Of Fire and Ice

Of Fire And Ice
by Mischa

Foreword

In the far north, the wind never ceases to blow. In winter it howls down from the mountains, a blinding blast of certain death. In summer, it dances deceptively across the plains of waving grass, spins and dips through the valleys of habitation, carrying with it the spore of death from the Wastelands. The inhabitants of the north are hardy folk. They need to be.

But the Wastelands is also the birthplace of the people. Long before the Sons of the Morning came to this harsh land to show the people the True Light, they had danced at the Citadel to celebrate their creation.

Now they knew the Truth. That they were gajin, white devils, and not truly people at all. Even so, some of the customs of those times remained. When their duties to their Masters and Mistresses were discharged, the campfires lit and the tasks of the day completed, they would gather and tell the stories of the beginning time. Of the days when the first of their people, the Pareah, had crawled from the pits of fire and come to live on the land with their tents and their horses.

For many years they had wandered, until the Gracious Day of Salvation when the Sons had come to Teach and they had seen the Truth with their own eyes. For the Sons and Daughters were divided into two as should be, while they themselves were incomplete, neither one thing or the other. The True God had made man and woman with his own hands, and, crushing together what was left, melding it into a ball of dirty clay, had discarded it over his left shoulder, where it had fallen into the pit and emerged as Pareah, the servants of the Sons.

They knew this was Truth. Every living thing had another. Horses had mares, dogs mounted bitches in the welcome warmth of the spring, even some plants had male and female of their own species. Except the Pareah. Gajin. White Devils. Man and woman combined, birthing eggs as reptiles did, raising young that grew as fast as beasts.

The Masters had tools and knowledge and learning which they would share with the Pareah, if only they would serve. And so they had, and the Masters protected them from the deadly dust, from their own ignorance, from the crazed wanderers who sometimes still staggered in from the Barrens, mouthing blasphemies in strange languages. These strangers were taken away by the Masters so that their ranting did not frighten the very young. The Masters promised to heal these poor souls, sending them back into the Wasteland so that the bright sun might bake their brains sane. It was a comfort to be protected and the Pareah were grateful, doing their utmost to live as the Masters demanded.

But some old customs remained.

Chapter One

Summer: ai-cara 37

Lucien cut around the side of the tent, avoiding the main encampment. The dust oozed up between his bare toes, his hair, refusing as always to be confined to its proper braid, flicked across his face as he ducked under a tent pole.

At the rear of the rows he stopped, looking up and down the back street, in search of Fawn. Usually, Fawn avoided his chores by hiding here, away from the adults stern gaze and propensity for finding work for idle boys. But he was no where to be seen. Disappointed, Lucien squatted down on his heels, resting his back against a water cask.

Today of all days, when he had such momentous news to share with his best friend, he was missing and Lucien had no idea where he could be. He’d searched everywhere he could think of.

Lucien tried to still his rapid heartbeat by taking deep cleansing breaths as his teacher had instructed. But this was too important for calmness. His Change was coming!

Ever since Spring he had felt the eyes of his parents upon him, studying his look and temper, searching for the telltale signs. Janin had even spoken briefly on the forbidden subject, one night as he lay in his bedroll, eyes already drooping shut.

You must tell me when you feel it come, Lucien. It is very important that you do.”

Janin’s kohled eyes had stared down at him fondly, the parent who had borne him, the one to whom he was most attached. Lucien never called Janin his ‘mother’ as the Sons said he should. He refused to even think of Janin that way; both his parents were the same! Lucien kept these traitorous thoughts strictly to himself. He did not want to end up having his brains baked sane on the Barrens in correction!

But he hated it all the same. All of it. The long ‘dresses’ the ‘females’ were made to wear, the codes of conduct that said he must call Janin mother and Aren, father. The laws that forbid Janin to appear in public with hair uncovered or to speak directly to a Master. How could his hostling stand to be so constricted!?

Why should the Pareah aspire to be the same as the Sons? Why did they try so hard, neglecting the old ways of the People?

Lucien drew his finger through the dust. Almost a man, he thought. The Change has come. The Corruption, he corrected himself, forcing the horrid word the Sons used into his fevered brain. I am becoming Corrupt. Imperfect.

Born almost perfect, despite the shell and the disfigured symbol of maleness, the Pareah grew more impure each year until the Corruption came and stained them irrevocably. Only through prayer and obedience could they ever hope to cast out the devil inside them and return to the proper state of Grace. This is what the preacher taught, the Truth that Lucien found so hard to believe in. Especially since last summer.

A yell from down the dusty road broke into his thoughts, scattering them. Fawn came pelting down the street toward him, his russet hair flying behind him like a tent pole flag. Lucien rose and went to meet him, a broad smile creasing his delicate features, remolding his solemn expression into something more boy like. Skidding to a halt beside him, Fawn rested his hands on his knees and bent over to catch his breath.

“Where’ve you been?” Lucien asked impatient of Fawn’s exertions. “I’ve been looking and looking. Master Lui almost caught me.

“I was. . . ” Fawn gasped out, “watching Hanna birth her new foal. Forgot the lesson altogether.”

“You’re gonna get it.” Lucien warned him. “Master Lui noticed you weren’t at class.”

“Don’t care.” Fawn grinned up at his friend cheekily. “I’m gonna Change soon. No more class. Just horses.”

Lucien looked about to make sure they weren’t overheard. “That’s what I wanted to tell you, Fawn.” He dropped his voice to a whisper, “My Change has started.”

“What!” Fawn yelped, his voice rising and falling. He fought to match Lucien’s tone, “Are you sure?”

Lucien nodded. “Night sweats. Shivering all of a sudden. Janin hasn’t noticed yet. I’ve been careful. But he’s gonna. And then I’ll have to go.”

“Aww.” Fawn kicked the dust, raising a small cloud that soon dissipated in the rising breeze. “I was hoping I’d be first, dammit!” He looked toward the mountains, visible over the top of the furthest tent. “We’d better get inside. Wind’s changing. My lodge is empty, Caleb is still down at the pens.”

They went to Fawn’s lodge, weaving across the irregular line of tents, so placed as to cut the afternoon winds and protect the communal area in the center of the tribal circle. The lodge was indeed empty and the two boys made themselves comfortable on the skins with a small bottle of watered cordial between them.

“So,” Fawn burped, swigging from the bottle and handing it across. “Where are you gonna go?”

Lucien lowered his voice again, unwilling to take any chances on passers-by with big ears. “South.” he whispered.

The astonished look on Fawn’s face said more than his clabbering mouth could in that moment. “Are. . . are you still going on about that?! You can’t go South! There’s nothing South except the Barrens and more Barrens. You’ll die for sure!”

Fawn knew, as all the elder boys did, that the expulsion from camp while the Corruption was upon them and the subsequent ‘romin’ they were required by tradition to undertake, were mere formalities. No one did a true romin anymore. Most went further North and visited secretly with relatives and friends in the alpine camps. Other, more adventurous souls went West and East, picking out the artifact they were required to bring back as proof of their travels from the carts of traders who used the trade roads in those regions. No one actually went! And no one ever, ever went South!

“I won’t.” Lucien declared, perhaps with a little more bravado than he felt. “The Barrens do end, they must. Else, where do the strangers come from, eh?”

Fawn favored him with a long, pitying look. “We talked about this last summer, Lucien. You know as well as I do where they come from, don’t be a fool! They’re ghost devils from the Citadel come to lead us away from the True Path! They’re not real.”

“They are real! I know they are!”

Fawn shook his head in mock sadness for his friend’s folly, snatching back the cordial and taking another long swig. Lucien knew his friend was only teasing, well, half teasing anyway, but still it hurt not to be believed.

“It’s all about that devil you met last summer, isn’t it. He fooled you, Lucien. When are you going to wake up? ”

Lucien stood abruptly. “Well, if you’re going to be like that about it, I might as well go home. Tell Janin and get this ‘ceremony’ underway. I don’t care what you say, Fawn. I’m going South and nothing you can say is going to stop me.”

He made for the entrance, stopping and turning as a thought occurred to him. Fawn sat where he had left him, his mouth opening and closing as he looked for words that he could not find.

“Remember your promise, Fawn.” Lucien warned him. “You swore not to tell.”

“But. . . but. . . I thought you were joking. Nobody goes South!”

Lucien shrugged. “I shall. And you promised, under blood bond, to keep it to yourself.”

Gathering the shreds of his dignity, Lucien left the tent before Fawn could respond. It hurt him to think that Fawn had not taken him seriously. He was determined to go South, to find the Citadel and the answers he needed to the questions that had been fermenting in his mind since his encounter last summer with the wanderer, the Wayhu .

I will find my ancestors, he told himself as he walked slowly back to his tent to tell Janin. I will find them and question them about the old ways. Find out if the Truth the Sons teach is the real Truth, or if there is another, like the Wayhu man said.


Chapter Two

The ceremony was brief and perfunctory. The elders chanted and danced, but their eyes were blank, their spirits elsewhere. The ceremonial shirt was packed away as quickly as was decently possible and it seemed that the feathers and flowers in his hair had begun to wilt before the event was half over. Lucien wondered why they even bothered. His skin itched where it had already begun to flake away and perhaps they were in a hurry to be rid of him, he thought uncharitably.

They managed not to look at him unless they had to, their guilt at abandoning him at this most tender of times, apparent in the way they refused to meet his gaze.

It was the Master’s ruling that made it necessary for him to leave camp while the Change was upon him, not any tradition of the Pareah. Once, they would have cared for and watched over their children at this most vulnerable of times. But the Masters had decreed that the devils were most active now, writhing in turmoil beneath the tender skin of their hosts, hoping for a chance to escape and perhaps infect one of the Chosen with their unholy taint.

The children must go into the Barrens and suffer this torment alone. It was harsh, yes, and often a child did not return, but the risk in their staying was greater. Or so the Sons had decreed. If he survived, Lucien must leave immediately on his romin and not come back until he had an artifact worth the price of a tent. Upon his return, a Master would be summoned to examine him and in that moment, his entire future would be determined. Would he live the rest of his life as man or woman?

Lucien did not know what to think. What should he wish for? While he had always known this moment would come, now it was upon him and he found himself without any idea what he should be aspiring to. He had no doubt that he would survive the Changing, it was his future role in the tribe that was his immediate concern.

Could he live as Janin did, confined to the tent city and the strictures and tenets of life as a Pareah female? He doubted it, feeling about the Master’s laws the way he did. But would life as a male be any better?

Lucien snuggled down in his blankets, comfortable and warm in his parents tent for the last time and thought hard as he scratched. The men worked for the Masters, his own father in the stables of the local fort, tending the Master’s horses. He was away from home for long periods, especially when the tribe moved camp to new grazing, too far away from the fort for visits. During winter, he came not at all, the trip was too dangerous, despite the mufflers and filters the Sons provided against the deathly winds.

Dealing with the Masters every day didn’t seem like much of tradeoff to Lucien. He cast his mind back to the day before, after he had returned home from his talk with Fawn. Janin had been both pleased and upset by his news. As usual, he had coped with his emotions by finding tasks to occupy his hands, busying himself with frantic preparations for Lucien’s departure.

“You must go to the post and send a wire to your father.” he declared, as he stuffed blankets into Lucien’s pack. “He must be given the opportunity to come to the ceremony and bid you good luck.”

Lucien had shuffled off, grateful to be away from Janin’s overwhelming emotional turmoil, but at the same time, wanting to stay close to his favorite parent and resentful of the chore that took him away.

He sent the wire as bidden, but as he turned to leave, he tripped on the landing and cannoned into a boy who swore as his leg banged against the door. Lucien apologized, changing swiftly to formal language when he realized the boy was a Master. He was about Lucien’s size and height, which meant he would be of about fifteen years to Lucien’s seven. The Master’s berating of his clumsiness broke off as he noticed Lucien’s flaking skin and reddened eyes and his voice became a terrified squeak as his tirade came to an abrupt halt and he squealed for his Mama.

He ran to her, clutching his arms about her waist. She turned and paled when she saw Lucien, favoring him with a look of pure distaste as she took her son away from possible contamination. “Shouldn’t be allowed.” he heard her mutter as she dragged her terrified son back indoors.

Did he really want to deal with those people every day? But what other choice was there? There was none unless he chose to serve the God. But he didn’t want that either. What use to him was a God who spoke only to the Sons and Daughters? A God whose name he was not even allowed to know because he was UnWorthy. Lucien shifted in his blankets, disturbing a little cloud of skin flakes that made him sneeze. Janin looked up from where he sat beside the fire stitching the last of the fringes onto Lucien’s jacket.

“Can’t sleep?” he said softly.

Lucien shook his head, afraid to speak unless he sneezed again. Janin folded the jacket carefully and laid it beside Lucien’s pack. Everything was ready; tomorrow Lucien must go. Lucien felt a cool hand upon his brow and he opened his eyes to find his parent settling gracefully down beside him.

“What worries you?” Janin wanted to know. “The Change? Or is it the romin?”

“The future.” Lucien confessed in a whisper. “I don’t know what I will be.”

“You mean the Choosing?” Lucien nodded, enjoying the soft caress. “It’s not so bad being female Lucien, and that might well be your fate. You’re pretty enough for it, and slender. But the Change isn’t called that for nothing. You might fill out . . .” Janin teased “. . lose that pretty hair.”

Lucien snorted his disbelief. His long black hair with its blazing streak of silver down the side had been the bane of his existence for as long as he could remember. It made him more memorable than a child intent on mischief would want to be and the subject of much good-natured teasing. He had been teased because it was safe to do so, a lock of silver hair was nothing compared to what could have been. As a taint, it was but a mild one. Disfigurement were rare now, the horrible mutations from the contaminated dust mostly a thing for nightmares and scary stories while huddled safe in blankets around the tent fires. His amber eyes, the color of which he shared with Janin, was less rare. Lucien could name two other boys with eyes of similar hue and being called ‘bear’ or ‘feral’ had always been a less common insult.

“I don’t know that I want to be either.” Lucien said softly, returning to the original conversation. This was a mildly shocking thing to say, he knew. But here in the tent with the night wind howling impotently outside, it seemed safe to voice his views.

Janin lay down beside him, stealing half his blanket to rest his head on and looked seriously at his son. “I had a dream, Lucien.” he whispered, his eyes unfocused. “I dreamed of you, of this time and what would come after.”

“What did you see?” Dreams were almost unheard of amongst the Pareah. The heightened emotions necessary for such dream walking strongly discouraged by the Sons. Again it was the fear of devils that lead to the edict. The devils used dreams, the Sons proclaimed, and the UnChosen might by accident invite them in and be used to wreak havoc and magic’s upon those in a state of Grace. Fear, in other words, Lucien thought. Fear of . . . us.

