Characters: Seel, Swift, Thiede, Cobweb, Pellaz. Terez, Raven, Caeru and Darquiel. Spear-carrier-har No 2 (they also serve who only bring plot devices from Immanion!). And Cal. Even though he’s not actually in it…
Spoilers: Some for Shades and Ghosts. And the story assumes that the reader is familiar with the… er… more interesting aspects of Seel’s career, as detailed in Wraiths.
Disclaimer: All characters belong to Storm Constantine, and she writes ‘em so much better too, dammit!
This story was was written for the Forever Wraeththu Fanfic Challenge. When Wendy posted the theme, my black little fanficcing heart rejoiced! Seel and Swift’s Big Sparkly Romantic Interlude At Imbrilim has always been one of my favourite bits in Bewitchments. It is a well-thumbed chapter in what is undoubtedly a well-thumbed book. I have read it and re-read it many times, delicately dabbing the corner of my eye with a tiny handkerchief each time, and being positively drenched in Warm And Fuzzy Feelings. (At least, I assume that’s what it is…)
And yet… -wavy lines, indicative of the passing of time – much later, it occurred to me that there was something very wrong with the whole scenario. That it was not at all the sparkly, sugar-coated True Love of which girlish (harish?) dreams are made. And that instead of being a lovely tale of love and romance, there was actually a great black gaping hole at the centre of it, waiting to swallow the protagonists whole.
Which is actually a lot more interesting than sparkly romances, when you come to think about it!
All That Is Left Of Us Is Love
Once, it must have had another name, but now the house was Forever. Cobweb had named it so, through some arcane and mysterious circumstance that Seel had never quite understood, and if he could not find it within himself to give Cobweb credit for anything else, he could at least acknowledge that Swift’s monstrous hostling had bestowed a fitting title upon the mouldering pile. The house had an air of stubborn permanence; its roots and foundations had burrowed deep into the ground, and it clung there tenaciously. It had outlived its human masters, and Seel was in no doubt that it would outlast him too.
He was not, in any case the house’s master. Neither had Terzian – dead these thirty years and more – been able truthfully to claim that position, although Seel was quite sure that the late Varrish leader’s pride and egotistical nature would never have conceded such a possibility. Nor even his son, currently encumbent as head of the Parasiel tribe. The house obeyed one har only. Forever belonged to Cobweb.
The house reminded Seel of a particular horse that he had once had the misfortune to encounter. A beautiful, thoroughbred creature, a long time ago, in a place called Saltrock. The horse had been bred in captivity, but some strange throwback or quirk of nature had given it a wild temperament. Whenever anyhar approached the creature, its eyes would roll and flash wickedly and it would lash out with hooves and snaking neck and unexpected teeth.
Only one har could approach the horse. The har’s name had been Colt – a fitting name, chosen to invoke the horse-nature of his soul – and when he came close to the stallion, the wildness and the fear in its eyes would vanish, and its restless movement become still. Colt could ride the horse. It permitted him to mount upon its back and would gallop for miles, tireless under the hot sun. Any other har who attempted this would either find himself with bruised and bleeding shins for his pains, or lying face down in the dry, salt-crusted dirt, having been summarily ejected from the horse’s back.
Seel knew that this house did not want him any more than the horse had. The horse would be dead now, its bones lying bleached by the sun somewhere, but Forever endured. Sometimes, when he was sleeping, he dreamed of riding away from Galhea, on the back of a tireless horse, on and on, towards a horizon that would never come any closer, his long braids flying freely behind him, but then he would wake and it would be early morning, just after dawn, and the house would be still and quiet, filled with a cathedral hush as its occupants slept on. Seel would listen for the clock in the hall to strike the hour – which it always did, unless Cobweb forgot to wind it up, which he never did – but he could not rise from his bed. The house did not want him. It wanted to be alone, in these private, early hours. Only after the clock had struck again, and the house-hara begun to stir, and the sun had risen over the roof of the gatehouse at the lower end of the grounds would the house grudgingly allow him to occupy its inner space.
Seel knew that Cobweb could walk the corridors of Forever at whatever time of day or night he chose, and the house would tolerate his presence; more than that, it would cocoon him and protect him, like a hostling caring for a harling. In fact, Seel harboured suspicions that Cobweb prowled the house nightly, casting runes and protective spells to ward off evil spirits and repel malign influences – such as himself.
Swift had laughed at this notion, calling it fanciful, but then Swift always sided with Cobweb. No – that was not quite true – Swift attempted to be impartial, and sometimes even succeeded, but it was difficult for him, caught between two warring factions. Cobweb and Seel ground together like heavy millstones. Sometimes Swift could be the chaff and grist that would keep them separate. Sometimes the weight of it all simply crushed him.
