After the Rains

After The Rains
By Camile Sinensis (Teapot)

Story Notes

Editor\'s PickThis is a sequel to “And The Flowers Bloom Like Madness In The Spring”

Characters: Thiede and Velaxis. Also Pellaz, Caeru, an annoying original character, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Tharmifex, and the usual anonymous, hard-working serving hara, bless ‘em.

Spoilers: I tried not to give too much away, but the whole story revolves around a pretty whopping spoiler for “Ghosts”.

Summary: Thiede returns to Immanion after spending seven years in another dimension. Reflecting on his previous life and his long relationship with Velaxis, he attempts to pick up the threads and make a new future for himself as an ordinary har.

Author email: teapot@doramail.com

Website: http://red-shellac.livejournal.com/, http://www.mudsharks.org/stuff/

– 1 –

He had no memory of rain. In his mind, every day in Immanion had been sunny. Birds had sung and skies had been blue.

Common sense told him that this could not have been so – rain had to fall or crops would not grow and the lush gardens of Phaonica would not bloom. Even Immanion, with all its magic and strangeness could not defy nature.

But that was the past – a different world, a more ordered universe. Things were no longer as they had been. Immanion had changed, as all things do. As he himself had changed.

***

Rain droplets made their way down the window pane in orderly progression, each one leaving a thin trail behind it. Thiede watched them carefully, as if he fully expected one renegade drop to defy gravity, surface tension and expectation and crawl upwards back towards the heavens it had lately descended from. Nothing of the sort happened, of course.

The wet glass was bleary, but he could see through it to the hills in the distance beyond. The tops of those jagged, grey-green slopes were modestly shrouded in low cloud which seemed to be settling lower as the day progressed. Every so often a gust of wind would throw a rattling handful of drops against the window with a somewhat greater force, and an eerie whistle would inveigle its way through a gap in the window frame. Even Phaonica itself was uncomfortable with the current weather – its terraces and balconies abandoned temporarily as its occupants took shelter.

The mosaic floors and marble walls which kept the residents cool in the summer heat now seemed chilly and uncomfortable. With a slight shrug, Thiede turned away from the draughty window and the depressing scene outside and retreated to the far end of the room where a small but cheerful fire burned in the grate and the welcoming sofa with over-stuffed cushions beckoned. By the fireside, there was a large rug on the floor with patterns of red and rusty orange echoing the flames. It felt soft underfoot as he walked over it – a great improvement on the cold tiles. A low table had been set out in front of the sofa with a pot of tea and some freshly-baked delicacies. It was a scene to remind one that even rainy days had their unique pleasures.

Thiede sat down on the sofa, curled his legs up underneath him and poured some tea into a cup, carefully filling it almost to the rim. There was another cup and saucer on the table, but he left that empty for the time being. He relaxed back into the cushions, and sipped the tea from his own cup. A househar poked his head enquiringly round the door, but seeing that his master was apparently quite capable of pouring his own tea, he disappeared again without a word.

Phaonica. It was home, and yet somehow not. He had been absent for seven years. Obviously things would have changed. These were the very rooms he had occupied before, but all traces of his previous life here had been removed, at his command. Somehow it had seemed more fitting for him to start afresh. He had not even been back to some parts of the palace which he used to frequent… Thiede did not believe in ghosts, but if he did, he knew those rooms would be full of something resembling spectres. Strange and perhaps not-altogether-pleasant memories. Better to let them lie. A new beginning was required. A clean break from the past.

He leaned forward and set the cut down on the table. The delicate china rattled musically.

You know that isn’t possible, he told himself. The past cannot be tidied away as if it had never happened. It has to be confronted.

He sighed, and laced his long, elegant fingers together, gazing at them curiously as if he could divine some important truth from their contours. How was he supposed to deal with the past when there was so much happening in the present? Since his arrival back in Immanion, dramatic events had occurred. In a way he was almost glad for the intensity of the past few days – it had given everyone something else to focus on. When the world is shifting under your feet, even the return of a former God to mortal form can seem a mundane occurrence.

He knew it wouldn’t last. Sooner or later, explanations would be required. Discussions would happen, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he was looking forward to some of these. He refilled his cup thoughtfully. Pellaz…. Somehow he had blocked from his mind what his former protégé’s reaction to his return would be. Pell, surprisingly, had been pleased to see him. Of course, he had brought the royal family’s lost child back with him so obviously there was going to be rejoicing, but that wasn’t the whole of it. Pell had been pleased to see him because – well, simply because.

Thiede was not a sentimental creature. He knew he had interfered in Pell’s life and been responsible for a lot of his unhappiness. He also knew that he had protected and indulged his Tigron, and kept from him the true burden of what it meant to be responsible for an entire race. He wondered if Pell resented him for any of that. He wondered if Pell’s obvious pleasure at his reappearance meant that he now felt he would be relieved of some of that responsibility. Time would tell…

The truth of the matter was that it was not Pell, or even Cal, who were important now. Darquiel, Geburael, Loki, Lileem… they were the future of Wraeththu-kind.

The rest of us, he thought, will just have to get used to the idea of not being the centre of the universe any more.

His own ego still twinged just a little at the thought, but not as much as he expected.

It’s a freedom, of a kind. A new life. What am I to do with it?

He knew the answer to that. Or, rather, half of the answer. He knew what he was not going to do. He would no longer be a concept, a God, an idea, or a tool, whether of himself, his kind, or of those who had created him.

I will be a har he thought, with something approaching awe. I will be me.

He stared at the untouched plate of cakes in front of him realizing that he had no idea how he was going to achieve this, and it seemed suddenly laughable that he, a being who had created a new race, crossed dimensions of space and time and possessed powers that few could even imagine existed, should feel so inadequate.

Be truthful with yourself. If you cannot be truthful with anyone else, at least be true to yourself.

He picked up the cup again. It rattled slightly in its saucer. To his surprise, he noticed his hand was shaking slightly.

He looked thoughtfully at the other, empty cup still on the table. On the mantelpiece over the fire, a bronze clock ticked quietly. Its minute hand moved the last fraction of an inch into the vertical position, and it was 3.00 o’clock. At that very second, as he knew would happen, there was a knock at the door.

Velaxis was always punctual. Always reliable.

For some reason, he felt nervous. Which was strange. He himself had requested this meeting, as he had done many, many times before. There was no reason to feel like this.

Be truthful with yourself

He set the cup down again carefully, and rose gracefully from the sofa. None of the househara had turned up to open the door, and he didn’t expect them to. They were aware who had arrived. Velaxis had been Thiede’s personal assistant for a long time – his right hand and his left hand both; his agent. It was he who ensured that all Thiede’s instructions were carried out to the letter; it was he who put in motion all the necessary undertakings for Thiede’s plans. When Velaxis was around, there was simply no need for any of the other servants to do anything. He took care of everything.

Servant and master. That had been their relationship for many years. And now it was not. Perhaps it never had been. Thiede did not know exactly what metamorphosis had occurred during the past few weeks, but he knew things would no longer be as they were before. Velaxis was not the person he had taken him to be. Not a servant, not an assistant, not even a normal har. That much was apparent.

He walked over to the door, still feeling strangely unsettled. There was a familiarity about this procedure; he summoned Velaxis, Velaxis came. He ordered Velaxis to do something, Velaxis did it. But the pattern had been broken; he had not ordered Velaxis to come here today. This meeting had another purpose. Velaxis had waited until Thiede had requested his presence, patient as always, but Thiede had never doubted that he would come. There was unfinished business, unresolved issues, things left unsaid, loose ends, an unfinished story… He shook his head. There would be no more ordering. That was then, this was now. Things had changed. He had changed.

An empty space was before him. A blank page where once had been a familiar and comforting script. He must construct his own future now, and think of some way to fill it.

He opened the door.

It was unusual for another har to meet his gaze so directly. Unusual because he was tall, and unusual because there were few who had the composure to look him in the eye like that.

He could think of nothing to say, no words to fill the empty page.

Velaxis entered, and closed the door quietly behind him. They stood looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Thiede was aware of a familiar tightening in his groin, but his brain refused to supply any other input. Eventually Velaxis broke the silence. He shook his head slightly and gave a ghost of a smile.

“Must I do everything for you?”

The sudden sharing of the other har’s breath was almost brutal; hands closed around the back of his neck, and pulled him closer; there was mouth-on-mouth body-against-body; then there was clothing being pulled, ripped, fabric giving way, and somewhere in the frantic gasping for breath Thiede realized that he was the one doing the pulling and the tearing, and this wasn’t what he had planned – a prim, civilized pot of tea and uneaten pile of cakes lay forgotten on the table – but it was what he wanted, and just for this moment, that was all that mattered.

***

The rain was still falling. The difference was that now it was falling inside as well as out. The bedroom had a row of high windows, nine in total. Eight of these were smashed, glass pulverized and now lying in crystals and shards on the floor giving the once elegant room a distressed, slum-like appearance. The ninth window remained in place, but a large, forked crack extended from the bottom corner to the top.

The weather was now celebrating its unexpected access by leaving growing puddles of rainwater on the floor, and blowing chilly air-currents around the room. Thiede shivered. He hadn’t been particularly warm when fully dressed, and he was now decidedly uncomfortable in his nakedness.

He looked down at the har on the bed, who did not seem to be bothered by the cold at all. Thiede studied him carefully. He could see a small muscle in Velaxis’ inner thigh twitching uncontrollably, and his normally well-groomed hair was spread untidily across the pillows, tangled and messy. Between his legs, and on the sheets, was the damp glistening of the combined essences of their bodies; a memento of their recent coupling.

Velaxis had an unusual look on his face; slightly unfocussed, yet at the same time sated and content. Thiede had the notion that if he was a cat, he would be purring. The idea amused him. He had often thought that were was something feline about Velaxis.

He sat on the edge of the bed, and tentatively placed one hand, palm down, onto Velaxis’ hard, flat abdomen. He could feel the warmth of the body underneath. He ran his hand up and down languidly. No claws were in evidence.
Only that strange expression. Thiede did not remember Velaxis looking like that after aruna before. Then again, he did not remember windows shattering either. He felt unaccountably pleased with himself, as if it was a significant achievement on his part. Not the windows, of course – he looked across at the mess of glass and rainwater on the floor and idly wondered how he was going to explain this damage to the newly decorated rooms, until he remembered who he was, and that he had no need to explain anything at all – but the fact that there was a har lying on his bed who was visibly satisfied. It wasn’t always like that.

It wasn’t ever like that, a small and unpleasant voice in his head reminded him. He pushed it aside. Just for this moment, he wanted to forget his past experiences.

“That doesn’t usually happen.” Velaxis looked casually over at the shattered windows. There was a note of amusement in his voice.

“Yes, well… it’s been a long time…” he muttered vaguely, hoping he didn’t sound too smug.

Velaxis sighed, and stretched luxuriously across the bed.

“Yes it has.”

“It’s all very well for you, Vel, you’ve had other… outlets.”

“The Hegemony.”

Thiede wondered how exactly Velaxis managed to convey such a delicately nuanced impression of disappointment and dissatisfaction in just two words.

“I hand-picked them. They are the finest hara Immanion can offer.”

“I don’t doubt it for a second.”

He felt Velaxis touch his back, one finger drawing a line down his spine. He shivered, but not from the cold this time.

“But they are not the Aghama.”

There was a mocking edge to Velaxis’ words, but his eyes told a different story. He moved his body and motioned Thiede to lie down next to him on the bed. Thiede did so, drawing up the blanket to cover them both. He felt warmer immediately, the heat from Velaxis’ body banishing the chill.

“I missed you.”

“Did you? Why?”

“Don’t be obtuse.”

A feather-soft touch of lips brushed his own, and Thiede shivered again, in spite of the blanket. The golden glow of aruna had faded, as he remembered his previous doubts and uncertainties.

“Why did you come back?”

“I…”

Don’t lie to yourself

“There was something I forgot to do,” he began, helplessly. “Some part of being har that I hadn’t experienced. Something… I don’t know… something I needed.”

“Something that you couldn’t have in the other dimension.”

He could only nod silently, confused.

Something he had never had before. Velaxis moved over him, and they shared breath. It was exactly as he remembered it. They had done this so many times, he and his servant. The servant who was not a servant. Free from his own self-deception, Thiede could see that Velaxis had hidden his true self exactly as he himself had done. Even though they had shared breath and shared the intimacies of aruna, he realized that he had never fully opened himself. Not to Velaxis, not to any har. He had been alone all his life, imprisoned within the inviolate integrity of his own being. He had thought himself whole, but now he knew that was not true.

The familiarity of sharing breath with Velaxis almost lulled him into a sense of comfort and security, but he knew that if his return to the earthly realm was to mean anything, he had to do what he had not done before. He was acutely aware that the images and impressions from Velaxis’ mind were only the surface. Below that was… something unknown. He knew that if he wanted it, Velaxis would open up to him and they would join together at a level deeper than the purely physical.

Velaxis had had his own reasons for keeping his true self hidden, but those were gone now. Thiede knew what he was being offered. He knew, too, that it was his decision to make. Take the offered gift; open the box of secrets. Or leave the lid closed, turn away and remain alone, forever.

He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a cliff, debating with himself whether to jump over the edge, blind.

**You don’t have to decide now**

Velaxis’ thoughts were inside his mind, even as they continued to share breath. The taste of the other har’s mouth, and his thoughts, became tangled and joined, bleeding lazily into each other.

**I am here for you, if that is what you want**

Scent of skin, taste of mouth, lips, red like smeared jam.

He paused, looking over the edge. Only darkness lay below.

**Is that what you want?**

Something hard and round, like a frozen tear, had found its way under his body. He felt for it. It was a pearl from the necklace which Velaxis habitually wore, broken during aruna, its snapped strands lying discarded on the sheets.

I don’t know

– 2 –

It begins with aruna

Or, rather, it doesn’t.

Neither does it begin with Immanion, which doesn’t exist yet, except as a vision in his mind. It is a perfect city, and because it does not yet exist, it has no flaws. But he is determined that it will be free from all taint. It will be a shining beacon to all Wraeththu kind. It will be a place where peace and harmony and enlightenment will reign. There will be no pain, no misery, no unhappiness. It will be filled with the finest hara, tall and beautiful. A city of Angels. It will be a new start. The original Wraeththu tribe has fallen from grace. He does not know how, or why that has happened, but he knows that here, in this new country, far away from the agony of his new race’s beginnings, he will start again. And this time he will achieve perfection.

A city. Immanion.

Of course, first it will have to be built.

Not by the sweat and toil which humans used to build their flawed cities. Immanion will be built by perfection. It will be built by the power of aruna, Wraeththu-kind’s greatest treasure. And it will be built by him, since he is, as yet, the only person with the ability to harness the elemental energy of aruna.

There is only one small problem. He needs a partner. It is at this juncture that he feels most acutely that the universe has played a cruel joke on him. He has been given power far in advance of any of his kind. So much so that most other hara cannot tolerate his blazing presence during aruna. He tries hard not to think of those whom he has damaged or destroyed, deliberately exiling such thoughts from his mind. It could not be helped, he was not responsible.

