Author’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web page: http://www.paranoid.nl/avalon
Main pairings: Pansea/Skye, Tarot/Lunar
Mentioned pairings: Azriel/Aleeme, Snake/Cobweb, and Flick/Ulaume.
Summary: Paran takes Aleeme and Ponclast’s harling to Lisia and Tarot starts shaping his own destiny.
Disclaimer: Not mine. No copyright infringement is intended. All characters belong to Storm Constantine.
Warning: AU of course.
Spoiler warning: Set after book 6.
Beta read by DA, thanks sweetie!
All remaining mistakes are mine.
Paran shivered with disgust and tried to increase the distance between him and the harling he was taking care of. Cobweb had ordered him to take the harling to Lisia at the Harling Gardens because Cobweb refused to have a child conceived from pelki at Forever. During the last three days Paran had cared for the harling, but he would never have volunteered to do so. The child’s presence repulsed him.
The harling sat in front of him on the sedu’s back and Paran tried to keep his hold on the child as loose as possible since he loathed touching the abomination.
The harling was the result of Ponclast raping a helpless Aleeme, forcing him to host his pearl. General Aldebaran had told him how Ponclast had viciously abused Aleeme and had even forced Azriel to watch. As a result, Azriel and Aleeme had lost their minds, but Gelaming healers were doing their best to reclaim them. Cal had dropped Aleeme into a guard’s arms more dead than alive and had then left to get Moon and the harling out of Ponclast’s stronghold. As far as Paran was concerned, Cal should have left the harling there to rot.
The first time he had laid eyes on the harling, he had recoiled in disgust and with the knowledge that the child was Ponclast’s as well. The harling was ugly. There was no other way to describe his exterior *and* interior. His head was too big, the body emaciated, and the feline green eyes had seemed to stare right into his soul. His discomfort had grown the moment the harling had been entrusted to him. He had almost asked the General to reconsider, but in the end, he had remained quiet and reminded himself that this was just another order he had to carry out.
Long, raven hair peeked out from beneath the hood which Paran had pulled over the harling’s head so he didn’t have to look at him. He understood why Cobweb didn’t want the harling at Forever since he didn’t want the abomination close to him either. In a way, he pitied Lisia, who didn’t know yet that he was going to be the harling’s new caretaker.
Pansea was about to panic. Paran had arrived unexpectedly and had demanded to speak with Lisia at once. Pansea had shown the officer into a room and had then set out on a search for Lisia. It was noon and usually during that time, Lisia tended to visit with several harlings, but Pansea had no idea where he would find the hostling. He had been stunned to see that Paran wasn’t alone. A harling had accompanied the Gelaming. Pansea had wanted to smile at the harling, but the smile had frozen on his face when he had seen the harling’s pitiful state. He didn’t know the harling’s name or history, but it was obvious that the child had been mistreated. He was also malnourished. While searching for Lisia, Pansea made a stop at the kitchen and asked one of the househara to bring food and refreshments to Paran’s room.
“Lis! Wait for me!” Pansea caught sight of the hostling and started to run. He was short of breath by the time he arrived at Lisia’s side. The hostling gave him a worried look and the blond strand that streaked his brown hair swept into Lisia’s face. The hostling immediately tucked it behind an ear as Pansea grabbed hold of the hostling’s sleeve. “You need to come with me!”
Lisia wanted to calm Pansea, but then realized his aide was stressed for a reason. He fell into step beside the young har and asked, “What has happened?”
“Paran arrived with a harling. Oh Lis, the poor harling looks malnourished! He is emaciated and his eyes… You need to see him now!” Pansea was convinced that Lisia could help the harling. Lisia was his *hero* after all.
Lisia frowned. Why would Paran bring a harling to him? He realized there was a hidden story and probably a hidden agenda and he was determined to find out what it was.
“Sit there and don’t move!” Paran wanted to leave as quickly as possible. The harling was staring at him and shivers ran down his spine. The large, all-seeing eyes made his skin crawl.
Lisia entered the room with Pansea in tow. His first look was for the harling. Pansea had sounded alarmed and one look at the child proved that his aide hadn’t exaggerated. The harling looked like death warmed over. “Who is this?”
Paran sighed in relief. Since Lisia had arrived he was no longer responsible for the monster. “I need to talk to you in private, Lisia.” He looked pointedly at Pansea and the young har started to move toward the doorway.
“I will be back later,” Pansea said after smiling at the intimidated-looking harling. He closed the door behind them and left Lisia and Paran to their conversation.
Lisia covered the distance between him and the harling and lowered himself onto his heels. “Hello. Who are you?” The harling cocked his head, but didn’t answer him. Although aware and intelligent, the harling didn’t seem to understand the question.
“He has no name,” Paran said and shivered. Involuntarily, he pulled the fabric of his coat closer around his frame. “How much do you know of what happened in Fulminir?”
Lisia shrugged his shoulders in reply to Paran’s question. He remained focused on the distressed harling instead. The child radiated fear and was ready to bolt from the room. Lisia wanted to prevent that from happening. “Not much.” Very slowly and carefully, he raised a hand and rested it on the harling’s head, patting the dark hair.
“Ponclast fathered a pearl with pelki. You are looking at the result right now.”
Lisia’s eyes widened and he looked at Paran over his shoulder. “You shouldn’t speak like that in his presence!” He had felt the harling’s distress increase when Paran had made that revelation. “He is only a harling!” The child couldn’t be much older than three, maybe four months.
“He is a monster,” Paran replied and glared at the harling. “Aleeme birthed the pearl against his wish. He was forced to host it. It would have been best for the *harling* if he had died in that room, like the second pearl that had almost killed Aleeme.”
Lisia glared at Paran. “This harling is no monster! How can you say such a thing?” He didn’t sense any evil where the child was concerned. He only sensed fear, loneliness, and confusion.
“You will find out yourself once you’ve spent time with him. He is a monster, Lis. Don’t let him fool you.” Paran made his way over to the doorway. “Cobweb wants you to raise him.”
Lisia’s eyebrow arched an eyebrow as he petted the harling’s hair. Although the child looked scared, the harling allowed the petting. “Cobweb should raise the harling himself.” He didn’t approve of Cobweb sending the harling to him.
“Cobweb doesn’t want that monstrosity at Forever and I can’t blame him. That *harling* gives me the creeps.” Paran opened the door and was surprised to find a househar blocking the corridor. The har carried a tray which held tea, water, and sandwiches. “He is all yours, Lis, and by Ag, I don’t envy you.” He shuddered and marched down the corridor, eager to put more distance between him and Ponclast’s legacy.
Lisia gestured for the househar to enter and place the tray on the floor next to him. “Fetch Pansea for me, will you?” he asked the househar who left to find the young har.
Lisia focused on the harling, whose gaze had shifted from the hostling’s face to the tray holding the food. “You must be hungry.” Lisia caught the child shivering and picked up a blanket from a nearby couch and wrapped it around the harling’s shoulders. The child’s heritage didn’t matter to him since he had raised many harlings who weren’t his own. He would love this child too. He picked up a sandwich and expected the harling to take hold of it, but the large eyes simply continued to stare at him while the harling’s hands didn’t move.
“I know you’re hungry.” Lisia managed to find a hand beneath the fabric and placed the sandwich into the child’s hand. “You need to eat.” He poured a cup of tea and blew onto the surface so it would cool down. He wanted to get something warm into the child.
The harling turned his head toward him and studied him. Lisia was under the impression that the harling was trying to read him telepathically, but couldn’t be sure. A harling that young shouldn’t have such abilities yet. He focused on feeding the child instead and guided the hand with the sandwich in it to the child’s mouth. “Eat.”
The teeth that were revealed when the harling took a bite out of the sandwich were green and black. Lisia sighed and brushed the long dirty hair away from the harling’s face. “We need to clean you up, little one.” And he needed to name the harling. Lisia watched the harling eat one sandwich and then followed the direction of the hungry gaze to the rest of the food. Realizing the child wouldn’t take another sandwich out of his own accord, Lisia placed another one in the harling’s hand. “Eat as much as you want.” The harling needed to do a lot of eating if he ever wanted to rid himself of his emaciated look. “And try some tea.” He helped the harling sip the tea. Quickly, he caught the child when the harling swayed on his feet. The child ended up sitting on the floor and continued to munch happily.
At that moment, Pansea entered the room and the young har immediately joined the hostling. “He doesn’t look well.”
Lisia drew in a deep breath. “He was rescued from Ponclast’s stronghold. We can only guess what horrors he witnessed.” Paran had mentioned that Ponclast had raped Aleeme and Lisia wondered just how much the harling had seen. “What did you see with those large eyes?” Maybe one day he would venture into the child’s mind to find out, but for the moment, he needed to concentrate on the harling’s needs. “He is staying with me, Pansea.” Lisia’s first thought had been to ask Pansea to take the harling in, but the young har lacked the necessary experience to deal with a harling who had been damaged like this.
“That would be best.” Pansea nodded. He gave the harling another sandwich and after staring at the food for a moment, the child started to eat again. “He is famished.” He was convinced that they would find bones sticking out once they removed the ragged clothes the harling was wearing.
“He looks quite famished, yes.” But Lisia knew the harling’s hunger was more than just for food. What the child really needed was someone who wanted to love and take care of him. It was quite obvious that Lisia was going to be that har. For years, he had taken care of hundreds of harlings. He could easily take care of this one too. “I am Lisia,” he introduced himself to the harling. “But you can also call me Lis.” Could the harling talk? Did he possess that skill? How badly damaged was the child? “And this is Pansea, a very good friend of mine. What’s your name, little one?”
Neither Lisia nor Pansea expected the harling to answer them, but a voice as clear and sharp as glass cut through the room. “I am Tarot,” the harling said and stared at them in wondrous curiosity. He didn’t sense any hatred coming from these hara. Paran had hated him, he knew that. And so had all the other hara he had been with since he had left his hostling’s room.
Lisia smiled happily. “That’s a pretty name,” he commented, hoping to make the harling feel good about himself.
Tarot busied himself with sipping the rest of his tea and then waited for the adults to take the initiative again since he didn’t know how to act. Except for Ponclast, who had come to his hostling’s rooms a few times to torture Azriel and Aleeme, and Paran, who hated him, he didn’t have much experience dealing with hara. Lisia’s attitude towards him puzzled him.
“I want you to eat some more and then we will take you to my rooms so we can clean you up. You need a bath, little one.”
A bath? Tarot frowned. He had never bathed before.
Lisia and Pansea could tell that it took a lot of effort for Tarot to remain in place and not run away once their hands started to pry the rags from the harling’s body. Tarot looked at them in distress and even started to yelp helplessly. Lisia cringed when the full extent of the abuse Ponclast had inflicted on the harling became evident. The harling was little more than skin and bones and beneath the grime, bruises colored Tarot’s body. “What happened?” he asked as he helped Pansea clean the harling up.
Tarot didn’t reply. He simply continued to whimper pitifully and squirmed in their hold when they brushed his teeth. He wasn’t trying to get away from them exactly. He was merely trying to protect himself from getting hurt again. Since Ponclast had beaten and kicked him in the past, he expected Lisia and Pansea to treat him in a similar way.
“We won’t hurt you,” Pansea murmured once it became clear that Tarot wasn’t going to answer Lisia’s question. “We want to help.” Pansea exchanged a worried look with Lisia. The harling didn’t have any mental defenses and Pansea saw images in Tarot’s mind of Ponclast kicking and scolding the harling without prying.
Lisia had witnessed the same horrendous scene. Apparently Ponclast had hated the sight of his son. Getting Aleeme with pearl had just been Ponclast’s way to get back at Swift. Ponclast had made Azriel watch him rape Aleeme and had even forced Swift’s son to witness Aleeme birthing the pearl. Tarot had meant nothing to him. The harling had just been another object to vent his anger on.
“Hush now, everything will be alright.” Lisia felt grateful for the caste training which he had recently absorbed. Chrysm had been so kind as to set him up with a teacher and Lisia could now easily reach into the harling’s mind and calm him down. “You will be fine.” That they had found Tarot so quickly had probably been the harling’s salvation. Had Tarot been locked up any longer in that room while witnessing Ponclast torture Azriel and his hostling, the child would have ended up even more damaged. He was damaged enough as he was.
Tarot calmed and allowed them to wash his hair as well. He let them do as they wanted and endured it all. But in reality he just wanted to curl up in the corner of a room and hide from the world.
Tarot stared in disbelief at the bed covered with warm blankets and even a stuffed toy. He knew what a stuffed toy was and why harlings were given them, but since he had never had one it didn’t occur to him to hug it. He waited for Lisia to tell him what to do and just hugged his waist and rocked slightly in the meantime.
Lisia started to realize how much time, love, and effort it would take for Tarot to become a ‘normal’ harling again and he wondered if he was the right har for the job. But Cobweb, the coward, had sent the harling to Harling Gardens instead of taking care of Tarot himself. Lisia was all Tarot had at the moment. “Are you tired, Tarot?
Tarot blinked. He didn’t know if he was tired. He had always felt like this and he didn’t know if this was tired.
“Let’s find out.” Lisia sat down on the bed and patted the space next to him. “The bed is soft.” Tarot however continued to stare at him. He had to be more explicit. “Hop on.” Lisia patted the mattress again and then pushed down the covers.
Cautiously Tarot approached. He wasn’t sure what Lisia wanted him to do. In the end, the hostling reached for him and lifted him onto the bed. Tarot allowed it and stared at the har with big eyes. What would happen now?
“Lie down. You can’t possibly sleep sitting up like that.”
Tarot curled up on his side and watched Lisia intently. Everything was so different since he had arrived at this place. It was the first time in his short life that he wasn’t surrounded by violence and hatred and he had to get used to the feeling. Lisia covered him with the blanket and Tarot slid a hand beneath the pillow.
“Why don’t you close your eyes and try to sleep? All harlings need to rest, you know.” Lisia stroked the now soft and shiny hair. At first he had thought Tarot possessed an ebony mane, but had realized that the hair consisted of black and brown strands, giving the harling an interesting appearance. He wished Tarot would say something, anything, but the harling did nothing but stare at him. “You are safe here. Nohar will hurt you. You are in my care now.”
Lisia flinched as he picked up more violent images depicting Ponclast in Tarot’s mind. The harling had seen Ponclast force himself on Aleeme. Tarot, searching for some sort of protection, had crawled over to Azriel, but the har had been too far gone already to register the harling’s needs. Lisia felt physically sick when he realized what atrocities Ponclast had committed where Azriel and Aleeme were concerned. “That’s in the past,” he said and stretched out beside the harling.
Tarot didn’t know what to make of Lisia’s comment. What was in the past?
Lisia gently probed the harling’s thoughts and emotions. He found it worrying that Tarot spoke so little, but that might have to do with the fact that he had never had a har to talk to. Azriel and Aleeme had been too far gone to care for the harling and Ponclast had only bullied Tarot. Later, with Paran, the officer had kept his barriers tightly in place so he wouldn’t accidentally make contact with the ‘monster’ as he had called Tarot. It was beyond Lisia how anyone could think of Tarot as a freak. All he saw was a harling who desperately needed a hostling.
“Things will start to make sense shortly. I promise, Tarot.” Lisia wasn’t certain the harling would allow it, but he started to pull the child closer until Tarot was safely nestled against him. “Close your eyes and sleep, little one.”
Tarot was growing sleepy because of the relaxed atmosphere. Lisia’s presence was soothing and he had never experienced anything like it before. His eyes started to close, but he still tried to stay awake as long as he could so he could savor the moment. Back in that filthy dark room he had wanted his hostling to hold him close and rock and soothe him, but Aleeme’s mind had fled to a safe place and the har hadn’t responded to his pleading. In the end, Tarot had just given up.
A lump of emotions formed in Lisia’s throat when he caught that particular sentiment in Tarot’s mind. Paran and Cobweb might not believe Tarot capable of feelings, but the harling was. He had just suffered too much in his young life for him to be able to deal with the fall out. “Sleep, Tarot. Sleep.” He kept up the murmuring and in the end, the harling lost the fight to stay awake and drifted off into sleep.
Once Tarot was asleep, Lisia released the tears he had been holding back. They had wronged the harling. Paran, Cobweb, and all the other hara who could have made a difference. They should have realized that the harling was just another victim and shouldn’t have been made to pay for Ponclast’s crimes. This harling needed all the love he could possibly get and Lisia was determined to make sure Tarot got it.
Sometime during the night Pansea visited with Lisia. The young har sat on the edge of the bed and watched Tarot sleep. The harling looked too small, vulnerable, and thin for his age. They would spend the next months, maybe even years, rendering that condition. “Lis? Can I help too?”
Continuing to pet Tarot’s hair in his sleep, Lisia searched Pansea’s eyes. He knew that the young har was eager to become a hostling because of his upbringing and so far, Lisia had managed to keep him back from creating a pearl. Maybe involving Pansea in Tarot’s healing process would help Pansea see what a big responsibility having his own harling was. “Tarot will need a hostling and a father, Pansea.”
Pansea swallowed hard. “Sadly enough I don’t have much experience being either.”
Lisia smiled encouragingly at Pansea. “You have been caring for harlings your entire life, Pansea. How can you say such a thing?”
Pansea blushed at the unexpected compliment. “Does that mean you would consider letting me play a part in his life?”
“Pansea, before you offer to do such a thing, I want you to realize what you are getting yourself into. This harling will need us for many years. He will need one of us close at all times. You might not be able to spend as much time with the other hara and harlings as you did. You will have to focus on Tarot. I am afraid that if we don’t make him our priority, we will lose him. You saw the things he witnessed. Being subjected to such vile things can do strange things to him.”
Pansea swallowed nervously. “I can’t understand why his hostling didn’t want him.”
“You saw the state his hostling was in,” Lisia replied. “Aleeme was more dead than alive.” He understood Pansea though. The young har had been raised to attain a singular goal, namely to host pearls. “I am angry with Cobweb though. He should know better than to turn his back on a harling.”
“Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight after what had happened to his high har and Aleeme?” Pansea went back into his memory and accessed the images again which he had seen in Tarot’s mind. The situation Azriel and Aleeme had been in had been extreme.
Lisia’s jaw set grimly. “Oh, I plan on confronting him with Tarot one day.” Cobweb should have known better than to abandon a harling no matter how he had come into the world. “But we will worry about that later. Will you make sure a fine breakfast awaits Tarot when he wakes up? And see if you can arrange for some clothes that fit him.”
Pansea rose from the bed. “Lis, thank you for giving me this chance.”
“Just don’t reconsider somewhere down the road, Pansea. Tarot will cause trouble at one time or another.” That was inevitable. The harling had already lived through too much horror and it had affected him.
“I will not let you down.” Pansea gave Lisia a look full of resolution. “I will be there for him come what may.”
Tarot woke up screaming the next morning. In his mind, he was back in that filthy little room and Ponclast had returned to torment Aleeme. Like before, Tarot had tried to distract Ponclast from his hostling, but it never worked. Ponclast had always been focused on Aleeme and had never given Tarot a second glance, but rather a hard kick.
“No, get away from him! Leave him alone!” Tarot screamed and fought the blankets which had been tucked around his form. “Leave him alone!” With his tiny fists he started to beat onto the chest of the har close to him. In his thoughts, it was Ponclast.
However, in reality, it was Lisia. Since Tarot’s blows had little impact on the hostling, he allowed for the harling to exert himself and once Tarot was exhausted, he brushed the hair out of the tear-streaked face. “It is me, Lis.” His voice trembled for he had only just realized that Tarot had received many bruises when he had tried to defend Aleeme. “It is only me.”
Tarot, drained from fighting his imaginary foe, sobbed as he recognized Lisia. He had been convinced that it had been Ponclast close to him! “He would hurt him,” he whispered and closed his eyes. “He hurt them both.”
“And he hurt you.” Lisia drew in a deep, steadying breath. “You were a brave harling trying to distract Ponclast like that.” The eyes opened again and Lisia felt a deep sympathy when he saw the pain in them.
“My hostling couldn’t defend himself… I had to try… I didn’t want that har to hurt them!” They had been like lifeless statues, Azriel and Aleeme, and yet, Tarot had sensed emotions in them. Their hurt had mirrored his own. Tarot wiped at his eyes and tried to regulate his breathing again. “Will I ever see them again? Are they alive?” He had been too afraid to ask Paran that question. The officer had been distant and had loathed the sight of him.
Lisia nodded. “They are alive. Azriel and your hostling have been taken to Immanion. The healers there will do their best to heal them.” Hurt shone from deep within those green eyes and Lisia wanted to take it away and make it all better, but he couldn’t. There was no instant cure for their hurts. He had to take small steps with Tarot and let the healers work on Azriel and Aleeme. “I don’t know if you will ever see them again,” he said honestly. “But I hope you will.” Tears formed all over again in Tarot’s eyes and Lisia wanted to kiss them away, but he didn’t, uncertain of the harling’s reaction to such a gesture. “In the meantime, you will stay with Pansea and me.”
Tarot would have preferred to see his hostling again, but Lisia had been quite clear that it wasn’t an option. Azriel and Aleeme were out of his reach, maybe forever. He didn’t know what his life would be like with Lisia, but it couldn’t be worse than the life he had known in Fulminir!
Tarot didn’t understand why Lisia and Pansea worried about his appearance that much. The two hara were helping him get dressed and Tarot was amazed at how soft the material felt against his skin. In the end, Pansea gave him a pleased smile and Tarot wondered if he was supposed to smile back. He liked wearing clothes, but at the same time he felt out of place. Lisia, who was on his heels in front of him, patted his hair again. Tarot still didn’t understand why the hostling kept doing that.
“I want you to go with Pansea. He will take you to the kitchen where you will have breakfast.” He judged it best to keep Tarot apart from the other harlings since he doubted Tarot had the necessary skills to interact with them. It was best to limit Tarot’s contact to Pansea and himself. “I want you to eat as much as you can. You are too skinny, little one.”
The harling’s body wasn’t developing as it should and was making the head appear too big for the scrawny torso. “Now go.”
Pansea took Tarot’s hand into his and Tarot walked alongside the young har as they made their way into the corridor. It was nice to have someone around who cared about him, although he wasn’t quite sure how he should react to their tender, loving care. Hara had never treated him nicely before.
Pansea had to urge Tarot into eating more. The harling looked at the older har each time before he put some food into his mouth as if he expected Pansea to take it away again. Pansea reminded himself to be patient. Tarot had seen many vile things during his time in Fulminir and it would take the child time to trust him.
Belly full, Tarot felt warm as Pansea pulled him onto his lap to hold and rock him. The har was telling him a story, but Tarot wasn’t really listening. His eyes were beginning to close. Pansea had a pleasant voice and listening to the fairy tale made him sleepy.
Slowly rocking the harling, Pansea felt pleased when Tarot rested his head against his chest. He patted the dark hair and embraced Tarot loosely. “Do you like living here?” Pansea didn’t really expect an answer since Tarot hadn’t spoken much since his arrival.
Tarot however felt relaxed enough to reply. Still sleepy and feeling pleasantly sated after eating a good breakfast, he whispered, “I do. It’s much better here.”
Pansea involuntarily sucked in his breath, pleased with the fact that Tarot felt comfortable enough to talk to him. “Lis and I like you. We would like to adopt you. Then you would be our harling.” Tarot moved his head and turned in the embrace to stare at him. “Did I say something wrong?” Pansea asked.
“Does my hostling not want me then?” Tarot’s bottom lip quivered and he fought hard to keep his tears from falling.
Pansea’s heart went out to the harling. “Your hostling is not well at the moment. He needs healing and it will take him a long time to recover, if he recovers that is. Lis and I would like to take care of you while your hostling recovers.” Part of it was a white lie. It was very unlikely that Aleeme would ever want to take care of his harling.
“I love him,” Tarot said and this time the tears fell. They flowed down his cheeks and landed on Pansea’s tunic. “I tried to protect him. Is that the reason why he doesn’t want me? Because I failed him?”
Pansea tried to tread carefully when he answered, “You are a harling, Tarot. You can’t possibly protect a har from an attacker. What happened to your hostling wasn’t your fault.” He carefully guided Tarot’s head to his shoulder and held the harling tight. “You need to heal too. Let Lis and me help.”
Tarot continued to cry softly and Pansea rocked him. They sat like that for a long time before Lisia finally found them.
Lisia sensed the harling’s emotional turmoil and touched Pansea’s mind to find out what had happened. Pansea shared their conversation with him and Lisia sighed. It was apparent that Tarot loved Aleeme greatly, but unfortunately for the harling, neither Ulaume nor Cobweb were inclined to take him in. “Tarot,” he said and sat on his heels in front of them.
Tarot turned in the embrace and wiped at his face. Looking at Lisia, he waited for the har to speak again. He didn’t know what to say since too many emotions were coursing through him. Lisia opened his arms and Tarot slid off of Pansea’s knees. Lisia caught him and hugged him.
“We will take care of you,” Lisia promised. “You are our harling now.” He searched Tarot’s eyes. “That doesn’t mean you have to stop loving Aleeme. He is your hostling and of course you love him. We would never ask that of you.”
Raising his arms, Tarot shyly wrapped them about Lisia. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say a thing.” Lisia hugged the harling tighter and exchanged a pleased look with Pansea. They had gotten through to Tarot.
Tarot spent the rest of the day in Pansea’s company since Lisia had to go back to his office and work on their food stock inventories. Pansea showed him about Harling Gardens and, although they attracted many curious looks from hara and harlings alike, no one addressed them. The rumor that an exhausted harling had arrived had made its way through the home quickly and they respected the fact that Tarot needed to grow a bit stronger first.