Seel heard the clock in the hall strike. He turned over carefully, closing his eyes and patiently hoping for sleep. Beside him, he could feel the warmth and solidity of his consort’s body.
At least you don’t snore, he thought. Cal had snored. Especially when he was drunk. Which was often.
He knew he wouldn’t sleep again now. The very though of Cal was enough to set his teeth grinding and his blood pressure rising. There was no har in the entire Earthly realm that he despised more than Cal. Cal, his erstwhile lover, murderer, seducer, iconoclast, usurper, and, currently, Tigron of Immanion.
You don’t deserve that, he thought, bitterly. You deserve to be locked in a dungeon, or a tower, and tormented by the very demons of Hell for the rest of your unnaturally long life. You deserve to be strung up by your guts, humiliated, destroyed, abandoned and crushed. You deserve to have the one thing you want most in life taken from you. You deserve all of these things, and more, and I… I sold my soul to God or the Devil, or whatever he is or was, in order to inflict some of these things on you. To let you know how it felt. I sold my soul, and I got my reward. I lost my soul, and you gained Immanion. You won, Cal. You always do.
With a conscious effort, he unclenched his jaw, steadied his increased heart-rate and banished the unwanted surge of endocrine activity from his bloodstream. Lying here in a rage was futile; there was still a full traverse of the hour hand across the impassive hall-clock’s face to pass before the next strike and the official start of the day. Better to simply empty his mind and let the time pass in numb silence, as he did every morning.
As if the house had decided to mock him and prove him wrong, there came a noise from downstairs. Seel opened one eye in surprise. Perhaps he had slept later this morning, and it was already time to rise. But he knew from the angle of the shadows that this was not so. It was still early, still that nebulous time between dawn and day. Again the noise came – he identified it this time as voices; one of the househara, and somehar else he didn’t recognise. Then Cobweb – I knew it, prowling about – and some exclamations of surprise. Snake Jaguar – why would he be up at this time? He didn’t usually concern himself with the routine domestic affairs of the household. Tyson; sleepy, querying tones, suddenly becoming alert and interested. Chairs scraped and doors banged. Footsteps echoed.
Seel opened his other eye and sat up. Whatever was going on, he decided it would be in his best interests to find out. He elbowed Swift roughly in the ribs, and was rewarded with an unflattering epithet from his consort.
He ignored the complaint.
“Wake up,” he ordered. “Something’s going on downstairs.”
“Cobweb can deal with it,” Swift muttered irritably.
“No he can’t. You’re the Master of Galhea. Get up and see what’s happening.
Swift groaned and hauled himself up from his nest of blankets and quilt. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat there, rubbing his eyes and scratching his shoulder.
“I’m sure whatever it is will wait until I have washed and dressed.” he said.
“No it won’t.”
“If you’re so concerned, you go and see what it is.”
Seel pursed his lips like an old woman. “Cobweb will not see fit to inform me of anything important. I thought we’d already established that!”
Swift slumped a little. It was an argument he knew he couldn’t win. However, just at that moment Seel was proved wrong for the second time that morning when the door to the bedroom flew open and Cobweb marched in, hair and ribbons flying, obviously in a state of agitation.
“Don’t you ever knock?” Seel complained
Cobweb gave him a contemptuous stare.
“It’s not as if you were doing anything.” he said. He turned to Swift, before Seel had a chance to respond.
“You’d better get up and come downstairs,”
Swift looked up at his hostling worriedly.
“Why, what is it? What’s happening?”
“Get dressed,” Cobweb ordered, throwing him a robe, “and come downstairs.”
Seel felt his irritation rise again.
“Just tell us, “ he snapped “Without all the histrionics.”
Cobweb glared at him, and Seel felt the very air in the room vibrate in tune with his hostility.
“News from Immanion.” Cobweb announced dramatically, then turned and left the room without a further word.
“He has been found! He is returned to Immanion!”
Trailing behind Swift into the large salon which had once been Terzian’s favourite retreat, Seel was convinced he must have missed something, but one look at his consort’s face told him that Swift was equally confused by Cobweb’s announcement.
“Who has been found?” Swift finished doing up the last of the fastenings on his clothing as he interrogated his hostling.
Swift sighed. Sometimes, getting sense out of Cobweb was not easy.
“Who is Darquiel?” he asked, slowly.
Cobweb’s nostrils flared, giving him the look of an angry Sedu
“Darquiel,” he replied, equally deliberately, “Is Cal and Pell’s son.
For a moment Swift was confused.
“What do you mean? Loki is Cal and Pell’s…”
“Cal and Pell and Rue’s son.” Cobweb stared at him meaningfully, to emphasise the significance of the addition, which had the unfortunate effect of making him appear even less rational than usual.
