s face registered surprise and there was once again whispering throughout the hall. “You wanted to? Did you have a choice?”

“Of course I had a choice!” Springtime shot back. “We hostlings were all trained to open our own seals, and so we were the ones who decided.”

Although Lisia had said as much two days earlier, this statement gave Gella pause. The former consort had borne two harlings, Cobweb knew.

“Ah, but did Calla, the hostling Tiahaar Lisia mentioned, have a ‘choice’ when he was sent away for conceiving a pearl without permission? And what about choosing your own partners? You didn’t choose the fathers of your pearls,” Gella argued.

“No, but that didn’t matter,” Springtime insisted, completely ignoring mention of Calla. “We were helping the war effort.”

“But what about the pearls?” Gella was once again surveying the crowd, seemingly looking for support. “The harlings were going to be raised as soldiers and sent to war.”

“As far as I was concerned, Tiahaar Gella, they were going to keep us all safe — from the Gelaming.” The hostling’s voice conveyed an unmistakable overtone of not just resentment, but hatred.

“But they didn’t protect you, Tiahaar.” This remark was unfair, Cobweb thought, but he understood the easiness of crossing the line in such questioning.

“That’s not our fault!” Springtime spat back.

Again, loud murmurs of comments filled the hall. “All right, Tiahaar, point taken. Now I’d like you to calm down and simply answer the questions. Now tell me, when the facility was ordered abandoned, where did you go?”

“Off with everyone else,” Springtime replied carefully. “Since they gave me the choice, I took one of the very young harlings with me. He’s about two now. I call him Mountainspring.”

“I see. Now when you were found, you were not alone. Besides the harling, you were living with another former hostling, Buttercup, and a former administrator, Phaden, correct?”

“Yes, correct,” Springtime agreed.

Gella faced the House members. “They will be testifying later today.” He then turned to the witness stand. “If I may ask, what compelled you to remain with these two?”

“What do you mean?” he hosting asked, puzzled.

“Well it would seem to me you’d want to separate yourself from your past after–”

“Well, I don’t want to!” Springtime announced angrily. “Phaden takes good care of us!”

Gella waited for the crowd’s reaction to quiet down. “You and Buttercup, I assume.”

“Yes, of course,” Springtime explained. “He knows about the world. He’s protected me, Mountainspring, Buttercup and Buttercup’s harling Sunset almost ever since we left. We couldn’t have survived without an ouana har like him.”

Cobweb looked over to Lisia, who, as he’d expected, had a pained look on his face. When Lisia saw he was being observed, he shook his head. “Springtime is still very young, not truly experienced with ouana hara,” he said softly. “That’s what he believes. I can understand that.”

At that point the hostling’s testimony effectively ended. The second hostling, Buttercup, took to the witness stand and gave almost the same response at the first, saying that he’d been fine delivering the pearls — in his case “only” four, as he’d been among the youngest hostlings — and that everything would have worked out if only the Gelaming hadn’t defeated them. He too was happy to be under the protection of the former administrator. The subsequent testimony of Phaden completed the picture, with the administrator saying that in carrying out the facility’s mission, he had been acting on orders of his superiors and thus held no personal responsibility. He intended to continue on with a normal life with both former hostlings as his consorts, possibly having more harlings in addition to the two the hostlings had adopted.

When Phaden exited the witness stand, a ten minute recess was announced.

“Well, those three are obviously in league,” Cobweb observed. He glanced over to Lisia, who was chewing on his knuckle. “What did you think of all that?”

Lisia started, jolted out of his thoughts. “I was just thinking that I can understand why they’re doing it. I mean… You know that har Vlaric… the instructor I was close to for a bit… wanted me to escape, didn’t you?”

“No,” Cobweb said, “I didn’t know that. Remember, I didn’t read your journal.”

Lisia sighed. “Well, after I refused to abandon the harlings, he came up to me begging me not be ‘foolish’ and stay — to go along with the rest of them. He told me he would be able to escape the main group and probably I could escape with him, maybe others too. He was offering to protect me.”

“But you didn’t accept that offer.”

“No, I couldn’t. I had to protect the harlings. It was much more important than protecting myself.”

That, Cobweb thought to himself, is the big difference between you and the hara who just testified. You think of others first; they thought only of themselves.

Chapter 8

As the recess came to a close, hara settled back into their seats and Gella once again rose to take lead of the hearings. “This tribunal will now present one final actor in the obscene activities conducted at the breeding facility. I will speculate that this har may offer us some of the most revealing testimony. Please bring him in.”

Cobweb watched as the guards approached the side door and pulled inward, allowing the escorting guards to enter. Coming into the courtroom was a handsome har with curling black hair and clean black pants and shirt to match. He looked as if he could be trusted, and Cobweb suspected that in fact the hostlings had trusted him. Using the process of elimination, he knew that this har had to be one of the facility’s doctors.

Lisia didn’t need to guess the har’s identity; as soon as he’d appeared, he’d clutched his hands together even more tightly on his lap. As the har was led to the witness stand, he whispered to Cobweb, “That was my doctor.”

The questioning began almost as soon as the doctor took a seat at the witness stand. “I would like you to give the tribunal your name, Tiahaar.”

“I am Tiahaar Laran,” the har pronounced in a voice that was clear and, unlike the three previous witnesses, obviously proud.

“Tell me, Tiahaar Laran, what was your position at the facility in question?”

Laran was forthright. “I was one of the staff doctors.”

Gella stood on his heels with his arms crossed. “What level position was this? A high level position or low grade?”

“A high level position,” Laran replied without hesitation. “I was second only to Tiahaar Botbek, the chief doctor.”

Detecting movement in the corner of his eye, Cobweb glanced over to Lisia, who was shaking his head, hand pressed against his mouth. This witness was obviously affecting him more than any of the others.

The questions and answers continued.

“How many years did you serve in this position?”

“Approximately ten years.”

“And what were your main duties?”

“At first it was care of the pureborn harlings.”

Gella looked out across the assembly. “The harlings who were to be raised as hostlings — like Lisia, Springtime, Buttercup and the others, correct?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Laran replied. “I served as their doctor and also cared for facility staff.”

“Now tell me, Tiahaar Laran, you assisted the harlings when they reached their Feybraiah?”

“Yes, Tiahaar Botbek and I were called upon to address that.”

“Exactly what care did you provide the growing harlings? I mean, specifically.”

“Well, specifically I performed physical examinations and outlined to them some of what they would be experiencing — the headaches, sweating, growth of the genitals, et cetera,” the doctor explained.

Gella was standing with a finger pressed against his lips in thought. “Tiahaar Lisia reported in his testimony that the hostlings received excellent treatment during their Feybraiah,” he began. “Now given that we all know that Varrs were always rather less elaborate about such matters than other tribes, I’m wondering why this was given so much attention, why they were treated so well.”

“Why?” the doctor asked rhetorically. “Well, naturally the pureborn harlings were very important to us and we wanted to give them every advantage as they moved toward their future as hostlings. After all, their lives were to be focused on aruna, and so all matters relating to that needed to be handled quite carefully. It was really in the best interest of everyone.”

Gella approached the doctor with a look that showed he was about to pull an ace from his sleeve. “‘The best interests of everyone’ — interesting choice of words, Tiahaar Laran. Thinking on that, I can’t help but think back to another point related to the Feybraiah examinations. You haven’t mentioned it.”

“What is it?” the doctor asked.

Gella glanced over the crowd and looked straight over to Lisia. “Tiahaar Lisia has testified that you indicated to harlings that sensations in their ouana-lims were to be ignored, as this organ was of no importance. Is this true?” He shifted his gaze to the doctor, who squirmed slightly in his chair.

“I provided the harlings the information required.”

“You led them to believe they were solely soume, is that not true?” Gella challenged.

“I did what was necessary to fulfil the facility’s purpose,” the doctor hedged.

A general uproar ensued in the hall, during which Lisia looked as if he very much wanted to leave.

“Are you going to be all right, Lis?” Cobweb asked.

Lisia nodded tightly, still wound up tight as a coil of wire. “Yes, although it’s difficult.”

Finally the din was under control and Gella continued with the questions. “Now once these harlings grew to be adults, were you at all involved in their training as hostlings?”

“No, that was left to our instructors,” Laran explained slowly. “The facility had highly skilled hara who provided the young hostlings-in-training with instructions on aruna and conception.”

“Once a hostling conceived, however, you were heavily involved, yes?”

“Of course. I performed examinations during term, provided medical advice, and assisted them at the time of the birth.”

“You oversaw hundreds of births.”

“Yes, such was my position.”

“And you also oversaw the care of the pearls? You tested their health and made sure they were incubated?”

“I examined all pearls, and along with Tiahaar Botbek, came up with a system for keeping them incubated.”

“Out of the care of their hostlings,” Gella clarified.

The doctor didn’t even blink. “Yes, out of the care of their hostlings.”

“Permanently, you mean?”

The doctor nodded.

Gella couldn’t hide the look of disgust on his face. “So, Tiahaar Laran, what did you think of the time interval given to hostlings between births?”

“I believed it was acceptable,” Laran shrugged. “Medically it was possible.”

“But what did you think of it in ethical terms?” Gella asked, above a general murmuring among the crowd.

“It fit in with the system at the facility,” the doctor offered. “As you know and as I’ve just said, the hostlings were separated from their pearls at birth.”

“And how does this relate to the fact that the hostlings were made to deliver as many as five pearls a year?”

“Well, I mean that the hostlings were not parents to the pearls,” Laran replied, speaking above the crowd, which was once again expressing its thoughts on the matter. “They didn’t take care of them and so they could move on to hosting more. They had no attachment to the pearls. Or,” he amended, “they were not supposed to have any.”

Cobweb knew one hostling who obviously had harbored an attachment to his pearls; Lisia was now staring at the doctor fixedly, hid eyes hard yet brimming with tears.

Gella stepped closer to the witness stand to pursue some of the tougher questions. “I see, Tiahaar. Now tell me, outside of your role as a doctor, what did you think of what was being done? Did you approve of the notion of mass-producing harlings to become soldiers?”

The doctor didn’t give anything away. “I can’t answer that question.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Gella challenged.

“I can’t. It wasn’t my place to question it.”

Gella shook his head. “Wasn’t it? You were in a position of authority, Tiahaar. You were, as you said early on in your remarks, in a high level position. Could you not have objected?”

“No, I couldn’t have,” Laran replied coolly. “I was hired as a doctor and took my orders from Tiahaar Botbek and Tiahaar Upsari, the facility’s director. As you well know, all of us were under orders from the highest authority in the Varr empire.”

“Meaning General Ponclast.”

“He was one of the highest authorities, yes,” Laran agreed. “It was his order that created the facility in the first place — and his that ordered its destruction.”

“Messengers came with the order and were going to slaughter the harlings to eliminate the evidence — is this correct?”

“Yes,” Laran replied, “but we killed the messengers rather than obey such an… an abominable order.”

“You saved lives then,” Gella said.

Laran shrugged. “We didn’t think the harlings would survive with only a few hostlings protecting them.”

“Ah, I see,” Gella responded, fingers steepled. “That must explain why, once you had left with the rest of the adults you never reported the facility to the authorities.”

The doctor calmly surveyed the assembly. “Yes, that’s exactly why. When I first heard the rumors that the facility had been discovered and that the harlings had survived, I was shocked and didn’t believe it. It wasn’t until I was confronted by one of your agents that I received any further details. I am amazed to find what Tiahaar Lisia has accomplished.”

Despite the har’s conciliatory words, Gella did not appear to have softened his confrontational manner. “Now tell me, Tiahaar Laran, do you plan to continue on practicing medicine?”

“Yes, of course, Tiahaar Gella, that is my profession.”

“What if I told you it wouldn’t be allowed?”

“Then I’d say you’d be depriving me of my livelihood and wasting a good doctor.”

“Ah, and of course you never deprived any of the hostlings of anything — least of all their full potential,” Gella pronounced. “Even so, objection is noted,” Gella said drily. Several audible chuckles bubbled up from the assembly. Gella had done very well. “You may step down from the witness stand.”

Chapter 9

An hour’s recess was called; time for lunch.

“Come with me,” Cobweb offered, speaking above the crowd, which had finally taken up its full voice, foregoing the whispers that had been the rule all morning. Taking Lisia’s hand as soon as they were both standing, he directed them towards the aisle. He suspected Lisia would like to escape to someplace quiet and less crowded. “Come on, I’ll take you to–”

“No,” Lisia said. His feet had locked to the floor. “I have to talk to them.”

Cobweb dropped his hand. “As you wish. I’ll wait here.”

Lisia darted down the aisle to the seats in the front row where the previous witnesses had been seated. Cobweb watched him from afar, trying to catch the action through the crowd. For a moment he saw Lisia, who had reached the front, but then his view was blocked. Shifting over slightly, he waited for more of the House representatives to pass to the back of the hall, deliberately wearing an expression sure to stave off any attempts at conversation.

Finally his line of sight was clear and he spotted Springtime and Buttercup, huddled together before Lisia, who was taller than both of them. At first they appeared to be having a quiet discussion. Then quite suddenly Lisia had grabbed Springtime by the shoulders and appeared to have become rather more forceful in expressing his thoughts, although Cobweb couldn’t catch the words. A few moments later Buttercup shoved Lisia away and said something — without a doubt, an insult. Lisia’s face went crimson and then the hostlings turned their backs and headed away.

Cobweb quickly made his way down the aisle to the front, where Lisia was standing, obviously furious. Phaden and Laran had also disappeared in the interval.

“What is it, Lis?” Cobweb asked. “What did you say to them?”

Lisia allowed himself to fall gracelessly into the first chair in the row. “I said hello to them and then I told them they needed to remember to think of themselves as independent and not rely too heavily on other hara. I told them they were free now and didn’t have to take orders from anyone.”

“And?

“And they told me–” he broke off, glancing over to Cobweb. “They told me I wouldn’t understand because I was never ‘soume enough’ and always made trouble.” He shook his head, frustrated. “I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“What else did they say?” Cobweb prodded. It seemed obvious that there had been some further insult.

Lisia looked up at the ceiling. “Buttercup said the only reason I stayed behind was that I wasn’t pretty enough to have anyone on the staff offer to protect me.” He shrugged. “I told you already, that’s not true — I did have someone offer. I didn’t want to tell Buttercup that, though, and so then he said I’m just jealous and stupid to be staying at the facility and doing so much work when I could be a consort like they are.”

“Ah.” Cobweb put his hand on Lisia’s shoulder. “Well, I’m sure you know better than to believe that.”

“I do. I just wish it could be different. And I wish the other two hadn’t gone.”

“Phaden and the doctor?”

Lisia nodded. “I really wanted to talk to Laran. You know,” he said, hesitantly, “he helped me deliver half my pearls.”

“He must have been very important to you.”

“He was,” Lisia agreed solemnly. “I trusted him. Of course, as it turns out, he was lying to me.”

“Hara do that,” Cobweb replied cynically. “But come on now, come with me to lunch. Let’s just eat and come back here for the rest of the session.”

Lisia pushed himself out of the chair. “All right. Let’s leave this behind us, at least for a little while.”

Lunch was a subdued affair. Lisia and Cobweb ate at a table in the large almost cafeteria-like eatery located next door to the assembly hall. Neither har was in a talkative mood, both of them absorbed in their own private thoughts.

Cobweb observed the hara around him with a jaded eye, thinking of how the former Varrs were making such a show of being civilized, non-violent, democratic “Parasiel.” The current hearings certainly had the hallmarks of the tribe’s current aspiration, to tidy up the past in order to greet the new Gelaming-assisted future. Of course, the fact that none of the witnesses had been provided a defense showed that they had not swung totally away from their autocratic past; in this way they were much like the Gelaming, who for all they hearkened to the Hegemony, was ruled by the Tigron Pellaz and above him, Thiede.

Lisia for his part appeared to be mulling over the prior proceedings. He picked at his food and on and off held a glass of water to his lips without really drinking. His eyes drifted over the masses of eaters, including several families that had met up, harlings come to visit their parents who were members of the assembly. Cobweb could clearly see that the young har was unused to sitting amidst such large crowds of adult hara. He assumed that Lisia would be particularly sensitive to the wide variety of gender styles presented, from the very soume to the stridently ouana to everything in between. Of course, it was true that even in Galhea, Lisia himself represented a fairly extreme end of the soume spectrum, although how Lisia placed himself Cobweb did not know. Imagining Lisia’s perceptions of things was a good way to pass the time.

Finally time was up and they headed back into the hall together.

“So this is when the decisions will be made?” Lisia asked. They were making their way to their seats just behind the legislators.

“I assume so,” Cobweb replied, seating himself. “This is where they’ll pick everything over and then try to come up with a proper response — not punitive but what they and their Gelaming mentors would like to think of as ‘enlightened.'”

Lisia frowned. “You sound skeptical. Don’t you think the Gelaming are fair?”

“Fair? Well, let’s just say I’ve been dealing with them for a couple years now and fair doesn’t necessarily always factor in. Think what they did to–” Cobweb stopped himself, surprised at what he was about to say. “Terzian.”

Lisia didn’t press the point, opting to observe the various legislators moving about the stage. Seel and Swift were there as well. The four witnesses filed into the first row together, chaperoned by guards. The hall was nearly full when at last Swift rose to address the assembly.

“Members of the House and public audience,” he began, “as you know, I personally have been very much involved in the follow-up on the breeding facility ever since it was discovered and I made my initial assessment. Now you’ve heard the witnesses speak before us and share their own experience. I think we all agree that the project carried out under the former regime was despicable in both its ends and the means by which those ends were achieved. Many lives were damaged.”

At this point Swift paused and looked out into the crowd — at Lisia. “I know that Tiahaar Lisia, at least, will be able to overcome his past. Since I appointed him headmaster of Harling Gardens, he has done an outstanding job leading in the conversion of the facility into a school dedicated to the education of the remaining harlings. This is hardly surprising given the heroism he showed in standing by the more than 180 harlings who he manage to rescue and manage as sole caretaker.”

He now turned his eyes down to front row, where Springtime, Buttercup, Phaden and Laran were sitting. “As for the four witness which spoke earlier, it is up to you to decide. I would hope that you will remember to rise up above vengeance and strive for something appropriate to the crimes involved.”

With that, the representatives began what proved to be a long and drawn out discussion. While in the end they managed to avoid the dangers pointed out by the young governor, it was an uncomfortable affair for all concerned.

The two hostlings were considered together, as both existed in a similar circumstance. In testimony they had both expressed a strong, even vehement, desire to remain with Phaden. Many of the representatives were loath to allow it. The hostlings, they stressed, should be separated from Phaden and given other options and, above all, counseling.

“These hara have clearly been brainwashed,” member Serron argued. Like Gella, Serron had once been consort to a high-ranking military officer. “At their age and with their experience, I can’t see how either of them can be considered self-aware to know what’s really best for them. They say they’re happy with Phaden but what else do they know?”

There was considerable assent on this point but another quarter of the crowd countered this, arguing that the hostlings were not harlings but grown hara, free to make their own decisions and their own mistakes.

“But isn’t it just too likely they’ll make those mistakes?” another har questioned. “I mean, these hara are hardly the type to stand up for themselves, and they’ll just submit to anything. Submissives like that can’t make good decisions!”

Given the particular sensitivities of the crowd at large, it was up to Seel to diffuse the arguments — soume versus ouana — that ensued. In the meantime Lisia and Cobweb had their own reactions.

“‘Submissives like that can’t make good decisions.’ What do you think of that, Lis?” Cobweb questioned.

Lisia rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s insulting but it’s also true. Well, in this case anyway. They are still very naive and… compliant. I know I was like that when I was their age, still full of romantic notions and believing most of what I was told.”

At length the assembly arrived at a compromise. The hostlings could remain free, not in any sort of ‘custody.’ However, they would be taking counseling and undergoing education so that they would be able to make more informed decisions about their lives. Whether the counseling was carried out in Galhea or elsewhere would depend on the final decision on Phaden. As for the harlings, it was decided that so long as they weren’t being mistreated — and looking at the harlings, now in their hostlings’ laps, that hardly seemed to be the case — there was no reason the hostlings couldn’t raise them as their own.

Phaden was next. After a lengthy discussion on his role and the way he had defended himself as having been “following orders,” he was ordered to serve community service for a period of two years — as a janitor at Galhea’s chief school. He would not be making any decisions, only taking orders. In keeping with this decision, Springtime and Buttercup were to be assisted with finding jobs at one of the local beauty establishments, this in order to earn enough money to pay for rent, food and other family expenses. Their harlings could remain with them at work. The hostlings’ counseling would come in the evenings when Phaden, who had professed to wanting to serving as father to the harlings, would be home to care of them.

The doctor’s destiny was even more hotly debated. He, much more than Phaden, had been a true position of power. Furthermore, it was obvious from his bearing that he had known exactly what he was doing. Even to the end some hara wanted to see him severely punished. One har actually dared to make the very same suggestion that Lisia had mentioned — forcing him to bear a few pearls. This was meant as a dark joke but a few hara did not appreciate the humor. However, after a long discussion a consensus was reached and rather than choosing to be wholly punitive, the assembly decided that the doctor was to be retained in the service of the Parasiel. There was a catch, however. He would never again serve as a doctor but instead would be given a place as a medical researcher — under strict supervision with absolutely no direct contact with patients and in an area in no way relating to procreation.

“I find myself quite proud of the way these hearings have been conducted,” Swift observed. “Let us hope that in the end we set all these lives on the right path — and that never again will anyone have to tread the path they’ve come from. That path should be left behind us.”

Chapter 10

The instant the tribunal was concluded, Lisia was on his feet, tugging insistently on Cobweb’s hand and moving down the aisle.

“What are you–”

“Got to see Laran — come on, hurry up, you’re coming with me!” Lisia insisted, using his free hand to efficiently part the crowd.

“What do you think I can do by being there?” Cobweb asked.

“Just… well, I don’t know, just be there!” Lisia replied impatiently, not turning his head as he spoke, too intent on keeping his target in sight.

Various hara were jostling for space in the first row as Lisia began to maneuver his way down. Like magic, every har who saw him moved out of the way. They must recognize him, Cobweb thought to himself. Either that or they recognized Lord Swift’s famous hostling.

Finally Lisia halted and let Cobweb’s hand drop. Before them stood a har dressed in black, his back turned as he spoke in hushed tones with another har, a Parasiel official. The conversation was still ongoing when Lisia stepped forward and very deliberately tapped the har on the shoulder. The har’s shoulders tensed.

“Tiahaar Laran,” Lisia enunciated. Cobweb noticed the former hostling’s posture, which had shifted to something close to defiant, his hands on his hips, his back perfectly erect.

Laran turned. “Oh, Lisia– hello. You’re looking well.” The words were completely inadequate and the har knew it but faced with the sudden confrontation, it was apparently the best he could manage.

“Thank you,” said Lisia, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “Now that the Parasiel and Gelaming have come to my rescue, I’ve been enjoying the benefits of regular sleeping and eating. Not to mention that I haven’t hosted in nearly a year. Shocking the improvement really. How have you been, doctor?”

With this Lisia seemed to have gotten the better of Laran. “Lisia, I’m sorry,” he suddenly choked. “I know you think we mistreated you and–”

“Ah, but do you think so?” Cobweb demanded, unable to restrain himself from speaking up to this obviously arrogant har.

“This, doctor, is Tiahaar Cobweb,” Lisia introduced brusquely.

Laran drew himself up to his full height. “Well, Tiahaara, I believe both of you need to realize that I wasn’t in a position to make judgements — apart from medical ones. I did what I had to do.”

“But you lied to me!” Lisia accused bitterly. “From the moment you examined me at my Feybraiah, you deliberately lied to me, just like you did with all the other hostlings. You didn’t tell me what I was, not really.” He glanced over to Cobweb. “You didn’t tell me what it is to be Wraeththu, what my body is really all about. The Gelaming and hara like Cobweb had to explain it to me.”