Once it was time for dinner, Pansea took Tarot to Lisia’s rooms. The hostling was already waiting for them and dinner had been placed out on his desk.
Tarot’s eyes widened. Was he going to eat again? Lisia caught that thought and smiled encouragingly. “Three meals a day, Tarot. You need to gain some weight.” Lisia helped Tarot climb onto a chair and then waited for Pansea to seat himself. He then piled food onto Tarot’s plate and gestured for the harling to start eating, giving the example himself by starting on his soup.
Pansea started to eat as well and eventually Tarot tried the soup. Tarot kept watching them and wondered about the two hara. “It is different here,” he said eventually, needing to vent his thoughts. “In that dark room there was no food or water…” But now he was eating three meals a day!
“What you experienced wasn’t a normal way of life. What Ponclast did was monstrous. Hara normally are not like that.” Lisia smiled sadly at Tarot. “Nohar will ever beat or kick you again, Tarot. Nohar will ever again bully you. You are among friends now.”
Tarot nodded. He sensed that both Lisia and Pansea were sincere. And although he liked them, he wished his hostling was there as well.
Tarot couldn’t believe it. Was he going to take another bath? Lisia had filled up the bathtub and had even added scented bath oil to the water.
“Time for your bath, Tarot.” Lisia pushed up his sleeves and advanced on the harling to undress him. That Tarot looked dazed didn’t register with Lisia at first. Only once he had removed the harling’s clothes and saw how tense the body was did he look up and see the expression in Tarot’s eyes. What was wrong? Lisia involuntarily probed the harling’s mind to find out.
/Oh no…/ Tarot was suffering from a flashback. In his mind, Ponclast was raping Aleeme all over again. Lisia awkwardly patted Tarot’s head and then pulled him into an embrace. At the same time, he soothed the troubled harling and forced the images to dim in Tarot’s mind until they eventually vanished. “You shouldn’t have witnessed that.” With a cry, Tarot collapsed against him. Rocking him, Lisia hugged the harling until Tarot had finally calmed down. “You will never have to witness that again. You are safe now and so is your hostling.”
Tarot clung to Lisia for a long time, but eventually pushed himself away from the hostling. “Can you make me forget?”
Lisia wasn’t sure he could. Although he had received some caste training, his education was still lacking. “I can try.” Focusing on the terrible images in Tarot’s mind, he managed to take the vicious sting out of them. “I am sorry. I can’t take them completely away.”
But the pain was bearable now. Tarot could deal with those memories since Lisia had weakened them. He stared at Lisia for another minute and then bowed his head. He was tired.
“Let’s do this.” Lisia wanted the bathing over with so he could tuck Tarot into bed to sleep. Originally he had wanted to drag the bathing time out with splashing games, but the happy mood was gone. Both of them felt oppressed by what Tarot had witnessed Ponclast do.
Lisia made quick work of cleaning Tarot up and then wrapped the harling in warm towels. After drying Tarot’s skin and hair, he picked Tarot up and carried him over to the bed. It was a strange sight to see Pansea already curled up there, but they had both agreed that it would be best if Pansea stayed close for Tarot’s sake. He placed a drowsy Tarot on the bed and the harling instantly moved closer to Pansea, who opened his arms to hold him.
Pansea tucked Tarot’s head against his shoulder and a blanket around their forms. He felt honored that Tarot trusted them enough to watch over him.
“How long can we keep this up?” Pansea looked at Lisia for an answer. “Do you plan to watch him twenty four hours a day?”
“I told you that this wouldn’t be easy,” Lisia replied and gave Pansea a look filled with understanding. Tarot had been with them for two months now and, while the harling was improving, he still needed around-the-clock attention. “I warned you.”
Pansea bowed his head. When he had offered to care for Tarot, he hadn’t really realized how demanding the job would be. But looking at the harling who was asleep on his lap showed him it was worthwhile. Tarot had become more balanced and was even trying to connect with the other harlings. Lisia and Pansea expected Tarot to be able to mingle with other harlings in a few weeks. The progress the harling was making was amazing, but it also came at a cost. Minding Tarot twenty four seven was taking its toll on them.
“I always wanted a harling of my own,” Pansea said and stroked Tarot’s hair. “But I never realized just how big a responsibility a child is.”
Lisia smiled. His plan was working. He had wanted to make Pansea see just that. “Harlings are a treasure, Pansea, but you should go into it with your eyes wide open and fully realizing how demanding they are.”
Tarot woke up and blinked. He rubbed the remaining sleep from his eyes and pushed himself upright. Balancing on Pansea’s knee, he looked about. It had been a few nights since he had woken without having had any nightmares. Lisia and Pansea’s presence had a soothing effect on him. “Morning,” he mumbled. He felt more comfortable addressing them, but he would never turn into a chatterbox.
“Good afternoon, Tarot,” Lisia replied and smiled at the harling. “You took a long afternoon nap on Pansea’s lap. It is almost time for dinner.” It warmed Lisia’s heart to see that Tarot was gaining weight. The head didn’t look so big anymore since the rest of the body was developing as well. The face was also filling out nicely, adding a soft touch to the harling’s features. And then there was the hair. It had started to change. Already dark-brown, it had turned pitch-black the last two months and at times Lisia swore it possessed a life of its own. Just the other day it had curled itself around his wrist when Lisia had wanted to leave.
“Dinner? Again?” Tarot was still trying to get used to the idea of eating all the time. The clothes which he had worn the first day no longer fit him. Lisia had given him a new outfit only the other day.
“Yes, again.” Pansea put Tarot on the floor and then rose from the chair. He hadn’t been able to move about since Tarot had used his lap as a bed for the last few hours.
Lisia left his chair behind his desk and lowered himself onto his heels in front of Tarot. “Are you hungry?”
Tarot considered the question. “A little bit.” He took Lisia’s hand in his and followed the hostling to the rooms the three of them shared these days. “Are you, Lis?”
Lisia grinned. It was encouraging that Tarot was asking him in turn. “Actually, I am. And I am sure Pansea is hungry too.” Pansea took Tarot’s other hand in his and the three of them made their way over to the living area. The table there had been set and the soup had been served.
Observing Tarot closely, Pansea smiled when the harling started to eat right away. That was one thing that had definitely changed the last month. Tarot was no longer looking to them for permission to eat. The harling was slowly getting used to his freedom and his changed life.
That night, Tarot went to sleep in Lisia’s arms. Pansea was also in bed with them, but had rolled away from them sometime during the night and was on his side facing away. Tarot’s dreams were wild that night and, while they didn’t feature Ponclast, Tarot did see his hostling’s tormented expression over and over again. Aleeme screamed in his dreams and Tarot started awake with a scream of his own that thundered through the silent bedroom.
“No…” Tarot clung to Lisia. In his dreams Aleeme had stared at him with loathing and reproach in his eyes, almost as if blaming the harling for the situation he was in. “I tried to protect you!”
Both Lisia and Pansea startled awake. Lisia immediately tightened his hold on the harling and Pansea sat up to find out what was happening. It became clear to them that Tarot had had a nightmare, which surprised them since the nightmares had left the harling alone lately.
Lisia soothed Tarot and rocked him. A look at the harling’s thoughts showed what the nightmare had been about. “It wasn’t your fault that Aleeme was hurt, Tarot. Please don’t think that.” Looking at Pansea, he requested, “Can you fetch some warm milk for him?” It would help settle Tarot’s nerves. They had discovered the soothing effect warm milk had on the harling the other night after he had suffered from a similar nightmare.
Pansea left the bed to fetch the milk and Lisia pushed himself into an upright position. Tarot settled down on his lap and the harling wrapped his arms around Lisia’s torso. “Aleeme is healing, Tarot, just like you are healing. You must believe that he is getting better much like you are.” He rocked the harling slowly and tucked Tarot’s head beneath his chin.
“I want to see him!” Tarot sobbed against Lisia’s chest. “I want to see him and hold him and talk to him!”
“I am sorry, but that is not possible at the moment, but I can ask a friend for information about Aleeme. He lives in Immanion too.” Paran might be able to supply him with news about Aleeme.
“Would you do that for me?” Tarot raised his tear-streaked face and looked pleadingly at Lisia. “I worry about him.”
“I know you do and that is very sweet of you.” Knowing that Aleeme might never want to see Tarot hurt Lisia. Lisia wanted Aleeme to know what a precious harling the other har had given life to. At that moment, Pansea returned with a mug filled with warm milk and he slid onto the bed again. “Drink that,” Lisia ordered as Pansea placed the mug at Tarot’s lips. “And stop worrying about Aleeme. He is in the best care.”
Tarot sipped some of the milk and it helped calm him down. “I just want my hostling, Lis.”
Lisia kissed the crown of Tarot’s head. “I know that, sweet one, but sometimes what we want the most is the one thing we can’t have.”
Tarot felt excited. Lisia and Pansea had selected a handful of harlings he was going to be allowed to meet and maybe even play with. During the last two months he had watched them from afar. In the beginning he had felt no desire to join them in their play, but that had changed during the last few weeks. Now he wanted to befriend them. He impatiently shuffled his feet and studied the three harlings standing near by.
Lisia smiled, sensing Tarot’s eagerness for him to move on and introduce them. “Tarot, I want you to meet these three harlings. This is Mist.” He gestured for the fair-haired harling to approach and Lisia smiled when Mist offered to hug Tarot. Tarot accepted and then drew back. Lisia had chosen the three harlings on purpose because they possessed impressive social skills. They would know instinctively how to handle a harling like Tarot.
“Hello Mist.” Tarot smiled gingerly at the other harling and felt relieved when Mist returned the smile.
“And this is Onyx.” Lisia nodded in Onyx’s direction and the raven-haired harling reached out to Tarot, taking his hand into his. So far, introductions were going well.
“Tarot, I also want you to meet Lunar.” Lunar was the youngest and smallest of all four harlings. Lunar’s hostling had birthed the pearl prematurely and Lunar was smaller than the other harlings as a result.
Tarot seemed to sense that and very carefully hugged the fair-haired harling, who was thinner than he was. The blond hair, pale skin, and light-blue eyes gave Lunar a slightly ghostly appearance, but Tarot instantly liked the other harling more than he did Mist and Onyx.
“Why don’t the four of you play over in that corner there?” Lisia had put books, games, and other toys in the corner of the room so the harlings wouldn’t become bored. He watched them make their way over there and smiled when he noticed that Tarot was still holding Lunar’s hand. Their first meeting had gone better than he had dared hope.
Pansea joined them an hour later and smiled in pleasure at seeing the four harlings play a game. “It looks like everything is going well.” Introducing Tarot to the other three harlings had been something of a gamble since they hadn’t been sure the harling knew how to interact with others. Tarot had never played with another harling before.
“They are getting along just fine.” Lisia presented Pansea with a cup of tea and added, “Tarot has taken a shine to Lunar in particular. He is very protective of him.” Tarot was seated close to Lunar and was watching the other harling’s movements closely. At one time, Lunar had threatened to topple over when reaching for a toy and Tarot had steadied him.
“He also wanted to protect Aleeme. Maybe that’s why he has taken to Lunar, who is clearly the smallest of them.” Pansea smiled at Tarot when the harling looked at him. “It is good to see him play like that.”
“I think we can give him a bit more freedom from now on.” Lisia sipped his tea. “We can let them play unsupervised in a little bit.” Being away from them would do Tarot good. Lisia didn’t want the harling to become dependant on them.
During the next few days Tarot became good friends with Mist, Onyx, and especially Lunar. Although they played games together most of the time, Tarot liked to play with Lunar best. Sometimes after Mist and Onyx had returned to their caregivers, Tarot and Lunar would sit together and play. They didn’t talk much. They simply enjoyed playing with the stuffed animals and giggled a lot. Tarot had been searching for someone he could fuss over had found that person in Lunar while Lunar thrived under all the attention he was getting from Tarot, having found that special, protective friend he had always searched for.
Those facts weren’t lost on Lisia and Pansea, who weren’t sure if they should encourage this growing friendship or not, but events took place to sway them.
The four harlings were playing near the pond. Several teachers and hostlings were also close by watching over another group of ten harlings who were on a field trip examining and cataloguing the flowers that grew close to the water. Pansea, enjoying a quiet moment, had stretched out on the grass and every now and then checked on the four harlings.
Tarot stayed clear of the water and watched Lunar closely. The other harling seemed fascinated with his reflection and was leaning in closer to see more of his face. Mist and Onyx were watching a frog that had jumped out of the water and weren’t paying Lunar any attention. Tarot saw it happen, but was too far away to stop Lunar from toppling over into the pond.
Lunar was scared and shocked at losing his footing and screamed, but then the water closed over his head and he was sinking. His clothes dragged him deeper and the surface became darker and darker. The sunlight was fading quickly and the harling panicked. He couldn’t breath and was failing in his struggle to the surface again. He was sinking fast and if nohar came to his rescue, he would drown.
Pansea jolted to his feet when he heard Lunar scream. A look about showed that the harling had vanished from his view. Pansea grabbed the harling closest to him, Mist, and shook him slightly. “Where’s Lunar?”
“In the water!” Mist’s bottom lip trembled and he pointed at the pond. “He fell in!”
Cursing softly, Pansea started to run toward the pond, but to his shock, he saw that somehar else was already diving after Lunar. “Tarot, no!” He had no idea if Tarot could swim! In the worst case, he had to rescue two harlings instead of just one!
Tarot didn’t think his actions over and just acted. He jumped into the water after Lunar and took a deep breath before disappearing beneath the surface. He was lucky as a strand of his hair managed to grab hold of Lunar’s wrist. Doing his utmost best, he managed to drag Lunar back to the surface with him.
Lunar panted and his big eyes rolled about in panic. He wanted out of the water!
“Don’t fight me!” Tarot tried to pull Lunar with him as he swam toward the edge of the pond. But Lunar’s panic kept him from obeying Tarot’s instructions and he struggled in an attempt to get to the side quicker. He started to drag them under again, but fortunately Pansea reached them at that moment and took over.
Pansea managed to get both Tarot and Lunar onto the grass and then climbed from the water himself. He first checked on Lunar, who had been under water the longest, and was relieved to find the harling alert, although coughing up water. Then he checked on Tarot, who looked shocked. “That was a quick reaction,” he complimented Tarot.
“I saw him fall over, but I couldn’t stop him.” Tarot flashed back to seeing Ponclast hurt Aleeme. Back then, he had been unable to stop Ponclast as well.
“You saved him, Tarot. You did well.” Pansea pulled both harlings into his arms. A crowd was gathering around them and in the distance he heard Lisia call out Tarot’s name. “You saved Lunar.”
Tarot’s eyes filled with tears. He had failed to protect Aleeme, but he *had* managed to save Lunar.
Skye, Lunar’s hostling, hurried over to the garden after having heard that his harling had almost drowned. The blond har headed for his son and felt relieved when he saw the harling clinging to Tarot, the harling Lisia had adopted. “Lunar! Oh, what happened?” He dropped to his knees next to his son and pulled both harlings against him. His gray eyes met Pansea’s and begged the younger har to explain this to him.
Lisia stood behind Pansea and nudged the young har’s shoulder, indicating Pansea should inform Skye. Pansea drew in a deep breath and hoped his voice sounded steady enough to calm Skye down further. Skye was only one year older than him and they had been friends for a while, but then Skye had chosen to host and had dedicated himself to his son. Skye’s story was a sad one. Lunar’s father had left after Skye had told him that he was with pearl and, disillusioned, Skye had stayed at Harling Gardens to raise his son on his own. “Lunar fell into the water. Tarot went after him and brought him back to the surface.”
Skye crushed both harlings to his chest. The thought of losing Lunar was too much for him. After Rain, Lunar’s father, had left, the harling was his only reason to continue living. “Thank you, Tarot. You have no idea how much Lunar means to me.”
Tarot managed to lift his head in Skye’s restraining hold and smiled reassuringly at the hostling. “He means a lot to me too.”
Skye smiled warmly at hearing that. “We will always be in your debt, Tarot. You saved his life.” And the harling had saved Skye’s as well. The hostling would have given up on himself had Lunar drowned.
“We should get them indoors,” Lisia suggested, taking charge of the situation. “They need to get dry.”
Pansea picked up Tarot and carried him while Skye settled Lunar upon his hip. The harlings tried to maintain contact by holding hands, but had to let go eventually. “I want Tarot to stay,” Lunar whispered and his pale blue eyes looked at Skye pleadingly. “Please, just a little longer.”
Skye looked at Tarot and the other harling nodded, indicating he wanted Lunar to stay close too.
“We will go to my rooms,” Lisia stated. His rooms were big and once they were there, they could look after the wet chilled harlings.
It took time and cajoling on the hara’s part to get the harlings dried up and into clean clothes. The moment they had finished cleaning the two up, Tarot had walked over to Lunar and took his hand, squeezing it gently. Since Lunar was resting on the bed, Tarot lay out beside him and the harlings fell asleep holding each other close.
Pansea, Lisia, and Skye stood at the foot end of the bed and watched them with puzzlement. “I knew they were friends, but their closeness amazes me,” Skye said eventually. “They have only known each other for two months!”
“Sometimes friendships form quickly,” Lisia commented and shrugged. His instincts told him that it was a good thing that Tarot and Lunar were so close, but that did leave Skye on his own. Lisia took Skye’s hand and guided the har to a couch in the corner of the room. Seated, they could still keep an eye on the sleeping harlings. Pansea joined them and they nursed the tea which Lisia had poured.
Pansea stole glances at Skye. Skye was a beauty and Pansea had cursed the day Rain had made his appearance in Skye’s life. If it hadn’t been for Rain, Pansea might have tried to court Skye.
Skye blushed under the stare Pansea was giving him. He hadn’t realized Pansea had been attracted to him until recently. One of the other hara had mentioned it by mistake and Skye had felt guilty after hearing that. He had always thought of Pansea as a good friend and had never suspected deeper feelings could be involved. He forced himself to stop thinking about the past. After Rain had entered his life and had left him after making him with pearl, he felt he no longer deserved a second chance with any har. He had been so stupid. He had believed Rain, who had been one of the exchange teachers that had come to the Harling Gardens to learn more about hosting, that he had loved Skye. Skye had been foolish enough to not guard himself during aruna.
He loved Lunar. The harling wasn’t to blame for his hostling’s mistakes, but Skye might throttle Rain if he ever met the other har again.
Lisia, as alert as always, easily picked up on the tension between Pansea and Skye. It didn’t take him long to figure out what was happening between the two young hara. He had seen it happen before. They were attracted to each other and that pleased him. For some time he had been keeping an eye out for a suitable partner for Pansea, who had passed feybraiha two years ago.
Skye looked in the direction of the bed and smiled at the sight of the two harlings holding each other tight. “If it hadn’t been for Tarot, Lunar would be dead now.” Sorrow swept over him. “I should have taught him how to swim.”
Pansea drew in a deep breath. “I am amazed that Tarot can swim. I didn’t think he could.” Nohar had taught the harling.
Skye swallowed hard. “Lunar isn’t like Tarot. Tarot is strong and independent. Lunar is…”
Lisia moved closer to Skye and rested a hand on the other hostling’s arm. “It’s Rain’s fault that you birthed the pearl prematurely. It is not yours.” Rain had left two weeks before Skye should have dropped the pearl. As a result, stress had made Skye deliver early.
“I don’t want to talk about him.” Skye pulled away, forcing Lisia to remove his hand from Skye’s arm. “I don’t want to talk about him ever again.” As far as he was concerned, Rain was dead.
“You are doing a great job raising Lunar,” Lisia said, realizing his chance. “But wouldn’t it be better if Lunar had a father figure as well?” He heard Pansea draw in his breath sharply and Lisia grinned. A plan was taking shape in his mind.
“I will raise Lunar alone!” Skye had had enough of this conversation and rose from the couch. He made his way over to the bed, intending to take Lunar and go home. But when he tried to pry Tarot away from Lunar, the harling protested in his sleep. “I want to go home,” he mumbled, hoping his words would register with the sleeping Lunar.
“Pansea, help him.” Lisia stayed where he was and leaving it to Pansea to come to Skye’s aid. Pansea rose at once and joined Skye at the bed. That gave Lisia a chance to study the two of them. They were of the same height, but that was where all comparison ended. Where Pansea was red-haired, Skye was as fair as the sun. Pansea’s skin had attained a bronze tint from spending time outdoors while Skye remained pale because he preferred to lock himself up indoors. Skye was also much too skinny and Pansea had gained weight and muscle tone because he was playing with harlings the entire time. Having Pansea around would be good for Skye.
Pansea knelt near the bed and untangled the two harlings. Tarot woke up however and glared angrily at him. “I know you want Lunar to stay close, but his hostling has to take him home. You can see Lunar again tomorrow.”
Tarot however shook his head. “I want Lunar to stay!”
Skye sat down on the bed and met Tarot’s gaze. He dealt with harlings on a daily basis, but he had never seen such intelligence and determination in the eyes of a harling as young as Tarot. “Lunar is my son, Tarot. I need to take him home, but you can play with him tomorrow.”
Tarot considered this and then reluctantly released Lunar. The other harling moved about, but didn’t wake up. “Do you promise I can play with him tomorrow?”
“I promise,” Skye agreed and gathered Lunar in his arms. “Thank you for rescuing my harling, Tarot.” His fingers gently brushed Tarot’s brow before he made his way over to the doorway.
Smiling back at Skye, Tarot rolled toward Pansea so the har could hold him close. The door closed behind Skye and Tarot gave Pansea a sad smile. “I like Lunar and I like his hostling.”
Pansea smiled. “I like them too.” He would rekindle his former friendship with Skye. One never knew what would happen in the future and he hoped that Skye would warm up to him too.
“Where do you think you are going?” Pansea opened one eye and shot Tarot a look.
“I want to check on Lunar.” Tarot had managed to lower himself onto the floor and had been about to sneak over to the doorway. Unfortunately for him, Pansea had woken up. Lisia however was snoring softly. “Please?”
Pansea left the bed and put on a morning robe. Squatting down in front of the harling, he said, “Lunar is safe with Skye. You don’t need to worry about him.” He picked up the throw from the couch and wrapped Tarot up in it. Tarot had a look that made him go soft on the inside however.
“I was dreaming again,” Tarot whispered since he didn’t want to wake Lisia up too. “And in my dream, I didn’t find Lunar in the water. In my dream, Lunar drowned. Please, I need to see him.”
Pansea sighed. He shouldn’t give in to Tarot, he really shouldn’t, but he couldn’t bear seeing the sad frightened look in the green eyes. “But only for a moment and then we will return to Lis.” He walked over to Lisia’s desk, wrote a note, and placed it on the bed next to the hostling. Next, he picked up Tarot and carried him out of the room. He hoped Skye hadn’t changed rooms or else he might end up searching for Lunar the entire night.
Skye’s eyes opened at once when he heard footfalls in the corridor. They were approaching his room and he instantly became alert. Although he didn’t really expect Rain to ever return to him, he *did* worry that the other har would one day try to take Lunar away from him. He turned a sleeping Lunar onto his side and then left the bed. Involuntarily, he searched for something that he could use as a weapon should it be Rain on the other side of the door.
“Skye? It’s me, Pansea…” Pansea had come to a stop in front of Skye’s door and had a hard time keeping Tarot from kicking at the door to open it. Until that moment, he hadn’t realized how stubborn Tarot could be. “Don’t do that.” He restrained Tarot’s legs and knocked softly on the door instead. “You don’t want to startle Lunar, do you?”
That question got Tarot’s attention and he looked at Pansea guiltily. “Of course not!” Glaring at the door, he tried to ‘wish’ it open and his heart missed a beat when the door handle moved. Skye appeared in the doorway looking stressed and still disheveled from sleep.
Skye stared at Pansea and Tarot in wonder. “What are you doing here?” It was the dead of night! He was relieved though that it wasn’t Rain standing there.
“Tarot wants to see Lunar. I have the feeling it might be hard to separate them after what happened at the pond today…at least for a while.” Pansea put Tarot on his feet and the harling hurried over to the bed. After climbing onto the side, Tarot lay down and curled himself around a still sleeping Lunar. Even the dark hair seemed to pull Lunar closer and wrap itself around the other harling.
Skye didn’t know what to think of his development, but in the end he said, “I don’t mind if Tarot sleeps here tonight.”
“I don’t think this problem will limit itself to just tonight. I have the feeling Tarot will want to sleep close to Lunar for the next few weeks. He thought Lunar was about to die, Skye.” Pansea shuffled his feet, unwilling to enter before Skye had asked him in. “Do you want me to leave Tarot with you? Or… Or do you want me to stay too?” He was too much of a coward to look Skye in the eye when asking. If he *had* looked at Skye, he would have noticed the blush that was spreading over the blond har’s face.
“Do you want to stay, Pansea?” Skye felt nervous. He hadn’t felt like that since he had taken aruna with Rain that first time. Pansea raised his gaze and Skye swallowed nervously. The expression in Pansea’s eyes told him how much the other har wanted to stay. “Come inside then.”
Pansea finally entered Skye’s room and walked toward the bed. The first thing he noticed was that, although the room was sparsely furnished, Skye had done his best to give it a homely feel. Skye had put flowers in a vase, plants on the window sill, and had even created a mural depicting a garden on one wall. “I like your room.”