This new notion brought a tenseness to his gut, as if there was something hard and . . . dangerous lodged in the pit of his belly. He knew suddenly that, if he opened his mouth, it would escape into the night air. And then what? But Janin was speaking again and his soft words riveted Lucien’s attention.

“You will return . . .” he said softly, still stroking his sons’ brow. “. . . but never to be Summoned. This I have seen, but not all was clear.”

Lucien wanted to ask, wanted to whisper, ‘Yes’, but was afraid to open his mouth lest the wrong thing escape. He whimpered instead and snuggled closer to Janin. It is true, he thought. I will go South. I will survive and I will go South and things will never be the same again.

Chapter Three

The Barrens proper didn’t look all that much different from the fringes that he was accustomed to. He’d set up his camp in the lee of a boulder two days ago, to await the outcome of his Changing and had not yet seen anything to mar that belief. His pack was beside him, wedged in a crack to keep the night animals out, his bedroll laid out to sit on and he had nothing to do but wait, and look around.

Same old inch thick dust coating the ground, getting into everything. Same rocks and gray green bushes, even the same annoying bugs. Where was the great adventure in this, he wanted to know. Janin had often chastised him and cautioned him to be more patient. He could have used some of his parent’s matchless patience and reserve right now he thought, idly throwing rocks and watching them roll down the slope to be buried in the dust. The afternoon winds did not reach around this huge boulder and so he sat without muffler or mask, watching the sun slowly sink below the horizon, the only discomfort of his Change being the itching behind his eyes and the almost overwhelming desire to scream from boredom.

A rock lizard watched him, its bulging eyes revolving in its head as it followed the passage of the rocks down the hill. It squatted within his reach, thinking itself invisible against the red and brown stone.

“I could catch you and eat you, brother.” he told it.

The lizard tilted its head sideways to hear him better. “Catch you and skin you and make you delicious in my fire. Oh yes, I could.”
He needed another drink of water. His throat was parched and speech difficult. Lucien knew he should wait until sundown before drinking, it hadn’t been that long since his last, but the thirst was too great.

“Some for me,” he said unscrewing the lid and taking a swig. “and some for you.” he told the lizard, drizzling a little into the cap and gently setting it down beside the reptile.

The lizard scanned the offering with several revolutions of its ridiculous eyeballs before consenting to drink, its long pink tongue darting out to scoop and roll up the liquid and propel it backward down its throat. “Neat.” Lucien told it. “Good trick. Wonder if I can do that?” He laughed, feeling suddenly crazy and free, ignoring the sweat that trickled down his forehead and from his nape down between his shoulder blades.

Almost all the water was gone by the time he’d finished playing. The lizard too had vanished with the setting of the sun and Lucien realized that he’d forgotten to stoke the fire. He raised his hand to his forehead and pulled it away quickly. Scalding hot! What a fool he was! All that water wasted, soaked into dead soil and him not realizing that it was fever that had impelled his actions!

He hurried to correct at least one of his mistakes, building up the fire and setting the beans to soak with the last of the water. He’d be in trouble if he didn’t find a well tomorrow. There was water around, but this area was not familiar to him and it would take some hunting to find one. How stupid could one boy be!

That night, as he lay in his bedroll, wrapped tight against the night chill, the final stage of the Change manifested itself. Strange dreams of fire and ice played against the backdrop of his closed eyelids. His body shook with chill and then sweated with fever, alternating throughout the dark hours, his belly taut and swollen, tender and then painful as the organs within shifted and swelled. He dreamed about the Wayhu man he had found last summer, wandering lost and dehydrated on the plains behind the camp. The strangely beautiful creature who had spoken of green lands, populated by brilliant, intelligent beings and of magical flying horses. Before the Sons came and took him away.
Now his words became Lucien’s dreams. He saw rolling hills of verdant green and lush trees. Dreamed of pastures that never dried and blew away, where magnificent horses danced on the breeze. Tidy white houses with yards full of trees, whose fruit hung ripe and heavy, ready for the picking. Men who wore clothes of brilliant color and whose hair hung free down their backs and who spoke to him of wondrous things that he knew he understood.

By morning he was both exhausted and exhilarated.

Dehydrated from the sweating, he had to find water today, else his transformation would count for nothing. I am a man, he thought as he packed up his things and shouldered his pack. A man who does foolish things and may not survive to tell of them, but a man nonetheless. A proud moment; unfortunately there was no one to share it with. Is this what became of the other children who failed to return? If so, then the blame rested squarely on the shoulders of those who cast them out, the Masters whose decree it was that banished them. But the Pareah were not blameless either, if he were to be fair. It was their decision to kowtow to the wishes of the Sons, their obedience that condemned so many of their children to death. There had to be a better way. Perhaps he would find it. Perhaps not. He wondered briefly how he looked. What manner of man had he become? But there was no time for such musings, no safety for celebration to be found here. There was more than one kind of death in the Barrens, lurking in wait for unsuspecting boy/men to stumble into it.

Many days passed before Lucien managed to find a trickle of water. His tongue was so badly swollen he could scarce swallow the meager amount he was able to coax into his mouth. His skin had begun to flake and itch again, this time from the wrath of the sun as it floated high overhead and bounced its burning rays off the rocks. On legs of rubber that shook and trembled more with each aching step, Lucien fought his way forward. He was too stubborn to admit defeat and to try and make his way in another direction, too confused by the deprivations he was enduring to even make such a decision. All around him the earth burned. This far north, the sun was usually not much of an enemy; practically unseen in winter and too far above in the summer for true discomfort. But out here, where shelter was non existent and the metal in the stones stored its heat, it could be deadly. Shimmers danced across his vision, the massive rocks that littered the ground like dead fall took on strange shapes; some became the houses of the Masters’, others resembling huge petrified tree trunks, the limbs from which littered the ground over which he must tread.

Lucien despaired of ever locating his goal in this wilderness of rock and dust. The Citadel was too elusive. Its location, once a well guarded secret of the Elders was now forgotten by the People. It was hopeless; his bones would soon join those of the other hapless seekers who had gone before him.

He was so involved in his self recriminations that he almost missed it. Nearly mistook it for yet another outcropping in the distance that only held a passing resemblance to a building. Yet there it was. Rising out of the barren landscape, tall yet broken, proud yet frail. But definitely man-made.

Stop gaping, he told himself, shutting his mouth firmly. One foot in front of the other. If nothing else, the place should have a well!

It was further away than he’d thought and it took him the rest of the day and what remained of his strength to get there. Climbing the last few yards, he collapsed in the shade of a broken wall, panting and exhausted, but exhilarated all over again. He had done it! Found the citadel of his ancestors. Now, if he could just raise the energy to search for a well . . .

Chapter Four

Morning was just perhaps an hour away when he regained consciousness. Lucien discovered that he’d spent the entire night sprawled on his face right next to the entrance to the Citadel. Wearily, he grappled to his feet, using the wall as purchase. He was tired and thirsty, yes, but considering he’d just spent the night exposed to the wind, he should by rights have been dead! Having his pack covering most of his body must have saved him.

Rounding the end of the wall, he climbed over the broken remains of the gateway, a twisted pile of melted metal, black with age and pitted with rust. Inside the citadel for the first time, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, he encountered a strange sight. There was light in here where there should not be, not at this hour. And it was luminous, a pinkish mist dancing inches above the ground wherever he looked. He stepped forward and the mist contracted around him, rising to his nostrils with a sweet, fresh odor that invigorated him even more. Magic, or some natural phenomenon? He couldn’t tell and decided to ignore it.

The broken walls of the citadel had many levels, some still intact. Twisted poles stretched skyward, some leaning drunkenly, other still perfectly straight and tall. Stairs rose and fell in no particular pattern. Some led to openings that vanished into darkness, others to walkways that circled the perimeter of the octagonal building.

He had no light for exploring the darker parts of the citadel; that would have to wait for full daylight. Instead, he decided to search for a well. Crisscrossing the courtyard, he looked for signs.

Unerringly, the mist stayed with him wherever he went, penetrating his lungs with each breath. It followed every step he took, turning when he did, halting while he looked around. Weird as it was, it was also strangely comforting, as if it were looking out for him, taking care of him. And, despite not having had water for days, he began to feel better. Stronger. As if his desiccated tissues were absorbing something from the mist as it hovered in front of him.

Lucien searched every obvious place with no success, the mist dogging his every step. He sat down on the bottom of a staircase to think. This was far too strange for his practical mind to cope with.

I have too little imagination to even begin to understand any of this, he told himself. Ignore the silly light and concentrate on finding water.

His eyes refocused in front of him. The silly light was still dancing, spinning around the circular courtyard in . . . circles? The light was at its brightest and tallest in its center. Lucien suddenly had the impression that it was trying to tell him something. A ludicrous thought, but he rose to his feet just the same and walked toward the center of the yard where the light had grown to an almost rosy hue. A shaft of pink mist hovered, rotating slowly over the top of a huge sheet of iron.

Lucien knew. He just knew what he would find underneath. Shrugging off his back pack he heaved and pushed at the barrier while the mist, apparently pleased with itself, retreated back to its circles of spinning. The iron sheet revealed the well, the scent of pure, clean water rushing to his nostrils in a whoosh of air. Lucien whooped for joy, the sound coming out all croaky and strained, but he didn’t care.

He stayed at the citadel for two more days, recovering. Revising what he’d always thought about his own character, Lucien decided he was more than ready to believe in magic.

The mist was ever-present. It became so familiar in all its aspects that Lucien began to talk to it, beginning with his thanks for showing him the well. Every morning as the dawn came, it formed its circles in the courtyard and danced. Sometimes it floated lazily in the air, just a wisp of pink and gold on the periphery of his vision, other times it would blow about as if the wind were scattering it, forming weird shapes high into the air that looked like birds and animals.

Once, he even saw a figure that looked like Master Lui, bending over with his skirts in the air, and it made him laugh. The mist liked this. It danced in response to the sound, creating ever more bizarre caricatures for him until Lucien’s sides began to ache and he begged it to stop. The sun might rise high in the sky but his mist never faded, nor was it blown away by the winds.

Lucien was past questioning its veracity, or his own sanity for that matter. The mist was as real as it was magical. It was sentient and that was that! But there was no other sign of life in the Citadel. When, on the second day, he found the courage to explore a little into the darker parts of the building, his mist accompanied him, lighting the way. But there was nothing to be found. Whatever had once been here, left behind by the ancestors, had long ago been looted or had fallen to pieces. A few markings on the walls which he could not read, were all that remained. No ghosts, no people, no answers.

The morning of the third day began as the previous two had. Lucien awoke in his bedroll, rubbed his eyes and got up. He’d had his breakfast and tidied himself up before he even noticed, so used to its presence had he become. The mist was gone.

Panicked, Lucien searched the yard in case it was playing with him, pulling in on itself to hide in some dark corner. But there was no sign. He peered in the doors; nothing. What had happened? He raced up the stairs to the outer wall and peered out. The sun was just hitting the sides of the escarpment to the west, casting faint illumination across the valley floor. There was no sign of the mist, but there was . . . something? Lucien squinted to see better. Halfway across the plain a tiny figure was moving. Ghostly in the half light it moved easily across the rocky landscape and, as Lucien watched, it turned to look back toward him, sweeping out an arm in a gesture that said, ‘Come’.

He did not hesitate, or question. Shooting back down the stairs, he hurriedly packed up his things, thankful that he’d been neat and tidy in his camping. Efficiently, he rolled his bed and attached it to the pack. Sliding it onto his shoulders, he stopped at the entrance to the Citadel and looked back. The place looked abandoned, empty. Everything of magic was gone from it now, it was just another ruin in the landscape.

As he took off down the slope in pursuit, Lucien knew he was following his mist. He’d thought there were no answers to be found in the Citadel, no ancestors to question, no great secret to be revealed. But there had been and it had been right before his eyes the entire time. Now he was being lead and there was no doubt in his mind that he would follow. Wherever his magic would lead him.

Chapter Five

“Boss.” The quiet tone held urgency. Panthera looked up from his sketchpad and over his shoulder to where the Mojag guard who had spoken stood. “What is it?” he asked, cross with the interruption.

“There’s someone in the forest, watching us.” the Mojag told him. “Been there for a while, just standing there.”

Panthera looked casually over his shoulder toward the edge of the glade where the forest began. “I can’t see anything.” But he didn’t doubt the Mojag’s keener senses; it was, after all why he was so highly paid. “Just the one?”

“Yep.” He sounded certain.

“Well,” Thea shrugged. “if he’s just watching. . .”

But he knew his peace and quiet were gone, not to mention his concentration. The Mojag just stared at him stonily. So much for escaping the confines of the palace, he thought ruefully. This desire to ‘go’, to be outside and away from all that was familiar, had come over him rather strongly lately. He didn’t mind feeling so restless, but indulging it would be easier if only the guards didn’t insist on spooking at every little shadow!

“All right. All right.” Thea rose gracefully to his feet, flicking his hair over his shoulder as he bent to retrieve his canvas and case.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to know what the bugger is up to.”

They walked casually over to where the horses were grazing. Thea packing his gear away into his saddlebags while the guard told his companion the news.

Moments later, the second guard began a conversation about the long ride home and the need for him to relieve himself before they mounted up; and disappeared into the forest. It didn’t take him long to circle around behind their watcher and the bushes erupted in a flurry as the guard wrestled with his prize.

Carrying the struggling har across the grass with ease, he dumped him practically at Thea’s feet where he ceased to struggle immediately and hunched up into a ball, his head tucked down under his arms.

Oh, good grief! Thea crossed his arms and looked snakily at the guard who had started all this nonsense. “Why couldn’t we just have gone home?” he wanted to know. “Ridden away? What are we supposed to do with . . .this?” He eyed the ragamuffin with idle contempt.

Now it was the Mojag’s turn to shrug. Their villain had proven to be nothing more than a half-starved lad and he’d lost interest. Great!
Thea hunched down and looked at the lad. He was filthy and terribly thin. Great skeins of black hair hung down over his face, tangled with leaves and twigs. His clothing, strangely stitched with symbols Thea had never seen before, was ragged, though it was obviously of tough material. Some kind of hide, it looked like. The pale skin was layered with bruises, scratches and a good deal of filth and his moccasins were worn through, as if he had traveled a long way.

Thea felt a sudden pity for him and his voice was gentler than he’d first intended, “If you meant us no harm, then we mean none to you. Are you lost?”

