Choosing Sides

Choosing Sides
By Camile Sinensis (Teapot)

Story Notes

Editor\'s Pick A sequel, or follow-on, or something like that, to “Command Structure”. Or, rather, it was all orginally conceived as one story, but I knew if I wrote it out it would expand , rather like one of those sponges that are tiny when they’re dry, but swell up enormously when you put them in water. How right I was! (but I did it anyway)

Set in Imbrilim, shortly before Swift and friends arrive.

Characters: Velaxis and Ashmael. With guest appearances by Arahal, Thiede, Chrysm, some Varrs and a pair of handcuffs.

Spoilers: Minor ones for “Bewitchments”, if you squint hard enough.

Summary: A Varrish defector is brought to Imbrilim, causing Ashmael to reflect on the dual nature of Wraeththu, and which side is the stronger.

Author email: teapot@doramail.com

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

– 1 –

“In the words of humankind, Velaxis is merely a whore. It’s his choice… If you asked Ashmael for Velaxis’ company for a night and Ashmael said “yes,” Velaxis would have to agree, because that’s the role he’s taken on…”

– The Bewitchments of Love and Hate

For such an impermanent structure, Imbrilim had a very solid air of permanence about it. The tents and pavilions and canopies which made up the encampment were laid out in neat, ordered rows, their colourful silk walls forming the boundaries of streets and avenues; the avenues converging at crossroads, and giving way to open, public spaces where hara and humans would congregate.

The Gelaming were famous for their attention to detail and their planning skills, and no doubt considerable time, effort and expertise had gone into the construction of the camp to allow it to function as efficiently as it did, but to Ashmael, it felt as if the small town – which the settlement was rapidly becoming – had taken root of its own accord, and grown organically; as if this arrangement of private dwellings and communal areas had an inevitability about it.

It felt as if it had always been there, and in that respect it was very true to the Gelaming vision. The last remnants of human civilisation was still convulsing in its death throes, but already the new lords of the earth had smoothly taken possession of their inheritance. The transition had been almost obscenely brief.

They should have waited until the old world was cold and buried, at least, Ashmael thought, watching the bright pennants fluttering in the brisk morning breeze. But there had been no time for that. No time to look backward, only forwards, to the dazzling new future. Imbrilim itself was a symbol of that, its bright pavilions as clean and new-minted as the morning itself. All around the old towns and villages and settlements were being abandoned or destroyed. Chaos and disorder were spreading across the land, but here in the heart of Megalithica a small piece of the hopeful future had taken root. A light to push back the encroaching darkness. A refuge for all those seeking sanctuary from lawlessness and fear.

Also, a strategically useful outpost, militarily speaking.

Ashmael had little time for the social engineering aspects of Imbrilim’s development. He was a soldier; he was in charge of the Gelaming army, and he knew the problems facing the new Wraeththu civilization better than most. Humanity was a spent force – a more sinister adversary now threatened the Gelaming’s new world. Their own kind. The Varrs.

The Hegemony had hesitated to act against this threat. Some of them had argued that no Wraeththu tribe could sink to the level of human barbarity. Wraeththu were too spiritually advanced for that to happen. Ashmael was of the opinion that most of the Hegemony had led very sheltered lives, and that they had little or no experience of what Wraeththu were capable of. He had informed them of this in no uncertain terms and the ensuing debate had been vigorous. It had resulted in several small breakages in the Hegalion debating chamber, and the founding of the settlement of Imbrilim as a refugee camp and Gelaming Embassy. The military presence was low-key as yet. Many still hoped that a political solution could be found, but Ashmael did not delude himself.

Too much too soon. We are not so far removed from human kind and human nature.

He raised one hand and shielded his eyes from the brightness of the early morning sun. In the distance, beyond the woods to the north of the camp, a low pall of smoke made a dirty smear across the clear blue of the sky. The small town had been put to the torch three days previously, and a steady trickle of homeless and displaced hara had been arriving in Imbrilim ever since. The town’s leaders had refused to offer allegiance or assistance to the Varrs, and the community had paid the price.

Ashmael sighed and turned away. It would come to a fight, in the end. He knew it. The old human vices lived on; the desire for power, for status, and for control.

It will take more than an interesting addition between our legs to purge us of those, he thought glumly, kicking at an innocent rock in the middle of the otherwise smooth and level ground.

He made his way through the camp, past fluttering silk canopies in opulent hues, shot through with flashes of gold and silver threads. Imbrilim was a thing of beauty in the midst of ugliness. It was the Gelaming ethos – food for the soul as well as the body was what it offered the weary refugees. Hope for the future. A piece of heaven on Earth.

Which was all very well and good, but Ashmael was rather more interested in bodily nourishment at this moment in time. There were large pavilions around the camp where meals were served communally, and the food was of good quality so most of the residents were happy to avail themselves of this facility. He walked past the purple and gold of the Hegemony’s Official Residence, and on towards the nearest canteen. Although it was early, the place was already alive and humming with activity – long benches and tables were filled with hara and humans alike, eating and talking.

As Camp Commandant, Ashmael could have had his own private table, but he prided himself on being democratic, and refused the privilege. He did, however, have a favourite spot, on the end of one particular table at the far side of the pavilion, and no-one else ever took that particular seat.

He settled himself down on the wooden bench and waited. His commitment to democracy didn’t quite extend as far as joining the queue for food – there was little point, he told himself, in being Camp Commandant if you couldn’t allow yourself a few advantages from time to time.

He didn’t have long to wait – a har approached him, greeting him with a respectful inclination of his head.

“Good morning, General. And what may I get for you this morning?”

“Just the usual, thank you.”

“Of course.” The har immediately produced a large tray with an assortment of savoury dishes and a pot of steaming coffee, seemingly from nowhere.

Ashmael grinned.

“Am I that predictable?”

“Perhaps dependable is a better word, General.”

“Yes, I’m inclined to agree with you. Dependable. Consistent, even.”

“A shining example to the feckless and unreliable everywhere.”

The har poured some coffee from the pot into the cup gracefully. Ashmael raised it to his lips and inhaled the aroma appreciatively, the steam curling around his upper lip.

“You’re up early this morning Velaxis,” he said, after taking a small sip and blinking slightly as the scalding liquid seared his tongue. He set it down again carefully, and turned his attention to the rest of the tray.

“I’m always up early, General. I have to help with the preparation and serving of food for breakfast. Is it to your satisfaction?”

“Excellent, as always. I do believe that the standard of cuisine has improved considerably of late. Do I take it that we have your efforts to thank for this?”

“I like to think that I may in some small way have made a contribution.”

“I heard that you had the entire kitchen staff report for instruction every evening for the past two weeks!”

“I have to eat what they produce as well.”

“Quite.” Ashmael took a slice of toasted bread which was sprinkled with seeds and dripping with melted butter. He cut it into two pieces with his knife.

“I’m just surprised,” he said, smearing some sweet preserve onto the pieces, “that you have the energy to be up and around this early, after last night.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Ashmael grinned again, licking his sticky fingers.

“The walls of the Hegemony Pavilion are flimsy,” he said, “And hara taking aruna are not always silent.”

“Ah. I see what you mean. Yes, Tiahaar Chrysm does tend to be somewhat vocal in his appreciation of my skills. I try to refrain from those types of ejaculations myself, in consideration for those of a delicate constitution who require their sleep.”

“Well I’m all for a bit of healthy fun and exercise, but it was four o’clock in the morning”

“Next time I shall gag Tiahaar Chrysm”

“There’s no need for that”

“I know, but he enjoys it.”

Ashmael choked slightly on his toast.

“Perhaps you could demonstrate the technique in my quarters tonight?” he said, after a short coughing fit.

“I would be delighted, General. Shall I invite Tiahaar Chrysm as well?”

“No – I have the singularly unworthy urge to let him discover what it’s like to be woken up at four in the morning.”

Velaxis swept a few crumbs from the table with the edge of his hand.

“The General’s stamina is legendary,” he said. “I would expect five in the morning, at least!”

“I’ll see what I can do!”

Ashmael finished the last of his breakfast, and Velaxis immediately began to clear away the plates. The General studied him openly. The other har showed no signs of fatigue or weariness. His appearance was immaculate – his long white hair smooth and groomed, his fingernails polished and manicured, and his eyes carefully made up with kohl and dusky shadow. He was dressed in floating silky garments which seemed a little impractical for the task in hand, but Velaxis felt constrained or hindered by his apparel, he gave no sign of it.

Ashmael appreciated a har who took pains with his appearance. Although it was true that all hara were beautiful, he saw nothing wrong with a little embellishment. He did not apply this to himself, of course. He knew himself to be an extremely attractive har anyway, by any standards, and his lifestyle as a professional soldier did not mix easily with pampering and preening. There were other hara, such as Velaxis, whose business it was to look good for the benefit of others, but he himself had more important things to attend to.

As Velaxis leant over to collect the empty cup, Ashmael reached out and stroked the side of his face, enjoying the flawless, silky texture of his skin. Velaxis did not object, he merely remained still until Ashmael had finished, then continued to pile the last of the dishes back onto the tray.

“Will that be all, General?” he asked

“Yes, thank you, Velaxis. I will see you later.”

“You may depend upon it.”

Velaxis balanced the fully loaded tray on the side of one hip and glided elegantly off in the direction of the kitchen areas.

Ashmael watched him go for a moment, then he stood up, swinging his legs over the top of the bench, and stretched. Already empty spaces were starting to appear at tables, and the long queue at the serving area had dwindled to almost nothing. A new day in Imbrilim was beginning. For some it would be merely a repeat of the previous day, but Ashmael rarely experienced that luxury.

He made his way to the exit and stepped out into the sunshine. The food pavilion was set at the end of one of the main avenues. The Hegemony Headquarters was only about half a minute’s walk away – he could see it clearly from where he was standing, a large, canopied structure which announced its importance in royal purple and gold. On top, flags were flying. A double-headed axe, emblem of the Gelaming army. A lion with a fish tail on a black and silver background – the Tigron’s own personal banner, and next to it, one that Ashmael was sure had not been there when he had left earlier; twin serpents, entwined around a sword. His heart sank a little when he saw that, because he knew what it meant. He sighed, and muttered a little under his breath, but set off quickly in the direction of the Hegemony headquarters.

At the far end of the pavilion was a large area where the sedu were stationed and cared for. There was some activity and excitement going on there, but Ashmael paid no attention to it, and instead strode through the small anti-chamber, pushing aside the fluttering drapes and hangings until he stood within the main section.

A very tall har with hair of an intense shade of red was within. He was dressed in heavy furs and skins, which seemed inappropriate to the warmth of Imbrilim’s summer, but Ashmael knew he might easily have come immediately from some colder climate. Thiede travelled wherever his whim took him; neither distance nor time were any object.

He was surrounded by various members of the Hegemony and other high-ranking officials, who were listening to him with a mixture of polite deference and awe. Serving hara were sidling about nervously in the background, hoping not to be called upon.
Ashmael sighed impatiently.

“Thiede. To what do we owe the honour of this visit?”

The tall har turned at the sound of his voice. Ashmael had known Thiede for a long time, and he was by no means as intimidated by him as most, but even he felt a twinge of apprehension when those slanted, cat-like eyes fixed coolly upon him.

“Ashmael. How good of you to come so quickly. Your spies are obviously operating at maximum efficiency.”

“Actually, I had no idea you were coming, or I would have prepared a better reception for you.”

Thiede gestured magnanimously with his hand.

“No need to apologise. I don’t expect pomp and circumstance wherever I go. Sometimes I prefer the simple life.”

“I wasn’t apologising.”

“Oh come now, Ashmael, no sulking. I’m not here to check up on you, if that’s what you’re thinking. You’re doing a marvellous job here. Everything is running with military precision, as I fully expected.”

“Then what are you here for?”

“I have a mission for you.”

“A mission?”

“I believe that is what I said.”

“And what might this mission be?”

“It concerns our little difficulty with the Varrs.”

Little difficulty?”

“I do hope your aren’t going to repeat everything I say, Ashmael, otherwise we shall be here all day.”

“My apologies. Please continue.” Ashmael produced a forced smile through gritted teeth.

“Thank you. Now, as you are aware, the Varrs have become somewhat of a thorn in our side. Many of the Hegemony are of the opinion that our problems with them can be solved by negotiation – yes, I know that you are not of that persuasion, Ashmael, and if it comes to the bit, we shall have need of your more direct methods, but it is our duty to ensure that we have tried all other avenues first.”