“Thank you.” Skye quickly bowed his head so Pansea couldn’t see his blush intensify. A yawn overwhelmed him. He had been sound asleep when Pansea’s approach had woken him.
Catching the yawn, Pansea pointed at the bed. “We should get some sleep.” Skye’s heart started to beat faster. Was Pansea planning on sleeping in his bed? “That is, if I may,” amended Pansea, who didn’t know what to make of Skye’s shy reaction so far.
“But of course.” Skye gestured for Pansea to stretch out on the bed.
Pansea sat down and smiled at the two harlings before stretching out onto his side. Tarot rested in front of him and the harling was still curled protectively around Lunar. “Aren’t you tired?” he asked, hoping Skye would join them too.
Skye felt nervous when he lay down and moved closer to his son. Lunar happily wriggled into place between Tarot and his hostling before sighing blissfully. Looking at Pansea, Skye wondered what to think of the situation they were in. The two harlings were sound asleep, but Skye didn’t think he would go to sleep that easily…not with Pansea so close. “I owe you an apology,” Skye whispered eventually.
Pansea frowned. “I wouldn’t know what for.”
“For the way I ignored you once Rain entered my life. I stopped talking to you. I am sorry about that.”
“You were in love,” Pansea replied, disliking the guilt in Skye’s eyes. Skye had suffered enough. There was no reason for the har to apologize to him. “I just wish things had worked out between the two of you. Lis is right…a harling needs his hostling and his father.”
“I asked Rain to stay… I almost begged him,” Skye whispered and shivered. “But Rain didn’t want to be a father. He was angry with me for creating a pearl.” He had loved Rain so much and had thought that a pearl would increase their happiness.
“Then he is a fool,” Pansea stated and his fingers laced with Skye’s. “A harling is the most precious gift a har can get.”
Skye managed a smile and voiced his innermost thoughts before he knew it. “You should have been Lunar’s father.”
The admission made Pansea blink in surprise. “Skye, I didn’t think you were interested in me like that!”
“I wasn’t… Not until recently.” Skye closed his eyes. “Somehar told me you cared about me deeply. I didn’t know that.”
Pansea shifted uncomfortably. Maybe coming there had been a mistake. “I had always hoped you would give me a chance.”
“But I only had eyes for Rain. I am such an idiot.” Self-reproach colored Skye’s voice.
“No, don’t say that.” Pansea reached for Skye and brushed some fair hair away from the other har’s face. “You were in love with him.”
“I was a fool. I still am.” Skye laughed bitterly but kept the sound down since he didn’t want to wake the harlings. Averting his gaze, he moved his head away from Pansea’s fingers.
Pansea’s breath caught. Had he understood that hint correctly or was he reading things into Skye’s behavior? He had no choice but to take a risk. “I like you still, Skye. Nothing has changed on my part.” The astonishment in Skye’s eyes showed that he had been right. Skye returned his feelings. /Oh, you must have been lonely this last half year, raising Lunar on your own./ But Pansea didn’t share his thoughts with Skye yet. It was too early to instigate something as personal as mind touch.
“You shouldn’t. Not after the mistakes I made.” Skye wished Pansea would stop stroking his hair. Although he craved the contact, he felt he didn’t deserve it. “Some of our friends had warned me. Opal had said Rain wasn’t the right har for me, but I didn’t listen.”
“You were in love and sometimes when you are head over heels about some har you don’t listen to your friends’ advice. I don’t blame you, Skye. I am just angry with Rain for abandoning you.” He moved his hand until he was stroking Lunar’s hair instead of Skye’s. “Lunar is adorable. How can a har not want to have him for a son? I don’t understand that.”
“Rain wanted his freedom and he felt I was trying to tie him down.” Skye smiled shyly at Pansea. “How about you, Pansea? You were raised to host pearls just like me.”
“Lisia stopped me from creating pearls with the wrong hara. Once I’d entered feybraiha, making pearls was all I could think of, but Lisia talked some sense into me. It has only been since I started taking care of Tarot that I realized what a responsibility having a harling is.” At the mention of Lisia’s name, Skye’s expression darkened.
“Ah yes. You have Lis now.” Pansea had moved into the hostling’s rooms and Skye cursed himself for being such a fool in the past.
Pansea blinked. “Don’t tell me you think that… Oh Skye! Lis and I aren’t taking aruna! I only moved into his rooms so we could take care of Tarot! Don’t tell me you think I have feelings for Lis! He is our hostling, Skye! Just thinking about taking aruna with Lis makes me…” The thought alone killed any arousal on his part.
A hopeful light appeared in Skye’s eyes. “Do you mean that? Lis and you aren’t chesna?”
“Of course not!” Pansea laughed too loudly and the harlings started to wake up. Tarot opened his eyes first and looked questioningly at Pansea. “Go back to sleep, Tarot,” Pansea urged quietly. “All is well.”
Lunar stretched in his hostling’s arms and released a joyous cry when he found Tarot close again. “What are you doing here? I thought you were staying with Lis!”
“I wanted to see you and Pansea took me to your hostling’s rooms.” Tarot rested his brow against Lunar’s and gazed into the pale blue eyes affectionately. “You scared me when you went under water.”
“I didn’t want to do that.” Lunar’s hands patted Tarot’s back. “I lost my balance.” Yawning, his eyes started to close again. “Am tired,” he whispered and then drifted off into sleep again. A moment later, Tarot followed and the two harlings were sound asleep.
“I think I have been replaced,” Skye murmured and smiled warmly at Tarot. Lunar didn’t have that many friends. Only Mist and Onyx liked the younger harling and he was thrilled that Tarot had accepted Lunar. Lunar was a bit of an outcast because his father had run out on them. Harlings could be cruel at that age and most of them refused to become friends with his son.
Pansea extended his arm and rested his hand on Skye’s hip. Gray eyes sought out his own and held a mixture of hope and fear. /I won’t leave you like Rain did,/ Pansea thought, but knew it was too early to say that aloud. They had to build a foundation for their love first and at its center had to be their two little harlings: Tarot and Lunar.
Lisia looked up from the letter he was reading when Pansea slouched into his office. The young har was dragging his feet and Lisia thought he knew why. “You and Tarot didn’t return to bed last night.”
“Did you find my note?” Nervously, Pansea shuffled his feet.
“I did. You stayed at Skye’s room then?” Lisia couldn’t stop himself from grinning.
“Tarot didn’t want to leave and Lunar wanted him to stay too. We have a problem, Lis.” Pansea had found a solution to their problem, but he wasn’t sure Lisia would consent to it.
“Sit down, Pansea. You look tired.” The young har had probably spent the day wracking his brain on how to tell Lisia about his infatuation with Skye. Lisia picked up two cups of tea and then sat down opposite Pansea on the comfortable couch near the window. “It is very unusual for two harlings that young to grow so attached to each other.”
Pansea didn’t make eye contact and blew onto the surface of his tea. His long, red hair covered part of his face and he was well aware that he was hiding behind it. He felt like he had betrayed Lisia. When the hostling had asked him to become Tarot’s father, Pansea had accepted. He still loved the harling, but things had changed. “He doesn’t want to leave Lunar’s side.”
“He is with Skye and Lunar now?” Lisia felt it was time to steer Pansea in the direction he wanted the younger har to go.
“Yes.” Pansea nodded and sipped tea. “Lis, Tarot has taken a liking to both Lunar and Skye and wants to be with them.” He swallowed hard. He didn’t want to hurt the hostling’s feelings!
Lisia decided to make things easier on Pansea. “Maybe you should move in with Skye instead and take Tarot with you?” Pansea’s head whipped back and his aide’s large eyes fastened on his. Lisia laughed. “Pansea, I am not *that* blind. Everyhar would have noticed the tension between you and Skye the other day.” Pansea grew flustered and Lisia chuckled. “I am happy for you! I was keeping an eye out for a har that would be suited to you and Skye is an excellent choice. It also helps that Tarot and Lunar are smitten with each other.” He grinned slyly. “You always wanted your little family and now you are getting your chance.”
Pansea released the breath he had been holding. It came as a relief that Lisia had realized the attraction between Skye and him. “You are not angry with me then?”
“Why should I be? I want what is best for all my harlings and Pansea, you are one of my children too. I know that children eventually grow up and I believe that Skye and you are good for each other, but take it slowly. He was hurt when Rain left.”
Pansea nodded. “And what about Tarot? I know you love him and I don’t want to take him away from you.”
“You are not taking him away from me. I can still see him whenever I want and having a loving family is the best thing that can happen to Tarot. Skye will love him, Lunar already worships the ground Tarot walks on, and you will be glue that keeps it all together. Oh, Pansea, Cobweb was so wrong about the harling!” It still vexed him that Cobweb had shoved Tarot aside so easily. His eyes narrowed and he nodded. “Yes, I will do that.”
Pansea felt puzzled as he wondered what Lisia was referring to. “Do what, Lis?”
“I am going to pay Forever a visit. I promised Tarot to find out more about Azriel and Aleeme and I really want to talk to Cobweb about Tarot.” Lisia wanted to confront Cobweb regarding his decision in sending Tarot to the Harling Gardens. “Tarot is in the best hands with Skye and you. I won’t have to worry about him during my visit to Forever.”
Pansea wasn’t convinced Lisia’s decision to confront Cobweb was the right one. “Should you do that, Lis?”
“Tarot has been with us for eight months. He is a year old now and during all that time neither Cobweb nor Swift inquired about his well-being.” Lisia nodded again. “Yes, I believe it is time to confront them and find out where they stand.”
Pansea knew Lisia well enough to know that he couldn’t change the hostling’s mind. “Skye and I will take care of Tarot,” he promised.
“Of course you will,” Lisia said and smiled. “And maybe Skye and you can work on deepening your relationship.” He gave Pansea a wink which made the young har grow flustered once more. Lisia was determined to do this. He *had* to do this for Tarot’s sake. The harling deserved to know if he would be an outcast for the rest of his life or if he still had a chance to be accepted into Cobweb’s family at one point.
Lisia recognized Cobweb at once even though the har had changed over the years. When they had first met at the breeding facility, Cobweb had still been very much Terzian’s former consort in favoring his soume aspect and letting Swift take charge. That had changed once Cobweb had been forced to protect his people and take the lead some time back. Lisia hadn’t even recognized Cobweb at first when the har had arrived at the Harling Gardens with the refugees.
Cobweb, while surprised that Lisia had left his precious harlings to visit with him, also rejoiced at seeing his old friend again. Snake stood behind him and removed his hands from Cobweb’s shoulders, allowing him to advance on Lisia, who was in the process of dismounting his sedu. “Lis, I am surprised to see you! I thought you would never be able to pry yourself away from your harlings!” Cobweb embraced Lisia and smiled into the caramel-colored hair. Although Lisia and he had drifted apart recently he still considered Lisia a very good friend. They shared a very special connection since Cobweb had been the first har with whom Lisia had been ouana with. At that time, it had been a huge step for the hostling, who had been raised to be soume only.
Lisia smiled a smile that was partly genuine and partly fake. He was happy to see Cobweb again, but he was also cross with him for abandoning Tarot. “Swift once invited me to visit and I felt the time was right. The Harling Gardens are running smoothly and can do without me for a few days.”
“We are honored to have you.” Cobweb guided Lisia over to the porch. “You remember Snake, don’t you?”
Nodding, Lisia smiled at Snake. “I remember you.” He was happy that Cobweb had found a new chesnari. Terzian had never been any good for Cobweb. Terzian had even fathered four pearls at the breeding facility without Cobweb knowing about it.
“I remember you too, Lisia.” Snake smiled at the hostling. Lisia had impressed him with being in charge of Harling Gardens and making sure each harling felt loved. “Welcome to Forever.”
Looking about, Lisia saw Swift approach. A har dressed in elegantly draped clothes followed him. That had to be Seel, his consort and Azriel’s hostling. Seeing them reminded him why he was there in the first place, which was to gather information about Azriel and Aleeme.
“Lis! I didn’t believe it when Cobweb told me that you were visiting!” Swift embraced Lisia and then studied the hostling. “My, you look well!” Not only the harlings were thriving at Harling Gardens, Lisia looked splendid too. “And where is your chesnari?”
Lisia smiled. “I don’t have one. I dedicate myself to my harlings, you know that.”
“It is a shame that you have no chesnari! You deserve one!” Swift took a step aside. “This is Seel, the love of my life.”
The hostling inclined his head in greeting. “I remember Swift talking about you whenever he visited me. He loves you very much.”
Seel actually blushed lightly. “I love him too.” He sought out Swift’s hand and squeezed it. They were extremely close these days. They had to be with Azriel and Aleeme to help them work through their past and supported each other so that they could be there for their son and his chesnari.
“I will show you to your room!” Cobweb claimed Lisia’s right hand and guided him into the house.
“So this is Forever. I always wondered what it looked like.” Lisia liked the old house and smiled when Cobweb gave him an adoring look. “You made me curious talking about it the way you did.”
Cobweb opened the door to Lisia’s temporary room and placed the other har’s luggage on the bed. “I am glad you are here. I had always hoped you would visit one day!”
Lisia wanted nothing more than to ask Cobweb about Azriel and Aleeme, but realized he had to take this slow. He didn’t want Cobweb to realize yet why he had come to visit the other har. He would only bring Tarot up once he had deemed the time right.
Skye watched Lunar and Tarot play with their stuffed animals and smiled. Pansea had been right: the two harlings were practically inseparable. One could even say they were joined at the hip. Skye blushed as he realized that Pansea and he had become closer as well. He had been stunned to hear that Lisia had wanted Pansea to move in with him. As a result, they had gotten an offer to move into an apartment, normally reserved for staff members, but since their family consisted of four now, they had priority and so the patch work family had moved in.
“Hello there.” Pansea snuck up on Skye and wrapped his arms around the other har. Resting his chin on Skye’s shoulder, he inhaled the sweet scent that perfumed the blond hair deeply. “I smell lilies of the valley.”
“It’s my favorite.” Skye trembled in Pansea’s embrace. He still hadn’t gotten used to the fact that Pansea was living with them and that the other har desired him. They had shared breath, but hadn’t taken aruna yet. They were waiting for something, but they didn’t know yet what that was. Maybe they were waiting for the right moment. Skye wanted to feel more secure about himself and their relationship before taking aruna with Pansea. “They have been playing all afternoon.”
Pansea smiled into the fair hair and squeezed Skye tighter. “Hopefully they will tire in an hour or so. Then I can have you to myself and won’t have to share you.”
Skye’s blush deepened. He turned in the embrace and studied Pansea’s brown eyes. “Thank you for taking this slow.”
“I need to go slow too, Skye. I need to get to know you all over again and I enjoy having dinner with you, watching you comb your hair, or rocking Tarot and Lunar. We don’t need to hurry.”
Skye sighed deeply and pressed closer. “Share breath with me…please.” Even though he wanted to take it slow too, the need to share breath and take aruna was strong.
Pansea glanced at the two harlings, whose stuffed animals were wrestling each other, and judged it safe to press his lips against Skye’s. It was the second time that he tasted the blond har’s essence and he felt drunk on its exotic taste. Sliding his hand into Skye’s fair hair, he massaged Skye’s neck and then cocked his head to deepen the kiss and share breath. The world around them faded and they didn’t notice that Lunar was giggling and Tarot staring at them in surprise.
“I told you they liked each other!” Lunar elbowed Tarot gently in his side. “They are sharing breath!”
Tarot continued to stare at Pansea and Skye. He sensed the affection coursing between them and experiencing it made him feel warm and tingly all over. It was the first time ever that he had sensed such warm and deep feelings and he liked it. “I hope they will continue to share breath.” Then the warm feelings might continue.
“They have to stop eventually,” Lunar said wisely. “They need to breathe!” He was thrilled that his hostling was in love, especially since he liked Pansea a lot. The fact that the four of them lived together currently pleased him. “See?”
Tarot felt disappointed when Pansea released Skye’s lips, but to his surprise, the warm sensation stayed and soothed the restless fringes of his mind. Smiling at Lunar, he let the other harling win their stuffed animals’ mock fight.
Staying at Forever differed greatly from his routine at the Harling Gardens. At home, Lisia was needed all the time, while there at Forever he had spare time and could do as he pleased. After taking a long relaxing bath, Lisia joined Cobweb and his family downstairs in the dining room. To his surprise, he found he wasn’t the only guest there.
Cobweb’s expression was dark when he turned around, but the moment he saw Lisia, a forced smile appeared on the har’s face. Lisia wondered why Cobweb found it necessary to pretend in his presence, but received his answer a moment later.
“Lis, I want to introduce you to some very dear friends.” Cobweb took Lisia’s arm and guided him over to a dark-haired har with bewitching eyes. “This is Ulaume.”
Lisia’s breath almost caught, but he managed to control his surprise. So this was Ulaume, Aleeme’s father. One look at the long hair showed where Tarot had inherited his animated mane. Ulaume’s hair possessed a life of its own as well. “I am Lisia,” he greeted the other har and kept tight control over his thoughts, knowing that all of the hara in the room could read his mind if they desired to do so.
Ulaume smiled, but Lisia could tell that the har’s mind wasn’t focused on greeting him. Ulaume was distracted and Lisia wondered why.
“And this is Flick, Ulaume’s chesnari. You probably already know their names,” Cobweb added as he introduced Flick to Lisia.
“I know your reputations. Your names are always spoken with the greatest of respect,” Lisia replied and smiled at Flick. The first thing he noticed about Flick was the kind eyes. He almost asked them if Aleeme was accompanying them, but held his tongue just in time.
“Cobweb also told us about you and the way you run the Harling Gardens. It can’t be easy dealing with such a large number of harlings all the time.” Flick studied Lisia for a moment and was awed with what he saw. He knew what had happened at the breeding facility all those years ago and was impressed that Lisia had become such a strong har.
“It is hardly a burden,” Lisia answered. “The harlings give me strength and love.” Lisia’s gaze shifted to Cobweb and he wondered if the other har even remembered sending Tarot to the Harling Gardens. Would Cobweb inquire about the child?
“Dinner is being served,” Swift stated and gestured for them to take their seats. Lisia ended up seated in-between Cobweb and Ulaume. He found it hard to take his eyes off of Ulaume’s lively hair and the other har noticed it. “I am sorry,” Lisia said, trying to gather his first bit of information. ”But I find your hair fascinating. It seems to possess a life of its own.”
“It is a legacy from the tribe who incepted me. They are called the Snake People.”
Lisia considered his options and decided against mentioning knowing a harling whose hair had a life of its own, but since he wanted to make some progress he asked, “Do you have any harlings, Ulaume?” The sad shadow that darkened Ulaume’s eyes informed Lisia to tread carefully.
“Yes, two actually, but…” Ulaume swallowed hard and looked at Flick for help.
“Our firstborn, Aleeme, Azriel’s consort is in Immanion, recovering from…from a traumatic experience.” Flick twined his fingers with Ulaume’s and squeezed them to show his support. “He has made some progress, but is still far from healed.”
Ulaume quickly added, “Our second son’s name is Orien. He didn’t accompany us this time. He stayed at home.” He desperately wanted to change the subject. Lisia probably didn’t know how much pain the question caused them.
Lisia frowned and pretended to think deeply. “Azriel… Swift, isn’t that the name of your harling?”
Swift grew uncomfortable and Seel placed a hand on his knee beneath the table. “Yes, it is.”
“Is he here? I would love to meet him.” Lisia hated playing games, but Cobweb had started this when he had sent Tarot to him.
It was Snake who answered Lisia when he realized that the question had upset Swift and Seel. And Cobweb was too taken aback to answer either. “Azriel is in Immanion too. They were both injured during the war in Fulminir. Ponclast…hurt them.” He hoped saying that would suffice.
“I am sorry I brought it up.” Lisia offered Swift and Seel an apologetic look. “I heard rumors, but wasn’t sure these things had really happened. I feel for all of you. I know what it is like to lose a harling, be it in mind or in body.”
Knowing Lisia’s apology was sincere, Swift accept it. “We don’t like discussing them. The pain is still very close and as long as they require healing we…” Swift paused and swallowed hard before continuing. “We want them to recover, but the steps they are taking are small and take lots of time. Azriel is making the best progress, but it will be a long time before they can return to Forever.”
Snake, also eager to change their subject, asked Lisia, “You visited Immanion once, didn’t you?”
“I did. I pleaded my case before the Hegemony and Swift was a great support. I couldn’t have done it without him.” Lisia also realized he had to step away from discussing Azriel and Aleeme, but at least he had succeeded in making them talk about the two hara.
Lisia returned to his room earlier than he normally would have since he wanted time to think everything over. All four hara, Swift, Seel, Ulaume, and Flick, were still greatly affected by what had happened to Azriel and Aleeme and he wasn’t sure if addressing the matter was the right thing to do. He should probably focus on talking to Cobweb and maybe Snake since the two of them seemed inseparable.
Tarot liked being squeezed in the middle and pulled Lunar close. It had become their habit to sleep with Pansea and Skye on either side of them while Tarot curled around Lunar. Tarot liked it that way. It made him feel safe, cherished, and warm. Pansea and Skye had shared breath again when they had already been in bed and Tarot and Lunar had giggled like mad. Both harlings were happy that the adults liked each other so much.
Tarot looked at Skye and saw warmth gazing back at him. Skye was happy and Tarot felt Pansea’s warm feelings brush against his mind as well. It wouldn’t be long before those two took the next step with aruna. That thought worried Tarot since the only ‘aruna’ he had ever witnessed had been Ponclast forcing himself on Aleeme.
“It won’t be like that,” Pansea murmured and patted Tarot’s hair. The strands reacted by curling themselves around his fingers. “Aruna is different from the travesty you witnessed. We take aruna because we desire and love each other. It is not meant to hurt a har.”
Skye nodded. “Pansea is right.” Pansea had told him the truth about Tarot and Skye had been shocked to learn that the harling had been forced to watch a har perform pelki on his hostling. He didn’t know that Ponclast had been that har or Aleeme was the victim. The names meant nothing to him.
“I believe you,” Tarot whispered and his hair let go of Pansea’s wrist “I always knew that what he did to my hostling wasn’t right.”
Pansea pressed closer to Tarot and held him tight. He hoped that once it was time for Tarot to go through feybraiha that he could leave those horrid memories behind him.
Lisia went for a stroll the next evening in the hope that he would run into Cobweb. He had spent most of the day exploring the old mansion since Swift, Seel, Ulaume, and Flick had retired into Terzian’s old study. Lisia had a good idea of what they had discussed that afternoon. Azriel and Aleeme were still in Immanion in the care of healers. Lisia was dying to find out the condition the two hara were in.
He was lucky when he found Cobweb meditating in the back of the garden. He was sitting cross-legged on the grass as the breeze played with his long, raven hair. The eyes were closed, but opened the moment Lisia came to a halt in front of him. “My good friend,” Lisia said and seated himself on the grass, mirroring Cobweb’s position. He placed his hands palms up on his knees and studied Cobweb’s mysterious eyes.
Cobweb drew in a deep breath as his gaze become more focused and alert. “Why are you here, Lis?”
Lisia nodded. He had hoped that Cobweb would find the courage to confront him directly. “Why do you think I am here?”
Cobweb’s eyes flashed angrily. “I am not in the mood to play games.”
“Fine then.” Lisia stared deeply into Cobweb’s eyes and explained, “Almost a year ago you had Paran deliver a harling to the Harling Gardens, or did you forget about him?”
The older har flinched. He had been afraid that the harling was the reason why Lisia was visiting Forever. “As if I could ever forget him! I curse his existence every day of my life!”
Lisia drew in his breath sharply. “You have no right to say that. You don’t even know Tarot.”
“Ah, you gave the little monster a name then? Does he even understand what you try to tell him?” Cobweb glared at Lisia. “Why bring him up now? Has he become a burden?”
The hostling of Harling Gardens hissed angrily. “Tarot isn’t a burden and you don’t know what you are talking about! He is very intelligent and not the dimwit you make him out to be!”
“I saw the expression in his eyes, Lis. I know what he is. He is an abomination.”
“I can’t believe you said that!” Lisia jumped to his feet and paced restlessly. “He is a harling, Cobweb! An innocent harling! It wasn’t his fault that Ponclast raped Aleeme!”
Cobweb jumped to his feet as well and his long fingers dug into the fabric of Lisia’s robes and grabbed hold of him. “You have no idea what you are talking about! You weren’t there! You didn’t see Aleeme… Azriel… You didn’t…” Cobweb released Lisia and turned away, trying to compose himself. He couldn’t let his emotions get the better of him. “You don’t know the extent of the damage which Ponclast did to them.”
“You are wrong. I do know. I lived it in Tarot’s memories. I saw it all.”
Cobweb spun around and glared at Lisia.
“That harling tried to defend his hostling whenever Ponclast appeared to torment Azriel and Aleeme. That harling was beaten and kicked by Ponclast and ignored by his hostling. That harling tried to distract Ponclast whenever he focused on Azriel. That harling cried night after night because of what he witnessed and the pain it caused him!”
“You are wrong! I saw the harling! He is unnatural!” Cobweb’s hands became fists and he swung them at Lisia threateningly. “Aleeme was practically dead when Cal found him and Azriel… My precious high har… Ponclast left him there to rot!”
“But Tarot isn’t to blame for that. Cobweb, he is just another victim!”
“I don’t want you to ever bring him up again, do you hear me?”