The head lifted and Thea found himself pinned by the most outrageously beautiful amber eyes, gleaming ferally out from under the snarl of hair. They regarded him warily, taking him in.

Thea felt himself being judged and for a brief moment wondered how this wild young har dared. Then the eyes softened and a kind of cautious wonder filled them making them almost liquid with emotion.

I should paint this, Thea thought absently, the civilized and the untamed. Filth and deprivation married with intelligence and such a strange wild beauty. Trouble is, no one would believe it.

The voice was hesitant, low and pleasantly pitched. “I mean you no harm.”

“Good.” Thea didn’t move, certain if he did that his young captive would either flinch or flee. He didn’t relish being the cause of either. “Are you lost?” he repeated.

The head shook in negation. “I don’t know where I am.”

Thea was flummoxed. Not lost, but lost just the same. What, by the Aghama did he mean by that!? He tried a different tack, shifting slightly for comforts sake, he sat down, crossing his legs before him. “What is your name then?”

“Lucien.”

“My name is Panthera and this is Collis,” the Mojag who had spotted the lad nodded briefly, “and Terraz.” The other guard smiled.

“Greetings to you.” the lad replied. “Son’s Blessing upon you.”

Thea decided to ignore that strangeness for now. He pushed on. “You’re not lost but you don’t know exactly where you are, is that it?” A nod. “Where did you come from?”

“North. From the Barrens. I followed my ancestors.” he told them.

Ancestors? Following ghosts? Aside from the Emenah, there was no tribe to the North that he knew of who would follow ghosts and this lad was no pale haired mystic. He looked up at Collis seeking help.

Collis shrugged again, absolving himself, and offered, “He could mean beyond the Steppes. It’s pretty wild up there. All sorts of nooks and crannies that are unexplored.”

Returning his attentions to Lucien, Thea tried again. “Your tribe?”

“Pareah.”

“Pariah?”

Lucien nodded.

“And the Sons?”

“Our Masters.”

Oh good grief! This was too much for him. Strange waifs with funny ancestors who led him on a merry chase so convoluted that he didn’t know where he was! Now there were Masters?! This was a job for Ferminfex. Maybe his father could sort this out!

“I tell you what,” he said finally. Lucien watched him intently. “Come home with me, accept the hospitality of my family. A chance to rest if nothing else.”

“Thank you,” Lucien said finally after some consideration. “I accept your offer. You seem a kind man. Perhaps you can help me.”

Thea shot a helpless look at Collis and Terraz, both of whom were studiously looking the other way. Neither of them willing to address the ‘man’ issue. Thea decided to ignore it as well; he had little choice.

“We would be pleased to help you if we can. Is there something specific you are looking for?

“Yes.” Lucien’s face had lit up, his expression as pleased as if someone had just given him a puppy. “I am searching for the wraeththu man.”

Thea almost died.

Chapter Six

“Well?”

Thea was comfortably ensconced in his favorite armchair, reading the paper. He’d given up pacing hours ago, waiting for his father to finish his gentle interrogation of their visitor and to come tell him what the hell was going on!

He threw the paper down at his father’s appearance, desperate, despite himself, to know what Ferminfex had discovered. It was like something out of a fairy tale, a legend; a wild boy who didn’t know just what and who he was, come seeking his origins in the land of his forefathers. It couldn’t possibly be true; things like that just didn’t happen! That’s what he’d been telling himself all this while, knowing full well that it could indeed! Legends did have a nasty habit of coming to life; he’d experienced it for himself.

His father took the time to pour himself a much needed drink before he joined his impatient son on the sofa. The late afternoon sun poured through the castle windows, highlighting the red tones in Ferminfex’s hair and washing the entire room in the green glow from the richly embroidered carpets.Taking a deep drink before beginning his dialogue, Ferminfex sighed, echoing his son’s unspoken sentiments. “I find it hard to believe that things like this can happen in this day and age. That lad knows nothing. Absolutely nothing. And his story is little short of incredible.”

“Are you going to share it?” Thea asked peevishly. He’d found the wandering lad, after all. Well, Collis had, he conceded, but it was his problem now.

Ferminfex cupped his hands around his glass. “I don’t know where to begin.”

“Where’s the lad now? Lucien. Did you find out what he meant by the ‘wraeththu man.’?”

“Slow down, Thea. And, yes, I did. Let me start at the beginning, will you.”

Thea subsided and waited for his father to order his thoughts. Lahela, Thea’s hostling, chose that moment to join them. “Not begun the tale yet? Good. I’ve not missed any of the juicy bits.” He waved one indolent hand in his son’s direction in greeting, then addressed his mate.
“I put him in the bath, as you suggested. Cris and Raxis are taking care of him. The poor boy’s eyes are nearly bugging out of his head. I don’t know which is worse; the way he stares at everyone or the way his head is on a constant swivel. I keep waiting for the inevitable moment when it simply gives up and drops right off his neck!” He sounded petulant, that such a problem should have been foisted upon him.

Ferminfex patted Lahela’s hand in a fond gesture. “I’m sure you are coping admirably with our little savage.” Mollified, Lahela subsided into a chair and assumed an attitude of patient saintliness.

“I’ll tell you what I’ve worked out from our conversation, not what Lucien actually said.” Ferminfex began. “From what I can make out, Lucien and his people, the Pareah are quite a large tribe of Wraeththu, nomadic horsemen from the far north, over the Steppes. They don’t call themselves Wraeththu, of course; they seem to have no concept of the word or what their difference from mankind might mean. I suspect they might be refugees from the beginning times, forced north by the wars and kept there by the fear of radiation. Over time they’ve lost the sense of who they are; forgotten about us in the south.”

“Radiation?” Thea had heard the word and knew what it meant in basic terms, but not much else.

“Hmm. During the wars there were a lot of nukes thrown around.” Ferminfex said. Seeing Thea’s blank look, he elaborated. “Nuclear weapons. Nasty things. Made the land uninhabitable for generations. But so far as I am aware, none were ever used on this continent.”

“Still, the fear was there and perhaps there were bombs thrown; all kinds of nasty things went on. Perhaps there was sickness, the natural product of war, and it was attributed to the nukes; we’ll never know. Anyway,” he took another sip of his drink and leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs and making himself comfortable. “The Pareah seem to have lived quite happily and quite well up there in the frozen north. From some things Lucien said, I feel they did have a culture that used magic. But that’s all in their past now; they’ve forgotten it all.”

“The Sons.” Thea said quietly. “Their ‘Masters’. They’re humans, aren’t they?”

“Humans!” Lahela interjected. “This tribe, these. . . Pareah, are slaves to humankind?”

“Yes. It seems so. And that’s what bothers me the most. Of course, it’s terrible that there are still Wraeththu in this world who are unaware of their own potential and that in itself would move me to action, but Lucien indicates that there is a large, a very large, society of humans living up there and, from other things I picked up, I get the idea that they’re not entirely friendly.”

“Why do you say that, Ferminfex?” Lahela asked quietly, his mood sobering.

Ferminfex shrugged. “I think they know about us. They’re very quick to deal with anyone who comes close to ‘their’ hara from the South and they have a mouthful of platitudes to explain away anything . . . unusual they might say before they’re caught.”
“These . . . Sons are also very effective at controlling their ‘property’. Religious cant about devils and infections; magic is evil, any manifestation of power from hara can be attributed to their unholy state, that kind of thing. They have a firm grip and iron boot heels by the sound of them.”

“But,” Thea asked. “is it any of our business?”

“I think it has to be, Thea.” It was Lahela who responded. “If what Lucien tells us is true and we have no reason to disbelieve him, then we have a huge number of hostile humans sitting directly to our north, with only Emunah between them and us.”

“Lahela is right, Thea. Not only do we have a duty to those hara up there, but there’s the risk the humans pose. We can’t ignore that. If they lived peacefully, then yes, we’d leave them alone. But you must admit that they don’t sound at all peaceful and we’d be lax in our duty if we didn’t do something about it. For the Pareah’s sake if nothing else.”

Thea threw his hands up. “But what do we do? We can’t go trotting up there and just tell them to stop. Much as I’d like to see Lucien’s people freed, short of sending an army up there, an army we don’t have by the way, I can’t see how we can help Lucien’s people.”

Ferminfex smiled and stretched. “You’re thinking locally, Thea. Think globally. We don’t have an army at our disposal, true. But. . .” he grinned at his son, his expression sly. “who do we know that does? Who likes nothing better than riding out and righting wrongs, all those bardic, heroic things? Hmm?”

Thea understood. His smile matched those on the faces of his hostling and his father. “And we have our nasty little northerly neighbor problem solved without lifting a finger.” he chortled.

The three of them shared the satisfaction of the moment and spoke in unison.

“The Gelaming.”

Chapter Seven

Lucien drifted, cradled on a cloud of the softest stuff. It all seemed like a dream. A dream populated by angels or devils, depending on whether or not you believed as the Sons did.

He had met a prince and now he was ensconced in a castle full of brilliant beings who were kind to him. They had spoken softly to him, encouraging him to speak and listening to his words.

Fed him strange and tasty foods, bathed him and given him a place to rest. He had never seen such magnificence before; once, he recalled lazily, he had been inside Master Lui’s house, when that worthy had needed a lad to help carry his books. He had thought Master Lui’s to be the ultimate in luxury and wonder; how little he had known then. That ignorant boy seemed a million miles away.

He turned and rubbed his cheek on the soft silken material of his pillow. The weeks of hard travel seemed a distant memory . . .

. . . He had followed his will-o-the-wisp for days; always it was just out of reach ahead, always heading due south. Sometimes it would veer slightly to the east or west and, each night, the journey would end at a well, in an area rich with game. His magic was looking after him.
The end of the Wasteland had come as a complete surprise. One moment he was trudging along the through the same endless dust and rock, the next his feet came to rest on the edge of a lip, almost costing him his balance. The desert simply ended here. A gentle slope, complete with game trail winding down, lead to a vast plain of shining grass and beyond that the most miraculous sight of all so far.

Trees. An endless forest, more trees than Lucien had ever seen. Tall and straight, crowded so close together he could not see the earth between them. The sight was so amazing that his legs went out from under him and he collapsed on his rump. Such riches! The Master who owned this must have wealth unimaginable! He had made it!

This had to be the heaven of his ancestors, it could be nothing else. He sat, his eyes wide, contemplating what he must do next. All of a sudden the thought of leaving the Barrens behind was a daunting one. It was the only environment he had ever known. To distract himself, he began to lighten his pack, discarding the mufflers and masks, leaving behind the large water bottle and keeping only his smaller, personal flask. Such a place would have many wells.

While taking more time to eat something and drink the last of his water, Lucien noticed something else. Behind the trees, covered in even more trees, was a range of mountains, rising majestically, high above where he sat. These he would probably have to cross.
But that was all right, his guardian . . .

That was when he noticed. There was no shining form on the plains below. Jumping to his feet, Lucien scanned the area before him. No sign. His magic had left him. Now he was thinking about it, he could feel its lack. It was definitely gone this time. He considered this new development.

Perhaps the ancestors could not leave the plains? Or perhaps he no longer needed their guidance? This thought made him feel better and it was with new heart and determination that he set his feet on the path to the plains below.

***

What a strange time that had been, Lucien reflected, turning in his bed to look out the window.

It was almost dark now, but he could see in the distance some of the mountains he had crossed to get here. The perfume from the vine growing around his window filled his nostrils with its heavy scent. What paradise this was. How fortunate he had been to find it. His hands clenched around the silken covers of his bed. It had not all been good . . .

Legs strained by aching muscles that he didn’t know he had, Lucien pushed on. He had been in the forest for days and the wonder he had felt at all the new sights and scents had given way to overwhelming tiredness and misery. Each new hill was a torment, the streams that had given him pause to wonder only days ago, were now merely another barrier to cross.

Each night he fell into his bedroll, too tired almost to eat or drink. His head ached constantly, each breath was an effort that made stars dance before his eyes; even his blood felt thinner and filled with bubbles ready to burst.

The blanket of dead leaves the shape of needles made the going hard as his feet slipped on their rolling surface. He still did not understand how the water could possibly remain above the earth and not be sucked down into it, but he no longer had the energy to care. How could a person feel so wretched surrounded by such bounty?

But he doggedly pushed on, even though he was aware of his strength leaching away. He had not come so far to fail now. The last two days, the invisible birds in the trees high overhead would sometimes fall silent and he felt he was being watched. But he never saw anyone.

Nightfall came again and, with what he knew was almost the last of his energy, he set down his pack and made camp. After meager meal of dried beans soaked in water he fell gratefully into his bedroll. At least the needles were soft and comfortable at night. Strange dreams disturbed his rest. Faces haunted his vision, surrounded by ropes of long pale hair; faces beneath even paler than that, they floated before him, chanting and singing. Delicate fingers touched his flesh while dream lit eyes stared deep into his own, speaking a wordless language that he felt he understood.

When he had awoken, he was . . . elsewhere.

The realization had hit him almost at once. Sitting bolt upright in his blankets, Lucien rubbed his eyes and looked around him. The needle trees were gone. A cacophony of growth in many different hues of green surrounded him. Broad soft leaves and delicate fronds waving in the morning sun replaced the dark symmetry of the needles. A morning filled with bird song, not the muffled quiet of the other place. Even the stream he had camped by last night had disappeared. There was water nearby though; he could hear its musical tinkle coming through the undergrowth to his right. Breathing deeply of the rich, earthy scent rising from the warming ground, Lucien realized that this place even felt different. It was hotter and there was moisture in the air. It felt strange, like breathing in water. And, he could breathe, he found. No more deep draughts to keep his lungs filled; his head was clear, the bubbles in his brain dissipated.

Beside his pack was a large, broad leaf with some kind of ruddy, ripe fruit piled on it.

Looking around, Lucien could see no one, but the smell from the offering was too tempting to resist. He lifted one of the oval balls into his hand and bit down. Sweet nectar ran down his chin as the marvelous flavor exploded in his mouth. He chewed the slightly oily but tender flesh, eating one after the other until they were almost all gone. The remaining few, he saved, wrapping them carefully in their leaf and stowing them in his pack.

Every morning there was more fruit. Lucien continued south, trusting in this new magic to guide him should he wander off course. It was the afternoon of his third day in this new place that he heard the voices. Creeping forward carefully, lest the owners of the voices be Masters, he came to a sunny glade beside a river where three figures stood. Two at least were giants! Massive men with shaved heads and leather. They had weapons too, cradled in their crossed arms. One stood sentinel near the grazing horses, the other stood guard over the third figure sitting by the banks of the river, bent over a parchment.