But nevertheless, he still needs a partner who has immunity from his destructive aspect. Somehar who can be the receptacle for his divine power, a channel for the immense energies which he will release, and who will survive the experience. Immanion will be a perfect city – he cannot – will not – kill to achieve it.

Such a creature is not easily found, but eventually he hears of a har who may suit his purpose. He travels to the far reaches of Thaine, to some backward little settlement where the Archon greets him suspiciously, and answers, with reluctance, his questions regarding a certain har whom he has taken on as his personal assistant.

It becomes clear to him that this har has unique abilities when it comes to aruna. The Archon plainly does not want to share his prized specimen with any other, but he has no choice. He sends for the har, and a tall creature with long white hair is brought before him.

He recounts to the white-haired har the nature of the position he is offering. The har listens, silent and knowing. He will not force him. Immanion will be a perfect city, and perfection cannot be achieved by coercion. The har must offer his services by his own choice. He explains the danger.

The har looks him directly in the eye and smiles. A strange, secretive smile.

“You will not harm me.” he says smoothly, and Thiede does not know if that is a statement or an order, but from the moment he looks into the har’s dark blue eyes, he wants him. Wants him for his shining, perfect city. A city which will be full of such beings as this. Tall as gods, beautiful as angels. It is a presentiment of things to come.

They leave the next day. The parochial Archon is furious at losing his prize, but he can do nothing. The har is named Velaxis, and he promises himself to Thiede’s service. Thiede does not question why.

***

From the bedroom came sounds of hammering and banging as the palace maintenance hara worked to repair the damaged windows. Thiede ignored it, preferring to concentrate on the pleasurable feeling of the warm water surrounding his body. This was the first time he had felt truly warm since he had left the other dimension. True, that place had not been warm, but it had not been cold either. It had not been anything. It had been more an absence of anything, rather than a physical reality.

The physical reality of returning to the Earthly realm had been one of cold and damp, from the chilly plains of Oolopade, to frozen Nezrika, and now this miserable early Rosatide here in Almagabra. He missed the sun. It seemed like an eternity since he had felt its warmth on his body. In the absence of sunshine, a hot bath was the next best thing.

The bathtub was small – at least, by comparison with the one it had replaced. Thiede recalled, almost with embarrassment, the vast pool with fountains and running waterfalls and sculptures and statues and mosaic tiles and all the other accoutrements which he had deemed necessary for his ablutions during his previous life in Phaonica. Even he had to admit it had been a little ostentatious.

The new bathroom was considerably more modest, both in size and ambition, but the bath was comfortably big enough for two hara, which seemed more than adequate.

He lay back, watching his own long, red hair floating in the scented water like some strange weed. The water had darkened the colour, so that it now appeared to be a deep shade of burgundy. In contrast, Velaxis’ white hair remained unchanged in hue, the colour of raw silk.

His glass was almost empty. Before he even had a chance to register the fact himself, Velaxis had topped it up from the bottle of wine sitting at the edge of the bath. The soft yellow light from the candle flames reflected tranquilly in the crystal facets of the glasses. Velaxis’ powers of organization were legendary – even running a bath was carried out with military precision. Thiede had suggested that he left it to the househara –

“You don’t need to do that…”

Velaxis had merely sniffed. “Yes I do.” was all he had said.

Thiede had once thought that it was he who controlled Immanion. Many hara assumed that as Tigron, Pellaz was the one who was in ultimate charge. The Hegemony were sure that they ran the city. In fact, it was Velaxis’ tireless and constant supervision as Chief of Administration which keep the wheels of Immanion turning with such apparent effortlessness.

He wondered what The Hegemony would do if he were to leave. He wondered if Velaxis had any reason to stay now.

“Tell me,” he said, setting the glass down carefully on the edge of the bathtub. “I want to know – how did you become har?”

Velaxis took a sip from his glass, and wiped away some scented foam from the outside with one finger.

“It wasn’t difficult,” he said, “I found an obliging soul who drank the wine into which I had put the sedative. I took some of his blood, and by the time he awoke – I was what he already thought I was beforehand.”

“You have no inception scar.” Thiede knew this for a fact. He knew every inch of Velaxis’ body, and there was not a mark on it.

Velaxis made a face. “A barbaric ritual.” he opined. “You’d think people had never heard of hypodermic needles. I don’t care for scars.” He sipped his wine fastidiously.

“What was it like, for you?” Thiede was interested. He had seen many humans incepted, but Velaxis had never been human.

“Fairly quick. I knew what would happen, and I was able to assist the process.”

“Was it painful?”

“Define “painful”.”

“On a scale of one to ten?”

Velaxis thought for a moment. “Five.” he concluded eventually. He took another sip of wine. “Maybe six.”

“What did you do then?”

“I made enquiries as to the nature of the emerging Wraeththu civilization – investigated, asked questions, followed trails, discovered who was important. It took me quite a while to get you to come.”

“To… what? Me? Where?”

“Oh, you remember. That godforsaken hole in the back of beyond. Thaine. And that awful, puffed-up little idiot of an Archon.”

“Oh.”

“I needed you. I needed to be with you. I knew you were important. I just never expected…” He smiled wryly and did not finish his sentence. “Don’t look so worried.”

“I’ll try not to. It’s a bit difficult when you discover that you’ve been manipulated. I’d complain, but….”

“Pot?”

“Kettle.”

“Black.”

They clinked their glasses together.

“What will you do now?” Thiede asked cautiously.

“What do you mean?”

“Will you return to your people?”

Velaxis’ expression became distant. “I don’t know,” he said carefully. “I’m not really one of them any more. But then again, I’m not really like any other har, either.

“Does that make any difference?”

“I don’t know. It might to some. The Immanion rumour-mill has been working overtime since we got back anyway. Of course, what with the return of the lost son and your own unexpected reappearance, my own personal history has attracted rather less attention than it might otherwise have done, but I’m sure sooner or later somehar is going to comment upon it.”

“You will always have a place in Immanion,” Thiede told him softly. “You helped me to build it, and we all owe you a great deal.”

“Thank you.” he smiled and pushed a few strands of wet hair back from his face. “However I can think of at least one notable dignitary who would be quite glad to see the back of me!”

“Pellaz?”

“Who else?”

Thiede took the bottle, and divided what was left of the contents between the two glasses.

“Perhaps I should have a word with him.”

“I wouldn’t, if I were you. I’m sure that would only make things worse”

“I don’t understand why he is so hostile.”

“It’s because of Rue. Well, partly.”

“The Tigrina? What does he have to do with it?”

“I am Rue’s friend. Pellaz has, in the past, not been particularly tolerant of those Rue considered friends.”

“But that is all resolved now, or so I was led to believe.”

“For the most part, yes. But there is more to it than that…”

“Which is…”

Velaxis smiled broadly and tipped his head back, resting his arms on the soapy sides of the tub. “He thinks I am in love with Rue.”

“And are you?”

Velaxis laughed. “Oh, it would be so easy, wouldn’t it? He’s such a sweet thing, such a treasure…” he drained the last of the wine from his glass. “But, no.” He turned to look at Thiede gently. “I am not in love with Caeru.”

“Why don’t you tell Pellaz that then?”

“What? And deny him the opportunity of discovering a thing of great importance for himself?”

“What thing?” Thiede felt as if his head was spinning, and not just from the wine.

“That he is jealous! Imagine his sense of achievement when acquires such self-knowledge! Come on, I think we’re done here. The wine’s gone, the water’s cold and I’m ready for bed.”

“It’s early yet.”

“Did I say anything about sleep?”

This time, only three windows shattered.

– 3 –

Spires of gold. Towers of ivory. Marble halls and sunlit, tree-lined avenues. A city. Immanion.

It is only a beginning, but already the city is taking shape, more quickly than seemed possible. Overnight, it seems, new buildings spring up. Rome may not have been built in a day, but certain quarters of Immanion are.

He has harnessed the power of aruna to achieve this miracle. Other hara are like sleepwalkers; they go through the motions, but they do not truly appreciate what is possible. Only he has the self-discipline to direct the energies so constructively. Every detail is planned; every action has its consequences. Everything is done for a reason.

In the still, calm eye of an orgasmic hurricane, he can find peace, as well as meaning. There is purpose to this activity. It is what he is for.

The har he has chosen as his partner exceeds his expectations. No matter how much energy is released, no matter how furious the storm, Velaxis remains composed. Thiede admires his powers of concentration, as much as he admires his desirable body and beautiful face. He is the perfect servant – industrious, discreet and deferential.

Aruna with him is like the patterns in the mosaic tiles, or those woven into the silk carpets which adorn the walls and floors; complex, yet ultimately whole and contained. Almost mathematical in its precision and control. A flawless thing, untainted by emotional complications.

Aruna is an act of creation. It is for creating and channeling energy. That is its purpose. He reminds himself of this as he lies on his back and is expertly fellated by Velaxis. He can feel the other har’s throat muscles constricting and tightening, pulling him in deeper, the moving tongue seeking out new ways to stimulate the sensitive areas of his ouana-lim. Nohar has ever done this to him before, and the pleasure is unbearably intense.

Amidst the pleasure there is guilt… This will achieve nothing, it has not been planned. It will be a waste of energy. He wants to pull away, and yet he cannot because his body, his flesh, his aching hardness, want this more. His thoughts are scattered, he cannot direct them, any more than he can think of a way to direct the energy of the orgasm building too fast from his viscera, growing out of control. This is not how it should be, and yet this is how he wants it to be.

*This is not how it should be, this is not what aruna is for*, he thinks, and in that instant a spring snaps and he floods and fills Velaxis’ mouth, feels him swallow hard, feels one last almost unbearable touch of that knowledgeable tongue, and then a different touch brushes lightly across his mind, slightly amused and self-satisfied.

*Sometimes, it is just for pleasure.*

He is not capable of answering, , but makes a mental note to speak to the servant later and explain to him that this is not what he wants from him, and it must not happen again.

Somehow, he never does.

***

It was still raining the next morning. Birds perched miserably under the palace eves, fluffing up their feathers in an attempt to dry them. The low cloud had now become an all-enveloping grey mist, and the hills behind the city were obscured completely.

By the time Thiede had finished breakfast, the househara were once again engaged in sweeping up broken glass in the bedroom. He could hear them muttering, and resisted the urge to eavesdrop, feeling sure no good would come of what he might learn.

He had breakfasted in the sitting room, for it seemed the only room which was warm, and he watched idly as the remains of the food were cleared away. It had been his intention since his return to Immanion to go riding in the surrounding countryside and reacquaint himself with some of his favourite haunts, but the continuing rain had – literally – put a dampener on his plans.

Velaxis had left some hours ago for some early morning business at the Hegalion. A world away from the rarified concerns of Phaonica’s elite, the wheels and cogs which kept the city moving continued to turn. Doubtless there would be reports to be read, decisions to be made, plans to be implemented, targets to be met, meetings to be attended, committees to be formed. Immanion was the proverbial swan – graceful and serene on the surface; paddling furiously underneath.

Thiede remembered his long-ago vision of a perfect city. Try as he might, he could not remember having included such things as plumbing, one-way systems and road repairs in his grandiose schemes. Perhaps that was where he had gone wrong.

He felt the presence of Pellaz har Aralis arrive at his apartments even before the servant announced him and showed him in. Pellaz had not given any notice of his visit, but then, as Tigron, he did not have to. Although – Thiede reflected wryly – the Pellaz of seven years ago might have been a little more deferential.

He stood up to greet his visitor. Pellaz swept in looking every inch the regal ruler. His long, dark purple robes brushed the floor, and his black hair was swept up and knotted behind his head, with only a few locks hanging straight and loose underneath. In the years since his coronation – how long was it now – thirty? forty years? – Pellaz had acquired a gravitas and a dignity which suited his position.

Thiede wondered if he was the only person who still saw the untrained and untamed raw energy which had told him so clearly of Pell’s potential all those years ago. He had not been wrong. Pell was a great ruler, a fine Tigron and a vital part of Wraeththu’s overall development. He was an object of awe and respect these days and yet Thiede still had a small, nostalgic affection for the Pellaz of old. He had created him, given him life. Often it felt to him as if Pellaz was his own child. Of course, that could be said of all hara, but Pell was different; special. Favoured son; spoilt and indulged.

Was that my way of trying to compensate you for depriving you of the one thing you wanted most?

Pellaz greeted him with a smile, warm and genuine. The traumas of the past had been forgiven and forgotten, and Immanion’s founder had been welcomed back into the bosom of the Aralis family, now united and strong. It was a happy, fairytale ending, and one which they deserved, given what they had suffered. All was well in Phaonica.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do about Cal,” Pell interrupted Thiede’s rose-tinted reverie with a heavy sigh. Already the bright smile had slipped from his face, to be replaced with his more customary frown…

“Cal?”

Pell nodded. “Cal. And Galdra.”

“Oh. I see.” Thiede remembered belatedly that the Arilisian dynasty had extended its embrace somewhat since he had been gone.

“And what about Caeru?”

“What about him?”

“Nothing. I just thought…”

Pell seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts on the matter. “I thought we’d go to Freyhella. All of us.”

“All of you?”

“Yes. The whole family. It will give us a chance to sort things out. Especially with Cal and Galdra.”

“And Rue.”

“And Rue.”

“It sounds… complicated.” Thiede had the sudden strong conviction that he didn’t really want to hear about any of this.

“Yes, it is, I’m afraid. But…”

“But what?”

“Well, now that you’re back, I was hoping that we – Cal and Galdra and I,”

“.. and Rue”

“And Rue…”

“…could take some time for ourselves, away from Immanion and the Hegemony and everything, to sort things out. After all, it’s been seven years…”

You try running the place for forty or fifty years Thiede thought, a little waspishly. He sighed and put his hand on Pell’s arm gently.

“Pellaz, my dear, as I informed you upon my return, I do not intend to take an active part in affairs of state any more. I do not think it would be wise. Of course, I shall always be happy to offer you advice, which you are free to accept or disregard as you choose, but as far as the day-to-day running of Immanion is concerned, I think you should be content to leave that in the capable hands of the Hegemony.”

Pell’s scowl deepened. “The Hegemony doesn’t run Immanion. Velaxis Shiraz does. Everyhar knows that.”

“He is very… efficient.”

“Efficient at acquiring information about everything and everyhar. There’s not a leaf falls or a har changes in his mind in Immanion without Velaxis knowing about it.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Not if it’s him. Have you spoken to him since you got back?”

“Yes, I have, now you mention it.”

“I was informed that you had summoned him. I hope you have reprimanded him in the severest terms.”

“I have… dealt with him appropriately, yes.”

“I don’t like him.”

“I can see that.”

“Obviously it is not my place to tell you what you should do…”

“Obviously”

“… but I think you should dispense with his services from now on.”

“Really?”

Pellaz exhaled loudly in exasperation. “He lied to you! He deceived you. He deceived us all!”

“True, but he had his reasons.”

“I’m sure he did, but they don’t concern us. I… I can’t believe you didn’t know. Did you know?”

“I had no idea.”

“How is that possible? How could he have deceived you?