Cobweb was practically screaming and Lisia took a step back, stunned by the venom that echoed in Cobweb’s voice. “How can you hate so easily, Cobweb? You didn’t even try to get to know the child.” His eyes narrowed. “Tarot is Ulaume’s high har. Do Ulaume and Flick know he exists? Did you ever tell him?”
“They know he exists,” Cobweb snapped. “But they have no desire to meet him either.”
“And what about Aleeme? Did he ever inquire after his son?”
Cobweb’s anger seemed to vaporize. “Aleeme is… He is not well.” Defeated, he wrapped his arms around his waist and hugged himself. “Aleeme barely responds to anyhar. Not even the healers.”
“Azriel is responding, but… He is traumatized. The healers believe it will take at least another year for Azriel to function normally again.”
“They can’t tell. As long as he remains unresponsive they can’t heal his wounded psyche.”
Cobweb radiated defeat and Lisia felt a great sympathy for the other har. He carefully wrapped an arm around Cobweb’s shoulder and drew him close. “I understand it hurts. I saw through Tarot’s eyes and I know what Ponclast did to them, but you can’t give up hope, Cobweb. And you can’t blame the harling for Ponclast’s actions.” Lisia’s heart missed a beat when Cobweb’s swimming eyes met his. The other har was doing his best not to burst into tears.
“Lis, I can’t care about this harling, don’t you understand? Ponclast raped Aleeme and forced him to birth his pearl. This harling…”
“This harling loves his hostling and let Ponclast kick and beat him in order to draw him away from Aleeme. Tarot isn’t a monster, Cobweb. I am not asking you to welcome him into your family – not yet – but please reconsider your ideas about him. Tarot is a lovely harling. At first, he had some problems adjusting, but all he needed was some tender loving care. Do you think life was easy on him being Ponclast’s prisoner?” A tear escaped Cobweb’s eyes and Lisia wiped it away. “Tarot isn’t a monster.”
Cobweb drew in a few deep breaths as he tried to regain control over his raging emotions. “Why did you name him that?”
“I didn’t. He told me his name was Tarot.” Lisia frowned. “Maybe I should have asked him if he had named himself or if Aleeme had.”
“I can’t imagine Aleeme caring enough about that harling to name him.”
“You don’t know that. I will ask Tarot when I get back.” Lisia guided Cobweb toward the pond where the distressed har could wash his face if he desired so.
Cobweb knelt, splashed some water onto his face, and managed to get a grip on his emotions. When he rose again, he felt a lot calmer. “What is the harling like?”
“He is bright and lovable. You might not believe it, but he is well-liked. He even saved another harling from drowning.” Lisia folded an arm around Cobweb’s waist and started to walk him back to the mansion. “Pansea and I took care of him at first, but then Tarot struck up a friendship with the harling he rescued. His name is Lunar. And now Pansea and Tarot are living with Lunar and his hostling, Skye.”
Cobweb had to admit that it didn’t sound like a monster was living in the Harling Gardens. “Does he ever speak about…?” Cobweb averted his gaze. Did he want to hear this?
“Aleeme? He talks about his hostling a lot. And Azriel too. He hates Ponclast. I believe that Tarot sees Aleeme and Azriel as his hostling and father. Ponclast is just the har who hurt them.” They slowed down when the mansion came into sight since they weren’t done talking yet. “He loves Aleeme very much, Cobweb. Maybe you should consider telling Ulaume and Flick about their high har.”
“Ulaume inquired about him,” Cobweb admitted. “But I told him that I didn’t know what had happened to him.”
“They have a right to know, my friend.” Lisia came to a standstill and so did Cobweb. He lifted the handsome face with a gentle finger. “Tarot has found a family in the Harling Gardens and is happy living with Pansea, Skye, and Lunar, but there will come a time when he’ll want to get to know his hostling.”
Cobweb shook his head. “That can never happen. Aleeme lost his mind. The healers aren’t sure they can reclaim him.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Lisia sent Cobweb a wave of sympathy and understanding, but then added, “Did you ever consider the possibility of Tarot having a healing influence on Aleeme?”
Cobweb shook his head. “Aleeme is too far gone to notice Tarot. Aleeme has locked himself up in his head.”
Lisia nodded once. “It might be too early to consider putting Aleeme and Tarot together. Aleeme needs more time and Tarot has all the time in the world. He can wait.”
“What do you want from me, Lis?” Cobweb searched Lisia’s gaze.
“I want you to give Tarot a chance to meet his hostling when the time comes. Not now, but when Aleeme feels stronger.”
“And should that time never come?”
“Then I hope Azriel will have recovered enough to talk to Tarot. Whether you want to accept it or not, the three of them are connected. Azriel, Aleeme, and Tarot share a history together and Aleeme and Tarot are blood. You don’t have to answer me now. Talk it over with Snake, if you want. And certainly discuss the matter with Swift, Seel, Ulaume, and Flick. You don’t have to do so now, but don’t put it off forever. You *will* have to discuss this among yourselves eventually.”
Cobweb sighed deeply. He had always known that.
Skye sighed and leaned against Pansea. “Aren’t they cute like that?” Tarot and Lunar had cuddled up to each other on the couch and were holding each other in their sleep.
“Tarot is very protective of Lunar. One of the older harlings was teasing Lunar during play time and Tarot came to his defense.” Pansea remembered the frightened look on the older harling’s face when Tarot had confronted him with his behavior. The teasing had stopped at once. “Tarot looks upon Lunar as his brother.”
Skye frowned. “I am not so sure about that. Yes, Tarot loves Lunar, but not as a sibling.” Skye looked at Pansea from over his shoulder. “I can see them becoming chesna in time.”
“And what about us? Do you see us becoming chesna in time too?” Pansea turned Skye in their embrace and smiled sweetly at him. “I would like that.” His feelings for Skye had deepened since he had moved in with the blond har. “And Tarot would like that too.”
Skye blushed. “Before we can discuss becoming chesna, we should take aruna, Pansea.”
Pansea enfolded Skye in a tight hug and smiled. “I would love to take aruna with you.” He rested his brow against Skye’s and his lips sought out their counterpart. “If you want me, that is.”
Skye’s blushed deepened. “But the harlings…”
“I can ask one of the other hostlings to watch them, if you would like to take aruna with me. I am sure they wouldn’t mind. Tarot and Lunar are easy to watch over.”
“When would you like to… What day…? When…?” Skye hated the fact that he was stuttering.
“How about tomorrow evening?” Pansea should be able to find a harling sitter during the day.
Skye swallowed nervously. “That sounds perfect.” It would give him the time he needed to mentally prepare himself for the intimacy. It had been a while since he had last taken aruna.
“Agreed. Tomorrow evening it is.”
Cobweb couldn’t sleep. He hadn’t been able to sleep since he had talked with Lisia. He hadn’t told Snake about the conversation yet nor had he approached Ulaume and Flick. He was still trying to accept that Ponclast’s harling wasn’t the monster he had thought him to be.
“What’s wrong?” Snake curled protectively around Cobweb and rubbed his chesnari’s shoulder. He loved holding Cobweb while sleeping, but for some reason, sleep continued to elude the other har. “I can tell that something is on your mind, but you shield your thoughts. Why would you do that? I thought you trusted me.” The fact that Cobweb wasn’t confiding in him hurt. After all they had been through Snake had thought they trusted each other unconditionally.
Cobweb raised his gaze and sighed. “Do you remember Paran telling us about Aleeme and Azriel? And that they had found a harling in the room with Aleeme? Aleeme’s harling?”
Snake was surprised that Cobweb was bringing the matter up. For the last year, the subject had been off-limits. “I remember.”
“I sent him to Lisia at the Harling Gardens.”
Certain things suddenly made sense. Snake had always wondered what had happened to the child. “Is that the reason why Lisia is here?”
“He wanted to talk to me about the harling, yes.” Cobweb shifted in the embrace until he had attained a more comfortable position. “The harling even has a name these days.” Snake remained quiet and gave Cobweb the time he needed to sort out his thoughts. “Snake, I…” Cobweb averted his gaze. “I always thought the harling was a travesty. Even Paran assured me that he wasn’t normal.”
“Did you see the harling in question?”
Cobweb shook his head. “Only in Paran’s mind. I didn’t want to meet him in person. When Paran’s message reached me I told him not to take the harling to Forever. I didn’t want to raise that child under my roof. Ponclast raped Aleeme, Snake. Aleeme never wanted to host that pearl.”
Snake stroked Cobweb’s dark hair soothingly. “So why is Lisia here?”
“He wants to know where I stand. He wants me to give the harling a chance, but I am not sure I can. I don’t want to confront Azriel and Aleeme with that harling…ever. Tarot should never have come into existence.”
“But he lives.” Snake moistened his lips and tried to think of a way to advise Cobweb in the matter. “What does Lisia want from you?”
“At the moment – nothing. But he wants me to see the harling when I feel ready to do so. According to him, Tarot is an adorable harling.” Cobweb’s face contorted. “I can’t believe that. I know what monster fathered him.”
Snake continued to caress Cobweb’s hair calmly. “But you also know Aleeme. And no matter what you say, Aleeme is that harling’s hostling. Maybe Tarot inherited more characteristics from Aleeme than he did from Ponclast? Did you ever consider that possibility?”
Cobweb shrugged. “I am afraid to discuss this matter with Ulaume and Flick.”
“I assume they know about the harling’s existence?” Since Cobweb was opening up to him, Snake wanted to find out as much as he could.
“Yes, but they never inquired more about him. I never told them what happened to the harling and they never asked.” Cobweb sighed again and closed his eyes. “What do I do, Snake?”
“You can’t forget about Swift and Seel either. They deserve to know what happened to the harling.” Cobweb nodded and Snake added, “But not yet. You should talk to Ulaume and Flick first. After all, this is about *their* high har.”
“I am not sure I can handle that.” Cobweb tucked his head beneath Snake’s chin and rubbed his cheek against his chesnari’s chest. “I should have talked to them right after I had found out about the harling, but back then I wasn’t up for that. And now it has been too long to bring it up again.”
“Why don’t you ask Lisia to help you? Maybe he knows of a way to start off that conversation? After all, isn’t that why he is here?” Snake had quickly caught on to the reason for Lisia’s presence. “I don’t blame Lisia. He probably feels the harling belongs at Forever or with Ulaume and Flick. But I also understand why you sent the harling away. It is a complicated matter and therefore, you need to discuss it in depth.”
Cobweb wasn’t looking forward to that conversation, but he also knew it had to be done. This was one matter he couldn’t ignore.
The next day, Lisia found Ulaume in the library. Flick was nowhere in sight and Lisia realized that this was his chance to talk to the other har in private. “I hope I am not disturbing you,” he said as he entered the room and pretended to be interested in some of the books.
Ulaume was pulled away from his musings as he forced himself to smile at Lisia. “The books are available to all hara.” He didn’t know what to make of the hostling. At his request, Cobweb had told him Lisia’s history and he felt sorry for the other har who had birthed and lost so many pearls. The mere thought of having been forced to abandon Aleeme or Orien’s pearl hurt. “Do you like to read?”
“I seldom have the time to do so. My harlings keep me busy.” Lisia selected a temporary book and took it with him when he seated himself on the couch opposite Ulaume. “Though the place isn’t that crowded anymore. We only have ten young harlings living with us at the present. Hostlings are no longer encouraged to create pearls.”
Ulaume studied the other har and smiled at sight of the fair strand of hair that framed Lisia’s face. His own hair reacted and danced against his shoulders. “It has been a while since I raised a harling. My sons are…” Ulaume’s voice died as his thoughts turned to Aleeme unexpectedly.
“I am sure your son will recover. All he needs is time.” Lisia wanted to comfort Ulaume.
“I hope you are right.” Ulaume’s eyes took on a distant expression. “The last time I saw Aleeme, he didn’t recognize me. I am not even sure he knew someone was there with him.”
Lisia recalled the things Tarot had told him, like how he had sensed emotions in Azriel and Aleeme, even toward the end. “Did you sense anything from him?”
Ulaume blinked in surprise at that. “I didn’t reach out to him. I was afraid of what I would feel.”
“But I did.” Flick stood in the doorway before making his way over to Ulaume and sitting down beside his chesnari. “I sensed something.”
Ulaume’s eyes widened. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you were too distressed.” Flick folded an arm around Ulaume’s shoulder and pulled him close. “I sensed recognition in him. Aleeme knew we were there.”
Tears streamed from Ulaume’s eyes. “Then why didn’t I sense it? You aren’t being cruel to me in feeding me false hope, are you?”
“I am being honest with you. I would never lie to you.” Flick kissed the palm of Ulaume’s hand and then rested it against his chest close to his heart. “Aleeme knew we were there. He is getting better. It’s just taking a long time.”
“Our little harling…” Ulaume sobbed unashamedly and clung to Flick. “I want to kill Ponclast over and over again for what he did to our son!”
Lisia bit the tip of his tongue. He wanted to bring up Tarot, but didn’t know how to do that. In the end, Flick helped him unintentionally.
“We must be strong for our son’s sake. Aleeme will need us once he returns to us and remembers…remembers what happened in that room.” Flick wiped away Ulaume’s tears with the sleeve of his tunic.
Lisia took a chance and said, “I heard Aleeme conceived a pearl and birthed it.”
Ulaume winced and Flick briefly closed his eyes. “Yes,” Flick replied. “And he almost died delivering a second pearl.”
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but can you tell me what happened to those pearls?” Lisia hated pushing them, but felt he had to if he wanted to make any progress.
“Lisia, I don’t think this is the time or place…” Flick started, but then Cobweb appeared in the doorway and he stopped talking.
Having sensed Ulaume’s emotional uproar, Cobweb had sought them out and wasn’t surprised to find Lisia with them. “Lis is right. We need to discuss the harling.”
“Cobweb, not now,” Flick stated. “Don’t you see the state Lor is in?”
Cobweb made his way over to the couch Lisia was sitting on and seated himself next to the hostling. “I am sorry, but this needs to be done.” He felt deeply for Ulaume and sent him comforting thoughts. “I should have prepared you for this, but… I wasn’t sure I could discuss the matter until now.”
“You’re not making any sense.” Ulaume forced himself to get a grip. Cobweb wanted to talk to him and he couldn’t cave in now. “Prepared us for what? Discuss what matter?”
Cobweb looked over at Lisia and, after the hostling had nodded, he answered, “We need to discuss Aleeme’s harling.”
Ulaume’s breath caught and he felt Flick tense up. “Why?” Ulaume asked. He had managed to block out the harling’s existence until now.
“Because Lisia reminded me of my duties.” Cobweb shifted on the couch until he could take Ulaume’s hand in his.
Flick felt more balanced than Ulaume, so he responded, “You never told us what happened to the child.”
Cobweb sighed deeply and bowed his head. “I sent the harling to the Harling Gardens. He has been Lisia’s charge for a year now.”
Ulaume’s wondering gaze settled on Lisia’s face. “Is that the reason for your visit?”
Lisia nodded. “I need to know where you stand for Tarot’s sake. He needs to know if he has a family here or not.”
“Tarot? The harling’s name is…Tarot?” Ulaume’s large eyes were filled with surprise.
“That’s what he told me, yes. You seem surprised, but at the same time, you appear to recognize the name.” Lisia wondered about Ulaume’s reaction.
Ulaume’s voice had taken on a distant tone when he spoke again. “We had found tarot cards, Aleeme and I…and I had been teaching him how to read them. That had happened only a few weeks before Azriel and Aleeme had been abducted.” Ulaume looked at Flick and freed his hand from Cobweb’s hold. He placed them on either side of Flick’s face. “Can it be that Aleeme named the harling?”
“I had always wondered where that name had come from. I doubt Tarot gave himself that name. It would make sense if Aleeme had named him,” Lisia remarked.
Flick grabbed hold of Ulaume’s hands and guided them onto his lap where he rubbed the trembling fingers. “Everything is possible, Lor.” Turning his head, his gaze fastened on Lisia. “Tarot is living with you?”
“He was until recently. He was adopted into a family.” Lisia saw no reason to lie. “Tarot is relatively happy. He has healed this last year. He had been damaged when he’d arrived. Ponclast had made him watch the things he had done to Azriel and Aleeme.” Ulaume cringed and Flick pulled his chesnari close again. “Tarot’s mind was wide open and I witnessed Ponclast’s actions as well. I don’t know if you will believe me when I say that Tarot tried to turn Ponclast’s wrath onto himself and away from Aleeme. I have felt Tarot’s love for his hostling.” He turned his head and fixed a firm stare at Cobweb while addressing him. “Although we gave Tarot a substitute hostling, he still longs for Aleeme.”
Ulaume rested his head against Flick’s shoulder. “I never considered the fact that the harling might long for Aleeme.” He had suppressed the fact that Aleeme was a hostling and had birthed a pearl. He had tried to forget that the harling even existed.
“Aleeme is in no condition to face the harling,” Flick said firmly.
“He doesn’t have to, at least not yet. It was never my intention to force a meeting on him while he is still healing,” Lisia explained.
Tipping his head, Ulaume looked at Lisia. “What *was* your intention then?”
“I am merely here to remind you that Tarot is still out there and that he shouldn’t be forgotten. I understand that his existence pains you because it reminds you of what Ponclast had done, but I ask you not to take this out on the harling. Tarot is just another victim of this madness.” Lisia gazed at Ulaume beseechingly.
However, it was Flick who answered him. “I understand what you are trying to say, but… This has come as a bit of a shock. Give us some time to deal with this.”
Lisia nodded. “I understand. Take all the time you need.” He could wait since he had achieved his goal. He had reminded them that Tarot still existed and shouldn’t be ignored.
Tarot didn’t like the fact that Sand, Mist’s hostling, was going to take care of them that night, but then Lunar explained to him why Pansea and Skye wanted to be alone. He felt stupid for not realizing the truth earlier. Accepting his lot that evening, he let Sand entertain them and hoped that Pansea and Skye enjoyed aruna. He would check on them later to see that neither of them was injured. Memories of Ponclast forcing himself on Aleeme flashed in his mind, but then Lunar wrapped his arms around him and the images faded.
Pansea shared breath with Skye and let his fingers glide through the blond hair. It had taken them a while to figure out their roles during aruna, but once they had started touching each other their bodies had made the decision for them. Pansea had turned ouana and Skye soume. They had taken aruna slowly, enjoying feeling the other har’s body. It had been perfect and afterwards they had lain in each other’s arms, feeling tired, but sated.
Skye rested his head against Pansea’s shoulder and sighed contentedly. He lay facing Pansea and cuddled closer, draping a leg possessively over Pansea’s thigh. “I had forgotten what taking aruna could be like,” Skye whispered against Pansea’s chest and his breath caressed Pansea’s skin. The other har trembled against him.
Pansea kissed the crown of Skye’s hair. “Next time I want you to be ouana.” Skye tensed against him and Pansea knew why.
“I have never been ouana before,” Skye admitted. His long fingers moved down Pansea’s chest and came to rest on the flat abdomen. “I am not sure I will be able to perform satisfactorily.” He had gone through feybraiha one year before the Gelaming army had arrived at the breeding facility and had only been soume so far. Eager to change the subject because he felt embarrassed, he added, “I gained a harling, you know. I didn’t even have to host and birth his pearl. I love Tarot though. And I love you.” He raised his head and pressed an old-fashioned kiss onto Pansea’s lips. “I am glad we talked about our feelings that day.” If it hadn’t been for Tarot, they might never have opened up to each other.
Tarot and Lunar tiptoed into their new apartment and headed for the bed. Sand had escorted them back in the morning and the rising sun bathed the bed in a golden glow. Pansea and Skye seemed to possess a glow of their own though and the harlings giggled.
“They took aruna,” Lunar murmured, careful not to wake the sleeping hara. “They look happy.”
Tarot was relieved to see them smiling in their sleep. He sensed their happiness and pulled Lunar along with him. “Let’s climb onto the bed.” He wanted to be close to them and soak up their warmth. Together, the harlings managed to push, shove, and lift each other up the side of the bed. Crawling over to the two hara, they let themselves fall onto the mattress. Tarot pulled Pansea’s arms around him and Lunar did the same with Skye’s. The two harlings lay facing each other and couldn’t stop giggling.
Skye opened an eye and looked at them. He couldn’t grow mad with them though. Rooning Pansea had left him feeling sated and happy. “What are the two of you doing here? Weren’t you staying with Sand?” He tickled Lunar, lightly running his fingertips down his harling’s side.
“Stop it!” Lunar tried to brush his hostling’s hand away and eventually succeeded.
Lunar’s cry woke Pansea from his sleep and a smile formed on the young har’s face as he watched Lunar kicking and Tarot chuckling. He joined Skye in tickling them and in no time, Tarot was trying to crawl away from his tormenting hands. “Oh no, you are staying.”
In the end, Tarot tried to tickle Pansea back and got help from an unexpected source named Skye. They ended up tickling and laughing at each other.
“Lisia? Can I talk to you?” Flick had thought everything over and needed to talk some more with the hostling. He had encountered Lisia by chance in the corridor and decided to use the opportunity to talk to him.
“Of course.” Lisia gestured for Flick to follow him into one of the rooms. He walked over to the window and looked out over the woods that surrounded Forever before turning around and smiled encouragingly at Flick. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to talk to you about the harling.” Flick walked over to a chair and rested his hand on the back. “About Tarot. I want to know what he is like.”
Lisia’s smile turned warmer. “I can tell you one thing: he inherited one characteristic from Ulaume. Tarot’s hair is alive as well.”
Flick swallowed hard. The harling had gotten a face all of a sudden. “He has Lor’s hair?” That was one thing he hadn’t counted on. “What does he look like?” He wanted to see the harling for himself, but that was impossible. He didn’t think Lisia would agree to sharing breath with him so he could see for himself.
Lisia cocked his head and wondered on what he would gain if he allowed Flick into his mind. Tarot might find a friend in Flick if Lisia allowed the mind touch. “Would you like to share breath and see?”
“I was about to suggest that.” Sharing breath was a practical way of sharing information. “Can you show me what happened after he arrived at the Harling Gardens? I would like to know. It would help me decide if I want to meet Tarot or not.”
Lisia understood and nodded. “I will share breath with you. Come over here.”
Flick covered the distance between them and touched his lips to Lisia’s. While sharing breath, Flick witnessed everything that had happened in the Harling Gardens during the last year. He saw Tarot’s arrival, his struggle to adjust, and his beginning friendship with Lunar. He witnessed Tarot rescuing the other harling. That Tarot was so ‘normal’ shocked him. From what Cobweb had told him, he had expected the harling to be a monstrosity. Drawing back, he blinked and gave Lisia a confused look. “He is nothing like I thought he would be.” In Lisia’s mind he had seen the harling’s face and some of his features had reminded him more of Ulaume than of Aleeme.
“Tarot needed time to adjust, but once he did, he became popular. At the moment, living with Pansea, Skye, and Lunar is the best thing that could happen to him. He has a family now.”
Flick nodded once. “I agree.” Tarot needed that family and removing him from that situation would only hurt the harling. “What do you suggest we do?”
Lisia had been expecting that question. “I would suggest not approaching Tarot for another year. From what Ulaume has told me, Azriel and Aleeme need another year at the very least to recover. Then, in a year, come to the Harling Gardens and pay Tarot a visit. It is up to you if you want to reveal yourself to Tarot.”
Nodding, Flick agreed with Lisia. “That way Ulaume and I have a year to make up our mind.” He had a year to talk everything over with his chesnari. What he had seen in Lisia’s mind had helped and he realized that the hostling was right: they couldn’t ignore the fact that Ulaume and he had a high har.
Ulaume turned around when he sensed Flick’s return. “Did you talk to Lisia?” He hadn’t known a peaceful moment since Lisia had reminded him of the harling’s existence.
“I did and we get a reprieve. We have a year to decide what to do regarding Tarot.” Flick pulled Ulaume into his arms and shared breath with his love, showing the things he had seen in Lisia’s mind. “That’s Tarot,” he whispered into Ulaume’s mouth.
Eyes filling with tears, Ulaume relived the traumatic events that had shaped Tarot. “Lisia spoke the truth. The harling tried to defend Aleeme. Oh, Flick, Tarot is very clearly Aleeme’s harling…and my high har.” He had seen Tarot’s hair move in Flick’s mind. “I need that year to accept this.”
“You have time. We have time.” Flick hugged Ulaume tight and comforted his chesnari.
Cobweb had mixed feelings when he said his temporary goodbyes to Lisia along with Flick and Ulaume, who were also present. The hostling was ready to return to the Harling Gardens and had already mounted his horse.
One look at Ulaume showed Lisia that Flick had told his chesnari about Tarot and he sensed acceptance in Ulaume’s mind. He had a feeling that Flick and Ulaume would accept Tarot more readily than Cobweb. Lisia still hoped that Cobweb would tell Swift and Seel about Tarot. They also deserved to know the harling needed his family. “Hopefully we will meet again in a year,” he said in farewell to Ulaume, Flick, and Cobweb. “Please consider telling Swift and Seel about Tarot too.”
Cobweb nodded his head. “I need time.”
“I understand that, my dear friend, and you have a year.” Lisia raised his hand in goodbye and turned his horse around. “The next time we will meet I will hopefully welcome you to the Harling Gardens.”
“Lor and I will be there,” Flick stated. He couldn’t speak for Cobweb, but Ulaume and he had talked and had made the decision to visit with Tarot in a year.
Lisia smiled at hearing Flick’s resolution. His visit to Forever hadn’t been in vain then. He had accomplished some of his goals.