“The pearl.” Seel rescued his floundering consort. “They must have found the child who was… taken… from Rue.”
“Exactly so, Tiahaar.”
Seel noticed for the first time the strange har hovering nervously at the edge of the little group. He was obviously Gelaming, but Seel did not recognise him. Usually, if the Hegemony had important information to impart to Galhea, they sent one of their high-ranking minions such as Velaxis Shiraz. Sometimes the Tigron himself had been known to come.
I am losing touch with Immanion, Seel thought, dispiritedly. I am becoming invisible to them.
“How did this come about?” Swift demanded, “What has happened? We know that there have been strange happenings in Almagabra of late, but we do not know the details.”
“It was Tigron Calanthe who found him,” the har told him “The details are a little unclear at present, but…”
Seel winced at the audible joy in Swift’s voice.
“Good old Cal,” he said sourly, “A hero to us all, once again.”
“And how fortunate for us all that he is.” Cobweb was all icy condescension, but Seel had grown immune to it over the years.
“No doubt there will be great celebrations in Immanion,” Seel said, his voice heavy with sarcasm, “To celebrate Tigron Calanthe’s latest achievement. And to welcome home the lost heir.”
“No doubt at all,” Cobweb agreed smoothly, but there was a hint of triumph in the other har’s words which told Seel that he was about to hear something that he wasn’t going to like.
“What do you mean?” he asked warily.
“It will be a double celebration – or possibly even triple, if the Hegemony in their wisdom decided to award Cal a medal – for Darquiel is not the only lost soul to return.”
Seel grimaced. “Cobweb, just tell me what it is that you are so obviously dying to tell me. Who is this other “lost soul”?”
Cobweb’s dark eyes did not blink.
“Thiede.” he said
“Thiede!” Swift shook his head in disbelief. “But that’s impossible. Thiede is …”
“Alive and well and living in Phaonica, if this fine emissary of Immanion is to be believed.”
“Oh, I can assure you, Tiahaar…” The Gelaming har’s earnest affirmation was cut short by an impatient flap of Cobweb’s hand and he fell silent.
“If this is true…” Swift shook his head in wonder.
The Gelaming har attempted confirmation again, but one look at Cobweb persuaded him otherwise, and he wisely held his peace.
“It is true,” Cobweb said quietly, “I feel it. I know it.”
“This is wonderful news… isn’t it?” Swift looked at his hostling anxiously, but his fears were unfounded.
“Yes it is,” Cobweb closed his eyes and drew a symbol in the air with his forefinger. “The Aghama has returned. A new age is dawning for Wraeththu-kind.”
“We should have a celebration – here, in Forever.” Swift exclaimed. “What do you think, Seel?”
Seel said nothing. There was nothing he could say. Thiede! He felt something bitter rise in the back of his throat, like bile, as he recalled his earlier thoughts of Cal. A premonition?
No har in the Earthly realm that I despise more.
The only reason he could assert that fact with confidence was because Thiede was no longer present in the Earthly realm. He had been banished to another dimension of reality by Cal – poetic justice, Seel had often thought – there to exist alone with his grandiosity and his delusions of Godhead. Whatever dimension that was, Seel had hoped and prayed every night that it was Hell or Purgatory, for there was no har who deserved it more, in his estimation, than Thiede har Gelaming. And now…
“Why?” he snarled “Why should we celebrate? We were free without Thiede’s malign influence. And now he has returned to warp and manipulate our lives again. Why?”
“Perhaps he got bored,” suggested Cobweb
“I’m sure we will find out soon enough,” Swift found himself making another of his doomed attempts at conciliation between his consort and his hostling, more from force of habit than from any expectation of an outbreak of peace.
Seel was beyond being placated and began to pace up and down the room in agitation
“Pell is not going to like this,” he announced. “He is hardly going to hand back the reins of power to Thiede without a struggle.”
“Actually,” said Cobweb, “Tigron Pellaz is reportedly very happy about this turn of events, and apparently Thiede does not intend to challenge his authority in any way.”
Seel snorted. “You’re a fool if you believe that. I know Thiede. He may say that now, but he won’t be able to resist the temptation. He’s power mad. He’s insane and he’s evil.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely true,” Swift said mildly “Not everything he did was bad. After all, if it hadn’t been for him, then you and I would never have…” He smiled, and reached out a hand to touch his consort.
Seel stepped back. “Don’t remind me!” he spat. Swift looked as if he’d been slapped, but Seel appeared not to notice.
“Thiede’s interference has been the ruin of many an innocent har’s life.”
“And many a har has managed to ruin his own life quite adequately without any assistance from Thiede.” Cobweb pointed out drily.