The doctor deflated slightly. “I’m sorry, Lis.”

“That comes a little late.” Lisia’s stare was icy.

“Now, Lis, you have to admit, I treated you very well,” Laran said. “Remember how many times I stayed with you through the long hours of your deliveries, talking you through to the very end? Remember that very first one, how hard it was? Remember when you delivered out in the field? And what about when you went into premature labor? I made sure–”

“You made sure I was pulled off work for the rest of my hosting so I could deliver one more pearl for the project!” Lisia was nearly shouting at this point and although the confrontation between the two hara had begun to draw attention, the former hostling didn’t seem to care.

“You want me to remember all those times you helped me with those deliveries? Well, doctor, you know perfectly well that you wouldn’t have needed to help if I hadn’t been made to host in the first place. I don’t want to hear about how you’re so wonderful. If more soldiers had come by then, rather than us having to give up the project, you would have let me host again, wouldn’t you have? That’s the only reason we were so well cared for — so we could make as many soldier harlings as possible!”

A full compliment of eyes and ears were now taking in the argument. Despite this, the two hara carried on as if they were having a private conversation.

“Lis, I don’t know what to tell you,” Laran began. “I did what I had to do and now I’m going on with my life. I don’t care what’s ahead of me — it’s not so bad really. It’s a new start. All I want is to just put what happened behind me. I’m sure you want the same thing.”

Lisia was shaking his head sadly. “I don’t want to go back, but I won’t ever ‘put what happened behind me,’ Laran. Now that I’m headmaster of the school, I see the results of the project every day. I’m going to be picking up the pieces for years, raising those harlings. It seems I’m the only one left with any sense of responsibility!” He stepped back and grasped Cobweb’s arm. “Come on, let’s go. I’m through here.”

With that Lisia led them out the aisle just as forcefully as he’d led them in. The doctor was left staring, his mouth a tight line.

“Lis,” Cobweb said half under his breath, “if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were angry.”

“I am angry.” Lisia pressed on through the crowd, which was still bottlenecked in places.

“I was only joking.”

“Well, it’s not funny.” They were now almost at the exit. “Of course I’m angry. Does it really surprise you? I mean, I know I’m always supposed to be so ‘nice’ and compliant — it’s what I was taught — but honestly I do get angry.” Stalled momentarily by a gaggle of hara at the door, Lisia paused and his expression turned thoughtful. “I remember the first time, actually. It was right after I bore my first pearl.”

“Tell me about it,” Cobweb urged, only then noticing several hara who looked as though they might want to talk to Lisia. “But first, let me take you somewhere more private. You’re not really in the mood to deal with more questions, are you?”

“No,” Lisia admitted. “I just want to get away from here.”

Chapter 11

They stood outside the narrow, carved door of the tavern, Cobweb’s eyes on Lisia, who was looking the establishment up and down, his expression doubtful.

“Are you sure this is a nice place?” Lisia asked, looking for assurance. Through the front windows they could see in on a dark interior; there appeared as yet few customers in that late afternoon hour.

“It’s slightly out of the way — private,” Cobweb replied, glancing to the door again. Lisia had already been hesitating outside the door for five minutes, looking at the sign, the brickwork, the window boxes. “Just trust me,” he said, taking the hostling’s hand. “Really, Lis, I don’t see what the problem is.”

Lisia rolled his eyes. “OK, fine. It’s just that I’ve never been in a place like this. I stayed at a couple of inns on the trip but I was too tired to go out. I’ve only ever heard of taverns from when the soldiers would talk.”

Cobweb tugged on Lisia’s arm and pushed the door inward. “Well, it’s time you had a new experience.”

The interior was lined in dark polished wood, a long bar taking up the right side of the main room. A number of the hara at the bar were smoking what smelled like herbal cigarettes and the room was filled with a light pungent smoke.

“To tell you the truth, Lis, I haven’t been to anyplace like this in years myself,” Cobweb confessed as they approached the bar. “For a long I rarely ever left the grounds of Forever.”

The pot har smiled graciously as he stood drying glasses behind the bar. “Ah, Tiahaar Cobweb, I’m most honored.”

Cobweb, who did not recognize the har, delivered a delicious smile. “Thank you, Tiahaar. Let me tell you, however, it is I who am honored, especially if you would be so kind as to deliver Tiahaar Lisia and myself to a secluded area.” As he spoke he noted a niche with a table and chairs at the very rear, three quarters blocked off by a heavy, velvet curtain. “That spot right there would be lovely.”

The har, obviously thinking he was privy to a romantic pairing he could make quite scandalous gossip, raised an eyebrow, but before he could make a sly comment, Cobweb added, “We’re looking to have a private conversation. Tiahaar Lisia has just given testimony at the tribunal and I wish to discuss it with him.”

“As you wish, Tiahaar.” The pot har bowed slightly and indicated his customers should sit.

Lisia stood alternately watching Cobweb and taking in his environment. When Cobweb began to move to the table, he had to take Lisia’s hand in order to snap him back to reality.

After ducking behind the curtain, they took their seats. Above them a wall sconce provided dim but adequate light. Presently the pot har appeared to take their order. “And what would the tiahaara be having to start?”

“Sheh,” Cobweb replied immediately. “Hot and spiced. To start.”

“And you, Tiahaar?”

Lisia’s expression was blank. “To drink?” He looked to Cobweb, then the pot har, then back to Cobweb. “I really don’t know. I haven’t ever been to a tavern before. I don’t really drink much. Is there something maybe very strong but very… let’s see, something sweet?”

“I know just what you’ll like, Tiahaar,” the pot har assured him, ducking around the curtain, presumedly to mix their drinks.

The light flickered briefly and in it Cobweb could see the blond streak running down the side of Lisia’s face. Surrounded by the dark wood and wearing a light yellow knit sweater, Lisia brightened up the corner. Cobweb was in a belted robe of dark green, and with his hair dark and plaited around his shoulders, he melded into the shadows, but for his pale skin.

“So,” he began, “let’s continue where we left off. You were saying you actually remember the very first time you were angry?”

Lisia shifted somewhat uncomfortably in his chair. “The first time I was really angry, yes.”

“It was the first time you hosted?” Cobweb prompted, going back to Lisia’s comment as they’d left the assembly.

“No, actually it was the first time I delivered,” Lisia corrected. “Hosting never troubled me and certainly never made me angry. Aside from certain misgivings, I always loved hosting, and the first time was especially wonderful.” He paused as the curtain moved to the side and the pot har unobtrusively set down their drinks before slipping out again. “I was very innocent about everything and thought about it like a harling. I was so happy. I’d wanted to host ever since I was little.”

Lisia’s sad history made perfect sense to Cobweb. “Of course. It’s what you had been taught to want.”

“It’s funny you say that,” Lisia replied slowly, “because a couple of the hara at Harling Gardens, the new counselors, said the same thing to me recently — that it’s just because I was raised that way. I don’t think it’s true.”

“But you were molded into being a hostling, Lis. How would that not make you want to host?”

Lisia finished sipping his drink, which he finally drew away from his mouth, a slight smile on his face. “That’s good.” The smile vanished. “But no, you’re wrong, I think that even if I’d been raised normally, I would have probably wanted it very badly. I have a natural ability with harlings, I really think I do. They’ve always liked me.”

“I see your point,” Cobweb conceded, his hand cupping the hot glass of sheh. “But what about the delivery? I can understand why you’d have been angry since they took your pearl away–”

“That was part of it,” Lisia agreed, “but only part of it.”

“Only part? What was the main reason? I just assumed–”

“No,” Lisia cut in. “The main reason was… And I guess this is going to sound completely stupid, like I was naive, which I was…” Lisia let out a long breath. “The main reason was that no one had ever admitted to me how much the delivery was going to hurt. They always told me it would be so easy and natural since I’m a — I was a hostling… but it wasn’t. It hurt so badly.” By the end of his statement Lisia was staring down into his glass, his hands cupped around the base.

“Oh, Lis.” Just as when he and Swift and comforted Lisia the night he learned the truth about Wraeththu, Cobweb felt tremendous sympathy for this har who had been kept in such hideous ignorance. “Why didn’t they tell you?”

“They told us later they hadn’t wanted to frighten us by telling us the truth.” He picked up his glass and tipped it back to his mouth. The house har had brought him a brandy glass of sweet blackberry liqueur. “Of course now I know they were holding back a lot more than just how much having a pearl was going to hurt. At the time, though, that was enough.”

“You were angry you’d been lied to,” Cobweb surmised.

“Exactly,” Lisia agreed. “I felt like I’d been tricked, that everything I’d thought before had been a great big lie.” He looked down at his glass and took another drink. Although normally Wraeththu are hard to get drunk, Cobweb guessed that Lisia might have quite a low tolerance for alcohol.

“I’d been led to believe I’d have a pretty easy life, you know, always with the pretty clothes, makeup, singing, dancing, wonderful aruna, having conceptions, hosting. Really it had never occurred to me how it would really feel to actually deliver and I never thought it would hurt — not so much.” Lisia turned his glass, swirling the liquid. “Then one night I was at dinner and I knew I was going to have the pearl. The thing I thought was going to be so wonderful turned into a nightmare. It hurt so badly I was crying and screaming. The doctors told me I was carrying on and finally Tiahaar Botbek actually tied my mouth shut, if you can believe it.” He shrugged and shook his head. “Sorry, I know I’m not on the witness stand anymore, but I can’t help it.”

“It’s all right, Lis,” Cobweb assured. Unlike Swift, he had never read Lisia’s journal and didn’t know all the details of how Lisia had been treated, particularly with regard to the delivery of his pearls.

“Thank you. Yes, so he tied my mouth shut and I thought I was going to die. There was no one there but Tiahaar Laran in the end and finally I had my pearl and it was terrible. It just hurt so much and then afterward I wanted the pearl, just to see it, and I couldn’t. I had never guessed it would be like that. Afterward everything changed. I wished I had died and I was so angry at everyone. I just couldn’t believe that no one had told me I was going to be screaming with such horrible pain. I mean, eventually I came to overcome it and it wasn’t so bad, but that first time…”

Cobweb nodded in sympathy. Although his own memory was hazy, his understanding of the pain involved was acute. “So how long did you stay angry? Forever?”

Lisia sighed. “No, not forever. First I was locked up for a week though. I was so upset the doctors wouldn’t let me see anyone. I was angry and sad, especially when I knew my pearl was hatching. Finally though they let me out. The thing is, it didn’t get better. It got to be so awful, how I felt, that I decided I couldn’t be a hostling. I felt like I couldn’t be a hostling and be so angry. So I went to Tiahaar Upsari, the chief administrator, and I asked to quit. He wouldn’t let me. I thought about maybe escaping… but the idea was so frightening. I didn’t really have a choice about what to do. I just had to accept it. They told me things would get better and it wouldn’t hurt as much as I got older, and I just had to believe them. I was just too scared to fight it and so I just let it happen, one pearl after another.”

Cobweb had always felt an understanding for Lisia, but now, hearing this startling confession, he felt they had even more in common than he had believed. After all, Lisia wasn’t the only har who’d ever permissively endured evil in order to cling to some bit of benefit and remain safe. Cobweb had done the same thing himself.

Chapter 12

“More liqueur?” the pot har inquired, standing just inside the curtain.

“Yes,” Lisia replied at once, pushing his glass towards Cobweb, who handed it off. “It’s very tasty.”

Once the pot har had disappeared, Lisia glanced around himself and smiled. “I like this place.”

“Really?” Cobweb asked. “It’s rather drab. I do like this spot, however.”

“Yes, I like it too. I just like the whole idea taverns, though — getting to meet different hara, trying out different drinks.” Right on cue, a new glass appeared. “Do you think I would have gone to places like this if I’d had a normal life?”

Cobweb put down his glass. “Maybe. It’s always hard to say what might have been. In your case, it would have depending on what tribe you’d belonged to, what your parents had been like–”

“What they were like you mean!” Lisia burst out. “I had parents.”

“Of course you did, Lis. I didn’t mean to say you didn’t.”

“I know… it’s just that I’ve been thinking about that more and more. Before I didn’t even think about where I’d come from. The Gelaming are sure I was taken from another tribe.” Lisia took a sip of his drink and shook his head. “I thought I’d come from another facility.”

“That’s hardly surprising,” Cobweb commented. “No one ever told you any different, I’m sure.”

“I guess so. But I went my whole life not thinking about it and now I have to wonder. Are they still alive? How old was I when they took me? Did they have to steal me right out of my hostling’s arms? I wonder if they ever think about me.” Lisia by that point was looking haunted.

Cobweb tried to be assuring. “Oh, they probably do.” Privately, Cobweb felt there was a good chance Lisia’s parents were both dead, Varr war casualties, but he couldn’t bear mention it to Lisia.

For a few minutes neither of them spoke. Lisia finished off his drink and idly traced the edge of the glass with his index finger. Cobweb thought about having a cigarette and magically a har appeared at the curtain, extending both cigarette and light. Cobweb accepted graciously. It was gratifying to be able to transform his wishes into reality.

Finally Lisia broke the silence. “You know, thinking about it all, in the end I guess most of my anger is for the hara who made the facility in the first place — hara like Ponclast and those under him. I’ve heard the Gelaming say they had no souls and I believe it.”

Cobweb felt himself stabbed in the heart. It was time he faced up to — and admitted — the painful truth. “One of those soulless hara was Swift’s father.”

Lisia recoiled, hit both by the fact itself and who had spoken it. However, before the hostling could say anything or get up from the table, Cobweb took control. “Please, Lisia, I want you to listen to me. There are things I need to tell you that I haven’t told you before.”

“What sort of things?” Lisia asked nervously, withdrawing backward from the table, although remaining in his chair. “I thought all the bad things were out of the way.”

“Not these things.” Cobweb realized he was desperate now, that he was about to uncork something he’d kept contained for a long time. For a few moments he considered how to proceed. He wanted to present the truth. Between him and Lisia, there could never be anything else — not after all the lies Lisia had already endured.

“At the facility, you were taught to idealize the life of consorts,” he began. “You were told how they would make heirs for mighty leaders. You even used to gossip about me in particular — the glamorous, powerful consort of Terzian. What I want to let you know is that I think you have the wrong idea of me.”

“Please tell me the right idea then, Cobweb,” Lisia urged. “I’ve spoken so much about myself, but I don’t know about you. I’ve actually thought about that, you know.”

“Have you? Well, good, although I suspect this isn’t something you’ve considered.” He took a long draw on his cigarette. “You’re still so innocent.”

He waved a hand to stave off Lisia’s protest. “Believe me, Lis, you don’t know. You went through your own ordeals, but I went through ordeals of my own. You were forced to endure the control of immoral system, while I… pretended it didn’t exist.”

“What do you mean?” Lisia asked, his voice small.

“I mean I knew, Lis.” Almost unbearable it was, to say those words to a victim like Lisia. “I’m saying that I wasn’t ignorant, Lis. From the moment Terzian took me as his consort, I knew he was… dangerous. He was a great leader — a great Varr leader. Everyone in our tribe lived in fear of the Varrs. When Terzian chose me it was frightening but I liked the danger — liked it as much as I liked everything else he gave me. The house on the hill, the wine, all the fine things.”

“That’s what we always imagined hostlings would have. You were protected — safe — so you could make heirs.”

“Safe? Yes, I was safe.” Lisia was trying to understand, but failing. Cobweb had to set him straight. “And I did make an heir, although as I told you, I didn’t know it until the day the pearl came.” Cobweb set down his cigarette, which had burned out. “Terzian was so pleased and because of that, so was I. Everything was great — still scary, but great. He had other consorts, you know. Ones he didn’t keep in the house. How many I don’t know. But he liked me the best.”

Lisia, for all his golden skin, was looking at bit pale. “Something happened then, didn’t it?”

Cobweb nodded. “Yes, something happened.”

It all began when one day Terzian was to go on a raid. and Cobweb had had a vision telling him he should go along. Normally no hostling would go out on the battle field, but Cobweb had insisted.

Over another glass of sheh, he told Lisia the story of all that unfolded. His safety had been shattered and he’d been injured, then abused, captured by the Irraka. Eventually he’d been rescued, but never again would he be truly safe.

Calanthe stole away Terzian’s heart without even meaning to and when he left with Pellaz, there had been nothing left for Cobweb except the vestiges of a family. He was allowed to stay in the house. Swift grew up into a fine harling, swaddled in safety, while his father spent most of his time… away.

“I want you to understand something, Lis,” Cobweb continued. “Terzian told me about the facility. Got that? He told me? He didn’t go into detail, but he mentioned it to me. Believe it or not, it was one of the few things he actually explained to me. Ridiculing the Gelaming and boasting of his army’s prowess was standard, but actually talking about the war? Never. Not in Forever. We were safe in Forever.”

“Is this what you meant when you said you ‘knew’?” Lisia asked. “Because that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. I knew about you, so of course you knew about the facility. As for the rest, you just said he didn’t tell you.”

“He didn’t,” Cobweb agreed, “because he didn’t have to. I didn’t have to be told.” He pressed his outstretched fingers against his forehead, closing his eyes as he remembered. “I’m a psychic, Lis. Unlike the Varrs, I knew magic. Unlike them, I could feel the evil. When Terzian would come home from his campaigns I always tried to be there for him, but at the same time, he scared me more and more. I could feel what he was doing, what that army was out doing.”

“Did Terzian know you knew?”

Cobweb shook his head. “We didn’t speak about it. I stood by him and… stood by him, never speaking of it. Not even when Cal came back. Not even when Cal stole him completely. I tried to attack Cal, you know, and I failed. Terzian chose Cal and then Cal gave him Tyson. That was when I realized Terzian really didn’t need me. I’d wanted more harlings, but Terzian wasn’t going to give me any. And then the truly remarkable thing happened: Cal, for all his arrogance, admitted there was something he could not do, and that was care for a child.”

“That’s how you adopted Tyson,” Lisia murmured.

“Exactly. And you know, that was when I started to change. I was still loyal to Terzian, of course, because that was my role and because I owed it to him and even… loved him… but at the same time, I started to be loyal to myself and, oddly, to Cal. I had won over him but I also got something from him. I had another harling to raise and a household to run. No more feeling sorry for myself. No more cursing Cal. I realized the world was changing and that somehow or another, it was going to explode. I felt it. When Cal left with Swift and Leef to find Terzian, I feared for all of them, but at the same time, I hoped they would somehow bring an end to it.”

“I remember Swift explaining what happened,” Lisia said. “How he met Seel and they went to Fulminir and defeated Ponclast.”

Cobweb nodded. “Exactly. My own son stopped the evil. My own son!” Cobweb was feeling proud, although as always there was a bitter tinge to that pride. “Of course I wasn’t completely happy with it. As you know, I have not always agreed with the Gelaming and their notions of how we should live our lives. And then there was Terzian. Do you know, even then, even after Swift told me things he had learned, even after I was free to admit that I knew, I defended him. I couldn’t help it. He had given me such a good life, such a safe life, and he’d given me Swift and Tyson. I just couldn’t…”

It was at that point that Cobweb broke down. It was just the same as when Terzian had come home and told him he’d never loved him. It hurt like his guts were being dragged out, like he was being drawn and quartered or buried by a thousand stones. How could he have been so helplessly stupid? His chest was heaving as he bawled more than he ever had. Thankfully, just as he developed enough awareness to be embarrassed about it, he noticed Lisia signalling to the bar and then quickly closing the curtain.

Lisia came up behind Cobweb and stroked his shoulders. “I understand, Cobweb. I do.”

“What do you understand?” Cobweb groused. “You can’t possibly understand this.”

Switching to crouch in front, this time Lisia was more forceful. “How can you say that? Of course I can!” He grabbed a napkin from the table and wiped Cobweb’s face as he spoke. “I can understand why you did what you did and why you felt how you felt. I can understand not doing anything. I don’t blame you. I didn’t do any better. We do what we have to do.”

“That’s what those hara at the hearings said, Lis,” Cobweb observed. “They said they were just following orders.”

“That’s true, though!” Lisia threw up his hand and fell back into his seat. “Sure, there’s anger we have, the fact that things they did were wrong, but they had their reasons. It’s all twisted up. Even Terzian — he wasn’t 100 percent evil, was he?”

Cobweb was amazed to hear these words. He shook his head. “No,” he agreed. “Sometimes I think it would be easier if he had been, but no, he wasn’t.”

“Just like Laran,” Lisia said. “I tried to explain to you, how Laran was a pretty good har, but somehow he went wrong. Even just now, when I was so angry at him, knowing how he lied and how he justified everything, I couldn’t help but remember how he helped me. It’s just like you and Terzian.”

“Terzian was worse,” Cobweb offered. “He really was, Lis.” For some odd reason, Lisia was starting to smile. “Poor Swift came to realize that only when he went out on his own.” Lisia’s smile was growing more definite. Cobweb had to ask about it. “What is it, Lis? I assume you can’t be smiling over something I’ve said.”

Lisia laughed. “No, not exactly, although I heard it.”

“What’s so funny then?” The conversation lightening up, Cobweb felt a shift inside himself, as though a burden had been lifted.

“Well, actually while you were talking I was just thinking about you and this Cal. I know this won’t sound funny to you, but I was just thinking how absolutely crazy in love Terzian must have been to abandon you. You’re so beautiful — more beautiful than any other hostling I’ve ever known. From the way you’ve treated me, I’d think it would be impossible for someone not to appreciate you.”

“You’re too kind-hearted, Lis,” Cobweb chided gently. “I’m not all sweetness and light.”

“You have been with me,” Lisia argued, the gleam remaining in his eyes. “Speaking of which… do you think there is another private place here in this tavern? Some sort of room…?”

Cobweb rolled his eyes. “You’re shockingly bold, Lis, do you know that? Shockingly bold and with aruna on the mind!”

“And you’re beautiful… and wonderful at aruna.” Lisia winked. “I’m supposed to leave tomorrow. I probably won’t see you for a long time. So… a room?”

“I’ll arrange it,” Cobweb pledged, gratified and looking forward to a happy ending to what had been a very trying day.

Chapter 13

Twenty years later, Lisia was stretched out on the bathroom floor, a thick towel beneath his left side as Cobweb kneaded and stroked his back. They’d finished their dancing and for the past twenty minutes, Cobweb had been working to alleviate Lisia’s backache.

“It’s fine now, isn’t it?” he asked, slowly running his hand down the curve of his chesnari’s hip.

“Mmmmm, can’t feel it at all anymore,” Lisia softly agreed.

Cobweb reached around to gently cup Lisia’s abdomen. This late in the hosting, the swelling roundness of the pearl was obvious. The flesh beneath Cobweb’s hand was hot and hard.

“I’ve never been so well cared for,” Lisia whispered. “Never.”

***

After Lisia ended his first visit to Galhea and returned to Harling Gardens, it was several years before Cobweb was able to see him again. They stayed in touch, writing letters back and forth with every turn in season, even using the thought transference unit every so often, but in-person meetings would not fit into their schedules. Cobweb was occupied with the business of Forever, which had become more and more of a job as the Parasiel government had matured, while Lisia was inextricably tied in to work at the school, serving as headmaster, teacher, guide, and general mentor to well over a hundred growing harlings. As Lisia once quipped in a letter, he hadn’t time enough to pay a visit to the bathroom, let alone Galhea.

So it was that four years later, after a gap of some months, Cobweb was not surprised to receive another letter from his friend in the north. What did surprise him, however, was the accompanying package. Wrapped in thick brown paper, tied up with cord which Cobweb carefully untied, it appeared to be a published, public edition of the journal Lisia had kept growing up at the facility. Cobweb held it in his hands, staring, before turning his eyes to the accompanying letter.

Dear Cobweb,

No doubt you are very surprised to see this journal put together as a book. It would have surprised me too five years ago, but times have changed. Last year I became aware that Harling Gardens was going to be needing more money for our budget. For the first few years we received a lot of money through donations and fundraisers, including those arranged by the Tigron, but interest has faded and now it’s harder to pay for things. With all the harlings we still have and all the expenses (which keep going up!), we needed to do something.