“If it is a matter of negotiation, then why not entrust the engagement to Tharmifex. He’s far more adept at negotiation than I am.”

“Yes, he is – oh, don’t look at me like that Ashmael, it was you who said it – but he is currently fully occupied in Immanion, and you are here, and while our good Chancellor is skilled with his tongue, you have the greater ability with a sword, and that may prove helpful.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask what sort of negotiation requires that sort of skill.”

“None that I know of, but you will have to go and fetch him first before you can negotiate.”

“Fetch who?”

“Our contact. A Varrish defector. He has information which may prove very useful to us, and he is inclined to share it with us, in return for our protection, and we consider it far more practical for our allies to cooperate with us on a voluntary basis rather than… well, the alternative, we have found, can be a little messy.”

“Terzian?”

“Yes. Rather unfortunate, that.”

“That’s one way of putting it. So, you want me to go and fetch this Varr and bring him back here to Imbrilim where we can be nice to him and await his cooperation?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it. He’s currently holed up in a small settlement to the north. It’s about a day’s ride from here. There are, of course, the usual bandits, thieves, murderers and brigands in abundance, but I know that they will not bother you in the slightest. Take somehar with you, though. Just in case.”

“I’m not stupid. I’ll take Arahal.”

“No, we need somehar here to take charge of the Camp in your absence. I suggest you take Velaxis.”

“Velaxis?” Ashmael looked at Thiede as if he had taken leave of his senses.

“Yes. He’s a very capable har, Ashmael.”

“He’s very capable between the sheets and in the kitchen, but if I’m going out of Imbrilim I’d prefer to have somehar with something more to offer than finely-honed sandwich-making abilities.”

“You underestimate him, Ashmael. Also, that incident with the latrines…” he raised his eyebrows fractionally – “I really don’t think you’re making the best use of his abilities… Now – enough, I don’t want to discuss this any more, I’m late already. You know what to do. Arahal will fill you in on the details.” he sighed dramatically, adjusting the heavy fur cloak around his shoulders.

“I do hope our Listeners and Scryers in Immanion find a way of improving methods of communication soon. It is quite tiresome to have to flit around like some tawdry messenger delivering information to all and sundry.”

If there was one thing Ashmael was absolutely certain of, it was that Thiede would never lower himself to acting as a lowly messenger. No doubt it suited his purpose to keep the rest of the Hegemony in the dark about this latest scheme Whatever Thiede’s ulterior motive was, Ashmael knew it was useless to attempt to discover it.

“I shall leave you in peace now,” Thiede continued, removing a pair of leather gloves from his pocket and slipping his hands into them. He flexed his fingers carefully, watching the movement with interest.

“Now, remember. Cooperation. Accommodation. Diplomacy. This har will no doubt have different ideas and different customs to what we consider acceptable, but you must be prepared to make allowances, and to offer him what he wants.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Do so. Ah, Velaxis. Just in time.”

Ashmael turned to see Velaxis standing at the entrance to the chamber. He had not summoned the har, but Velaxis seemed to have a talent for arriving opportunely, especially when there was intrigue afoot.

“I believe that General Ashmael has a job for you.” Thiede said

Velaxis inclined his head respectfully. “I shall attempt to serve the General to the best of my ability.”

“I’m sure you will. Kindly keep me informed of developments.”

With that, Thiede swept out. The room seemed suddenly empty in his absence. It occurred to Ashmael that he was not entirely sure to whom Thiede’s last remark had been addressed – himself or Velaxis.

Velaxis interrupted his thoughts before he had a chance to give the matter more consideration.

“And what job might this be, General?”

Ashmael studied the other har, noting again his elegant and polished appearance, but with less pleasure than previously.

“Come on,” he said, “follow me.”

– 2 –

At the back of the Hegemony Headquarters there was a small open space which seemed to serve the same purpose as a town square, although it was little more than a well-trodden piece of ground surrounded by grassy banks. A stand of trees along the south-western side provided shade in the afternoon, and hara tended to congregate there socially to discuss the latest Camp news and rumours, but at this hour of the day the sun was full upon the entire area, and most of the population of Imbrilim were going about their business, so it was relatively empty except for the presence of one har. He seemed to be expecting Ashmael and Velaxis, and beckoned them over to him. Ashmael strode over to meet him, with Velaxis maintaining a discreet distance behind.

“Good morning, Arahal. You’ve spoken to Thiede, I take it?”

Arahal nodded his head. “Well, he has spoken to me, at any rate. I have maps and plans to deliver to you.”

“I know where the place is,” Ashmael said with a trace of irritation, “I have been scouting and leading operations in this area for months now.”

Arahal gave a sour smile and deposited a sheaf of parchments into Ashmael’s hands. “You know better than to argue” he said, with a trace of amusement.

Ashmael thrust the documents at Velaxis.

“Here. You’ll need them more than I will.”

“Might I be permitted to enquire what the nature of our excursion will be?” Velaxis asked politely.

“We are to collect a prison… a Varrish defector from a settlement about a day’s ride north east from here.”

Velaxis took the documents and folded them neatly.

“Then I shall study the maps carefully to ensure that everything goes according to plan.”

Ashmael gave a snort of derision. “This isn’t some cookery demonstration, Velaxis. There are a lot of dangerous and unpleasant people out there.”

“Perhaps I should go first then, General, and make sure it’s safe for you?”

Ashmael’s face reddened. Behind him, Arahal attempted, unsuccessfully, to stifle a laugh.

“You undoubtedly have the sharpest tongue in all Imbrilim, Velaxis,” Ashmael glared at Arahal, who pretended not to notice, “but that’s hardly going to protect you if some band of thugs decides to rearrange your elegant features. Here -” he took a sword from Arahal and threw it at Velaxis, who caught it gracefully by the handle. “Can you use that?”

Velaxis examined the weapon carefully, turning it slowly. He ran one finger along the blade, as if to determine its worth, and tested the weight and balance of it in his hand.

“It’s not like firing a gun. You have to be able to…”

Whatever else Ashmael had been about to say was cut off as Velaxis lunged at him with surprising ferocity. Ashmael leapt back in surprise, drawing his own sword swiftly from its sheath and parrying the blows. He found himself forced onto the defensive, retreating backwards, stumbling a little, as he fought off Velaxis’ relentless attack. Ashmael was an experienced fighter, but he had been caught off-guard, and for a few minutes he could do nothing but defend himself from a vicious flurry of blows which threatened to overwhelm him completely.

He quickly regained his balance and composure, as his years of training and experience asserted themselves. Ashmael’s position as General in charge of the Gelaming armies was no mere honorific title; he was a fighter, the scars on his body attested to a life lived dangerously. He had survived the turbulence of the earliest years of Wraeththu-kind, hardened and street-wise, and in his time with the Gelaming he had taken on all the unpalatable tasks which many of the upper echelons of Immanion did not care to think about too deeply. The Gelaming did not like violence. Ashmael did not like it either, but he knew that sometimes it was necessary.

He had fought with swords, guns, knives, fists and any weapon that came to hand. It had been second nature to him for so long that he no longer even had to think about it, it was all instinct, and his instinct was to win. It was what made the difference.

A sharp thrust into his opponent’s defence left Velaxis slightly exposed. It wasn’t much, but Ashmael pressed home his advantage immediately, and with a skilful manoeuvre flicked Velaxis’ sword deftly out of his hand with the edge of his own weapon. His momentum carried him forward, and he crashed heavily into the other har, sending him sprawling in an inelegant heap on the ground.

Velaxis found himself lying on his back with the tip of Ashmael’s sword pressed lightly but steadily to the base of his throat; hard enough to prick the skin; not hard enough to draw blood. Ashmael could see the steady pulse there, fast and heavy from the exertions of a moment ago, chest rising and falling rapidly. There was a vibrating tension in every line of the har’s body, and for a moment it seemed as though he would leap up again, sword or no sword. Then a disarming smile spread across his face and he visibly relaxed into the dirt, his arms falling back into a gesture of surrender.

“You win, General”

Ashmael realized that his own breathing was laboured, and his heartbeat was loud in his ears. He lowered his sword, and stretched out his other hand to help Velaxis up. Velaxis grasped it firmly and pulled himself to his feet. He brushed his dusty clothing down with his hands and smoothed his hair.

Ashmael carefully returned his sword to its sheath.

“It’ll have to do, I suppose. Get your stuff; we’re leaving within the hour.”

Velaxis gave a small bow. “I will be ready, General”

Ashmael turned and made his way back to the Hegemony pavilion without further comment. Velaxis went to retrieve the sword which he had been so unceremoniously relieved of. It had travelled some distance, and was lying in a clump of long grass near to where Arahal was still standing, having watched the whole performance with interest.

Velaxis picked up the sword, wiped it off, and offered it to its rightful owner. Arahal accepted it as if he was used to this sort of thing happening on a regular basis.

“That was either very brave or very foolish,” he said “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and go with the former, because I don’t think you are the latter.

“I appreciate your vote of confidence, Tiahaar.”

“Where did you learn to fight like that? Not in some perfumed boudoir, I think.”

“We live in troubled times, Tiahaar. I have always found it prudent to be able to defend myself.”

“And you’re a very prudent har, aren’t you Velaxis?”

“I like to think so.”

“Well you’ll certainly have gone up in Ashmael’s estimation now – he sees more virtue in direct action than in prudence,”

“When enemies come, they do no always present themselves directly, nor are they always susceptible to the straightforward methods in which the General puts so much faith.”

Arahal nodded. “Politics and diplomacy are not always Ash’s strong suits. No doubt that is why Thiede insisted you accompany him. Stop him seeing enemies under every bush and charging in to dispatch them,”

“I’m sure that between us we will be able to handle any difficulties.”

“Thiede would prefer that you avoid difficulties rather than handle them.”

“Then I shall have to encourage the General gently along that particular path.”

“I can see that you’d be good at that.”

Arahal paused for a moment, and looked at Velaxis curiously.

“Did you let him win?”

“What possible reason could I have for doing something like that?”

“I don’t know.” He stared fiercely at Velaxis, as if he could divine the other har’s thoughts and intentions by will alone. “You’re a very unusual har, Velaxis.”

Velaxis maintained his usual inscrutable expression. “Are we not all unique and special in our own ways, Arahal?”

“Some more so than others, it would appear.”

“If you say so, Tiahaar.”

“I can see Ash is going to have a fun time with you.”

“Oh, I’m sure I can make the journey quite pleasant for him!”

“Almost makes me wish I was going to!”

“Really?”

“No. Get your stuff – the General doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

– 3 –

Velaxis found Ashmael already waiting for him when he appeared from the Hegemony Pavilion with his packs and supplies for the journey. He had changed his clothes too, discarding his usual diaphanous garments in favour of something a little more practical. His long hair was braided tightly and tied back, and he had removed his jewellery. Whether by intention or simple lack of will to remove it, the dark smudges of kohl and shadow remained in place around his eyes.

Ashmael surveyed him approvingly.

“Well at least you’re dressed suitably, that’s something. Here, take this.”

He passed him the reins of one of the two horses he was holding. These were not the mysterious sedu which the Gelaming could use to travel the otherlanes, they were simply ordinary horses, although the word “ordinary” hardly seemed appropriate – they were Gelaming horses, their coats dark and shining from meticulous grooming, and their hooves oiled and polished.

Velaxis took the reins of one of the horses, and ran his other hand down the creature’s nose. It jerked its head back slightly, and snorted, swinging its hindquarters round nervously. Velaxis blew delicately into its nostrils, and the animal’s ears came forward in surprise. It looked at the har with large dark eyes, and tugged a little at the bit, but it stood perfectly still as Velaxis threw his packs onto its back, secured them, then swung himself up easily into the saddle.

Ashmael mounted in similar fashion, and with a brief command the horses obediently set off along the wide avenue of tents and pavilions that was the main thoroughfare of Imbrilim, their polished feet raising a small cloud of dust as they went.

Ashmael led the way, acknowledging greetings from friends and acquaintances as they went. Everyone in Imbrilim knew who he was – everyone who came here knew of the famous Wraeththu general, and Ashmael took pains to ensure that he personally spoke to every incomer at least once upon their arrival. Velaxis rode a few paces behind, seemingly content to be eclipsed by the General’s fame.