This one was indistinct, to Lucien’s mind. Wearing trousers like a man, but with loose hair and guardians in a public place, as a woman would have. Either way, he had never seen such beauty. Flowing locks of raven hair and eyes of forest green that pierced his surroundings with fierce intelligence. He was drawing, Lucien could see that now. A variety of writing implements rested in an open case on the grass as the strange creature looked up and down from the river to the parchment and back again.
They were not Masters, this much was clear. But from a place such as this, his ancestors must have come. The three strangers by the river were obviously People and not Masters.

Lucien wished for the courage to go forth and speak with them, but a natural reticence and the awe he felt held him back.

He was captured, of course. He had feared that he would be punished for his temerity, but the man (he could see now that the prince was male) was kind after his initial anger had abated. They had brought him to their home. A castle, straight from the stories Janin used to tell him as a child, with a drawbridge and a moat and colorful flags flapping proudly from the highest turrets. Every one of the men within was fair to look upon. They trailed their loose hair after them proudly, dressed in trousers and shirts of vivid hues, no recriminations for this behavior, no false modesty. Paradise! Even the Queen of this place, called Lahela, who had looked upon his filth with such distaste, did not cover his hair.

Another man came, called Ferminfex. He welcomed Lucien to his home so Lucien knew that he was the King and flattered him accordingly. He was clean now, and fed. Sat upon this sumptuous bed with the King sitting opposite him in this room full of expensive wood and red piled wool and asked to tell his story. This he had done to the best of his ability and the King had listened intently and hardly interrupted him, which was the courtesy one would expect from a King.

Then Ferminfex had told him to rest and had left him. Lucien did not know what would happen to him now. It was obvious that he was not Worthy to remain in this place, but he felt confident that the King and his Court would deal fairly with their unwanted visitor.

Chapter Eight

“They what?!”

Thea couldn’t believe what his father was telling him. The hour was late, Lahela had retired to his rooms, leaving Thea and Ferminfex in the library for one last drink before bed. He must not be hearing correctly.

“Did you say that the harling, Lucien, has had no kind of feybraiha at all? Nothing?”

“Exactly.” Ferminfex smiled at his son. “And there’s more. That’s why I wanted to speak to you alone.” Seated opposite Thea on the couch before the blazing fire, Ferminfex managed to look both amused by his child’s theatrical response to his announcement and very serious as well.

“I didn’t want to discuss this in front of Lahela. You know how emotional he can get about feybraiha and I didn’t want him upsetting the lad.”

“What’s, ‘more’?” Thea asked suspiciously. There was glint in his father’s eye that didn’t bode well for whoever had caused it to be there.

“Well, you notice how we continue to refer to him as the ‘lad’ or ‘boy’ even though we consciously are aware that Lucien is technically neither? He is a har, not a harling anymore and yet we think of him as a child?”

Thea nodded, perplexed as to where this was leading. Then it dawned on him.

“He has not taken aruna, has he?”

Ferminfex shook his head. “Lucien is virgin. That’s the human term for it. Not only that but the harlings of his tribe are expelled whilst their feybraiha is upon them. On the orders of the Sons, of course. That is how Lucien came to be here. He was sent out into the desert while the change took place.”

Scandalized, Thea felt an overwhelming sympathy with the lad. He knew what it felt like not to have the proper care and ceremony during this most important time. Some of what he was thinking must have shown on his face, for Ferminfex leaned forward and patted his knee.

“Don’t feel too sorry for him, Thea. He knows no better.”

“But, how? How could his people countenance such a barbarism? And I cannot for the life of me understand the reasoning behind such an outrageous action on the part of these . . . Sons!” He spat.

“I couldn’t work it out either, initially. But I’ve been thinking it over. Feybraiha is a time when power manifests itself. I found the answer strikingly obvious when I went over what Lucien had told me. He said the death rate amongst harlings during the Change was very high. Unusually so in my opinion. What if the Masters sent someone after the harlings, to watch over them?”

Thea grasped the idea. “If they see any manifestations of power in the harlings, they kill them, don’t they?”

Ferminfex nodded. “That’s the conclusion I came to. Their excuse is that the Change is dangerous to the ‘superior’ race. I imagine, sometime in the past, the Sons have learned that having sexual relations with hara is deadly to humanity and have adapted that premise to, as my own human father used to say, cover their asses.”

Thea thought it over, idly twirling a lock of hair between his fingers. “But, the harlings do return to the tribe? After?”

“Yes. They have a short period of wandering, which Lucien refers to as the romin. I suspect the word is a corruption of an Asian word, ronin. It referred to a tribe of warrior outcasts. But, while the word must belong to the Sons, I think the romin itself is a Pareah custom. Lucien certainly believes that it is and it sounds very much like an older, human custom that I’ve read about. Taking a journey to complete the transition from boy to man is an old, old tradition. It’s just that in Lucien’s case, he took it into his head to go South, which is expressly forbidden.”

“Yes. Well. We know why that is. Now, ” Thea shook himself mentally, chasing away old memories. “what are we going to do about all this?”

Ferminfex sat quietly for a few moments. The fire crackling in the hearth was the only disturbance; all the rest of the household seemed to have retired for the night.

“I was planning on giving the lad some education, not just springing it all on him at once. He deserves a chance to learn. But,” he leaned forward, steepling his fingers in front of him in his customary gesture. “there’s no time to waste. Lucien needs to be taken to Immanion, as quickly as we can arrange it. The Hegemony needs to hear about all this.”

“There’s an ‘and’ in there somewhere. I can smell it.” Thea looked at his father.

“He needs a teacher, Thea. Someone he knows to go with him to Immanion.”

“Oh, good grief! Father! I am the worst possible choice as a guide OR as a teacher. You know that!”

“No. I don’t. Actually I think you’re the only possible choice.”

“Really! And just how did you arrive at that conclusion, may I ask?” Thea felt the first stirrings of panic in his belly. Immanion! Phaonica. And . . . inevitably, Cal. Ten years. Had it really been that long. He couldn’t do it. It was simply impossible!

Even as these wild thoughts flitted past his consciousness, Panthera knew that he was going. Already, his mind was packing up his belongings; inventing scenarios and the conversations that might take place.

Ferminfex looked at his son for the longest moment. “You know my feelings about this, Thea.” he said finally. “I’ve been telling you for years that this situation is ridiculous. You cannot spend the rest of your days hiding here. I’d boot you out myself, except I don’t think Lahela would stand for it.” He sighed. “Thea, time is a remarkable healer. I’m sure you’d find things aren’t as you imagine. But, I’d be content if you just resumed . . . living.”

“Very well. I’ll make the arrangements.” Thea sighed. He wouldn’t win this time, something told him. Besides, this restless feeling needed appeasement.

“Good.” said Ferminfex, rising to his feet with a pleased expression on his face. “You are the right candidate, Thea. Lucien knows you. You know Phaonica. And there’s that common ground between you that no one else has. I trust you to do the very best possible for him.”

He headed for the door, intent on his bed. In the doorway, he stopped and turned, looking back over his shoulder at Thea, who sat, head bowed down, before the fire.

“It’s time, Thea.” was all he said.

Panthera nodded. It was.

Chapter Nine

Lucien was parked in the center of his bed, making the most of his breakfast. More of that ripe, luscious fruit and some soft, white bread! Finishing the last morsel, he fastidiously cleaned the crumbs from the bedclothes and carried the tray over to the table, as he had been asked. It seemed sacrilegious to put anything on the wooden surface. Wood was a precious commodity, although he imagined that here it was more common. Left to his own devices and unsure if he was permitted to leave his room, he brushed his hands off and decided to explore his surroundings.

The view from the window he had taken in last evening, before his bath. Now he looked at the wonderful paintings hanging from the rails above, wondering if perhaps the Prince might have painted some of them. The subjects were People, posed upon chairs and seated at tables. They had the look of ancestors about them; calm dignity and imposing majesty.

He made his way around the walls, surprised to find on the fourth wall the opening to another room exactly like this one. He stepped closer to the entrance and almost bumped into someone coming the other way. Lucien took a hasty step back, not wishing to give offense. The other person did the same. He frowned. So did the other person. Lucien peered closer, suddenly realizing his mistake. It was some kind of reflection. The person was him!

Curious now, he moved right up to the wall and held out his hand to touch the surface. Cool to the touch, shiny and silver in color when one got close enough, it was as if the bucket of water Janin used to wash his hair in and which was the only place in which Lucien had seen his reflection, had somehow been frozen and attached to this wall.

He studied himself. Taller, but still scrawny. His hair was clean at least, shining like silk as it spilled unbound over his shoulders. The silver streak at the front was almost the same shade as the stuff the reflector was made from. This discovery was absurdly pleasing; a kind of connection with this place, no matter that it was so obscure.

Lucien had never seen his entire body at one time before. It was strange, seeing himself so completely. Tawny eyes staring back at him from a thin face, his mouth too big, his cheekbones too pronounced. I look like a starveling child, he thought crossly. I look . . . female.
This thought produced a shiver of horror. Even such a short time in the company of these People had made him realize that returning home for the Choosing was impossible. He couldn’t live as a woman, proscribed and forbidden from just about everything. Nor did he wish to be the Sons’ version of a man.

“Admiring ourselves, are we?” an amused voice commented from the doorway, interrupting his thoughts.

Lucien spun around to find the Prince, Panthera standing there.

“No. Yes. I was just . . .” Embarrassed, he retreated to the bed.

“Don’t worry about it.” Panthera regretted his snide remark “The mirrors in this place get a good workout, this one probably felt left out.”

Unsure of whether or not Panthera was joking, Lucien stole a wary glance at the glass.

“Mirror.” he said to himself, committing the word to memory.

The look Lucien was giving the mirror was enough to make Thea forget his bad mood. It was easy to forget this child was so . . . ignorant and his little jokes might be misunderstood. He tried again.

“Lucien,” the eyes swiveled back towards him. “we need to have a talk.”

Lucien crossed his legs and put his hands into his lap, his face solemn. He looked for all the world like a child about to be lectured or chastised and Thea gave a mental groan; this was not going to be easy. Sitting gingerly down on the side of the bed, Thea took a good look at his new pupil. Too thin by far, but time would remedy that. But the bath and a good night’s rest had done him the world of good. The shadows beneath his eyes were not so pronounced and he had certainly benefited from the scrubbing. The blaze of silver hair had come out from under its layers of grime and hung most attractively down the side of his face, curling beneath his chin. The dark silk of the remainder was a stark contrast to the creamy skin, only faintly touched by the desert sun and the wild depths of those amazing eyes were warmer, less wary.

Stop prevaricating! Thea chastised himself as Lucien waited expectantly for him to begin.

“Did you, umm, did you rest well? Have they looked after you?”

Lucien nodded vigorously, “Oh yes, my Prince. Your servants are a tribute to your house.”

He couldn’t help it. Thea groaned out loud, bringing back the frightened look to Lucien’s eyes.

“Have I offended, Sir?” he squeaked.

“No. No.” Thea held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “It’s just . . . Look, Lucien. I am not a Prince! This is a castle, yes, but there are no Kings or Princes here.”

“Okay.” Lucien drew the word out, obviously unsure.

Thea made himself comfortable. This was going to take time; and care.

“Now, I want you to listen to me very carefully, Lucien. I’m going to tell you all about us. About this place. Right?” Lucien nodded obediently again. Maybe it would be better if I didn’t have to look at him, Thea thought sourly. Those great big eyes . . . But he pressed on.

“This country is called Jaddayoth. It is divided into, umm, sections. Each section has its own tribe. This section is called Ferike and my father is a Ferike. Lahela, whom you met last night, is a Kalamah, so I am half of each, yes?” Another nod. ” The tribes are all mostly friendly with each other now, although there used to be tribal wars. But that’s for another day. We will concentrate on the basics for now. Okay . . . umm. Right! I have it. There are two types of beings in this world, the wraeththu and humankind. You know this?” More vigorous nodding.

“The people you . . . No. Wrong word. Those you call the Masters, are humans. The rest of us, including you and the Pareah, are Wraeththu.”

Lucien’s eyes grew even wider, but he said nothing.

“The humans came first. This was their world. Now it is ours. We came from the humans but we are not the same as them. At least,” he added wryly. “that’s the idea. My father and I, all of us here really, understand that the way your people, the Pareah, live is wrong. The Sons have denied your people their rightful heritage and we are going to do something about it.”

He was losing him. Thea could see the confusion growing in Lucien’s face. Hurriedly, he changed tack again.

“We’ll talk about that some more later, all right? Let’s go back and talk about the differences between wraeththukind and humankind . . .”

Chapter Ten

Lucien lay back on the bed, his uneaten lunch beside him. His mind was spinning with new thoughts and words. Wraeththu. Caste. Hegemony. Aghama. Soume-Lam. Ouana-Lim. And most of all, feybraiha. I am Wraeththu.

He swirled the words around in his head, trying them out. I am Wraeththu. My God is the Aghama. My caste is Kaimana. Or at least it will be, after my feybraiha.

The prince . . . No. Panthera had been most kind to his poor brain. Explaining it all over and over until Lucien felt he understood. Everything he had ever been taught to believe was wrong! Lies, all of it! He felt a deep anger stir in his chest. Not lesser beings, better beings! Not a mutation, an evolution. How dare they! He was a wraeththu and the wraeththu were the successors of mankind, not their servants.

Panthera had promised to tell him more tomorrow. Especially of his plans to liberate the Pareah and nullify the threat posed by the Sons of the Morning. He, Lucien, would play a part in that liberation, of this one thing he was absolutely certain. He would do whatever it took to make sure that happened.

But for now, he was still a harling, despite his feybraiha having come and gone.

There were lessons to be learned and things to be done before he could truly call himself har. ‘Other things.’ The thought made him swallow, hard. Panthera had explained it to him, in halting tones and with his face a suprising red, but he had done it with compassion and forbearance.

His own people did none of the things he had been told about. The Sons made sure they waited for ‘marriage’ before allowing any congress to take place; as a further assertion of dominance, he assumed. It would certainly go a long way toward making sure the couple involved did not accidentally discover much about the magic involved in taking aruna. In fact, it was a wonder they managed to reproduce at all!
Lucien giggled, his face coloring at the direction his thoughts were taking him in. What was it like, he wondered? No description of the act, such as the one Panthera had given him could give him an idea of what it would ‘feel’ like. And, as much as he admired the beautiful har, Lucien was forced to admit that Panthera’s little ‘chat’ had been big on the mechanical and spiritual details but scant on the emotional front.