Talking to the other hara, in particular Malorie, who’s been my counselor, it seemed like the best thing for me to do would be to share my story. Knitting sweaters and things only generates a little bit of money and this could generate a lot more. According to Malorie, it’s something that many hara will be interested in reading and so I can make money for the facility. I’m not totally sure how much of a success it will be, but with help from the Gelaming I did manage to get a big publishing company in Immanion to publish the book. I’m sending you one of the first copies out, since they sent me some extras. Thousands and thousands of copies are going to be printed. In fact, so many are going out it will almost be like a big news announcement. Malorie was saying it might even reach the other staff and hostlings from here.

Anyway, I’m happy about the money but really I think the important thing for me, which I only realized after I read and copied my journal over, is that I’m going to be sharing my story so hara can see how it was. I hope it will teach them some lessons about morality. It also has a lot about soume hara, hosting and birthing, which I think isn’t that common. In fact, thinking about publishing this, I’ve decided that I want to write a lot more, especially articles about hosting and birthing. Right now I’m not using my knowledge at all since nobody here is really allowed to make pearls, but I’ve started writing out notes so I can write the articles when I have more time — probably once this place turns into an adult education center and most of the harlings are gone.

Meanwhile, even though I’ve been through a lot worse, sometimes this job of mine feels like a little to much for me — not even counting that I spent so much time copying my journal. This week alone we had fourteen harlings come into their Feybraiah and five others were initiated into aruna! Can you imagine it? When I was going through Feybraiah there were a few of us the same age, but this is so many and there will probably be just as many next week. Back in the old days, we hostlings produced so many harlings all around the same time and now they’re all the same age.

So many emotions are going around and there’s much to be arranged, like finding suitable partners for all of them. The staff do a good job of managing usually so it’s not as if the responsibility is only mine, but many of them come to me for advice because of course many of them think of me as their hostling. It’s gratifying but it becomes difficult to deal with so many of them.

One of the latest challenges I had to face was actually a little different in that it was very personal. Last month one of the harlings, Tizara, was in the middle of his Feybraiah when we began to arrange a partner for him. As we’ve been doing more and more, rather than picking for him, we let him tell us who he’d like. We’ve done this before and I think it’s good because normally there isn’t a problem and also the experience can be very nice if you’re with someone you really desire. Well this time was a little different since as it turns out, the har he wanted was me!

I was so surprised when Fartell came and told me. Of all the times we’ve had them choose, no one has ever chosen me. I think this is because the harlings mainly don’t see me as anything like a potential partner. As I said, they see me as their hostling or as a teacher or mentor. Personally I think this is for the best because I think getting involved with any of the harlings would create a complicated situation. At any rate, when Fartell told me what Tizara had said, it wasn’t something I expected. Immediately I asked him if he thought Tizara would change his mind and he said probably he wouldn’t, as he seemed very sure of himself.

Despite all this, I resisted and it’s funny in a way because it’s not as if I have a lot of opportunities for aruna. It’s better than it used to be, but it’s not at all regular, just every now and then with some of the other staff or, more often, visitors. It’s difficult for me to really want to do that with the staff because that had always been something forbidden here and I can’t make myself adjust to that. With visitors it’s easier and actually sometimes very pleasurable because often the visitors are very high-caste and rather talented. Still, it doesn’t happen very often and even with being busy, I do find myself wanting it sometimes.

Anyway, since Tizara was quite sure about wanting me (I had Fartell ask him again after a week had passed), I couldn’t really refuse. A week before it was to happen I came and spoke with him. He has wonderful curly hair that reminds me very much of Coral’s. This is another reason why aruna with harlings poses problems for me: All these harlings are from the pearls we all made and Tizara could easily be Coral’s, just as some of these harlings are mine, and it feels strange to me knowing that. Anyway, he does have lovely hair and when I came to see him he blushed although outwardly he tried to act very confident. He asked me a few questions and I answered them. Actually it wasn’t as awkward as I thought it would be.

Now let me tell you something personal I would only ever tell you. When I went to have aruna with him, he wanted so badly for me to be ouana. Of course this is what I had planned since harlings are normally initiated as soume, but when the time actually came, after being soume he didn’t really want to be ouana very much, although he did try that once. He really wanted me to be ouana. He said he felt he liked it that way better. For me that’s still something strange and when I’m with the visitors who come, I’m usually soume. Part of that is that it’s what I’m comfortable with and part of it is that other hara aren’t as sensitive as you have been. They don’t realize how I was trained and that makes me worry because I’m not always confident in myself. I’m getting better, especially since I have had wonderful experiences with you, but it’s not perfect. Tizara did seem quite satisfied, however.

So that’s the big news at the moment. What’s been happening up in Forever? I remember you mentioning that soon Tyson would be going through Feybraiah himself. I wonder how it will be for him. Has it happened already? I also wonder about little Azriel. What a clever harling he is. Tell his parents I say hello and wish them all the best. I wish you all the best as well, Cobweb. You’ve been a very good friend.

Yours,
Lis

Cobweb set down the letter and stared at the book. It moved him that Lisia had chosen to share his heart and soul — not just with him, but with the world.

Chapter 14

It was not until nearly two years had passed, during which time Cobweb had received many letters, that Lisia finally managed to get away from Harling Gardens to make the journey to Galhea. Even then it was not a pleasure trip, but a scheduled visit on behalf of the school. Nevertheless, Cobweb had extended a personal invitation to come by Forever for least an evening visit. Lisia had gladly accepted, although he would be staying in town with the rest of his party — a group of some twenty young hara.

A messenger informed Cobweb within a half hour of the group’s arrival. Knowing Lisia would need some time to make arrangements at the hotel and settle in, Cobweb took his time dressing. It had been six years since they had last seen one another in person and he wanted his appearance to leave an impression. One particular detail he was eager to show off was his hair, which he had recently dyed with streaks of dark red. Each section of red had been braided so that it floated among his long black tresses like snakes.

Mid-afternoon on that summer day, Cobweb left the house on his horse and, making his way down to the hotel, he felt very keenly that it had been too long since he had seen his friend. The letters and thought messages had done well to keep them in touch, but there was something in a personal visit that had been lost — and it wasn’t only aruna. He looked forward to spending time with Lisia as well as the hara he had brought with him. These hara, after all, were the resulting success of the work Lisia had been doing at Harling Gardens these last few years.

All the hara on the trip had been raised at Harling Gardens, products of the breeding program. Their reason for coming to Galhea was simple: They were about to begin their lives. Lisia, after months of working with the Parasiel and Gelaming, as well as representatives of several other tribes, had arranged for a week of meetings and appointments for the two dozen young hara. Some hara were applying to enter into caste training programs, while others were trying to obtain jobs. About a third of the hara were looking simply for a place within another tribe or community where, some hoped, they could eventually become hostlings, perhaps even consorts to important hara. Having received their tuition at Harling Gardens, they were all ready to fly the nest and Lisia, true to his word those many years ago, was assisting them. Although these sorts of arrangements had been going on for some years, this was the first time a group from Harling Gardens had come to Galhea, the capital city.

Cobweb arrived the hotel, dismounted his horse and handed over the reins to the hotel staff member on hand. The party from Harling Gardens, he was informed, would be found in the main courtyard. They had spent some time unpacking but were eager to chat with one another and being so many, had needed to meet in the open space. Thanking the staff member, Cobweb headed down the main corridor towards the sound of chattering voices, the energy of young souls experiencing their first time outside their sheltered home in the mountains.

He did not make his presence immediately known. Rather he hid himself behind a potted shrub at the end of the shady corridor, just where it opened up to the courtyard. Scanning the crowd, he located Lisia immediately, listening to six different hara talk at the same time. Lisia was nodding, offering advice, and generally being the mother hen that he had apparently grown up to be. Those harlings could not have been left in better hands, Cobweb thought.

Even knowing from Lisia the variety of different futures the hara were interested in pursuing, Cobweb was nevertheless impressed by the range of ways the members of the group presented themselves. They were not, as the Gelaming had feared, all soume hostlings like Lisia. Some of them clearly favored this aspect of the their nature, but others had apparently followed other leanings and instincts. One particularly striking har had shaved his head bare and was outfitted rather like a Varr soldier, only thankfully with a softer edge and no weaponry. Cobweb wondered what Lisia had thought about that, although he assumed the har had been encouraged to pursue whatever ideals had appealed to him.

After about a minute of observation, Cobweb was finally observed himself. Lisia broke off from the six conversations, holding up one hand and waving the other towards the corridor, before swooping over and offering a warm embrace. “Oh, Cobweb, I’m so glad you’ve come down!”

“As am I,” Cobweb returned, offering an embrace in return before stepping back. Despite the recent travel, Lisia was looking remarkably well, full of vigor and even managing to appear respectably stylish. Wearing the same orange silk ensemble he’d been wearing the first time Cobweb had met him — in the dining hall at the breeding facility — he’d set his hair in beaded orange net so that it hung in a bunch at the back of his head in a manner both becoming and practical.

“That hair treatment of yours is wonderful,” Lisia complimented Cobweb. “Something I didn’t hear about in your letters. It’s lovely to see you again.”

The two hara managed to squeeze in a couple of minutes’ worth of catching up before Lisia was once again drawn into conversation with his wards. Cobweb slipped into the crowd with him and for the next hour followed along with a multitude of conversations, including introductions to each of the hara, compliments on his hair, and question after question about life in Galhea and the rest of the world. In some ways they reminded him of the young Lisia he’d spent time with seven years earlier. Cobweb was, however, strongly aware that these hara were considerably less naive. Harling Gardens’ staff had been deliberate about bringing in hara and ideas from the outside world in order to prepare the harlings for eventual exit.

It was only as the chattering began to die down that Cobweb noticed something he hadn’t noticed right away. One of the hara, whose name Cobweb couldn’t recall, had a head full of long brown hair — with a stripe of blond running down the strands to the right of his face. He couldn’t help but note the resemblance to Lisia. Aware of the ex-hostling’s feelings on the matter of knowing his own harlings, he was about to smother the thought when Lisia slipped up beside him.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he spoke in an undertone, “but the hair’s dyed. He thinks it’s attractive, ironically enough.”

Cobweb chuckled. “Ah, I see. Well, then, speaking of ironic, I must admit I’m very impressed with the diversity of this group.”

“How they’re not all hostlings like me?” Lisia queried archly. “I’m sure Ashmael would just be astonished, wouldn’t he?”

“Probably,” Cobweb agreed.

Tight scheduling meant it was two evening later when Lisia was finally able to visit the house on the hill for dinner.

Swift, who had participated in a number of the meetings, kept Cobweb updated on the progress of Lisia’s mission. There were still more negotiations ahead, but so far everything was going smoothly. Two hara, having served in a staff position at the school for several years, had been able to accept positions within the Parsic administration, while another was apprenticed to a local tailor. The har with the dyed blond streak was being considered by the Kalamah representatives as worthy of becoming one of their tribe. It might be some years before he could become a consort, as was his hope, but he at least would have a beginning.

***

Lisia arrived on a speckled brown horse. Cobweb was waiting in the drive and saw the horse taken away as he led Lisia inside.

“It seems like yesterday I was here last,” Lisia observed.

“Does it?” Cobweb asked. “It was six years — but I suppose being so busy, time just flew by.”

They were now standing in the main hall. Coming down the staircase were Swift, Seel and seven-year-old Azriel.

“Time to relax, Lis!” Swift exclaimed agreeably. “No more negotiating positions for today.”

Lis laughed. “I appreciate that.”

Seel stepped forward and offered his hand. “Swift tells me you’ve been wheeling and dealing for the past two days.”

The words were lost on Lisia. “‘Wheeling and dealing?'”

“Sorry, just saying Swift says you’ve been doing a lot of work for the harlings– hara.”

“Ah, of course. Yes, I’m supposed to do what’s best for them.”

Azriel, tugging on Swift’s hand, had by then brought them into the dining room. The harling was not only hungry, but wanting to keep the adults from their conversation.

“Az, you were little last time Lis was here,” Swift said, taking a seat. “You might not remember him very clearly.”

“Yes, I do!” the harling protested, looking over to their guest, who was sitting down with Cobweb. “You braided my hair!”

“That’s right,” Lisia confirmed. “That was after you tried to do mine — a lot of hair for a little harling.”

Everyone chatted as the meal was brought in. Just as they were saying a toast, Tyson came in, his hair in a tangle. He was wearing his riding clothes. He was becoming quite a horseman, Cobweb told Lisia. Tyson was working hard to be stand-offish but managed to greet Lisia with some civility. Surprisingly he asked about the visiting hara and said he might like to go down and talk to them.

Once the meal had wrapped up, Azriel and Tyson left the table, leaving parents and guest to catch up.

“Azriel’s gotten so big,” Lisia remarked.

“Tell me about it,” Seel sighed wistfully. “He was so tiny when he was born.”

Lisia had a bit of wine left in his glass and drained it slowly as he sat back in his chair relaxing. “You know there aren’t many harlings left at Harling Gardens actually. The majority have passed their Feybraiah already. Even the very youngest ones are only as little as Azriel.”

“You must feel a little sad,” Swift speculated.

Lisia set down his glass. “A little. Mostly I feel good about it, since I really just want them all to be happy and safe. The only really hard thing for me is not having any little ones around — no infants or toddlers, just all older harlings and young hara.”

Cobweb had already heard some of this from Lisia in his letters and had a question he’d wondered about. “So do you think there will be harlings again up there?”

Lisia’s face registered surprise. “At Harling Gardens? I… I guess there will be. Someday. Even right now probably there could be some but we don’t want to get in trouble given the agreement that was made. Anyway, everybody is thinking they have to wait until the harlings are gone and we’re running it all on our own as an education center. Then we won’t have those same rules anymore about having pearls. Somebody will have some.”

“Any idea who?” Swift asked.

Lisia laughed, sounding slightly uncomfortable. “Well, probably Branad and Effrana actually. They keep talking about it.”

“Pansea’s talked about it, too, hasn’t he?” Cobweb asked.

“Yes, actually he brought it up with me just a few weeks ago.” He ran a hand through his hair. “He and his chesnari are waiting on it until all the harlings have passed Feybraiah.”

“Awwww, I bet Pansea would be a wonderful hostling,” Swift said. “I mean, well…”

“Assuming he’d host,” Lisia finished. “I know you meant that. Yes, he would host. I’m sure of it. Despite being aware of all his options, he’s still very inclined towards having harlings.”

Seel, who had been listening in but not commenting, came in with a question. “So what about you, Lis?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you, silly. Besides the school, are there any plans?”

“Plans for what?” Lisia cocked his head, wondering what Seel meant.

“Oh, I don’t know, anything.” Seel shrugged. “You were talking about other hara and their plans for families and so on. I was just wondering if you had any plans for yourself.”

For an instant Lisia’s face fell but he covered the look quickly, shaking his head. “No, not right now. Too much work to do. I really can’t think about that sort of thing. I have other goals I want to tackle first.”

Cobweb had gathered as much. “Like setting up all your harlings. Tell me, it’s really going well?”

“So far,” Lisia said. “The Kalamah were quite interesting. I’ve met some before during a visit a couple of years ago. Tomorrow we actually have some Kakkahaar coming here.”

“To talk about caste training arrangements?” Swift asked.

Lisia nodded. “Yes, that’s exactly what they’re coming for. Fern and Stonewall are very interested in pursuing some high level study and the Kakkahaar were recommend as good teachers.”

“I sent the Tigron to study with them, all those years ago,” Seel recalled aloud before remembering the unsavory aspects of that story and clamping his mouth shut.

“They’re following in famous footsteps then,” Lisia said. “It’s been very fascinating meeting all these different tribes.”

A stray thought snuck into Cobweb’s mind. “Have you heard from any Sulh?” he asked.

“Sulh?” Lisia furrowed his brow. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Nomads still.”

“You don’t ever have contact with them, do you?” Lisia asked.

“Actually he has, a couple times at least,” Swift answered.

Cobweb eyed his son, a bit perturbed at having his thunder stolen. “Yes, I have. I do. I’ll tell you about it later.” To Lisia alone he projected the thought: After dinner, I’ll tell you more.

Chapter 15

Cobweb and Lisia were alone at the dining table. Immediately after dinner Swift had excused himself, leaving the house for a meeting in town. Seel meanwhile went upstairs to work with Azriel on some caste training, as he and Swift had decided to work with him even before his Feybraiah. Somewhere along the line Tyson drifted off to his own pursuits.

“So,” Lisia began. “You’ll tell me more?”

Cobweb nodded and spoke with his silent voice. “Yes. But not here. Let me take you out.”

Together they rose from the table, just as a servant was entering to clear away the dishes.

“It’s amazing how you live here,” Lisia remarked. “So different.”

“I know,” Cobweb agreed. “We’re very privileged. I’m spoiled, always have been. Unlike you.”

Lisia laughed as they exited the French doors that led into the garden. “Oh, I’m not so unspoiled. I’ve got some status, being director. There are privileges I get from that, even at the school.”

“Ah, but you work.” Cobweb was leading the way through the garden but not towards the greenhouse.

“It’s a great job,” Lisia replied. “It’s work, but I can’t think of anything else I’d want to be doing and it makes me feel useful.”

They’d arrived at their destination, a small wood and stone outbuilding. Cobweb pushed open the door, which offered up some resistance before revealing a shadowy interior, half filled with folding chairs. “These are for when we have big events outside, especially festivals,” he explained. “I thought it would be a good place to talk and do things uninterrupted.”

Lisia looked at Cobweb askance. “‘Do things uninterrupted’? Exactly what things?”

In answer Cobweb took Lisia’s hand and led him inside. There were two small windows and it was still early enough that the natural light was more than adequate.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cobweb said, sinking to the floor and indicating for his companion to do the same. “You think I’m going to be like Vlaric now, like in the potting shed.”

Lisia shuddered, then laughed nervously. “Yes, well, maybe I did think that… but… that’s not what you’re planning?”

Cobweb shook his head and glanced around. The place was musty and a bit damp but otherwise adequate for their needs.

“No, this is something different. This will be a ritual. You’ll need your caste training.”

Lisia grinned. “Magic?”

“Yes, and about time we did this together! It’s important to me, but until now, the two of us have never touched on that.”

“Except for aruna.” Their eyes met. Certainly they had experienced magic in aruna.

“Exactly.” Cobweb rose gracefully from the floor. “But first, I just remembered something. We need supplies. You stay here, I’ll go inside and get what we need. The ritual won’t work otherwise.”

Lisia nodded, his smile still lingering. Obviously the idea of magic excited him, which is exactly what Cobweb had counted on.

Making his way up to his room, Cobweb mulled over his idea. In essence, he planned to lead Lisia on a journey, not of the body, but of the spirit. The destination was unknown, but their companions were those that had been spoken of at dinner: the Sulh.

Although he’d been separated from his tribe for a good ten years, sticking strictly to life among the Varrs, the peace and tribal bridge building that occurred after the Fall had brought him back into contact.

The initial contact had been through a Sulh har named Tara. Swift had met Tara on a mission to Fogta, a small former Varr outpost. Living in an isolated cabin in the heart of a nearby forest, Tara had been found sheltering an adolescent human son, whom he’d been protecting from the Varrs for years, hoping to protect him until he was old enough for inception. Swift, Seel and Ashmael had brought father and son into town and reintroduced them to society. After Tara incepted his son, it had been Swift who had sealed the althaia.

A few months afterward Tara had gone with his son into Sulh territory. He’d had little problem finding acceptance and community. In fact, because of his connections to Swift and the government, he had ended up becoming a tribal representative. Two years after their rescue, Tara and Ranat had visited Forever, taking up Swift’s invitation. It was then that the Sulh had met Cobweb, re-establishing a link that had been too long broken.

Cobweb returned to the storage shed with a satchel of supplies as well as an explanation for Lisia, who listened eagerly to the proposal. After explaining his relationship to the Sulh, including a trip he had made in person some years earlier, he went on to explain an additional aspect of his connection, one that neither Swift not Seel were aware of. This was Cobweb’s own secret; he still had to keep some mystery about him.

During his visit and on two later occasions when Sulh representatives had come to Galhea, Cobweb had learned that it was possible to visit the tribe without leaving home. Instead of traveling with his body, Cobweb was able to raise himself up and commune with the tribe at a distance.

“Do you mean through a thought transference unit?” Lisia asked, trying to follow along.

“Not at all,” Cobweb replied. “This is about individual psychic powers — that and a rather fantastic innovation on the part of our tribe.”

The Sulh had conjured with a unique method of long-distance communication, he explained. Each traveling group had its own psychic beacon, which was more than a thought transference unit to communicate with one or two hara, but a means via which hara could enter into communication with the group as a whole. It was a powerful beacon, tied into the entire group. This allowed tribal members to communicate at will without needing a thought transference units and also allowed outsiders a way to into the group.

While tribal members were familiar enough with the system to communicate with the outside in a normalized manner, without undue effort, outsiders making contact were required to enter into a ritual meditation and make a psychic journey. Depending on the distance involved, the journey could require the use of various herbs and charms. Such was the present case and accordingly, Cobweb had gathered the supplies from the house accordingly.

Lisia marvelled at the idea and agreed immediately to try to make the communication. They did not, Cobweb explained, necessarily need to actually go in a talk to anyone — although they could certainly do so — but after announcing themselves they would be allowed to explore the group network. There were rules of etiquette involved, for the protection of privacy, but in Cobweb’s experience many hara were open to letting outsiders in to observe and experience — so long as the visitors were friendly and polite. Cobweb had made the journey often enough that there were a dozen different hara who would welcome them in without a thought. It was a bit like making a trip and staying in the house of someone you know.

“Like the first time I visited here,” Lisia commented.

“Right.” He picked up the satchel untied the knot at the top. “Now do you want to help me set up?”

It took about ten minutes to prepare the room. Once the candles were lit, they covered the windows with a couple of disused tablecloths that had been stowed in a corner. The room was full of flickering shadows as they laid out the herbs and censers on the floor. Cobweb would light a mixture that would assist them entering into trance and free their mind for the journey. In addition, there were a number of herbs they would ingest.

After a few minutes of meditation, they would join together in mind and Cobweb would lead them out to a group of Sulh. How long they stayed would depend on whether their was anything interesting to observe and if they struck up any conversations. That said, thirty minutes was probably the limit, given that this was Lisia’s first experience. The journey would likely we somewhat tiring and with Lisia’s schedule of appointments the next day, he would need most of his strength.

The ritual proceeded as planned. As he had many times before, Cobweb entered into trance and made the journey up and out to join the Sulh. The only difference was that this time, he had a companion. Lisia, who had reached Acantha level, had sufficient training to follow along, but did need some assistance and assurance, as he’d never attempted anything similar. Through the bond they fused, Cobweb could sense Lisia’s wonder at the strange universe through which they travelled. It was in some ways physical, with a sense of distance, out and out, away from Galhea, while in other ways it was purely mental, a sense of the spirit rolling outward like a wave.

At last they lost all awareness of their surroundings, the darkened room, the swirling, heavy incense in the air, and found themselves at the beacon. Cobweb signalled to Lisia mentally that they had arrived. His first move was to summon a familiar mind, a har named Shadow, who let them enter in before drifting off. They would be free to explore together, Cobweb intimated, his thoughts flowing directly into his companion’s.

Cobweb decided to visit with a couple of different hara, introducing Lisia and showing him what level of communication was open to them in this realm. The beacon was very powerful and was able to convey even undirected thoughts, unlike a thought transference unit. Cobweb felt Lisia marvelling at all of it and then wanting to go exploring elsewhere within the tribe. He was interested in the observation aspect, seeing what they could gather by subtly moving among minds.