By the time they reached the edge of the Camp, the sun was already high. They took the main road away from Imbrilim, leading northwards. It was not one of the vast tar-and-concrete ribbons built by men – most of those had become unusable very quickly once their owners had ceased to care for them, – but a straight, hard track of inlaid stone. Their horses’ hooves made a ringing, musical clatter as they rode along. Once Imbrilim itself was out of sight, the track gradually became narrower and less structured, till eventually they were riding upon bare earth.

They passed fewer and fewer people on the road as they moved further away from Imbrilim. There had been numerous towns and settlements in the area at one point, but most had been abandoned. In those that remained, the people tended to stay within the perimeter of the populated areas for safety. That safety was not always assured, as the steady stream of refugees into Imbrilim made plain.

Eventually the dirt track gave out completely, and they found themselves riding across open meadowland. Their mounts appeared to appreciate the change; they seemed to pick up their legs more easily, and toss their heads with more spirit, as if the smell of lush grass and small, aromatic plants were narcotic to them.

In the distance lay hills – not the sharp, bare peaks that surrounded and protected far-off Immanion, but softer, rounder contours – a gentle undulation of the land rather than a barrier. But here the land was flat and covered with grass and flowers of every imaginable hue. The day was warm – it was still early summer – and the few clouds which had blown up during the course of the day were white, fluffy things, which seemed to invite an outstretched hand to test if they were as soft as they appeared.

They rode on, stopping only once by a river, to let the horses drink. Both hara dismounted and took the opportunity to refresh themselves as well as their mounts. The river water tasted clean and cold – it would have come from some snow-clad mountain peak somewhere, and had must have passed through turbulent rocks and passages on its journey, but here it widened across its flat, sandy bed, flowing lazily, all memory of its youthful time as a frothing torrent forgotten.

Startled by their presence, a bird flew up straight into the sky. It hung there, way above their heads, almost too small to be seen, but they could hear its fluid, trilling song clearly.
It seemed impossible to believe that this world had ever contained the ugliness of mankind, their steel and their concrete; this gentle meadow and its gliding river were like an untouched Eden.

When they had satisfied their thirst, Ashmael cast a handful of white flowers into the river, and offered a brief prayer in thanks to whatever spirits the river might contain. Then they set on their way again.

They rode for the rest of the day, the landscape gradually altering as the hills drew closer, becoming less open. They no longer had the advantage of being able to see everything for miles around, and thus spot any potential enemy, but at the same time they were less exposed. The sky faded from bright blue to a more subtle silvery hue, and then suddenly flamed orange and rose and gold behind them. One bright star appeared, reflecting the departing sun; ahead, the indigo of evening was already encroaching.

Ashmael reined his mount to a halt and looked around carefully.

“We’re still about an hour’s ride from the town,” he said. “There’s little point in trying to get there now. It’ll be better if we show up in the morning anyway.”

“And Varrish settlements are not noted for their luxurious accommodation for guests,” said Velaxis caustically, dismounting from his horse.

“I can live without perfumed soap.”

“So can the Varrs. That’s the problem. No wonder we have them on the run – we can smell them coming a mile away. I have provisions and equipment for camping. Is this a suitable spot?”

Ashmael gave one last cursory glance around.

“It’ll do,” he said. “There’s a fairly flat bit of ground just over there. Put the stuff there and tether the horses to that tree.”

Velaxis did as he was bidden while Ashmael intoned a few incantations to conjure up protective wards around the area they had chosen. These would render them well-nigh invisible to any casual observer who might stray upon the scene. When he was satisfied, he lowered himself down onto the grass, grunting a little as his body protested at the unaccustomed movement after a long day spent in the saddle. He stretched out, his arms behind his head, and watched idly as Velaxis unrolled their bedding and started preparing food.

“You’re quite comfortable I hope, General?”

“Quite. Do continue. Don’t mind me.”

He stared up at the inky sky. The clouds of earlier had vanished along with the sun, pursuing it over the horizon, and now he could see far up into the high heavens, and beyond. Millions of tiny points of light winked and sparkled. A long, pale smear seemed to divide the sky in two. He twisted his head to align himself with the plane of the galaxy, and experienced the sensation of floating in the infinite vastness of space. He felt at once both intensely insignificant, and immensely all-powerful, and he was not sure which sensation was the more disturbing so instead he closed his eyes and listened to the soft sound of leaves rustling in the warm night breeze, which seemed preferable to contemplating the ineffability of existence.

“Dinner is served.”

Velaxis’ rather irritable announcement interrupted his meditations. He sat up and took the plate being offered to him. There was a selection of meats and cheeses and bread and fruit. It was nothing elaborate, but it was all of the excellent quality which the Gelaming took pains not to deny themselves, and he realized that he was ravenously hungry after the long day’s ride.

They both ate in silence for some minutes.

“I don’t suppose you brought any wine?” Ashmael asked hopefully.

Velaxis looked slightly disapproving.

“I was under the impression that this was a military mission, not a picnic.”

“Of course.”

“However…” he reached into his pack and retrieved a flask. He poured some of the liquid – dark in the evening light – into two drinking cups and handed one to Ashmael.

“Your very good health, General”

Ashmael knocked the side of his cup against Velaxis’

“And yours.”

He took a good swig of the wine. It was rather warmer than it perhaps ought to have been, but an excellent vintage none the less.

“You think of everything, Velaxis. You really are most efficient. I’m sure your organisational talents will take you far.”

“Thank you.”

“You do have ambitions to further yourself, I presume?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Oh come on, Vel – you work very hard at making yourself indispensable to hara in positions of power. That’s the usual route to acquiring a bit of power for yourself.”

Velaxis laughed. “The voice of experience, yes?”

Ashmael shrugged. “I’ve learnt a thing or two over the years, if that’s what you mean. Immanion is no place for the innocent and starry-eyed.”

“Like our noble Tigron?”

Ashmael pulled a face and held his now-empty cup out towards Velaxis. Velaxis refilled it from the flask.

“Pell had his naivety knocked out of him pretty quickly. He may look young and innocent, but he plays the political games just as well as anyone else in Immanion. If not better.”

“You don’t approve?”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” he stared up at the darkness above again as if looking for confirmation, “I just sometimes think it was easier before we had a Hegemony and a Tigron and an administration, and departments of this, that and the other.”

“I’m sure it must have been a lot easier when all you had to do was run someone through with a sword.”

“I still have to do that occasionally, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“And you enjoy that more than playing politics in the Hegalion?”

Ashmael looked at him with distaste. “Is that what you think?”

Velaxis shrugged. “I’ve known those for whom it is true.”

“Well I’m not one of them!”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it wasn’t necessary.”

“What would you be doing?”

“I don’t know. Settle down to a nice, ordinary life. A family. A beautiful consort to provide me with beautiful harlings.”

Velaxis seemed highly amused. “Did you miss the revolution? You can provide your own beautiful harlings these days.”

Ashmael shook his head. “That’s not for me”

“Why not?”

“I’m just not that sort of har.”

“How do you know until you’ve tried?”

Ashmael leaned across to pick up the wine flask, and leered rather drunkenly at Velaxis in the process.

“Is that an offer, Vel?”

Velaxis laughed. “Unfortunately I’m not in a position to commit myself, but I’m sure you’d make some lucky har a wonderful consort.”

“How kind of you to say so, but polishing my fingernails and feeding my vanity is not what I do!”

“Oh come now, Ashmael, even you have your little vanities, surely!”

“I am a practical har – I have no time for fripperies”

“Of course not, with your practical, hand-stitched shirts, and your practical, short-trimmed hair…” at this, Velaxis leaned over and touched the soft tufts of fair hair which lay neatly against Ashmael’s neck – “… and your elegant fringe which takes the finest coiffure in Immanion a good hour or more to style and cut with fashionable precision so that it falls over your eyes just so…”

Velaxis flicked the hair in question with his fingers, causing it to rise and settle in a rakish fashion over one eye. Ashmael grinned, showing his even, white teeth clearly in the gloom.

“You seem to know an awful lot about my personal habits, Vel.”

“Besides,” he said, taking hold of a handful of Velaxis’ lengthy mane, “you really have no business passing judgment,”

He raised a fistful of hair to his nose and sniffed its perfume rather ostentatiously. “This must take an awful lot of maintenance. Not that it isn’t worth it!” he added, running his fingers through the pearl-decorated lengths, feeling the texture of the small braids and intricate knots worked into it.

Velaxis sighed theatrically. “Flattery is such an easy weapon – Really, I’m almost ashamed at how readily I succumb to it…”

He reclined lazily back upon the grass. It was cooler now; the heat of the day lost along with the light, and a slight dew had formed on the ground. There was a scent of dampness and green all around. In the distance somewhere, a night-bird called, its rising shriek strange and eerie in the darkness. All the colours of the day were absent. In their place was a world of finely etched detail and a thousand shades of grey.

Ashmael ran his hand up Velaxis’ throat. He could see the small mark where his sword-point had rested earlier; a tiny imperfection in the har’s otherwise flawless skin.

“You seem to be making a habit of it,” he said “Succumbing to my weapons, that is.”

“Do I? And what weapon do you propose to use upon me now?”

“What would you like?”

“Hmm.. A flaming sword, or a spear of gold?”

Velaxis let his hand trail up the inside of Ashmael’s leg until it found what it was seeking. He squeezed encouragingly, kneading his fingers into the firm flesh.

“Congratulations General. You’re very well equipped.”

“I’m not the head of the army for no reason.”

“Indeed not. I imagine that you beat off a lot of very stiff competition for the position! I didn’t realise this was one of the qualifications though.”

“Soldiers will always fight better for a leader they admire.”

“Now I know the secret of your success! Plainly the Varrs have no chance unless they have a leader with an even bigger… “

“…following?”

“I was actually going to say something inappropriately vernacular.”

Ashmael curled his hand around Velaxis’ throat. “Are you going to do anything else besides talk?”

“Oh, charm too! I’ve rarely experienced such a heady combination!” With dexterous fingers, Velaxis unbuttoned Ashmael’s trousers and slid his hand inside. Ashmael drew his breath in sharply as he felt Velaxis’ long, cool fingers wrap themselves tightly around his hard and swollen ouana-lim. He shivered slightly, even though the night was not that cold.

“You may remove all my clothing,” Velaxis informed him, rather bizarrely. Ashmael almost laughed, but Velaxis’ fingers were rhythmically stroking the length of his erection, and he was finding it somewhat distracting

“You’ll have to… let go first.”

“No.” Velaxis’ fingers tightened their grip, squeezing him painfully hard.

Ashmael swore, and grabbed at his own groin in an attempt to remove Velaxis’ vice-like grip, but without success. Velaxis laughed and ran his thumb in a lazy, circular motion over a particularly sensitive spot, and Ashmael felt a giddying rush of pleasure mingle with the discomfort. His ouana-lim pulsed and throbbed in Velaxis’ grip, sending urgent waves of arousal thoughout his whole body.

Abandoning the attempt to free himself as futile, and, on balance, not particularly desireable anyway, he began hauling at various items of clothing. At first he thought that Velaxis was going to be deliberately difficult, but between his own feverish efforts and a quick, practiced shake from the other har, Velaxis was suddenly naked under him, his pale skin glowing in the moonlight.

At some other time, Ashmael might have been tempted simply to enjoy the pleasure of looking, or touching for a while, but the insistent ache in his groin required more than that now. Velaxis’ legs were spread wide, and the arching of his back indicated his own desire for dispensing with preliminaries. His hand was still firmly locked around Ashmael’s ouana-lim, and he guided it quickly towards the entrance to his body, finally releasing his grip at the last and allowing Ashmael to plunge into him with relief.

Velaxis raised his hips even higher, and uttered a word that Ashmael did not know the meaning of as he entered him. He withdrew slowly, all the way, and then hesitated, teasing, feeling the other har’s frustration

“Say please,” he panted.

What Velaxis said was not repeatable. He snarled and bit Ashmael’s shoulder, drawing blood. Ashmael hissed and ground himself down into Velaxis once more, feeling the other har gasp as he slammed him into the hard ground, and then whimper with pleasure as he continued to move inside him, slowly and deliberately at first , then faster and with more focus.

He could feel a tight knot in his belly; a slow, hot flowering travelling down his body, through the length of his ouana-lim buried deep within the other har’s body. He heard Velaxis say something else, and this time he understood the words, and then there was a molten rush which seemed to go on for ever as both sight and sound were taken from him, but eventually his senses returned and he realized that the sounds still ringing in his ears – Velaxis’ furious, demanding “harder, harder!” – had given way to something different, less urgent, and that the body underneath him was no longer thrusting and bucking, but shaking gently. Finally he recognised that it was laughter.