“You of all hara should know what he is capable of! You know what he did to Terzian…”
The look in Cobweb’s eyes at the mention of Terzian’s name was not pleasant, and Seel realised that it would probably be in his best interests to stop right here and now before he dug himself in any deeper, but he had always been a stubborn har, and though he kept a better rein on his temper than he had done in his youth, there were times when it could still erupt, and it seemed that he could only watch himself helplessly from a distance, clinging on to the back of his own rage, trying to tame and control it.
“… and as for what he did to Cal…”
It was as if he had uttered a profanity. The name hung in the air, the very sound of it reverberating like an accusation; defiant, refusing to be unsaid.
“Do not insult me by weeping your crocodile tears for Cal!” Cobweb hissed furiously.
The thin veneer of civility which the two hara normally managed to maintain dissolved messily, as it did with depressing regularity. At this point, Swift’s diplomatic skills would rescue the situation, and a solution would be found by him which would allow both parties to retreat from the fray with their pride intact, but this time Swift did not come to his consort’s rescue.
“Well it’s very unfortunate that you’ve had your life ruined by becoming my consort, but perhaps you’ll just have to take a leaf out of Cal’s book and accept the situation gracefully.”
Seel felt his rage abandoning him, like a rat fleeing from a sinking ship, waving an airy farewell and leaving him with nothing but his own resources to deal with the mess he had created.
Swift shot him a look which was eerily reminiscent of his hostling, effectively silencing him. He turned and strode angrily out of the room without another word, followed closely by the equally indignant Cobweb.
Seel stood silently and watched them both go.
“I take it,” said Tyson, who had been watching the proceedings with interest from the sidelines, “that a party is out of the question?”
Once, Seel had believed in the existence of something which called itself love, and the form which it had taken had been a golden-haired angel, who turned out to be a devil. No matter. Seel would have crawled over an endless trail of broken glass for him, and when the broken glass he found himself crawling over turned out to be his own shattered illusions, he almost considered it worth the pain and the madness. Almost.
Perhaps he might have remained in this sorry state for the rest of his life, but to be har was to have another option; another path. Not for them the sad passions of humankind, the torture of jealousy and the need to possess and own. Love was an illusion, its passion and pain merely the by-product of misdirected energy.
This he learned from har of great wisdom and serenity. Orien – who had been so knowing, so certain. Seel had clung to that certainty like a drowning har clings to floating jetsam. Orien believed it to be so and therefore it must be so. Never in all the years between then and now had Seel doubted Orien’s wisdom.
And yet, in his heart, Seel kept a secret place. A locked box, and in it a memory, or a hope. Or a belief. He knew it would never be opened again, but that did not matter. He showed it to no-one, not even Orien, and thought it safe and inviolate.
And then another demon, red of hair and black of soul, had come and opened the box, and shown him that it was empty.
Alone in the garden, with the damp, invasive green all around, Seel remembered clearly the moment when the demon had demanded his due. He had been a fool to think that Thiede had taken him to Immanion and raised him to greatness simply out of the goodness of his heart. Thiede did not have a heart. And Thiede commanded that others be as him.
A strategic alliance
That was exactly what it was. A business transaction. An exchange of favours. Immanion’s presence in Galhea. Thiede did not care to be in anyhar’s debt, he was scrupulous, he kept his promises, he did not lie. A strategy employed by all good demons.
Once, Seel had struck a bargain with the Devil, and the Devil had kept his promise, honoured his end of the deal and more. Seel had named his price, and the name of it had been Cal. It was always Cal. No matter which path his life took, it was always Cal, and it would always be Cal, always there. A watermark, or a stain, on his life, ineradicable and there.
It didn’t come as any surprise to him that Cal was also embedded deep into the fabric of his new life. He hadn’t wanted a new life, but Thiede was not finished keeping his promises and handing out his gifts. A new life, a new love…
There is no such thing as love. That is what Orien had told him. And Thiede had smiled his predator’s smile, and dismissed this notion in an instant.
Yes, there is love, I created it, and here it is. Look!
And he had opened the box and exposed it to the daylight, showing the springs and cogs and wires and mechanism, the artifice of it all, leaving no mystery, no hidden magic. And no possibility of ever reclaiming these things.
Swift, of course, believed it implicitly. In a way, Seel envied him for the fact that he could see the smoke and mirrors and fakery, and still cling to his naïve belief. He had Cobweb to thank for that. Cobweb believed in anything and everything. Cobweb believed in signs and portents, and wards and charms, and significance of dreams, and the past and the future and forever and Forever, and most of all Cobweb believed in love, which was ironic, considering that the object of his own obsessive passion had experienced no such reciprocal stirrings.
Nevertheless, Cobweb’s influence on Swift had by far overshadowed Terzian’s, and it had been a simple task for Thiede to plant his tricks in the young Varr’s head. Seel, on the other hand, was no inexperienced ingénue. He had studied with Orien for many years, and afterwards with Pellaz in Immanion. He was of high caste, and knew himself to be a har of strength and ability, yet he was still powerless against Thiede’s casual meddlings in his mind.