“The universe is full of possibilities,” Thiede informed him sagely. “We must always be open to new experiences, and appreciate the lessons we learn from them.”

“And did you appreciate learning that your servant was a lying, self-serving, unharish creature?”

“One might say the same of your sedu companion.”

“That’s completely different.”

“Indeed it is. For one thing, Velaxis is as much har as you are, and for another, despite your low personal opinion of him, he keeps your city running in an organized and orderly fashion, thus allowing you and your family to take a much-needed holiday.”

Pell’s mouth twisted into a thin line. “Perhaps, but I shall certainly be reviewing his position when I return from Freygard. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for him to remain in Immanion any more. Perhaps it would be better if he returned to his own people.”

“Caeru would be very upset if that were to happen.” Thiede pointed out gently

“He’d get over it.”

There was an awkward silence, during which time one of the househara appeared, looking rather nervous.

“Yes, what is it?” Thiede enquired of the unfortunate har.

“My apologies for interrupting, Tiahaara, but the woodworker has arrived, and wishes to know if you would prefer a different specification of frame, or glass, or both.”

Thiede made a diffident gesture. “Whatever he thinks is appropriate. He is the professional, and I bow to his expertise.”

The househara gave a small, respectful nod of his head, and left gratefully.

“Problems?” asked Pellaz

“Oh, just a few alterations to the place.”

“You’ve been making quite a few changes, I see.”

“Yes, I found I was… no longer in sympathy with the old decoration. Things change.”

Pellaz nodded understandingly. “Perhaps you’d show me round?” he asked.

“I would be delighted to do so.”

Thiede took Pell’s arm, aware that there was a mutual appreciation for the opportunity to change the subject. He led Pell through to the main hall, keeping up a running commentary on the changes he had instigated throughout.

“… and here I have replaced the black marble with white, giving a feeling of much greater light and space. I like to think of it as a metaphor for a new dawn…”

“What’s through here?” Pell pushed open a high, carved door and stared inside. It was a large, high-ceilinged room, with six columns surrounding a deep, sunken area. A huge statue of a har with the tail of a fish and long, curling hair stood over this area. It held a trident in one hand, and its mouth was agape, as if water should have been gushing forth, as indeed it should, but the room was dry, the pool drained, and the fish-tailed har stood forlornly in eternal, frozen, gaping surprise.

“Wasn’t this the bathroom?”

“Yes, it was, but I felt it was a little too extravagant for the mundane process of daily washing.”

“Washing can be a form of ritual. And bathing can be for pleasure as well as utility.” Pell noted.

“I find that I am a little weary of ritual these days. And pleasure can be had in small ways.”

“Yes, I suppose so. Where is your bathroom now?”

“Oh, in that smaller room, just off to the left. It was originally a dressing room, and connects with the bedroom, which is convenient.”

Pellaz wandered across the echoing emptiness of the decommissioned bathroom. However enchanted the place might have looked when filled with cool liquid, and the light of Almagabra’s now-absent sun, in the present climate it was cold and unwelcoming. His footsteps were loud in the still air. Thiede followed him, threading his way through the tall columns and past a cascade of hanging plants which still reached down, rather incongruously, toward the non-existent water.

Pell was already inspecting the new bathroom when Thiede caught up with him. As he entered, the first thing Thiede noticed was that the househara had not yet attended to the cleaning of the room this morning, occupied as they had been with the repairs in the bedroom. The bathtub had an oily ring around it, the residue of the scented unguents from the previous evening, and the smell of rose-petals and jasmine still hung in the air giving the room a languid, post-coital feel to it, which, Thiede considered wryly, was not entirely inappropriate.

Pell surveyed the banks of half-burned candles with surprise. Perhaps he was not used to seeing untidiness in Phaonica. As Tigron, his every whim was catered to, his every need met immediately. Privately, Thiede conceded that he was probably a little too insulated from the realities of life, but he could hardly say so, since it was by his own machinations and intentions that Pellaz led this life of isolated luxury.

“I apologise for the condition of the room. The servants have been otherwise engaged this morning.”

Pell nodded his head vaguely, his eyes inspecting the mess. At the side of bath was an empty bottle of wine, lying on its side. And two empty crystal goblets.

“No, it’s alright, I quite understand.” He stared at the glasses carefully. “You obviously haven’t given up the sybaritic lifestyle completely.”

“Of course not! There would scarcely be any point in returning to a fleshly existence if one were to deny oneself the pleasures associated with it.”

Pellaz looked at him with what almost seemed to be disapproval. “I would have thought you would want to concentrate more on the spiritual aspects of being Immanion’s most exalted Hiennama.”

“My dear, the two are not mutually exclusive! Now, come along – enough of home improvements for one day.” Thiede shepherded him from the room, flicking a discarded towel surreptitiously as he went, so that it covered the half-empty bottle of scented oil lying beside it.

“Now, “he continued “what did the Hegemony have to say for themselves at this morning’s meeting?”

Pell looked surprised. “I have no idea,” he said “I wasn’t there. In fact, I wasn’t aware there was a meeting.”

“Oh well, I’m sure it couldn’t have been anything important.”

“Probably not. Most of these early morning assemblies are to discuss routine administration. Drains, and things like that.”

“Drains are important. Rather more so these past few days, I suspect.”

Pell chewed his lip thoughtfully. “You’re right, I should be more involved in day-to-day running of Immanion.”

“It may not be glamorous, but it is necessary.”

“Quite. Perhaps I shall take on more of the responsibility for such things personally. After I come back from Freygard, of course.”

“Of course.”

“I need to talk to Cal about it.”

“About the drains?”

“No, about Freygard. I just… don’t really know what to do, for the best.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something. Your decision-making skills have blossomed in these past seven years, Pell. I am very proud of you.”

Pellaz looked up at him, and for a moment Thiede once again could see the young har he had incepted. The Tigron of Immanion smiled, almost shyly.

“I’m glad you’re back,” he said “I missed you.”

Thiede patted his arm. “I missed you too. All of you.”

***

After Pellaz had gone, Thiede went back to the drained pool. The room had a desolate air, as if it knew that it had been abandoned and was grieving for its former life of useful servitude. He remembered commissioning the building of this room. Remembered bathing in it, immersing himself under the water, surrounded by servants, as small, bright-coloured birds had flitted around the cascading plants and under the jagged fronds of palm.

To one side of the main pool was a lower, shallower pond. Water from the main section had poured over the lowered lip at the side, creating a miniature waterfall. Above, the fish-tailed statue had gushed water through its open mouth in an endless stream, splashing musically into the pond below.

The mosaics which formed the bottom of the pool and its slave-pond were clearly visible now. No longer distorted by light refracted through moving water, he could see the two headed snake, curled around itself, twined in a double-helix. A symbol of hermaphroditism. Of Wraeththu. Of his own creation, in a sterile, human laboratory.

He shivered slightly and turned to leave, thinking gratefully of the warmth waiting in the sitting room. Something caught his eye as he turned to go. On the wall was a clock – a huge, baroque creation with gilded cherubs supporting the clock face. It was stopped at five minutes past six. He stared at it reflectively for a moment, as if he had never seen it before. It was quite hideous.

He grinned and left the room without further thought. Some things were better left in the past!

– 4 –

Liquid gushes from the mouth of a fish-tailed statue. He stands underneath it, enjoying the spray of water on his body, rinsing the cleansing soap from his hair. Looking up, he sees the clock on the opposite wall. The time is 5.45 pm. He has another 15 minutes before his assistant is due to arrive. He has summoned Velaxis to appear before him at 6.00 pm, and Velaxis is always punctual. Not just to the minute, but to the very second. He knows that the moment the minute hand reaches the 12, his assistant will enter his chambers with his customary poise. He admires many things about Velaxis, his dependability not the least of these.

A servant enters the bathroom, looking slightly flustered.

“My Lord,” he announces, rather worriedly, “Tiahaar Velaxis is here…”

Thiede’s eyes flick to the clock. 5.47 pm. Given two pieces of apparently conflicting information, he comes to the only possibly conclusion. The clock is broken.

“You wished to see me.”

It is a statement rather than a question, delivered in a tone of voice which somehow manages to suggest that Velaxis is doing him a prodigious favour rather than responding to an order. Coming from any other har, he might have found this reprehensible, but he has learned to accept what he considers to be Velaxis’ rather highly-strung personality. It comes with the qualities he admires, and he expects as much.

“I have here the reports from the Hegemony,” Velaxis announces. “Despite their best efforts, they haven’t managed to completely ruin the entire governmental infrastructure this week.”

Thiede suppresses his amusement. In private, he rather agrees with Velaxis caustic assessment of the Hegemony’s efforts, but there are appearances to be maintained

He steps out from underneath the cascade, wringing the water out of his long hair as Velaxis leafs brusquely through the sheaf of papers he is holding and continues to deliver his opinion of the Hegemony’s failings.

He wades through the water till he reaches the edge of the pool, then ascends the few shallow steps until he is standing in front of Velaxis, dripping. Velaxis does not avert his eyes he simply re-organises his papers into a tight bundle. Thiede looks round for a servant to hand him a towel, but there are none. He has the distinct impression that the rest of his staff are fearful of Velaxis.

“I shall put these on your desk; you may want to study them more closely later.”

“Thank you Velaxis.”

“Will there be anything else?”

He looks up at the fat, gilded cherubs clutching the faulty clock to their plump, baroque bosoms. They appear to be bearing the timepiece upwards, ascending to heaven. There should be choirs of angels too, he thinks, and harps. Where do old clocks go to when they die…?

“That clock is broken. Would you be so good as to have it repaired or replaced?”

“I think you will find that it is keeping perfect time.”

He looks at Velaxis in surprise.

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

“The clock says it is five minutes to six.”

“That is the exact time.”

“I was expecting you at six.”

“I know.”

He begins to feel a little exasperated, and rubs his hands over his wet skin, in a futile attempt to dry himself.

“I came early.” Velaxis explains.

“Really? Did you expect that the reports would take longer than anticipated to deal with?”

He watches in surprise as Velaxis’ customary aloofness changes almost imperceptibly to an enigmatic smile as he turns to leave.

“No. I just wanted to see you wet and naked.”

Velaxis is long gone before he can think of a suitable reply.

***

It was quite late in the evening by the time Velaxis returned. Thiede had already dined – again he had had the househara serve the meal in the sitting room – but he found he had little appetite.

The dullness of the day had given up the unequal fight against twilight, and now darkness had fallen on Immanion, which at least masked the sight of the never-ending rain, if not the sound. Inside, the blinds were pulled down and lamps spread soft coronas of warm light around the room. It was definitely an improvement on the greyness of earlier.

Velaxis arrived unannounced, as usual, removing his cloak and gloves as he entered the room and laying them down on a small side table with fastidious precision. Thiede observed that his outer clothing was not wet.

“Has it stopped raining, by some miraculous chance?”

“Unfortunately not. This really is getting rather tiresome, don’t you think?” He shook back his long white hair, straightening it with his hands. Thiede could see a row of small pearls braided discreetly into one strand of it.

“It must stop some time. This Almagabra, not Alba Suhl”

Velaxis shuddered dramatically as he came over and sat down beside Thiede on the comfortable sofa. “For which we should be truly thankful. Dreadful place that. I don’t know how anyhar can live there and not perish from mildew. It was an act of wisdom to site Immanion in this part of the world. For most of the year, anyway.”

Thiede steepled his fingers together. “It seemed an auspicious location. At the time, anyway. Have you had dinner?”

“Yes, I have. There’s a small but competently-run restaurant in the Hegalion. The food is tolerable, and it is a good place to become better acquainted with the prevailing opinions that are not voiced openly in the debating chamber.”

“You mean do a spot of eavesdropping?”

“I like to think of it as research.”

Thiede suppressed the urge to laugh at Velaxis’ affected air of affrontedness.

“And what have the ever-creative palace staff been experimenting with tonight?” asked Velaxis, lifting up the remains of Thiede’s uneaten dinner with a fork.

“I wasn’t really hungry”

“I’m not surprised! What is this? How can they serve that up? They can’t expect you to eat that. I can make something else for you if you like.”

“It’s alright. You don’t have to do everything.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Vel, don’t you ever get tired of being a servant.”

Velaxis put down the fork and looked at him carefully. “That depends, “ he said “on who I am serving.”

“And what of the Hegemony?”

“What of them?”

“They treat you as if you are beneath them, and yet you are the equal of any one of them, and more.”

Velaxis reclined back into the embrace of the cushions and stared up at the ceiling.

“Humility is a virtue. Abnegation of the ego strengthens the self.” He sounded as if he was reciting some catechism.

“Who taught you that?”

Velaxis turned his head so that he was looking directly at Thiede. He smiled tightly. “It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago. But it’s true. After a fashion, anyway. The Hegemony and their antics don’t bother me.”

“You don’t have to do what they tell you.”

“I know. I’ve never had to do anything. What I do is of my own choosing.

Strength of self, Thiede found himself thinking, . Strength of purpose. You need it when the whole world is against you.

He had had that, once.

“And are you here of your own choosing now?”

“Of course I am. You know I am. Don’t get all maudlin on me!”

“I don’t plan to.”

“Good. Now, tell me about your day. I don’t care how dull you think it was, it has to have been more stimulating than waste management and the ritual consecration of new public buildings.”

“Pell came to see me.”

“Hmm. Maybe not…”

“Vel!”

“I apologise. Do continue.”

“He wants to take the entire Arilisian family to Freygard for a holiday.”

“Ah. The Galdra thing. Still a bit of an open sore…”

“He also expressed an interest in taking on more personal responsibility for the day-to-day running of Immanion.”

“Did he now? Splendid. A few rigorous sessions on the waste management committee will do him the world of good, I’m sure!”

“It’s not all his fault…”

“What – that he’s a spoilt child?”

“He’s not. Well, sometimes he is, but I have to accept some responsibility for that.”

“Pellaz is a grown har. Let him accept the responsibility for his own actions.”

“It’s not that simple. You know it isn’t. I interfered in his life in a way that… wasn’t entirely appropriate. He and Cal both. And others. They resent me for that, and they have cause.”

“They are bunch of whingeing ingrates.”

Thiede blinked in surprise.

“They owe you everything. They all do. They would have nothing – be nothing, without you. They should all be giving thanks to you on a daily basis instead of wallowing in self-pity and feeling sorry for themselves.”

“I was created to do that. I can hardly take credit for what I am,” Thiede said quietly.

Velaxis leaned towards him closely, a surprisingly intense look on his face. “Perhaps not for what, but undeniably for who.” he said. “They created you, but they did not know what they had created. They thought to use you for their own ends, but you took their banal and blinkered vision and created something wonderful out of it. They had no idea what they had created. They had no idea what you are.”

“And what am I?”

“Magnificent.”

He might almost have laughed aloud at that, had Velaxis’ sincerity not been so obvious. The words conjured within him a feeling he could not identify; something akin to breathing out after a long time spent holding his breath, or a tight wire uncoiling inside him. Magnificent? Yes, he was certainly an awe-inspiring creature, terrifying to some – equal parts God and devil, but he knew instinctively that this was not what Velaxis meant.