Ulaume entered Aleeme’s room in the healing wing of the palace in Immanion and sat down on the edge of the bed. The har in it stared blankly at the wall, having been propped up against a pile of pillows and covered in a warm blanket. “Hello, my son.” Ulaume leaned in closer and pressed a parental kiss onto Aleeme’s brow. “I have missed you.”
Flick would visit with Aleeme later since Ulaume had asked his chesnari to give him a few hours alone with their son. For the moment, Flick was visiting with Pell and Cal.
“We visited Forever and talked to Cobweb and Snake.” Ulaume continued in an effort to attract Aleeme’s attention, but the emerald eyes remained dead. “We also met a har called Lisia. He is in charge of the Harling Gardens. He is a very strong har.” Ulaume still didn’t know if he should tell Aleeme that he had seen Tarot from Flick, who had seen the harling in Lisia’s mind. Two months had passed by since the hostling and Flick had talked and Flick and he had been discussing their course of action ever since. Should they tell Aleeme about Tarot or not? Ulaume wasn’t even sure that Aleeme heard the things he said since the young har showed no reaction.
Although Aleeme had somewhat healed in body, his mind was still extremely fragile. The healing which Cal and Moon had given Aleeme at Fulminir had kept the har alive and later Sheeva had guided Flick and Ulaume into letting their joined healing energy flow into Aleeme’s body. The body however hadn’t recovered completely. Something had gone wrong when Aleeme had birthed his second pearl and he had been damaged inside. As a result, Aleeme would never be able to host a pearl again. He could still sire them, but not host one.
“Forever is such a lovely place, Aleeme. Maybe we could visit Cobweb in a short while. Would you like that? Leave this place and go to Forever?” Ulaume didn’t really expect a reply and as expected didn’t get one. Aleeme remained quiet. Ulaume twined his hands with his son’s and rubbed the skin. “Aleeme, can you hear me?” He looked his son in the eye in the hope that Aleeme would blink. “You can squeeze my hand if you want to.”
But Aleeme showed no reaction and tears built in Ulaume’s eyes. “I want you back,” he murmured and pulled Aleeme into an embrace. Rocking his son, he cried bitter tears. Aleeme had been in this state for more than a year now and he was losing hope that his son would ever regain his wits. “Please, I love you.” But Aleeme was a dead weight against him, unresponsive and heavy.
In his despair, Ulaume resorted to doing the one thing he really didn’t want to do: he brought up Tarot. “Lisia mentioned that he is caring for a harling. The harling is a little over a year old and Lisia said that his hair has a will of its own. It curls itself around his wrist.” Aleeme shivered against him and Ulaume surmised that his son was cold, so he hugged him tighter. “His name is Tarot…” Ulaume sucked in his breath when Aleeme suddenly whimpered. “Aleeme?” Ulaume quickly searched his son’s eyes and then reached out mentally. Stunned, he found that Aleeme was aware of what was happening. “Aleeme?”
The green eyes filled with an emotion which Ulaume couldn’t label. His own tears continued to flow, relieved and happy as he was that his son had reacted to hearing Tarot’s name. “Aleeme, do you know that name?”
Aleeme trembled against him and Ulaume rubbed his son’s back soothingly. “Aleeme, you *know* that name, don’t you?” Focusing his thoughts, he probed the tendrils of Aleeme’s mind. For the first time in over a year, Aleeme responded to him and Ulaume found new hope in that fact. “Aleeme? Can you look at me?” He was afraid to hope that Aleeme would focus his gaze upon him, but then the miracle happened and the eyes fixed on him. “Aleeme!”
Aleeme whimpered pitifully and pressed himself against Ulaume. He hadn’t wanted to leave his secret place where he had been safe, but the name his father had mentioned had made him remember that he wasn’t alone. There was a harling too.
“Don’t tire yourself out.” Ulaume continued to rock Aleeme slowly. He guided his son’s head to his shoulder and whispered soothingly.
Ulaume’s calm presence helped Aleeme fight his dreadful memories and he managed to calm down. Ulaume had pulled him from his trance and now the memories came crashing in on him. He saw Ponclast’s ugly visage in his mind, Azriel being restrained and left to rot in his own waste, and at his side near the bed was the harling who had tried to draw Ponclast’s attention away from him. Tarot…
Ulaume, who had joined Aleeme’s mind, cried out softly when he sensed the recognition in Aleeme’s thoughts. “You remember Tarot!”
Aleeme started to pant as more horrid memories invaded his mind. He had managed to lock them out for so long, but since his barriers were down, they swamped him.
“I am there for you. I am holding you and I won’t let go. You are not alone.” Ulaume concentrated on sending Aleeme calm encouraging thoughts. “I had almost given up on the fact that you would ever react to me! Azriel will be relieved to hear that you have woken from the stupor you were in as well.” Azriel was staying in the same healing wing, but in a room down the corridor. Ulaume knew that Azriel visited with Aleeme at least once a day and would sit beside the bed for an hour until one of the healers came and shooed the recovering har back to his bed.
Aleeme let Ulaume rock him. It was good to have his father close. Although he wasn’t in any physical pain, his mind screamed with anguish.
“Hush now,” Ulaume whispered and soothed the ripples in Aleeme’s mind. “Don’t worry about anything at the moment. Just try to calm down.”
Aleeme focused on Ulaume’s voice and presence and managed to regain his calm. He had been in a daze for over a year and his body ached because he hadn’t moved his limbs for a long time. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be ‘awake’. He would have preferred to stay in his catatonic state.
Ulaume’s eyes widened when he felt Aleeme reach out to touch his mind. He opened his mind and lured Aleeme deeper inside until he could curl his thoughts around his son’s frightened presence. He desperately wanted to reach out to Flick and let his chesnari know that Aleeme was reacting, but he was scared that he would upset the precious balance in his son’s mind which was still linked to his. “Did you give him that name?”
Aleeme nodded, weakly rubbing his face against his father’s shoulder. “I did.”
Ulaume’s heart missed a beat at hearing Aleeme’s voice. “Oh, I am so glad you returned to us! I was afraid that I had lost you forever!”
Aleeme didn’t know how to react like that. Had it been up to him, he would have never returned to the living.
Flick almost doubled over when Ulaume’s thoughts slammed into his mind with a force that he had never experienced before. Cal, who was standing next to him, reached out and steadied his swaying friend. Flick groaned and tried to make sense out of the cobweb of thoughts and emotions that invaded his mind. /Please, Lor, calm down!/
/How can I possibly calm down when Aleeme woke up! Flick, he was aware of my presence! He talked to me! You have to come at once!/
Cal had been unable to lock out Ulaume’s overwhelming mind touch and caught the message as well. “Can it be?” They had lost hope that Aleeme would ever wake up again from his trance.
/Flick, you have to come to Aleeme’s room right now!/ Ulaume guided the sleeping Aleeme back onto the mattress and tucked the blanket in around his frame. /Our son has returned to us! You should let Swift and Seel know too!/ Somehar had to visit with Azriel later and carefully prepare the har for the news that his chesnari had regained his awareness.
Flick looked at Cal pleadingly. “I must go.”
“I will come with you,” Cal announced.
Flick forced himself to calmly enter Aleeme’s sick room. Ulaume had stretched out next to their son and was holding him. Ulaume’s eyes however were open and were already seeking him out. “Lor, is it true? Did he react?” Flick made his way over to the bed and sat down on the other side. He rested his hand on his son’s dark hair and tried to read Aleeme’s mental state. To his surprise Aleeme’s mind was open.
“He talked to me. He confirmed that he had named the harling Tarot. It was that name that had brought him out of his state.” Ulaume held his son close and reached out with his right hand so he could twine his fingers with Flick’s. “He is merely asleep. Can you feel the difference?”
Flick nodded. He had already sensed that something had changed within his son’s mind.
Cal remained in the back for the moment, but he did take in the scene with great interest. He had been the one to save Azriel, Aleeme, and the harling from Ponclast’s hold and he had also given part of his life essence to the young har in order to save him. Moon had aided him and some of the har’s energy flowed through Aleeme’s body and mind as well. Cal could only hope that their energy would give Aleeme the strength he needed to recover.
A few minutes later, Cal left Aleeme’s room and went into Azriel’s instead. Nohar had told Azriel yet that Aleeme had regained awareness, but Cal wanted him to know that things had changed. Swift and Seel’s son sat near the window and was staring into the garden situated below. Wrapped up in a warm morning robe, the fabric seemed to swamp him. Although the har had regained some of his former weight, he was still too skinny and pale.
“Hello,” Cal said in greeting and sat down on the window sill in Azriel’s direct view. “How are you today?” During the last year, Cal had visited the two recovering hara regularly, sometimes with Pellaz, sometimes alone.
Azriel’s brown eyes filled with emotions when he raised them to look at Cal. Brittle, brown hair framed his handsome, but sharp features and it moved slightly when he raised his head. “Cal.” He forced a weak smile onto his face. He had come to look forward to Cal’s visits for they distracted him from his daily routine. Cal also was a fresh wind in his sterile environment. “I am fine…but I have been dreaming of Aleeme. In my dreams, he is awake and talking to me. But dreams are nothing but illusions.” A part of him had become resigned to the fact that Aleeme would never again look at him with love in his eyes. Aleeme’s gaze was empty these days.
Cal leaned in closer and managed to pry one of Azriel’s hands out from beneath the blanket. “Your dreams didn’t lie to you,” he said and looked Azriel in the eyes. “Aleeme’s trance is over. Ulaume managed to pull him from it.” At the same time, he sent calm, comforting thoughts to the other har. “Aleeme is awake again.”
Azriel’s hand inside Cal’s trembled and the eyes grew impossibly big. “Is it true? Did Aleeme react?”
“He did. He talked to Ulaume.” Cal knew he had to tread carefully and censored the information he was giving Azriel.
Azriel continued to tremble and tried to speak again, but his vocal cords refused to cooperate and no sound left his lips. He tried again and managed to ask, “What did he say?”
Cal drew in a deep breath and mentally prepared himself for every way Azriel could react to hearing the news. “He confirmed that he named his harling Tarot.”
Hearing that name set off a chain of reactions in Azriel. At first, he stared at Cal in shock, but then the gaze broke and tears flowed down his face. With his other hand, he wiped them away and then resolution appeared in his eyes. “I heard Aleeme name the harling that. Oh, Cal, he was hurt. Birthing that pearl exhausted him. Ponclast didn’t feed us, you see. Sometimes, when we were lucky, we were given some water, but that was it. Aleeme was too weak to host and birth that pearl.” A nervous twitch appeared in the right corner of his mouth. “That’s why delivering that second pearl almost killed him.” If it hadn’t been for Cal and Moon, Aleeme would be dead now. There had been times when Azriel had wished Aleeme had died for his chesnari’s sake.
Cal glided to his knees and pulled Azriel close. It had taken the har time to accept such closeness, but he now readily accepted it. “You might not want to hear it, but it isn’t the harling’s fault that Ponclast hurt the two of you.”
Azriel raised his head. His face was wet with tears and his big, brown eyes stared into Cal’s pleadingly. “I know that and I don’t blame the harling. Neither did Aleeme.” Azriel started to push himself upright. Even after a year his body still hadn’t completely recovered from the ordeal it had been through. “I need to see Aleeme, please.”
Cal wrapped his arms around the swaying har and steadied him. “I will help you.” He guided Azriel over to the doorway and then into the corridor. “Aleeme was asleep when I left.”
Azriel shook his head. “I don’t care. If the situation has changed, I will sense it.”
Cal opened the door to Aleeme’s room and locked gazes with Flick, who had looked up when the door had opened. “Azriel wants to see Aleeme.”
Flick vacated his place on the bed and helped Azriel sit down. He arranged the thick material of the morning robe around Azriel’s body and then went to stand next to Cal. Ulaume also rose from the bed and joined them, allowing Azriel and Aleeme some privacy.
“Aleeme?” Azriel placed his hand on Aleeme’s chest and held his breath. “Are you here with me?” He was afraid to get his hopes up, but would Cal lie to him? He didn’t think so.
Aleeme stirred in his sleep as he sensed Azriel’s presence and opened his eyes. His green eyes had regained their expressiveness and Azriel flung himself at his chesnari, hugging him loosely. Aleeme managed to raise a shaky arm and draped it across Azriel’s shoulder. “I am here with you,” he whispered and savored having Azriel close. “I am sorry I scared you, but I couldn’t return to you.”
Azriel cried against Aleeme’s chest and tried to find the right words. Lifting his gaze, he managed in-between sobs, “I love you so much.”
“I love you too, Az.” Aleeme drew in a deep breath as he cried with Azriel. Holding each other while reaching out in mind touch and rubbing their brows together, the two hara renewed their love.
Cal gestured for Ulaume and Flick to follow him into the corridor. “I am thrilled that they are talking again,” Cal stated.
Ulaume nodded. “Mentioning Tarot did the trick.” Surprise colored his eyes. “I never thought that they might have accepted that harling. I had always assumed they would hate him.”
“Because that’s what Cobweb wanted us to believe,” Flick remarked. “Cobweb can’t accept the harling, but we never took into account that Aleeme might accept being Tarot’s hostling. We have been so stupid.” He was angry with himself for not realizing this sooner. “Tarot is the key to their recovery.”
Ulaume nodded thoughtfully. “We will work toward a family reunion eventually. I am sure that’s what Aleeme wants.”
“But for now you should concentrate on helping them heal,” Cal pointed out. “They are still far from healed and they need you. Before they can seek out Tarot they need to be whole again.”
Ulaume nodded, knowing Cal was right.
Cobweb shuffled into the old study which had been Terzian’s once. Now it was Swift who sat behind it reading reports and writing replies. At times like these Cobweb found it hard to see a Parsic ruler when he looked at Swift. He only saw his son – his former harling – whom he had tried to protect. He had paid a high price for Swift’s protection though. For years, Terzian had kept him prisoner and Cobweb had been forced to convince himself that Terzian loved him because it had been the only way for him to cope with the situation. Only when Snake had entered his life had he experienced love for the very first time.
Swift looked up from his reading and smiled at his hostling. He was always happy to see Cobweb and this time was no exception. “What brings you here?” A closer look at Cobweb revealed that his hostling was nervous. Had something happened?
“I received a message from Immanion.” Cobweb saw the way Swift’s shoulders slumped forward and a tired shadow appeared in Swift’s eyes. “Yes, it is about Azriel and Aleeme.”
Swift steeled his heart for the bad news he was about to receive. For the last year, he had had nothing but bad news. “What happened? Did their condition deteriorate?” During the first six months, Seel and he hadn’t left Azriel’s side, but then the healers had convinced them that there was little they could do to help their son. So in the end, they had returned to Forever, but still visited their son at least two times a month.
Cobweb shook his head. “They are improving.” Swift’s reaction was instant. His son jumped to his feet and marched over to him, wrapping his arms around his hostling, who held his son in turn. “It happened during one of Ulaume’s visits. He mentioned Tarot and Aleeme stirred.” Cobweb had been stunned to hear that Aleeme had reacted in a positive way to hearing about the harling. He had been convinced that Aleeme hated the child because that’s what he would have done. “It appears Aleeme reacted to the name and confirmed he had given it to the harling.”
Swift held tightly to Cobweb. “And what about Azriel? How did he react to hearing that Aleeme was aware of his surroundings again?”
“They reconciled. Pellaz sent me a message saying that Azriel and Aleeme fell asleep in each other’s arms.” That news had warmed Cobweb’s heart.
Wiping away his tears, Swift raised his gaze to look at his hostling. “I had given up hope.”
Seeing only the hurting harling whom he had consoled when Swift had been little, Cobweb tried to soothe him. “You should go to Immanion. Tell Seel what happened. You should go together.”
“Aren’t you coming too?” Swift would feel better if his hostling remained at his side.
“I am not sure I should. I was the one who had tried to hide Tarot from everyone and now it seems that the harling is the key to Aleeme and Azriel’s recovery. I made a mistake.”
“Azriel would love to see you. I am sure of that.”
Cobweb kissed Swift’s hair. “We shouldn’t swamp him. Seel and you should go. I can visit at a later time.”
Swift realized that his hostling’s advice was wise, but he still wished Cobweb would come with them.
Azriel couldn’t stop staring into Aleeme’s eyes since the expression in them had been vacant for so long, but now Aleeme was looking back at him. They were alone at the moment. Cal and Pellaz had visited while Flick and Ulaume had rested and after the two Tigrons had gone, Azriel and Aleeme had curled up together. He knew he had to say something, but nothing seemed right. “Thank you for coming back to life.”
Aleeme moistened his lips. He still felt weak and it cost him much energy to say, “I didn’t want to leave my secret place, Az. If it had been up to me, I would have stayed there.” He cringed at Azriel’s flinch, but he had to be honest. “I love you, but I thought I couldn’t live like that…not after what…he… did to me.” He couldn’t speak Ponclast’s name yet.
“What changed your mind?” Azriel couldn’t be angry with his chesnari for wanting to stay catatonic. Aleeme had suffered the most at Ponclast’s hands.
“Lor mentioned Tarot. Do you remember him?” His green eyes searched Azriel curiously. He wasn’t sure how coherent Azriel had been at the time.
“Of course I remember him.” Azriel’s heart stung painfully. Ponclast had forced him to watch Aleeme birth that pearl, grabbing his hair and pulling at it, raising his head. “Aleeme, what about the harling? Can we blame him for…for ‘his’ actions?” He for one couldn’t.
Aleeme shook his head lightly and his brow rubbed against Azriel’s. “I don’t blame the harling. I never did.” He hated Ponclast for raping him, but he couldn’t blame the harling. He had hated the pearl when he had hosted it, had cursed it when he had birthed it, but once the harling had hatched from the pearl, he had realized that he was dealing with an innocent. “I didn’t think he would remember that I had named him. He was only a day old when I did.” After that, Aleeme’s condition had quickly deteriorated. “I wish we had been able to protect him from…”
“We couldn’t do a thing,” Azriel remarked softly. “But we can make a change now. But you have to grow strong again first.”
“So do you.” Aleeme pressed the palm of his hand against Azriel’s cheek and lovingly stared into his eyes. “We will heal together.” Tipping his head sideways, his lips sought out Azriel’s. It was a first, tentative sharing of breath, but the intimacy of it deepened the connection between them.
Ulaume and Flick sat with Aleeme. Azriel had ventured into the bathroom after announcing he was going to take a bath. They welcomed Azriel’s initiative for it was the first time in over a year that he wanted to clean himself up. Ulaume still couldn’t believe that the mere mention of Tarot’s name had helped improve Aleeme so much. Aleeme was actually sitting upright in bed and with Flick’s help, was eating some vegetable soup. Aleeme still was too weak to leave the bed, but Sheeva was hopeful that Aleeme’s condition would continue to improve.
“I am full,” Aleeme announced and pushed the spoon away when Flick placed it at his lips. “Stop now.”
Flick placed the bowl onto the nightstand and smiled at his son. Aleeme *was* getting better, there was no doubt about it. One thing Ulaume and he stayed clear of was discussing Ponclast and what had happened at Fulminir. Sheeva had told them not to pressure Aleeme into telling them. Maybe Aleeme would choose to confide in Azriel solely and, if that was the case, hostling and father had to accept that. However, they were determined to support their son any way they could. “Do you want to rest now?”
Aleeme shook his head. “I am not tired at the moment.” He turned his head so he could watch Azriel soaking in the bath tub. The fact that his chesnari was close soothed him. “What happened to Tarot?” He had to know, even if he dreaded hearing the answer.
“A har called Lisia took him in and found him a family.” Ulaume offered Aleeme his hand and was touched when his son accepted the gesture and wrapped his fingers around the hand.
“Lisia shared breath with me and showed me what a bright and handsome harling Tarot is.” Flick was still somewhat surprised that Aleeme cared so much about the harling. He knew his son was a compassionate soul who wouldn’t have blamed the harling for its existence, but he was still stunned to find out just how much Aleeme cared about Tarot. “We agreed to visit with him in ten months. If you have recovered enough by then you can join us.”
Aleeme’s expression darkened. “I have to wait ten months to see my harling?”
Flick caressed his son’s brow. “I love you. You are my son and I am your hostling. I loved you when you were little and I love you now, but it escapes me how you can care so deeply about Tarot.”
Aleeme flinched. “Don’t blame the harling for what another har did.”
Flick brushed his son’s hair away from his face. “I saw some of the things that happened in that room. Tarot tried to keep Ponclast away from you.” Aleeme nodded as the green eyes filled with tears. “Maybe we misjudged the situation.” Maybe Aleeme would have come around sooner if they had taken Tarot to his hostling. “But you need to concentrate on healing for now.”
Azriel entered the room again wrapped up in warm morning robes. His hair was still damp and smelled of lavender, which was Aleeme’s favorite scent. He sat down on the bed with his back against the headboard and his fingers slid into Aleeme’s dark hair and massaged his chesnari’s scalp. It was a gesture that introduced the past to the present. In the past, he had often reached out to Aleeme that way and to be able to do so again was nothing short of a miracle. “Flick is right. We need to heal… *You* need to heal.”
Aleeme searched Azriel’s eyes. “About Tarot… Will you accept him…?”
Aleeme didn’t have to finish his question since Azriel understood what he was trying to say. “I will accept him as my son. I will adopt him. He sprang from you and that is reason enough for me to welcome him into our lives once the time is right.”
Ulaume stared at them with his mouth wide open. They continued to surprise him. “You really want to adopt Ponclast’s offspring?”
Azriel flinched. He knew that Aleeme would never be able to host again so Tarot would be the only harling his chesnari would ever have. “Yes, I do. The harling isn’t to blame.” Accepting Tarot as his own would help heal Aleeme and tighten their relationship. He was determined to do whatever was necessary to make sure Aleeme healed and was happy again.
Swift was nervous when Sheeva guided him to the larger room Azriel and Aleeme shared these days. The two recovering hara had requested to be close to each other and nohar had had the heart to deny them. “Please remember that they are still emotionally unbalanced. Don’t be surprised if one of them bursts out into tears,” the healer reminded him.
“We understand.” Seel felt like he was ready to burst into tears as well. His heart thundered like mad when they reached the door to Azriel and Aleeme’s room. “What do we do? How do we act? Do we ask…?”
Sheeva shook his head. “Hold back on any questions you might have and let Azriel and Aleeme decide what they want to share. I watched them during the last few days and they seem to confide in each other and nohar else – not even Flick or Ulaume. Maybe it is best that way. Azriel and Aleeme lived it and know what the other one went through.”
Swift nodded once. “We won’t pressure them.” He knew better than that. “Can we see them now?”
Opening the door, Sheeva gestured for them to enter the room. Ulaume and Flick were already present and looked up smiling at Swift and Seel. “You’re here,” Flick said and went to welcome them.
Swift’s gaze however was fixed on Azriel, who sat in a comfortable chair near Aleeme’s bed. Although his son was wrapped up in a warm blanket, Azriel didn’t look that vulnerable anymore. The eyes were alert and Azriel’s expression brightened at seeing them. Seel beat him to his son as the hostling fell onto his knees so he could hold and hug Azriel. Seel didn’t speak, but just held Azriel close.
Changing direction, Swift’s gaze moved from Azriel to Aleeme. He had seen Aleeme in his catatonic state and smiled at seeing the vivid light in the green eyes. “Hello Aleeme.” Aleeme returned his smile and Swift looked back to Seel and Azriel. Since his chesnari had had the time to hold Azriel close, he wanted a moment of his son’s time too. Seel sensed this and released Azriel from his hold before taking a step aside so Swift could take his place.
“I can stand,” Azriel muttered, not wanting them to kneel in order to hold him. It looked awkward and he wanted to show them that he was improving.
Swift placed his hands around his son’s waist and steadied him when he rose from the chair. Once he had Azriel locked in an embrace, he allowed himself to believe that this was really happening. He hadn’t seen so much will to live in his son’s eyes for over a year. “You look so much better. Seel and I couldn’t believe the good news when we heard it. We had to see for ourselves that you had improved and that Aleeme was responsive again.”
Azriel soaked up all the attention his father was bestowing on him. “It is good to see the two of you too.” He rested his chin on Swift’s shoulder so he could also look Seel in the eye. “I am sorry that we caused you pain, but we needed time to work through everything that had happened.” And he had been better at doing that than Aleeme. Aleeme carried the deepest emotional scars. “I am glad you are here now.” He reached for Seel and drew his hostling into the embrace. Holding them both, he smiled and soaked up their love.
During the next few days, Sheeva and his healers worked with Azriel and Aleeme on healing their physical bodies. Mending the mind was something only Azriel and Aleeme could do and Sheeva never coerced them into talking because he saw that they were improving emotionally as well as physically. Ulaume, Flick, Swift, and Seel also stayed close and spent the remaining hours of the day with their sons. The nights belonged solely to Azriel and Aleeme, who slept in each other’s arms. Aruna was something they were hesitant to think about since Aleeme had been hurt so badly by Ponclast, but they both knew that if they wanted to fully recover they had to face that problem one day…but not yet.
It was already evening and Ulaume and Flick were keeping Aleeme company. Swift and Seel had taken Azriel out for a walk in the gardens since they wanted to build their son’s stamina and that gave Aleeme a chance to talk to his father and hostling without Azriel present.
Aleeme felt stronger these days. Sheeva had taught him a way to lock out the memories that hurt him the most and, once he had perfected that method, no ugly images could sneak up on him. That helped him recover more quickly. Seated on a chair near the fireplace, Aleeme gazed at his hostling sitting opposite him. Ulaume sat next to Aleeme and his father had taken hold of his hand. Flick was smiling at him and Aleeme sensed his hostling’s happiness. He hoped that he wasn’t going to ruin that feeling by asking Flick some questions. “You said you saw Tarot in Lisia’s mind.”