But he would learn. Panthera was to be his teacher. Perhaps he would learn more tomorrow or maybe that aspect of the union was something that was left for each individual to discover for themselves. That was probably it.

Lucien felt very adult right then, for coming to such a mature and insightful conclusion. It felt good and he could feel his confidence regaining some of the ground it had lost. He would need it, after all. Panthera had also informed him that they were to leave this place as soon as it could be arranged and travel to a city called Immanion. There, Panthera said, Lucien would meet with the Hegemony and, most frightening of all, the Tigrons, and would tell them his story.

The leaders of wraeththu-kind, Lucien reminded himself. Second only to the Aghama himself; now Risen. The people of Jael expected a lot of him, especially Ferminfex and Panthera. But they had been kind to him when they need not have been and he knew he owed it to them to try his best for their sakes. Still, it was a scary thought.

Worrying about it gave him an appetite and he reached for his abandoned lunch. Lying back on the bed with a bunch of grapes to ease the pangs, he went over that mornings’ lesson out loud.

“The Aghama above. The Tigrina below. Between them the Tigrons, Pellaz-har-Aralis and Calanthe. The Light and the Fire.”

What would they be like? Lucien expected that they would shine, like beacons. They would be the most beautiful har of all, infinitely wise and gracious to their guest. The grapes slid slowly onto the bed from loose fingers and were crushed into the silk as Lucien’s eyes closed and he rolled over on top of them.

Chapter Eleven

Fall: ai-cara 37.

Immanion was as remarkably lovely as Thea remembered it. Only by knowing the subtle differences and pointedly searching them out, could one see the changes. Now, there were ‘bad’ areas as well as ‘good’ ones, although the distinction was not so marked as it might be in other, lesser cities. The alleys were littered, where once they would have been unnaturally pristine; there were many small indicators like that, but nothing that the first time visitor would notice or comment upon.

Lucien strolled along beside him, the Mojag guards his father insisted on, strode discreetly behind, the horses’ lead reins in their hands. Thea took the time to shoot a glance over his shoulder at them. It appealed to his bizarre sense of humor to indulge Ferminfex’s fears and have them there, working for him instead of against him and, on such a long trip they were really quite a comforting presence.

Lucien was looking about, not as he once would have done, with eyes wide and mouth gaping in awe, but subtly. Even though his interest was as keen as always, he had learned discretion.

He had changed already. The journey to Immanion had seen to that, as had his continuing education in all things wraeththu. Lucien was maturing at a rapid rate, a compliment to his natural intelligence and fierce desire to learn. Coming here could have been accomplished much more rapidly, had Ferminfex been willing to trust Lucien’s safety to the Gelaming horses. But he had put his foot down, denying even Pellaz who had used the communicator to try and persuade him to change his mind. The lad had enough to cope with, he had insisted, subjecting him to astral travel was one more shock than Ferminfex thought his young charge could handle.

Hence the slow trip on conventional horses and, now that they were here, Thea had to admit his father had been right. Lucien had benefited. The last of the stress had been washed from his features and being out in the fresh air and amongst his beloved horses again had returned the spring to his step and the sparkle to his eye. He had filled out in a startlingly attractive way, growing almost another inch and broadening in the shoulders to the point where Thea hardly recognized him as the waif he had first encountered.

More the har and less the boy, Thea found the thought discomforting . But still, he consoled himself as he watched Lucien observing the goings-on around him, there is still a lot of that original foundling left.

The gates of Phaonica loomed ahead. Thea approached with casual confidence. Giving the guard his name and that of his companion, he expected to be, and was, ushered quickly within its walls, the horses and guards taken to their quarters while he and Lucien were shown to their rooms, the servants with their packs following along right behind them.

Almost at once, there was a knock at the door. Thea noticed a slight tremble in his hands and shoved them into the pockets of his coat, before giving permission to enter. It was the Gelaming, Chrysm and he smiled broadly upon seeing Thea.

“I am the welcoming committee. The carrier of notes. Welcome to Phaonica. Or should I say, welcome back. We met when you were here before. I don’t know if you remember?”

Thea nodded briefly, “Yes. Of course. Nice to see you again.”

“And this must be Lucien.” Chrysm turned and sent his beaming smile in that direction.

“Pleased to meet you.” Lucien answered, offering his hand in human fashion. Chrysm took it without hesitation, his eyes admiring.

“You mentioned notes? I assume that would be our appointments?” Thea’s cold voice interrupted Chrysm’s slightly lavicious assessment.

Chrysm stepped back, an amused smile on his face at the proprietary tone he thought he heard in Thea’s voice. Thea decided not to correct him; Lucien would be much safer if the palace’s inhabitants thought he was spoken for.

“Yes. The Tigron Pellaz asked me to invite you both to a reception in the Peacock room this evening. He apologizes for not being here to greet you himself, but he is tied up in meetings with the Hegemony today. Tomorrow around noon is the time we have set aside to hear young Lucien here, speak, if that is convenient for you?”

Of course, it was expected that it ‘would’ be convenient, but the polite forms the Gelaming used to subdue any possibly disharmony were well entrenched. Thea acquiesced politely, accepted the invitation on both their behalf’s and had discreetly shoveled Chrysm out the door before he quite knew what hit him.

“You really need to be more careful, Lucien. That har was mistaking your interest for . . . interest.” Thea chided, busying himself unpacking with his back turned.

A sigh. Then,

“I’m sorry, Thea.” Lucien sounded no such thing. “I forget sometimes that I’m a freak.”

Thea turned swiftly, hair flying. “That’s not what I said and you know it! I simply meant that you’ll be giving him ideas, when you and I both know those ideas can lead nowhere. At least not yet. Right?”

“Yes, Thea.” Lucien apologized sulkily. “Do we . . . Do I have to go to that, thing?” He threw himself on the bed, stabbing at the covers with a forefinger.

Thea still stood with his hands on his hips, still in a state of indignation over Lucien’s accusation.

“Yes, you do. It’s called a reception. We stand around, dressed in our best, eating finger food and trying not to drink too much, all while making polite, nonsensical conversation. It is an art and one that you need to learn. You are going.”

“Sounds like something Fawn used to do.” Lucien offered solemnly.

“Oh, and what would that be?” Thea had resumed his unpacking, his hair tucked behind his ears as he bent to his task.

“Juggling.”

Throwing a glance over his shoulder, Thea could see the grin on Lucien’s face at the success of his little trap. He couldn’t help the smile that washed away his bad mood.

“Very much the same thing.” he grinned back. “Now, get your ass off my bed and into your own room and unpack. If you don’t, you’ll find that the servants have done it for you and you won’t be able to find anything.” As Lucien moved to obey, he added, “Oh, and Lucien? Pick out something nice to wear, please. Not the slops you usually favor. Maybe one of the outfits Lahela packed, okay?”

“Yes, Master.” The cheeky retort came from beyond the connecting door, well out of the range of Thea’s throwing arm.

Chapter Twelve

The Peacock Room in the palace of Phaonica was boiling over with hara of all different tribes, all talking at once and all, Thea thought sourly, vying to outdo each other on the fashion front.

He had dressed appropriately himself, donning a rich red shirt and adorning his neck and ears with silver chains, but he was nowhere near overdressed as some of the occupants of this room. Voluntarily trapped in a corner, with a drink he didn’t want clutched in his hand, Thea was spending the evening with his mind trying to cope on two different fronts at once. It was not a pleasant experience. On the one hand, he was trying to keep an eye on Lucien, at present standing with a group of would-be admirers not three feet away and, on the other, he was watching out for Calanthe.

Neither task was easy. Short of beating them off with a stick, which he didn’t have handy, Thea could think of no polite way of disengaging Lucien from the wolf pack. He seemed to be lapping it up, in his quiet, serious way. Thea had thought, when Lucien appeared in the connecting doorway, dressed for the reception, that he would be almost invisible in the crowd. Not so, apparently.

While his young charge greatly admired the vibrant colors and rich textures that most Wraeththu hara wore, he refused to consider such apparel for himself. The same went for the jewelry so popular in the South and Lucien was attending the reception dressed in plain black, from his boots and pants to the simple design of his black shirt. Unornamented and with his hair loose about his shoulders, he should have passed unnoticed in this colorful crowd. But the unrelieved simplicity of his outfit and quiet manner seemed to act as some kind of magnet; the perfect foil for those wondrous amber eyes that even now were shining with merriment over some little jest.

And there was no sign of Cal either. Pell was here, he had waved from across the room some while back, shrugging his shoulders at his inability to disengage himself from the enthusiastic crowd that surrounded him. Thea had seen the Tigrina as well, settled on a couch in the corner with a coterie of admirers of his own.

Caeru, too, had smiled, renewing the brief acquaintance of several summers before, when he had stayed at the castle during a visit to Ferike.

But no Cal, and Thea found it impossible to imagine a Cal who would deliberately stay away so as not to risk any kind of scene. No, Cal would be there with bells on, reveling in any possibility of chaos. So, where was he?

Thea scanned the room once more, with no result and then turned his attentions back to Lucien. Oh Hell! The little sharks were backing off, making room for the bigger predators.

Thea moved to intercept as he spotted Ashmael making his way across the room toward the little party. It wasn’t until he was halfway there that Thea realized Ashmael was not, in fact, heading for Lucien, he was simply passing by. Breathing a sigh of relief, Thea slowed, just as Lucien stepped back directly into Ashmael’s path and the two of them collided.

“Oh. I am so sorry.” he heard Lucien apologize.

“No matter. No damage done.” Ashmael’s polite rejoinder was at odds with the growing interest apparent on his face.

“And you are?” he asked, smiling.

“Lucien.” Lucien looked fascinated. Thea moved in.

“Good evening, tiaahar.” he greeted.

Ash tapped his forehead. “Of course. Our guest from the North. Hello, Panthera, nice to see you again.” Polite dismissal. Returning his attentions to Lucien, he added, “We’re to meet in the morning, I believe. I look forward to it.” He made their meeting sound like an appointment for seduction. Dipping his blond head in tribute, he stepped back and continued on his way.

Lucien’s admirers had abandoned the battlefield, leaving him and Thea alone in their corner. “Who was that?” Lucien breathed, his eyes wide.

“Ashmael Aldebaran.” Thea informed him. “The Tigron’s pet general.”

Lucien was watching Ash’s retreat, drinking in the tigers’ grace of his walk, the proud head with it’s mane of gold and the casually elegant way the general wore his black leather.

“Lucien. LUCIEN” Reluctantly, Lucien dragged his gaze away. “Yes, Thea?”

By the Aghama, butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, would it? Thea bit his tongue, holding back the bitter words that threatened to flow. This was not the time or the place to be reiterating his warning to Lucien about the dangerous attractions of the Gelaming. He’d thought he’d pounded that piece of information into Lucien’s thick skull well enough on the journey here.

Apparently, it hadn’t been pounded hard enough.

It was Lucien’s manner, of course, that disarmed even the toughest har. All that politeness and pretense of hanging onto every word from one’s lips as if they were manna from heaven. In reality, he was no different to anyone else, perhaps even more susceptible to the blandishments of an accomplished seducer than most.

“It’s time we left.” was all he said.

“Already?” Lucien sounded surprised, as well he might. They’d only been here half an hour. Reading the look on Panthera’s face correctly, he subsided into obedience, “Yes, Thea.”

The corridors were thankfully empty as they passed along them, seeking their rooms. Thea resisted the temptation to lecture, instead confining himself to a mild, “You watch out for the general, Lucien. He’d have you for breakfast.”

“Yes, Thea.” Lucien repeated. But, unable to resist, he added, “But, he is beautiful, don’t you think?”

Thea opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off.

“Who’s beautiful?”

Thea stopped dead in his tracks. Cal lounged against the wall, his presence hidden by the turn in the corridor until they were upon him. He straightened, taking in Thea’s appearance in one long, raking glance. Sparing a cat-like smile for Lucien, eyes locked on Thea’s face, he went on, “Pell? No? Who is our little Northerner admiring?”

“Ashmael.” Thea knew his voice was flat, but he couldn’t help it.

“Ahh. The Tigron’s bright angel. Beware the flame, little one.” Cal said without turning his gaze, “It burns and the tiger that dwells within will consume all that remains.”

Lucien looked from one to the other, sensing something amiss. “I was only looking.”

“Lucien, will you excuse us, please?” Thea was happy to find that his voice was not shaking, nor were his hands.

“Of course, Thea. I can find my way from here.”

Lucien departed around the bend, leaving a bald spot of silence behind him. Thea watched Cal watching him. It was obvious why Cal had not been at the reception. The leathers he wore were travel stained, his boots covered in stable muck and his hair still tipped with frost from the planes.

“You’ve just gotten back?” Thea felt compelled to fill the space between them with words. Anything, even mundanities, was better than this staring contest.

“Hmm. Oh, yes. From Galhea.” Cal took a small step in his direction. Thea held his ground. “I knew you would have to come this way. I was waiting.” Cal’s eyes narrowed, waiting for a reaction to his words.

Panthera managed a shrug, wondering if perhaps he had gone numb. He felt none of the echo he had expected, faced with Calanthe after so long. “You could have come to our rooms. Besides, I expect you will be at the meeting in the morning.”

Cal reached out and ran a forefinger down the side of Thea’s face. “It’s good to see you.” he whispered.

Nothing. Thea realized he felt nothing. Just the slivers of memory. It’s over, he thought and a tiny pang twisted his heart. So long in bitterness, so much time wasted decrying something that never was. For you, he told Cal silently, I avoided my chance of happiness with Zack. For you, I abandoned love.

Out loud, he said, “Yes. It’s been too long.” Closing the gap between them, he pressed his lips to Cal’s. Warmth and flesh. That was all. Relieved, he withdrew, a genuine smile breaking free. “Nice to see you again, Cal. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Truly free, he walked away, leaving Cal staring after him.

Chapter Thirteen

Black and gold, silver and white. Lucien counted the balcony tiles for the thousandth time. He divided them by color, then by pattern and shape. He was still bored. Abandoning his vigil outside the meeting rooms, he wandered off, seeking distraction.

Confronting the Tigrons and the Hegemony and telling his story had not been the trial he had imagined. Seeing them the previous night, relaxed and laughing at the reception, had greatly helped his nerves. They had not blinked an eyelash, not even when he related the part about the will-o-the-wisp that had led him from the Barrens. Now they were locked in discussion, making plans for dealing with the Sons, plans to which he was not privy.

But that was all right. Understandable even. He was only a Kaimana after all, scarcely past Neoma level, despite Thea’s teachings. These were illustrious beings, wise in ways it would take years for him to comprehend. They would tell him what he needed to know when it was time.