He rolled off Velaxis and lay on his back, panting. His skin was damp with sweat, and he felt the chill of the evening air.

Velaxis continued to laugh, somewhat crazily. Ashmael wondered if he were drunk. It seemed unlikely – they’d only had one flask of wine between the two of them. He looked across at him.

He’d once had a cat which had a liking for a particular garden herb. An unassuming plant, with small blue flowers, but when the haughty creature had eaten of this plant, it grew languid and sensuous, rolling on its back with abandon. Velaxis had that look about him now. Ashmael gave an amused snort.

“I trust that was to your satisfaction?”

“An angel with a spear of gold…”

“I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?”

Velaxis rolled onto his side and smiled in a feral manner.

“’An angel with a spear of gold’ – Some people couldn’t tell the difference between an angel and an orgasm. Are you an angel, Ashmael?”

“Not the last time I looked.”

“Unfortunate.”

“Was there something in the wine that you didn’t tell me about?”

Velaxis laughed again. “No, it was just the usual stuff.”

“I think I find that more worrying than the alternative.”

“You should learn to let go a little more, Ashmael. Enjoy a little wild abandon from time to time.”

“I enjoy quite a lot of wild abandon, on a fairly regular basis.”

“There are always new things to experience.”

“Even for you?”

“Even for me.”

Ashmael threw Velaxis’ clothes at him. “Here. Get dressed, or… do whatever you do. We should get some sleep – we have to be up early tomorrow.”

“I’m always up early.”

“So I notice!”

– 4 –

They broke camp and departed the next morning, before dawn, and within the hour reached the small settlement of Amarath, where a couple of unkempt guards eyed them suspiciously for a moment before allowing them into the settlement with ill-concealed hostility.

The contrast between this place and the ethereal beauty of Imbrilim could not have been more marked. The buildings were squat and dirty. Crudely built in the first instance, many had broken, boarded windows or other visible damage. Smoke from open fires hung low in the air, forming a dense, choking ribbon which seemed to want to encircle and strangle the life from the place.

The streets between the houses were little more than mud tracks, and the Gelaming horses picked their feet up fastidiously as they rode through as if trying to avoid the filth underfoot. As they passed, hara stared at them sullenly, some passing a few inaudible comments to each other. Ashmael was used to this. In these small, mean towns and settlements, the Gelaming appeared as if they had come from another world. Often this worked in their favour – it was difficult not feel a sense of awe in the presence of these perfect, shining beings, and yet there was resentment too; not all tribes wished to be part of the bright vision of the future which the Gelaming brought.

Ashmael did not think they would have any trouble here. The inhabitants were plainly demoralised and cowed. These were not the fierce offspring of the Uigenna, they were simply ordinary hara caught between the might of two opposing factions. Much as they mistrusted the Gelaming, it was clear that they feared the Varrs more, and so as the lesser of two evils, the Gelaming would be tolerated.

They rode on towards a slightly larger dwelling, where a small knot of hara were gathered outside They were loading up some pack horses – hardly much more than ponies, rough, shaggy creatures who looked ashamed even to be in the presence of the elegant Gelaming mounts. One of the hara who was rather taller and more finely dressed than his companions stepped forward to greet them.

“It would appear that we are expected.” Velaxis pointed out unnecessarily.

Ashmael simply raised his hand and returned the har’s salutation. He did not dismount.

“You must be my escort,” said the har curtly.

“We offer you safe passage to Imbrilim, if that is what you wish,” Ashmael replied smoothly. “You are Tiahaar Yerren?”

The har stared at the two Gelaming for a moment. If he was smitten by the usual awe which accompanied a sighting of Immanion’s finest, then he did not show it.

“Yes,” he said at last. “I have spoken with your leader. We have come to a… mutually congenial arrangement.”

“You are defecting from the Varrs” said Velaxis. Ashmael shot him a look of irritation. Yerren glared at him.

“I have something your master wants,” he stated flatly, “and he has made me an offer I find acceptable.” He tightened his horse’s girth strap with a vicious tug. “Now, can we be out of this place? I am weary of the mud and the stink.”

“Of course,” said Ashmael graciously. “Have you all your belongings packed?”

Yerren jerked his head at the small line of over-laden ponies. Three mounted hara were also among the group. They sat in the saddles with their heads down, appearing to take no interest in the proceedings. They were all dressed in long robes which covered them from neck to ankles. Even their faces were obscured by the heavy hoods of their cloaks.

“Your companions wish political asylum also?” asked Ashmael, somewhat surprised.

“They are my hara. They will come with me.”

“I see. Very well, let us make haste then if you are ready to leave. We should be back in Imbrilim by nightfall, which will be safer than spending the night in the open.”

“I would have thought that the mighty Gelaming would have nothing to fear.”

“We do not fear, we merely take appropriate action to ensure the best outcome.” Ashmael assured him haughtily.

Yerren snorted and swung himself up into the saddle. “I would hope so, Tiahaar. I am taking a considerable risk to help you. It would be disappointing to discover that the Gelaming cannot protect their allies from the Varrs after all.” He looked down at Ashmael’s sword.

“You do know how to use that thing, I hope?”

“I can personally vouch for the General’s unimpeachably professional weapon-handling abilities.” Velaxis said airily, ignoring Ashmael’s scowl.

“Can you now?” Yerren looked at Velaxis, openly appraising him, taking in the slanting, cat-like eyes and cascade of smooth hair. “Well, General, if this delightful creature here thinks your combat skills are up to scratch then I suppose there’s nothing more to be said. We’re ready. What are you waiting for?”

Without another word, Ashmael kicked his horse into motion, and led the small party briskly back along the muddy trail they had ridden before. Velaxis rode abreast with him, while Yerren followed behind with the pack horses and his three, silent companions bringing up the rear.

“Pleasant individual.” Ashmael muttered tightly to Velaxis. I don’t think I even want to imagine what sort of agreement he and Thiede have come to.”

“Thiede does not deal with the likes of this Varr directly,” Velaxis replied. “That is not his way. He uses other hara as intermediaries.”

“Yes, I’d noticed.” Ashmael said sourly

“That is the way of things. Sometimes subtlety is required in politics. It’s all a means to an end.”

“And does the end always justify the means?”

“That’s not for me to decide.”

“You’ve already decided. You chose to be Gelaming – unless Thiede has you completely under his thumb, which I doubt. We’re either doing the right thing for Wraeththu kind or we’re not. We can’t just bend the rules when it suits us.”

“I was rather under the impression that we were writing a new set of rules.”

“We need to be better than what came before. We can’t make all the same mistakes again.”

“I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility outright, General. The question is whether we can find a better solution to those mistakes once we’ve made them.”

“You’re not exactly the romantic idealist type, are you?”

Velaxis gave a dry laugh. “We have plenty of those already. There’s room for the odd pragmatist in the ranks, don’t you think?”

“Gelaming orthodoxy might argue otherwise.”

“I don’t think you have much time for orthodoxy, General, Gelaming or otherwise.”

“And see where it’s got me!”

“Oh don’t be modest. You are one of Immanion’s most illustrious stars, you know you are. And besides, being Tigron isn’t all it’s made out to be.”

“Thank you for your opinions, Velaxis. Entirely unasked for as they are!”

“You would not have enjoyed being Tigron,” Velaxis continued, ignoring Ashmael’s gripes, “There are many restrictions which go with the position, and you are not a har who likes being told what to do or where to go.”

“Do you charge extra for all this personality analysis?”

“Of course not. I consider it to be part of my job.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Ashmael sighed heavily and encouraged his mount to pick up the pace a little. The party rode on steadily throughout the morning. Occasionally Yerren would ask some questions about the nature of the terrain, or the Gelaming presence in Megalithica, to which Ashmael gave non-committal replies.

Yerren’s three companions remained at the back of the group, and none of them spoke or attempted to alter their positioning. Every so often they would lag behind a little, as their beasts were not of the same calibre as the Gelaming horses, and Ashmael would move down the line to the rear to chivvy them along, all the time keeping a watchful eye out for any potential threat on the horizon.

He noticed that when he did this, Yerren would approach Velaxis and attempt some sort of conversation with him, but he was not concerned – If Yerren imagined that Velaxis would be an easier target for his probings then he was doomed to disappointment. Ashmael considered that the Varr had as much chance of getting information out of Velaxis as he had of getting a ribald joke out of a Maudran priest, but he had some private amusement imagining his frustration. Yerren would find it a long day’s ride!

***

It was after dark by the time they reached Imbrilim. As they rode wearily back along the road, the lights of the encampment glowed welcomingly in front of them. Coloured lanterns of every hue were hung from poles and awnings, and the warm, woody scent of incense greeted them as they entered the outskirts of the camp. Voices and laughter could be heard, and the rhythmic patter of somehar beating out a ritual invocation on an animal-skin drum.

Yerren attempted to look unimpressed, but Gelaming magic is not easily dismissed, and it was plain from the look on his face that he was at least a little spellbound.

“Welcome to Imbrilim, Tiahaar,” Ashmael announced, with a wave of his hand. “Of course, it’s just a temporary refugee camp, so we cannot offer you our best hospitality at the moment, but we hope whatever small comfort we can provide you with here will suffice.”

As he had hoped, Ashmael was rewarded by the look of amazement on Yerren’s face, which the other har swiftly sought to cover.

“I’m sure that whatever you can manage will be fine,” Yerren said, with affected nonchalance. “I’ve stayed in worse places than this. I am used to coping with privation.”

Ashmael suppressed a smirk. “I’m sure you are. Ah, here we are – this is the main Pavilion, where our Hegemony members are in residence. We will provide you with accommodation here tonight. If you wish to move to more private quarters tomorrow, that can be arranged.”

The group came to a halt outside the Hegemony headquarters. In the dark, its purple silks looked almost black, but the gold embellishments sparkled vividly in the light cast from lanterns and torches. Servants appeared and began to help the party dismount, and to unload packs and whisk them away to be dealt with appropriately.

Yerren motioned away the offered assistance imperiously, and dismounted by himself. He allowed the horse to be led away without a second glance. The Varrish horses were obviously exhausted – their rough coats were streaked with dried sweat and their heads hung heavily. Plainly their endurance had been tested by the day’s long ride. The same seemed to be true of Yerren’s three companions. Two of the three dismounted heavily, steadied by the solicitous hands of the Gelaming aides, but the third required considerable assistance; in the end he was practically carried from the horse, and even once back on the ground he seemed to require support to stand – the other two companions put their arms around him solicitously, keeping him upright and whispering encouragement to him.

Ashmael regarded him with concern.

“Is your companion alright, Tiahaar?” he asked Yerren. “Does he require the assistance of a healer? We have hara who can provide assistance if needed.”

Yerren cast a bored look at the pathetic little tableau. “Him? Oh, he’s fine. He’s just lazy. Spends all day lounging about. Doesn’t know the meaning of hard work. A day’s ride is just what he needs – the exercise will do him good. I spoil them, you know.”

“Still, I’m sure he would benefit from some therapeutic treatment. A whole day in the saddle can be rough if you’re not used to it.”

“Thank you for your interest, Tiahaar, but they are my hara, and I will decide what is best for them.”

Ashmael bridled at Yerren’s dismissive tone, but managed an unconvincing smile and a curt nod.

“Allow us to escort you and your companions to your quarters then, Tiahaar. It has been a long day for all of us.”

“Thank you, that will be acceptable. Please arrange to have some food delivered too. I don’t like anything too spicy.”

“Of course. Perish the thought. Would you care for anything else? A little wine perhaps?”

“Yes, but make sure it’s a good year. And at least a couple of bottles.”

“I’ll see that it’s done.”

“Thank you General, you’ve been most helpful, I shall report your conduct to your superiors. I like to see good service rewarded.”

“Oh, thank you, Tiahaar” Ashmael seethed, between gritted teeth as Yerren strode off, followed by his three companions and a couple of Gelaming assistants still supporting the ailing har.

“What, no musicians, dancing hara and concubines?” Arahal interrupted Ashmael’s resentful train of thought which was busy with visions of retrieving the very roughest wine from the Gelaming cellars and sending it to Yerren with the General’s compliments.

“I think he’s saving them for tomorrow night” Ashmael grumbled.

“Varrs.” Arahal made little attempt to disguise his disapproval.

“Remind me again why we are pandering to the every whim of this particularly unspeakable Varr.”