He knew that his desire for Swift was fake – he could imagine Thiede playing with a tiny replica of himself, smiling as he pierced the heart with one of those long, polished talons of his, then casting it casually aside, bored and searching for a new plaything – and yet late at night, lying in his bed in his tent in Imbrilim, too exhausted to sleep, he felt his flesh burn and his mind replay over and over again the same scenes of erotica and temptation. It was fake – contrivance and counterfeit all of it, but his ecstasy was real.
The illusion of love had burned brightly, but only for so long as Thiede had cared to maintain his interest. There had been a child, and later, a battle – Seel remembered these vividly – but then it was over and Thiede’s attention turned elsewhere, fickle, like a spoilt harling, and Seel was left to get on with the rest of his life.
What life? Not the one I would have chosen.
Seel kicked disconsolately at a pile of mossy stones. Unnatural in shape, their angularity betrayed their history as the remains of some forgotten edifice which had once stood here. Once upon a time someone, some human, had carved those stones, cut the corners just so, and placed them one upon the other, and there they had stood for an age, while all around the forces of nature in the form of the industrious blades of grass and invasive ivy had sought to undo the builders’ handiwork and return the garden to its natural chaos. And now Seel had delivered the final coup – knocked the last stone from atop its support and exhausted the last energy contained within the ancient wall’s structure.
It was always easier to destroy than to build.
A noise behind him alerted him to the presence of another. Seel did not turn around. He did not need to. Thirty years had left him exquisitely, intimately familiar with his consort’s presence; his scent, his footfall, his breathing and heartbeat. He also knew instinctively that Swift was still annoyed, which meant that he had not come here to instigate any form of reconciliation, which meant that he, Seel, would have to be the one to do so, which was not good, because it was something that did not come easily to him. It never had. He could remember other arguments in other relationships, when he had waited, stiff and unyielding, alone in a cold bedroom, for the other to come and break the deadlock. It had never been him. Perhaps it should have been. Perhaps if it had been, he would not be in this place now.
“Well you certainly got out of bed the wrong side this morning,” Swift grumbled at his back.
Seel knew that at this point the most sensible, most mature and most useful thing he could do would be to say: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean what I said. I have no excuse. Please forgive me.
He said nothing.
From Swift’s silence, Seel judged that his consort also considered that an apology should be forthcoming. The air about them in garden was thick and humid and Seel had the impression that if he did speak, his words would simply be absorbed into it and vanish, unheard.
“You really should try to get over your resentment of Thiede, you know,” Swift said, after a few minutes, sounding no more pleased than he had done before.
“Why?” Seel snapped, aware that his anger had risen dangerously close to the surface again, but unwilling to make the necessary effort to contain it. “What has he done to deserve it? Returned from the great beyond? Nice trick, sure. Let’s throw a party. Who cares how many people he killed.”
“He didn’t kill anyone.”
“He killed your father.”
“He – “
Seel was looking directly at Swift now, and he saw his consort’s face blanch slightly with anger.
“Terzian was responsible for his own death.” Swift said tightly
“Don’t tell me that you don’t think Thiede had a hand in it.”
“Don’t tell me that you actually give a damn about what happened to Terzian!”
A pair of fat birds with long tail feathers flew up suddenly from the dense greenery, clacking in alarm, disturbed by the sudden noise. Swift rarely raised his voice, so when he did, it signified genuine anger, which Seel should have paid attention to more carefully.
“Cobweb was right,” Swift snapped, “You’re full of all this self-righteous finger-pointing on behalf of other hara, but you don’t care about what Thiede did to Terzian. Or Cal. What is your real problem, Seel? What did he do to you?”
“He forced me into an arranged relationship and left me stranded here in the middle of hell with you and your mad hostling, and your creepy little Cal fan-club!”
For a brief second, Seel took refuge in the comforting fantasy that he had not actually uttered these words aloud, but had merely screamed them in his head as he had a thousand times before, but the look on Swift’s face told him otherwise.
“As I remember,” Swift said coldly “you entered into this relationship quite voluntarily.”
“We were deceived, both of us.”
Seel ran his fingers through his hair agitatedly, pulling at it in exasperation.
“Yes you were. It was all Thiede’s doing.”
“I dreamt of you long before I ever encountered Thiede”
“Oh Swift… you innocent. Don’t you see? Thiede put all those thoughts, all those feelings, into your head. You never had a choice.”
“I love you, Seel.” Swift looked at him earnestly, “That is the truth.”
“No you don’t – you just think you do.”
“Well pardon me for having the temerity to think I know what I feel!”