The palace was wonderful to explore. Especially from the lofty heights of the balcony. He began a circuit of the building, peering in doors to marvel at the statuary and art, looking down on palace life below.

To the rear, he found the area where the staff must live. The balcony here was cluttered with chairs and tables. Ashtrays overflowed and wet clothes were flung over the wrought iron railings. To his right was a staircase, leading down and, over the edge he could see the stables.

Delighted, he shot down the stairs. The cobblestone area was, of course, immaculate. Spacious boxes and exercise yards for the horses with tree lined paths that led down to rolling green pastures, fenced with white railings. Peering over the top of a stable door, he found himself eye to eye with a beautiful silver mare. While he was making her acquaintance, the head lad came along, and, seeing Lucien’s affinity with the animals, invited him to take a look around.

Lucien needed no second urging and spent a very pleasant hour or more visiting with the stables’ residents and discussing their welfare with his new harish friend.

The care of horses was still uppermost on his mind when Ashmael found him. Lucien was cleaning a currycomb, his head bent to his task when a deep, amused voice broke into his reverie,

“Here you are. The entire staff of the palace and the Hegemony itself is out looking for you.”

Lucien was startled. He hadn’t heard anyone approach. He pushed his hair back out of his eyes and looked at his visitor.

“They are?”

“Yes.” Ashmael leaned against the stable door, ankles and arms crossed, very relaxed. “They are. The Tigron Pellaz would like to speak with you. That is, if you are done with your work?”

“It’s not work. It is a pleasure. Such beautiful creatures are always a pleasure.” Lucien felt that he should not let this . . . overwhelming har make light of him and so was a little more tart in his reply than the question warranted.

And he was, almost, overwhelming. The Angel of Immanion. Late afternoon sun lighting his golden hair to flame and shooting through the blue of his eyes to skewer Lucien where he stood. So tall, and so beautifully made, dressed again in soft black leather that hugged every inch with erotic devotion.

“Quite right.” Ashmael said, his face momentarily serious. “Beautiful creatures are a pleasure.” The way he held Lucien’s gaze as the soft-spoken words carried across the space between them, told him that Ashmael was not referring to the horses.

Discomforted, he took refuge in flight. Flinging down the brush he shot past Ashmael with a quick, “Shall we?” and the soft laughter that followed him across the stable yard set his cheeks to flame.

Ashmael caught up with him before he was halfway up the stairs. “It’s not that much of a rush.” he joked. “Slow down for an old har, will you?”

Reluctantly, Lucien amended his pace.

“Thank you. My tired old heart thanks you too. As do my worn-out legs.”

“All right. All right. I get it.” Lucien looked up at his companion. They had come to a halt at the top of the stairs. A couple of servants, relaxing outside with cigarettes and coffee, looked at them curiously. Ashmael stared at them sourly. They stared back, defiant. This was their turf; the general could get lost.

“Let’s go.” Ashmael muttered. Grabbing Lucien by his sleeve, he virtually dragged him away around the corner and into the deserted hallway. Lucien was too taken aback to protest.

“What are you doing?” Lucien managed to squeak when they finally stopped moving.

“This.” Ashmael muttered and pulled him into his arms.

Sharing breath. Lucien had been told about it in his lessons but nothing could compare the dry discussion with the sizzling, nerve popping reality. He tasted smoke and chilling strength, warmth and coldness and the compelling pull of magic. Hands came up of their own accord to tangle in the generals’ hair, feeling the silken texture of the shorn locks. Pressed hard against Ashmael’s side, something moved, deep in the pit of his belly, sending tiny shock waves racing around his extremities. Lucien thought he might never breathe again.

Finally, it ended. Ashmael seemed as dazed by it as he was. They moved apart, as if by mutual consent, taking precious seconds to rearranged their scattered thoughts.

“Who are you?” Ashmael breathed, sliding a forefinger down the side of Lucien’s face.

Lucien could only shrug. “Just myself. Only that.”

Ashmael shook his head. “There’s a magic in you. Something that calls me . . .”
He drew himself up, shaking off the moment.

“We’d best go. Don’t have time for this now.” The deep voice softened again.

“Later . . .” he said.

Chapter Fourteen

Thea sat in stunned disbelief, the conversation going on around him almost too much for his mind to comprehend. When Lucien had re-entered the meeting rooms in company with Ashmael and with a strange . . . goofy look on his face, Thea had instantly known what had happened.

That predatory no-good had taken advantage of Lucien’s innocence, he just knew it, but there was nothing he could do about it right away.
Then Pell and the others had begun discussing Lucien’s feybraiha, which had thrown him for a moment, but when the direction the conversation was taking had become apparent . . .

Shaking himself mentally, he struggled to concentrate on what Pell was saying.

“Are you certain Ash is the best choice for Lucien’s feybraiha, Cal? Wouldn’t . . .” he nodded in Thea’s direction.

Cal shrugged. “Consensus seems to be that Lucien needs to progress as quickly as possible.” he said, indicating the other members of the Hegemony who nodded in agreement. “With Ash as his guide for both, we can expect a rapid advancement in caste, right alongside the benefits the feybraiha will bestow. Ash seems the logical choice.” He nodded toward Thea. “No offense, my pantherine.”

“None taken.” Thea managed.

He knew what they were doing. Ashmael had power that he, Thea, did not. He could initiate Lucien into more than just the delights of aruna at his feybraiha and the connection forged between them would make his caste ascension that much faster. For a brief moment, Thea wished he’d listened to Ferminfex and done more about his own spiritual health. Of course, he had maintained and even strengthened his mind, but he had dismissed the possibility of any higher progression as a waste of time. His caste and training was sufficient for his needs, why go further?

The bitter taste of regret flavored his tongue and he swallowed convulsively. This was ridiculous! What did he care if Lucien was placed in Ashmael’s custody. Lucien was to be elevated and then returned to his people at the head of a euphemistically named ‘delegation’ of Gelaming, that would in reality be a small army.

Once that was done, he would not see Lucien, the lad would be too busy re-educating and reorganizing his people. In the same, sneaky in Thea’s opinion, fashion that Swift had once been manipulated into his role, Lucien was to be the new leader of the Pareah and the Sons would be convincingly dealt with by the Gelaming.

He fought to steady himself, to get his wayward thoughts under control. Cal was looking down the table towards him, a strange light in his eyes. Shrugging off the tremble in his limbs, he smiled politely and, he hoped, disinterestedly in Cal’s direction. Cal smiled back.
A secretive, ‘I know something you don’t know’ kind of a smile. Thea could have happily choked him, had he been able to reach.
You think you know me, he thought furiously. Smirking and acting knowledgeable. Well, I’ve got news for you, Calanthe, he told him silently and with mind firmly closed. I don’t care! Throw the innocent to the Angel and see what happens to your mighty plot. Someone will burn, but it won’t be me!

His mutinous thoughts were interrupted by Lucien, who had approached without his noticing and was kneeling down by his side.

“What do you think, Thea? Is this a good idea?” Lucien’s eyes were glowing with excitement.

They’ve already got their hooks in you, Thea thought. The lad I found in the forest is about to disappear forever, to be replaced by a leader of wraeththu, Gelaming style.

“Of course,” he replied in low tones. “They only want what is best for you and, ultimately, for your people.”

The words tasted sour, like bittersweet and gall.

Chapter Fifteen

Standing before the mirror, his belly a pit of nervous fire, Lucien wondered at how. . . rapidly everything had changed. The reflection he saw was not that of the pale, intimidated ‘boy’ who had come in search of his ancestors, nor was it anyone he’d seen lately. This Lucien, with the aid of the two servants sent by Tigron Pellaz to help him prepare, was an exotically strange creature, unlike anything he recognized as self.

With flowers and feathers of myriad, rich colors decorating his unbound hair, the unfamiliar smokiness of kohl lining and emphasizing the rich tawniness of his eyes and the stark contrast between sun darkened skin and the brilliant shine of the white robe, he looked to his own eyes to be a stranger. No one at home would know him now, not even his hostling, Janin.

The servants finished their final touches and, bowing and giggling, backed out of the room.

This was it. He turned from the mirror and surveyed the room, which had been subjected to a similar garlanding for his feybraiha. Curtains drawn against the night, what seemed like hundreds of candles scattered on every surface and a bedcover strewn with petals; it was magical.

The ceremony would be held here, with only he and Ashmael taking part. This was to protect him from embarrassment, he knew, but who was going to protect him from the general?

He clasped his arms across his chest, hugging himself. Now, too late, he wished that he had insisted Thea be here, that Thea was . . .

But that was impossible. The Tigrons knew what was for the best and Ashmael, they assured him, was the only possible candidate for this most important task.

Ashmael. A shudder ran down his spine. Something about him had awoken in Lucien a feeling that he had not known existed. Perhaps it was the general’s undoubted personal strength more than his obvious physical attractiveness that had drawn him so immediately.
Or perhaps, he told himself with a nervous attempt at lightening his dense emotions, it was the smell of horse in the general’s leathers.
He imagined himself sniffing after the scent and giggled, the sound dying in his throat as another intruded,

“Funny, is it?”

Swiftly turning, Lucien found that Ashmael had entered the room without his hearing.

“No. Yes. I . . .”

Ashmael crossed the space between them, coming to a halt well within Lucien’s personal space.

“You always say that.” He grinned.

Lucien tried for a smile in return and found only a wobbly, nervous one available to use.

Ashmael’s smile died away. “Don’t be scared, Lucien. It’s not as bad as you think, I promise.” Lucien gulped down his fears and nodded. “Look,” Ashmael cocked his head to one side, considering. “Why don’t we have a glass of that lovely white wine there and talk for a while, huh?”

Lucien jumped at the reprieve, watching with a stunned wonder as Ashmael went to pour the wine. The Angel of Immanion lived up to his title. Clad in a similar white to Lucien’s robe, Ash’s pants were tucked into soft, pale boots, his hair, still damp was combed back and clasped with flowers. Every intimidating inch smelled of masculine power and Lucien felt the nerves building again as he contemplated the feminine role he must play.

“It’s not like that, Lucien.” Ash said softly. He had returned, his hands full, and was watching Lucien’s face for a reaction to his words. “Yes. I am reading your thoughts.”

Lucien’s legs went from under him and he sat abruptly; the edge of the bed saving him from a fall.

With a smile, Ash joined him, perched on the edge. Juggling the wine glasses, he continued,

“I’m not in the habit of intruding, but that thought was just so loud, I couldn’t fail to hear it.”

“Sorry.” Lucien mouthed, unsettled and peeved.

Ashmael laughed again. Reaching across, he handed Lucien his drink, exhorting him to have a decent mouthful. “Lucien, there is no male and female in wraeththu. I know you’ve been taught this, I’m sure Panthera has done that much at least. Being soume for your feybraiha is not feminising. It is easier the first time, that is all. Trust me,” A teasing grin. ” you’ll get your chance to reciprocate.”

Lucien knew he was blushing. He ducked his head, hoping to hide his embarrassment. The half empty wine glass was plucked from his hand and disappeared. Then he felt a firm hand take his chin and raise it. Ashmael was still smiling but his eyes had softened. “Perhaps,” he said softly. ” it would be easier to demonstrate.”

Afterward, Lucien could only remember it as a series of moments. A series of mind pictures; of Ashmael disrobing; his skin seeming to be on fire; the taste of petals and the flowering of his limbs as the fire Ashmael had ignited, he quenched. His hair flowed around them both, charged with electricity. Golden towers and the flame building inside himself as he in turn built the heat; visions of gods and men and the overwhelming smell of magic in the swirling air around the bed.

I am raised, he thought tiredly a long, long time later, his head resting comfortably on a broad, strong chest. I am har.

Chapter Sixteen

In the room next door, sleep was hard to achieve and, when it came, filled with dreams that disturbed and confused.

“What have you done to me?” The golden general stalked the room, watched by a pair of amused, blue eyes.

“Nothing that was not needed.” Another voice, coming from the darkest corner.

“I don’t like being manipulated. And I know you’re doing it. I can smell it. “

“He must be raised. And there are the other considerations.”

“Why me?” The golden one runs agitated fingers through his hair. “Why not his teacher?”

“He is part of this. But he is not ready. . . ”

Thea sat upright in the bed, covered in cold sweat. Was it a true dream or just an outlet for his fears? He wiped the sweat from his brow with the sheet, aware that he was still listening intently for any sound coming from the adjoining room and disgusted with himself over his inability to stop. True or not, I won’t be here to be manipulated any further, he told himself.

Lucien is taken care of. That was the idea, after all. Let the wide-eyed wonder boy stay with his Gelaming friends and be part of whatever grand scheme they’re cooking up this time. My job is done. I’m going home.

Chapter Seventeen

Spring. ai-cara 38.

“We have visitors.” Lahela had announced and, with such simple words, worlds can change.

Thea was none too impressed at the interruption; even less impressed when he discovered the identity of the visitor.

“Ashmael.” He managed to make it sound both contemptuous and bored.

“Panthera! I’ve scoured the house and here you are, hiding in plain sight.” The general had obviously taken no time to refresh himself, although Thea was sure Lahela would have offered. He had come, still dusty and reeking of the road, into the study where Thea had been reading.

He made a great production of laying down his book. “To what do we owe this pleasure?” he asked, making no effort to hide his animosity.

“A drink would be nice.” Ashmael said to the room, flinging himself with casual disarray into the nearest chair. “As to the pleasure, well, that’s entirely subjective as I’m sure you would agree. But, as it so happens, we’re just passing through.”

“Really.” Thea spoke over his shoulder, busy making the requested drink. “Just passing through? So naturally you just had to seek me out immediately, despite your long journey and obvious need for urgent refreshment. Should I be flattered?”

He delivered the drink and returned to his chair by the fire, crossing his legs and arms in what he hoped was a casual fashion. The general had always had the power to disconcert him. Even now, all these months later, Ashmael’s strong presence had the ability to put him on the defensive. I’ve never liked you, he told the general silently, making sure to guard his thoughts tightly. You are everything I despise about the Gelaming; so insufferably superior and all-knowing, even when you’re floundering as badly as the rest of us.

Ashmael seemed oblivious to his hard stare. Taking the time to enjoy the first sip of his drink, which he downed with relish, he lowered his glass to his lap and fixed Thea with a look.

“I think it’s time we had a little chat.” he said.

“I don’t think we have anything to discuss.” Thea said flatly. If this was one of those missions the Gelaming were so fond of conducting, they were wasting their time. He was not about to be manipulated, he thought fiercely. Those days were over.