“Because we are to be diplomatic

“With little requirement for this Varr to be grateful in return, in seems.”

“Ah, but we do not seek reward for our self-sacrifice, Ashmael. It is enough merely to serve.” Arahal wagged a finger reprovingly.

“Speak for yourself!”

“It has been a trying couple of days, I take it?”

Ashmael sighed deeply, and unbuckled his sword belt. “Why am I carrying this thing around?” he asked, looking at it as if he had never seen it before, “Who am I trying to impress?”

“It never hurts to display your weapon”

“Oh don’t you start!”

Arahal looked at him in surprise and Ashmael pulled a face.

“Velaxis is fond of innuendo” he explained morosely.

Arahal attempted to look sympathetic. “Some things are even worse than blood-thirsty Varrs.” he commiserated.

“I am going to have a bath,” Ashmael told him stiffly. “I stink of horse. Send Velaxis to my quarters in a couple of hours, and inform him that if I hear so much as one reference to hardened steel he’ll be cleaning out the latrines from now until next Shadetide.” He threw the sword and belt onto a nearby chair where they landed with a clatter.

“Aren’t you going to personally select our guest’s wine for him?” Arahal called after him

“Velaxis can do that too. I’m sure he knows where the good stuff is kept!”

Arahal bowed. “I shall pass your instructions on.

– 5 –

After he was washed and fed, Ashmael was in a more conciliatory mood. He lay on his bed, naked apart from a silk wrap tied around his waist and let the rigours of the past two days melt away. His private quarters within the Hegemony Pavilion were not large by Gelaming standards, but they were elegantly furnished and he had everything he needed. Lanterns provided soft illumination, and the air was scented with the rich, heady perfume of jasmines and other night blooms.

A twitch of the softly billowing curtains around his private space announced the arrival of another har. Velaxis entered noiselessly, his long pale hair and delicate garments almost seeming to camouflage him against the muslin screenings. It was plain that he too been at pains to remove all traces of rough living – he had applied make up and jewellery, and Ashmael caught a faint trace of a different perfume as he entered the room, a low note of sweet spice adding to the flowers.

“Arahal said you wished to see me,” he said. He padded over to the bed. Ashmael could see that he was barefoot, and his toenails were painted with a vivid scarlet lacquer to match his fingernails.

“I have attended to the needs of Tiahaar Yerren and his entourage.” he announced, as if he had managed to complete a mission of almost Herculean difficulty against all-but-insurmountable odds.

“And how are our guests settling in?”

“Quite well, I think. As luck would have it, I was able to locate a couple of bottles of a tolerable vintage. Tiahaar Yerren seems more than capable of appreciating the finer aspects of Gelaming life.”

“I’m sure he is. And his companions?”

“I’d be surprised if he allowed them the opportunity.”

“It’s not up to him.”

“Tiahaar Yerren thinks otherwise.”

Ashmael made a disgusted noise.

“He has, however, picked out some attractive clothing and jewellery and cosmetics for them to wear.”

“How gracious and noble of him.”

Velaxis smiled and sat down on the bed.

“Do I detect a hint of sarcasm? Or is it obscured by the faint miasma of hypocrisy?”

“I didn’t say you could sit down.”

Velaxis flicked his hair back with both hands.

“You didn’t say I couldn’t. I was under the impression that you liked beautifully-dressed hara. I wouldn’t have gone to such trouble otherwise!” He raised one arm and shook the heavy collection of gold and silver bangles on it, creating a bright, metallic music.

Ashmael grasped him by the wrist and the sounds ceased.

“I don’t choose your outfits for you. You could show up naked if you wanted.”

“Patience, General, patience…”

Ashmael grinned fiercely. “It’s all an act with you, Vel, isn’t it? You play the part of a beautiful plaything, but nothing could be further from the truth. You’re no more one of those submissive, feminine types than I am!”

“Whereas Tiahaar Yerren’s companions are those ‘submissive, feminine types’?”

“Well what do you think?”

“It is the Varrish custom. Hara have clearly defined roles within their society. Some are fighters, some are hostlings.”

“They’re almost like humans, dividing into two separate sexes. Is this what we went through all the trauma of becoming har for? So half the Wraeththu race could become weak and dominated and sit around all day painting their nails.”

Velaxis placed one long-fingered hand with its blood-red claws onto Ashmael’s naked stomach. He dug the sharp nails into the other har’s skin, and watched as the muscles underneath contracted.

“You were saying?”

“That’s different.”

“Is it? In what way?”

“You’ve already proved you can fight.”

“And that has earned me respect in your eyes?”

“Yes.”

“But I would not be worthy of respect if my contribution to Gelaming society was being soume and raising harlings?”

“No – I mean, yes, that would be just as valid, if it was your choice, but we are hara – we don’t have to limit ourselves to that sort of restricted role.”

“We don’t have to limit ourselves to being ouana and fighting either.”

“That’s different.”

“Oh come now!”

“I don’t mean that it’s any better, I just mean that it’s not a role that can be forced upon anyhar.”

“Unlike Yerren’s little harem. Are you suggesting that they are complicit in their own situation?”

“No. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know how they ended up like this. But perhaps if they’d been better able to defend themselves, if they hadn’t adopted such a passive role… Nohar should be forced to submit to anything against his will. It shouldn’t happen. As hara, we’re supposed to be beyond that – but we’re not. Not all of us. You know that, Velaxis, you’re neither naïve nor stupid enough to believe the propaganda.”

“So you think that developing the more masculine side of one’s character can help avoid being forced into the unwanted pitfalls inherent in the feminine condition?”

“Yes, I do. Being weak and unprepared is something that can be avoided, even if there are other things which cannot.”

“That depends on your definition of weak. Not all hara have your imposing physique, General.” Velaxis traced the contours of Ashmael’s hard, flat abdomen with his polished fingertip. When he arrived at the loosely-tied wrap around his waist, he undid the knot and flicked the material open.

“Hmmm. Impressive.”

“I’ve been exercising.”

“Does that increase the size? Of your muscles, I mean.”

“It makes them harder.”

“Shall I introduce the double-entendre into the conversation now, or wait till later?”

“I’d wait a bit if I were you.”

“Good idea. It’ll increase the frisson of anticipation if you don’t know when it’s coming.”

“I enjoy a good frisson.”

“I suspected as much.”

Velaxis continued to run his fingers across Ashmael’s tight belly. He paused when he came to a raised, red weal on the other har’s skin.

“I see exercising isn’t the only fun you’ve been having. This looks fresh – how did you manage to acquire that?”

Ashmael waved a hand vaguely. “Usual stuff. Chased a few Varrs. Varrs didn’t like being chased. An exchange of ideology and other sharp items took place, including, but not limited to, pointed projectiles.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Thank you, it’s good to know that you appreciate my efforts to keep you safe and sound in your boudoir.”

“Turn over and let me rub your back.”

“If you insist.”

Ashmael turned over and spread himself out on the bed. Velaxis began kneading and pummelling vigorously at the muscles in his shoulders.

“I was expecting something a bit more sensuous,” Ashmael grumbled. “Scented oils, soft, gentle caresses, that sort of thing.”

Something cold and wet dripped onto his back, followed by the scent of roses and lavender.

“Dancing hara chanting my name in awe, and a brass band playing at half time?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

Velaxis’ hands were warm upon his skin. They swept fluidly down the curve of his spine and into the small of his back, performing soft, circular motions, then flowed upward towards his shoulders again. Ashmael sighed and relaxed into the bed. The soft strokes continued for some time, gradually moving lower until both of Velaxis’ hands were grasping firmly at his buttocks and kneading steadily.

An invasive finger slipped underneath and brushed against a hidden sensitivity with a feather-light touch before retreating again. Ashmael flinched very slightly, but did not pull away, and when the finger returned for a second pass, he let out a slight gasp. At the third touch, he squirmed uncomfortably.

“What are you doing?” he muttered

“What does it look like I’m doing?” What does it feel like I’m doing?”

“I’m not in the mood for that.”

Velaxis laughed. “Liar.” The finger returned, and pushed deeper this time, meeting no resistance. Ashmael gave a small moan of pleasure.

“I don’t usually…” he began uncertainly.

“I know,” said Velaxis. “But it’s only me. I won’t tell anyone.”

Ashmael twisted round angrily, but discovered he was pinned to the bed by Velaxis who was now lying almost on top of him. Despite his fey appearance, Velaxis was not a delicate creature. He was as tall as Ashmael, if not taller, and Ashmael could feel the hardness of his body which spoke of a life not wholly given over to pampered indulgence. His not-inconsiderable weight was pressing down on Ashmael, making it difficult for him to move. Ashmael was confident that he could push the other har off it he wanted – but he remained undecided as to whether he would.

Velaxis’ robe was open down the front, and Ashmael could feel the hardness of the other har’s ouana-lim against his belly. This only served to increase his own arousal, rather to his annoyance. Once again, Velaxis slipped his fingers between Ashmael’s thighs and searched out the most pleasurable spot.

“No.”

Velaxis touched him again, slowly and deliberately, concentrating on stimulating the pleasure point to the very limit.

“It’s easy to lie with words,” he whispered “You just open your mouth, and they come out. But it’s not so easy to lie with your body.”

His fingers moved again, spreading the warm, sticky wetness which they had found. Ashmael made a soft, encouraging sound, half moan, half whimper, as he felt his soume-lam tighten and flutter and tighten again.

Velaxis pushed forward a little, till Ashmael could feel the other har’s erection almost enter into him. He knew that it would take so very, very little for him to bear down upon that hardness and enclose it within his own body. Even the thought made his wetness grow, and he could feel the accusatory dampness of the sheet under him, mocking his denial.

Velaxis pushed again.

“No.”

There was a pause, then he felt the hardness between his legs retreat. Velaxis looked at him quizzically.

“No? Are you sure?”

A wave of something he identified as disappointment washed over Ashmael.

“I…”

Velaxis dark eyes were steady and unblinking.

“If you say no, then no it is. No always means no.”

“Except,” he continued with a sly smile, “when I have a specific agreement to the contrary, arranged in advance. However, that is not the situation we find ourselves in here. You can say no, if that is your choice. Say what it is you want, and mean it.”

Ashmael closed his eyes. He could smell the rose and lavender of the scented oil which both of them were now slick with. He could feel the need between his legs. He could sense Velaxis’ presence, more real and intense than even the weight of his body bearing down on him.

He relaxed his legs, tentatively, feeling a slight tremble in them, and pulled Velaxis nearer.

“Yes,” he said.

– 6 –

The next morning Ashmael awoke to voices and sounds within the Hegemony Pavilion. Caught somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, he seemed to recall a disturbance during the night; cries or shouts. Sounds of anger, or fear, or both. He could not say for certain if it had been a dream or not, but the current ruckus was real enough, so he rose and dressed quickly and went to see what the situation was.

The cause of the drama soon became obvious. In the main public area he found Yerren and Chrysm together. Plainly there was some disagreement in progress. Chrysm looked displeased; his face bore an angry expression which was uncommon for him. Yerren had his hand laid on the other har’s arm in a gesture which was at the same time placatory and slightly possessive. When he saw Ashmael arrive, Yerren shot him a direct look. He obviously expected Ashmael to intervene and remedy whatever trouble had arisen.

“A word, Tiahaar?” Ashmael manoeuvred Chrysm away a short distance, and spoke to him in a low voice, keeping his face turned away from Yerren so that the Varr could not see or hear anything.

“He is an ill-mannered oaf!” Chrysm declared, scowling fiercely.

“Far be it from me to doubt your assessment, but we are required to put up with his oafishness for the time being I’m afraid.”

“I can’t believe we’re expected to simply accept this sort of thing!”

“Believe it.” Ashmael told him flatly. “Being a member of the Hegemony brings responsibilities as well as privileges.”

“I am well aware of that, Ashmael!”

“I’m glad to hear it. Now take yourself off and let me deal with the Varr.”

“Be my guest!” Chrysm flounced out, clearly still annoyed. Ashmael briefly rehearsed a diplomatic expression or two, before deciding on the least taxing one, which he fixed in place before returning to Yerren, who had been watching his short debate.

“I do apologise for any misunderstanding Tiahaar,-” Ashmael said. Even as he spoke, he could hear the insincerity in his voice, and he cringed inwardly.

Yerren shrugged.

“It’s nothing.. Some hara simply have little in the way of social graces.”

“I have noticed that myself, Tiahaar,” Ashmael said, keeping his tone as neutral as he could.