Seel turned away abruptly, unwilling, or unable, to meet his consort’s angry stare.
“This is not how it is,” he said.
“How what is?”
“And you would know?”
Seel stared bleakly into the dense greenery. Heavy ropes of ivy attempting to throttle the life from an ancient oak. Creepers and climbing plants slowly engulfing the garden in a wreath of sickly-scented blossoms.
The name did not need to be spoken. It was all around, as pervasive as the perfume of the flowers.
“I’m going to Immanion,” Seel announced suddenly.
“I want to speak to Thiede”
Swift sighed heavily. “And how is that going to change anything?”
“It isn’t, but I want to speak to him anyway.”
“Fine. Do as you please. Stay there, too, if it’ll make you happy.”
“I might do that.”
Swift looked as if he was about to say something else, but then he turned and walked away without another word, leaving a trail of wet, flattened grass as he went.
Cal. It’s always Cal. Seel thought bitterly.
His relationship with Swift had been flawed and cracked from the start, because at its core, coiled like a snake, was Cal. The invisible worm. The poisoned apple. And now the serpent was in the heart of Immanion, in the heart of its Tigron. He had mesmerised the Tigrina too – how like him! And become a friend of Thiede, if Thiede could be said to have friends, which Seel doubted very much.
Thiede. The Aghama. The first, the last, the most powerful.
You can do anything, Seel thought. It’s so easy for you. You can create love, or a facsimile of it. The one thing you cannot do is experience it.
You made Swift love me. I know that. It could have been anyhar. It was only Swift because you made it so. It could have been anyhar. Anyhar at all.
Seel trudged wearily through the long grass back towards the house, where the morning bustle of activity was in full flow. In his head, the traitorous thought arose, and he didn’t even try to unthink it.
Why couldn’t it have been Cal?
If he were to be cast to the furthest corners of the Earth, and have his eyes put out with hot irons, he could always find his way back to Forever. Not by divination or the casting of runes, or even by longing and yearning, but simply by sense of smell.
Seel reflected upon this as he entered the long hallway of the great house. Its wood panelling gleamed dully in the morning light which filtered through the high, arched window at the far end, and motes of dust spiralled lazily upwards. The wood was dark with age, slightly warped in places, and had been polished and rubbed by so many generations that the musty scent of beeswax and lavender oil had become a part of its very fabric. It was a tradition which Cobweb insisted be kept up, and so daily the househara took their polishing cloths to the vast acreage of panels, and the ornately carved banisters and wide handrail which followed the main staircase up into the topmost parts of the house.
The sagging stair treads themselves though only polished by broom and the countless feet which had trodden them, exuded the same ambience. It was a smell of age and of care and of preservation, and it seeped into the marrow of anyone who lived in the house. Seel suspected that when they died, the bodies of the ex-inhabitants of Forever would not decay in the usual manner, but take on the appearance of polished mahogany, preserved like the house itself.
Cobweb was standing at the foot of the stairs, overseeing the morning’s routine, checking to make sure than no feckless househar missed the tiniest corner of wood panel or beading. From his belt dangled a heavy collection of keys. One of these, Seel knew, was the one which was used to wind up the large clock. It, too, would be subject to the daily polishing by the househara, but only Cobweb was allowed to carefully wind the ancient mechanism by which it kept track of time. Perhaps if the clock failed, then time itself would stop. Perhaps the elderly mainspring within the clock’s innards was the only thing which kept the entire universe moving, and if it broke, then everything would end. At least, one would think so, from the fuss that Cobweb made over it.
Cobweb spotted him immediately as he entered, and Seel’s heart sank. Generally, he tried to avoid Swift’s hostling as much as possible. In the beginning, he had sought to impose his own will on Cobweb, a battle he had eventually come to realise was impossible. Cobweb was as immoveable as the house itself. Now, they simply co-existed unless circumstances forced them into any form of mutual communication. Seel could see that now was about to be one of those times, and he groaned inwardly.
Cobweb bore down upon him like a galleon under full sail. Seel often wondered how he did that – there was never any sign of hurried footsteps underneath Cobweb’s long robes, just the impression of an inexorable progress. Perhaps he levitated. Nothing would surprise Seel about Cobweb.
“Seel! Swift says you intend to go to Immanion. Is this true?”
That was quick, Seel thought glumly. Cobweb was highly adept at getting information out of his son. In this case, Seel suspected, he probably hadn’t had to try very hard.
“Yes,” he replied, biting his tongue and managing to avoid adding: “Not that it’s any of your business”
“Is there a problem? Between you and Swift? I do hope not.”
Seel gritted his teeth. Cobweb probably prayed nightly to any Dehar who would listen that his son’s relationship with Seel would founder.
“No, there is no problem. I merely wish to speak to Thiede.”