“They’re not, you know.” Ashmael said conversationally. “You’ve been manipulated right from the start. We all have. I thought you should know.”

“Get out of my head!” Thea hissed, blocking him and forcing him out.

Ashmael recoiled for a moment and then grinned. “Well, well. Someone has been practicing, yes?” He tilted his head to one side, a characteristic gesture that Thea recognized. “Not curious then? Not even the tiniest bit?”

“Of course I am.” Thea conceded. “Just stay out of my mind.”

Ashmael shrugged and took another good swig of his drink. Punishing him by making him waiting, Thea knew.

“Are you going to ask about Lucien? Or should I just tell you?”

“Just tell me.” He wasn’t going to concede an inch to this arrogant har. Let him think what he liked, he wasn’t giving anything away.

“You weren’t supposed to escape their clutches, you know.” Ashmael began in that casual tone that so grated on Thea’s nerves. “You were supposed to stay in Immanion and serve out your purpose like a good little har. I would say that you’ve had some small measure of revenge right there.”

“What purpose? What was it that I was meant to do?” He couldn’t help it. The cryptic words had fired his curiosity and he didn’t even care when Ashmael smiled smugly at his sudden turnaround.

“Well, let’s see. Lucien is back with his people and is, of course, their new leader. I’m sure you figured that part out on your own. What you missed? Well, did you know for instance that it was no coincidence at all that Lucien came here in the first place? That he was sent? Or do you truly believe that the Hegemony had no idea that there was a possibly hostile tribe of humans to the North? Of course they knew, Thea. They’ve known for years.”

“What!? Then why did they do nothing about it?” Thea was instantly angry. “Lucien’s people were suffering, for the Aghama’s sake! How could they sit back . . .” He was positively spitting when Ashmael finally managed to hush his tirade with a gesture.

“Calm down, make yourself comfortable and I’ll tell you.”

Thea subsided, his eyes fixed on Ashmael’s face while his mind swirled with this shocking news. All kinds of new possibilities presented themselves, driven by those casual words, but he would have to hear the entire story before he could make sense of them all.

“For a start, not all of the ‘strangers’ that Lucien talked about were harmless wanderers. Some of them were, to put it indelicately, spies for the Gelaming. We knew about the Sons, how could we not, but the problem was, how to deal with the problem.”
“It was a much discussed situation, let me tell you. The idea of galloping in there and liberating the Pareah people was a very popular one in some circles, but others felt that our days of imposing ourselves on others should be over. That we would be, in effect, substituting one ruling body with another, albeit a Wraeththu one. What we felt we needed was another Swift. A har who had the ambition and the intelligence to lead the Pareah from within. But finding that har would take some doing. It’s not as if we could just select someone at random; a leader has to have something special.”

Thea remembered having similar thoughts about Lucien’s intended role at the time. So, he had known at least part of the plan, but this was . . . this was monstrous!

“If you search in the right place at the Citadel,” Ash went on. “You’d find the empowered crystal placed there to await activation. Remember Lucien’s ‘ancestors’? Leading him across the Barrens, showing him the way? The pretty pink lights? Makes a whole lot more sense when you think of it in the context of Grissecon, eh? ”

“What we decided to do was to wait for an opportunity, for someone with enough good old-fashioned gumption to ignore the superstitions and the Son’s ban and head out that way. When someone finally did, after many years wait, I might add, it set off an alarm in Immanion and things began moving, fast. Lucien was thoroughly checked out, of course, and found to be more than suitable and it was decided to head him in your direction. Why?” he shrugged at Thea’s inquiry. “I wasn’t privy to that particular gem of information, but someone must have thought you two would suit each other. Why else would they start working on you.”

“Working on me?” Thea interrupted again, unable to help himself.

“Remember a growing feeling of restlessness? A desire to get away all the time? Of things unresolved?”

Thea nodded, recalling only too well that time and the confusion it had caused in his mind. He’d been so content and to all of a sudden feel . . . wrong about all of his life decisions had been disconcerting to say the least.

“It was all planted, of course. Stirring you up, getting you ready for Lucien’s arrival, so that you’d be more disposed toward taking him to Immanion yourself. You must admit, it never would have happened otherwise.”

Thea agreed with that, nodding his head in understanding. If he hadn’t been so ready to confront his past and his ire toward Cal for what he had seen as the ruining of his choices, Thea would never have left home with Lucien, no matter what arguments his father might have put forth.

Ashmael shifted in his seat, giving Thea the impression that he was coming to a part of the story that held some personal discomfort.

“I was the thorn in the side that was supposed to make you jealous.” he told him. “Not that I knew it at first. The Tigrons, in their wisdom, chose not to divulge that to me. I soon woke up to it, though. Instant, spellbinding attractions just don’t happen. Well, not to me, at least.” he amended, rather arrogantly, Thea thought.

“It confused me for a while, the way I fell so hard at the reception, with only a couple of words exchanged. But, when I simply couldn’t help myself the next day; felt compelled to share breath with Lucien, that’s when I knew. The stench of magic was all over it and I confronted them as soon as the meeting room was cleared. They admitted it, of course. Then insisted that my part in the feybraiha had to go ahead.”

“I doubt you objected too hard to that.” Thea couldn’t resist getting in the snipe.

“Of course not.” Ashmael grinned equably. “He’s very attractive, with or without magic. If they’d asked me outright, I probably would have done it anyway, just to watch your reaction.”

“Mine? Why would it matter to you what I thought? You hardly know me.”

Ashmael agreed. “True. But I know enough to know you don’t like me very much. And the thought of stirring you up . . .” He let his voice trail away.

“Why should you care if I like you or not?”

“I don’t particularly. But it does irk me a little that your preconceptions about my personality and motives came from Cal’s little whinging sessions and not from your own judgment. I guess what I’m saying is, you don’t have to like me, but please, make your reasons for it your own and not someone else’s.”

Thea judged that to be a fair enough request and said so, liking Ashmael just a little bit better for his honesty. “So, what was I supposed to do that I didn’t do?” Thea returned to his original question.

“You were supposed to fill with jealous rage, determined to overcome your own self-inflicted inadequacies, take the caste progression they had planned for you and take your place at Lucien’s side in the new Northern Territories as joint ruler.” Ashmael rapped it out like an lunch order.

“You’re joking!”

“No. Not at all. The midnight flit you took severely damaged a lot of very important egos, let me tell you. They thought they had it all figured out. I was so pleased to be the one to tell them that you’d gone. I owe you for that, Thea. The look on their faces was priceless. That, if nothing else, made me decide to come here today and tell you it all.”

Thea looked at him, slightly suspicious. “Nothing to do with poking even more holes in those legendary egos?”

“Well.” Ashmael shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly. “There’s that, too.”

For once, in Ashmael’s company, Thea felt like smiling. He didn’t like the general much better, but he understood him a little more than he had. He wasn’t above a little manipulation of his own, but he didn’t take kindly to having those he considered his equals doing it to him without his consent.

“Who is they? Specifically. And why did they think I had ‘inadequacies’, as you so charmingly put it?”

Ashmael had the good grace to wince slightly. “Sorry, that was rude. I have a tendency toward flippancy that has gotten me into a lot of trouble. I try and curb it, but being used tends to bring out the worst in me. To answer your questions, well, they both have the same answer and I think you know it anyway.”

“Cal.” Thea nodded. “This was all his idea, wasn’t it.”

“Mostly.” Ashmael admitted. “Although, I add, his motives were benevolent.”

“Messing with lives is benevolent? Since when did Cal think that!?” Thea was outraged by the very suggestion.

“Things change.” Ashmael said quietly. “He’s not all that different from the har you knew all those years ago. But he has learned the value of what is justifiable interference and what isn’t. Maybe I should have said, ‘He had good intentions.’? Look, Thea, do you mind if I call you that? Cal felt that Lucien was right for you. Call it a spot of matchmaking, an attempt to right past wrongs, I don’t know. All I am certain of is that he is very fond of you and would never deliberately do anything to hurt you.”

Thea subsided into the depths of his chair to think. Silence fell in the cozy room, punctuated only by the soft ticking of the clock on the mantel and the slight chink of glass as Ashmael rose and helped himself to another drink.

I am viewing this through an oldm tainted lens, Thea thought. He’d spent the last few months secretly working on raising his caste level, why, he’d never questioned until now. But, progressing to the higher castes required a lot of self-examination and it was the lessons he’d learned in attaining second level Nahir-Nuri that he was ignoring now in anger.

I am a product of my environment as much as my experiences, he told himself. Coloring my perceptions with the detritus of the past is unhealthy and unwise. I need to see, without prejudice, what it is that Ashmael is talking about. That the general was being totally honest with him, he had no doubt. His caste might not be yet as high as the Angel of Immanion’s, but he had enough skill to know when the truth was being told, and this was the truth.

Ashmael must have other motives, besides personal revenge, for disclosing the Hegemony’s plans. What they were was none of Thea’s business unless Ashmael chose to share or unless it meant something dire for himself.

Lucien had been manipulated. For the greater good, to be sure and, if he was totally truthful with himself, it would not be to Lucien’s detriment either. He was sure Lucien would be happy with the way things had turned out. But would he have been happy if Thea had performed as expected? And that, if he was finally going to be honest with himself, was the crux of the whole matter.

I was supposed to fall in love with Lucien. To do anything necessary to keep him and, I suppose, to live happily ever after. And the truth is, he admitted to himself at last, is that I did.

Chapter Eighteen

“Well?” Ashmael broke the silence.

“I love him.” Thea admitted. “Cal was, unfortunately, right. About that, at least. He was also correct in assuming that I would go to any lengths to keep Lucien. His only mistake was in assuming that I would keep to his time frame.”

Ashmael was puzzled. “But you left.”

Thea steepled his fingers in front of his face to hide his smile. It was nice to be in charge for once, to have the advantage over wraeththu’s finest.

“Yes. But I did what Cal intended. Although I didn’t realize it until just now. I’ve just spent the last year furiously working on raising my caste as high as I could, without once recognizing my real reason for doing so. So much for enlightenment!” he quipped.

Ashmael’s grin was broad and genuine. “Good for you.” he said. “You’re more like Cal than I’m sure you’d care to believe.”

“Hmm.” Thea fixed Ashmael with a look. “One more thing. Two, actually. Why are you really telling me all this? Why now, after all this time? And, secondly, where is Lucien now?”

Ashmael laughed out loud, delighted. “That’s what I came all this way to hear! The answer to your first question is simple. Lucien is my friend. As to the second, Lucien is at home with his people. And,” he paused melodramatically, “Lucien needs you. That’s my motive.” he tilted his head again in charming fashion and added, “Like me any better now?”

“No.” Thea shot back. “But you’re getting there.” He stood. “I have some things to take care of. Can I offer you the hospitality of our home, or are you planning on racing off again.”

Ashmael stood, stretching tired muscles. “No. I’m done traveling. At least for today. A warm bath and some good food would go down well right about now. The roads may be clear, but it’s still cold out. I’m sure my men are already enjoying your marvelous Ferike hospitality.”

“Then I’m sure I can arrange something similar. And, after all that, I’m sure a nice comfy bed would be welcome. ” Thea took a step toward the door, only to be halted by Ashmael planting himself across his path.

“Does the bed come with company?” Ashmael asked enticingly.

“Are you serious?” Thea replied lightly, recognizing the game. “Me? Bed down with a Gelaming?”

“I suppose not.” Ashmael tried hard to sound disappointed. “I’ll settle for this . . .”

Thea found himself swept up in a rock hard grip, with no hope of escape.

The magic was overwhelmingly strong. Thea saw clouds of thunder and felt the warmth and strength of the sun that was Ashmael beating against his skin. Ravens called and flowers bloomed; ice melted in the heat and magic silver horses cavorted in the infinity of the lanes.

“Where are your rooms?” Ashmael whispered roughly.

Thea considered his answer.

“Top of the stairs and to the right.” he smiled.

Being in charge had unexpectedly pleasant fringe benefits attached.

Chapter Nineteen

Spring: ai-cara 38

Lucien dropped the horse’s reins, confident that she would not wander far. He strolled over the crest of the hill and sat down, clutching his journal in his hands.

It was so pleasant up here; close enough to town that he could be found if needed, yet far enough away for the privacy that was so hard to come by these days. And the view was fantastic.

On a day like this, with the unseasonally warm weather and blue skies, he could see clear across to the Barrens. By stretching his imagination he felt he could almost see the Citadel from this peak.

Below him the fields were greening with spring growth. Crops raised their burgeoning heads above the revitalised soil and weaved slowly to and fro in the mild breeze. On the other side of the valley was Polaris, the town where he had grown up, now renamed and repopulated, this time with his own people.

Lucien sighed heavily, fingering the rich leather of the journal in his lap. So many changes, so many life-altering surprises. It was a wonder he was still sane. He tucked his hair behind his ears and wrapped his arms around his knees, his precious book squashing against his chest.

I am a fortunate har, I know. Still . . .

This was home. These were his people, and, most of the time, it was enough. But on days like today, when memories flooded in, escape to this hill seemed the only alternative to being driven mad by the demands they both made.

Ashmael said that this job was too big for one. But there was little alternative, unless he chose to become chesna or to bloodbond with someone. There wasn’t anyone.

Wishing Ashmael was here right now, Lucien relaxed his grip on his knees and opened the book.

He knew the words off by heart. The clumsy sentiments of the first chapters, with the crossed out words and the silent cries of incomprehension, made him smile now.

His improved writing skills and his growing understanding saw the rest of his diary smooth out and expand into proper literacy. A testament of growth and enlightenment as well as a record of confusion and anguish. A great work? Not likely. But it made him feel better to hold it.

He looked up. The branches of the trees by the creek were waving in the wind, their long, dark fronds swept up into the air to sway about like flags of hair. He looked away again, quickly.

Why aren’t you here? There was no quick answer to that question. Ashmael said that Panthera had left under a misapprehension and that everything would work out. Lucien would like to believe him, but this feeling of being abandoned would not leave him.

Was I so difficult, Thea? I know I was naive and annoying and that I peppered you with too many questions and bothered you when you were busy, but did you have to leave without a word? Or was it the way I followed you with my eyes all the time? Hating to let you out of my sight and not knowing why? The thought made him squirm with embarassment, as it always did. This is fruitless, he told himself. Thea has no doubt forgotten he was ever saddled with you. You should forget him too. But thinking it, could not make it so.

Chapter Twenty

“So? It was after your caste was raised to Nahir-Nuri that the Gelaming told you of their plans to install you as leader of the Northern Territories?”