Whingeing ingrates. It was ludicrous, and yet, to have someone say that to him, to have someone so unequivocally on his side, to be for him was a strange and almost unnerving experience. He could not remember such a thing happening before.

“There are those who would disagree with you.” he remarked wryly

“Let them. I don’t care.”

This time, a small laugh did escape. Velaxis’ lack of concern for what others thought of him was legendary. In particular, Velaxis failed to court favour from Pellaz, a situation which seemed to irritate the Tigron considerably, used as he was to the rapt and starry-eyed attentions of everyone around him. One thing Thiede was sure of was that Velaxis’ respect had to be earned, and he was equally sure that Pellaz had not done that.

I made Pell. I made him Tigron. I thought he was perfect, like Immanion itself

Perfection had proved to be a more elusive thing to achieve than he had imagined.

– 5 –

There are more things in heaven and earth. More powers. More dimensions. More creatures. He discovers this by projecting his mind into the spaces between worlds, but once there, he encounters creatures – beings – who can move physically through spaces that do not exist. It seems only natural to him that they should offer their services as beasts of burden to his new civilization.

He can see things, and do things, that other hara cannot even imagine. And now he has a plan, a goal, and it may require more from him than he has even given before, but it will be worth it. He will create a great ruler. An icon, a vessel which represents everything that is perfect about Wraeththu kind. A leader. Tigron.

Pellaz is his own child. His own blood runs through his veins. He chose him and he has watched him from the very beginning, seen him progress from ignorant, innocent child to strength and knowledge. But it is not enough. Pellaz will have to be remade. He will die and be reborn, shedding his flaws along with his former life, and in doing so he will become more than anyone could ever imagine.

He is sure, beyond all doubt, that this is the right thing to do.

***

“Are you still having trouble with the windows?”

Pellaz watched curiously as two househara and another har wearing a belt with various metal implements attached wrestled with a large pane of glass.

Thiede turned round, his attention drawn away from offering his – largely unwanted – advice to the struggling hara.

“What? Oh, nothing serious. Just the one on the end. I’m sure we’ll have it all sorted out soon.”

Perhaps they have been using sub-standard materials. That is not acceptable in Phaonica. This isn’t some dismal little hovel in Thandrello.”

“I don’t think the illustrious residents of Immanion’s most prestigious district would care to hear you describe their dwellings as such. But I can assure you the materials and workmanship are up to the highest standards.”

“Then why is there always broken glass every time I visit?”

“It’s just… a little technical difficulty. I am working on a method of preventing it happening in future.”

Pell frowned a little. “If you say so.”

“Yes, I do. Now, what brings you here this morning my dear?”

“I thought I would let you know that all the arrangements are in place for the trip to Freygard, and we leave next week.”

“You are sure that is the best course of action?”

“Of course I am, I would hardly have suggested it otherwise.”

“I’m sure you know best.”

“I’ve also been thinking about what you said about taking on a more active role in the running of Immanion.”

“And?”

“I have arranged for all operations to be referred to me personally, for my approval.”

“Do you think you have the – yes, just take it out and dispose of the rest somewhere else, thank you – do you think you have the necessary experience for that?”

The househara carried away the last of the debris, leaving Pell and Thiede alone in the bedroom.

“Of course I do. I am Tigron.”

“I know, but there is a difference between orchestrating a plan and having hands-on experience with the details required to carry it through.”

“I am aware of that. I’m sure I’m still capable of learning new things.”

“That is something we should all aspire to.”

Pellaz sat down on the bed.

“Cal thinks I may have an ulterior motive for wanting to go to Freyhella” he said unexpectedly.

“Does he? Well Cal has always been a very astute har…”

“He doesn’t understand.”

“Perhaps you should try explaining it to him.”

“It’s not about Cal. It’s about me and Galdra.”

“And Cal too, presumably, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“I can’t expect you to understand either,” Pell said stiffly “You’ve never been in this position. “

“Perhaps not, but I am trying to stretch my paltry and restricted imagination beyond its narrow limits in order to fully appreciate your dilemma.”

“There’s no need for sarcasm.”

“There’s always a need for sarcasm – it’s one of the few pleasures we can indulge to the fullest. Is Cal jealous?”

“I… that’s the thing, I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

“Would you be jealous if the situation was reversed? How would you feel if Cal were to fall in love with someone else? Or Rue?”

“That’s hardly likely to happen.”

“That might have been said about your liaison with Galdra.”

“That was different. There were circumstances.”

“There are always circumstances, my dear.”

“Yes, well my circumstances are a little different from most.”

Pell hunched forward, his arms wrapped around his body and his long black hair swinging in front of his face, hiding his expression. Thiede stood at the other side of the bed and looked at him.

“What is it that you want, Pell?”

“I want everything in my life to be the way I want it to be, for once. Is that too much to ask?”

“I think that’s what we all want. We rarely get it, though, so it’s as well to have an alternative plan.”

“That’s not terribly helpful.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right. This is outwith my experience, and it appears that I can be of little help to you. Perhaps you should be speaking with your consorts about this instead of me.”

Pell sighed and continued to stare down at the floor. He moved his foot, and felt something underneath it, which he bent down to pick up. It was small and round and white. It looked vaguely familiar to him. He rolled it between his fingers thoughtfully.

“Yes, perhaps you’re right. I’ll speak with Rue. He’ll back me up, he always does.”

“Back you up?”

“Yes. Alternative plan. As you suggested.”

“Well I’m glad I was able to provide you with some useful advice. Where is the Tigrina anyway – I have not seen him for several days.”

“He is spending most of his time with Darq.”

“Understandable.”

“He is terrified that he will leave. Go back to Nezreka to be with Tava-Edzen. He says he will go with him if he does.”

“I doubt he would do that. His home is here.”

“Of course he wouldn’t. He’s needed here. He is the Tigrina.”

“He is also your consort.”

“That too. I shall go and have a word with him now.”

“An excellent idea.”

Pell stood up and made to leave. “I hope the weather is better in Freyhella,” he said, looking out at the leaden skies and drizzling rain. “It will be colder, but anything is better than this constant rain.”

“It will pass,” Thiede said patiently “Everything does in time.”

“Very profound. Oh, if you happen to see Velaxis, tell him he needn’t bother attending the Hegalion meeting tomorrow.”

“I shall pass on your message if I see him.”

“Thank you. It’s alright, I’ll see myself out.”

“As you wish.”

As Pellaz left Thiede’s apartments, he slipped the small round object into his pocket, still fingering it absently. Halfway to the Tigrina’s dwellings, he realized it was a pearl, with a small hole drilled through it. He removed his hand from his pocket and continued on his way.

– 6 –

In Megalithica, a single event occurs which changes everything. Like many a world-shattering affair before it, this one starts with a gun, a shot, and a bullet. There is a death, and then a rebirth.

There is darkness before his eyes. For a moment, he is unsure where he is. He fears that he is still lost within the nameless place between worlds, and that his thoughts and intentions will be forever separated from his physical reality, but then the universe stops spinning and even thought he still cannot see it, he knows that he is in his remote, ice-bound palace. This is his dwelling, and that is his servant. With an effort of will almost as great as the one which was required to capture the fleeing soul of his dying protégé, he produces the words to announce his triumph. He has achieved a miracle.

The servant is unimpressed.

“Perhaps. But I fail to see what benefit there will be if you kill yourself in the process”

Velaxis’ tone is sharp, in his usual manner, but behind it there is something else. It might be concern, but Velaxis is never concerned. Velaxis is never anything other than profoundly unconcerned. Something about the unexpectedness of this disturbs him more than the physical pain in his body, but it is one thing too many to consider at the moment when it is all he can do to resist the force of gravity which wants to pull him downwards. His mind will not countenance such a demand; it is ridiculous – he is in control of his physical form, not the other way around. His body begs to disagree and buckles elegantly at the knees, but he is caught and steadied and then half-dragged, half-carried through to the adjacent room and laid out on the bed like a corpse.

Again, his will gives instructions for this idiotic physical infirmity to be gone. Again it is denied. Waves of pain and nausea rise and fall, and rise again, bringing the blackness with them.

He lies there, unable to move. His own heartbeats feel like hammer blows. For the first time in his life, he begins to doubt his own omnipotence. It is a strange, thing, doubt. Its tendrils coil around his mind, threatening to obliterate him. He tries to ride it, like a wave, but it crashes over him and bears him away helplessly.

Something hot is on his throat, just above his heart. For a moment, he does not know what it is, and fears it may be his own blood or viscera, then he realizes it is Velaxis’ hands. He would have protested at this intrusion, but he is too weak to do anything about it, and in any case the energy flowing steadily from the other’s palms is warm and comforting, soothing away the pain and nausea. Slowly the darkness recedes and his vision returns. He can see Velaxis’ face clearly now – that familiar sculpted perfection which gives away nothing of what its owner is thinking. It has a different expression on it now, he realizes, but he does not know why.

Energy continues to flood into him, slowly balancing his metabolic processes and steadying his heartbeat. His body absorbs it greedily. His mind begins to clear too, and he tells himself that he should end this now because it will drain the other har too much; this is a difficult process which only the highest-caste hara can perform successfully, but Velaxis keeps his hands pressed firmly against his flesh and his face, with its strange expression, never flinches and his eye-contact never wavers, and so Thiede accepts that this is yet again another manifestation of Velaxis’ unusual talents and allows it to continue.

He closes his eyes, being too exhausted to keep them open. After a while he feels his head raised gently and something soft – a pillow – placed underneath. He sinks back into its cool, feathery embrace gratefully and expects to be left alone now to sleep off the damage, but the hands do not leave. They trace a path up over his jaw and across his face. It feels like something Thiede should recognise, but he doesn’t. It feels like a mother soothing a child, except that Thiede has no experience of that, but it still feels like something. There is a word nagging in his brain to describe this feeling, and he wants to understand what it is, but he is too tired, too pulled apart, and he sinks into the blackness without knowing.

The deed has been done. He has created his perfect creature, his Tigron. As always, there is a cost, and he hopes that this is it – this mortification of his own flesh and of his soul. He would give his own suffering gladly, but he knows that hubris is not so easily satisfied. He has defied the very nature of life and death itself and unbalanced the universe. A debt has been incurred. He does not know yet who will pay it.

***

He was dreaming of rain. It was pounding against the windows, insistent and incessant. The very foundations of Phaonica were shaking and the windows lay smashed and broken on the floors.

At some point, he became aware that he was awake, and that the noise was continuing. However it was not rain, but a very light, tentative tapping on his bedroom door. He could sense presences on the other side; househara and others. He slowly raised himself up on one elbow, trying to shake off the confusion of sleep. There was a clock by the side of the bed – a handsome timepiece mercifully free from cherubs – and just enough light to read the time on it. Half past three.

The knocking came again, slightly more urgent this time. He sighed and sat up carefully, pushing back the bedcovers and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He reached for a robe and slipped it on. The silk was cold against his naked skin, and he shivered as he made his way over to the door.

He opened it and was confronted by one of the househara with his hand raised ready for another knock. The har had obviously been recently roused from sleep too – his untidy appearance matched Thiede’s own, and he looked as if he would rather be feeding a live alligator than be here interrupting his master’s sleep at this time in the morning.

Behind him stood Pellaz har Aralis, who, judging from his weary but well-dressed appearance had obviously not been in bed at any point in the recent past.

Thiede knotted the silk belt around his waist and pushed his slightly tangled hair back from his face.

“Pellaz. And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company at this unusual time of the night. Or morning.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you…”

“Obviously you did mean to wake me or you would not have had this unfortunate creature – who now fears for his life, and with good reason – knock on my bedroom door at half past three in the morning.”

“I mean… yes, obviously… it’s just…ah…”

“Sentences, Pell. Construct them in the usual fashion.”

Pellaz tried not to look annoyed. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but we had a bit of an emergency… well, not really an emergency as such, it’s just that with all the rain…”

“The rain is an emergency? You got me up at half past three in order to perform some sort of reverse rain-dance in order to stop it?”

“No, I did not. The sewage system has overflowed.”

“Has it now. How unpleasant. What has that to do with me?”

“Nothing at all. I need the construction plans in order to pinpoint where are the best places to open the sluices.”

“My, you’ve certainly taken this hands-on running of Immanion very seriously!”

“This was not what I intended at all!”

“Then I think you will have to make your intentions clearer in future my dear. Unfortunately, I have no idea where you might find such things. When I built Immanion, I did a lot of delegating. You might want to try that. It works rather well.”

Pell scowled impatiently. “I didn’t expect you to know. I need to… I’m looking for Velaxis Shiraz. He was not at the Hegalion today, and I have been to his house and he is not there. Rue suggested… he might be here.” he finished rather lamely.

“Did he now? How very perceptive of him!”

Velaxis appeared at the door. He was fully dressed, but fastening up the last few buttons on his clothing. His long hair hung over his shoulders and down past his waist, and while it lacked its customary jewels and decorations, it looked otherwise immaculately groomed.

“Pellaz. Always a pleasure to see you, at any time of the day or night.”

Pell glared at him. He turned to Thiede, pointedly ignoring Velaxis.

“What is he doing here anyway?” he demanded, glaring at Thiede. Thiede turned to look at Velaxis. Velaxis looked at Thiede, then looked at Pell.

“Oh, the usual.” he said, airily.

“Really?”

“Pell, you know all about my skills, everyhar does – even if you have never taken the opportunity to avail yourself of them. I assure you, you don’t know what you’re missing.”

“But it’s half past three in the morning.”

“I have a waiting list!”

Velaxis was indignation personified, and Thiede found that he had to bite his lip in order not to let Pell see him smiling.

“I don’t care if you have the Twelve Tribes of Jaddayoth and half of Megalithica forming an orderly queue outside your back door, I need someone to go to the Hegalion and find the construction plans for the city.”

“There are copies in the library. And I believe Chancellor Tharmifex keeps the originals in his office. I probably have duplicates myself; I like to keep everything filed neatly.”

“I’m sure you do. Can you send someone to fetch them?”

“Oh, it’ll be easier if I just do it myself. I’ll deal with it – I’ll have a report on your desk first thing tomorrow morning.”

Pellaz gave him a stony look. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. It’s my job. Well – one of them anyway.” Velaxis smiled graciously and inclined his head towards Thiede, then swept out purposefully. The househar took the opportunity to escape in his wake.

Pell stared after Velaxis for a few moments. When he had gone, he turned to Thiede with a scowl.

“I apologise for interrupting”

“That’s quite alright – you weren’t to know.”

“If you require aruna, I would be more than happy to make myself available at some time in the future.”

“I appreciate the offer, Pell, but that won’t be necessary”

“I realize that I am not as experienced as Velaxis, but I’m sure I can perform adequately”

Thiede sighed, and pulled his thin silk robe more closely around his body.

“Go home, Pell” he said wearily. “Get some sleep. Or wake up Cal, or Rue, or both of them. You have your own relationships – concentrate on those.”

Pell looked as if he was about to say something else, but he simply shrugged.

“I’m getting cold standing here, “Thiede informed him. “I’m going back to bed. I’ll see you in the morning. Good night.”