“That is between myself and Thiede.”
Cobweb looked at him suspiciously.
“Does this have anything to do with Cal?”
“Surprisingly, no. It will no doubt come as a bolt from the blue to you, Cobweb, but not everything in the entire universe revolves around the mighty Cal.”
“Really? You amaze me. From the amount of energy you expend on thinking about him, I would have suspected just the reverse.”
I hate you, you old witch
“Of course,” continued Cobweb smoothly, “if you are to have an audience with Thiede, you will have to be prepared to be civil to Cal too. I hear that they have become quite… well, I wouldn’t say close exactly, that is hardly a word one uses in relation to Thiede, however it appears that they have managed to reconcile whatever friction was once between them.”
“I am quite well aware of that, thank you. It appears that Cal has a short memory.”
“Or a forgiving nature. Perhaps you should strive for similar enlightenment, Seel.”
“And what makes you think I have not already achieved it?”
“So you have forgiven both Cal and Thiede then?”
“Cal neither needs nor wants my forgiveness, and since Thiede was instrumental in giving to me my heart’s desire, it would be strange if I were to harbour any resentment towards him.”
“Yes, he does that.”
“Thiede. He gives hara what they want most. That’s why he doesn’t have to force them to do anything. Clever God, our Aghama.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Cobweb extended one long, thin finger, with a long, laquered fingernail, and planted its tip on Seel’s chest. Seel recoiled inwardly, but found that he did not dare move away from that touch.
“Many hara claim that they have been coerced by Thiede into doing things that they did not want to do, or becoming things they did not want to become, but this is, for the most part, a convenient and comfortable lie. It is easy to say – ‘Oh, the Devil made me do it’, and absolve oneself of all responsibility. It is not quite so agreeable to admit that one’s own desires also played a part.”
“You are making no sense, Cobweb, but that is hardly unusual. And since when did you become an apologist for the har who killed your ex-chesnari?”
“Terzian could have chosen to live.” Cobweb hissed icily. “He did not do so. Thiede gave him what he wanted.”
“You are trying to tell me that he wanted death?”
“Don’t be even more of a fool than you usually are, Seel.”
“So your theory is that Thiede is actually a kind, benevolent creature who simply makes wishes come true?”
“Thiede is neither kind nor benevolent. He knows every har’s weakness, and he exploits it. Of course, were we not such frail and corruptible creatures, there would be nothing to exploit.”
“You have a somewhat jaundiced view of harrish nature, Cobweb.”
“A realistic assessment, Seel. The Tigrina, for example…”
Seel laughed derisively. “Oh well, if you’re going to use Caeru as an example of fallibility, then there would be few who could argue against you.”
Cobweb gave him a cold stare. “As I was about to say… The Tigrina’s desire was, and is, obvious. Others’ however, are not so.”
Seel felt vaguely uncomfortable, although he could not think why. He wanted to dismiss Cobweb’s assertions as ludicrous; to deliver a stinging put-down that would bring a rush of blood to the other har’s face and a flouncing, indignant exit, but he did not dare. Perhaps this was how Terzian had felt. Cobweb was half-mad, that much was obvious, but sometimes the mad are given knowledge and truths denied to the sane.
“And these hidden desires are known only to you and Thiede,” he sneered, attempting to conceal his unease.
Cobweb’s composure did not waver. “They are there for all to see, for those who know how to look.”
It was on the tip of Seel’s tongue to ask Cobweb what he saw, but he knew instinctively that that was a very, very bad thing to ask of Cobweb
There are too many things in this world that should not be seen, nor looked at too closely. And the only way to keep them hidden is never to speak of them…
“I do not believe that we are all so venal and debased as you think us to be, Cobweb,” he intoned loftily. “Perhaps living so long among the Varrs had distorted your perception – “ he was rewarded by a sharply indrawn breath from Cobweb at that, – “but the Gelaming aspire to better things.”
“Thiede knows best those he keeps close to him.”
He knows all our dirty little secrets. He knows how to pull our chains. And twist the knife.
Seel shook his head. “Pellaz did not succumb to his bribery and coercion.” he insisted.
Seel did not know if he actually believed this, or if he just wanted to believe it. Sometimes it seemed to him that wanting something to be real should be enough to make it real, if you wanted it enough…
“Of course he did.”
“How can you say that!”
“Because it’s true. And hardly a surprise. Thiede offered him so much… A throne, a palace on a hill, all the love and adulation of the world…”
Seel’s face twisted with disgust. “You make Pell sound like some tawdry little power-hungry Archon, or… or…”
“Or some ambitious, gold-digging entertainer from Ferelithia, perhaps?” Cobweb arched one perfectly-groomed eyebrow knowingly. “You’re quick enough to acknowledge the failings of certain hara – don’t give me that look, Seel, I have ears, and you are rather too liberal with your consumption of Sheh on occasion – Nohar is beyond reproach, not even Pellaz.”