Their son’s unexpected remark startled both Flick and Ulaume, who had been enjoying the peaceful moment. After exchanging a look with Ulaume, Flick replied, “We did. Lisia showed us.”
“Will you show me too?” Aleeme had to know what had happened to his son. “Please show me in my mind?” Since they were so closely related, sharing breath wasn’t necessary and Flick carefully poured a number of images into his mind. Aleeme closed his eyes to savor the mental pictures and a smile appeared on his face. Flick had only shown him the happy moments his hostling had encountered in Lisia’s mind and Aleeme was aware of that. He knew that the harling must have been a mess when he had arrived at the Harling Gardens. “He is a bright harling.” Tears swam in his eyes, but he managed to keep them back. “I want to heal so I can see him in ten months’ time.” Tarot would give him that extra reason to work on his recovery. It never occurred to him that Lisia might want to keep them apart. To Aleeme it was very simple: Tarot was his son and a son belonged with his hostling. He was convinced Lisia would see it the same way.
Ulaume squeezed his son’s hand. If Aleeme wanted to be reconciled with Tarot, he would do his best to see that happen.
Swift and Seel had both claimed one of their son’s hands, so Azriel walked in-between them as they made their way through the gardens. Azriel had been strangely quiet that day and neither Swift nor Seel wanted to interrupt his thoughts. If Azriel wanted to hear their opinion, their son would ask for it.
Azriel had been biting his bottom lip before suddenly asking, “Why didn’t Cobweb come with you?”
Swift drew in a deep breath. “He didn’t want to overwhelm you. He thought that having the two of us around would exhaust you as it was.”
Azriel could tell it was a lie the moment Swift had replied. “What’s the real reason?”
Swift looked at Seel, who just shrugged his shoulders, silently saying that his chesnari should make the decision whether to tell Aleeme or not. In the end, Swift made his decision and explained, “Cobweb didn’t come because he feels guilty.” His son looked at him quizzically and Swift felt forced to add, “Cobweb didn’t want Tarot around and sent him to Lisia. I don’t think Cobweb likes the idea of having that harling around.”
Azriel tensed. “Isn’t that mine and Aleeme’s decision to make?”
Swift nodded. “Cobweb reacted impulsively. You know what he is like.”
“He sent Tarot away?” Azriel blinked. He knew Cobweb as a loving har. “I don’t understand why he did that.”
Swift hated having to be blunt with Azriel. “He didn’t want to raise a child created during pelki at Forever.” He involuntarily gasped when Azriel freed himself of their hold. Both Swift and Seel let go and watched Azriel angrily walk away from them.
Once there was some distance between them, Azriel turned and stared at them. “You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened.” And he certainly wasn’t going to tell them the details. “But you need to know that Aleeme accepted that harling. He birthed that pearl. He *is* Tarot’s hostling and neither he, nor I, blame the child for Ponclast’s actions.”
“I am sorry that it took us so long to understand that,” Swift responded. “Let us make amends.”
Azriel, feeling tired after that emotional outburst, bowed his head. “I don’t believe there is much you can do. Aleeme and I must heal ourselves and we are working on that.” He raised his gaze again. “It would definitely help if you were more supportive of the fact that Aleeme and I want to form a family eventually and that we want Tarot to be a part of that. Aleeme is barren, Swift. He can never host a pearl again. Tarot is the only harling he will have hosted. Yes, I can host any pearls we might create, but I am not sure we will ever create a pearl again. What happened in that room shaped us.”
“Therefore we found it hard to imagine that you wanted Tarot close,” Seel offered.
“That is where you went wrong. Tarot is as much a part of this as Aleeme and I am. He belongs with us. You should have brought him to us after…” Azriel swallowed hard. “I need to be alone for a moment.” Walking away from them, he headed for a secluded part of the garden. Their conversation had caused his emotions to go berserk.
Ulaume, Flick, Swift, and Seel gathered in one of the rooms to discuss their course of action. They had been in Immanion with their sons for a month and both Azriel and Aleeme were recovering. Azriel had made the biggest progress and, except for some added lines on his brow and around his eyes, he seemed to be reverting back to the ‘old’ Azriel with each passing day. Aleeme however needed more time. The har was able to get out of bed and walk short distances, but still needed somehar at his side at all times. It was Aleeme’s mental state they worried about the most. Repeatedly, Aleeme had voiced the request that sounded more and more like a demand as time passed by: he should be allowed to see his harling.
Now the four of them had gathered to decide what to do on that matter. Should they ask Lisia to bring Tarot to Immanion? Should they take Azriel and Aleeme to the Harling Gardens instead? Or should they set up a meeting at Forever? And if they chose that latter option how would Cobweb react?
“Is it a good idea to stray from the original plan?” Seel asked at last. “We are going to visit Lisia and Tarot in another eight months. Maybe it would be best if we waited.”
Ulaume disagreed however. “Just being able to talk about Tarot is helping Aleeme heal. Why set back his recovery by making him wait?”
Swift remarked thoughtfully, ”Azriel says he has accepted Tarot in their lives, but can we be really sure he doesn’t harbor any resentment? Actually seeing the harling might have a negative effect on Azriel and I don’t want to take any risks.”
Seel quickly nodded. “We can’t forget the fact that this harling was conceived during pelki.” Like his chesnari, he was inclined to keep Azriel, Aleeme, and Tarot apart.
“I can’t believe I am hearing this!”
Four heads turned in the direction of the doorway where Azriel stood. The har was strong enough to move about by himself and had been exploring this part of the palace. Dressed in a comfortable shirt and a long skirt with his hair once more shining darkly, he looked like he had never been sick.
“Please you must understand that we only want what is best for you!” Swift responded.
“Or for you,” Azriel retorted from between gritted teeth. “It is you who has a problem with Tarot’s heritage!”
“And you don’t?” Seel questioned softly. “Doesn’t it matter to you that Ponclast is Tarot’s father?”
Resolution appeared on Azriel’s face when he answered, “It matters more to me that Aleeme is the harling’s hostling. Why can’t you understand that? Aleeme will never host a pearl again. Ponclast damaged him! No matter what you do or say, Tarot is Aleeme’s son and you can try to keep us apart, but you will fail. The moment Aleeme and I are able to leave unaided we will travel to the Harling Gardens!”
Ulaume nodded to show he understood. “But please bear in mind what is best for Tarot. He has found a family in the Harling Gardens.”
Azriel sighed. “Aren’t you listening? We want to see him! We want to talk to him and touch him! We need time as well!”
Swift knew he had lost the fight and conceded. “What do you want to happen?” They had been wrong in wanting to make a decision without involving Aleeme and Azriel. The two hara had to make this decision and not the four of them!
“We want to go to the Harling Gardens the moment Aleeme is fit to travel.” Which would take Aleeme at least one more month. “We will decide what to do after we talked to Tarot. Eventually it is Tarot’s decision where he wants to live and with whom.”
Swift wrung his hands as he nervously asked, “Do you want to raise the harling at Forever?”
Azriel flinched, but then straightened his shoulders. He had heard more of their conversation than they thought. “If Cobweb doesn’t want Tarot at Forever, then we will go with Ulaume and Flick.” Watching the couple, he asked, “You will allow this, won’t you?” He was under the impression that Ulaume and Flick were more accepting of the matter. The two hara didn’t disappoint him and nodded. Shifting his gaze from Flick and Ulaume to Swift and Seel, he stated, “You have one month to get used to the idea that Aleeme and I will raise the harling. Talk to Cobweb and tell him about our plans. If he can’t accept Tarot living at Forever, we will live with Flick and Ulaume.” Azriel closed the door behind him with a bang and then leaned against the wall. The confrontation had drained him more than he wanted them to know.
“What’s wrong?” Aleeme asked upon Azriel’s return to their rooms. Azriel radiated anger and confusion. He extended his arms and caught Azriel in his hold when the other har sat down on the bed close to him.
“They don’t want us to see Tarot.”
Aleeme swallowed convulsively having expected as much. “It is hard for them to understand why we want Tarot with us.” A connection had formed between the three of them in their prison and Ponclast had been their mutual enemy. In his mind, he saw Tarot come to his defense when Ponclast was trying to force himself upon him. The harling had been too small, too weak, and without proper means to defend his hostling and Aleeme had felt guilty for being unable to protect Tarot from Ponclast’s wrath. “They think he is a monster. I saw it in Seel’s mind.”
Azriel pulled Aleeme close and they rocked together. “I finally found out what had happened to Ponclast.” Their parents hadn’t thought them fit to know yet.
Aleeme raised his head and looked deeply into Azriel’s eyes. “Is he dead?” He hoped so!
“He was banished to another realm. It is a one way route so he can never come back. We don’t have to fear him ever again.”
“How did you find out?” The news reassured Aleeme that they were safe.
“I asked Cal. He is the only one who will tell me the truth. The rest think our minds are too fragile to take any news.” Azriel held Aleeme close and kissed his chesnari’s neck. Although they both craved aruna, they couldn’t take that step yet. He would let Aleeme decide when the time was right to try. Aleeme rubbed his cheek against Azriel’s shoulder affectionately and Azriel murmured, “I will make all necessary arrangements so we can visit Tarot in a month’s time.”
“Do you think they will let us go?” Aleeme loved them for worrying about them, but at the moment, their care felt suffocating.
“If they don’t come around I will ask Cal to help us. He will understand.” Azriel rested his forehead against Aleeme’s brow and caressed his chesnari’s dark hair. “I think Flick and Ulaume are on our side, but I am not sure about my hostling and father. They seem intent on keeping us away from Tarot.”
“That’s Cobweb’s influence on them.” Aleeme rested his head against Azriel’s chest and listened to the calm and steady beat of his chesnari’s heart. “I want Tarot back, Az. He is my harling.”
Azriel kissed his chesnari’s brow and sighed deeply. “I will make sure the three of us are united again.”
That evening, Swift and Flick visited their sons. They had judged it wise to go with only two instead of four. That way, Azriel and Aleeme might not feel outnumbered. It had caused Flick pain to realize that they had unwillingly hurt the traumatized hara. “May we enter?” he asked as Swift and he stood in the doorway.
Azriel looked up and asked, “What do you want?” He prepared himself for another confrontation and felt Aleeme tremble in his arms. They hadn’t moved yet and were still curled up on the bed.
“We talked,” Swift said and gave his son a look that begged Azriel to forgive him. “We realized we had made a mistake. We don’t have the right to keep Tarot away from you, regardless of Cobweb’s feelings in the matter.”
Aleeme sighed in relief. “You will support us then?”
Flick nodded. “We want to help you heal and if that means accepting Tarot in our lives we will do that. We realized that he is just another victim. He doesn’t deserve to be punished for Ponclast’s crimes.”
Aleeme locked eyes with his hostling. “You might want to send a message to Lisia that we will visit in a month. We don’t want to startle anyhar and certainly not somehar who cared for Tarot.”
Azriel added, “Tarot should also know that we are coming to see him. He needs to be prepared.”
Flick nodded again. “Lor and I will take care of that.” Maybe one of them could visit the Harling Gardens and tell Lisia in person what had happened and that Tarot’s hostling wanted to meet Tarot in person.
Aleeme worked hard to get back into shape. He started by taking short walks aided by Azriel or Flick and Ulaume. He needed his chesnari, hostling, and father the most. Although Swift and Seel offered to spend time with him, Aleeme gracefully declined while suggesting that they should spend time with Azriel instead, which they eventually did. That gave Aleeme a chance to enjoy Flick and Ulaume’s company.
Flick and Ulaume felt immensely proud of their son who was fighting for his recovery. Each day, Aleeme managed to take one more step, succeeded in eating more, and was growing stronger as the end of the month quickly approached.
One evening, Azriel, Aleeme, Ulaume, and Flick were sitting together talking softly and even laughing occasionally when somehar brought up an amusing event from their childhood. Azriel and Aleeme still didn’t confide in anyhar outside of each other regarding their past torment and Flick and Ulaume had accepted that.
Aleeme was seated close to Azriel and rubbing his chesnari’s fingers while looking dreamily into the fire. The fire place was constantly lit not just for heat, but also because Aleeme loved looking at the flames. “Somehar needs to go the Harling Gardens and prepare them for our visit.”
Flick nodded. “Lor and I discussed this.”
“What did you decide?” Azriel pressed closer to his chesnari and closed his eyes. The bright light of the flames hurt his eyes if he stared at them for too long.
“Lor will visit Lisia and talk to Tarot.” Flick had wanted to go too, but the fact that Tarot had inherited some traits from Ulaume made Ulaume the best choice. They could connect in a way Flick might not be able to. Their hair would show their kinship and Flick hoped that Tarot would instantly take a liking to Ulaume.
“That is a good plan.” Aleeme smiled gratefully at his father. “The two of you seem to have fewer problems accepting this than Swift and Seel.”
“They are doing their best to accept this,” Flick responded. “But it is different for them. Tarot isn’t their high harling.”
Azriel nodded. “I understand that, but I still wish they would welcome Tarot in their lives.”
“They will eventually. Give them time. It was quite a shock to them to find out that you love Tarot and then there is Cobweb who influenced them unintentionally.” Ulaume rested his upper body against Flick’s as he leaned in closer. He savored this moment of peace and wished it would never end, but he had to leave the next day. He would use one of the sedim to make his journey to the Harling Gardens. Then he would talk to Lisia and meet his high har for the very first time.
Lisia didn’t know what to make of the fact that Ulaume had announced that he was visiting. He hadn’t expected Ulaume to come to the Harling Gardens for another six months. Pansea stood next to him while Skye had stayed in their apartment with Tarot and Lunar. During the last six months, the four of them had become a family unit.
“Did the message say why Ulaume was coming here?” Pansea was of two minds about this. He wanted Tarot to be reunited with his family, but at the same time, he didn’t want to lose the harling.
Lisia placed a hand on Pansea’s shoulder. “You knew this could happen.” They had both known that one day Tarot’s kin might get involved.
“For Tarot’s sake I hope Ulaume brings good news. He deserves that.” Pansea looked at the lightening that colored the sky, announcing the sedu’s arrival. He steeled himself and tried to prepare himself for every possible outcome.
Ulaume felt equally nervous when he walked up to Lisia and Pansea. These hara had taken Tarot in and were still caring for him. What had Cobweb been thinking in sending the harling away? “Greetings,” he said and inclined his head. His hair moved about wildly, showing his nervousness. Pansea’s breath caught at seeing the hair come alive. It was obvious that Tarot and Ulaume were related.
“Greetings, Ulaume,” Lisia replied formally. “You are most welcome here.”
Ulaume sensed tension, discomfort, and nervousness oozing from Lisia and Pansea. He understood why they felt apprehensive and wanted to take their worries away. “I am here to talk about Tarot, not to take him away.”
Pansea sighed in relief. “You must understand…I was worried you would demand we hand him over.”
Ulaume smiled warmly. It was obvious that Lisia and Pansea cared deeply about Tarot. “I am here to talk. I would love to meet with Tarot at one point, but mostly I am here to prepare the way for my son.”
Lisia’s eyes widened slightly. “Aleeme wants to come to the Harling Gardens?” He gestured for Ulaume to fall into step beside him so he could guide his visitor to the guest room which they had prepared.
“Aleeme wants to see Tarot very much. He has recovered sufficiently to travel to the Harling Gardens. If you agree, he will arrive in two days. That should give you enough time to prepare Tarot for the event.” Ulaume followed Lisia and Pansea into his guestroom, which was surprisingly luxurious. Fixing Pansea with his gaze, Ulaume inquired, “You don’t appear glad to hear this news.” He recalled what Lisia had told him about how Pansea and Skye had become Tarot’s caregivers.
“I want what is best for the harling,” Pansea answered and swept his unruly, red hair back behind his ears. “I don’t want him traumatized again. It took him a long time to get over his imprisonment and the abuse he suffered at Ponclast’s hands.”
“The fact that Cobweb sent him here instead of taking care of the harling himself tells me how unwelcome Tarot is in that family. We never told Tarot the truth, but I believe he has sensed the fact that somehar important didn’t want him and that it was the reason why he was sent here,” Lisia added.
“Cobweb made a mistake. He probably realizes that now.” The last time Ulaume and Swift had talked, the Parsic leader had told him that Cobweb regretted ignoring Tarot. “Everyhar needed time to come to terms with what had happened to Azriel and Aleeme.”
“You probably want to freshen up and rest,” Pansea remarked. “Would you agree to wait until tomorrow to meet with Tarot? That would give me time to prepare him for your visit.”
Ulaume nodded. “I have no intention of rushing you. Tomorrow will do.” Although he was dying to meet his high har, Ulaume knew that being patient was the smart thing to do. “Thank you for caring for him,” he said and looked first at Lisia and then at Pansea. “That means a lot to me, Aleeme, and Azriel, that you are raising him as your own.”
“It is the least we can do.” Pansea felt reassured by Ulaume’s manner. “I will bring Tarot to you in the morning. Then you can talk to him. Prepare to deal with a very sensitive and bright harling.”
Ulaume grinned. “I will.”
Cobweb paced Terzian’s old study restlessly. Since Swift and Seel had gone, he was in charge of Forever. But he didn’t feel up to the job at the moment and it was Snake who was making sure everything ran smoothly at the mansion. Cobweb was preoccupied. His thoughts continued to spin around Tarot and his decision to send the harling to Lisia. Had he made a mistake back then?
“You must stop torturing yourself this way,” Snake ordered and curled his arms around his chesnari. “You did what you thought was right.”
“But that doesn’t change the fact that I made a huge mistake.” Cobweb bowed his head in defeat. “How can I live with myself knowing that I slowed down their recovery?”
Snake pulled Cobweb close and whispered in his ear, “If this is so important to you then go to Immanion and explain yourself to Azriel and Aleeme.”
Cobweb shivered. “I am not sure I can face them.”
“Do you want me to come with you? Tyson and Moon can take over our duties for a short while. They are ready for that.”
Cobweb turned in the embrace and gazed lovingly into Snake’s eyes. “If I do this then I have to do this alone.”
Snake pressed a kiss onto Cobweb’s brow. “I understand, Cobweb. I really do.”
Ulaume spent the evening in Lisia’s company and got to know the hostling much better. Lisia told him the history of the place and the part he had played when the structure had still been a breeding facility. Ulaume thought he understood why Cobweb had chosen to send Tarot there. Maybe it hadn’t been solely because Cobweb hadn’t wanted the harling at Forever. Maybe Cobweb had thought sending Tarot to Lisia had been for the best.
“Please excuse my curiosity, but did you host yourself?” Lisia had offered Ulaume much of his personal story and was curious to learn more about the other har.
“I did. I hosted our second pearl. Our second son’s name is Orien.” Ulaume smiled.
Lisia returned the smile. Ulaume was a very lucky har to have hosted only once. Lisia would never forget the pain he had been in when he had delivered his last few pearls. “And what about Aleeme? Has he improved?” Why else would Ulaume be there?
“He did.” Ulaume shifted on his chair, reached for his tea, and blew onto the surface in order to cool it. “I visited him after the two of us talked and when I mentioned Tarot’s name, Aleeme reacted. He had been locked in a catatonic state ever since Cal had rescued him and I had almost given up hope that I would ever reach him. You can’t imagine the relief I felt when he started to respond.”
“Tarot’s name worked a miracle then.” Lisia sipped his coffee. The Gelaming had introduced the drink to them and Lisia savored it. “You will find that Tarot is a very charming harling. I can tell that he inherited your animated hair. His hair moves about like yours.”
“I gathered as much.” Ulaume drew in a deep breath. “I feel restless because I have to wait until tomorrow to see Tarot.”
“Pansea needs that much time to prepare Tarot.” Lisia offered Ulaume one of the sandwiches the househara had brought earlier that evening. “What are your plans where Tarot is concerned?”
“I shall be honest with you. It is Aleeme and Azriel’s intention to bond with Tarot.”
Lisia inclined his head thoughtfully. “I understand why Aleeme wants to bond with Tarot, but why Azriel? He didn’t father the pearl.”
“Azriel wants to adopt Tarot if the harling lets him. I believe the two of them want to raise Tarot.” Ulaume watched Lisia cautiously. “Do you think that will cause problems? I know that Pansea and Skye are taking care of Tarot at the moment.”
“You did me the courtesy of being honest and I will do the same. Giving up Tarot will cause Pansea and Skye much pain, but they will step back because Aleeme is Tarot’s hostling. Personally I believe that Tarot should be given a choice in the matter. If he wants to stay with Pansea and Skye, Aleeme should accept that.”
“Such a decision would hurt Aleeme and Azriel, but I believe they would accept that. Tarot’s well-being is their first priority.”
Lisia smiled at that. It sounded like Aleeme was a wise har. “Honestly, I believe that Tarot will choose to live with Aleeme because he never stopped longing for his hostling. Tarot still seeks me out on a regular basis to ask me if there has been any news on Aleeme. He loves his hostling.”
“And his hostling loves him,” Ulaume replied. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everything worked out for Aleeme and Tarot?
Cobweb arrived in Immanion in the dead of night. Snake had sent a message ahead to Swift so that the har was there to welcome Cobweb to the city. Swift was surprised to see such a deep frown on his hostling’s brow. The eyes were dark and brooding. “Why are you here?” Snake hadn’t given him any details.
“Can I talk to Azriel and Aleeme? Or are they asleep already?”
Swift looked at the window that belonged to Azriel and Aleeme’s apartment. “The light is still on.”
“Will they agree to see me at this late hour?”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
Cobweb shook his head. “I would prefer to do this now.”
Swift raised a hand and gestured for his hostling to step into the next corridor. “In that case, follow me.”
“Cobweb is here? But why…?” Azriel frowned and looked at Aleeme to gauge his chesnari’s reaction. Aleeme looked puzzled, but at the same time also curious.
“I believe I know why he is here,” Swift answered as he patted the back of his son’s hand. “He has come to apologize.”
“For sending Tarot away,” Azriel murmured and then exchanged another look with Aleeme. He wanted Aleeme to decide if they should tell Cobweb to enter or not.
Aleeme needed a moment to think everything over. He then looked at Swift and asked, “What impression does he make on you? You know him best.”
“He wants to make amends. He knows what he did was wrong.” Swift pleaded on his hostling’s behalf. “I believe he made that decision because he thought it was right for the harling.”
Aleeme nodded. “You can tell Cobweb to come inside. We will talk to him.” Aleeme planned on letting Cobweb do most of the talking though.
Cobweb felt ill at ease as he entered the apartment. Swift had told him about the progress the two traumatized hara had made, but he was still stunned to see their alert gazes. Aleeme was fully aware of his presence and the other har’s mind felt surprisingly strong. The last time he had tried to reach out to Aleeme, the har had been lost to him. His next look was for Azriel and his emotions got the better of him as he saw his high har take in his appearance. Cobweb had wanted to keep his distance until he had apologized, but he rushed forward to draw Azriel into a hug.
Azriel allowed it, knowing how much Cobweb loved him. He also realized that he couldn’t stay cross with Cobweb for he loved the other har too much to do that. Stunned, Azriel felt something wet against his cheek and found that Cobweb was weeping softly. “Don’t cry, Cobweb. We are getting better.”
The mystical har forced himself to get a grip on his emotions again. “I am sorry. I am sorry that I made the wrong decision back then.” He bowed his head and didn’t dare to meet their gazes yet. “It’s true. I ran away from my responsibility. I should have taken the harling under my wing, but I didn’t feel up to it. I thought that Lisia would make a much better caregiver.”
Azriel rubbed Cobweb’s back. “I understand why you did it.” After exchanging a look with Aleeme and receiving a nod from his chesnari, he added, “We forgive you. You can let go of your guilt.”
Cobweb wiped away his tears and tentatively made eye contact with his high har. “I had hoped you would understand.” His gaze traveled from Azriel’s face to Aleeme’s. “If I had known that having Tarot close would have aided your recovery I would have made sure he was there, but I thought…”
“You don’t need to say it,” Aleeme interrupted softly. He didn’t want to hear the words again. He knew by now that they had expected him to hate the harling. “Ulaume is speaking with Lisia at the moment and he will meet Tarot in the morning. In two days, Azriel and I will travel to the Harling Gardens to meet our son.”
Cobweb swallowed hard. Aleeme had said ‘their’ son. That meant Azriel had adopted Tarot as his own.
“If you want to join us, you are welcome to do so.” Aleeme realized he should keep the party to a minimum, but too many hara had an interest in Tarot these days. “Flick will also accompany us.” Swift and Seel would meet Tarot at a later stage, allowing for Flick and Ulaume to talk to the harling first. Tarot wasn’t their high harling after all.
Cobweb had wiped away his tears and even managed a smile. “I would love to accompany you.” It warmed his heart that they had forgiven him so readily. He hadn’t expected that.
Aleeme nodded once. In two days time, Flick, Cobweb, Azriel, and he would travel to the Harling Gardens and meet Tarot for the first time. Two days had never seemed so long to Aleeme.
Tarot knew something was wrong when Pansea wanted to talk to him alone. He didn’t want to part from Lunar even for the shortest amount of time, but Pansea insisted that they talk in private. They even went into the adults’ bedroom so they wouldn’t be disturbed by any unexpected visitors. Pansea and Skye’s bedroom was off limits to the harlings most of the time, but that didn’t stop them from listening at the door and giggling every time the two hara took aruna. “What’s wrong?” Tarot asked as he balanced on Pansea’s knee. “Did I do something wrong?” He had been good so far to his knowledge and had kept Lunar and himself out of trouble.