He was slightly apprehensive, not wanting to offend, but Cobweb assured him that so long as he observed any requests for privacy and stayed away from what were obviously private situations, he would be just fine. In fact, for the next ten minutes, he could try exploring the network on his own. Cobweb still had a couple of other contacts he wanted to visit. When their journey time was up, he would find Lisia and together they would return their minds to Galhea.

Lisia agreed and Cobweb separated from him, leaving only a threadlike connection between them, just in case there was trouble. This was, after all, Lisia’s first time and in a strange environment, it was possible that something could go awry.

At was a while later that Cobweb first sensed trouble. He was finding out about a new herbal preparation when he felt a shift in the tension on the psychic thread. It was impossible to immediately gauge the nature of the trouble, and so Cobweb excused himself and traced himself back to Lisia as quickly as he could.

Even though he’d moved with speed, by the time he arrived in Lisia’s proximity, the level of distress had risen considerably. Lisia was in a panic, so much so that when Cobweb linked up with his mind in full, at first he didn’t even seem to notice. Instead his mind was locked on a horror he had not expected: Vlaric.

The name came as a whispering chant in Lisia’s mind. Cobweb knew that the heart within Lisia’s body, back in Forever, would be beating fiercely.

This was the har that had served as an instructor to the hara raised to be hostlings at the breeding facility. Vlaric had been Lisia’s teacher in the art of aruna, and not only in the early years, but later on. Vlaric had given Lisia the experience of betrayal, initiating a relationship which he had protected with secrecy and promises of loyalty when in fact no loyalty existed. Vlaric had taken on several hostlings in a similar manner, assuring each of them they were special to him, above all others. When Lisia had learned of this deception, he had turned Vlaric away. When the facility had come to an end, Vlaric had gone along with the others. Like most other facility staff, hostlings, and harlings who had escaped, he had never been located.

Here he was. Cobweb did not recognize him from previous visits, having never initiated any communication. Lisia was another matter. How long had he been observing his former lover? Had they had any communication? Lisia’s spirit was vibrating with shock, although surprisingly, little anger.

Cobweb did not have a problem getting angry. The moment he realized from Lisia what har he had found, his mind was gripped by thoughts of revenge. This was not allowable of course, given the stricture of the network, but it was what he wanted. Of all the characters Cobweb had read about in Lisia’s published journey, aside from the chief administrator and doctor, this was the har who had rankled him most. A lover’s betrayal — Cobweb had identified with that and sympathized with Lisia. Now that sympathy was turned into a desire to see the har punished.

The problem was, Lisia wasn’t feeling the same anger. In fact, within a minute or so, he had become calm and, cognizant of Cobweb’s presence, assured Cobweb that he was going to fine. The shock was still there, but somehow he had willed his mind beyond it.

Now he was concentrating on Cobweb, whose resolve to attack was waning. “I want to talk to him!” Cobweb cried out. “I want to tell him what I think of him!”

Lisia was horrified and gave him the equivalent of a mental slap. Cobweb felt himself jolted. Could Lisia still have feelings for this har? How could he possibly not be against exacting some sort of punishment, even if it simply meant rubbing in Vlaric’s face just how well he had done on his own? Hadn’t Lisia at one time talked of wanting the staff punished?

Cobweb couldn’t understand it. Nevertheless, he let himself be pushed away, leaving Vlaric behind. It came to him only then that, concentrating so much on Lisia’s reaction, he had barely even had a chance to see what Vlaric was doing and thinking. Now it was too late and Lisia was expressing a desire to return back. Their journey was at an end.

Traveling back was quicker than their way in, since Lisia had grown confident. Although they were aware of one another, they did not share their thoughts as they flew back to Forever.

At last it was over. Cobweb felt his body about him, his heart beating, sweat running down his neck. He opened his eyes to see Lisia heaving upon the floor, weeping.

Cobweb crawled over and took his friend into his arms. “Oh, Lis, I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I had no idea.” He held him firm, waiting until the worst of the sobs had passed before releasing him.

“I know you didn’t know,” Lisia said, shaking his head sadly. He reached up to wipe his eyes. “I was there on my own and found him.”

“I wish I’d been with you! I would have–”

“No!” Lisia shot back, again with the fierceness Cobweb had felt in the mental slap. “I don’t want that!”

Again Cobweb was bewildered. “I don’t understand. You found him! I thought you would want revenge, that you’d want–”

“No.” Lisia straightened his shirt and got to his feet, pacing over to a window, where he unhooked the covering and stared out into the darkening twilight. “Not now.”

Cobweb went over to him. “Why?”

Lisia continued to gaze into the night. “You didn’t… experience him. You don’t… know him.”

Cobweb took this in. By now he was more than a little impatient to learn exactly what was going on in Lisia’s mind. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something he was letting on, nor was it a motive Cobweb could reason out on his own. He placed his hands on Lisia’s shoulders. “Tell me, Lis. Tell me about Vlaric.”

Lisia let out a heavy sigh, then turned back toward the narrow confines of the room. “All right. Let’s sit.”

Abandoning the floor, which had been appropriate to the ritual, they pulled out chairs. Once they were both seated, Lisia began to explain.

He’d left Cobweb to go exploring and had taken in everything with a sense of awe. It was incredible, the freedom, the delicious undercurrents of thoughts, ordinary and profound, he’d found within that group of hara. He would have been Acanthi content to float above it all, not even coming in close to any individual situations, except that all at once, he’d sensed something familiar. Someone familiar.

It was Vlaric. Lisia had known it at once. He had once shared Vlaric’s spirit, just as he had shared his body. Now, here it was, among the Sulh.

Lisia didn’t understand it, but he knew he had to investigate. He didn’t even direct himself to zero in on it — it happened in an instant. He was there, so close and yet, very deliberately, concealing himself. Considering his inexperience, it was obviously all instinct, this concealment. He would not be sensed within the network, he somehow knew, but he could gather the thoughts around him. Vlaric would not know. Thankfully, it had all played out perfectly — at least as far as not being discovered.

Vlaric had changed, Lisia quickly learned. At the moment Lisia had coma across him, he was nurturing a small harling, obviously only a few weeks old. Two other harlings were nearby, their presence clearly discernible. He was their hostling.

From Vlaric’s mind, occupied with the harling, Lisia learned that years ago, after the group of facility refugees had broken apart, Vlaric had encountered the Sulh and found refuge. Moreover, he’d found a partner. They had become chesna. At first Vlaric had been a broken har, overcome with regret for what he had done in his position at the facility, but his chesnari had forgiven him and even healed him. They fell in love. The oldest harling was four years old. They had a happy family. Vlaric had found peace. Lisia did not want the situation to change.

“So you see,” Lisia said in conclusion, “although you desire vengeance, it’s not what I want. He’s found happiness, Cobweb, and I won’t begrudge him.” He grimaced and laughed darkly. “Call it a weakness, but I have compassion and, I will even admit, a little bit of love left for him. Despite everything, he was in some ways good to me.”

Cobweb reached out and took Lisia’s hand. “You’re so good,” he offered. “I… I really don’t know what to say except that. I can understand what you’re saying but I… No, you’re so good, a better har than I.”

“Oh, no, don’t say that!” Lisia protested.

“Why not?” Cobweb snorted. “I’ve got such a temper.”

“Which is nothing to be ashamed of,” Lisia asserted. “It’s alright to get angry. I just think sometimes we need to restrain ourselves, think about things carefully, not just strike out.”

After that, there were no words, for both of them dropped to the floor and slowly and languorously, they dipped into the pool of relaxation and release of aruna. By the time they finished, the candles had burned out.

Chapter 16

Cobweb glanced over to Lisia as he toweled himself off. They had just taken a bath together and his chesnari’s backache was only a distant memory. Now Lisia was humming softly, loosely fastening the belt on his robe. It was almost hard to imagine that they had only been together for a year and a half; it seemed they had been joined far longer than that.

“I’m glad we could enjoy this night together,” Cobweb said, reaching for his own robe. “The calm before the storm.”

“What storm?” Lisia scoffed, stepping into his slippers and entering the bedroom. “The weather looks fine to me.”

Cobweb followed him to the bed. “You know what I mean. Things won’t be the same once the pearl is born.”

“No, they’ll be better.” Lisia sat down on the bedspread. “Truly, I hope you’re not actually worried.”

Cobweb kneeled on the rug at Lisia’s feet, resting his head in his chesnari’s lap. “No… but it will be different.” He tilted his head so that his ear pressed right on top of where the pearl lay hidden. He could hear the unborn harling’s heart beating. “Anyway, giving birth is no small matter, however many times you’ve done it.”

“True, but–” Lisia’s words were interrupted by a sharp rap to the door.

“Yes, Morro, what is it?” Cobweb called out.

“There’s a call coming in on the thought transference unit for Lisia.” Morro, used Cobweb’s ability to identify him through the door, had replied to the question without hesitation.

“Ah, well, I had better answer that then,” Lisia sighed, rising up from the bed and heading to the door. “Come with me.”

Together they followed Morro down the stairs to Swift’s office. “I set the status to hold, just switch to receive,” the servant said before withdrawing back into the hall.

Lisia approached the unit and touched the control panel. He smiled and glanced to Cobweb. “It’s Pansea,” he said, mind to mind. For a few minutes he was absorbed in mind conversation, obviously light and enjoyable. Finally Lisia nodded to Cobweb to step in and talk with Pansea on his own.

“Almost a father,” Pansea said. “How does it feel?”

“Good,” Cobweb replied, pouring out some of the warm feelings in his heart. “Lisia is doing very well.”

“You are taking wonderful care of him, I’m sure. Thank you. I just wanted to say hello. Best of luck in the coming days.”

“Thank you,” Cobweb answered, drawing the communication to a close. He touched the panel and switched the status to idle.

Lisia was waiting at the door, his expression wistful. “Remember when Pansea…?”

Of course Cobweb remembered. It had been a memorable time in all of their lives.

***

It all began with a letter. In the three years that followed Lisia’s trip to Galhea, he and Cobweb had exchanged numerous letters, as usual about once a season, sometimes a bit more frequently. This letter, however, was a bit different; unlike all previous ones, it contained an invitation.

Dear Cobweb,

I was going to write you a letter this week, but just now I decided I absolutely had to, as I have wonderful news. As you know, Branad and Effrana had their first harling six months ago. Well, just now after dinner, Pansea and Ivy came to me and told me that Pansea is hosting his first pearl! I’m so happy, almost like I’m going to be a grandhostling! I’ve got letters from some of the other harlings saying they’ve become parents, but as you know Pansea has been very special to me over the years and this is the first time a har raised here has hosted a pearl here since — well, since you know when!

So that’s happy news but actually it’s not the only happy news. I know I’ve kept you up to date about Harling Gardens and how we’re about to become a teaching facility like I’ve planned all along, but now it’s really about to happen. Our first classes are scheduled for three months from now. I’ve been planning things for several years, getting organized, and now we’re starting to get very serious about exactly what will be taught, what the schedule will be like, what activities we’ll do, where and how the guests will sleep, etc. Our first class will probably only have about a dozen hara, since this is our first session ever, so we don’t have to work all the time on it, but still, we have to be disciplined. I want to make this first year perfect so that all the hara who come will tell their families and friends how good it was. Right now I’m just starting on organizing the second session, as we’re going to try to fit in five sessions this summer.

One more bit of happy news. I think that I am finally feeling ready enough to really invite you to come up to visit! Would you like to? I know before I was so busy I couldn’t have been a good host, but now it will be much easier. Also I know you are free to visit now that Tyson is out of the house. I really hope you can visit. I was thinking a good time would be two months from now right when Pansea’s pearl has come. He remembers you from all those years ago, of course, and would love to see you again, especially at this special time. Please let me know if you’re coming. Send a message back or use the thought transference unit before you leave.

Grateful for present happiness,
Lisia

For Cobweb it was perfect timing, with spring just around the corner and his feet feeling itchy for travel. Tyson had gone on an extended tour of Megalithica and with nothing out of the ordinary happening politically or otherwise, Galhea was seeming a little boring. Moreover, reading Lisia’s letters over the years, Cobweb had become curious to see how Harling Gardens had developed. The facility would be lovely in springtime, he was sure. Overall, a trip to the northwest seemed to fit his mood exactly. He did decide, however, to wait the two months Lisia had indicated. He sent off a reply letter giving the approximate time of his arrival and promising to send a thought before his departure.

Spring arrived in Galhea as it had every year Cobweb had lived there and although it was lovely, as the weeks went by, thoughts of travel began to make him more and more restless. It was with great anticipation that at long last he entered Swift’s office to use the thought transference unit to contact Lisia. The school master was delighted to hear from him and in his thoughts there came across a strong sense of excitement and joy. Was this really all in anticipation of his visit? It was when he posed this question to Lisia that he got an inkling that perhaps there was something more to his mood. By the time Cobweb arrived up in Harling Gardens, Lisia explained, there was a surprise. Lisia wouldn’t specify what it was, but he told Cobweb it was something special. When Cobweb turned off the machine, he felt ready to go that very moment.

In fact he left the next day. Swift and Seel sent their regards along with a few gifts. They parted at the front entrance of Forever, Cobweb upon his horse waving goodbye. He left in the very early morning. It was only as he began riding that he recalled a dream from the night before.

It was triggered when he passed a field of flowers. He’d dreamt of flowers, he was sure of it. Purple flowers. Someone was standing in a field of them. If he’d been standing still and more able to focus, Cobweb could have traced the dream further, but the journey was more pressing and so he plunged ahead, merely smiling at the fact that surely he would be seeing flowers once he reached his destination. Harling Gardens was aptly named.

At long last Cobweb found himself at the foot of the driveway. He noted with amusement that the old warning sign — “WELCOME & ATTENTION: No Weapons Beyond This Point” — had been retained. Some things at the facility had never changed. He rode up the drive, thinking how very different everything looked. A great deal of work had gone into the plantings and landscape and there were fields of wildflowers growing in the areas just behond the drive. Towards the main building the gardens became more organized and Cobweb found himself recalling the descriptions he’d received from Lisia of the formal flower gardens and then the large farm that had been developed to the rear and far sides. In addition, there were still grassy fields left over from the days of harlings playing outside — and at one time, living in pens.

Lisia was standing at the main entrance. Cobweb had felt him mentally sweeping the area and so it was no surprise that his arrival had been so precisely anticipated. Cobweb dismounted his horse and tied it up at the stand, knowing someone would be sent to bring it to the stables later. He turned toward the entrance and walked up the steps.

“Welcome back!” Lisia greeted him warmly, opening his arms so that they fell into an embrace. “Oh, I’m so delighted you’re here!”

“And I’m likewise delighted I came.” Seeing Lisia’s eyes shining, his cheeks flushed, Cobweb was suddenly reminded of the excitement his host had shown on the thought transference unit. What special surprise did he have in store?

Cobweb’s thought was well-timed. “Well, I ought to get you and your things inside, oughtn’t I?” Lisia asked, looking over to the horse. “Actually, I’ll have someone bring them in later. There’s something I have to show you first. Come!”

Taking Cobweb’s hand, Lisia led them through the double doors and inside. The interior had been greatly improved over the years. Everything had been repainted, new lights and windows had been installed, and everywhere there were decorations, especially murals, made by the harlings. Gone was the residue of desperation and decay that had been present at Cobweb’s first visit. The building had been transformed into something good and the goodness could be felt as something almost tangible.

Lisia was talking to Cobweb about his trip when they arrived at the entrance to the old administrative office, which Lisia had taken for his own. “Sorry, I’ll just be a moment. I have to finish up on this one task before I can show you the surprise.”

Cobweb entered the room and again, immediately noticed the change that had taken place. All the wood in the room had been polished to a shine, the bookcases filled, and the spring sunlight shone through the stained glass window. Framed drawings, presumedly by harlings, hung on the stark white walls.

Lisia scuttled over to his desk, pilled high with envelopes and sheets of paper. These were letters to prospective students and hara who might be in a position to attract new students. He was almost through the M’s and wanted to finish off.

Cobweb took a seat and waited as Lisia individually addressed and signed the letters, then made out the envelopes and put them together. He found himself eyeing a long row of file cabinets along the wall. When it seemed like Lisia would soon be done, he asked about them.

“Oh, those are all the student records. We have records for each of them tracking their whole education here. This allows us to provide references on request.”

As Lisia offered his replied, Cobweb’s mind had immediately flickered to dark thought. “And do some of those file cabinets contain records of–”

“Births at the facility? Yes, we still keep those records.” Lisia looked up from his work and frowned. “Overall only about ten percent of the harlings ever looked at their own birth records. In the future maybe there will be more, but living here, most of them were happy not knowing.”

A minute later Lisia abruptly rose from his desk, breaking the slightly downbeat mood that had been created by discussion of the facility’s former life. “Come, now let me show you,” Lisia urged.

They went into a stairwell and went up to the second floor. “You still live in this section?” Cobweb asked.

“Yes, although it’s been remodeled and rearranged a bit,” Lisia replied. “Different staffmembers live up here and some have multiple rooms, almost like apartments.” He pushed open the door and they were standing in the lounge, which had decidedly less dingy furniture than Cobweb recalled, although the effect had been achieved by adding slipcovers and knitted blankets, not by actually replacing the furniture. “I have two rooms now, over that way, and a few others live with me here on the same hall. Come.”

“You’re showing me the surprise now, right?” Cobweb asked. He had no idea what it could be. He had thought perhaps the surprise would be obvious, something he saw coming up the drive or maybe that Lisia had dyed his hair, but so far nothing had struck him as being wildly surprising.

“Right,” Lisia answered, pausing by a door half-way down the hall. They were both silent and in that silence, Cobweb heard a sound he instantly recognized: A tiny harling crying.

Lisia softly knocked on the door. “Pansea?”

“Come in!” enjoined a voice from inside.

Turning the doorknob, Lisia opened the door and gestured for Cobweb to step inside. He did so and saw a scene he’d expected, only…

“Pansea!” he cried in surprise. “You’ve… you’ve…” He didn’t have the words, simple as they were.

“Yes, Cobweb, I’ve had twins,” Pansea told him, beaming as he snuggled two tiny harlings, one in each arm.

Lisia put his hand on Cobweb’s shoulder. “That’s what I was so excited about when you contacted me,” Lisia explained. “About a month into term, Pansea had started to feel some rather severe symptoms of hosting and after doing some tests, we discovered he and Ivy had conceived twins.”

“That’s… amazing,” Cobweb managed, now standing by the bed, looking down at the contented hostling. “I’ve never seen twin harlings.”

“We haven’t either,” Pansea said. “Lis has read about it, but it’s very, very rare. We don’t conceive the way that other animals do, so it’s much less likely. I’m not even sure how it happened.”

Lisia couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Oh, come now, I think you know.” He winked. “It must have been the best aruna ever.”

Pansea blushed but was not greatly embarrassed. “True enough.”

Cobweb sat on the edge of the bed, while Lisia took up a position on the opposite side. “Once we discovered the situation, of course we were all going crazy about it since it was something totally new. There was a lot of excitement. It was pretty worrying, however, as I didn’t know if Pansea would be able to carry two pearls.”

“He didn’t know if there would be enough room,” Pansea clarified. “Not just for my comfort, but for the pearls to grow.”

“Right. And then there was the delivery.” Lisia sighed, shaking his head slightly. “I had no idea how that would turn out. Fortunately, it wasn’t completely out of line with other births, especially first-time births.”

“It took almost twenty hours,” Pansea added, no doubt feeling the time involved was nothing to be diminished.

“They’re beautiful,” Cobweb said, for truly they were.

Pansea stroked the hair on one of the small heads. “Thank you. Their names are Rosea and Paynee.”

Lisia swallowed and wiped his eye. “Named after–”

“Yes, I know,” Cobweb cut in, recognizing the names as those of two of the hostlings who had stayed behind after the facility had been abandoned. Rosea had died of injuries sustained during the delivery of his last pearl — coupled with overwork and lack of food — while Paynee had died after he apparently became lost in the forest during an attempt to reach civilization. “The names are perfect.”

Chapter 17

Pansea smiled. “We all love the names, too.” He looked down and boosted the twins just slightly and cocking his head in Cobweb’s directions. “Want to hold one?”

In answer, Cobweb held out his arms. Lisia, sitting slightly closer in, reached forward to take one of them and pass him over — only to discover that the little one wasn’t ready to be held by anyone but his hostling. The same was true of his brother.

“I give up — they’re really not ready,” Lisia said after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, settling back onto the bed.

Cobweb imagined that it must have been very difficult for Lisia to witness the close bonding between hostling and harlings. Despite this, he appeared cheerful and genuinely overjoyed by the new arrivals. For some minutes the three hara fell into general conversation, Cobweb offering Lisia some updates from Galhea. Paynee and Rosea looked on with large curious eyes, occasionally snuggling shyly into Pansea when they’d notice Cobweb or Lisia looking at them. Lisia was discussing the profiles of some of the students coming in for the first session when in through the door came Ivy.

“Oh, showing them off, Pan?” he asked, stepping to the bed and offering a kiss before reaching down to stroke the heads of his harlings. “Hi, Lis,” he said, turning, then straightening up for the visitor. “And you must be Cobweb. Pleased to meet you, tiahaar.”

“Likewise. Your harlings are beautiful,” Cobweb offered.

Ivy was a striking har, Cobweb noted, with snow white skin and black hair running to his shoulders in natural ringlets. His eyes were, appropriate to his name, dark green. Looking at the twins, it was clear their resembled Ivy.

One of the twins suddenly giggled and reached towards his father. Ivy gingerly took the child into his arms. “Oh, you know who your father is, do you?”

Lisia clucked his tongue. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Just a few minutes ago he wouldn’t let me take him and Paynee was the same way — and yet he knows right away who his parents are.”

He reached out and gently squeezed the harling’s wriggling toes, then let go, a frown on his face. “It’s… upsetting really, when I think about it. These harlings obviously want to be with their hostling, their parents. It makes me think back to–”

Lisia broke off then, stopping himself from going on, as the other hara obviously knew what he was thinking. Ivy in particular seemed very keyed to it; he had been one of the pearls produced at the facility, separated from his hostling at birth.

Quickly the moment came to a close and Lisia drew himself together, determined to be positive. “Well, anyway, it’s good to see things happening the right way.”

“Of course, Lis,” Cobweb comforted, patting his arm. “Think about it — now you and the staff will be teaching everyone else how to take care of harlings, like a model almost. You obviously know how to do it, no matter how they raised when they were small. The harlings from here did turn out well in the end, right?”

On this they all agreed. Ivy held Rosea in his arms, bouncing him as the harling played with his curly hair, and Lisia had just resumed his discussion of incoming students when Ivy suddenly remembered something.

“Oh, Lis, I forgot,” he said, handing the infant back to Pansea. “I just saw Orto and he was wondering if we were still doing our usual routine today or if you were going to be with your guest.”

Lisia’s face lit up. “Actually I’d love to do that — Cobweb can watch.”

“What are you doing?” Cobweb asked.

Lisia put his finger to his lips. “Won’t tell him yet, will we, Ivy? Let’s just get changed and then let him see for himself.”

Ivy excused himself, saying he’d be in the lounge in five minutes. Lisia meanwhile said goodbye to hostling and harlings and led Cobweb out of the room and down the hall. “I’ll just be a minute. You can wait out in the lounge while I change.”

Wondering what exactly was going on, Cobweb went down the hall and found himself a comfortable chair. He reflected on the immense change had taken place in the atmosphere since he had been there last. Lisia, too, had obviously changed greatly. Gone was the edgy, defensive, tragically ignorant young har Cobweb had first met. He’d grown up and as he’d done so, he’d gained knowledge and confidence. Meanwhile his natural charms had come to the fore, making him as lighthearted as many hara who’d been spared his traumatic experiences.

Ivy and Lisia emerged from the hallway together, both dressed in outfits that were highly surprising, to Cobweb anyway. Ivy, who’d previously been wearing long pants and a light knit sweater, had switched into shorts and something like a tank top, both in dark green. Lisia had dispensed with the yellow skirt and top combo he’d been wearing and was in knee-length white shorts and a light yellow sleeveless top. All the clothes were made of cotton and clearly designed to wear while engaging in some sort of outdoor activity, perhaps something strenuous.