Thiede returned to the sanctuary of his bedroom, leaving Pellaz to find his own way out. Pellaz did not return to his own apartments, however, He left the palace and made his way on foot to the Hegalion. The lights were on, but Pell did not enter. He stood outside in the shadows, as if he didn’t want to be seen. Presently he saw a tall har with long white hair leave. He followed Velaxis along the streets, taking care to remain out of sight. Velaxis walked through the deserted streets of Immanion, the hood of his cloak pulled up against the rain. There was the faintest of glows in the sky, towards the east, but it was not lovely enough to be in anyway dignified with the word “dawn”. It was simply a lighter shade of grey.

Velaxis turned down a side street leading to a well-to-do but slightly bohemian quarter of Immanion, close to Phaonica. Pellaz knew that was where he lived, although he wondered if Hegemony clerk ever spent any time there. He could hardly imagine him anywhere else other than Phaonica or the Hegalion. He watched as Velaxis entered a house set back a little from the street. It was a surprisingly modest-looking building, and seemed to be attached on either side to the other houses that formed the street. Velaxis closed the door behind him. Pellaz waited for a few minutes, nodded to himself, then set off back to Phaonica.

– 7 –

Upon entering the house Velaxis ascended two flights of stairs to a large room which seemed to occupy most of the space on that floor. There were cooking and eating facilities at one end, and at the far side there was a large open partition in the wall which led directly out onto a wooden balcony. The interior and exterior spaces formed one large area. There were doors which could be pulled to close the inside off from the elements, but they were wide open, in spite of the weather

Thiede sat in a long canopied seat on the balcony looking out at the communal gardens below. Rain dripped from the latticed slats of the wooden pergola overhead, wound around with an abundance of heavy vine leaves

Velaxis removed his wet cloak, shook it, and hung it carefully on a stand.

“He followed me home.” he said “Like a stray dog. It was quite exciting, in a cloak and dagger sort of way.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Checking to make sure I didn’t return to Phaonica and try to sneak back into the Aghama’s bed. Which, being the underhand and devious type of har that Pellaz considers me to be, is just the sort of thing he suspects I would do. Of course, it’s even more underhand and devious to use one’s ability to travel through the otherlanes in order to sneak out of Phaonica, isn’t it?”

In spite of himself, Thiede grinned. “It is a useful ability to have, particularly when conducting clandestine affairs.”

Velaxis came out onto the balcony and sat down beside him on the low seat. The overhead greenery and the canopy over the seat had kept it dry for the most part, but they were designed to keep sun rather than rain off, and there were several damp patches.

“I shall have to remember that in future,” he said “for when I am feeling at my most clandestine.”

“It never struck me as odd,” Thiede mused, pressing the pads of his fingertips together, “that you had that ability.”

“You were busy being God. Being struck by oddities wasn’t part of the job. Besides, being God is quite odd enough without meditating on what unusual abilities your messenger may have.”

“Being God is not all it’s made out to be.”

“A distinct lack of harps and clouds and long white beards?”

“And also a distinct lack of obsequious and sycophantic angels”

“Oh you should never trust angels. Turn your back for a minute and they’ll defect, or start working for themselves, or something equally bothersome.”

“I noticed.”

“I don’t know why Gods bother to put up with them.”

“I expect they have their uses.”

“On Earth, as well as in Heaven?”

“I have had cause to be thankful for that.”

Velaxis inclined his head modestly.

“You know, in human mythology, there were Angels who crept into people’s beds at night, and performed lewd acts with them.”

“That wasn’t you, was it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I told you, I have a waiting list”

Thiede grinned. “It’s curious how myths come into being.”

“Myths are merely truths that have been misplaced”

“Perhaps. It’s not just that though. There are some things which can only exist in their own realm. I thought when I left this realm that I would maintain the essence of myself, and in many ways I did. But I also lost something.”

“It is often the case that we do not fully appreciate the value of something until it is gone.” Velaxis paused and the sound of the rain drumming on the leaves seemed louder in the absence of voices.

“I lost something too.” he said softly

“When you left this realm – the night Cal came – I was here, in this house. I knew what was happening. I knew it had to happen, and a small part of me was assessing the new situation. You see – I am every bit the calculating and manipulative individual Pellaz considers me to be. . I have had to be. But…” Velaxis’ voice trailed off. He brushed away a small puddle of rain water that had formed on the edge of the seat. When he spoke again, he seemed to lack his usual certainty.

“I didn’t realize how much it would hurt. To lose you. I sat in that room over there and meditated. I observed your transformation, felt the tremors in the very fabric of the universe, saw how it affected every har in this realm. And I consoled myself with the fact that your essence was still connected to this world, even if your physical presence was not, and I rationalized that since I was not in a position to form any sort of emotional relationships myself, then I had lost nothing, but I knew it was a lie. I missed you. From the very moment you left. And so I projected my consciousness into the other dimensions and sought you out, and made you summon me.”

“I thought I did that,” Thiede said wryly

“I know. I made you think that. Or, rather, I encouraged you not to think of any other explanation. I couldn’t have forced you, even if I’d wanted to. You are the Aghama, after all” Velaxis concluded, with a ghost of a smile.

“I wish you’d told me. About who you really are. I might have been able to help. At the very least, I might not have made such a fool of myself ordering you around like a servant.”

“It would have been too dangerous. Not only for me. It might have put you in danger too.” Velaxis looked thoughtfully out across the gardens. There was enough light now to make out the shapes of trees and bushes and an open, grassy area, although everything was still shades of grey in the pre-dawn light.

“I was so close to telling you that one time. Do you remember? When Orien was killed?”

“Yes, I remember.” There was a silence, broken only by the cry of some unseen night-creature

“I never thanked you for that.”

“There was no need.”

“Yes there was. You did a great deal for me, and I simply accepted it all as my due. I never once questioned whether I was entitled to such loyalty.”

“It was never a question of entitlement. Or loyalty, for that matter. I would never have done any of those things if that was all it had been.”

Thiede looked down at his hands. There was a gold ring on the last finger of his left hand, and he twisted it absently.

“While I was in Nezreka,” he said, “I dreamt of you. I dreamt of aruna, with you, and it was as real and powerful as anything I had experienced while waking, and I knew it meant something, for me at least, and I knew it was part of the reason I had returned, but I wasn’t sure if it meant the same thing for you as it did for me.”

“You have to ask? You didn’t know? You must have known”

“I don’t know. Perhaps I did. But I avoided it, because it was too complicated, or because I had no idea how to deal with it, or something else that I was able to convince myself of at the time.”

“It wasn’t just that. We both had responsibilities, and duties to fulfill. It is not everyhar’s destiny to lead a simple and uncomplicated life.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Thiede laughed humourlessly. “I have always known that I was different. To begin with, I cursed it. Then I embraced the fact, and accepted that I had a destiny to create a new race; to remake humanity in my own image. I think I must have been a little mad.”

“You should not dismiss what you have achieved.”

“I don’t. But it is over now. Or, at least, my part of it is. And I am glad of that. I should like to experience a simple and uncomplicated life. It will be a novelty for me.”

“I think you will find that even the humblest lives are rarely simple and never uncomplicated.”

“Don’t spoil it for me!”

There was a strange rustling noise, somewhere beneath the balcony, and the foliage twined around the wooden rails suddenly seemed to come to life, shaking and moving. Thiede peered at it with interest. A hand appeared over the railing, then a leg, then a head. Wet leaves parted, and a strange har appeared, hauling himself casually up over the rails. He shook himself, spraying both Thiede and Velaxis with droplets of water.

“Morning Vel, another lovely morning I see!”

“Good morning Brex. Alas, the weather continues to be disappointing. Pleasant night out?”

“Not bad. Things are a little quiet because of all the rain – did you know that the drains have burst? The main square is awash, there are tables and chair floating everywhere, it’s all very exciting. Well, I see you’ve got company so I won’t stop. I’ve left your breakfast on the doorstep.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Have a very pleasant day”

“And you.”

The strange har crossed the balcony and exited on the other side, as mysteriously as he had arrived.

Thiede watched him vault athletically over the rail, blinking a little in surprise.

“That was… unusual.”

Velaxis laughed. “Oh, he lives next door. He puts wards on his front entrance, but he forgets how to unmake them, so he goes round the back and climbs over the balconies. He always leaves his back entrance open.”

Thiede craned his neck a little, and could make out another balcony just a few feet away in the direction the strange har had gone.

“And this doesn’t bother you?”

“No, I’m used to it. He gets me some bread from the bakery at the end of the street if he’s been out late, and he’s always happy to share the latest local news about what he sees on his…er… travels. No doubt you’ll be the talk of the neighbourhood by mid-afternoon.”

“Really?” Thiede looked mildly horrified, and Velaxis laughed again.

“No. He didn’t recognize you. He has no idea who you are. I’m sorry, but you’re just not interesting enough. Now if it had been that delightful dark-haired har from across the way….”

“It’s a world apart from Phaonica.”

“You think so? You’d be amazed what the staff there talk about.”

“I always thought it was my city, Immanion. But I am coming to the conclusion that I have no idea what goes on in it.”

“Cities belong to the people who live in them.”

“It’s not how I imagined it, you know. I wanted it to be perfect.”

“I know you did, but that was unrealistic. It is rather a pleasant and engaging place though.”

“I think I should get to know it better.”

“I think so too. Come on, it’s wet out here, and I have to be back at the Hegalion in less than an hour, with a shiny report for our noble Tigron to peruse.”

“What time is it?”

“About half six, I think. I’m going to have a shower and leave in about half an hour. You can stay here if you want.”

“Anything else I should know about the… local characters?”

“The delightful dark-haired har from across the way likes to sunbathe nude in the communal gardens, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem today. And if a striped cat shows up, you may tempt it with some morsels of meat.”

“You have a cat?”

“No, the cat has several hara, of which I am occasionally one.”

“I see.”

– 8 –

After Velaxis had left, Thiede arose and went inside, leaving the dripping rain and damp, early-morning smell of wet leaves behind. The room he found himself in was large and sparsely furnished. It was immaculately tidy, with nothing appearing to be out of place, and yet it did not have an air of being unused. There was a large, plain wooden table at one end, surrounded by twelve equally unassuming chairs. The surface of the table was scrubbed rather than polished, and a glass fruit bowl sat in the centre.

Thiede could imagine hara around the table, eating and drinking. Sharing stories. Gossiping. Greeting and inviting in unexpected additions to the company who arrived by climbing over the balcony. Feeding titbits to passing cats.

He decided he would not return to Phaonica immediately. His own domestic staff would be performing their morning cleaning duties which, if truth be told, always rather irritated him, and besides he had no desire for another run in with Pellaz. He descended the two flights of stairs which took him down to the ground level. The house seemed to be tall and thin – several floors, each with only one or two rooms. He thought that perhaps it was designed that way purposely, but as he left, he studied the surrounding buildings and discovered that they seemed to be of random shapes and sizes, each one attached to the other as if they had grown that way, to fit the available space. The effect was not altogether displeasing.

Outside, despite the early hour and the weather, Immanion was coming to life. Thiede walked to the end of the street, splashing through puddles as he went, and turned left onto a road which he knew would take him to the main square in the centre of Immanion. Already shops and businesses were opening up; hara were scuttling here and there purposefully, some darting from one building to another in an effort to avoid the rain, others simply braving it out and trudging their way along the sodden streets.

By the time he reached the main square, he could feel the dampness starting to soak its way through his outer clothing into his shoulders. He stopped at the first hostelry he came to and walked in through the open doors which seemed to announce that it was open for business. There was a tall har inside, sweeping furiously at the floor, and he motioned to Thiede to take a seat when he saw him enter.

“I’ll be with you in just a moment.” He said, continuing to sweep.

Thiede nodded, and sat down at the nearest table, by the window. From here he could watch the street and its inhabitants. Most of these passed by swiftly, collars and hoods turned up, but on the opposite side of the road was a stone arch, and underneath it two hara seemed to be engaged in an intense conversation. He could hear their voices, but not make out the words, although to judge by the wildly gesticulating hands of the smaller of the two, some sort of argument was in progress.

The hostel-keeper approached him, still clutching his broom. He was a well-built har, taller than most, with long brown hair which was teased into thick, snake-like strands. In deference to his occupation, these were tied behind him, and he also wore a large apron decorated with smiling yellow flowers, which seemed somewhat incongruous. His appearance was deceptive, however, as he wiped his hands on his apron and beamed welcomingly at Thiede.

“Sorry about that,” he announced genially. “Bit of bother with the drains. Same everywhere – next door’s even worse. Must be all the rain, I expect.”

“It has been unusually heavy,” Thiede agreed.

“Well, it’s got to rain sometime,” the har said philosophically “and it all seems to be sorted out now.”

“Immanion’s governance and civic services are second to none”

The har laughed. His large frame seemed to amplify the sound and give it an unusual resonance. “Oh, that they are! Although I doubt if Them up the Hill – he jerked his head in the direction of Phaonica – are much bothered by unexpected turds floating in their cellars!”

“I would think it unlikely,” Thiede concurred.

“Of course, they’ve got other things to think about. I hear that drains come a poor second to Freyhellans these days, if you believe the rumours.”

“Freyhellans?”

“Mmmm. Haven’t you heard?”

“No. I’ve… been away for a while.”

“I didn’t think I’d seen you in here before. Well, anyway, word around town is that our Tigron – Tigron Pellaz, that is, has been getting roony with a Freyhellan who looks an awful lot like Tigron Calanthe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you…”

“Of course not.”

“… but it’s a bit odd, if you ask me. I mean, to go for another har who’s the spitting image of your consort. Just. Odd.”

“I see what you mean.”

“Still, what do I know? I’m lucky if I can get rooned by one har, never mind two!” He laughed his roof-rattling laugh again. “What can I get you? Coffee? Tea? Wine?”

“A bit early for wine, I think I’ll stick with the coffee”

“Wise choice. I’ll get you something to eat too, you look as though you could do with it.”

“That would be very nice, thank you.”

The har vanished into the back of the building, and returned a few minutes later bearing a large, steaming mug of coffee and an even larger plate of hot, flat cakes which were rather greasy but fortunately tasted far better than they looked. He watched with approval as Thiede ate.

“Best in Immanion,” he said proudly. He picked up a cloth and began polishing the other tables. “You said you’d been away for a while?”

“Yes.”

“You staying, or just passing through?”

“I thought I would stay.”

“Got a job?”

“I have been offered employment of a sort.”

“Good. If you’re stuck for a place to stay, a friend of mine has some rooms available.”

“That’s very kind of you, but I have already organized accommodation.”

“Ah well. Just a thought. The har stopped polishing for a moment, and looked at Thiede carefully.

“I close up in the afternoon, between three and five. You know, after the lunchtime rush.”

“Do you?”

“You could always come back then if you felt like it.”

For a moment Thiede was unable to think of a reason why he was being invited to return when the place was closed, but then he noticed the slightly bashful smirk on the other har’s face, and a suspicion dawned.

“There are always a few unfinished bottles of wine. We could take them upstairs… go to bed… have a nice time…and a bit of a nap afterwards.” The har confirmed Thiede’s suspicion by delivering an unsubtly lascivious wink accompanied by a cheerful grin.”