“Velaxis has a far better grasp of the concept of hospitality. He is a fine har. Where is he this morning, by the way?”

“He has duties to perform regarding the supervision of morning meals.”

“I was hoping he would bring me some breakfast.”

“I’m sure if you make your way to the communal food pavilion you will encounter him there. I myself eat there on a regular basis – I’d be pleased if you would join me. The food is quite as good as anything else you will find in Camp.”

“Really? Well I’m used to a little more sophistication and refinement myself, but I suppose I must adopt the customs of my hosts, however barbarous they may seem.”

“Your forbearance is quite remarkable, Tiahaar. Will your companions be joining us?”

“Them? They can eat with the servants.”

“Here at Imbrilim, the serving staff also use the communal facilities.”

A faint expression of disgust crossed Yerren’s face. “I must say I’m surprised, General. I had been led to believe that the Gelaming knew something of the importance of status and social order. Surely this is not how things are done in Immanion.”

“In Immanion, things may be a little different,” conceded Ashmael, “but here we do not have the luxury of all the niceties of polite society. We are only a basic refugee camp.”

“It’s important to maintain standards, even in the roughest of environments. As a military leader, I would have expected that you would appreciate and understand that, General. Perhaps the Gelaming have something to learn from the Varrs after all.”

Ashmael’s forced and gritted smile might easily have curdled milk. “We are all in the process of learning, every day of our lives, Tiahaar.”

“True,” said Yerren. “I will allow my hara to eat with us if that is the Gelaming way. At a separate table, of course.” He turned and shouted through to the rear of the Pavilion where he and his companions had been assigned quarters. “With me! The lot of you! Quickly!”

There was a rustling of material, and the three hara who had accompanied Yerren from Amarath slid out nervously, one after another. Ashmael saw that they had been given new clothing, in the luxurious and richly coloured fabrics favoured by the Gelaming, but they were still covered up from head to foot. Each wore a long, draped hood, so Ashmael could not see if they had benefited from a good wash, but he supposed that they had – Yerren would no doubt prefer his servants sweet-smelling and pleasing to look at. All three kept their heads bowed and their eyes fixed firmly on the ground

Yerren snapped his fingers and the hara formed an obedient line. He looked at Ashmael expectantly.

“After you, General.”

“This way,” Ashmael muttered, leading the group out of the Hegemony Headquarters and in the direction of the food pavilion. Yerren did not look back at his servants, obviously confident that they would follow without question, but Ashmael cast the occasional troubled glance back. He noticed that one of the hara – the one at the far end of the little line – was limping, and seemed to be having difficulty keeping up with his comrades. He wondered if this was the same har who had seemed to be in distress the previous day. It seemed likely. He considered offering his assistance, but he knew this would not be appreciated by Yerren, and besides, their destination was only a short walk away, so he held his peace and continued on.

By the time they reached the food pavilion, the other two servants seemed to have drawn the same conclusion about their companion’s condition, and were supporting him, one on either side. Yerren paid no attention to them. He had spotted Velaxis, resplendent in pearls and silks, and was making his way towards him in a determined fashion.

Ashmael noticed him too. “Ah, there’s Velaxis now, I’m sure he’ll be happy to…”

But he was already talking to himself. He watched as Velaxis greeted Yerren with an elegant bow.

Let Velaxis have him for a while, he thought to himself, with a degree of relief. He felt no guilt – Velaxis was perfectly capable of pandering to the Varr’s demands and flattering his ego in a way that was quite foreign to Ashmael’s blunt nature. In truth, he found it quite a strain keeping up the effort of being pleasant to Yerren, and was glad to see the back of him for the moment.

He turned his attention to the three hara behind him, who were still standing in a group as if waiting to be told what to do.

“Please, sit down,” he said, indicating a free table. “You can collect food from the counters yourself if you like, or one of the table-hara will bring you a selection if you wait for a moment.”

One of the hara looked up and met Ashmael’s gaze. The long hood covered his hair, and most of his head, but Ashmael could see his face. The har’s eyes were pale and grey and they were outlined by a line of kohl, applied in what seemed a rather inexpert manner, or perhaps done by an unsteady hand.

“Thank you,” he said, in surprisingly strong voice, and he and his companion helped the third member of the group to sit.

The har was obviously either ill or injured, for he sat down with difficulty, wincing visibly as he did so. The other two attended to him solicitously, and Ashmael got the impression that this was a role they were accustomed to. For some reason he felt uncomfortable. He sat down opposite the group and addressed the har who had spoken to him.

“Yerren did not tell us your names.” he said. “I am Ashmael. I am the Commandant of this camp, and the leader of the Gelaming in Megalithica.”

Once again grey eyes regarded him gravely.

“I am Rayn,” the har informed him, “And this is Sevonne and Irris.” he said, indicating the other two. Sevonne looked up at Ashmael with an equally grave expression, but Irris appeared not to have heard.

“Forgive me,” said Ashmael politely, “but I cannot help but notice that Irris appears to be unwell. We have experienced healers here at Imbrilim. Perhaps it might be a good idea to take him to them?”

Rayn and Sevonne exchanged a quick, furtive glance. Again it was Rayn who spoke for the trio.

“Thank you, but that won’t be possible. Yerren will not agree.”

Ashmael tried to contain his irritation. “I fail to see what it has to do with him. Irris is the one who is sick.”

“We are his hara.” Ryan informed him flatly. “We must do as he wishes.”

“Why?” Ashmael no longer even attempted to conceal his anger. “You’re perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself. I don’t believe for one moment that you wish to see Irris suffer. You’re not slaves – at least, not here in Imbrilim you’re not. We do not allow such things.”

“We are blood-bonded to him.” Rayn told him, a slight flush creeping over his pale face.

“All three of you?”

“Four.” Sevonne spoke up for the first time. He sounded younger than Rayn, and Ashmael could see a fine strand of dark gold hair escaping from under his hood.

“Sev!” Rayne gave the other har warning look, but Sevonne seemed determined to continue.

“There were four of us.” he told Ashmael “Me, Rayn, Irris and Pavil. Yerren blood-bonded with us all. He wanted… sons. He wanted to make a pearl. He chose Pavil to host his first son.” He pushed his hood back from his face a little, and Ashmael could see that he looked as young as he sounded.

“I imagine that Gelaming make pearls all the time, so I suppose that it is not such an extraordinary thing to you, but for Varrs it is still difficult and sometimes dangerous. And it turned out that Yerren did not know as much about the process as he thought he did.”

“What happened to Pavil?” asked Ashmael, feeling certain that he was not going to like the answer.

“He bled for three days. And then he died.”

“I see.” A sudden, unpleasant thought occurred to Ashmael then. He looked over at Irris who was sitting hunched and miserable, his arms wrapped around his belly.

“Is that what’s wrong with Irris?”

Rayn laughed unpleasantly. “No, Yerren hasn’t got round to attempting it again. He’s still studying the process. ” He regarded Irris bleakly. “But some of his other activities also have their drawbacks.” He flicked back his hood and Ashmael stared, then tried not to, then stared again.

Long brown hair, the exact same shade as the pelt of the horse Ashmael had ridden the day before, hung thick and glossy over the one side of Rayn’s face, and down over his shoulder. On the other side, however, there was an area almost the size of Ashmael’s fist where no hair grew at all. It was directly above Rayn’s ear, or where his ear should have been. In place of an ear, there was a small piece of flesh, scarred and lumpy. The scarring continued down Rayn’s neck, vanishing under his clothing, and across part of the side of his face.

Ashmael felt a surge of pity, because it was obvious that Rayn had been exceptionally beautiful before his disfigurement. Then he felt guilty for assessing Rayn’s injuries in such a light. It should not matter if the har had been plain or beautiful…

As if this were not bad enough, he noticed for the first time that there were also scars all around Rayn’s wrists; old scars, white and knotted, with newer markings on top of them, livid and purple. Ashmael wondered what else the long sleeves and robes covered on all three hara.

“Some hara enjoy the rougher aspects of aruna.” said Sevonne sourly. “Yerren is one of those hara.”

“If Yerren did that to you, then you must leave him immediately!” Ashmael said “This camp provides sanctuary for all hara, you will be given asylum.”

“It is not that simple, Tiahaar.” Rayn replied, as if he were speaking to a rather slow-witted harling. “We are blood-bonded. Perhaps that does not mean so much to the Gelaming, but for us it is an insoluble bond.”

“We respect such traditions too, Tiahaar. But this is a travesty. Surely you cannot have entered into this bond willingly?”

“Does it matter?” asked Rayn quietly. “What’s done is done. I can’t expect you to understand. No doubt blood-bonds among the Gelaming are always perfect, spiritual pairings entered into by enlightened and noble hara for their mutual joy.”

Ashmael could think of nothing to say in reply.

If only you knew, he thought grimly. Perhaps we are no better than the Varrs after all.

“At least go to our healers,” he urged, looking meaningfully at Irris.

Rayn hesitated, and seemed to be on the verge of conceding to Ashmael’s request, but at that moment Yerren arrived, with Velaxis in tow bearing food and drink.

“There you are, General. What are you doing over here with this lot?” He looked at Rayn, and scowled angrily.

“Cover yourself up!” he snapped “Do you think anyhar wants to look at you? How often do I have to tell you?”

Rayn obediently replaced his hood and averted his eyes.

“General,” Yerren turned to Ashmael, his nostrils flaring with annoyance rather in the manner of an angry horse. “I really must insist that you have no further contact with my hara. They are bonded to me, and it is… unseemly… for them to be alone with another har. I expect Gelaming have different customs – your promiscuity is legendary throughout Megalithica – but we Varrs are more modest and spiritual when it comes to our personal relationships. If you wish to obtain my cooperation in certain matters, I ask that you respect our ways and do not cause my hara distress and embarrassment by harassing them in this manner.”

“Once again I can only apologise for my uncouth behaviour,” Ashmael sounded as if the words were being prised out of him at knife-point. “But it was only my concern for your companion’s health which prompted me to speak with them. We have excellent healers here in Imbrilim who, I’m sure, could alleviate Irris’ condition.”

“And what do you know of Irris’ condition?” Yerren’s eyes were narrowed with suspicion.

“Nothing at all, Tiahaar. That would be for the healers to assess and treat.”

Yerren appeared to think for a moment.

“This is quite a delicate matter, Ashmael,” he said slowly. “I am a har who has physical needs – as we all do. However my needs cannot be satisfied by one har alone – or even two. I am an exceptional specimen, even if I do say so myself. If Irris is to be subjected to medical treatment, it would cause some inconvenience on my part until he was returned to me. However, since you seem so unusually keen to allow your healers to practice on my companion, I will meet you halfway. You may take my har for healing, and in return I will take yours for the duration of Irris’ treatment.”

My har…?” for a moment Ashmael was completely at a loss, then realization dawned upon him as Yerren turned and gave Velaxis a long, admiring look.”

“I think there has been some mistake, Tiahaar,” he said carefully “Velaxis is not my har. He does not belong to anyhar.”

“That’s not what I hear around the Camp” Yerren said. “Hara who wish to take aruna with Velaxis ask you, and you order him to do so.”

“I don’t order him to do so; Velaxis provides his services on a completely voluntary basis. It is his chosen… profession.”

“Ashmael, every har in camp has had Velaxis. Several times. Why would you deny me the same pleasure?”

“I’m not denying you anything. It is entirely up to Velaxis whether he chooses to take aruna with you or not.”

“He is subject to your orders, as is every other har in this camp, no?”

“Yes, but…”

“If I might interrupt for a moment, Tiahaara…” Velaxis raised one hand slightly imperiously, and both Ashmael and Yerren ceased their bickering.

“Tiahaar Yerren is quite correct,” Velaxis continued smoothly. “Providing arunic services to those who desire them is part of my duties, and I will be quite happy to extend my expertise to your good self, in the furtherance of good relationships between our respective tribes.”

Yerren gave a small, triumphant smile.

“I have heard exceptional things about you, Velaxis. I hope you live up to your reputation.”

“I shall do my utmost, Tiahaar. I am always willing to accommodate any specific requests a har may have.”

“Yes,” Yerren ran his tongue wetly along his lower lip. “That was one of the things I heard. I have quite a list of … requests… which I expect my partner to satisfy.”

“You may let me know in advance if there is anything special you require, so that I can prepare myself.”

“I will certainly do that.”