Cobweb rose from his chair. “Doing garden work?”

The pair exchanged conspiring looks. “We’ll be working… near the garden,” Ivy said slyly.

Together they went downstairs and out the main entrance, from there crossing through one of the small sitting gardens into an old playing field. A short but well-built har was waiting at the far end.

“That’s Orto,” Lisia explained as they made their way across the field. “He was assistant administrator at the school, I’m sure I’ve told you. He used to teach history and then got interested in other duties. He’s decided to stay here for our next phase and help with the classes.”

“He’s also been teaching us a thing or two,” Ivy added.

Orto clasped his hands together, obviously ready to begin whatever was planned. “So, Lis, I guess you’ll be joining us?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Lisia replied. “Orto, this is Tiahaar Cobweb, just arrived from Galhea. I’ve invited him to come watch, if you don’t mind.”

“Mind? Of course I don’t mind.” Orto gestured to a bench a few yards distant. “You can sit over there or here on the grass. I would advise staying at least two body lengths’ away, though.”

Cobweb looked at the ground, which appeared dry enough, and made himself comfortable. What were they going to do? Dance? Gymnastics perhaps? The three hara had stepped a few paces away and were stretching, pulling their legs and arms, making themselves ready for some sort of physical activity.

Lisia, once he finished stretching his arms, shrugged his shoulders a few time and winked as Cobweb continued to imagine what they were up to. “You’re going to be quite surprised,” his friend teased.

A short time later, Cobweb saw just how accurate that prediction had been. It wasn’t dancing they were up to, nor was it gymnastics — well, not exactly. The first few minutes Cobweb didn’t even know what to think, it was so unexpected.

Led by Orto, Lisia and Ivy were engaging in something called sansu, a martial art that, although featuring many graceful moves, was decidedly masculine in nature. Within fifteen minutes the three of them had moved from individual exercises and on to practice matches.

Cobweb couldn’t stop himself from gasping as Lisia landed a kick in Ivy’s shoulder and knocked him over.

“Well done!” Orto exclaimed. “Got him completely off balance and with just enough force.” Ivy was picking himself off the ground. “You’re alright of course?”

Ivy nodded and was quickly back at it. Some of the maneuvers they practiced were quite complex; obviously they had been learning their arts for quite some time. Lisia had never mentioned the training in any of his letters to Cobweb.

It was a lovely afternoon, pleasantly warm and with the smell of the spring flowers in the air. Cobweb was quite content sitting in the grass, watching the sansu. By the time they were through, an hour later, he was thinking about trying to learn the art himself. It wasn’t remotely like anything he’d normally do, but watching the hara work with so much concentration and obvious physical exhilaration made Cobweb feel as if his life was missing something.

When the session was over and the fighters had all once again stretched, Lisia sauntered over, leaving Orto and Ivy to chat a little further over on the grass. The sweat had drenched his shirt so that it clung to his chest. Cobweb was surprised to see that the muscles on that chest were actually quite well defined. Below the knees, Lisia’s calves, flushed dark from the exercise, were firm without being overly bulky. His hair, which he’d pulled back with a large black clasp, had half fallen onto his shoulder. The grace of a woman with the power of a man, Cobweb thought. That is Wraeththu.

“You’ve got to teach me that, Lis!” he said, rising up and make a mock punch in Lisia’s direction. “Seriously, I’d like to try it.”

“Would you really? Glad you liked it.” Lisia began to pace off towards the bench. “I didn’t tell you about this — wanted to see what you’d think.”

Cobweb had followed over and sat down. “I think it’s great — learned something new.”

“Definitely,” Lisia agreed. “I never learned to use my body in that way. Doing that makes me feel a lot more balanced.”

“I’m sure it does,” Cobweb agreed. It occurred to him that he found the notion of Lisia growing a little bit more ouana exciting.

“Not that I’ve really changed that much, that way,” Lisia continued. “I mean, I’m certainly no fighter, not really. Not going to stop being what I am — a… what did Orto say to me once?” He screwed up his face, trying to recall something. “A ‘shrinking violet’?”

Cobweb laughed. “You’re no shrinking violet, Lis — never have been. I assure you. You’re just yourself.”

“I know.” Lisia went and adjusted the clip in his hair as he spoke. “For a few years I kept expecting that I would change and somehow become more like what the Gelaming talked about, but I’m just naturally more soume I think. It makes me glad actually, that I didn’t change that much.”

“Me too,” Cobweb said. “I’ve always liked you just how you are.”

Chapter 18

Lisia smiled at the compliment. “Thanks. I missed you.”

Cobweb noticed he felt inexplicably warm and wiped his brow and neck, which were now sweating. Earlier he’d found the sun to be mild. Perhaps the change in his perceptions was not so mysterious, he realized. He liked the idea that he’d been missed. The warmth he felt had been kindled by Lisia.

His companion sank to the ground, apparently taking a cue to settle back and enjoy the opportunity to relax. Cobweb found his eyes returning to Lisia’s chest. He could smell the drying sweat coming over the lift breeze. The scent was delightfully erotic. Cobweb wanted to get closer, wanted to touch. Was Lisia doing this to him on purpose or was it all unconscious? Cobweb was still hot and now he felt the heat concentrating in his loins.

He felt he needed to get up and shake the feelings that had overcome him. Lisia would not be expecting lust to have flared up so suddenly, could he? His companion did not seem to be directing any energy his way, but was simply relaxing after a hard workout. Cobweb got to his feet and held out his hand. “Ready to move on?”

Lisia pulled himself up. “Sure.” He glanced over at Ivy and Orto, who were still talking on the grass. “Perhaps we could go for a walk.”

“All right,” Cobweb agreed, “although I thought you’d be taking me around the school.”

Lisia started walking. “Oh, I will, only I suddenly feel like getting away a little. I’ll take you around the fields here.”

Cobweb followed along. To him, it seemed almost as if greater, unseen forces were at work, drawing the two of them together. Even though he was resisting it slightly, compelled to keep his feelings in check, Cobweb was subject to the pull. As they walked, his body was still hot and simmering with lust. Though perhaps he was simply being a tease, for the moment Lisia still seemed to remain unaware of it, stepping onto the path leading into the fields of wildflowers beyond.

Wildflowers. Arriving over the crest of a hill, Cobweb saw them, a field of purple. Lisia, who had kept a faster pace, was standing among them, surrounded — just as he had dreamed.

Ever since he had become Wraeththu, Cobweb had believed in visions, dreams, signs. Terzian had both prized and feared him for his powers, the way he could access knowledge of the past, as well as the future.

If only he had paused on his journey to further consider the dream he’d had, he would have recognized his feelings for what they were. He would have anticipated something special. Although this visit had already brought the surprise of the twin harlings and Lisia’s sansu training, now the true surprise had been revealed to Cobweb, in his heart. He had fallen in love.

During their short walk, neither of them had spoken. Now Lisia smiled, the sun catching the gold of his hair. He was speaking to Cobweb but he didn’t even know it. Cobweb was listening to his heart.

“Lis,” he replied softly. This couldn’t be ignored. By the Aghama, how had he allowed himself to deny this for so long?

Lisia came towards him. “What is it?” he asked, a trace of worry on his face. “Is something wrong?”

Cobweb whole arm was burning as he reached out and took Lisia’s right hand. “No, Lis, nothing’s wrong. Everything is right.”

“Everything?” Lisia asked softly. Through the touch of his hand, their shared energy, Cobweb could feel that his friend was beginning to understand.

“Everything.” Cobweb took Lisia’s other hand. “I love you.”

A shudder passed between them.

Lisia stared, utterly stunned. “You–” he gulped, “you do?”

Cobweb nodded. “I do. I didn’t know it until just now, however, although I’d had a vision.” He glanced around at his surroundings. “I dreamt of this a few days ago. I saw you standing in a field of purple flowers just like these.”

“Lisianthus,” Lisia murmured.

“What?”

“These are lisianthus,” he replied. “It’s where my name comes from.” He broke his gaze away from Cobweb and looked into the field of undulating flowers. “I had a dream too,” he said softly.

Cobweb squeezed Lisia’s hand. “What was it?”

Lisia spoke hesitantly. “I’m afraid to tell you. Afraid to even think about it.”

“Lis, look at me,” Cobweb enjoined. “I love you. I have for a long time, I think. Don’t be afraid to talk to me.”

Finally Lisia turned back his gaze. “Well, I used to dream that some important har would come here and rescue me, take me away to be his consort. Eventually I threw away that dream, mostly because of Vlaric. When I met you it was something incredible, but I didn’t think of you that way.” He ceased speaking but obviously had more to say.

“But?”

Lisia sighed. “But as the years went by and we wrote our letters and I visited you, I started to have dreams. I dreamt I lived at Forever. I dreamt…” His eyes were pleading. Did he really need to admit everything? Cobweb waited patiently while Lisia built up his courage. “I dreamt that you loved me… and that I loved you.”

“Do you love me?” Still holding Lisia’s hands, Cobweb was not speaking the words aloud.

“I do.” Lisia’s answer flowed through his hands, a wave of radiant power. “I love you.”

Cobweb, soaking it in, felt his body surging once again, on fire.

The power of those words was unquestionable, but before Cobweb could truly enjoy the sensation, he felt the power receding, Lisia drawing away. Now it was his turn to be worried. “What is it?”

Lisia broke their contact and turned away, hugging the backs of his arms. “I do love you… I think I do, but the rest of it…” Shaking his head, he was shaking with agitation. “The rest of it’s impossible.”

“What’s impossible?” Cobweb asked, coming up behind and taking Lisia in his arms.

“Everything!” Lisia was tense and did not give in to the embrace. “Me living in Forever, being with you, you loving me. You can’t love me.”

“I do love you, Lis. Believe it.” He tried sending some soothing energy but found it being repelled.

“I can’t.” Lisia pulled away and once again crossed his arms, protecting his heart. “You say you love me because you know I want to hear it and you feel sorry for me. You don’t have to do that and I’d prefer if you didn’t. This can’t happen.”

“But Lis, we’ve already–”

“Just forget this even came up. Let’s just move on.” Lisia suddenly turned on his heel and began to head back towards the school.

This was absurd. Cobweb rushed after him and grabbed his friend’s arm, stopping him. “Why are you doing this?”

“I’ve got a curriculum to finalize, letters to send out, hara to manage. Years worth of work.” Lisia wrenched his arm away and resumed his walk towards the building. “I can’t be lingering on these romantic notions of mine. They don’t mean anything.”

Cobweb allowed Lisia keep on walking. There’d been a revelation between them, but not the proper resolution. For the moment, the conversation was over, dead. Lisia would not discuss it. Cobweb knew they’d have the chance to talk again. They had to.

Although Cobweb stayed in Harling Gardens for a week after that day, it was not until the night before his departure that he finally had it out with Lisia.

As much as he’d wanted to talk, Lisia had wanted none of it. From the moment they’d returned to the building, Lisia had play-acted as if nothing at all had happened between them. He was perfectly pleasant but would not allow Cobweb to return to the subject. He was so obvious about it was almost farcical. Not for an entire week would he speak, and then it was only because Cobweb had forced it.

Finally Cobweb decided it was ready to go. He’d had his vacation, from seeing the facility to hiking to spending time with Lisia going over the curriculum. He and Lisia did spend together and talk — just not about love. This was another reason Cobweb decided to leave. Even as Lisia froze him out, Cobweb realized with every day how much he really did love him — and Lisia refused to believe him, for reasons that seemed all too obvious.

Cobweb could have pressed him on the point, but instead chose to enjoy as many days as possible. Knowing his own feelings, being around Lisia had new meaning, even if it wasn’t something they could talk about. Finally, however, the pain outweighed the benefits. He had to escape the stalemate.

He could not leave without talking. Impossible. He couldn’t wait for a letter or a chat on the thought transference unit. He needed a face to face.

He’d had a full day. Cobweb had agreed to help out with the preparation of the guest rooms, which were being newly painted, cleaned and prepared to make the switch over from permanent dormitory space to temporary space. Even though Cobweb hadn’t done any manual labor in years, he found he enjoyed it. Most of his day had been spent painting the walls with Branad and Ivy. Working as a team, they’d painted three rooms. It had been good to be able to talk with the others, if not about Lisia, then about other matters.

Afterward they’d eaten dinner together. Cobweb, as the guest, was promised use of the upstairs bathroom first and gladly took it. He was covered in paint and needed some time and water to soak and scrub it off. The bath also gave him time to think. You must get him to see the truth, he told himself. When he’d toweled himself off and put on a robe, he went straight to Lisia’s room.

“Lis,” he projected. He’d already decided to avoid words. He needed to convey emotions. Lisia wouldn’t believe him, but how could he disbelieve an emotion he could feel? It would be like pretending to be deaf.

“Yes, Cobweb?” Lisia called out aloud. “Come in, the door’s open.”

Cobweb turned the handle and went inside. Lisia sat up on the bed, where he’d apparently been reading. “Hi.” He glanced down at his book and then looked up again. “So you finished painting, had a bath?”

“You know I did,” Cobweb said, again mind to mind.

Lisia got up and put his book on the small desk in the corner of his room. “Oh. You’ll probably be going to bed then, soon. What time are you planning on leaving?”

The words and questions were all completely contrived, completely wrong.

Cobweb walked over to the bed and very deliberately sat down. Time for the first mental blast. “I love you, Lis.”

Lisia spun around. “Stop it! This is over, Cobweb. It’s been a week and I can tell you keep obsessing over this.”

“I’m obsessing over this?” Cobweb burst out, using his mouth, not his mind. A torrent of words poured forth. “I was perfectly happy, Lis, ecstatic even. By the Aghama, I’m in love! Do you think that’s something I would just say to flatter you? Do you think it’s something that happens to me every day? You know me, Lis. You know me. I’m not lying. Please believe me.” It was completely unlike him to plead with anyone, but Cobweb felt he had no choice. “I’ve been here waiting a week to tell you and every day I feel it more. Please tell me you believe me.”

Tears had welled up in Lisia’s eyes. “I want to believe you.” He stepped in closer, but not close enough to touch. “As soon as you told me, I wanted to believe you, I–.”

“But you said–”

“I know but I just–”

“Couldn’t believe it and refused to hear it.”

“Exactly.”

“And you–”

“Love you? Yes, I do.”

“Aha! Well, we’re getting somewhere again.” Cobweb bent forward and snagged on one of Lisia’s hands. “Come here.” He patted the bed beside him. “Now you come here and explain why you wouldn’t talk to me then.”

“I couldn’t consider it.”

“But why?”

“Because it’s not possible!”

They were going in circles and Cobweb said so.

Lisia disagreed. “It’s not that I don’t believe in… us, just that I don’t think we can do anything about it!” He went on to explain. They could love each other and there was value in that. They’d probably been in love all along, as friends. “But what of the future, Cobweb? I have to think about what’s going on here, I’m going to live here.”

“Did I ever say anything different?”

This gave Lisia pause. “What?”

Cobweb repeated himself. “Did I ever say you had to move, that things had to change?”

“Well, no, but–” Lisia stopped. “You mean…”

“I mean I know you’re not ready — for moving. You need to be here. But you’re ready for love, Lis, aren’t you?”

Up again came the tears. “Yes.”

“Come here then.” Cobweb held out his arms. “I’m read for love, too. Turn off the light.”

After that, the two of them enjoyed a long conversation, half in touch, half in thought. The future was something they could talk about. The present they could enjoy as it came to them.

Chapter 19

“So did you sleep well?” Lisia asked, coming into the bedroom after a trip to the bathroom.

Cobweb was sitting on the bed pulling on a pair of pants. “Yes, very well — good, since it might be a while before we sleep well again.”

Lisia smiled and patted his middle. “Are you suggesting this one is going to do a lot of crying?”

“It’s possible,” Cobweb replied. “Harlings do that, you know.”

“Oh, heavens!” Lisia exclaimed, hands going to his mouth in mock-horror. “I didn’t know that. Forget about this harling business…”

His joking words were smothered by Cobweb’s lips. Lisia had said he expected the pearl to be delivered that day and these might be their last few hours alone.

“Brush my hair?” Cobweb asked, sitting down at the dressing table.

“Love to,” Lisia replied. He had always enjoyed brushing and arranging Cobweb’s hair for him.

As Lisia drew the comb through Cobweb’s long black locks, the soon-to-be father relaxed in the easy comfort, the soothing familiarity, the regularity of the brush strokes. Even though it was something Lisia did for him on a regular basis, their relationship still felt new enough for him to want to savor every aspect, every sweetness, as much as possible.

It had been a long, long time in coming.

***

Cobweb had respected Lisia’s desire for independence, which chiefly sprang out of his driving committment to Harling Gardens. Years ago, when the Parasiel and Gelaming had agreed to fund the school, part of the package Lisia had presented was the eventual establishment of an adult education program focusing on conception, hosting, birthing and harling care. From the very first session, the program was a success. It was not something Lisia could walk away from.

Within two years of startup, the program was being talked about and written up in the press. One day in a bookstore in Galhea Cobweb saw a display that included not only Lisia’s biography but a new guide he’d written on harling care and a copy of a newsletter. While their prominent display no doubt had something to do with Galhea’s status as the capital and source of many of the school’s students, there was no doubt that Harling Gardens was a success story and that Lisia had become quite well known.

Every time Cobweb heard of Lisia’s success he felt proud. Lisia had always been a har to admire and now that Cobweb loved him, his happiness was very important. Lisia’s achievements had their bittersweet side, however, for the more popular the school became, the busier Lisia was and the more committed he became to staying on for “just another year.” Cobweb hadn’t asked him the second or third year, but after the fourth he had dared. The answer was no. Same for the fifth year, the sixth, and the seventh.

These were long years for Cobweb — long and lonely. No harlings or intrigue in the house, life at Forever assumed a rather boring regularity. Political visitors came and went, staff came and went, the seasonal festivals came and went. It was much the same as always, but with knowledge of what things could be if he were not alone, to Cobweb it all seemed dull and hollow in comparison.

No one noticed anything amiss except that Cobweb continued to be alone, apparently, so all the rumors went, because he was still somehow, despite everything, mourning Terzian. Or, another rumor had it, he was holding the torch for Cal. Until the bedeviled har was found, Cobweb would be with no other har. No one knew about Lisia or, at least, the fact that the friendship he had with him had progressed beyond friendship and, as Swift had at once time put it, “friendly aruna.”

Wanting to avoid the pressures of family, friends and coworkers, Cobweb and Lisia kept their relationship to themselves, telling no one. They shared their love mainly within the pages of their more and more frequent letters, but also in their occasional chats by thought transference unit. It got to the point where any time he was told there was a caller on the machine, Cobweb would feel his knees go weak. A tiny glimmer of Lisia’s love, sent across the ethers, could keep him happy for days.

Besides the long-distance communication, they saw one another in person. By the end of eight years, Cobweb had traveled up to Harling Gardens four times. No one ever questioned why, as the northwest summers were lovely and cooler than in Galhea.

Lisia, although sometimes making trips on behalf of the school or his writing career, never came to Galhea. Cobweb knew why. If Lisia came to Galhea, it might be too difficult for him to say no when Cobweb asked him to stay.

It was not until after Ascension that Lisia finally had reason to visit — not that the Ascension itself had much to do with it.

It was another event entirely which drew Lisia down from the mountains: Swift conceived a pearl.

Chapter 20

It was within a year of the Ascension that Swift and Seel had been blessed with their second child. It seemed a propitious moment for the start of new life, with one era come to an end, a new one about to be born.

The hosting had gone smoothly and two weeks before the due date, during Festival, Forever had been full of joy as the Tigrons Pellaz and Calanthe made an appearance, visiting the house together for the first time in thirty years. The Ascension had brought many changes, including the freedom to come back and face old friends and sometime enemies. Tyson was there along with Azriel, who Cal had never met. Cobweb may not have held out the torch for Cal, as the rumors went, but it filled his heart with gladness to see that at long last, perhaps for the first time, his friend was whole, his damaged mind and soul restored. Of course, the reunion had had its bittersweet moments and tensions, but all in all, it had been a happy time. Moreover, for Swift it had come as a welcome distraction from constantly dwelling on his developing pearl.

It was two days before the approximated due date that the house received a visitor, invited by Cobweb. Lisia had been called down from Harling Gardens in order to assist with the birth. The request hadn’t come from Swift, but rather from Cobweb. Ever since the conception had been announced, Cobweb had worried that Swift might encounter problems such as he’d had himself. He didn’t want his son to undergo any unnecessary pain or complications.

Then one day he’d been in town and happened to meet a hostling with a three-month-old harling that had been delivered at Harling Gardens. Although the school was not a birthing facility, occasionally hara, having taking courses there, would go there to have their births attended. Lisia had been an immeasurable help to him, the hostling reported — so much so that he planned to see if he could call him down to attend the birth of his second pearl, whenever that occurred. Cobweb wondered if Lisia would come to Galhea on behalf of this relative stranger. Then he had another thought: Why not request him to come down for Swift’s birth? Lisia, talking via thought transference unit, happily agreed to make the trip. He would arrive a week or so after festival.

Lisia arrived on a bitterly cold afternoon. Alighting from his horse, he shook icicles out of his hair. Cobweb was out front to greet him and offer him a fur wrap. “I’m so glad to be back here and help, but heavens, it’s cold!” Lisia exclaimed, following Cobweb inside.

After handing off Lisia’s bags to a servant, they headed straight for the living room. They found Swift curled up in an armchair by the fire, idly leafing through a book. Seel was sitting at a desk on the side, apparently working.

“Lisia!” Swift called warmly. “I’m so glad you could come.” He put his book down on the table beside him and smoothed his robe over his knees. Glancing over to Seel, who Lisia noticed seemed a bit anxious, Swift remarked, “We’re both so ready for things to happen, me especially.”

Lisia came up to his friend and patted his shoulder in sympathy. “You’re almost there, I’m sure,” he said. “Let me look at you!”

Wearing large fur slippers and a dark blue robe, Swift stood up, a little slower than usual but quite ably. His thick middle was obvious to everyone. Swift’s face was glowing, healthy, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. Clearly hosting agreed with him.

“Swift’s been doing very well,” Cobweb said, slipping up to his other side. “Only some backaches now and again, isn’t that right?”

Swift nodded. “Yes, I keep getting them right in the small of my back. Seel’s been healing me with energy, but they keep hitting me over and over.”

Lisia’s bit on his knuckle, thinking. “Have you tried hot compresses?”

“What do you mean?” Seel asked. He’d given up on his paperwork. “Hi, Lis.”

“Hi, Seel,” Lisia responded, addressing the father-to-be. “Oh, I mean rather than doing healing every time, just make sure you’ve got some hot compresses ready. Just put together some hot towels, hot wet towels, or even stones heated by the hearth, and keep them around.” He looked back to Swift. “Then, when you have troubles, have someone apply them to your back or even lie on top of them yourself,” Lisia explained. “Combine that with occasional healing and a back rub and you should be fine.”

Swift reached out and gave Lisia a sudden hug. “Oh, Lis, thanks for the advice. See, Seel, I told you he’d help. Now where’s my back rub?”

They all laughed and settled themselves into an attitude of waiting. Pearls had their own schedule. When the time came however, everyone in the house would know.

The call, when it came, was loud and clear. Cobweb had been mired in a dream, a dark red dream, where he’d been lying on a table, his body ripped with pain. He was delivering a pearl!

With a start he awoke from the dream, dragged from his own memory, suddenly knowing that the result of that nightmare was calling him. Swift!

Cobweb leapt out of bed, threw on a robe, and grabbed a tie for his hair before flying out of the door. Lisia was sleeping in a guest bedroom, having wanted not only a night of rest but to avoid the appearance he’d come to Galhea to see Cobweb. Propriety and privacy were very high on his list of priorities.