“You did nothing wrong.” In order to reassure the harling, Pansea placed a loving kiss onto the dark hair, which reacted by caressing his face in turn. Pansea didn’t think it was a conscious reaction on the harling’s part. The hair just had a life of its own. “A visitor has arrived.”
Tarot’s eyes took on a feverish gleam. “Is it my hostling?”
Pansea smiled. Tarot had never hidden his love for Aleeme or the fact that he was hoping his hostling would come for him. “Not quite. It is your high father, Ulaume.”
Tarot blinked in surprise. He didn’t know that name. “Not Aleeme?” he asked in disappointment.
“Not yet.” Pansea knew Tarot would understand the hint.
Tarot’s features cleared at once and the harling smiled brightly. “He will be coming for me then?”
Pansea nodded. “But your high father wants to talk to you first.”
“Can I talk to him now?” Tarot tried to hop off of Pansea’s knee, but the har caught him before Tarot’s feet touched the floor.
“I will take you to Ulaume in the morning. It is already late and harlings as young as you should be in bed and asleep by now.” The problem however was that Tarot was much too excited to go to sleep. Maybe he should have waited with telling the harling until the morning, but then he might have overwhelmed Tarot. “You can stay up with Skye and me for another hour.”
“Can Lunar stay up too?” It was rare that the adults allowed them to stay up late and Tarot wanted Lunar to profit from it as well.
Knowing that saying no would only cause more upheaval, Pansea nodded. “He can keep you company.” He hoped that Skye didn’t mind him making such a decision.
Under normal circumstances Skye would never allow Lunar to stay up so late, but for that night he made an exception. Pansea and Skye had amused the harlings by playing games with them and within the hour Tarot and Lunar had grown sleepy. They had placed the harlings in bed and had then stood back, watching them.
“I don’t want to lose Tarot,” Skye murmured eventually. “But I also realize that Aleeme has every right to take him to Immanion with him.” He was old and experienced enough to deal with losing Tarot to Aleeme and so was Pansea. When the Harling Gardens had still been a breeding facility saying goodbye to the harlings had been a normal circumstance and Skye knew how fortunate he was that Lunar was growing up with his hostling. Had Lunar been born three years ago, the administrators would have taken the pearl away and he would have never known what his harling looked like or what had happened to him. “But I *am* worried about Lunar. What will being separated from Tarot do to my son?”
Pansea curled an arm around his chesnari and kissed Skye’s temple. “Please don’t worry too much. We don’t even know what Aleeme’s plans are. Maybe if we approach this situation in the right way we can convince him to live at the Harling Gardens. That way, Tarot can stay and Lunar can still spend time with him.”
Skye raised an eyebrow. “You have a plan?”
Pansea grinned conspiratorially. “I might have.”
Ulaume felt excited when Lisia guided him into the hostling’s study. Tarot and Ulaume would meet on ‘neutral’ grounds so to speak. “I can’t believe I am this nervous. I have seen Tarot from what Flick found in your mind and I know what he is like, but still…” Still he found it hard to keep his trembling hands under control.
“Tarot has grown since Flick and I shared breath.” Lisia seated himself behind his desk and pushed himself deeper into the comfort of his chair. “And after meeting Tarot, I imagine meeting Lunar will be next on your agenda.”
Ulaume frowned. “Lunar? Isn’t that the name of Skye’s son?” Why would he want to meet the harling?
“Tarot and Lunar are as close as brothers.” Lisia felt it was only right to prepare Ulaume for the possible problems that might arise if they took Tarot away from the Harling Gardens. “They love each other dearly.”
Ulaume hadn’t expected to hear anything like that. This might complicate matters. A knock on the door caught his attention and Ulaume turned around so he could see his high har the moment Tarot walked into the room.
“Enter,” Lisia called out and rose from behind his desk.
Pansea opened the door and then stepped inside. Tarot had turned shy during the last few minutes and dragged his feet, so Pansea gave him a little push. Batting his eyes at the strange har, Tarot first noticed the lively hair. He instantly made the connection that they were indeed related and took another step closer to Ulaume. Shuffling his feet and wringing his hands, he stood in front of the adult, who looked tall and a bit intimidating.
Ulaume’s heart almost burst with recognition where the harling was concerned. It had taken him only one look to realize that Tarot was his high har indeed. The dark hair was already moving restlessly and strands were trying to reach out to his. Sinking down onto a knee, Ulaume smiled and raised a hand. He gestured for the harling to approach. “My name is Ulaume, but you can call me Lor if that is easier for you.” He fought back the tears that formed in his eyes. He was probing Tarot’s mind and found only interest, innocence, and affection in the harling’s thoughts. Ponclast’s evil hadn’t touched the child.
Tarot blushed weakly and when Pansea gave him another gentle shove, he ended up standing in front of Ulaume. “Are you my high father?” He liked the har. He liked the way the har’s hair moved and watched with interest how strands of their hair touched and then twined around each other. “You have funny hair too. Just like me.”
Ulaume returned the giddy smile Tarot was giving him. “I am afraid you inherited your hair from me.” He wanted to embrace his high son, but wasn’t sure he would be rushing Tarot. It was best to go slowly. “Aleeme’s hair isn’t like that. It must have skipped a generation.” How would the harling react to hearing Aleeme’s name?
Tarot’s eyes attained a feverish gleam once more and excitedly waved his hands at Ulaume. “Did you see my hostling? Did you speak to him? Is he getting better?”
Ulaume swallowed hard at the love in Tarot’s mind which the harling bore for Aleeme. Carefully, he rested a hand on the harling’s shoulder and nodded his head. “Aleeme has recovered and will join us shortly. Do you want to meet him?” Ulaume wasn’t prepared for Tarot’s reaction when the harling excitedly jumped at him and wrapped his arms around his neck.
“Can I? Please? Can I? I asked Lis about Aleeme, but he told me my hostling was still too weak to see me!”
“He was ill for a very long time,” Ulaume replied and carefully hugged his high son close. To his surprise he felt tendrils of Tarot’s mind probe his. He had never heard of a harling being able to do that at such a tender age. It did serve to remind him that Tarot was no ordinary harling. Ponclast’s power had been conferred onto the harling, but Tarot didn’t seem to be aware of that. “He will arrive tomorrow evening.”
That information sent Tarot into a tizzy. His hostling was coming for him! Aleeme would arrive the next day! He was so excited that he started to shake like a leaf.
“Calm down, little one,” Ulaume ordered and sent Tarot calming thoughts. “Aleeme might have recovered, but he can’t deal with stress yet. You will have to be on your best behavior.” Hopefully that would settle the harling’s nerves.
“I always am!” Tarot replied indignantly.
“That’s true,” Pansea agreed. He forced a smile onto his face though he would have preferred to snatch Tarot from Ulaume’s arms. He had to be strong though and carry out their plan. “He always behaves and keeps Lunar safe.”
Ulaume recognized the name. “Lunar is the name of your…”
“Lunar is my best friend in the whole world.” Suddenly a defiant look appeared on Tarot’s face. “You are not going to take him away from me, are you? I won’t allow it! Lunar belongs with me!”
The vehemence that accompanied the harling’s words stunned all of the adults. They had known that Tarot and Lunar were close, but had never heard a harling say something like that. Tarot looked ready to do battle if it meant that he could keep Lunar close.
“I have no intention of separating the two of you,” Ulaume assured the upset harling. But inwardly he was pondering the situation which had just become complicated. He hadn’t considered the fact that Tarot might not want to leave his adopted family.
Ulaume sat on the floor of Lisia’s study and was playing with his high son. Lisia’s office was filled with stuffed animals, materials to draw, and harbored other games which harlings might like to play. He had spent the last hour playing and had gotten to know Tarot a bit better. For a harling of nineteen months old he was extremely intelligent.
Someone knocked on the door and Tarot turned his head toward the doorway. Then he grabbed a strand of Ulaume’s hair and tugged at it. “Now you are going to meet Skye and Lunar!”
Curious, Ulaume watched the hostling and harling that entered the room. It was easy to see that they were related. Except for the different eye color, Skye and Lunar’s features were identical. The harling would become quite a beauty judging by the way Skye looked. Tarot grabbed Ulaume’s hand and pulled him along and Ulaume had no choice but to get to his feet and follow his high son. Suddenly Tarot let go and the harling pulled Lunar into a tight embrace.
Ulaume smiled at Skye in the hope of soothing him since he sensed the hostling’s tension. Watching Tarot hug Lunar, Ulaume understood Skye’s concern. It would be cruel to separate the two harlings. If Aleeme was really determined to become Tarot’s hostling, his son might have to make the Harling Gardens his residence. It would also solve the problem of Cobweb not wanting Tarot at Forever. “That’s a very handsome harling you have there,” Ulaume commented in an attempt to break the ice.
Skye gracefully inclined his head. “Thank you. You’re very kind.” One look at Ulaume had told Skye that the other har had sensed the connection between the two harlings. Ulaume would be their ally and not their enemy.
“I wish you sweet dreams, Tarot.” Ulaume pressed a kiss onto his high har’s brow. The next moment, Tarot pulled Lunar in front of Ulaume and the look which Tarot shot Ulaume was that his high har expected him to kiss Lunar goodnight too. “And you too, Lunar.” The two harlings were opposites character-wise Ulaume had already realized. Tarot was outgoing, expressive, and spoke his mind. Lunar was quiet and kept to himself mostly. Ulaume pressed a kiss onto Lunar’s brow and realized the difference didn’t end there. Tarot’s brow had felt hot, feverish even and Lunar’s was as cool as winter.
“Night Lor,” Tarot said and then pulled Lunar along with him. The fair-haired harling gave Ulaume a last, thoughtful look before following Tarot into the corridor. Skye was going to take them back to their apartment while Pansea would stay to answer any questions Ulaume might have about the harlings.
Ulaume waited until Skye had closed the door behind him and turned to Pansea. “I have never seen two harlings so attached to each other to such a degree.”
Pansea shrugged. “They formed an instant friendship. We introduced Tarot to a few harlings his age thinking they would be good company. But Tarot only formed a bond with Lunar. That connection deepened after he saved Lunar from drowning.”
Ulaume drew in a deep breath as he considered the matter. “Separating them would be cruel. It would damage both of them and it would take them a long time to get over the separation.”
Relieved, Pansea nodded. “That’s exactly what Skye and I are worried about. We want Tarot to live with his hostling, if Aleeme wants that, but we don’t want Tarot or Lunar hurt in the process.”
Ulaume tapped his fingers against the armrest and suggested, “Maybe Aleeme and Azriel could live here?” He looked to Lisia for an answer to his question. “Is that a possibility?”
Lisia’s joy showed when he smiled broadly. “It is my opinion that it would be best for the harlings if Aleeme and Azriel moved into one of the apartments situated close to Skye’s. That way the harlings can still be together.”
Ulaume liked the idea. “Originally Aleeme and Azriel wanted to take Tarot to where Flick and I live.”
Lisia’s expression hardened. “Don’t tell me Cobweb still doesn’t want Tarot close?”
Ulaume’s features contorted. “The last time we talked he still disliked that idea, yes.”
Lisia glared at Ulaume. He wasn’t angry with his guest, but with Cobweb. “I don’t understand Cobweb. How can he not like a harling like that?”
Ulaume shrugged. “A lot of hara were hurt when Ponclast abducted Aleeme and Azriel and everyhar copes with the fall out in their own way.”
Lisia knew Ulaume was right, but that didn’t lessen his anger.
The next morning Ulaume woke because he was no longer alone in the room. Blinking, he elbowed himself upright and found two harlings seated on the bed next to him. “What are you doing here?” And how had the harlings managed to get away from Pansea and Skye’s watchful eyes? Looking at them closer, Ulaume realized that they looked troubled. Tarot was squeezing Lunar’s hand and the blond harling was biting his bottom lip.
“We need to talk to you,” Tarot stated and inched closer to Lunar so he could lean his upper body against the other harling. “We don’t want you to separate us. We must stay together.”
Ulaume moved until he sat cross-legged and then tried to read the harlings’ fears in their minds. To his surprise, Lunar’s mind was locked tightly. Not for the first time did he wonder about their telepathic abilities. ‘Normal’ harlings that age didn’t possess such powers. Was that the reason why Lunar spoke so seldom? Did Lunar and Tarot converse telepathically?
“It is easier that way,” Lunar answered softly. His big, pale-blue eyes remained focused on Ulaume’s face.
“You read my mind just now.” That was quite an accomplishment for such a young harling!
“You wanted to know so I told you.” Lunar looked defensively at Ulaume. “I won’t let Tarot go.”
Ulaume was touched that they cared so deeply for each other and wanted to reassure them. “You won’t be separated. Maybe Aleeme and Azriel can move into one of these apartments and live in the Harling Gardens?” The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him.
Tarot’s expression brightened at once. “That is a great idea! We want that don’t we, Lunar?”
Lunar nodded as well. “I want Tarot to have his hostling close like Skye is close to me, but I also want him to remain my friend. We can’t be separated.”
Ulaume wondered about Lunar’s statement, but then chalked it up to the fact that they were just harlings and as close as brothers. “You can stay together. I promise.”
Two certain harlings found themselves in trouble an hour later. Pansea and Skye had searched the building for them and Skye had scolded them when they had been found. Tarot and Lunar had had to listen to one of Skye’s lectures and had then promised the hostling to never leave their room without telling an adult. In the end, they were forgiven mostly because Aleeme and Azriel were going to arrive that evening.
While the two harlings played with Ulaume and Skye, Pansea and Lisia sat back and watched. They knew that their lives were about to change – Tarot’s mostly, but that would also affect the lives of Lunar, Skye, and Pansea.
In Immanion, Flick, Cobweb, Aleeme, and Azriel readied themselves for their journey. They had decided to use Cobweb’s and Flick’s sedim since Aleeme and Azriel had little experience traveling the Otherlanes themselves. Aleeme would ride with his hostling and Azriel would share Cobweb’s sedu.
Flick mounted his sedu and then reached for his son. Aleeme wrapped his fingers around Flick’s arm and climbed into place behind his hostling. Once Aleeme was safely seated, Azriel took his place behind Cobweb and the four hara turned the sedim around. A moment later, the air started to vibrate and then the four of them were gone.
Lisia, Pansea, and Ulaume were waiting in the courtyard for the party of visiting hara to arrive. Lisia knew that the next few hours would shape Tarot’s future and therefore he had suggested Ulaume talked to Aleeme and Azriel before they were reunited. Ulaume should tell them about the close connection between Tarot and Lunar and the solution that they had come up with to ensure that the two harlings weren’t separated.
“They are about to appear. I smell it in the air.” Ulaume’s eyes glowed eagerly and two sedim took shape in front of them the next moment. Ulaume called out triumphantly when he saw Aleeme and walked over to lift his son from the sedu’s back. “Welcome to the Harling Gardens,” he announced as he placed Aleeme onto his feet again.
Aleeme looked about curiously. The place looked friendly enough. Gardens and even outdoor play pens made it very clear that harlings ruled there. A smile formed on his face. He liked the place.
Azriel dismounted without any help, eager to demonstrate that he had fully recovered and immediately joined his chesnari’s side. “Did the trip tire you?” Aleeme still looked pale and also needed to add more weight, but the har was able to walk without any assistance.
“Not overly.” Aleeme’s eyes searched their surroundings and once Ulaume had let go of him, he saw Lisia for the first time. “I saw your face in a dream.” He had seen Lisia’s face when his hostling had shared certain images with him. “You are Tarot’s caregiver.”
Lisia inclined his head politely. “At first I was, but now Pansea has taken over that role. Tarot has been living with Pansea and his chesnari Skye for a year now. He has also befriended Skye’s harling, Lunar.”
“Then I need to thank you as well,” Aleeme stated and grabbed Pansea’s hand so he could squeeze it. “Thank you for giving my son a home.”
Pansea blushed. “He is a joy to have around.”
Azriel wrapped an arm around Aleeme’s shoulders and then asked Lisia, “Can we see Tarot?”
“In a moment,” Ulaume quickly replied. “We need to talk first.” Surprised, he noticed that Cobweb had joined the party as well. “What are you doing here?”
Cobweb met Ulaume’s gaze and looked apologetic. “I am here to make amends. I realized my mistake.”
Ulaume blinked, but didn’t say anything. “We can discuss the past later. First we need to talk about the present and the future.” Leading the party into the building, Ulaume and Lisia guided them into the apartment which had been readied for them.
“What do we need to talk about?” Aleeme asked as he sat down on the couch. “Why can’t I see Tarot right away?”
“Because there are some things you need to know,” Lisia explained. He pulled up a chair and sat down close to Aleeme, who was once more flanked by Azriel. “Tarot is very excited to meet you again – the both of you.”
Aleeme smiled. “I knew it.” He had always known that Tarot wanted to see him too.
“Pansea and Skye have done their best to prepare Tarot for meeting you, and so did Ulaume, but the child is nervous and it is hard to predict how he will react to seeing you. If he shuts down, don’t be discouraged. And if he jumps you, catch him.” That was all the advice Lisia could offer Aleeme and Azriel.
“You also need to know that Tarot has adopted another harling as his brother. Skye’s son Lunar and Tarot are joined at the hip. I am afraid that they are a package deal,” Ulaume added and rubbed his son’s fingers after sitting down on the couch next to them. “This morning they snuck out on Skye and Pansea to tell me that they wouldn’t allow us to separate them.” Aleeme’s face darkened and Ulaume quickly added, “That’s why I want you to think about moving into this apartment.”
Azriel blinked. Had he heard correctly? “You want us to live here?”
“Our apartment is next door,” Pansea said. “The harlings would benefit from this arrangement.”
It was a lot to take in for Aleeme, but then he smiled at Pansea. The other har had guessed correctly that he wanted Tarot to live with them. “Azriel and I like that idea,” he said after Azriel squeezed his hand.
“I will go get Tarot ready.” Pansea walked over to the doorway and then stopped before turning around. “Do you mind if I bring Lunar as well? I will make sure he stays in the back.”
“Bring Lunar with you,” Azriel replied. If Tarot really cared that much about the other harling it wouldn’t be fair to cut Lunar out.
Tarot tugged at Lunar’s hand and tried to make the other harling walk faster. Lunar, knowing how important this meeting was for Tarot, hurried up. /Don’t go too fast!/ Tarot immediately stopped pulling and looked at him guiltily. /It’s okay, just don’t pull at my arm./
“I’m sorry,” Tarot murmured and stared at the floor. “But my hostling is waiting for me in that room.”
Lunar pulled Tarot close and hugged the other harling. /I know that, but he will still be there even if we get there a minute later./
Skye smiled at them. Seeing them interact like that warmed his heart. For a long time, he had been afraid that Lunar would remain an outcast and wouldn’t make friends, but since Lunar had Tarot, Skye knew his son had a friend he could count on for the rest of his life. “Come on now. We shouldn’t keep your hostling waiting.”
Tarot raced forward once more and this time Lunar ran after him. Skye laughed and opened the door before Tarot could crash into it.
The moment the door opened, Tarot stumbled inside. His eyes dashed wildly around as he searched for his hostling. He found Aleeme seated on the couch with Azriel sitting next to him. Tarot didn’t know the other two dark-haired hara and ignored them for the moment. “You are really here!” He was so excited that he actually let go of Lunar’s hand and ran toward Aleeme. His hostling looked much better than he had in his memory and Tarot flung himself at the har. Since he was still too small to hug Aleeme properly, he hugged his hostling’s knees instead and started to cry softly. This was too much. He had wanted for this to happen for so long!
Aleeme’s heart had stopped beating for a few precious seconds when he had laid eyes on his son again. “Tarot!” He lifted the harling onto his lap and crushed his son to him. “Please don’t cry. There is no reason to cry.” He rocked Tarot slowly and watched how the dark hair tried to wrap itself around his arms, wrists, and fingers. Tarot wasn’t going to let go of him anytime soon.
Azriel swallowed hard. He sensed Tarot’s joy at being reunited with his hostling and watched the two of them weep softly. Curling an arm around his chesnari, he pulled them both close. He recalled the times that the child had tried to distract Ponclast from targeting Aleeme or Azriel.
Flick slid his hand into Ulaume’s and leaned against his chesnari. Although he was smiling, tears flowed down his face, but they were tears of happiness at seeing Aleeme and Tarot united again. He had never thought that seeing them together would have such an impact on him.
Cobweb remained at a distance close to Lisia. After all the mistakes he had made, he didn’t feel he had the right to be there. But Aleeme and Azriel had made it very clear that this was a way to make amends and Cobweb had welcomed that possibility.
Skye stood next to Pansea and sat on his heels when Lunar tugged at his skirt in a request to be lifted and settled in his arms. Although Lunar was a bit too old to be carried about, Skye still indulged his son and certainly at this awkward moment.
“I thought I would never see you again!” Tarot lifted his head and looked at Aleeme. His tiny fingers wiped at his hostling’s tears and then buried themselves in Aleeme’s dark hair. “I was afraid you had died! Or that you didn’t want to see me again!”
“Oh, Tarot, I am sorry that I deserted you when you needed me the most, but I was in no shape to care for you.” Aleeme continued to rock his son in his arms. “I was afraid too. I was afraid you had forgotten about me or resented me for…”
Tarot didn’t allow Aleeme to finish his sentence. “I love you,” he stated softly and with eyes still swimming with tears. “I always will. You are my hostling.”
Cobweb lowered his gaze and wished the floor would open and swallow him as he realized how wrong his decisions had been in the past.
“Do you remember me too?” Azriel smiled through his tears at Tarot.
A proud expression appeared on Tarot’s face and the harling seemed to grow several inches. “Of course I do! You’re Az! You are my hostling’s Az!”
Smiling at the harling, Azriel stroked Tarot’s cheek. He tipped his head and studied the child. He was grateful that none of Ponclast’s features showed on Tarot’s face and then the restlessly moving hair registered with Azriel. “You are Aleeme’s harling indeed.”
Tarot giggled and then freed a hand so he could point at Ulaume. “He said that I inherited it from him. Is he your father, Aleeme?”
Aleeme nodded. “Yes, he is.” He quickly exchanged a look with Ulaume and saw that his father was also quickly wiping away his tears. “Why are we crying when this is a joyous occasion? I have my harling back!”
Tarot cried out in pleasure and buried his face against Aleeme’s chest. He couldn’t believe that his hostling and Azriel looked so much better. “I am glad you are here!” Aleeme was rubbing his back and Tarot sighed deeply. “I wanted this for so long.”
Azriel sought out Aleeme’s gaze and the two hara smiled at each other. Reconciling with Tarot had gone better than they had dared hope.
Suddenly Tarot moved and pushed away from Aleeme. “Lunar! You must say hello to him too!”
Aleeme chuckled. So Pansea, Lisia, and Ulaume had been right. Tarot and Lunar were inseparable. “Where is he then?”
Tarot turned around and raised an arm. “Lunar, come over here!”
Skye placed Lunar back onto the floor again and walked him over to the couch. “Say hello to Aleeme and Azriel,” he instructed and smiled at his son.
Lunar, feeling bashful, grew flustered and averted his gaze. “Hello.” He was shy by nature and didn’t do well when meeting new hara, even if one of them was Tarot’s hostling.
“Hello Lunar,” Aleeme replied and patted the harling’s fair hair. “It’s nice to meet you. I have been told that Tarot and you are best friends.”
“Yes, we are!” Tarot nodded fiercely. “He belongs with me!” Reaching out to Lunar, Tarot managed to take hold of the harling’s hand and rubbed the fingers.
Aleeme locked gazes with Pansea and realized that it had been a good thing they had talked earlier. At least now they knew of a solution to make sure the two harlings could stay together. “Tarot, would you like it if Az and I moved into this apartment and became Pansea and Skye’s neighbors? That way Lunar and you can spend as much time together as you want to.”
Tarot liked that idea a lot. The harling had done some thinking as well and that had also been the reason why he had sought Ulaume out that morning. He had been afraid that Lunar and he would be separated. Although he wanted nothing more than to live with Aleeme and Azriel, he couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave Lunar. “Good idea!”
“Since you approve and the matter has been settled, I believe it is time for you to be hugged again!” Aleeme announced and hugged Tarot close again. His tears had dried, but the scars in his heart were still there. Only time and Tarot’s love could heal those.
“I will come to you in the morning,” Tarot said as the two harlings said goodbye for the night. /You can always talk to me here,/ he added in mind touch and touched Lunar’s temple. /I love you…/
/I don’t want to go to sleep without you./ Lunar pouted, but he still knew that they had to go separate ways that night. Aleeme and Azriel wanted to be alone with Tarot and Lunar had to go home with Pansea and Skye. /I want you to be there when the sun rises./
“I will be there.” Tarot waved goodbye to Lunar and then turned around. It was the first time in several months that he was going to sleep without having Lunar close.
Aleeme had stretched out on the bed and Azriel was busying himself with pushing down the covers. Flick and Ulaume had left taking Lisia and Cobweb with them so the three of them could be alone. “I like Flick too,” Tarot whispered as he climbed onto the bed. “I like your family.”