“In the meantime, I shall escort Irris to the healers’ pavilion. I will put you on my list for this evening, Tiahaar.”

“It will be a memorable night, I’m sure.”

Velaxis bowed graciously and with the aid of Rayne and Sevonne, helped Irris to his feet. He led the entire group away without further protest from Yerren.

“I can see how you’d want to keep a har like that for yourself,” Yerren said, watching as the small party departed, his eyes fixed upon Velaxis, “But that would just be greedy, don’t you think? And the Gelaming are above all those unpleasant human emotions like possessiveness or jealousy. Or so I hear. If you’ll excuse me, General, I have some matters to attend to…”

Yerren gave a mocking impersonation of Velaxis’ bow, and walked off, leaving Ashmael sitting alone at the table.

Ashmael unclenched his fists very slowly. The nails had dug into the flesh of his hands, leaving a neat row of curved marks on each palm. He spat out one curt expletive – a word which was not generally considered part of Gelaming vocabulary due to its unfortunate human etymology. Ashmael found he still had occasion to use it, and this was one of those occasions.

On the wooden bench where Irris had been sitting, there was a dark, wet stain. It was obviously blood. Ashmael uttered another word which would have shocked the upper echelons of Gelaming society even more, rose to his feet, and left the food pavilion without a backward glance.

– 7 –

Ashmael tried to keep his mind focused on other things during the course of the day. Running Imbrilim was a complex and time-consuming business, so he had plenty of opportunity for distraction.

In the afternoon, he paid a visit to the healers’ pavilion where Irris had been taken, and enquired after the har’s condition. The chief healer, an other-worldly creature dressed in white and grey, gave him an extended description, complete with terms which were rather more technical than Ashmael could fathom, but from which he extracted the words “torn, inside and out”, and also, rather more reassuringly, the healer’s assurance that the prognosis for a full recovery was excellent.

Satisfied that at least something good had come from the morning’s events, he continued to throw himself at the daily tasks with grim determination. Arahal complained about his over-zealousness when it came to the inspection of the horses and stables, but Ashmael ignored him and the unfortunate troops who had drawn duty that day were obliged to re-do their grooming and polishing and tidying until the General was satisfied with their efforts.

By nightfall, the entire camp was on edge. Sighs of relief were breathed all round when the General finally decided to retire for the evening.

Ashmael returned to the Hegemony pavilion, considered polishing his sword, decided against it, opened a bottle of wine, drank half of it, polished his sword, arranged for his laundry to be done and polished his sword again. Finally he gave up and went across to Velaxis’ private quarters.

Technically, Velaxis was one of the serving staff, although his association with the Hegemony gave him a rather more elevated status than the cleaners and house-hara, however Ashmael was slightly miffed to discover that Velaxis had appropriated rather larger quarters than he himself had been able to secure.

He had never been in Velaxis private rooms before, and he was curious. He had imagined them to be strewn with clothes and jewellery, and all manner of items designed for comfort and luxury, but the place was impeccably tidy and clean, with nothing out of place. Pale fabrics covered the bed, smooth and wrinkle free. A small table displayed three round, iridescent objects, each positioned with such accuracy that the equal distance between them could have been measured with a ruler. Ashmael suspected that it probably had.

Velaxis himself was sitting at a dressing table, facing a large mirror. His long platinum hair was unbraided, and poured down his back, perfectly straight and smooth. He was brushing it languidly, all the time admiring his own reflection. He wore red, an unusual shade for him, and the satin folds of his garments gleamed dully in the soft lantern light.

“Good evening, General, I wasn’t expecting to see you here tonight. I hear you’ve been busy today”

“No more so than usual”

“The camp has an industrious and well-oiled grapevine – there’s no point in trying to hide anything around here.”

“No point in trying to hide anything from you – you are the camp grapevine, Vel.”

Oh you give me too much credit, General, I am just…”

“…a humble servant. So you keep telling me. Drop the crap, Vel, I’m not one of those pompous politicians that you can manipulate with your flattery and crawling.”

Velaxis grinned. “Pass me that comb, would you?”

Ashmael handed him a comb with a long, mother-of-pearl handle which almost exactly matched Velaxis’ hair. He watched with something approaching a morbid fascination as Velaxis pulled it through his magnificent hair. It did not snag or catch – it passed through as if it were moving through oiled silk.

“There are those in Imbrilim who believe that we are shortly about to be blessed with the arrival of yet more high-ranking Varrs.” Velaxis said.

A frown creased Ashmael’s face. “That’s not supposed to be common knowledge.”

Velaxis laughed. “So it’s true then.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well, let us – for argument’s sake – say that Terzian’s son is shortly about to make his entrance into Imbrilim, and into the grander scheme of things, and play whatever part Thiede has designated for him. Where does that leave our friend Yerren?”

Ashmael shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Perhaps Thiede won’t need him if he has Terzian’s son. Perhaps he will. Either way, we’ve got to put up with him in the meantime.”

“Thiede always likes to have an alternative plan.”

Ashmael watched in silence for a few minutes as Velaxis continued to comb his hair with long, sweeping, sensual strokes.

“You don’t have to do this,” he said tersely

“What, comb my hair?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“If you’re referring to Tiahaar Yerren, then, actually, I do have to do this. It’s my job. It’s what I’m paid for. Besides, would you rather his pathetic little companion was returned to him instead?”

Ashmael could think of no reply to that.

“I’m not ordering you to do this.” he said,

“I know. It’s my decision. I have the right to make it.”

Ashmael noticed something lying on the table in front of Velaxis. It looked like a piece of jewellery at first, silver metal with loops. Two bracelets. Then he noticed the small keyholes and the hinged mechanism at either side.

“What’s that?” he demanded

“Oh, Yerren asked me to bring those along.”

Ashmael remembered Rayn’s wrists, scarred and livid, and something sour seemed to rise in the back of his throat.

“If he hurts you in any way…”

Velaxis laughed. “Such chivalrousness, Ashmael. I do believe there is a complicated and sensitive har lurking underneath that brash exterior.”

“I’m glad you find it funny!”

“I don’t, but give me some credit. I have considerable experience in these matters. I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to run a military campaign, so please don’t tell me how to do my job.”

“I’m not. I’m just trying to warn you. Yerren… likes the rougher aspects of aruna. He may force you to do things you don’t want to.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I told you, I have considerable experience of many types of aruna.”

Ashmael shook his head in disbelief.

“I hope you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.”

Velaxis put the comb down on the table and turned around to face the other har.

“You know as well as I do,” he said carefully, “that there are energies which can be harnessed from aruna, and not all of these are available from the consensual type. And you also know that the Gelaming are not quite as fastidious when it comes to shunning such advantages as they would like everyone to believe. Oh, it’s not official policy by any means, and the Great and the Good keep their hands very clean, but there have been times when they have been very glad to have the cooperation of a har such as myself.”

Cooperation? How can you call it that when you are being forced…”

“It’s quite simple. As I explained to you, I am a professional, I have studied many arunic techniques. There is a method of… meditation, if you like, whereby I can divorce my state of mind into two opposite and separate spheres. It’s like holding two conflicting opinions simultaneously, or believing two mutually exclusive ideas… It’s quite complicated, and there are few hara who can achieve this state, but suffice to say that I can, and when I am in this state, both my cooperation and my resistance are equally real. There would be no way of accessing the energies if I was merely pretending to withhold my consent like some pathetic kanene.”

Velaxis looked down thoughtfully at his bare arm, where long, hard muscle lay under silken skin.

“It took four of them to hold me down…” he said

Ashmael’s face twisted in disgust.

“That is the most repulsive thing I have ever heard in my entire life!”

Velaxis produced a short, mirthless laugh. “Then it is fortunate that hara have such extended lives, and you still have many years in front of you to fill with even more outstanding experiences.”

“You’re mad. It’s the only explanation!”

“Possibly.”

“Do you enjoy it? Is that it?”

A brief look of irritation flitted across Velaxis’ perfect features.

“No, I do not. I do it because it is necessary. Because somehar has to. I have no qualms about doing it any more than you have about sticking your sword in warm and living intestines. The world is not a pleasant place. Some people believe that it is – they live their lives in a happy fantasy world where nothing terrible ever happens, but they can only do that because I, and you, and others like us, do the unpleasant things for them. So they don’t have to. You know this to be true. You’re not some innocent idealist, Ashmael, so spare me the righteous outrage.”

Velaxis turned back to the mirror and pouted at his own reflection, examining the effect carefully, turning his head this way and that. His lips were coated with a slick gloss of iridescent pink, making them appear moist and inviting. After a moment’s thought he drew the back of his hand across his mouth, wiping away the pale colour.

“A little on the subtle side for Tiahaar Yerren, I feel. I think this will be more his style.”

He picked up a small pot lying on the table, and with a fine brush began painting his lips scarlet. He traced the outline of his mouth expertly with the tip, then filled in the remaining areas by drawing the edge of the brush over both lips, as if he was an artist painting on canvas. When he was finished, he pressed his lips firmly together, gave himself one last, critical examination in the mirror, and turned to Ashmael.

“Well- what do you think?”

Ashmael stared at the vivid redness of Velaxis’ mouth. It looked like a bloody gash; an open wound. He remembered the dark, wet stain on the wooden bench where Irris had been sitting.

“What does it matter what I think?”

“You’re not usually so reticent about volunteering your opinion.”

Ashmael shrugged angrily. “You don’t need it,” he said. “You don’t need any of this –. “ with his fingers he jabbed at the pot of red lip colour where it sat on the dressing table among a collection of cosmetics and perfumes contained in glass jars and crystal vials, neatly arranged in rows. An elongated stand displayed a collection of jewels and necklaces; pearls and precious stones glittering seductively.

“But what if I want it? Shouldn’t I be allowed to dress as I like.”

“It gives the wrong impression.”

“How so?”

“It makes you look weak – and you’re not.”

“How can a bit of lip colour and some baubles affect who I am?”

“It doesn’t – it affects how others perceive you.”

“Then that is their problem, surely, and none of mine.”

“You don’t understand, do you?”

“On the contrary, I understand exactly what you are saying. I just don’t choose to accept it.”

“But that’s the point. Sometimes you don’t get the choice.”

Velaxis leant back a little into his chair. His expression was carefully neutral.

“And the one who gave you no choice – did he have the wrong idea?”

If Velaxis had been expecting a reaction, then he was disappointed. Ashmael simply studied the opposite wall in a detached, almost thoughtful manner. He avoided looking at Velaxis as he replied, but his tone was even.

“I don’t know. Perhaps. But I know that I have been careful never again to allow anyhar to perceive me as weak. Or to be weak.”

Velaxis nodded. The air in the room seemed suddenly flat, as if all the oxygen had dissipated from it.

“That’s one way. But it’s not the only way.”

“It’s my way. Shouldn’t I be allowed to act as I like, just as you may dress as you like?”

“If that is your choice.”

“It is. I suggest you accept it.”

Ashmael sat down heavily on the immaculately-made bed next to Velaxis’ dressing table.

“I made a mistake when I was younger. I don’t make those mistakes any more.”

“And you think I am making a mistake?”

Ashmael sighed wearily. He flopped back, raising his legs onto the bed. His boots were scuffed and dusty, and Velaxis frowned a little at the sight of them resting on his pale coverlet. Ashmael knew it irritated him, but he paid no heed, crossing one long leg over the other with deliberation, and clasping his hands behind the back of his head.

“I’m not suggesting for one minute that you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Obviously, you have experience – “he emphasized the word heavily, “– of this sort of thing. But you’re not some sort of invulnerable super-har. Shit happens, Vel.”

“It most certainly does – don’t you take your boots off indoors? – which is why I am very careful to ensure that it doesn’t happen to me.”

“I’ve known hara who were every bit as confident as you. Strong hara. Good fighters. A lot of them are dead now. And no, I don’t.”

“That’s unfortunate for them, but I do not rely on that type of so-called strength for my protection. How very uncouth of you.”

“Well I hope for your sake that a pretty face and a fastidious knowledge of manners and etiquette works as well as a sword, but I have my doubts. Happy now?”

Ashmael sat up and removed his boots, setting them carefully, side-by-side at the end of the bed.

“Much better. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going. Tiahaar Yerren is expecting me.” He picked up the circular metal devices from the dressing table and stowed them carefully in his garments. “I shouldn’t wait up, if I were you.”

“I wasn’t going to. Breakfast tomorrow at 6.00 am sharp.”

“As ever.”