“Ah, that’s very kind of you to offer, but I…er… have other plans for this afternoon.”

“Really? That’s what they always say.” The har looked puzzled for a moment, then shrugged. “Oh well, you know where I am if you’ve ever got an afternoon free.”

“I shall keep it in mind.” Thiede promised him seriously. He finished the last of his coffee and looked out the window. The arguing hara had vanished.

“I think the rain may be easing off a little.”

“I hope so, I don’t want a repeat of last night’s disaster!”

“I’m sure everything has been taken care of. The Hegemony’s administrative personnel are very efficient”

“Yes, the Tigron can go to Freyhella with a clear conscience.”

“How do you know he’s going to Freyhella?”

The har tapped the side of his nose. “I keep my ear to the ground. My friend – my other friend, that is, not the one with the room, this one’s a painter – he says I’ve got it all wrong. He says to me “Dill, you’re an idiot, you’re always thinking about stuff like that. It’s all Tigron this and Tigron that, why don’t you just concentrate on your own life?” But he’s just as bad – he went to see the Tigrina once – he got a little souvenir statue. He says why would anyhar want to roon a Freyhellan when they’ve got the Tigrina? But I say to him, “Yaz, they’re not telling you everything. What goes on Up the Hill, it’s a different world.”

“I’m sure you’re right about that.”

“Of course I am. I bet him ten spinners. Ten spinners says the Tigron goes on a little holiday to Freyhella sometime very soon.”

Thiede stood up and dropped the money for his breakfast onto the table. Outside it seemed a little brighter. He wondered if he should try to get back to Phaonica on foot before the rain started again.

“I think,” he said, as he turned to leave “that your money is safe.”

The har looked at him in surprise. “Really? What makes you say that?”

“Oh, just…intuition. In fact, if I were you, I’d put twenty on it.”

The har stood and tugged at his knotted locks for a few minutes, as if weighing up some important decision, but when he looked up, Thiede had left the hostelry and vanished out into the street.

***

“It’s nice to know that one’s efforts do not go unappreciated.” Velaxis laughed as Thiede related to him the tale of Dill’s cellar and its unwanted contents.

“Cellars the length and breadth of Immanion are giving thanks, even as we speak.”

“At least he had the good manners to invite you upstairs for a bit of afternoon recreation.”

“Well this is Immanion after all. The very pinnacle of Wraeththu civilization.”

“And here we are in the very heart of government, where crucial decisions that affect the lives of everyhar are made daily. Speaking of which, Pellaz thinks that the blockage problem could be solved by using a larger diameter of conduit.”

“I really don’t want to know how he approached that line of thought.”

“Terrifying, isn’t it?”

“You’ve spoken to him this morning then?”

“Oh yes.”

“Did he mention last night?”

“Not one word. He glared at me, but then he always does. I should think that his forthcoming excursion to Freygard will distract him. Although Rue thinks he might be getting cold feet.”

“He can’t do that!”

“Are you so keen to see the back of him?”

“No, but there’s a har in Immanion with 20 spinners at stake!”

Velaxis laughed again. He and Thiede were at the Hegalion building, where busy officials and dignitaries were swarming around the halls and corridors importantly as the business of government continued its stately progress.

They walked together down the long corridor leading to the main chamber. The floor was of polished black stone, and the high ceiling vaulted with arches and spandrels. Huge chandeliers hung from the great beams, glowing with an ethereal light which cast soft shadows along the walls. The place had a somber and dignified aura, and voices were hushed in respect.

At the end of the corridor, they came to the main chamber. Here, important hara and members of the Hegemony were gathering. Thiede stood at the imposing doorway to the chamber, but did not enter. He did not need to see inside; he knew every nook and cranny, every carving and colonnade. He had stood within those walls so many times in the past, as history was being made. Making it himself.

“Are you coming in?” Velaxis asked him.

He shook his head. “I don’t think so.” Already he could see hara staring at him and whispering to each other.

“Very well. I shall go and sit through the speeches on your behalf then. I think Chancellor Tharmifex is looking for his reports and briefings.” Velaxis raised a hand elegantly in greeting as a patrician figure in purple velvet robes strode into the chamber. His long black hair was tightly braided into a heavy plait, and his expression was morose. He paused for a moment when he saw them, and for a moment Thiede wondered if he was going to object to his presence, but then the Chancellor’s expression changed, and for a brief second softened into one of his very rare smiles. As quickly as it had come, it disappeared again, and Tharmifex strode off to take his place at the head of the chamber, every inch the important politician, but Thiede had seen it, and knew what it meant.

Old times. Old friends. A face from the past, when we were merely children, inventing our glorious future. Making it up as we went along.

The Hegalion was a symbol of everything Wraeththu civilization aspired to be; calm, serene, dignified. But underneath there were lives and events; passions and tragedies. All buried and forgotten now, or so it seemed. Generations to come would never know what had transpired to bring this marvelous vision to fruition.

“I think that I shall return to Phaonica. Will you have dinner with me at my apartments later?”

“Of course.”

Thiede peered into the chamber one last time. “I don’t envy you, Vel. Really I don’t. I wonder why you bother.”

“Somehar has to.”

“Probably just as well for them that it’s you then.”

“I like to think so.”

Velaxis walked off into the main chamber, followed by a number of other minor officials as servants stood and looked at Thiede expectantly to see if he would follow. When he did not, they closed the heavy doors. Quiet descended upon the corridor. From inside the chamber, Thiede could hear the sound of a gavel banging, and Chancellor Tharmifex’s stern tones bringing the proceedings to order.

He turned and walked away, along the length of the imposing corridor, out through the magnificent main entrance, and into the grey, still-drizzling afternoon.

***

From the Hegalion, the road turned right and up the hill towards Phaonica. He didn’t take the turning, but kept straight going. He didn’t intend to return to the Palace just yet. There was one other place he needed to visit. Along the tree-lined avenue the official buildings gradually gave way to landscaped lawns. Stone columns rose up on either side of the road, at once announcing and guarding the entrance to the temple ahead. The High Nayati, the most sacred place in Immanion. Within its walls, flames burned day and night as a constant reminder of the spiritual aspects of the Wraeththu race; a metaphor for the imperishable soul and the mortal flesh. Thiede needed no such reminders.

The doors were open. They were always open. The temple was available at all times to any har in Immanion, as a sanctuary or refuge, or simply a place of devotion, but when Thiede entered it was empty. He walked in and was consumed by the silence of the place.

There was stillness at the heart of the temple. Outside Immanion continued to move and breathe, but here, in the centre of this building, it was as if the entire world had ceased to move. The silence was deep and profound. It felt like a great bell had ceased to sound, but the echo of its sonorous tone was still hanging in the air.

In contrast with the Hegalion, the interior of the Nayati was bright. Its walls and floors were of pale stone, and elegant high windows all around allowed light to flood the place. At the far end, a huge round window was decorated with an intricate pattern in stained glass, the vibrant colours in sharp contrast to the rest of the interior. Immanion’s absent sun would have shone through it, casting bright splashes of colour onto the altar, like spilled jewels, but today its glory was muted.

The air was filled with the perfume of incense, warm and heavy. Thiede approached the main altar, and knelt before it. He looked up at the stained glass window above. Motes of dust, seemed to hover sparkling in the air, suspended in the stillness, neither rising nor falling. Even on this dullest of days, the temple was still a place of light.

There was peace in this place. It was the peace he had sought when he had first come to Almagabra, to build his city. Peace, after the long years of turmoil. Order, after the chaos. Water, after the desert. Respite.

It was a lie. I should have known it.

He had not found what he had been looking for here. He had not left his past behind, he had brought it with him.

Now it is time to be truthful with myself. I can do nothing else.

He reached out and touched the stone of the altar. It was the focus of a million prayers, many of them his own. He had spent nights here, in silent contemplation, trying to atone for something. But the absolution he had been seeking had never come. He had been looking in the wrong place. The only forgiveness he needed was from himself.

Above him, the great circle of coloured lights looked down like an unblinking, unseeing eye, while outside there was no sound but the steady patter of the still-falling rain.

– 9 –

He can move now, and stand. Just. Velaxis obviously disapproves of him leaving his bed, but there is something that has to be done; something he needs to see. He leaves the bedroom he has been confined to for the past two weeks and makes his way to the locked room on the second floor.

The body floats in the coffin. No – not a coffin, for that implies death, and this is the very opposite of death. Tubes and pipes are growing into the flesh. It is still unfinished, and will be so for a long time yet, but it is done – it is a success.

“Pellaz. I hope you were worth it.”

He speaks to the body, even though he knows it cannot hear him yet. He knows that Pellaz will be – must be – worthy of the sacrifice made on his behalf. Pellaz will be perfect. He has been freed from the thrall and taint of the one thing which marred his perfection. Calanthe.

He feels his own body begin to shake again, and it is not only due to physical weakness. He remembers, even though he tries not to. And guilt gnaws at the very heart of him, even as he tells himself that it is a useless emotion. There is always the unexpected to contend with; the unforeseen events, the collision of circumstances. Perhaps there was a way in which Orien’s death could have been prevented, but it is pointless to think on it now. What is done cannot be undone. The chain of events occurred; it stretched back to Pell’s first, fateful meeting with the mad har Calanthe. It continued through his inception at Saltrock, Orien’s teachings. Seel. Flick. And Cal. Always Cal.

He had thought that Pell’s death would sever that chain, but he had been wrong. Pell’s death spawned a new chain, like ripples across a pond. If Pell had not died, then Orien would not have died. If Cal had not lived, then Orien would not have died.

If he had been capable of preventing it, then Orien would not have died. But he was not. The effort of capturing Pell’s soul had drained him too much There was nothing he could do, but lie uselessly in his own sick bed, feeling the knife, the stab, the cut, the pain, the fear, the death.

What is done cannot be undone. Guilt is a useless emotion. He locks the room and returns to his own quarters, before his legs have a chance to give way again. Outside is snow and ice. This hideaway is in a cold, remote part of the world. Inside, huge fires blaze in great hearths, but they cannot take away the chill inside him.

Velaxis is waiting for him, because that is what he does. He is the only other person in this austere castle because he is the only other person that Thiede trusts with this secret. Fires burn, food appears, and soiled, sweat-stained sheets are removed because Velaxis makes it so, and Thiede has long since ceased to wonder why he does this. Velaxis is efficient, capable and trustworthy. Even his extended absence from Immanion will have been explained away smoothly by Velaxis. He knows that if he were to ask it of him, Velaxis would find a way of dealing with the aftermath of Orien’s death, but that is the one thing he cannot delegate the responsibility for. Eventually he will have to go to Saltrock and face the consequences. But not yet.

He stands in front of the vast, blazing fire, staring into the flames, as if he can find answers there.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

It is not sympathy that Velaxis is offering. It is never that. There is hardness to him, something unbreakable inside, as if he had seen all the worst that the world had to offer, and laughed contemptuously in its face. Velaxis does not offer false comforts or easy lies. He speaks the truth, even when it is hard, and Thiede has been glad of that, because it is a rare thing to find in a har, and so he should believe Velaxis when he says that he is not to blame, and if he is not to blame, then there should be no guilt, and if there is no guilt then he should not feel this way.

There is a flaw in his logic somewhere, but he cannot find it.

“It doesn’t matter if it was my fault or not, he is still dead. I should have known that Calanthe was dangerous. I should have done something about him sooner.”

“Passions can run deep”

It feels odd to hear Velaxis speak of passion. He has an almost ethereal aura of calm and stillness about him. Even during aruna, he is detached.

“It is why such things need to be eradicated.”

Velaxis looks at him with something which might almost be compassion. “We are the sum of our experiences. All our hopes and fears, and love and grief. Calanthe has lost something… someone… important to him, and with that loss, a part of the fabric of himself has unravelled.”

“It is why Immanion will be free of such things”.

Velaxis gives him an odd look. “These things you perceive as weakness are part of your strength, if you allow them to be. If you had never known Orien, the course of your life would have been different. It is a gift to have formed a connection with another person; to have allowed them to change who you are, but like all things worth having, there is a price to be paid.”

He shakes his head, but the words of denial will not come. Not so soon after Orien’s death. Had Orien been a part of *his* fabric? And would he now unravel, now that the thread was cut? If he concentrates, he can imagine the pattern of his life – a complex, interwoven affair, but it feels threadbare and worn in places, as if it might rip apart at any moment. Orien had been woven deep into that pattern. He had been there from the beginning. Perhaps there is no way of removing his presence without damaging the whole structure.

Velaxis touches his arm. It feels almost obscenely intimate.

“Velaxis… whatever it is you want from me, I cannot give it to you.”

Velaxis smiles briefly, almost sadly.

“I don’t want anything from you. I want to give you something”

The hand which was resting on his arm moves upwards, under the curtain of dark red hair, and then pulls him closer. He feels the softness and warmth of Velaxis’ lips pressed against his own, a sweet, musky scent, and the other har’s breath in his mouth, twined around a flicker of foreign images, then his mind is filled with a cascade of words in a language he does not comprehend. The sounds in his head are like nothing he has heard before, but he knows their meaning even as the litany unfolds. A prayer for the dead.

There is a grandeur to the words, a sense of antiquity. They speak of loss through many generations, each mourned in the same, slow cadences. Something about those words makes them comforting, yet at the same time almost unbearable. In his mind, he sees a pattern form – a chain, stretching backwards. No, not a chain, a net. Each link a knot, tied and joined to the other. The words are the knots, the binding force, and as he slowly recites them Thiede feels another knot tie. Secured and unbroken. Remembrance.

His own thread unravels, but he holds to the knot, feels its strength, and knows it will endure.

***

They never mention it again. Neither he, nor Velaxis. It is as if they have both agreed to close a door and walk away. He tells himself that this is how it must be. He cannot afford the luxury of self-indulgence. His life is not his own, he has a destiny to fulfill and he must remain focused on what he must do. He continues to take aruna with Velaxis, even after Immanion is completed. For a while, he gives Velaxis to the Hegemony, reasoning that they need his skills more than he. Then he reasons that he must also have aruna, since his is a har, and that it would be dangerous and inconsiderate of him to approach any other har, given the risks, and so Velaxis continues to pay regular visits to his magnificent apartments in the heart of Phaonica. Velaxis remains detached and professional, which is at it should be, and the door remains closed.

For a very long time, Thiede continues to believe that it is he alone who was responsible for closing it.

***

By the time he got back to Phaonica later in the afternoon, he had almost convinced himself that he should alter the weather himself, rather than waiting for nature to take its course.

Have patience he told himself. no good comes of interfering in the natural scheme of things.

A particularly large raindrop hit his face. He sighed, shook himself, and hurried into the dryness of the palace entrance.

The large main reception hall was busy, as usual. Assorted staff, servants and courtiers buzzed about, and in the middle was a particularly large throng of elegant hara which Thiede recognized as the Tigrina’s personal guard. The Tigrina himself was almost hidden from view, dwarfed by the lofty creatures surrounding him. He had obviously just returned from some official function, and when he noticed Thiede he gave a quick, regal wave of his hand and came over to join him, trailing his entire entourage with him.