Cobweb pounded on the door of the guest bedroom and soon his friend appeared at the door in a robe, hair twisted every which way.

“It’s begun,” Cobweb announced, taking hold of Lisia’s arm. “Come with me.”

Disengaging himself, Lisia ducked inside the room for a moment to grab a pair of slippers and a large purse before coming out and hurrying to catch up with Cobweb, who was almost back to Seel and Swift’s bedroom. Cobweb waited at the half-opened door. He couldn’t see the bed but he could hear Swift, who was moaning softly.

Lisia came up beside him. “Night births are sometimes easier,” he whispered. “If you’ve already been sleeping, your muscles are more relaxed and you may find it easier to simply go with it.”

Cobweb didn’t reply, instead steadying himself mentally and taking hold of the doorknob. “Come on then,” he said, stepping inside.

Swift was crumpled up on the bed, clutching his stomach and weeping just a little, moaning as Seel sat beside him, trying to settle him into a comfortable half-sitting position. Phlaar, ever the faithful family physician, was off to the side, bent over arranging the blankets and pulling up Swift’s thick nightgown to perform an examination.

“Swift!” Cobweb called with his mind.

His child looked up. Swift’s eyes were for a moment uncertain before suddenly he fixed them with confidence. “It’s happening,” he announced, gritting his teeth. “It’s really happening.”

“Yes, it is,” Lisia said softly. He said to Phlaar. “How long?”

Phlaar turned. “Oh, about fifteen minutes. I just got here.”

“Ah.” Lisia sat opposite Seel at the edge of the bed and found himself recalling a memory from long ago. “Oh, dear Swift, do you remember when you first met me and you told me one day you were going to host?” he asked. At the time Lisia hadn’t believed the governor of Megalithica would ever really and truly go through with such a plan. Little did he know that Swift had been completely sincere in his pledge.

Swift managed to flash a smile before grimacing with pain as his muscles contracted. For a few moments he was unable to answer. “Yes, I remember. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

By now Cobweb was also sitting on the edge of the bed, farther down. “How’s the pain?” he asked. He didn’t want to see his child suffer.

“Fine!” Swift gasped, wincing. “I think. Actually it seems to be getting–” His words were cut off as he concentrated on a new round of pains. By the time they were through his cheeks were wet with fresh tears. “I was going to say better,” he moaned.

“I don’t mean to give you bad news, Swift,” Lisia said, “but it gets worse. When its your first, there’s usually about fifteen minutes where it’s bearable and then it spikes, gets much worse. You’re strong. I know you can handle it. Think of… think of what I went through, think of those articles I sent you, my book.”

Swift nodded his head vigorously, eyes squeezed shut as the pains continued. His fingers dug into Seel’s arm which he had grabbed for support. “I remember what I read, yes. You were so strong, our bodies are built for this, I know it. I can be strong too. I can do this.”

Three hours later neither Swift’s stoic attitude nor the encouragement of all four hara had produced any visible effect. Peering between Swift’s spread legs as he gently opened up the passage with his fingers, Phlaar could just barely see the pearl, still lodged up high inside. It hadn’t made any progress. Swift’s patience and endurance were beginning to wear thin, although he had done little complaining, putting up with the spoken advice and leaning heavily into Seel, who had sat behind him on the bed and offered all the comfort he could.

Once the impasse became evident, Seel was the first to speak up about it. “What do you think the problem is? Something should have happened by now, don’t you think?”

His question appeared to be directed at Phlaar and Lisia equally, but Lisia had thus far, so Cobweb noticed, kept himself in check, conscious that he was in some ways usurping on the physician’s professional territory.

“I am concerned,” Phlaar admitted to Seel. “Your delivery of Azriel was amazingly short, but the time varies. Sometimes it takes longer. Of course, this isn’t nearly as bad as Cal–”

“Oh, Phlaar, don’t even bring that up!” Swift cried. “That’s not a fair comparison and I don’t even want to think about it.”

Lisia was puzzled. “What about the Tigron?” he asked. He knew all about Cal’s history with the household and of course knew Tyson, but he didn’t understand the reference.

When Swift closed his eyes, apparently trying once again to push down on the pearl, Cobweb decided to answer. “When the time came for Cal to deliver Tyson, it took him a full two days.”

“Good heavens!” Lisia exclaimed. “That’s the worse I’ve ever heard. What was the matter?”

“Hard to say,” the doctor murmured, checking Swift for progress. “The entire labor was difficult. Cal was in quite a lot of pain and became violent and feverish, hallucinating, shouting. We thought he was going to hurt himself and had to keep someone watching him constantly. Swift watched over him a few times, actually.” He finished his examination and frowned. “If he hadn’t been so out of control, I would have done for him the same as I did for Cobweb and what, so it seems, I may do again here.”

“And what’s that?” Swift asked tiredly, falling back from his half-sitting position, staring at the ceiling as Seel ran a damp cloth across his forehead.

“Well, rather than prolong the labor or possibly damage the pearl through an effort which might be futile, I can just make an incision which will make it easier for you to push the pearl out.” He looked to Cobweb. “That’s what I did for you, although it was done more crudely than I would have liked. We were desperate and ill-experienced in deliveries, but I still believe your body was simply too small to allow the pearl to pass. Swift has a very similar body type and I think the surgery could save many hours of frustration and exhaustion.”

“Will it hurt?” Seel asked worriedly. “I don’t want him to go through any unnecessarily pain.”

Phlaar shrugged. “Well, it certainly won’t hurt any worse than a natural delivery and,” he said directly to Swift, who was tilting his head up, also looking worried, “you’ll heal pretty quickly anyway.”

“Well, what do you think?” Seel asked gently.

Swift groaned. “I don’t know. I–” he broke off, apparently cut off by a muscle contraction. “I don’t feel like there’s been any change for a long time and I’m only getting to get more and more tired. If this is the only way–”

“It’s not,” Lisia abruptly announced. Ever since the discussion had begun, the hostling had been listening to the proceedings attentively without speaking.

“Oh? Well, then, what would you recommend, in your professional opinion?” ask Phlaar, trying to keep the irritation out of his tone, aware of Lisia’s expertise.

“Swift, what the doctor has suggested is… it’s just absurd!” Lisia burst out. The doctor visibly flinched. “No offense intended, Tiahaar, but I would never recommend any sort of surgical intervention, not when there are at least two viable non-invasive, natural methods available. Also, during the period when our facility was delivering dozens of pearls a month, I never encountered any situation that did not resolve itself naturally.”

Swift grunted, once again trying to push. “Tell me what I can do. I know that you know more about this than any of us, Lis.”

“There are two things we can do. First, I have this.” He reached over to the side table where he had his purse and brought out a small bottle. “This is an anaesthetic lubricant we developed at the facility. It works fairly simply to reduce pain and inflammation as well as to re-lubricate. Seel, if you would please apply it, I believe it would have some immediate effect.”

Seel nodded, understanding, then looked down at Swift. “Is that all right with you?”

“Go ahead. It can’t hurt–” Swift winced then smiled weakly. “Well, not more than I already hurt.”

Seel, moving from behind his chesnari to get in front, took the bottle from Lisia and unscrewed the cap. The balm was clear and smooth as he spread it around the external and internal portions of Swift’s female organs. Once finished, he glanced over to Lisia. “Is that all?”

“No, actually if you would massage the area for a minute, that would bring an even greater effect.”

Seel raised a questioning eyebrow. “What sort of effect?”

“Quite simply to relax the muscles and work the medicine down further into the tissues. You might try to gently work on some of the energy centers while you’re at it.” Lisia’s words were matter of fact.

Seel looked back to Swift. “All right?”

Swift shifted in place, then reached out with his hand and caught Seel’s shoulder. “Yes,” he sighed wonderingly. “Actually it feels a little better already.”

As Seel went ahead with his task, Cobweb looked to Lisia admiringly, feeling his love well up inside him. “You’re really good at this,” he said. “I’m so glad you could be here to offer your expertise.”

Lisia lowered his eyes at the praise. “I’m sure this could have been done without me but I am pleased to be able to help your son, given all that he’s done for me.”

Meanwhile Swift could be heard moaning in pleasure. “That’s much better,” he sighed. “Heavens, yes, much better.” Seel had apparently done an excellent job at opening the energy centers and Swift’s face had the glow of aruna about it — very different than a few minutes earlier.

“Now go ahead and try pushing again,” Lisia urged gently, after a few minutes had passed. “Just see if it’s easier now.”

Swift closed his eyes and gave it a try. “Ahhhhhhoooohhhhmmm,” he moaned loudly. Down below the pearl had shifted. “Yes.”

Phlaar, who hadn’t been saying much, had to admit that the improvement was significant. He would reconsider the surgical option, as perhaps the lubricant would be enough.

Everyone felt relieved when during the half hour that followed, Swift managed to nudge the pearl down an inch or two. Despite the progress, however, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Swift might indeed simply be too physically small to pass the pearl. By the end of that time, Swift was complaining that the pain was growing intolerable, pressure building inside him, a feeling that the pearl was pressing up to bone and couldn’t possibly make it out.

Seel again took up his chesnari’s cause. “Lisia, you mentioned a second option.” He was touching Swift’s forehead with a damp cloth.

Lisia nodded, obviously prepared. “Yes. It’s actually one we hostlings developed in the facility on our own.” He looked to all of them before offering a full explanation. “As you know, we didn’t receive the normal caste training, but we learned to do visualizations that would help us and which we could use to help others. Since going through caste training I understand more about how such visualizations work and have used it in conjunction with numerous deliveries, including Pansea’s twins.”

“What do you do?” Swift asked, his voiced strained. “Is it something simple? Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”

Lisia nodded. “Yes, don’t worry, it’s very simple. It’s an assisted visualization. In essence, you must think of your body as a flower, opening up. You will need to concentrate, enter a state of meditation. Meanwhile, I can help you by guiding you through it. Seel can help you as well.”

“Oh, Lisia,” Cobweb blurted out before he could think, “you’re so brilliant. How I wish you’d been able to help me delivering Swift!” He glanced to Phlaar. “Absolutely no offense, Tiahaar.”

“None taken,” Phlaar replied stiffly. “We didn’t know much about deliveries or Wraeththu physiology in general, not at that time.”

Swift, who had agreed immediately to the proposal, closed his eyes and, on Lisia’s instruction, spread his arms out across the bed, palms outstretched.

“You mustn’t be at all tense,” Lisia whispered. “Think of your body as soft, flexible, opening wider and wider. Be flexible and lissom as a flower.” He and Seel had arranged themselves, each sitting just behind Swift, holding his shoulders. Their eyes were also closed.

“Now, you are in a field,” Lisia intoned. “The sun is rising with the morning.”

“Breathe slowly,” Seel whispered. “The morning is quiet.”

“Now feel the sun warming you, filling you with energy.” Lisia held his grip on Swift’s shoulder. “Don’t tense up with it, just soak it in.”

Swift’s expression softened. He almost appeared to be sleeping.

“Now think of your pearl, the center of the flower,” Lisia continued. “Your petals are curling outward, reaching into the sunlight, but only partially. There are more petals inside, deep inside, and the center of the flower is a beautiful black orb.”

Seel understood what Lisia was trying to do and softly offered his own instructions. “Now let yourself open. Just as naturally and freely as a flower.”

After some minutes reinforcing these messages, Lisia and Seel began to squeeze Swift’s shoulders and upper back, timing them to coincide with instructions to bear down. Swift still appeared to be asleep, but he was indeed pushing, because very shortly there were a series of movements below. The pearl was about to be born.

Cobweb observed with tears in his eyes. “Oh, Swift,” he crooned, “I can see it, it’s almost here.”

Lisia, who had opened his eyes and leaned down to check the position, now resumed his former station next to Seel. “Now Seel and I will help you with the final bit.”

“Help me?” Swift murmured from the depth of his near-trance.

“Yes, to give the last push.” Lisia and Seel assisted the hostling up into a sitting position and gestured for Cobweb and Phlaar to hold his legs steady while with an unspoken signal, Swift began to bear down, Lisia and Seel feeding him with extra strength and determination.

Swift’s head began to shake as he tucked his chin against his chest, growled, then finally screamed. Lisia and Seel were screaming along with him when the pearl shot out into Phlaar’s waiting hands.

Swift slumped back into Seel’s embrace, relieved but intensely exhausted.

The birthing expert meanwhile slipped over to have a look at the pearl, which appeared healthy as Phlaar examined it and gently wiped it clean. “It’s quiet a large pearl, Swift,” Lisia reported. “You should be very proud.”

Cobweb suddenly couldn’t resist giving Lisia a hug. “You should be very proud yourself,” he whispered into his ear. “What you did for my son… I really appreciate it.”

With Seel’s help, Swift shifted onto his side. Phlaar brought the pearl up and set it on the bed, ready for its hostling’s protection. Swift curled around the pearl and Cobweb pulled up a blanket to cover them.

“Thank you, Lis,” Swift said, looking up, still dazed, almost asleep, despite the recent screaming. “That… this,” he patted the blanket, “was amazing.” With those words he closed his eyes and immediately dropped off to sleep.

Chapter 21

Lisia and Cobweb woke up at mid-morning, just as the sun had risen high enough in the sky to pass over the trees and come through the windows, shining onto the bed. Eyes still half-closed, they snuggled against one another, pulling the blanket over their heads, not wanting to get up. They probably would have stayed under the blankets until lunchtime if it hadn’t been for a knock at the door.

“Um, come in,” Cobweb managed, startled. Quickly he pulled down the blanket and sat up, composing himself. Lisia followed suit, even if he did shrink down a bit, apparently trying to appear inconspicuous. Cobweb knew Lisia was loath for anyone to suspect he had any ulterior motive in visiting Forever.

When the door opened, it was Seel. He’d brought a tray with tea and cookies, which he wordlessly set down on the night stand. If Swift’s consort was at all surprised to find the couple in bed together, he gave no sign. In fact there were two teacups on the tray.

“Good morning, you two,” he said, pulling up a chair.

“And good morning to you,” Cobweb replied. “How’s it feel to be a father?”

“Wonderful,” Seel answered. “We waited a long time. I’m glad it worked out so well… thanks to you two — especially you, Lis.”

Lisia smiled self-consciously. “Oh, you’re welcome. I didn’t see why Cobweb had asked me down here but it seems I was of some use.” He drew the blanket up over his shoulders.

“Of course you were of use — more than that, Lis!” Seel enthused. “You were brilliant.” He ran his rand through his long blond hair, reflecting. “I’m so glad Phlaar didn’t cut him.” He paused, assessing the green-eyed hostling. “Now what is it, Lis? You look like you’re trying to hide under the covers!”

Lisia immediately drew the blankets down around his waist again. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just a little… embarrassed.”

“Whatever for?” Seel asked.

Lisia was furtive. “You won’t tell Swift you found… you found us together like this… will you?”

Seel couldn’t help it. He laughed out loud. “What?!”

“I fail to see the humor in this, Seel,” Cobweb burst out suddenly. Apparently the paranoia was catching. “What’s so funny? We both want to be sure you don’t tell Swift!”

“Tell Swift?” Seel chuckled. “Well, first off, no chance of telling him now — he’s dead to the world, snoring alongside the pearl. For a couple hours after the delivery he was asleep but once he woke, he wouldn’t shut up! Kept me up babbling, wanting to talk about everything that happened — Lis this, Lis that, the pain, opening up, how he loves incubating the pearl, everything! Finally an hour ago he dropped off at last. I don’t think he’ll be up for quite a long while.”

“But about telling him…” Lisia murmured.

“I don’t need to tell him, you two.” He was finally understanding the issue. “What is it? You think he doesn’t know?”

Lisia and Cobweb both looked indignant. “Know what?” they asked in unison.

Seel stood up and motioned to the night stand. “Oh, you’re both impossible. Almost twenty years you’ve known each other and yet– oh, never mind! Have your tea.” Seel left the room smiling, shaking his head.

Cobweb sighed. “Well, I think it’s time we both got up. You have some tea, I’m taking a bath.”

“Fine,” Lisia agreed, reaching for a cup. “I wouldn’t mind staying in bed just a little longer.”

They spent the next week together, Cobweb savoring every second, wishing Lisia could somehow stay.

Finally on the eighth day they were in the living room when Azriel, arrived two days earlier for a visit, burst in. “It’s happening!” he announced excitedly. “Come on, they want you to come see!”

Cobweb turned to Lisia, who was knitting a small blanket. “Want to come see my new grandharling?”

“Of course!” Lisia set down his knitting and followed Cobweb and Azriel to the master bedroom upstairs. “I still love tiny harlings so much,” he remarked on the stairs. “Probably because I wasn’t allowed to see them for so long.”

“Probably,” Cobweb agreed. They’d reached the door. Azriel gestured for them to go in first.

Swift and Seel were seated cross-legged on the bed as between them the brittle pearl shell trembled and twisted with the efforts of the newborn harling, making its way into the world. Along with Phlaar, the three hara watched the proud parents as they gently broke away bits of the shell. Five minutes later, Swift lifted the little one up and into his arms.

“Oh, my precious,” Swift cooed. Seel came up beside him and they embraced the child between them, murmuring a prayer.

The other hara allowed them a few minutes together before speaking. This was such a personal, powerful moment they couldn’t bear to interrupt.

Finally Phlaar said, “Well, do you think we could see him?”

Swift looking up smilingly. “Yes.” Seel moved out of the way as Swift held the child in his arms. Predictably he was beautifully formed, with Seel’s blond hair and small version of Swift’s face. The harling laughed and tugged on the collar of his hostling’s nightgown.

“I’m so happy for you,” said Lisia, stepping closer and looking the infant in the eyes. “Do you have a name for him?”

Swift turned the harling to face him. “Yes, I do. He’s going to be Opal.”

Cobweb quirked an eyebrow. “After the Kamagrian priestess?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” Swift said, “just because I love opals and they match his eyes.” The child’s irises were a lustrous grey.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Lisia backed up from the bed and turned away. “Lis, what is it?” Swift asked.

Cobweb got up and touched his shoulder, turning him around. Lisia ran a shaky hand over his face, brushing away the start of tears. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “Nothing.”

Cobweb was not so easily fooled. “You’d like a child of your own, wouldn’t you, Lis?”

His guess was correct, although Lisia refused to admit it — just as he refused to stay in Galhea.

He had to start getting ready for the spring sessions and training some new teachers, he explained. Cobweb hadn’t expected anything more, although he had hopes.

He let Lisia go back, but he was unhappy about it. Little did he know that during the summer, everything would change.

Chapter 22

It was mid-summer that Forever welcomed two hara on their way to a training session at Harling Gardens: Ashmael and his long-time consort Phylax.

What with the flurry of political activity immediately following the Ascension, Ashmael had been occupied solidly for months and it had been several years since he had paid a visit to Galhea. Cobweb looked forward to seeing him again, as well as meeting Phylax, whom he had never met. He was curious what he would be like, especially considering their ultimate destination. Cobweb mulled it over: Ashmael hosting? Or would it be his consort?

The day of their arrival, the sky was heavy with clouds and rain poured down in sheets. Cobweb stood in the second floor window he had always used to watch for arrivals on the drive. Finally the two horses appeared and the hands ran out, ducking under hooded cloaks, ready to take them to the stables, while the riders slid off their mounts and hastily removed their bags. Cobweb smiled, knowing his skilled hospitality would be most welcome and appreciated.

As it happened, Swift and Seel were in town at that particular moment, so it was left to Cobweb to offer greetings as well as refreshments. Hot tea and delicate sweets, covered in sugar powder, were brought out into the sitting room as servants took away the visitors’ wet cloaks. Ashmael and Phylax sank gratefully into the couch.

“I really have been missing the old Parasiel hospitality,” Ashmael said. “It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise, my friend.” Over the years Cobweb had indeed grown to respect to the prominent Gelaming, for while at first he was full of cockiness, over time his manner had tempered. Privately Cobweb wondered if this was the result of his chesna bond.

Phylax was not at all what Cobweb had expected. Ashmael had long seemed to favor the most markedly soume of hara, including Cobweb himself, and yet this Phylax was, if anything, the more solidly masculine of the two of them. Phylax was a dark beauty, reminiscent of Pellaz, but with a stronger jaw and heavier build. His hair was cropped short.

“I thank you for letting us drop by on the way to Harling Gardens,” Phylax said before taking a sip of his tea.

“It only makes sense,” Cobweb remarked, “since Ashmael will want to meet with Swift anyway and it’s a long journey all the way up.”

Ashmael reached for another cookie. “Ah, I forget, you’ve made that journey yourself.”

“Six times,” Cobweb noted.

“Six times?” Ashmael asked, swallowing. “These are delicious, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Cobweb had not even tried to cookies, as he was leaving them all to his guests. “Yes, I’ve made numerous trips up to Harling Gardens. Summertime trips.”

“I wasn’t aware. So you must know what we should expect then?”

Cobweb nodded. “Oh, yes. From that and writing letters. Lisia and I are always in touch.”

“It seems the friendship you struck up with him has lasted a long time,” Ashmael reflected.

The statement meant more to Cobweb than Ashmael could know. “Yes, and it’s been excellent for both of us. We had a lot to recover from and learn.”

“So true,” Ashmael agreed softly, glancing over to Phylax. “And Lisia is happy now?”

“He’s been very successful,” Cobweb told them both. He gave them an update on Lisia’s latest publication and how several chesna couples had gone up to the mountains on holiday that spring to take classes and then conceive and even birth their pearls. Several lodges had been built for that purpose in the nearest town, with a small industry developing around couples vacationing and beginning new life.

Ashmael and Phylax were impressed and reassured by these descriptions. They were soon to be sampling the school’s offerings themselves.

Finally Cobweb had the opportunity to work the conversation over to where he wanted it. “So, Ashmael,” he began, “I’m curious why you and Phylax need to visit Harling Gardens.”

The pair exchanged confused looks. “I think that’s obvious,” Phylax replied.

“Ah, but what I want to know is… Well, Ashmael, you’re very high caste. What help do you really need, whether it’s conceiving or becoming a father?”

Ashmael chuckled, as did Phylax. “You’re right that count, Cobweb — I really don’t think I need that help. Still, I thought… well, when Phylax and I began talking about it, I decided it would be a gesture to Lisia, after all these years. Remember, he was the one who kept saying–”

“‘That har knows nothing about harlings!’ Yes, I remember.” Cobweb remembered anything and everything Lisia had ever said. His beloved was enshrined in his heart.

“Well, Ash wanted to go up as a gesture but also,” Phylax added, “he wanted to learn more about hosting and all the rest. About birthing and raising harlings.”

Cobweb quirked an eyebrow. “So, Ash, will it be you?”

“Yes,” Ashmael replied steadily, with only a trace of hesitation. “I think so.” He reached out for Phylax’s hand. “We think that seems right.”

From that point they moved away from the subject and onto news in Galhea and Immanion and various other corners of the world. Ashmael finished off all the cookies and finally Cobweb escorted his visitors upstairs.

Leaving Ashmael and Phylax in their guest bedroom, he headed back to his own room. Talking about Harling Gardens and thinking of chesna bonds had brought about inevitable thoughts. Would he have to make another trip? Would Lisia ever visit again? And when could they be together — forever? The longing in his heart was wailing, growing stronger and stronger.

Cobweb sensed the visitors were taking advantage of the bath. Opal was at a swimming party at the home of another family in town. Swift and Seel would be gone several hours. He had time to think — and time to plan.

He was tired of waiting, of feeling powerless. He was Cobweb. He could make things happen! In other circumstances, he would have resorted to magic, changing Lisia’s mind by exerting his own powers, but in this case, he knew that would not do. There had to be free will or at least, an absence of coercion. Maybe he should simply get on his horse and ride up there, take Lisia back to Forever?