Velaxis gave a polite bow and glided out in a whisper of silk and perfume. Ashmael lay on the bed for a while, then he arose, collected his boots and slunk back to his own quarters. They looked rough and untidy compared with Velaxis’ elegant space. Much like himself. The half-drunk bottle of wine was still sitting on the table. He raised it to his lips and gulped a few mouthfuls down, without bothering with a glass.

How’s that for uncouth? he thought rebelliously. A small dribble of red liquid ran down his chin, and he wiped it off with the back of his hand. Outside he heard the sound of voices, and a sudden, loud, slightly inebriated laugh. He considered going to the refreshment pavilion and getting properly drunk, but decided against it – it didn’t do for the Camp Commandant to be seen to be getting intoxicated in public. Too often.

He swigged another mouthful of wine from the bottle, then called for one of the serving hara. Almost immediately a nervous face appeared quickly through the curtains, followed seamlessly by the rest of the young har.

“How may I be of assistance to you, General?” he enquired

Ashmael waved the bottle at him. “Get me another one of these.”

“At once, General.” The har was about to leave, but Ashmael stopped him.

“Oh, and one more thing…”

“Yes, General?”

Ashmael picked up his boots and handed them to the surprised har.”

“Have these cleaned, would you?”

– 8 –

It was dark when he awoke. There was no way of knowing what time it was – he could have been asleep for five minutes or five hours. He didn’t remember going to bed, and his sleep had been thick and muzzy. The wine had done its job. But he was instantly alert as his eyes flicked open in the dark, all inebriation banished. He could see nothing, but that was immaterial, he knew what had awakened him; knew it because the sound came again, and again, and kept on coming, and those screams were not the screams of a har in the throes of ecstasy. He knew what that sounded like, and every fibre in his being told him that this was not the sound of pleasure.

Without even thinking, he leapt out of bed, almost immediately stubbing his toe on something hard and unyielding in the dark. He cursed and concentrated his will on the lantern on the bedside table, so that it flared into life and filled the room with yellow light. He searched briefly for his boots, but could not find them, cursed again, grabbed the lantern and rushed out of his room, following the directions of the screams which were obviously coming from somewhere inside the Hegemony Pavilion.

Others had also been awakened; there were hara moving urgently about the place, lanterns bobbing in the darkness. He almost ran into one confused and worried-looking servant who stood in the middle of the main hall, uncertain what to do. Ashmael shouldered him roughly aside and strode purposefully toward the guest quarters, from where screams still emanated.

He wasn’t the first to arrive, and by the time he burst in, somehar had had enough sense to have the lighting increased, so that he could see everything in perfect details. When he did, he almost wished the darkness back.

There was a naked har, bound to the bed by metal circlets around his wrists. It was plain that he had been the one screaming, although by now his screams had subsided to a series of rasping moans. It was not Velaxis. Velaxis was standing by the bed, also naked. He exhibited his usual aura of unruffled serenity, but between his legs there was a bright gash of scarlet, like a wound, shockingly red against his pale skin. The blood was running slowly down his thighs; a few drops had spilled onto the rug beneath his feet, and were already congealing there.

One of the servants present gave a small gasp of horror, and Ashmael glared at him. He looked at Velaxis, who seemed remarkably unconcerned by the situation. The har secured to the bed continued to gasp and moan intermittently.

“Are you alright? Are you hurt?” Ashmael directed his question at Velaxis, ignoring the writhing har on the bed for the moment.

“Quite alright, General. There is no need to be concerned on my behalf. Although perhaps we should attend to Tiahaar Yerren.”

Ashmael turned his attention to the other har. Yerren made a peculiar high-pitched sound, and he pulled desperately at his fastenings, trying in vain to free himself.”

“Keep that… thing… away from me!” he rasped staring at Velaxis, eyes wide with terror

“It appears that you need the services of a healer, Tiahaar,” Velaxis said blandly.

To Ashmael, Velaxis’ calm demeanour in the present circumstances seemed surreal. He wondered if this was just an alcohol-induced nightmare, and any moment now he would wake up in his bed with nothing worse than a pounding headache to show for the night’s events.

That Yerren was in need of a healer was beyond question, but Ashmael doubted if the medical personnel of Imbrilim had the experience to deal with this particular situation.

The Varr lay motionless on the bed now, eyes closed, still moaning pitifully. The lower half of his body was covered in blood, as were the sheets, and what remained of his ouana-lim.

Ashmael turned to Velaxis, his face hard with anger.

“You. Go to your quarters. Get yourself cleaned up. I’ll deal with you in the morning!”

Velaxis inclined his head stiffly and gathered up his clothing, which he had placed carefully at the side of the bed. He pulled the red satin robe around himself. Ashmael noticed that it matched the bloody sheets perfectly, and immediately felt disgusted at the thought.

“Where are the healers? Hasn’t anyone had the sense to send for them?” he bellowed furiously

At that moment, two hara dressed in white entered the room. They gave the impression of being unhurried, but they both seemed a little out of breath nonetheless. They glided over to the bed and immediately began to invoke rituals of energy channelling and healing upon the unfortunate Yerren.

Velaxis paused as he was leaving. He fished in his pockets briefly and produced something hard and bright which he threw over to the healers.

“I think you’ll need those,” he said.

The healers looked at the small metal object as if it were a lethal weapon.

“Keys,” Velaxis explained. Then he smiled graciously and left the room.

***

By its very nature, Imbrilim had a diverse population and played host to a considerable amount of frenetic activity. Gossip and rumour were the daily entertainment for many, but it took an unusual event to grab the entire camp’s attention. It was a testament to Velaxis’ reputation that the next day there was only one topic of conversation in and around the fluttering awnings, and over smouldering campfires.

The cause of all this excitement had turned up for work at the usual hour, only to be told that his services were not required that day, and so he had taken himself off to sit quietly at one of the outdoor tables, enjoying the luxury of eating breakfast rather than serving it for once, and pointedly ignoring the curious stares.

He selected a piece of fruit from a bowlful of fresh produce, and began peeling it carefully with a small knife. As he did so, two hara arrived at his table and sat down opposite him.

Velaxis continued to concentrate on removing the rind from the fruit, delicately slicing off a small section of pith and discarding it onto a plate. He did not look up, but nevertheless acknowledged his visitors politely.

“Good morning Tiahaara, we are fortunate that it is warm enough to sit outside today, although they do say there is a chance of rain later.”

Arahal ignored his pleasantries.

“You, my friend, are in some considerable trouble. I hope you know that.”

Velaxis looked up

“Oh really?” he asked, feigning innocence.

“What on earth did you do?” Chrysm demanded. “There are rumours all over camp…”

“Rumours? Is that so?”

“Don’t play games.” Arahal said irritably.

“And what might these – “Velaxis speared the naked fruit with his blade “- rumours consist of, Tiahaara?”

Chrysm gave him an odd look. “They say that you are not like other hara.”

Velaxis looked at him and smiled in a way that Chrysm found unnerving.

“Indeed? And in what way is my uniqueness said to manifest itself?” he asked.

“They say,” Chysm licked his lips nervously. “That you have teeth.”

“Teeth?”

“Teeth.”

Velaxis took a long piece of celery from the bowl on the table, put in between his lips, and with great deliberation bit it in half. It snapped with an audible crack. Chrysm swallowed hard, and crossed his legs involuntarily.

“Not there,” Arahal said sternly, “There.” He looked pointedly down at Velaxis’ lap.

Velaxis threw back his head and laughed loudly.

“Oh come, you really don’t believe that, do you? I may be unique and special, but not quite that special!

“I saw what you did to Yerren.” Arahal said. “I heard what he was screaming when they took him to the healers’ pavilion.”

Velaxis swallowed a piece of fruit and shook his head. “Arahal, you are a sensible har, and you know enough to separate fact from the overheated fantasies of a deranged mind. I discussed this only the other day with Ashmael – I have studied a number of unusual arunic practices. I have certain abilities that other hara do not possess, because I have dedicated myself to perfecting them. The control of various groups of muscles is integral to these techniques. Admittedly, not every har can master these specialized procedures, but there is nothing remotely sinister about my physiology, I can assure you. Is that not so, General?”

Arahal looked round and saw the tall figure of Ashmael standing behind him, his hands on his hips. He did not look at all pleased, and Arahal was glad the he was not in Velaxis’ shoes at the moment.

“You’d better have a damn good explanation for what happened last night, Velaxis,” he snapped.

“I was merely doing my job, General.”

“Your job? Just who exactly told you it was your job to mutilate somehar?”

“I had permission. In writing.”

“Permission? What are you talking about? Are you insane? From whom?”

“From Tiahaar Yerren. I explained to you the other day, General. I never do anything without obtaining the consent of my partner or partners. Usually I find that a verbal agreement suffices, but in the case of Tiahaar Yerren, I thought it prudent to obtain permission in writing. I explained to him that in order for me to take part in aruna which may, or may not, result in physical injury to one or more of the parties, and which may, or may not, have necessitated the use of restraints, I would need him to sign a disclaimer to absolve any party of responsibility in the event of an unfortunate outcome. Tiahaar Yerren was more than eager to sign, I can assure you.”

Velaxis produced a document from underneath his cloak and laid it on the table. At the bottom, the signature of Yerren har Varr was clearly legible, as was Velaxis’ own distinctive mark.

Ashmael was unimpressed.

“If you think you’re getting off on a technicality, then you have another think coming. Thiede is not going to be pleased when he hears about this.”

Velaxis had the decency to look slightly uncomfortable at the mention of Thiede’s name.

“Thiede is pragmatic,” Arahal pointed out. “The Varr has already promised his eternal loyalty and offered up everything he knows in return for us keeping Velaxis away from him.

“That works well enough for me,” Velaxis said primly. Arahal silenced him with a glare.

“And once Terzian’s son arrives here, Yerren will be of little interest to him.”

“Besides,” Velaxis continued, “Tiahaar Yerren is fortunate.”

“He is? Do enlighten me!” Ashmael refused to be placated.

“He is har. His body possesses powers to heal itself. Admittedly, that does not go quite as far as… regenerating lost body parts, but with the advances our healers are making, who is to say that one day that will not be a possibility. And in the meantime, his ability to experience aruna has not been taken from him – merely modified slightly. He is doubly fortunate in that he is blood bonded to three fine hara, who will no doubt be happy to accommodate his altered needs, so he need have no fear of being unable to find a suitable partner.”

A human woman walked past the table, on her way to breakfast. As she did so, she watched the group of hara sitting at the table with unabashed curiosity. She stared at Velaxis in particular, as if she recognised him. Then she smiled at him briefly, approvingly. Velaxis returned her smile courteously, and she continued on her way.

“You have this all worked out, don’t you?” Ashmael growled. He was familiar enough with being ambushed to know when he had walked right into one.

Velaxis finished the last piece of fruit on the plate, and wiped his hands fastidiously.

“Not at all. I was simply following instructions. It was you yourself, I believe, who informed me that Tiahaar Yerren enjoyed the rougher aspects of aruna. Was I mistaken?”

His eyes glittered as hard as the blue jewels around his throat.

“Shall I clean the latrines again, General?”

Ashmael looked at Velaxis carefully, as if weighing up some important decision. The flags flapped in the morning breeze and in the distance an unexpected clamour announced the first of that day’s new arrivals to Imbrilim.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said, and walked away.

***

“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form… I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

– Saint Teresa of Avila, 1515-1582

The End

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3 Comments

  1. wdarling said,

    April 10, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    I really enjoyed this one, especially the discussions Ash and Vel have over gender. That sneaky Krim-Si is playing with Ash like a top. Love it.

    One of my favorite exchanges:

    “I don’t know. Settle down to a nice, ordinary life. A family. A beautiful consort to provide me with beautiful harlings.”

    Velaxis seemed highly amused. “Did you miss the revolution? You can provide your own beautiful harlings these days.”

  2. elfscribe said,

    July 10, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    An excellent story. I was rivetted. I love your Velaxis – love the wonderful snarky exchanges with Ashmael. Yes, the one Wendy pointed out was also one of my favorites. Also “Shall I introduce the double-entendre into the conversation now, or wait till later?” “I’d wait a bit if I were you.”

    Vel also turns out to be a fearsome enemy when crossed. Yerren thoroughly deserved what he got.

  3. EmilyS said,

    July 30, 2013 at 2:46 am

    I’ve read this story a couple times now and I must say it’s excellent ^^ This and its prequel definitely have re-readable quality because I keep coming back to it, hehe.


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