“They are your family too.” Aleeme opened his arms and caught Tarot in them. Azriel curled up around them and the two hara exchanged several glances. Tarot snuggled up to Aleeme and his head rested against his hostling’s chest. “Tarot… How much do you remember of what happened in that room?” Tarot raised his gaze and Aleeme read the answer to his question in his son’s green eyes. Only now did he register that Tarot’s eyes were the same color as his. “You remember everything.”
“I tried to keep you safe, but he never listened.” Ponclast had always easily shoved or kicked him out of the way. “I am sorry I was too little to protect you,” Tarot whispered and swallowed hard. Tears started to build in his eyes again.
“No,” Azriel responded. “Aleeme and I should have found a way to keep you safe, but we were weakened and couldn’t protect you.”
“Please don’t feel guilty for what Ponclast did to me,” Aleeme said, surprising himself that he could actually speak the vile name. “You did your best and that is all that counts.”
Tears still leaked from his eyes, but Tarot didn’t feel that upset anymore. Mostly he felt sad. “I am sorry he hurt you like that. Both of you,” he murmured and looked at Azriel from over his shoulder. “I am glad you are better now.”
“And I am glad we found you again.” Aleeme hugged his harling tightly and was embraced by Azriel in turn. The two hara smiled at each other, happy to be reunited.
Tarot didn’t sleep that night. He couldn’t stop looking at Aleeme, still finding it hard to believe that his hostling had come for him. Turning in the embrace until he was on his back, he smiled at Azriel and noticed, to his surprise, that the har was awake as well. “Are you going to be my father?” he asked. He wanted a hostling *and* a father.
“I would be honored if you would have me.” Azriel’s fingers moved through Tarot’s lively hair and grinned when one strand wrapped itself around his thumb. “We will be a little family.”
“Can Lunar be part of that family too?” Tarot would never forget about Lunar.
“Maybe later once the two of you are grown up.” Azriel wouldn’t be surprised to see Tarot and Lunar becoming chesna once they were adults. “You love him a lot, don’t you?”
Tarot nodded. “Almost as much as I love Aleeme.”
The next morning, Tarot tried to leave the bed, but Aleeme woke up and looked at him in curiosity. “I promised to go to Lunar at sunrise. Can I?”
Aleeme didn’t want to let his harling out of his sight, but nodded at any rate. He couldn’t expect Tarot and Lunar to change their lives just because he had showed up. He wanted the harling’s life to remain as ‘normal’ as possible. “Do you need me to walk you there?”
Tarot started to shake his head since he could find his way on his own, but then he nodded because he wanted Aleeme’s company a moment longer. “Yes, take me there.”
In the end, it was Tarot who guided Aleeme to the door and knocked on it. Tarot wasn’t surprised to find Lunar opening the door since the harling was intelligent and had found a way to push down the door handle even though he was a bit too small to do so. Tarot slipped inside and hugged the other harling. “I always keep my promises.”
Lunar hugged Tarot back and then looked at Aleeme. “Are you coming inside too?”
Aleeme had caught sight of Skye standing at the back of the room watching them. Skye winked at him and Aleeme realized that the two harlings were being watched over. “I will go back to Azriel. Ask Skye to bring you to our rooms when you are done visiting Lunar.”
“I don’t need Skye to take me! I can walk the distance myself! I am almost two years old!” Tarot raised a hand and showed Aleeme two fingers.
Aleeme caressed his son’s face with a loving look. “Yes, you are a very smart and brave harling.” He kissed the crown of Tarot’s head and then made his way back to his apartment so he could snuggle up to Azriel again. A new chapter in his life had begun.
During the next few weeks, Aleeme and Azriel made themselves at home in the Harling Gardens. Ulaume had fetched some of his son’s personal belongings while Cobweb had returned to Forever to collect items that Azriel wanted to have with him. Tarot brought flowers home and small animals which he found outside. Some of them had been injured and Azriel helped the harling nurse them back to health.
Tarot visited with Lunar every day. They spent most of the day together and parted during the evening to go to their respective hostlings. However, it still happened that one of them snuck over to the other’s apartment where the other harling let him in. Skye as well as Aleeme had found the harlings snuggled up to each other repeatedly.
Swift and Seel also visited. Their visit was awkward since they didn’t know how to relate to Tarot, but they did their best to befriend the harling for Azriel’s sake. However Tarot sensed that they weren’t really glad to see him and distanced himself from them and was glad when they returned to Forever.
Two months later, Aleeme, Azriel, and Tarot had become a family. Ulaume had stayed while Flick visited every week. Even Cobweb came to visit regularly. But Tarot’s world mostly revolved around Aleeme, Azriel, and Lunar. He loved them best.
“I’m two now. I’m old!” Tarot chuckled and smiled at Aleeme. His hostling had even gotten him a present. “What’s in it?” The carefully wrapped box heightened his curiosity and he wanted to rip away the paper right away, but he wanted Azriel to be there as well.
“You are still very young,” Aleeme replied and stroked his son’s hair. Tarot had set the healing process into motion and the emotional scars which his imprisonment had left behind on his soul were fading. “But also very wise for your age. What are you waiting for? Open it.”
Tarot immediately ripped the paper apart and opened the box. Inside was a stunning outfit made of soft fabric in bright red and yellow colors. “I love it!” he exclaimed and removed the shirt and pants from the box. Keeping it in front of him, he showed the garments off. “Can I show Lunar?”
Aleeme nodded. “Go show him then.”
Tarot was out of the room in seconds and banged on the door to Skye’s apartment. “Lunar! I need to show you something!” Pansea opened the door and let the harling inside. Tarot almost tripped over the shirt, but managed to gain his footing again. “Look Lunar!”
Lunar smiled at Tarot. “Nice…” he commented and fingered the fabric. His birthday was in two weeks and he hoped he would get a present too. “I have something for you too, Tarot.” Suddenly, he looked disappointed. “It is not as pretty as the clothes though.”
Tarot placed the clothes on the bed and then walked over to Lunar. “What did you get me?”
Lunar was seated on the floor and raised a hand, handing Tarot something wrapped in bright green fabric. “It’s not much…” He lowered his gaze and stared at the floor.
Reverently, Tarot unwrapped his present and then smiled warmly at Lunar. “I love it!” It was a stone that Lunar had polished until its exterior was smooth and flawless. There was a hole in the middle so he could wear it on a leather thong as jewelry.
Lunar peeked at Tarot and said, “Pansea had to make the hole. I tried, but…” He showed Tarot his bandaged ring finger. “I’m not strong enough.”
Tarot’s smile faded. “You’re injured!”
“It’ll be gone tomorrow. At least, that’s what Colden says.” Pansea had taken him to see the healer. “I wanted to make something for you.” He’d had no other means to get Tarot a present.
“The stone is much prettier than the clothes,” Tarot stated and meaning every word of it. Lunar had been hurt in order to create a nice present for him. Tarot hugged Lunar close and grinned. Lunar’s birthday was coming up soon and Tarot was already thinking up a present for Lunar in turn.
“You look lovely,” Aleeme declared as he fussed over his son. Dressed in his new outfit and wearing Lunar’s polished stone on a leather thong, the harling looked absolutely adorable. They were getting ready to head over to Skye’s apartment to celebrate Lunar’s third birthday. Although Lunar was smaller than Tarot, the harling was a year older.
“Can we go now?” Tarot was growing impatient. He wanted to give Lunar his present. He had worked hard on making it although Aleeme had had to help him.
“Let’s go,” Azriel suggested and took Tarot’s hand in his. As they made their way over to Skye’s apartment, Azriel pondered the direction his life had taken. Living in the Harling Gardens had a healing and soothing effect on Aleeme and him. Looking at it in retrospect, the decision to stay had been the best they could have made.
Ulaume appeared in the corridor with Flick at his side. His chesnari was visiting and had wanted to join the celebrations. In a few days, Flick would head home to care for Orien, their second son, whom they had neglected lately.
“Flick!” Delighted to see the other har, Tarot launched himself at Flick and was caught in strong arms. Flick whirled him about and Tarot laughed loudly. “Put me down!” His clothes were getting all wrinkled and he wanted to look pretty for Lunar!
Flick put Tarot down again and helped the harling smooth the fabric. “You look just fine.”
Tarot smiled gratefully and then walked over to the door to Skye’s apartment. “Lunar! Open the door!”
It was Pansea who opened the door and stepped aside to let them in. Pansea and Skye had become good friends with Azriel and Aleeme in the last few months and they were grateful that the other couple had accepted the offer to stay in the Harling Gardens instead of taking Tarot away from them. “Please come inside.” Pansea guided the other hara into the living area where Skye was waiting to serve tea and cake that one of the cooks had baked.
“Lunar!” Tarot ran toward the other harling and collided hard with Lunar. The two of them toppled over, but landed safely on the rug. “I made you a present too!”
Aleeme and Azriel had wanted to congratulate Lunar as well, but realized that they had to wait their turn so they talked to Pansea and Skye instead. Ulaume and Flick watched the harlings and smiled.
Lunar blinked and watched Tarot with big eyes when the other harling brought out something wrapped up in blue fabric. “Is that for me?” Tarot placed it on his lap and Lunar carefully removed the fabric. Hidden inside the folds of the fabric was a wooden frame holding a neatly written message behind a wall of glass. They had started their lessons two months ago and Tarot had worked hard to write it Reading the message, Lunar mouthed the words, “Lunar, I will always love you. Tarot.” Smiling, Lunar placed the frame safely in his lap and then hugged Tarot close. “It is perfect… Hey, you are wearing the stone!”
“I always will,” Tarot stated and gave the other harling a wink. “I will never remove it.”
One night Aleeme and Azriel had the bed to themselves because Tarot had gotten his way and was sleeping over at Lunar’s. For the last six months, they had shared their bed with Tarot, but once they were resting that close together, a deep sense of intimacy manifested between them.
“Az? Do you want to share breath?” Aleeme was naked under the covers and moved closer to Azriel. They had taken several small steps over the last few months and had rebuilt the old familiarity where their bodies were concerned.
“Always,” Azriel mumbled and pressed his lips onto Aleeme’s. Aleeme tasted the way he always had, but the kiss differed. Aleeme closed his eyes and Azriel took great care to keep any nasty memories out of their breath. He involuntarily sucked in his breath as Aleeme’s fingers glided down his spine. Breaking off, he slid his fingers into Aleeme’s hair and searched the green eyes. “Are you ready to take this step?”
“Are you?” Aleeme’s fingers moved in-between his chesnari’s legs and touched Azriel’s soume-lam gently. Brushing his fingertips against the sensitive area, he watched Azriel close his eyes in bliss.
Azriel whimpered softly. “I’m more than ready…” He rolled Aleeme onto his back and raised himself until his soume-lam was positioned above his chesnari’s ouana-lim. It was quite a change from the way they had taken aruna in the past since Aleeme had been soume and Azriel ouana, but he understood why things were different now. It was easier for Aleeme to be ouana at the moment and Azriel was happy to get whatever intimacy he could from his chesnari.
Burying his face against Aleeme’s chest, Azriel twined their fingers and then lowered himself onto the stem. With a low groan coming from the back of his throat, he took in the ouana-lim and moaned when the petals brushed against the walls of his soume-lam, activating one sikra after the other. Once they were fully joined, he blanketed Aleeme’s upper body with his own and rolled his chesnari on top of him.
Aleeme stretched, threw back his head, and thrust. In a way, taking aruna with Azriel was new since they had never taken it this way. Their fingers were still twined and Aleeme squeezed hard, showing Azriel how much he wanted his love. Leaning in closer, he claimed his chesnari’s lips and shared breath with Azriel once more.
They lasted surprisingly long. Sharing a mutual climax, they clung to each other. Aleeme collapsed on top of his chesnari and wept silently. Azriel knew why his chesnari was crying and didn’t speak. The fact that they had been able to take aruna again had overwhelmed him too. “We have taken back control,” Azriel whispered and ran his thumb along the curve of Aleeme’s ear. “Our life is our own once more.” Ponclast no longer had a hold on them. They had finally defeated him.
Tarot looked at the ceiling and started to count the stars. He didn’t know where Skye had found the luminous plastic in the form of a moon and stars which lit up Lunar’s bedroom, but he was glad he had. Even though there were walls between him and Aleeme and Azriel, he still sensed their joy at having been intimate again. Lunar, whose head was resting on his chest, lifted his gaze and looked at him.
/They are happy./ Lunar had seen Tarot’s horrid past in the other harling’s mind shortly after Tarot had rescued him. The two harlings had no secrets with each other and Lunar knew exactly what Ponclast had done to him. /And I am happy for you too. You have a hostling and a father now and the best thing is that we can stay together./
Tarot nodded and closed his eyes while humming a lullaby which Ulaume would sing whenever the har was watching him. Lunar slipped into sleep first, but Tarot followed quickly.
The next four years passed by in peace and quiet. Tarot and Lunar continued to grow up while Aleeme and Azriel found their place at the Harling Gardens and, against all odds, they were even thinking about creating another pearl. Azriel had offered to host, but Aleeme was still reluctant to accept. It was why they were taking classes with Lisia on pearl hosting.
Ulaume and Flick continued to visit frequently and even Swift, Seel, and Cobweb joined them at times. One time even Cal had visited with Aleeme and Azriel and the Tigron had made a big impression on Tarot. The harling had liked the blond har and had wanted him to stay, but unfortunately, Cal’d had to return to Immanion.
So, four years later, another celebration was upon them. Tarot was going to turn six and Lunar seven. They were no longer harlings exactly, but hadn’t entered feybraiha either. They were at that awkward stage when they didn’t belong to either group.
Lunar was watching himself for the first signs of feybraiha since he was the oldest. Skye expected the changes to appear shortly and Lunar was excited about it. A few weeks ago he had taken special classes with Lisia and the hostling had explained to him what exactly happened at feybraiha, so Lunar was eager for the transformation to begin. He only worried that he might leave Tarot behind. Ever since Lisia had brought up his upcoming feybraiha he had been thinking about the har to take aruna with that first time. Had it been up to him, he would have chosen Tarot, but he needed an experienced har to make the transformation work. In the end, he had chosen Onyx, who was two years older. It helped that he knew the har from childhood.
Leaning in closer, Lunar watched from over Tarot’s shoulder as the other harling tended to one of the vegetable gardens. Tarot was good at making things grow and had saved many plants the last few years. He also had a touch of a healer about him as he tended to injured animals and nursed them back to health again. “What are you doing?”
“I am trying to save this year’s potatoes. Some insect is nagging away at the stems.” Tarot tipped back his head and gazed into Lunar’s midnight-blue eyes that had darkened over the years from the pale blue. “I want to save this year’s harvest.” Studying Lunar’s face, he wondered what was different. “Hey, you feel hot.” A feverish sheen covered Lunar’s normally pale face.
“I don’t feel that great,” Lunar admitted. “I itch all over.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t realize it before. Lunar, you have started feybraiha!” Tarot was happy for his best friend. “This is exciting!”
“For you maybe,” Lunar retorted and scratched his arm. “To me, it’s just discomfort.”
“Pansea and Skye will come for you shortly and will prepare you for aruna for the first time. Do you still want it to be Onyx that first time?”
“I’d rather have you,” Lunar replied, crestfallen. “But that’s not possible. I’ll wait for you though. When you’re ready you can chose me if you want to. I will have some experience at that point.”
“Thank you. I’ll remember your offer when the time comes.” Abandoning his plants for the time being, Tarot took Lunar’s hand in his and got to his feet. “Let’s see your hostling. They need to know what is happening.”
“Tarot? We might not see each other for some time once they know.” Lunar came to a halt and took Tarot’s hands in his. “I want you to know that I only want you, even though I have to take aruna with Onyx. I will wait for you.”
Tarot rested his brow against Lunar’s and smiled. “I feel the same way. I want you and nohar else.” If Lunar was determined to wait for him, so would he. He wanted them to become chesna just like Pansea and Skye and Aleeme and Azriel. He wanted Lunar to himself.
Tarot didn’t see Lunar for the next three weeks and they were the longest ever. Every day he hoped Lunar would seek him out, but Skye assured him that Lunar was merely going through the necessary rituals and hadn’t forgotten about him, which was Tarot’s greatest fear. What if Lunar decided that taking aruna with Onyx was better than keeping his promise to Tarot?
Then one day when he least expected it, long arms curled themselves around his waist and pulled him against a warm body. Turning his head, he was about to tell the other har off, but found himself looking at Lunar’s handsome face. His friend had changed. Some of the light that had always been hidden inside of Lunar’s core had found its way outside. “I thought you had forgotten about me!”
Lunar laughed and shook his head. “I will never forget you!” But things had changed for him. He was an adult now. He had gone through his rites of passage and was no longer a harling. Aruna with Onyx had felt good, but he knew that aruna with Tarot would feel even better.
“What was it like? Is it like Lisia says it is?”
“It is even better – taking aruna that is.” Lunar ruffled Tarot’s hair and the strands playfully wrapped themselves around Lunar’s wrist. “It won’t be long until you find out.” Hopefully Tarot would reach his feybraiha within the year.
“Aleeme? When will feybraiha start for me?” Tarot sat next to his hostling on the couch and looked at him pleadingly. “It has been a year since Lunar went though his feybraiha and I still am not showing any signs.”
“It occurs between five and eight years of age roughly. It is impossible to predict when you are ready. You have to be patient.” Aleeme couldn’t believe how quickly the last few years had passed by. Although Tarot was worried that feybraiha wasn’t happening for him yet, Aleeme knew it wouldn’t take much longer for his son to start showing the first signs. “You are growing up so quickly. You are six years now… Feybraiha will start shortly for you and then you will be an adult. You were so adorable as a harling.”
“I am still adorable,” Tarot retorted jokingly. “At least, Lunar thinks so.”
“Are you afraid that Lunar will find a chesnari before you have started feybraiha? Is that it?” Aleeme had gotten to know his son pretty well over the years.
“Am I that transparent?” Tarot grew flustered. “The thing is…everything is different. In the past, Lunar followed me about. He was the smaller one… We were inseparable and now…”
“You know that hara need to take aruna on regular basis. That has nothing to do with the feelings Lunar has for you.” Azriel and he also took aruna frequently and lately Aleeme had even been able to be soume for his chesnari, which was another major step in their relationship. “Lunar loves you. Don’t doubt his feelings for you.”
“It is hard for me at the moment,” Tarot admitted. “Lunar has changed, but in a good way,” he added quickly. “His self-confidence has grown and he has become more independent. I like that.”
“Just give it time,” Aleeme advised. “It won’t be long until you start feybraiha as well.”
Lisia was overseeing the oldest harlings’ lessons that day and Tarot was one of his students. As he circled the harling, Lisia noticed the way Tarot kept absentmindedly scratching his arm. Another probing look revealed that Tarot’s face was flushed and Lisia smiled contentedly. He knew that Tarot was eagerly awaiting his feybraiha to start and hearing that he was finally showing the symptoms would probably delight him. Lisia pulled up a chair and sat down next to Tarot. “Does it tingle?” he asked, wondering how long it would take the harling to figure out why his skin was itching.
Tarot was concentrating on his writing and only shrugged his shoulders. “I can manage.”
A few of the other harlings had caught on and were giggling as Lisia winked at them. “Do you know why it itches?
Getting annoyed with Lisia’s questions because he wanted to finish his task, Tarot looked up and stared right into Lisia’s smiling eyes. His jaw dropped and suddenly he understood why Lisia had been asking him those questions. “Has it started?” His eyes widened and he enthusiastically grabbed hold of Lisia’s right hand.
Lisia quickly nodded his head. “Your feybraiha has started. I am happy for you.”
Tarot’s eyes attained a dreamy look. He didn’t care too much about the fact that he would be considered an adult in a few days. The only thing he could think of was that he could take aruna with Lunar and in that way reclaim his best friend’s attention.
Tarot had wanted to talk to Lunar first, but Lisia had escorted him home where the hostling and Aleeme had told Tarot everything he needed to know about the upcoming rites. Tarot hadn’t really listened because all he could think of was telling Lunar. After what seemed to be endless hours, Aleeme finally allowed him to seek out Lunar.
Finally sighting the blond har in the gardens, Tarot ran toward him. Unable to come to a stop in time, he crashed into Lunar and the two of them tumbled onto the ground. Luckily the grass and moss cushioned their fall.
Lunar had wanted to scold the har for running him down, but when he saw that it was Tarot who had crashed into him he remained quiet and searched the handsome face instead. Having gone through feybraiha recently himself he instantly recognized the symptoms. “It has started for you too!”
“Yes! We’ll be able to take aruna shortly! Oh, Lunar, I’m so excited!” Tarot ended up straddling Lunar’s waist and buried his fingers in the blond hair. Leaning in closer, he brushed his lips against Lunar’s. “I want you.”
Lunar raised a hand and caressed Tarot’s face as he smiled at his chesnari and future rooning partner. “I will be ouana and you will be soume and we will truly be one when we take aruna. I always knew that I belonged with you.” He had known it from the first moment they had met and now, finally, they could make their bond final.
Tarot was nervous in spite of all the advice he had gotten recently. Lisia, Pansea, Lunar, and even Aleeme and Azriel had tried to explain to him what to expect from the first time he took aruna. But as he sat on the bed, naked, trembling, and waiting for Lunar to join him, he wondered if he would ever feel prepared.
He was worried that he might disappoint Lunar, who was the experienced one of them. Their changed roles left him feeling a bit awkward. In the past, Lunar had followed him about and had taken his cue from him, but now the fair-haired har was the one in control and Tarot didn’t know how to deal with that. He had always thought that he’d have to take care of Lunar and protect him and now Lunar was the one having to guide him.
“You don’t have to be nervous,” Lunar whispered and entered the room. He had bathed, rubbed scented oil onto his skin, and had brushed his hair until it shone like the sun. Naked and with his skin glowing from the oil, he advanced on the bed and sat down next to Tarot. “You are beautiful,” he murmured and let his fingers glide down Tarot’s chest. “You are a harling no more, Tarot.” He loved seeing the dark hair curl and uncurl as they reached for strands of his fair hair before releasing it. “Do you trust me?”
“Always,” Tarot replied and moved closer. Since Lunar was close his nervousness was fading. “I want to touch you.”
Lunar smiled. “Why don’t you let me touch you instead? I’m here to teach you, remember?” Lunar placed his palms against Tarot’s chest and gently pushed the other har onto his back. He straddled Tarot’s waist and bent down to finally claim the other har’s lips properly. “Let me show you what sharing breath is like.”
Tarot’s toes curled when Lunar released small puffs of affection into his mind. He clasped his hands behind Lunar’s neck and made sure Lunar couldn’t stop. Feeling Lunar’s naked body against his sparked his lust and he thrust wantonly against the other har’s pelvis.
Lunar had to stop sharing breath when they ran out of air. Gazing into Tarot’s eyes, his fingertips traced the outline of the other har’s eyebrows before his right hand traveled lower and between Tarot’s legs. “You are soume already.” His fingers touched the moist center and probed inside.
Tarot closed his eyes and threw back his head. A moan escaped his lips as he parted his legs further. “Don’t play with me.”
Lunar nodded. He remembered how eager he had been the first time and took pity on the other har. “Let me guide you… You can be ouana later.”
“I don’t mind being soume or ouana. I just want to know you.” Tarot’s right hand squeezed Lunar’s buttock while his left reached for the other har’s ouana-lim.
Lunar caught Tarot’s hand before the dark-haired har could touch the petals. “You might push me over the edge.”
Tarot twined his fingers with Lunar’s and looked pleadingly at the blond har. “Lunar… I need this…”
Lunar shifted on top of Tarot and positioned himself so his ouana-lim could enter Tarot’s soume-lam. He took his time guiding himself inside and claimed Tarot’s lips again. While sharing breath, he slid into place and the petals of his ouana-lim rubbed against the folds of Tarot’s soume-lam, bringing them both pleasure. “We are united, Tarot. We are one.”
Tarot nodded. “I always wanted this…” Running his fingers along Lunar’s face, he focused on the sensations washing over him. The pleasure was unimaginable and just when he thought he couldn’t feel more bliss, Lunar started to move. Tarot arched his back and cried out in ecstasy.
Wanting to make Tarot feel as good as he could, Lunar concentrated on bringing them to a joined high. Although he knew what to expect when they hit the top, the intensity of the pleasure coursing through him still overwhelmed him. Lunar had been right when he had thought that aruna with the right har would double the pleasure. Burying his face in Tarot’s hair, Lunar let go.
Tarot’s body was an endless ocean and he was floating on waves that threw him from one direction into another. He had never felt anything like it before and was afraid he might faint. Strands of his hair curled around Lunar’s wrists and waist and, when Lunar collapsed on top of him, they didn’t release the blond har. The hold the hair had on Lunar tightened instead.
Panting hard, Lunar managed to raise his head so he could gaze at his chesnari. They might have taken aruna only once, but they both knew they would be chesna for the rest of their lives. They had always known that.
“I love you,” Tarot whispered and rubbed Lunar’s cheek with his thumb. An affectionate sated light had appeared in his green eyes and he couldn’t stop staring at the blond har.
“I love you too. I always did and I always will. You are my chesnari, Tarot, and I am yours.”
Tarot folded an arm around Lunar and pulled him close. Lunar blanketed Tarot’s body and wrapped his arms around the dark-haired har. In a few hours they would take aruna again and then Tarot would be ouana. Lunar smiled lazily, trying to imagine what his life would be like now that they were chesna. “I will lead a happy life,” Lunar remarked and his lips brushed Tarot’s skin. “We will be happy.”
Tarot smiled. “We already are.”