Riding. That was it! All at once the idea came to him, something direct and yet elegant. And it was perfect timing as well. Running a brush through his hair and grabbing his money pouch, Cobweb laughed as he turned the doorknob and headed out, bound for town.

The next morning Ashmael and Phylax were just finished dressing for breakfast when Cobweb sauntered into the room bearing a package.

“Good morning,” he announced, holding out the wooden, latch-top box.

“Good morning,” Ashmael returned, only then turning fully around and seeing the apparent gift. “For me?”

Cobweb pulled the box back. “No, Ash, for Lisia.”

Ashmael smiled. “Ah, you want me to deliver it?” He reached out and took the box from Cobweb’s hands. “This is fairly heavy. What is it?”

Phylax, who’d been putting on his shoes, looked over from the bed. “Yes, what is it? Just the box?

Cobweb couldn’t resist wanting to show them. “No, actually it’s something I bought in town yesterday.”

“Show me,” Ashmael said, bringing the box to the bed. “I’m curious what you would have bought him. Surely some frilly dress!” Before Cobweb could react, Ashmael laughed. “Only joking — well, half-joking.” Unfastening the latch, he said to Phylax, “You won’t believe how soume he is.”

“I think he’s less so than you may remember,” Cobweb told the general, who now had the box open and was drawing out the several pieces of clothing inside. “He’s learned sansu and has ridden a horse all the way to Galhea on his own.”

Phylax and Ashmael were holding up the garments, examining them. “Which is what this outfit is for,” Ashmael speculated. “Light riding jacket, heavy riding jacket, and these pants, which are also for riding.”

Phylax was holding the pants and chuckling. “I see what you mean about being soume. Look at the way these are made. Tight to the knee, then they flare out. It’s rather–”

“Attractive,” Cobweb finished for him. He had been lucky to find the outfit already made at one of his favorite tailored clothing shops in town, then had it fitted on the spot based on his recall of Lisia’s proportions. Fortuitously, outfit was all in bright orange, Lisia’s favorite color.

“Very attractive,” Ashmael agreed, moving to put the two jackets away, only then noticing the two items in the bottom of the box: A long yellow silk scarf and a sealed envelope. He looked to Phylax and their eyes met. He then turned again to Cobweb. “So, think Lisia will want to come riding — to Galhea?”

Cobweb was caught off guard, a rare occurrence. “Well, of course, he could use these for that.”

Ashmael clucked his tongue. Phylax, meanwhile, was folding away the clothes into the box. “That’s not what I meant.” He motioned to the chairs set by the windows. “Come, sit.”

It was only too obvious to Cobweb that somehow Ashmael had guessed at his motives. Still, he had been avoiding discussing the issue for so long that he continued to play at the game. “So what are you getting at?”

“Only the obvious.” All three of them were now seated as Ashmael stretched his legs. “Swift and Seel told us.”

Phylax nodded slightly in confirmation. “They told us you and Lisia are practically chesna.”

“That’s none of your business — or theirs!” Cobweb burst out angrily.

“Ah, but it is now — we’ve got your package to deliver!” Ashmael gloated. “Come on, don’t worry, we’ll do it, but I really have to understand this.”

“Understand what?”

“Well, for starters,” Ashmael began, “why you haven’t just gone out and taken what you wanted.”

Cobweb sighed. It was time to explain himself and at once, he felt a sense of relief expanding in his chest. He told Ashmael and Phylax the circumstances. Lisia had work to do — this was why they waited. Cobweb wanted him to come live in Forever. He wanted to be bonded. Perhaps the gift would be a sign. The letter he had written had been a plea. Did Ashmael think it could work?

“I’ve never heard you so under confident in my life,” Ashmael chuckled. “Do I think it could work? Sure I do, especially if I convince that pig-headed chesna of yours that he’s got to come down here — and convince you to go up there in exchange.”

Cobweb was confused. What did Ashmael mean?

“It’s a simple solution,” Phylax offered. “You two have remained separated because Lisia has his life at Harling Gardens.” When Cobweb nodded, he went on. “Well, did you ever think you were keeping your predicament a little black and white? You both keep thinking you have to live either here in Galhea or up in the mountains. Did you ever think about alternatives?”

“Like what?”

“There are several possibilities, the most obvious of which is you two living here during the fall and winter when it’s warmer here than in the mountains, then in the spring and summer when he has work to do, you move up there.”

“The summers are beautiful,” Cobweb said quietly. The solution that had eluded him for so long seemed to have arrived.

“So you see,” Ashmael began, “all we have to do is convince Lisia for you — which I feel confident we can do.”

Cobweb was nervous about leaving this personal matter in anyone else’s hands, but Ashmael assured him. “We’ll give him your gift and then find an opportunity to talk to him about your ‘problem.’ I’m sure I can convince him — no magic even. Swift says–”

“Swift says what?” Cobweb wanted to know.

“Swift says Lisia has loved your for years. He saw it when Lisia was down here to help deliver Swift’s pearl.”

It was true. Cobweb only hoped that the gift, coupled with some personal persuasion, could bring that love to make a committment.

Chapter 23

Ashmael and Phylax departed shortly after breakfast, Cobweb’s message to Lisia packed among their baggage — as well as within their minds.

Cobweb stood at the door watching them go, wondering what reply he could expect. He had many things to be grateful for in his life, but he did not want to raise himself up on too much false hope. He had been wrong before.

It was after a few minutes had passed that, inevitably, Swift came up beside him and spoke. “You’re finally asking him, aren’t you?”

Cobweb abruptly exhaled through his nose but did not turn his head. “Shows what you know, my pearl. I’ve asked him before.”

“Did you really?” Swift asked rhetorically. “Well, I hope this time, you’ve been a little more forceful.”

Cobweb turned. “I have been. And this time I have help.”

“Ash and Phylax? Well, good, I’m glad.” Swift smiled, then glanced over to Seel, who had been lingering at the breakfast table with Opal.

“That’s why we told them,” Seel confessed. “We thought they could help — being an outside party and all, not all bound up in this family of ours.”

“Our little politenesses,” Swift added, shaking his headed. “We’ve been wanting to say something for years.”

Cobweb turned away, walking toward the staircase. He felt embarrassed, to have overlooked this solution, letting his emotions and need for privacy and independence cloud over his judgement.

“Well, I suppose it’s best you didn’t. Everything happens in its own time.” He reached the foot of the stairs and turned. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to be in my room. Possibly for days.”

“Dramatics,” Seel uttered in a stage whisper.

Swift chuckled. “Possibly, but then again, he may just be serious.”

As it turned out, Cobweb hadn’t long to wait, at least in the relative scheme of things. The Gelaming visitors had been riding horses through the other lanes and had reached Harling Gardens by nightfall. Apparently they had managed a private audience with the headmaster without any trouble, for a few hours after dinner, Cobweb sensed a call was coming through for him on the thought transference unit. He met Swift on the stairs as he went down; he’d been on his way to relay the message: Lisia was calling. Cobweb headed straight to the office.

He braced himself and acknowledged the incoming call.

“I love you,” they both told each other at the same time. It was the way they always greeted one another, but on this occasion, the words were more appropriate than usual.

“Lisia,” Cobweb began, sending forth his thoughts with all the power he could, “I’m so pleased to hear from you.”

He had no idea what Lisia would say next. What had Ashmael and Phylax said to him? Would he be direct or would he work Cobweb up to the subject in stages?

Lisia did not answer these questions. Instead, he said nothing.

“Lisia?” Cobweb called out into the ethers. “Are you there?”

A few seconds more passed before Lisia finally answered. “I’m here,” he said, “but I don’t want to stay here. I’m coming down.”

“To Forever?”

“To Forever. I want–”

“You want–”

“I want–”

“I want–”

“I want to be your consort.” Once again, their thoughts fell together perfectly. There had not yet been a ceremony, but in his heart Cobweb knew they had been bonded.

“Ashmael and Phylax gave me your present,” Lisia offered. “It’s beautiful.”

“You’re welcome. They also spoke with you?”

“Yes. They told me things I needed to hear.”

“They helped me as well.”

“We were being stupid,” Lisia admitted.

“Very,” Cobweb agreed.

“I will come at the end of summer, when classes are over. Is that too late?”

“No,” Cobweb said, “it’s not too late. Besides, I’ve waited this long…”

“I’ve waited, too. All my life… I’ve waited for this.”

“I’m not the har who’s rescuing you from the facility.”

“No, you’re not,” Lisia agreed, “but you’re the har who loves me.”

“I will be your consort,” Cobweb said.

“And I will be yours.” Lisia’s mindvoice was strong and clear.

“See you in the fall.”

“Call me on this as much as you can.”

“I will. I love you.”

Cobweb switched the set to idle and stepped back. A few hundred miles away, another soul was joined with his. In a few short weeks, they would be together.

A few short weeks turned into a few long weeks to Cobweb. Months afterward he realized he couldn’t remember anything that had happened in the house or anywhere else during that time. All he remembered were the thought calls with Lisia, the letters he’d received, and the hours he’d spent preparing the house.

Cobweb’s room had been transformed into their room. Cobweb bought a bigger bed and all the bed clothes they would ever need. For the wall he bought a new painting, a still life of tiger lilies. Every night he enacted a ritual at he foot of the bed, welcoming Lisia into the house and hoping for the happiness of their union. No one, least of all himself, would have suspected his spells could ever be so romantic or benevolent, but in this case, they were nothing but.

Other preparations were made as well. Besides the joint bedroom, Lisia would have a room of his own. Cobweb left most of the design open, knowing Lisia would be bringing along things from his rooms in Harling Gardens. Just the same, in the closet Lisia left several new outfits from the same tailor who’d made the riding outfit. Lisia would find them whenever he filled the closet with his own clothes.

In a small room adjoining Cobweb had set up a small office. It seemed unlikely Lisia would be abandoning his position entirely during his season in Galhea; he would doubt occasionally like to work on his articles or arrange other school business. While Cobweb hoped this would not take up too much time, especially in the first few months, he wanted the opportunity to be there.

Finally the day approached when Lisia was expected to arrive from the north. He was traveling by horse with an additional horse carrying his excess baggage. Pansea had called to let the household know that Lisia had departed. He’d also wished Cobweb all the best and told him to make Lisia forget about Harling Gardens, at least for a little while.

It was sunset when Lisia arrived, again riding his speckled horse, a gray horse trailing behind on a lead. It had been a long trip, but seeing Cobweb brought the bright happiness to his eyes. As the grooms took his horse, he ran over to the steps.

Cobweb stood on those steps the way he had a hundred times, a pale, dark-haired siren, only this time his heart was open. He would not be injured.

Swift and Seel arrived at the door just as the couple embraced and then, foregoing words, shared breath. Such promise and oh, such love.

At last they parted. Cobweb, seeing the grooms taking the horses away, called out to them. “Take the bags inside and take care of the horses. I’ll have whatever we need sent over.” He stepped down to the level of the drive, Lisia’s hand in his own.

“But where are you going?” Swift called out.

Cobweb, who had not told his son his plan, walked a few paces further before turning. He put his arm around Lisia’s shoulder. “Well, having heard you two talk of your two days of love in that tent in Imbrilim, I think Lisia and I deserve at least that much time alone.”

He kissed Lisia on the forehead; his partner seemed almost in a daze, no doubt from travel. “There’ll be food at the tavern,” he whispered into his mind. “Food and more.”

“Actually,” he called out loud to his questioners, “I think it might be a week. We’ve waited so long…”

He gave Lisia a squeeze and together, then turned down the road, headed for town. Cobweb had booked a room at the inn adjoining the tavern, and the “Do Not Disturb” sign would be firmly in place.

Chapter 24

Four days they spent in the inn, altogether, until finally they headed up the hill to Forever, where they proceeded to ensconce themselves in their new joint bedroom for another three days. No one stood in their way as they made up for a lifetime of lost time.

It wasn’t only aruna they shared, but everything they had of themselves. Cobweb had not even realized he’d been holding back, but clearly he had been. As they talked, sometimes they would find themselves crying. Other times they were laughing. Now there was nothing to be afraid of. Being afraid of love — how foolish they had been. Lisia tried to curse his own stupidity, his drive for his career, but Cobweb soothed his guilt away. “Everything happens in its own time — in this case, now.”

When finally they were through and reappeared in public, coming down for breakfast in the dining room, they were embraced back into Forever’s heart. Having visited over the years and hearing so much from Cobweb, Lisia found it quite easy to feel at home. To Swift and Seel he was an old friend, while little Opal was delighted to have someone else pay loving attention to him. Like Azriel before him, he delighted in having Lisia braid his hair and tell him stories.

As Festival approached, Cobweb went to Azirak, the hienama in town, and made a special request. On that most celebratory day, he and Lisia kneeled at the foot of the great staircase and were blood-bonded. Their heads were crowned with evergreens, bestowed by Swift and Seel, and together they sipped a heavy brass chalice of hot sheh. Cobweb had never appreciated what it would feel like to have such a bond, but the instant he had it, he knew the wait had been worth it. Lisia opened his heart, all love and trust, and Cobweb felt himself able to step inside.

Time had less meaning after that. No more waiting on letters or calls on the transference unit. They were simply with each other, and for at least the two months in the depths of winter, that was all they needed.

As spring approached, Lisia became aware that he would need to prepare for a new session of classes and for at least a few hours a week, he would busy himself in his office. Harling Gardens had plenty of staff to ready itself in most respects, and so when they arrived at the cusp of spring, Lisia was able to slip back into the role of director.

Cobweb meanwhile slipped happily into the role of consort. Unlike at Forever, he had no need to be a social arranger or attend to household staff. Not that he had ever exerted himself much, especially not in recent years, but this was entirely different. The flowers bloomed as so did he, spending his days out in the garden or, as much as he could, at Lisia’s side. After a few weeks of observation, he was even able to help out with the classes. He certainly knew how to take care of harlings and as for the rest, he was eager to learn. So many hara coming in couples, he felt as is he was helping to give birth to countless families. It was a selfless feeling, and without Lisia, it was possible he might never have known it.

The teaching season came to an end as with the shift to fall came a move back to the south, to Galhea. They had been together a year. Life proceeded on its now usual course, not blissful, as by then the two of them had settled down to earth, but peaceful and comfortable. This is what they would have forever, they both hoped.

“Lis, could you please pass the wine?” Cobweb repeated for the third time.

Lisia had been staring out the door for a good two minutes, ever since Swift, Seel and Opal had left the table. It was two weeks after Festival and they had just celebrated the harling’s second birthday. Earlier Lisia had been lively, singing a birthday song while Yarrow’s treats were served and Opal opened a collection of small presents.

Mid-way through the meal, however, Cobweb had noticed his chesnari dropping back, observing more than participating, and by the time the rest of the family decided to try the harling’s latest toy out in the backyard, Lisia was clearly occupied with thoughts of his own.

Finally he looked over and reached for the bottle. “Sorry,” Lisia apologized, passing it over. “I was just thinking.”

Cobweb poured himself a glass. “I noticed. Tell me, what is it?”

The moment the question was out, it seemed Lisia began to shut down, his eyes growing opaque even as they shifted down to his empty plate of food. “Oh, nothing,” he said, meaning, Cobweb guessed, that it was something he was neither comfortable with nor ready to discuss.

Cobweb sighed inwardly. This was not the first time that day that Lisia’s thoughts had obviously shifted elsewhere. Something was on his mind. Cobweb wondered what is was, puzzled when he couldn’t get a glimmer of it through their bond. He wondered if Lisia was deliberately shutting him out, which was very much against his practice. It didn’t seem as if Lisia was becoming depressed or that his thoughts were unhappy; from past experience Cobweb was fairly sure he would recognize the signs of such distress.

Cobweb decided to push him. “Nothing? Oh, come on, Lis, something is on your mind. I’ve tried to sense it through our bond and I can’t. What is it?”

Lisia glanced up and then quickly down. He was blushing and to Cobweb, he looked delicate, beautiful like a flower. Lisia, as always, was beguilingly feminine.

“I can’t hide anything from you, can I?” Lisia questioned softly.

“You’re not supposed to, Lis. We’re chesna now. We’re bonded. Our souls are open to one another.”

Lisia’s face was still flushed as he looked up. “I know. Which is what I’m thinking about.”

“Hmmm?” Cobweb had sidled over and was now sitting next to his chesnari. “What do you mean?”

Lisia’s hands stroked the edge of the table nervously for a few moments before he replied. “I mean we’re one now, right? Chesna. We’re– we’re in this forever.”

Cobweb spoke no words. Through their bond, he said yes with all his heart and soul. How could his chesnari not know this?

Lisia nodded and looked down again. There again came the distance, the secret thoughts. What on earth was it he was thinking?

Suddenly Lisia raised his gaze and looked Cobweb straight in the eyes. “I would like to have a harling.”

In Cobweb’s heart and mind, a thousand fireworks exploded and trumpets blared our their heralds. This was a moment for which he had waited silently for some time. Certainly ever since the blood bond, on and off the thought had cropped up in his mind: having a harling with Lisia. A number of times he had thought to bring it up, but something had told him that he needed to wait on his partner. It was to be his decision.

“I would like that, too,” Cobweb assured him. “Very much. Were you worried I wouldn’t?”

“No, but I had to think about it,” Lisia replied softly. “A long time.”

Several long moments passed as each of them considered the situation. Cobweb finally decided to state the obvious. “You will host, of course.”

Lisia’s body shuddered in obviously delight. “You’d… you’d let me?”

“Of course, Lis!” Cobweb replied, adamant.

His chesnari’s eyes were brimming with tears. “I don’t– Thank you. I didn’t know whether you’d want to first. After all, I’ve already done it so many times and–”

“And never have you ever had a harling of your own!” Cobweb cut in. “Never! Lis, I had Swift. I got to hold him when he was a tiny harling, I got to tell him stories, I’ve watched him grow. I want you to have that.”

Abruptly Lisia rose from the table. “All right, let’s go.”

Cobweb eyed his mate with surprise. “Now? Right now?”

Lisia extended his hand expectantly. “Why not? It’s not difficult.”

“Easy for you to say,” Cobweb pointed out, accepting Lisia’s hand and pulling himself up out of his seat.

“Yes, it is,” Lisia declared. “After all, I have done this before.”

As soon as the bedroom door was closed, Lisia seized upon Cobweb with a fierceness Cobweb had never seen in him. He fairly snarled as he dragged his lips over his mate’s earlobes and shared breath that was screaming with need. Pressed hard against his groin, Cobweb realized with surprise that Lisia had already become soume, although it seemed this soume was different than anything he’d seen in Lisia before. This soume was in control but also needy and desperate for resolution. Now.

Cobweb tried to be compliant but it all seemed to be going so quickly. Lisia was dragging him to the bed and throwing him down, writhing on top tearing off his own clothes and repeating over and over how very, very much he wanted it, wanted Cobweb, wanted it, wanted it now. To many, the situation would have been a fantasy come true. However, while flattered and naturally aroused, Cobweb could only feel that matters were being rushed.

Five minutes earlier, he and Lisia had been having dinner. Now they were about to try conceiving a child. This wasn’t a minor decision or a minor moment. And although Lisia now trying to tear of Cobweb’s pants, Cobweb decided he couldn’t go along with it, at least not totally. Have a harling, yes, but he wanted to make the experience of it something special. No rushing. This was too important.

Cobweb pulled away as Lisia lunged at him yet again. Lisia was startled, his arms finding only empty air. He sat up abruptly, exasperated. Before he could become hurt, which it seemed obvious he would be, Cobweb switched gears, deciding that it was time to wield his magic. It wasn’t often that the had used it with Lisia, but on this occasion it seemed more than appropriate.

He didn’t speak, at least not out loud. He began with a simple mind message: “Remember our first time, Lisia? That was not the routine. Neither will this be. Slow down. Let me make this special.”

There was no question that Lisia understood; his heart skipped a beat and he slowly blinked his deep green eyes. He allowed himself to take a breath and the ferocious tension and hunger of his body seemed to drop down to simmering. He threw his head back into the pillows and closed his eyes.

Cobweb received a reply in his mind: “I trust you.”

From that point on a spell was woven. Cobweb drew the blinds closed against the twilight. Candles were lit throughout the room and whiffs of incense smoke snaked upwards to form a canopy over the bed. Through it all Cobweb was chanting words of power and energy in his mind as well as with his lips, bringing the moment into focus so that what was to come could be felt as more than a quick moment of passion but the true culmination that it was: the creation of new life.

At last Cobweb stood at the foot of the bed, Lisia spread before him, still offering his soume self, his expression serene, eyes closed, chest moving only but slightly with the rise and fall of his breath. It was then that Cobweb performed the final ritual, drawing forth a vial of oil from his chest of drawers. Exotic it was, delicate when diluted and yet in its purest form overwhelmingly strong. Cobweb rubbed the oil between his fingers and then straddled Lisia on the bed.

“With this oil I anoint you,” he whispered. “I anoint you as the body that will conceive new life, which I will create with you and which you will carry within your body. I anoint you as a future parent, to care for this new life just as we have cared for one another and to cherish for ever and ever.” As he spoke these words he touched Lisia’s brow, neck, chest, wrists and, finally his loins. Lisia shuddered in pleasure, arching his back, offering himself with a hint of the wild abandon he’d exhibited earlier.

Now was the moment. Cobweb put away the oil and let Lisia tear off his clothes. Now he let Lisia pull him down, taking his breath away before sharing like they never had before. Cobweb realized that he was seeing another side of Lisia, a part that he had never seen before, which Lisia had hidden away. In their sharing he could feel the desire Lisia had always had for a harling of his own, the part of him that still missed conceiving and the pleasure it had once brought him, even if before his pearls had been taken away. Conceiving had always been immensely pleasurable, far beyond any normal aruna, and now that he was close to experiencing it, he was letting loose.

They came together as they had dozens and dozens of times before, conjoining as hara, only this time it was something more. The power and energy Cobweb had summoned was coursing through them and it was as though their bodies had become circuits, their senses lit up, hypersensitive, thrumming with the current. Lisia was working Cobweb in a way he never had before, using the full measure of techniques he’d been taught in his youth, working Cobweb towards a climax he’d never experienced in his life, sans his own conception of Swift.

Finally it began. The boundaries of reality fell away and he and Lisia were in another place, where mostly it was light and beauty and splendorous sound. Throughout the journey, their bodies still remained, however, and distantly and yet so well, Cobweb felt himself pressed up against a part of Lisia that had never seemed so obvious before: his seal. Then, just as he was wondering if he would need to take some action of his own, Lisia opened himself utterly and Cobweb had no choice: the serpent bit the star and the universe exploded.

Chapter 25

Cobweb awoke amid the golden glow of mid-morning sunlight, just passed over the trees and streaming through the windows onto the bed. It reminded him of the way it had been the morning after Swift had delivered Opal.

Lying there, he felt warm and lazy, knowing that it was half-way to lunchtime but also that it didn’t matter. He turned onto his side knowing exactly what he would see, what he gotten used to seeing and what he hoped to see for many years to come: Lisia in bed beside him.

Observing Lisia’s still-sleeping face, Cobweb considered the knowledge that couldn’t help but be uppermost in his mind. His thoughts had turned it round and round all night long, even in his dreams. Twenty years earlier Cobweb would never had believed what had come to pass: he was going to be a father.

No one else would have believed it either — not anyone in Galhea, not even Swift, and certainly not Terzian. Finally distant enough to consider such matters, Cobweb found himself wondering what Terzian would think of this new Cobweb, if he knew. Terzian had been so very sure of himself, so very strong, and so very ouana. Despite the inherent wariness with which he had treated his consort, Terzian had thought that Cobweb was soume through and through. Cobweb had been given a role and they had both believed it. Now, one arm draped over Lisia’s chest, he knew he had discarded that role and take up one of his own: he was Cobweb. Period.

Lisia finally stirred, his eyelids fluttering. “Good morning,” he whispered, reaching to stroke Cobweb’s arm.

Cobweb propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at his chesnari. “Good morning,” he said.