“You’re all wet!” Caeru looked displeased at his appearance.

“It’s raining.”

“Yes, but…” Caeru poked at his sodden cloak rather squeamishly. “Can’t you do something about it?”

“I prefer to let nature take its course.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of carrying an umbrella.”

They both laughed. “An eminently sensible suggestion, Tigrina. I shall take your advice in future.”

Wherever the Tigrina had been, it was obvious that the weather had not been allowed to inconvenience him. He was dressed in his usual magnificent attire, all floating colourful silk and sparkling jewels.

A ray of sunshine for Immanion thought Thiede, rather sentimentally. The Tigrina had the knack of brightening up any gathering by his very presence. Unlike Pellaz, he managed not to look bored when meeting people. Cal was still regarded rather warily as a bit of a loose cannon, and kept away from potentially embarrassing situations by the Hegemony, but Caeru’s tireless efforts ensured that the royal family remained affectionately well-regarded by the people of Immanion.

Thiede reflected that it would have been nice if he could have taken the credit for this. Caeru was Tigrina at his insistence after all. But he knew that he could take no personal pride in the circumstances which had led to that. He wondered why Caeru did not hate him.

“I spoke to Pell earlier today,” Caeru interrupted his thoughts. “He was up early. Or, rather I don’t think he’d been to bed at all. He works too hard.”

“He is Tigron. Sometimes it is necessary.”

“He needs a holiday.”

“Apparently he desires to go to Freygard.”

“Mmm.”

Thiede studied Caeru’s face. His bright demeanour had faded a little, and there was a hint of wistfulness in his eyes.”

“You are not happy about that?”

“I wouldn’t say that. If it’s what Pell wants…”

“But what do you want?”

Caeru looked up at him. “I want Pell to be happy.”

Even if it is with another har?” he thought, but did not say it out loud. There was no need.

“I truly don’t think he appreciates how much you care for him, my dear” he said gently.

“Oh he’s just… Pell. He doesn’t know what he wants, half the time. Or he wants what he can’t have. Or something like that.”

“He is fortunate that you and Cal are so patient.”

Caeru shrugged. “I love him. So does Cal. When you love someone, you love them even when they aren’t being particularly loveable. If you don’t, then it’s not really love.”

“You have more wisdom than most, Tigrina.”

Caeru smiled, and a hint of pink flushed his cheeks.

Why is it that you don’t hate me? Why is it that you want my praise, crave my favour?”

He knew why. He was The Aghama. Their God. Even after all he had done, all the cruelties he had inflicted upon them, they could not reject him. But he was also a har. He wondered if they would ever be able to separate the God from the har, and see him as he truly was.

“Pell was looking for Velaxis last night.” Caeru continued, looking at him with an air of innocence. “Did he find him?”

Thiede touched one finger to his lips in an unconscious gesture. “Yes. Yes he did.” he said carefully.

“I thought he might.”

“Did you now?”

Caeru laughed. “Yes. That’s why I sent him there. I know Vel isn’t really Pell’s favourite har. Especially after that business with Darq and…well…”

“He has always been a good servant to me.”

Caeru sighed heavily and shook his head. “You’re not very good at this, are you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

The Tigrina took hold of his arm in a companionable, conspiratorial way, waving away the knot of hara clustered around them with his free hand.

“Pell would like to get rid of Velaxis. I know he would.”

“It is entirely up to Velaxis whether he stays in Immanion or not. Pellaz may be Tigron, but he cannot just arbitrarily banish people. We do have laws.”

“I know, but that’s not how things work. People need reasons and purposes. Velaxis had a purpose in being here, and now that purpose is fulfilled.”

“And you are concerned that he might leave?”

“He’s my friend. I don’t want him to go.”

“Then ask him to stay.”

“That might not be enough.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Caeru stared at him with intense blue eyes. He raised one eyebrow a fraction.

A suspicion dawned within Thiede. “Did Velaxis say anything to you?”

“No he didn’t! Getting information out of Vel is like getting blood out of a stone!”

“Then how…”

Again Caeru’s knowing stare, this time with a hint of a smile on his lips.

“I’m not stupid. I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, you know. I also know that Pell isn’t going to like… well, let’s just say he’s got enough on his plate dealing with his own relationships at the moment. He’ll be a lot happier if he doesn’t have to know about it, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

“Of course I am.” Caeru paused for a moment. “But don’t take anything for granted.”

“I never do.”

“What I mean is – sometimes you can wait a long time for something, only to see it slip through your fingers because you didn’t say the right thing at the right time, or you thought the wrong thing, or you didn’t think your deserved it, or something inside you wouldn’t let you admit what you wanted…” Caeru looked up at him anxiously, his frustration visible. “Does that make any sense?”

“A little.”

“You came back here. You didn’t have to. You must have come for a reason.”

A reason, and a purpose

“You must have seen and done a lot of things in your life. I can’t even begin to imagine…”

“There are things I have never done. Never experienced.” he said quietly.

“I know. But you can now. It’s your life. It’s your time. It’s your choice. A second chance. You’re lucky.”

“Yes. I am.”

“You can do it differently this time. Don’t mess it up.”

“I know. I won’t.”

The grip on his arm tightened slightly. The Tigrina stood up on tiptoe, as far as he could reach, and planted a soft kiss on his cheek. Then he was gone, leaving Thiede standing alone in the large, echoing hallway.

***

The main entrance chamber to Phaonica was divided along its width by an imposing staircase. Twelve hara could easily walk abreast down its marble steps. At the top, it split right and left, either way taking one into the first floor of the palace. It was here that the main official function rooms were. Business-like meeting chambers, small, intimate drawing rooms, elegant salons with homely touches in which to entertain important visitors, and along the east wing, the vast ballroom and banqueting hall where The Tigrina held his legendary soirees.

The living quarters of the some of the domestic staff were on the next level, along with guest suits and bedrooms and above them the royal apartments and private rooms. Thiede’s personal apartments were at the very top of the palace, and it took some considerable time to ascend the many flights of stairs. Sometimes he wondered if it was worth the effort. He had the ability to travel rather more efficiently, as he had done so the previous evening, but he considered it rather ill-mannered to do so unless circumstances truly warranted it.

He paused at the top of the stairs leading up from the second floor to catch his breath. Long, arched windows ran the length of the stairwell, from top to bottom. There were leaf-like patterns etched into the glass, rendering it slightly opaque, but it was possible to see the sea if you tilted your head at the right angle. Normally a vivid peacock blue in the wide bay surrounding Immanion, today it was only grey, and blended with the sky. Thiede did not bother to look. He was about to continue on his way when a regal, dark-haired figure appeared. It was Pellaz har Aralis.

He looked rather more serene than he had the night before, and was dressed differently, so Thiede assumed that he had been able to find some time to rest in his own apartments at some point, for which he gave thanks. Pellaz was not the easiest of hara to deal with when he was out of sorts.

Pellaz gave a small, stiff bow, as if he had forgotten how to perform such a gesture, or no longer cared to.

“Good day, Pellaz. We meet under rather more convivial circumstances. I trust the problems of earlier have been resolved, and you have been able to catch up on any lost sleep?”

“Yes. I had a nap earlier. I’m just about to go and check that there is no flood damage in the area of Immanion which was affected.”

“Oh I don’t think you need to worry, my dear. I have spoken to some of the brave hara whose lives were so terrifyingly disrupted, and they appear to have risen to the occasion admirably and cleaned up the mess themselves.”

“You’ve been out in the city?”

“Yes. I would have thought the condition of my apparel would have made that obvious.”

Pellaz stared at him suspiciously.

“What were you doing out there?” he asked

“Having breakfast”

“Breakfast?”

“Yes. It’s a meal taken early in the day, prior to lunch.”

“The palace supplies meals of excellent quality at any time of the night or day” said Pell, rather stiffly. He obviously felt that Thiede was mocking him, although he did not dare say so.

“I am aware of that, but I felt the urge to wander among the populace and take the pulse of the city after its recent disaster, so to speak.”

“I can hardly do that,” Pell snapped “I am Tigron. I would be recognized.”

“Of course you would. It’s not the end of the world.”

“I don’t have time for social chit-chat anyway, I have a great deal to do. I have a whole stack of reports to read. As usual, Velaxis has taken my comments very literally and produced considerably more paperwork than is necessary.”

“He’s very thorough.”

“Well you should know.” Pellaz glared at him, aware that he sounded childish and petulant, but unable to stop himself.

“Indeed.”

Pell stared at him with a mulish expression

“He’s been there before, hasn’t he?”

“Where, exactly?”

“In you apartments. In your bedroom.”

“Of course he has. Velaxis has worked for me for many years. You know that.”

“No, I mean recently. I mean… after you came back.”

“And what of it?”

“Why is he there? Why is he always there?”

“Am I not allowed to take aruna like any other har?”

Pell had the decency to look slightly embarrassed, but continued anyway.

“Of course you are, but why him? Why does it always have to be him? How can you trust him?”

Thiede gave him a considered look, as if he was inspecting a faulty piece of workmanship.

“I can see that this bothers you somehow, Pell, but it really is none of your business whom I chose to invite to my home, far less whom I chose to take aruna with.”

Pell’s expression remained obstinate. “Is there more to it than that?” he demanded

“I beg your pardon?”

“Is there… are you… Do you have some sort of relationship with Velaxis?”

”Relationship?” Thiede’s tone had an edge to it that any sensible har would ignore at his peril, but Pellaz had obviously decided to burn his bridges.

“Is he your chesnari?”

Thiede stared at Pell for several long minutes, and Pell felt his insides liquefy. He knew he had probably gone too far, but something would not let him retract the question.

Eventually Thiede spoke, and his tone was neutral, although Pell was well aware that that could have been indicative of anything from mild amusement to incandescent rage with Thiede.

“Pellaz, I fail to see why this should concern you, but obviously it does. I understand that you are still angry with Velaxis about the fact that he concealed his true nature from you, however I have known him and worked with him for a very long time. Since before you were even born. Allow me the possibility that I may know better than you if he is to be trusted. And as for your other question, although it is hardly any of your business, the answer is no. I do not have a relationship with Velaxis, as you put it.”

Pellaz let out a long breath, as if he had been suddenly deflated.

“I’m sorry. I just… Well, it doesn’t matter, but I’m glad you told me the truth.”

“I’m glad I was able to put your mind at ease.”

For a moment Pell looked as if he wanted to say something else, but he changed his mind and smiled brightly.

“I have some new ideas I want to try out when I get back from Freygard. I’m sure things will improve now that … well, now that everything is getting back to normal.”

“I’m sure they will.”

“I must be going now.” He paused for a moment. “I – we, that is – Cal and Rue and myself – would be honoured if you would join us for dinner one evening.”

“I would be delighted.”

Pell smiled, and the solemn Tigron was suddenly transformed into a carefree young har

“I’ll look forward to that.”

“As shall I.”

Pellaz continued on his way. Thiede watched him go, and noticed that he took the stairs two at a time

– 10 –

It ends with aruna

Not the kind that builds cities. The city is long since built. Its towers and turrets gleam white and gold in the sunshine, its Tigron rules benignly from the high palace on the hill, and tall, beautiful hara walk its streets like angels come to earth. It is almost perfect.

And yet, there is darkness at its heart. There is pain and there is unhappiness, and these things were never supposed to be, not here, not in this paradise, and he has tried so hard to be rid of them, tried for so many years, tried with all the power at his command, and each step has taken him further down a different route, and each action has had consequences, spreading outwards like the ripples on the water where the stone has sunk without trace below the surface.

It is not perfect, and he no longer knows how to make it so. A wind is blowing which will change everything; he feels it coming, like a sandstorm rising in the desert. The future and the past. All things connected.

He sits in a chair at the window and watches the sun set. Fire burning into the ocean. The ocean will quench the fire, and darkness will fall. For the first time has no vision; no plan for the coming day, no certainty that the sun will even rise on the morrow.

All that exists is this moment. The chair by the open window, the light slowly fading on the wall, the hands on his shoulders, kneading at the hard, knotted muscles under the skin. It is almost enough.

“I’m tired, Vel.”

“I know.”

***

He doesn’t have to ask, doesn’t have to explain or excuse. He is taken from the darkening room, into the bedchamber where the blinds are already drawn and the covers pulled down on the large, empty bed. His clothes are removed, slowly and carefully, eventually to lie in a discarded heap on the floor. He is stretched out upon the bed, naked, and the hands which rubbed his shoulders now slide up his body with a lighter, more sensual touch. They know his body, every inch of it. Know the places to touch and stroke, know how long, how hard, and how much, and his body responds as if it had never experienced such pleasure before, and the aching sweetness drives all other thoughts from his mind, except the comfort of knowing that if there is nothing else in this world, if tomorrow was to be his last day on this earth, if a bright and fiery sword were to be drawn into the very heart of Immanion and cast him into oblivion, then this is how he would choose to spend his last moments.

It is not the kind that builds cities, but it builds for him a small space in which he can forget his mistakes, his uncertainties, and his regrets for things done. And for things left undone and unsaid. Perhaps there will be another life for him, but it will not be this life, and there are things in this life that he would do differently if he had the chance, but that cannot be, not now, and so he takes what is offered gladly and the power which once built a city rushes through his body, and as the ocean swallows the fire, it is almost enough. And it is not enough.

***
Thiede awoke from his sleep and knew immediately that something was different. He was not alone in his bed, and that in itself was something new. The presence of the warm body next to him still took him by surprise. For years, Velaxis had come to his rooms, to his bed, taken aruna with him and left. That had been the way of things. Sometimes he would fall asleep, but Velaxis would always be gone when he awoke in the morning.

He could feel the rhythm of the other har’s breathing, slow and peaceful. The room was dark, but a faint glow had begun to seep through at the edges of the curtains. It must be nearly dawn.

He smiled lazily to himself, in the dark. To awaken to another’s presence was still new enough to catch him unawares, and fill him with a sudden, unexpected pleasure, but he was sure that was not what had woken him. He lay there for a few moments trying to work out what it was. Something was missing.

The rain had stopped.

The continuous sound of the past week had ceased, leaving a hole into which the absolute silence bled. He felt as if he no longer had the power of hearing at all, until he became aware of the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears. He stretched out his body in the bed, hearing the slight rustle of the sheets. The smooth linen was cool against his skin. It felt warmer than it had done for a long time, and after a few minutes consideration, he carefully pushed back the sheets and got up.

It wasn’t unusual for him to wake at an early hour. Feeling the constraint not to waken another har in bed beside him might take a little getting used to. He decided it was worth it.

He left the bedroom and walked naked through the silent rooms of his apartments, along silent corridors, until he came to a large reception room. Fortunately there were no househara about at this time of day to disturb him. He wondered vaguely if it was necessary to have them at all.

The room was illuminated softly with early light which entered through the tall, unshuttered windows, thin and pearl-lustred. He could see outside that the clouds had gone, and the sky was clear. He padded across the room, opened the doors which led out onto a wide balcony, and stepped outside.