“No. Before that.” Lucien rose from his office chair and stalked over to the window, trying to hide his irritation with the reporter by turning his back.

Outside the sun blazed down on the streets of Polaris, sending back a brilliant reflection from the white walls of the buildings that made his eyes water. The People were everywhere. Market stalls had appeared outside almost every home, an unheard of thing in former days. Harlings dove in and out of the crowd, calling out and chasing each other, narrowly avoiding collisions with hara intent on their own business. Nowhere was there a veil to be seen. The long gowns were gone and so too were most of the pale white faces of the Sons. A few had chosen to stay on after the arrival of the Gelaming, but most had packed their belongings and with resigned faces had moved to Kalis, the seaport the Gelaming had selected as the human settlement.

Amazing still to Lucien, how easily the Sons had caved in. He’d expected some resistance, if not an armed attack, despite Ashmael’s assurances to the contrary.

“They know who we are, Lucien. And what we are capable of. Just as we have been watching them for years, so have they been watching us. What do you think they truly did with the poor souls who wandered up this way? I think it’s unlikely that we shall meet any kind of force.”

And again, Ashmael had been right. Maybe he should have been installed here as ruler, Lucien thought pettishly. I certainly don’t have the right temperament for the job. A polite cough from behind him interrupted his thoughts and brought him back. The reporter. Stifling another sigh, he returned to the task at hand.

“What else would you like to know?” he enquired, fighting to remain polite. He had never suffered fools gladly. If this so-called reporter for the Polaris Times had done his research, he’d already know the answers to these inane questions and Lucien would be free to concentrate on . . .what? Agricultural reports? Sewage statistics? Lucien allowed himself a wry smile. Perhaps he should be nicer to this reporter.

“What was your personal feeling, My Lord? Returning home at the head of the conquering army?”

“I wouldn’t call it an army for a start.” Lucien smiled to take the sting from the words. “The Gelaming kindly provided a delegation, sending them North with me to assist the transition.”

“But the Sons had no idea you were coming, isn’t that right? And the Gelaming would have been prepared for battle if they’d met any resistance from the So. . . from the humans?”

“We were adequately prepared for any eventuality.” Lucien admitted. At least, they were, he added privately. I was utterly stunned.

He could remember as clearly as if it were happening again, the confusion he felt, the consternation, at facing those he had once considered his betters across the fields outside the town and seeing them bow down and simply . . .capitulate without any argument or struggle.
Ashmael’s words spinning in his head as he accepted the formal surrender from the Capitane of the town, an elevated being whom he had never been fortunate enough, or important enough, to even see in his previous life.

Then the solemn handover of the town and all it contained, the Sons taking only their personal possessions as they climbed aboard the steaming trains that would take them west to Kalis.

He forced himself back to the present again, berating himself for indulging in memory under the eagle eye of the inquisitive reporter.

“Does My Lord find it difficult? Ruling over friends and family?”

Canny bastard. He could sense Lucien’s discomfort and had dived into the breach, searching for controversy.

“Sometimes.” Lucien admitted, deciding on partial candour as a means of disarmament. “But as I don’t specifically order them about, we manage to rub along.” he grinned.

That much was true, at least. Janim and Aren had been both relieved to see him again, if a little shocked by his elevated status. His ‘magic’ and that of his companions had made them uncomfortable as well, but once he had the chance to sit them down and explain it all, they had gradually overcome their wariness. As for the others, well, there wasn’t anyone really. Lucien had been saddened to hear that Fawn had not survived his ‘Changing’ but as there was little he could do to verify his suspicions and because the politics of the handover prohibited personal vengeance, he was forced to let it alone.

“Just one more question, tiahaar.”

“Yes?” Lucien did not like the speculative look in the reporter’s eye one little bit.

“Many of your people have concerns for you, My Lord. They worry about the difficulties you must encounter, running the Northern Territories alone. They sympathise, and there is much talk and speculation about the possibility of Your Lordship making a bond. Would you have a comment about that?”

“I’ll bond when and if I feel I need to.” Lucien said shortly, inexplicably stung by the thought of folk gossiping about him.

“No offence, tiahaar.” the reporter said quickly, sensing he’d gone too far. “Your people are very fond of you and only want what is best for Your Lordship.”

“I realise that, tiahaar.” Lucien stared stonily at him, lacing his fingers together and laying them on the tabletop. “However, bonding is not something I am considering at this point in time. Now,” Lucien rose to his feet. ” if you will excuse me? I’m afraid I’m right out of time.”

Chastened, the reporter made no demur and quickly thanking Lucien for his time and patience, departed in a flurry of clutched papers and dropped pencils. Seeing him to the door, Lucien returned to gazing out of the window. And to his memories.

Chapter Twenty-One

The afternoon and evening consisted of meetings, a short council, a reception for a dignitary from one of the outlying settlements, followed by a lengthy dinner. Even then, Lucien’s day was not over. He returned to his office to go over the survey results on the rehabilitation and reeducation of his people. His people. Right now, they didn’t even have a name.

One of the meetings earlier had been called in another attempt to settle on a new name for his tribe. Like all the others that had gone before it, it was unsuccessful. Too many cooks, he thought to himself, borrowing one of Master Lui’s favourite sayings.

Well, they’d have to decide on one soon. ‘Pareah’ was simply unacceptable, given its connotations. Lucien had his own thoughts on what it should be and if a decision was not made soon, he’d put his foot down and make up their minds for them!

The results of the survey seemed to indicate that their fears over the adults acceptance of the new teachings were unfounded. On the contrary, they seemed to be embracing being hara instead of second-class people even more enthusiastically than the harlings the Gelaming teachers were having such success with. It was heartening news; something he could use right now.

The rest of the reports he eyed sourly. He knew what they were. The minutiae of leadership was like a quagmire so far as he was concerned. Something to be endured and escaped from as soon as was huma . . . harishly possible. Was there such a word? Lucien smiled to himself. Time for bed. His head ached and his bones were tingling with fatigue. He rose from his seat and went to move around the table, but missed the edge and stumbled, sending all the paperwork cascading to the floor.

Cursing loudly, he bent down to retrieve it. Of all the . . . He heard the door open, but ignored it, sensing his assistant, Relin at the door. “Yes, Relin,” he snapped. “what is it?”

“Umm. General Aldebaran has just arrived, tiahaar.” the disembodied voice said.

Lucien straightened abruptly, pleased with the news. That tingling in his bones had been the telltale sign of a lane opening. If he’d not been so preoccupied, he’d have realised. The papers he’d managed to grab tumbled to the floor again. “Oh, shit!”

“Nice greeting.”

Lucien looked up, smiling. “But an honest one. Where the hell have you been?” Ashmael stood in the doorway, shaking the flakes of ice from his clothing. His hair stood up in spiky disarray and was hung with bits of greenery; a strange sight on the normally fastidious general and one that made Lucien’s smile even wider.

“About my business.” Ash said cryptically. “Want a hand with those?” he indicated the scattered paperwork.

“No. I’m going to leave them there. I’m just making it worse anyway. Someone else can get them.” He abandoned his position and leaned against the front of the desk, arms crossed.

“I suppose you had a good reason for leaving me here with that cadre of opportunists.” he said, referring to the officials of the neighbouring township here for meetings when Ashmael had abandoned him. “Those bloodsuckers should be locked up somewhere dark. Trying to get me to fight their battles for them. Honestly, Ash, who cares which creek boundaries which field?!” he snorted.

“I’m only a temporary advisor, remember. I have my own things to attend to as well. Besides, I’m sure you dealt with them with your usual restraint and patience and,” he added “that everything is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s what we trained you for.”

Ashmael had finished wiping down his grubby leathers with Lucien’s good handtowel and was now looking for somewhere to dump it. His maneuvers seemed like an excuse not to look Lucien in the eye.

“What have you been up to?” Lucien asked suspiciously, pushing himself upright.

Ash looked . . . uncomfortable. Not sly, nor smugly satisfied, both of which were usual expressions when he’d been up to something nefarious, but . . .uncertain. Whatever he’d done, he lacked confidence in the decision.
Lucien needed a moment to think about this and so he ducked his head and began rearranging the remaining papers on the table, all the time trying frantically to think what Ash could have been up to this time.

“I . . . umm . . . brought you something.”

What?

Lucien looked up, but Ashmael was no longer there.

“Thea!”

Lucien knew his mouth was open but could not find the muscle control to close it. His heart was beating rapidly, thumping against his ribs. As if he’d conjured Panthera from his own musings earlier in the day; here he stood, his hair mussed from the astral flight, his clothing slightly askew and every bit as beautifully . . . real as Lucien remembered him.

“Hello, Lucien.” The soft voice was hesitant, as if unsure of his welcome. As well you might be, Lucien thought, his shock giving way to a sudden anger.

“What do you want?” he asked coldly.

Thea’s face flushed and he dropped his eyes. “I . . . I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“Wondered if the annoying little brat you abandoned had managed to scrub up allright, did you?” Lucien sneered. “Well, I am as you see me, tiahaar. What is your verdict?”

“Lucien.” There was a pleading quality to Thea’s voice that Lucien had not heard before. He paused and then went on. “Don’t be like that. I . . . ”

“Look, Thea.” Lucien interrupted. “You left me. The very night of my feybrahlia and you left me. How am I supposed to react to this sudden reappearance? What am I supposed to think?”

“That I . . . You didn’t need me anymore.” Thea shook his head as if searching for words. “I was angry, Lucien. Please try and understand.”

“Angry?” Lucien could feel his voice rising, but couldn’t help it. “Angry? You were angry! Imagine how angry I was. That is, after I got over feeling abandoned and worthless. You meant so much to me, Thea. You were so important . . .”

The words trailed off as Thea’s eyes came up to meet his own and he saw the expression, and the tears, contained within.

“You were important to me too, Lucien. How important, I didn’t realise.” He shook his head sadly. “I couldn’t come back. Vanity.” he said flatly. “And cowardice. I couldn’t see myself asking you to forgive me. Trying to explain how redundant I felt. It was easier to to stay away.”

The tears were flowing freely now and Lucien stepped closer, wanting to comfort but unsure of his role in their creation. “Because you were my teacher? Because you wouldn’t reduce yourself to asking forgiveness of a brat from the wild country? Was that it, Thea?” He asked softly. “Was that all it was?”

Thea shook his head. “No. I . . .”

“You what?”

Thea seemed to gather himself, his muscles bunched beneath his clothing and he pulled himself up straighter. Reaching out, he cupped the side of Lucien’s face with his palm, looking into Lucien’s amber eyes with a verdant stare that searched for the depths.

“I love you.” he said.

“Yay!” said a sarcastic voice from the outer room. “Now we can eat!” Footsteps faded from earshot.

Lucien couldn’t help it, his face broke into a smile and then sputtered into full laughter.

Thea looked affronted for a moment, then he too, broke out in smiles.

“Ashmael!” they both said at once, sharing the joke.

When the laughter died down, they were left simply looking at one another. “I don’t have the words.” Lucien said.

Thea shrugged. “Then don’t use them.”

As he spoke, he pulled Lucien into the circle of his arms and brought his mouth down to press against Luciens’. Immediately, Lucien felt the wrenching hollowness coming from Thea that he himself had been living with for so long. Knowing it was there, aware there was something lacking, but never quite sure what it was. He felt for his own empty space and found it gone. A gentle radiance filled its space, replete with images of soft, dark hair and emerald eyes, a mouth that could show a petulant pout one moment and break into a charming smile the next.

The scent of pine and lavender and the alluring beauty of a winter’s morning in Ferike. All this he tasted; all that was precious and treasured, familiar and strange. Home. Thea. One and the same thing.

Chapter Twenty-Two

“You are a bad, bad boy.” The softly spoken words coming from right next to his ear, woke Ashmael from the sleep he had been so looking forward to. His immediate reaction to this ‘threat’ was to roll and grab the intruder by the shoulders, letting go just as abruptly when he realised his attacker was Cal.

“You’re freezing.” he said, grumpy now that he was awake and not in any danger. Or was he?

“The lanes are cold this time of night.” Cal pulled off his jacket and gloves, still perched on the side of Ashmael’s bed and began rubbing his hair dry with the blanket.

“Hey!” Ashmael snatched the blanket back. “There’s a towel on the handrail.”

“Thanks.” Cal went to retrieve it, Ashmael watching his graceful, swaying walk with maximum suspicion in his blue eyes.

“Why am I bad?” he asked as Cal resumed his seat. And his rubbing. “Specifically, that is?”

“Interfering.” Cal nodded his head in the general direction of Lucien’s rooms. “Pell is about ready to throttle you.”

Ashmael relaxed, propping himself up on the pillows with his hands behind his head. Ah, so. The thing with Panthera then, not his other bit of business with Vaysh and the . . .”

Cal was looking straight at him, his eyes bright. Ashmael immediately cut off the thought and concentrated instead on the rose pattern of the bedspread.

“We’ll talk about that later, shall we?” Cal grinned evilly.

“Why would Pell be mad?” Ash disregarded Cal’s look and got back to the point of this nocturnal visit. “Because I blew the whistle on the Great Plan?” he shook his head. “Surely not.”

“You know how he gets. Nose out of joint and all that.” Now, Cal seemed to be shrugging it all off. Ash was confused, but refused to let it show.

“So, you came to berate me?”

“Me? No, I came to congratulate you.”

“All this way? To congratulate me?” Ash managed to sound incredulous. “I screwed up the nefarious little plot, your nefarious little plot, by the way, and you’re here to thank me for it? Pardon me if I don’t get it.” By rights, Cal should have been chillingly angry with Ashmael. His temper was even more legendary than Pell’s. What the hell was going on here?

“You saved me the trouble of fixing it.” Cal confessed airily. “I screwed up. I’m good at that you know. Thea was even more unpredictable than I’d allowed for, so good of you to sort him out. So, I came to thank you personally.”

Ash had the unpleasant feeling he was somehow being outmaneuvered, but he couldn’t quite work out how. “Right. I consider myself thanked.” he made great show of snuggling down under the blankets once more. “If there’s nothing else . . . ?”

“Well, now that you mention it . . .”

Ashmael groaned out loud.

“Shove over, bright boy.” Cal grinned, shedding his clothes as he spoke. “We’ve a lot to discuss. About Vaysh . . . ”

The groans continued late into the night…..

The End

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1 Comment

  1. wdarling said,

    April 10, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    I always liked this story. It’s a romance featuring Panthera that doesn’t involve him going after Cal, but instead gives him someone else to love. An interesting original character, no less.


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