“How do you feel?” was not a question he needed to ask out loud; through their bond they both knew: Lisia felt wonderful, the best, the happiest, he had felt in years.

Fifteen minutes later, they were descending the staircase arm in arm, robed and ready for breakfast. Stepping into the dining room, they found it empty except for the cooling remains of breakfast. Swift had spied them from the hall, however, and soon he came into the room, Opal following close on his heels.

“So, I see you two are finally up,” Swift remarked. “Want me to pour this coffee?”

Cobweb nodded even as he pulled out a chair and gestured for Lisia to take a seat. “Thanks. Yes, Swift I know we’re a bit late.”

“Well, that’s all right, you can do what you want of course, although I wonder how you two all of a sudden got so tired.” Swift plopped down in chair and took a bit of bread. “We came back last night around 9 and Morro told us you’d gone to bed ‘hours ago.’ Funny, you didn’t seem that tired at dinner.”

Cobweb settled into a chair and shrugged, taking the coffee cup. “Yes, we went to bed early — unexpectedly.”

Lisia, spreading the jam on cold toast, was smirking. “Swift, perhaps we should really let you know… You may be encountering more ‘unexpected’ behavior from your hostling and me. And I might be sleeping more.”

“You see,” Cobweb explained, “Lisia’s hosting.”

“Hosting!” Swift exclaimed. “That’s wonderful! By Aghama, how long?”

“Since last night,” Lisia replied.

Swift looked over to his hostling. “Congratulations.” He was surprised but certainly pleased. “Wow. So you feel all right, Lis?”

“Oh, yes, I feel wonderful, like I’m glowing inside and out.”

“I felt the same way,” Swift said, taking another piece of bread. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”

For a couple of minutes none of them spoke, not even Opal, who Swift had put down to play under the table. Lisia was making a great fuss of loading up toast with jam, so much so that Swift and Cobweb ended up eyeing him. “Hungry, Lis?” Cobweb asked.

“Hmmmph,” Lisia attempted to reply, swallowing down his last biteful. “Yes. Didn’t finish dinner last night, remember?”

In the meantime Opal poked his head up, bored and wondering what was going on. Swift pulled him into his lap. “Well, Opal, it seems there’s going to be another harling in the house.”

The harling’s grey eyes opened wide. “Another little harling? A brother?”

“Yes, a little harling.” Swift gave his child a hug. “He won’t be your brother, but your… Well, I’m not sure what he’ll be but we’ll call him your brother probably. Your grandhosting is the father and Lisia is the hostling.”

Opal, always affectionate towards Lisia, popped out of Swift’s lap and scampered over. “You’re going to make a pearl?”

“Yes, Opal, I am. But I can still play with you.” He winked. No doubt about it, Lisia was, as he’d said himself, feeling wonderful. Hosting had almost always been a joy to him and now it was again, only more than ever before.

From that day forward, Lisia was a different har or least, he was a changed har. The changes were for the better. Being chesna had already transformed him, but being a hostling again was something else altogether. For Lisia, it was a time he had looked forward to for years in the secret corners of his heart and one he seemed determined to treasure.

Cobweb did all he could to treasure the experience along with him. Two weeks into the hosting, when Lisia announced that he was beginning to be able to feel the pearl, Cobweb lay down with him in the dark quiet of their room. Pressing ever so carefully with his hands, he probed until at last he found the spot on Lisia’s abdomen that was a little harder than the rest.

“Am I hurting you?” Cobweb asked.

“No, not at all.”

“Can I try talking with it?”

His chesnari now nodded, smiling. Cobweb let his hand rest on the spot and for a few minutes, he spoke to the pearl with his mind, or at least he projected his thoughts in the pearl’s direction. He wanted the pearl to feel loved and comforted, connected to his father and hostling from the very beginning.

“I can feel it working,” Lisia murmured. “The pearl… I think it’s happy. I’m not quite sure, but I think I can sense that. I never really could feel such things the other times.”

After that, talking to the pearl became a regular ritual. They tried it different places, from out in the fields to in the bathtub. Half-way through term, Cobweb had his hand over the pearl when he felt something he had never felt before.

“Oh, Lis, it’s–”

“Moving,” Lisia finished, whispering. Instinctively, both of them kept very still, feeling for more moments. It was a long minute or two, but finally there it came again, faint but very real. Their son was real and coming.

Four weeks later, they met him, or least they met his pearl.

Chapter 26

They were at the lunch table when Lisia’s prediction finally came true. All morning long, he’d been telling Cobweb the time was near. There was a greater heaviness, as if the pearl had dropped, he reported. Now, sipping his soup, they both distracted themselves with pleasant talk of the past. Both of them had come so far.

“Remember when we first met?” Lisia asked. “The first thing I did was insult you.”

Cobweb rolled his eyes. “And the first thing I did was march you into the hall and practically bare my claws. I was so angry.” Learning that Terzian had fathered four pearls at the breeding facility had been a shock to him, although he quickly accepted it as yet another of Terzian’s misdeeds. “But you know I never blamed you.”

“No, thank goodness,” Lisia sighed, stirring his soup. “I was so scared and confused back then.”

“You didn’t show it,” Cobweb said. Lisia had been so strong for his harlings, determined to work for what was best for them. Looking at him now, Cobweb knew he had a prize.

Suddenly the spoon dropped into Lisia’s soup bowl.

“Cobweb–” he began, before pushing back his chair and clutching his middle. “It’s… it’s–”

That was all the signal needed. Cobweb was at his feet in an instant, pulling Lisia into his arms. “Time?”

Lisia, grimacing, nodded vigorously as his body twisted and he wrenched Cobweb’s arms in support. It appeared the labor was going to be every bit as intense as they’d anticipated, although, predictably, Lisia was handling matters calmly.

“Take me to… take me to the lounge,” he gasped, apparently finding it difficult to speak not so much due to panic as the intensity of the contractions.

“The lounge?” Cobweb queried, even as he began to move them out of the dining room and into the hall. Lisia leaned into him, completely dependent upon his support. “Not upstairs?”

Lisia shook his head but did not reply with more than a groan. In the meantime Cobweb spotted a servant and ordered him to fetch Phlaar immediately.

Finally Lisia managed to respond. “The lounge, yes.” He grunted in pain. “Upstairs — I can’t make that.”

As Cobweb struggled to get them through the double doors to the lounge, Lisia turned his head and suddenly noticed the several servants who had followed them. “Cobweb,” he panted, “please keep them out.”

Holding open the door, Cobweb ushered his chesnari inside and turned to face the household staff, Yarrow among them. “The pearl is coming. Please let us be. And find Phlaar!” With that he swiftly withdrew into the room and pushed the doors closed.

Lisia had already found his way to the long, comfortable couch, outfitted with a large afghan he had knitted himself that fall. He dropped down onto it and waved for his mate to hurry over.

Cobweb could feel the waves of strength coming off the hostling as he strained to handle the powerful contractions. Seeing Lisia’s face, grimacing in pain and yet completely focused, he didn’t know quite what help was needed.

“What do you want me to do?” Cobweb asked, dropping down to his knees beside the couch.

Lisia’s attention flickered toward him. “Just hold me,” he gasped. Tears were beginning to form in his eyes. “Hold me!”

Cobweb wedged himself behind the now bucking hostling. “Steady, steady,” he urged, holding his shoulders, then running his hands down to Lisia’s, which had bunched into fists. “Shhhhhhhh. Lean into me.”

As Lisia’s head tilted back, his sweaty forehead brushed across Cobweb’s cheek. “Thank you, thank you…” he gulped, squirming and arching his back. A minute late he began to shake uncontrollably.

“Oh, hold me,” he screamed, “hold me tighter!”

Suddenly someone was pounding on the door. “Are you all right in there?” This was Yarrow’s voice.

“Yes, we’re fine!” Cobweb called back as Lisia continued on with another scream. Obviously the birth was very close. “Phlaar! Where’s Phlaar, Yarrow?”

It was not a five-minute birth, as Lisia had predicted, but rather a ten-minute birth. Lisia’s prediction that Phlaar would be “too late” was likewise dashed when two or three minutes after the screaming started, Phlaar burst into the room. When he saw Cobweb had already switched to other end of the couch to help deliver the pearl, he slipped in behind the hostling, who was struggling to find support in the soft sofa cushions. “Ignore me,” he said. “Just focus on pushing.”

“As if I could focus on anything else!” Lisia yelled, definitely having lost his cool in the heat of the moment. Cobweb fought to pull up the hostling’s long skirt as he arched his back and writhed in Phlaar’s strong grip. The pearl was nearly there.

“Just one push and you can do it,” Cobweb urged, gripping Lisia’s ankles to keep him steady.

Swallowing the air loudly, Lisia bent his head and screamed at the top of his lungs, his legs pressing against Cobweb’s hands with the strength of a lion, or in this case, a lioness. When the moment ended, Cobweb found himself with a very large, glimmering dark pearl in his lap.

Phlaar twisted around and leaned over to see. “My, Lisia, but that’s… that was incredible.”

Cobweb shifted his gaze from the pearl to the hostling. Lisia’s face was flushed red and tears were steaming down his cheeks. “Oh, Cobweb!” he wailed. “Oh…. Cobweb.” He pressed his hands to his damp face and then, accepting Phlaar’s assistance, sat up to see his pearl.

Lisia, staring at the delivery, reached out for Cobweb’s hand and took it in his. “It’s ours,” he announced, then brought their hands down to rest on the slippery leathery sac that held their harling.

Cobweb steadied the pearl in his lap and motioned for Phlaar to make Lisia comfortable on the couch. Phlaar had previously agreed to honor Cobweb’s request to forego the usual post-birth inspection; Lisia was not to be separated from his pearl for any reason, at least for the first hours after birth. Once Lisia was on his side, Cobweb set the pearl down to receive the devotions of its hostling, whose body had burned to incubate a pearl his whole life. Covering them both with another afghan, he bent down and shared breath.

“I am a father,” he said to him mind to mind, astonished.

“And I am a hostling,” Lisia returned. “A real one.”

It was late afternoon before anyone even thought of moving upstairs. Lisia has fallen asleep and, watching him lying peacefully on the sofa, Cobweb had had time to relax and consider a few matters. Among other things, he wondered what they would be naming their harling. He would have to discuss it with Lisia, who would probably be the one to choose.

Finally the hostling stirred and Cobweb came up beside him. “Good afternoon,” he said, stroking Lisia’s cheek.

Lisia shifted under his blankets, obviously adjusting his position and that of their pearl. “Yes, a very good afternoon.” He quirked his eyebrow and glanced down at himself. “I feel better — not sore at all anymore.”

“Phlaar did a good job?” Cobweb asked.

“Yes, very,” Lisia agreed. About two hours after the birth, Phlaar had come and treated some bleeding and tearing, a result of the fast delivery and the large size of the pearl. He had also briefly examined the pearl, which had appeared healthy, the harling having a very strong heartbeat. “I must thank him.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be seeing him eventually. Speaking of which, do you think you’re ready to go upstairs?”

Lisia considered. “Probably. I’ve slept enough. I’ll just need help.”

Cobweb supported Lisia as he carefully sat up. When the afghan dropped away, the pearl was revealed sitting in Lisia’s lap and looking even bigger than when Phlaar had examined it. Lisia asked to be wrapped up for the short trip upstairs and after this was done, Cobweb led him up off the sofa and out of the room.

At the foot of the stairs, Lisia began to cry. He was smiling, however. “I can’t believe this is real,” he confessed. “I’ve got my pearl in my arms.”

“I love you, Lis,” Cobweb told him, offering his arm for the climb up the stairs.

When they reached the bedroom Cobweb continued his willing servitude, peeling back the blankets on the bed and taking away Lisia’s afghan so he was free to tuck the pearl into bed any way he wished. Before crawling in himself, Lisia pulled off his clothes. “I want to feel it against my body,” he said quietly.

Cobweb understood and put the clothes on top of the dresser. Lisia slipped under the covers, propping himself up with pillows so that he was half-sitting. His right hand rested on top of the rounded lump at his side. “This is probably the happiest moment of my life,” he confessed. “Well, along with a few others. I just…” He shook his head. “I just can’t even believe it, but it’s so real. This is my pearl! I mean our pearl,” he corrected.

“Your pearl, Lis. It’s all right, I don’t mind. It’s both of ours, but it’s special to you. Now would you like anything else?”

“Coffee,” Lisia suggested.

“Fair enough. I’ll bring you a cup.”

Chapter 27

That night they all slept in the same bed — Lisia, Cobweb and the pearl between them.

Earlier in the evening Morro had brought up a light dinner. Despite the quickness of the delivery, once the coffee wore off, Lisia was too tired to do much talking, and so aside from a few brief discussions the new parents had both been quiet.

It was past midnight and Cobweb had been sleeping when something roused him. He opened his eyes to find Lisia propped up on his elbows. He was worried about something, Cobweb sensed through their bond.

“What is it?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

Lisia was startled, not aware Cobweb had woken. “Oh, hmmmm, nothing.” He let himself fall back to the mattress.

Cobweb looked across the bed and then reached out to stroke his chesnari’s cheek. “Nothing? No, this I don’t believe. Come on, what is it?”

Lisia was still staring at the ceiling when he replied. “I have to go.”

“Have to go where?”

“To the bathroom.”

Lisia’s tone was serious, but Cobweb couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’re worried about going to the bathroom?”

“No, I’m worried about leaving the pearl!”

Now Cobweb was understanding the matter, at least to a certain extent. “Well, the pearl won’t be alone, it’ll be with me. I’m just as warm as you are, dear.”

Lisia, who all night had been wedged directly against the pearl, shifted onto his side and curled around it. “Yes, but I don’t feel I should be separated.”

“That’s–” Cobweb began, then stopped himself. He was going to say such a fear was “silly” but in this case, he realized suddenly, it was understandable. This was a hostling who had never been allowed to incubate his pearls.

“That’s alright,” Cobweb corrected himself. “If you really don’t want to leave it here with me, how about if I come with you and hold it in the blanket right next to you while you go?”

It was dark in the room but Cobweb could tell Lisia’s expression had brightened. He felt it. “That… well, maybe that would work. I’m glad you’re awake!”

“You’re not alone in this, Lis,” Cobweb said and Lisia scooped the pearl, with blanket, into his arms. They left the bedroom together.

A week later they had worked out all the mechanics of incubation. Three days into it, Lisia grew comfortable enough that he left the bed for the bathroom on his own, leaving the pearl with Cobweb. By the fifth day he was occasionally coming out of bed to sit in the window seat or the armchair, or even to pace around the room. Occasionally he did this with Cobweb and the pearl in bed, while most of the time, he had held his precious bundle in his arms or tucked securely against his body.

While Lisia retreated completely from the outside world, Cobweb served as a buffer, handling the servants as they came by with food or simply to visit with Lisia. There were other matters to be attended, like a thought transference call to Immanion to let Swift and Seel in on the happy news. Another call was made to Harling Gardens, where Cobweb reached Pansea, who was delirious with happiness for his long-time mentor and friend.

Cobweb arranged for Opal’s old crib to be brought down from storage. Setting the crib down next to the bed, Cobweb envisioned times when he and Lisia would want the bed all to themselves. Even if that hadn’t been a desire, the crib was a showplace for the gray harling blanket Lisia completed during the week. Inspired by the handiwork and restless with the waiting and lack of activity, Cobweb had taken some silver gray fabric and sewn a set of stuffed bumpers as well as a tiny cat-shaped doll. The harling would have the perfect little nest.

On the morning of the eighth day, Cobweb awoke to find Lisia propped up on his elbows, hunched over and staring under the blankets.

“What is it, Lis?” he asked, shifting onto his side. “Is it time?”

Lisia nodded once, then glanced up quickly. “Very soon. I’ve been up for hours.”

Cobweb sat up fully and drew away the blanket. There on the bed lay their pearl, the shell brittle and now, as he watched, beginning to break. A feeling of wonder and love filled his heart. Swift’s hatching had taken place outside his presence.

It took almost an hour before the harling broke out of the shell completely. They had decided in advance that they wouldn’t intervene, even if it meant a longer wait until they could hold him. The two of them sat opposite one another on the bed, holding hands and sniffling on and off, dealing with tears of joy.

Finally the top of the shell was completely broken and the brown hair of the harling was fully visible. “Can I take him?” Lisia asked.

Cobweb nodded and, with that, his chesnari picked their son out of the shell and into his arms.

“Aghama!” Lisia cried suddenly, looking the infant over.

Cobweb, sidling over, tried to see what Lisia was exclaiming about. “What is it?”

It was then that Lisia turned the child around completely to face his father. “He has my hair!”

Indeed this was true. The harling also had something else of Lisia’s, Cobweb noted to his delight: His jade green eyes.

Together they cuddled the harling between them. He was absolutely beautiful. Recognizing their voices, silent and spoken, from their many conversations prior to his birth, he was comfortable with them from the very start. In his expression there was a look of wisdom they both noticed and remarked upon separately.

By the time Phlaar came in, twenty minutes afterward, to look the child over, they had come up with a name for the harling: Sage.

Two days later Swift, Seel and Opal arrived back from their trip to find Cobweb and Lisia at the dining room table having dinner. In Lisia’s arms was a mewling bundle of soft gray wool, which upon closer inspection, Swift found, was his new half brother.

“He looks just like you!” Swift exclaimed as he laid on eyes on Sage’s large green eyes and caramel hair. “He even has–”

“My blond stripe,” Lisia interrupted gently, smiling. “Yes, I know.”

Swift looked over to Cobweb, who was also smiling. “Isn’t he beautiful?” his hostling asked, gesturing for them all to sit.

Opal pressed up to Lisia to have a look. “You want to see?” Lisia hugged Sage closer, making room for Opal to scoot up into his lap.

“Pretty!” Opal exclaimed, gently stroking the harling’s cheek. “Really pretty.”

Lisia beamed at Cobweb with the pride of a parent. It was the first time in his life that he had truly been able to do so.

Chapter 28 (Epilogue)

Four months later, as spring approached, little Sage was beginning to toddle about, the flowers were readying to bloom, and Lisia and Cobweb knew it was time for the family to make the shift back up north to Harling Gardens. They had happily made Galhea their home, but Lisia had another home and a dedication to his career as strong as his dedication to being a hostling.

As they departed on their journey, Sage was anxious, pulled away from everything and everyone he had come to know, but a few minutes snuggled in the sling Lisia had fastened about his body let him quickly know that he was safe. By the time their horses reached the edge of the city, the young harling had fallen asleep.

The family traveled at a leisurely pace, blessed with good weather, showers falling mainly in the evening. Along the way, the towns they stayed in were friendly with comfortable lodgings, with which both Cobweb and Lisia were familiar, having made regular travels along the route. In the last inn on their journey, the innkeeper and his partner recognized Lisia from a previous stay and gave them the best room in the house. In that same town, several hara who had attended classes at the school approached Lisia with congratulations on the birth of his harling. Though just as often in Cobweb’s arms as Lisia’s, Sage now resembled his hostling even more strongly than he had upon hatching.

Arriving at Harling Gardens, Cobweb immediately felt a sense of welcome. Effrana, who happened to be outside as they came up the drive, waved to them and called out a welcome. This truly was their second home.

That evening all the staff and their children gathered for a common meal. Sage received no end of attention, everyone doting on him and pumping Lisia for all the details of the birth. In telling the story, Lisia was effusive in his gratitude to Cobweb, describing him as the perfect hosting and birth support, plus of course father. Cobweb protested gently but was flattered and pleased all the same.

It was late that night, after an evening about the school, catching up with old friends, that Cobweb brought out the two bottles of fine wine sent along by Yarrow. Except for Sage, who was now sleeping curled in an armchair, all the harlings, Ivy and Pansea’s five included, had gone to bed. The rest of the staff lived in other wings of the building, so it was just Lisia, Pansea and Ivy sitting up for a drink and little more conversation.

All glasses poured, Cobweb proposed a toast: “To our families.” They raised their glasses, chinked them together, and took a sip.

“To Sage,” Pansea added next, beginning the second toast.

“To Sage,” Cobweb agreed, raising his glass to the corner, where the harling was still sound asleep.

With another sip it was Lisia’s turn to add a toast, this one more somber. “To all my other sons,” he said, addressing the air. “I will never know you, but I wish you well.”

With the think chink of glass, the last toast was left to Ivy. Cobweb noticed him looking slightly uncomfortable, shifting his glace from Lisia to his chesnari. Cobweb realized he might have been reminded of his own origins, for he himself had been born as part of the breeding program.

“To all hostlings,” Ivy offered quietly.

All of them smiled but something was still troubling Ivy, whose expression almost instantly faded. Pansea, evidently tuned into Ivy’s unease, reached out for his chesnari’s hand. Ivy set down his glass on the side table.

It was left to Lisia to ask what was the matter. “I’m sorry, Ivy, are you all right?”

Ivy nodded non-committally.

Lisia set down his glass and looked at over at his friend, who now looked as though he was about to cry. “Was it my toast that upset you?” he asked, voice full of sympathy. “I didn’t mean to but… Oh, I’m sorry… Does it make you think of your own hostling?”

“Yes,” Ivy suddenly sobbed.

Lisia quickly hopped out of his chair and next to Ivy onto the sofa. Draping his arm over Ivy’s back, he gave him a hug. “Oh, dear… I know, I know… we all have that pain…” Lisia was rubbing the back of Ivy’s head, Ivy having falling over sideways into Lisia’s lap as he continued to cry. “Not knowing your parents. It’s horrible, isn’t it?”

Suddenly Ivy tensed and then, just as quickly, calmed. His crying trailed off. “No,” he said quietly, his voice marking a transition. “It’s not… horrible.”

Pansea, sitting on the other side of the sofa, next to Lisia, reached out to stroke Ivy’s back, but his chesnari quickly pulled himself upright to face Lisia. “It’s not horrible because–” and here his mouth hung open, then closed as he swallowed, then opened, “because I know who my parents are.”

Then, without warning, he flung himself against Lisia, gripping him in a fierce embrace. “Lis, you’re my hostling!”

Nearly immediately, he began to sob, as did Lisia. “Oh my… oh, Ivy!” His own arms came up around so that he and his son formed a circle of arms. “Oh, Ivy,” he shuddered, “I can’t… I didn’t know…”

“It’s all right,” Ivy murmured. “I’ve known it for a long time. I looked in the records when I reached my Feybraiah. I’m one of your sons.”

It was a good five minutes before either hostling or child could stop crying. Holding each other close, they spoke simple words that, to one another, meant a great deal.

“I wanted to tell you so badly, but I didn’t think you’d want to know, I thought you’d be–”

“I know, I know,” Lisia interrupted, “but I’m glad you’ve told me now.”

“Do you know when I most wanted to tell you?” Ivy asked, wiping his eyes as he pulled away slightly.

“When?” Lisia asked.

“When I was delivering Autumn. As soon as I expelled the pearl I thought, ‘Oh, this is horrible, how could they have taken the pearl away?’ I don’t know how they could have done that to you, Lis.”

“I don’t know either,” Lisia told him. “Now that I’ve seen all these harlings born… it seems like that was another life.”

Finally they had passed through the heart of the matter and were able to talk again. Pansea told Lisia the story of how he and Ivy had come to know one another, the awkward episode that ensued when Pansea mistakenly thought Ivy desired Lisia as his first aruna partner — all because Ivy had been asking questions about Lisia. Now they could all laugh about it together.

“So,” Lisia said, pouring himself another glass of wine, a raising it to Cobweb in a mini-toast. “To Ivy!” He drank a sip and smiled, tears having faded away. “It seems I have another son, beloved. You’re a step-father!”

“I can drink to that,” Cobweb said. “More of a family here than ever, it seems.”

Once all the wine was gone, Ivy and Pansea said goodnight and went down the hall. Lisia carefully lifted still-sleeping Sage off the chair. Cobweb went with them to their bedroom. They slept well, feeling contentment — in every sense of the word.

The End

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