Phaonica was famous for its balconies and terraces. They were its connection with the outside world. Here, up in the ivory towers it would be all too easy to feel trapped. There was no way of simply stepping out and walking down the street. But he had designed the palace to offer air and light and a sense of freedom, and every suite and apartment and official chamber and servants’ quarter had wide windows and balconies set like exotic perches. From below, Phaonica looked like a place of legend or fairy tale; anyone could easily imagine unearthly creatures inhabiting its graceful spires and magical stories taking place within its walls. In a way, that was the truth.

Outside, the air was cool, but the bone-chilling damp of the past week had gone. He felt the liquid touch of it all around his naked skin, like water, and he shivered pleasurably. The sky was pastel hued above, freed from the low, oppressive cloud and in the distance the tops of the mountains were clearly visible again; dark peaks silhouetted against the pale sky. Shortly, the sun would rise behind those mountains. The sky would glow, become brighter and more blue, and eventually a flood of golden light would spill down the slopes, warming the earth and sleeping Immanion below.

In a day or two, as if by magic, the mountainside would flower. Exuberant swathes of colour would appear, giving the impression that some drunken artist had mischievously daubed the landscape with paint. Stars, bells and ragged sunbursts in whites, blues and magentas would burst forth, each flower claiming its place in the sun. The rain had a purpose. It brought life.

It had been seven years since he had seen spring. As he stood and stared at the impassive slopes, it occurred to him that this annual miracle of rebirth alone was worth returning for.

The balcony on which he stood projected out dizzily from the side of the palace. Below was a vertiginous drop; above, only the sky. If he tilted his head back, he could see the flag flying from the very topmost point of Phaonica bearing the Tigron’s emblem. If he leaned forward, he could see the eastern quarter of Immanion below, curling around the base of the palace like a sleepy cat. Immanion. A city. His city.

Cities belong to the people who live in them

It was a living thing, this city; he could feel it breathing. Down there were the lives and stories of a hundred thousand hara. Down there slept Dill and his friend, perhaps together, perhaps not. When the morning came, they would all arise and go about their business of living. They would laugh, share jokes, argue, work, eat, drink, dance, make love, and then sleep in each others’ arms once again. It seemed impossible to believe that there had once been another city; a crumbling ruin he had lived in where there was only fear and hopelessness and pain. That city was long gone, but its legacy had taken longer to disappear.

Immanion. Perhaps it wasn’t perfect. But it was good enough.

He wasn’t cold, but the sudden warmth of the body behind him was welcome. Hands around his waist, a chin rested carelessly on his shoulder and the familiar scent of Velaxis’ skin.

“What are you doing out here?”

“I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Come back to bed.”

“In a minute.”

Velaxis laughed quietly. “You can’t stand out here naked. What will the good hara of Immanion think if they see you?”

“We’re at the top of a high palace at the top of a high hill. Nohar is going to see. Unless they’ve got a telescope trained on me. Now who would do that?”

Velaxis lifted away a strand of red hair from the side of Thiede’s neck and licked his earlobe deliberately. Thiede felt the cool air circle around his neck, and the fleeting coldness of the moisture evaporating, followed by the warmth of Velaxis’ breath as he spoke into his ear.

“I would,” he growled, the seductive tone of his voice so utterly artless that Thiede laughed out loud.

In response, Velaxis ran his fingers down his back, tracing lazy S shapes until they reached the smooth curve of his gluteal muscles where they paused and began a series of investigative grasps and pinches, squeezing the firm flesh methodically. Thiede stood very still and found that he suddenly had little interest in either the mountains, Immanion, or any potential voyeurs equipped with astronomical instruments. The interrogative fingers pushed and kneaded more, indelicately spreading him in order to gain access to concealed entrances to his body. He closed his eyes as he felt fingers slide inside him. He expected Velaxis to reach for the centres of pleasure within him, and when that did not happen he arched his back a little, pushing backwards, but the fingers inside him stayed tantalizingly still. Instead, Velaxis’ other hand snaked around the front of his body, and down the line of his groin until it found his ouana-lim, already hardened and standing proud from his body.

Velaxis slowly withdrew the fingers that were inside him. They were wet and sticky, and Thiede could feel this as Velaxis brought the hand round to join its partner in the business of stimulating his ouana-lim. Velaxis stroked it lazily in a slow, pleasurable rhythm and it swelled and stiffened more under his touch. After a few minutes of this enjoyable attention, he once again abandoned his activity prematurely, if somewhat reluctantly.

“Come to bed,” he coaxed “I think the good hara of Immanion have been shocked enough for one morning. It’s not often they are allowed to see The Aghama displaying his magnificence in all its glory.”

Thiede clasped his hand over Velaxis own and squeezed it encouragingly around his magnificence

“You’re not embarrassed, are you?” He thrust his hips forward almost reflexively.

“Yes. Yes I am. I am a modest and sensitive har who can only have aruna in the one position. With the lights off. You should know that by now. Now, come to bed. Or I shall be forced to do something I regret.”

“Like what?”

In response, Velaxis removed his hand, deliberately trailing his fingers along Thiede’s ouana-lim as he went, eliciting a small gasp from the owner of the organ in question. He moved round till he was facing Thiede, then sank to his knees in front of him. His lips closed around Thiede’s ouana-lim and he took it deep into his mouth, giving small flicks with his tongue. After a few seconds, he stood up again. Thiede was panting slightly.

“That was something you’re going to regret?”

“If I don’t get to finish it, then yes.”

“Vel…”

“What?”

“Come to bed.”

***

The bedroom seemed dim after the brightness of the balcony, but there was still enough light to admire the body of the har kneeling over him, straddling him, all elegant limbs and cascading hair. Thiede lay on his back on the bed. He could feel the hotness of his own erection on his belly, its long, hard shaft lying on his abdomen, feeling strangely uncomfortable. Velaxis leaned forward, and Thiede felt the feathery caress of his hair trail across his body, over his ouana-lim, an almost unbearable tease. The desire to penetrate the other har was intense, but he lay still and let Velaxis do as he wished.

Velaxis raised himself slightly. He took Thiede’s ouana-lim in his hand and guided it into himself, bearing down upon the body beneath him in order to force it into him fully. Thiede watched his face; Velaxis’ eyes were closed, and as each of the pleasure points within him were touched in turn as Thiede went deeper into him, small ripples of movement worked across his face, fleeting and transient; a precursor to ecstasy. His mouth was slightly open, and Thiede raised one hand and ran his finger around the lips, feeling the breath coming in quick gasps.

His own body felt as if it was on fire. Energy seemed to flow from every pore and every nerve ending. It concentrated in his ouana-lim, building like an electric storm. He felt the tightness in his stomach and internal organs which presaged the lightning strike to come. It was intense and overwhelming, almost too much to bear.

It is not enough

The lightning struck. A million particles of energy grounded to earth in an instant. The circuit closed. Velaxis gave a long, shuddering cry, and then another as a flood of liquid fire pulsed into him. Colours seemed to hang in the air, forming and reforming visions and nightmares. In the very last moment, Thiede remembered to throw out a protective ward and contain the energy released, and the windows rattled, but remained intact. Velaxis was slumped on top of him, a dead weight now, gasping for breath. Thiede put his hand on his back, and could feel the cold slick of sweat between his shoulders.

Velaxis’ gasps gave way to a series of drained exhalations. He remained where he was, and Thiede felt no inclination to move him. He lay there, concentrating on the feeling of his ouana-lim still inside Velaxis. He did not want to separate from him; to go back to being one har, alone, isolated.

Velaxis sensed his mood and raised his head to look at him quizzically. A few strands of his hair were still stuck to his face and he pushed them aside.

“And how was it for you?” he asked. The words had a frivolous tone to them, but the look in his eyes was deep and questioning.

Don’t lie

Thiede looked up at the ceiling. There was nothing there but a blank, white surface.

It’s not enough

Long fingers stroked his face softly. Velaxis looked at him seriously

“There can be more. If it is what you want.”

The ceiling still refused to yield up any answers, but he didn’t need it to. He had his own answers. He knew now why he had come back. He knew what it was that he needed to experience

“Yes. It’s what I want.”

Velaxis leaned over him again, covering his mouth with his own, sharing his breath in a kaleidoscope rush of images and visions. Everything there was familiar, and as it should be – as it had been for so long, and then without warning it changed, and it was like seeing an old, sepia photograph from the past suddenly bleed into colour and depth and movement; like hearing a single note become a harmony of two, and then a chord. It was the same, but different. Everything was changed, but not.

He saw memories stretching back further than before. People, places, things he had never imagined before. A whole hidden history, tangled and complex. A chain. A net. A web. And himself a part of it, woven in deeply now, the threads of his life knotted to another’s, bound by something he himself had created without realizing it. He pulled away, gasping for breath, but the visions remained, strong and clear.

It was enough.

It was more than enough.

***
Velaxis was half asleep, spread indolently over the bed, taking up far too much room. Thiede watched him lying there, his long hair spread out like wings.

“I lied, you know”

“Did you?” Velaxis didn’t even bother to open his eyes. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I do it all the time. The more you practice the better you become at it.”

“I lied to Pellaz.”

“Oh dear.”

“You could sound a little more concerned.”

“Yes, I could. But I’d be lying.” Dark blue eyes opened and looked at him with amusement.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what I lied about?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Vel!”

“Very well. What did you lie to sweet, innocent Pellaz about?”

“I lied about you. About us.”

“About us?”

“Yes. He asked me if I had a relationship with you, and I said no.”

“He asked that?”

“Yes.”

“In that tone of voice?”

“In exactly that tone of voice.”

“I’m hearing it now!” he said delightedly “Oh Pell, you can be such a prig!”

“Are you angry with me?”

“No. Why should I be?”

“I don’t know. Aren’t you going to ask me why I lied to him?”

Velaxis sighed heavily and turned over on his side to face Thiede. “Why,” he intoned deliberately “did you lie to Pellaz?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Do you feel guilty about it?”

“About lying to Pell? No, not really. It was what he wanted to hear.”

“Then you have done him a good turn. I’m all in favour of lying to increase the sum of personal happiness. Telling the unvarnished truth is seriously overrated, in my opinion.”

“It wasn’t for Pell’s benefit, it was for mine. I wanted – want something that I don’t have to share with Pellaz or the rest of the world. Something private. Something that belongs to me. Does that make any sense?”

“Of course it does.”

“Does it bother you? That I refused to acknowledge you?”

Velaxis laughed a little. “Is that what you feel guilty about? No, it doesn’t bother me. Far worse things have happened to me!”

“I know. But I don’t want you to feel slighted.”

“I don’t. It is your decision to make, and it is not Pell’s right to know anything.”

“It feels like cowardice, or selfishness, or both, but I don’t know how else to do it.”

“Then it is the right thing to do.” Velaxis paused, then continued more soberly. “You gave them everything. Pellaz and all the rest of them. The whole of Wraeththu-kind. Everything you did was for them. Your life was dedicated to them. And now you have an opportunity to live a life of your own making and your own choosing, and if that is selfish, then so be it. If you are selfish, then I am more so, because I want you for myself.” He leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek. His lips were soft and warm, and Thiede’s insides ached at the touch.

“There will be subterfuge, you realize?” he said, his voice slightly hoarse.

“I like subterfuge. I’m good at it. My life would be dull and meaningless without it.”

“Pell will continue to make your life difficult”

“I don’t care! I really have no interest in Pellaz or his petty sulks” Velaxis idly moved a few strands of long red hair away from the side of Thiede’s face and looked at him intently.

“I’m sorry. I know he is important to you. I will try to be polite and forge a good relationship with our fine Tigron.”

“Will you?”

“No, probably not.”

Thiede laughed, and the cold, clenched feeling in his guts seemed to uncoil like a spring. It seemed unimportant, for some reason. Velaxis closed his eyes again and lay still and close. Thiede could feel his breath, and his skin. He marveled at the smooth texture of it. Not like silk; silk was cold. Skin was warm and living, and it craved the touch of its own kind. Skin against skin, sensual and intimate.

We spend all our lives putting up barriers, keeping others out, pushing them away, when what we really want is closeness. We hardly even know what it is we are looking for, it is only when at last we find ourselves lying naked in the arms of a lover that we know that we have found it.

A bright edging of light framed the closed curtains, and some adventurous rays pried their way through a slit between them. The sun was now obviously risen and clear of the mountain tops, sending its rays to warm and dry sodden Immanion. Outside the birds were joining together in a polyphonic chorus, their small breasts filled with joyous song. A new day had dawned.

“I suppose I had better get moving” Velaxis announced, although his eyes remained closed, and he did not stir.

“You don’t have to.”

“But there are Things To Do!” he stretched his long limbs gracefully. “Sulky Tigrons to placate, sedition to foment amongst minor officials, arms to twist, favours to curry and – with any luck – long, wine-fuelled and gossip-enhanced lunches with Tigrinas to be eaten.”

“You need an assistant.” Thiede remarked dryly.

“For everything except the last.” He paused for a moment. “I will have to go back to Helek Sah.”

“Will you?”

“I can see no way of avoiding it.”

“You have some explaining to do, I expect.”

“That’s one way of putting it!”

“When will you go?”

“I don’t know. Sooner rather than later, I think. No point in putting it off.”

“Will you be gone long?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps.”

Thiede hesitated. “You are coming back, aren’t you?”

Sedu concealed inexpertly as wild horses could not prevent me from doing so!”

Thiede grinned. “Good. Now go and run my city.”

Velaxis got out of the bed and collected his clothing from a chair where he had folded it and laid it neatly the night before.

“It’s not your city.”

Thiede watched him walk across the room, admiring his elegant loveliness of form.

“I know.” he said.

Epilogue

“Vel?”

“Yes?”

“You know that thing you do…”

“Which particular thing would that be?”

“You know. The thing with your tongue.”

“Oh. That thing.”

“Yes.”

“Would you like me to do it now?”

“Yes. I think I would.”

“You said you didn’t want me to do that again.”

“I lied about that too.”

** I despair. If you can’t trust the Aghama, who can you trust? There?**

“Mmmm. A little bit more….aah… yes… Vel?”

** I’m busy**

“Yes I know. Is it true that you have a waiting list?”

**Would I lie to you?**

“Of course you would, what sort of question is that? I just wondered if I was going to have to make an appointment if I want to take aruna with you.”

Velaxis raised his head and wiped the corner of his mouth fastidiously. He looked down at Thiede’s ouana-lim appraisingly.

“Oh, I think I can fit you in….”

The End

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5 Comments

  1. April 8, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    […] Sequel: After the Rains […]

  2. niennaainur said,

    April 9, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Yay!! It was posted !!
    Love this story!!

  3. niennaainur said,

    April 9, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Yay!
    I love this story. I’m so glad it was posted.

  4. April 16, 2008 at 8:44 am

    […] that was “inspired” by camile_sinensis (aka Teapot) (my sincerest apologies) story After the Rains in which Velaxis is uber-efficient at everything — love Velaxis though I do (and I really […]

  5. March 30, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    […] little fic is strongly inspired by “And The Flowers Bloom Like Madness in the Spring” & “After the Rains,” a pair of exquisite post-Ghosts fics by Camille Sinesis, focusing in on Thiede and Velaxis. That […]


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