“Pell didn’t want to be Tigron,” Seel said firmly. “You didn’t know him when he… before he… Before. It wasn’t what he wanted. All he wanted was…”
Just say it. Say the damned name. Exorcise the beast. Avaunt! Be gone!
If anything, the unsaid name was louder than its spoken counterpart.
Seel could see the glint of triumph in Cobweb’s dark eyes, and he knew that somehow he had lost this battle, as he had all the others, without even knowing what the war was about.
“It’s not such a terrible thing, to want power.” Cobweb continued, smoothing away a non-existent wrinkle in his clothing. “To know that you can use that power to do good things. Pellaz has done many good things. What would you do if you had that sort of power, Seel?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never wanted it.”
“Is that so? And what is it that you wanted, Seel? What did Thiede offer you?”
“You know perfectly well.”
“Do I? Somehow, I have difficulty believing that you wanted my son that much…”
“I don’t care what you believe, Cobweb.”
A sudden discordant note shattered the musty air around them. In the corner, the tall clock announced the hour in its usual plangent tone. Cobweb tutted, and reached for the bunch of keys at his side.
“If you’ll excuse me…” he said “I have a household to run. It’s very important, to keep up with these little tasks, you know. Things need attending to, or they run down. Eventually they can stop altogether if the proper care and maintenance is not forthcoming.”
“Is that supposed to be some sort of metaphor?”
“It’s whatever you want it to be.”
Seel turned away and headed toward the long staircase which swept down the length of the hallway. Behind him, Cobweb jangled and fumbled with the keys, eventually selecting a long brass object with an ornate head, which he entered carefully into the small hole in the clock’s wooden body. He began turning it slowly.
“When are you going?” he addressed Seel without turning to look at him. Seel paused, his hand on the well-polished banister, one foot on the lowest step.
“Later today. No time like the present.”
“Of course. Give my regards to Tigrons Pellaz and Calanthe. And to the Tigrina.”
Seel had made it to the second step. He sighed, and paused again.
“Revenge is not always what you expect it to be.”
“I’ll bear that in mind, Cobweb.”
“You would do well to, Seel.”
Without another word, Seel made his way up the long, polished staircase. As his feet pressed into the sagging treads, bowed and concave from years of use, the wood creaked and groaned like a living thing.
As he burst from the grey nothingness of the otherlanes into Immanion’s bright and optimistic morning, Seel discovered that he was nostalgic for the sea. This came as a surprise to him, as he had grown up and spent his formative years far from its presence, and had only seen it for the first time when Thiede had brought him to Immanion over thirty years ago. It had not seemed important, at the time, or during any of the subsequent years he had spent here, but now, the first thing that assailed his nostrils was its ozone-laced tang. It was a salty smell redolent of sand and spray, and the raucous white birds wheeling overhead.
The air seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. It was in constant motion as the breezes which chivvied the white-sailed ships across the wide bay made their way onshore and spread their coolness around Immanion’s bustling streets.
The sounds and the movement combined to make Seel feel dizzy. His hair lifting constantly away from his face; the flags and pennants in the harbour fluttering; the white birds diving down to the water’s surface and snatching up some tiny fish or crustacean in one elegant swoop. The hara, laughing and shouting and pointing and waving.
It was all so different from Galhea, with its still, oppressive summer air – dark thunderclouds gathering on the horizon and the sinister shaking of the leaves up in the canopies of the trees. The weight of the atmosphere pressing down upon everything, and the sullen, suspicious hara watching him as he rode past. Even after all these years, many of them still did not trust the Gelaming, and for most of them, he was The Gelaming.
At least here they weren’t pointing at him. Even although he was mounted on a white and prancing Sedu. Such things were commonplace in Immanion. As one of The Tigron’s oldest and most trusted friends, and a useful ally, Seel was allowed access to a Sedu for travel when he required it. In Galhea, this merely marked him out as an outsider all the more, but here in Immanion nohar gave him more than a passing glance as he rode along the main street which ran from the harbour area, through the centre of the city, and up the hill towards Phaonica.
Phaonica. The Tigron’s legendary palace. There was nowhere in the city from where it was not visible. In fact, it was visible some considerable distance from the city, atop its hill, its ivory towers and golden spires sparkling in the sun, like a beacon. Once, it had been home for Seel. He had occupied a luxurious set of apartments in the palace’s north wing, with a splendid view over the harbour and the bay. It had been like living in a great eyrie, with the sky and lightness all around. Now he was grounded, confined to the earth and the stone of Forever.
Immanion had changed little in the past thirty years. Thiede had planned it meticulously, down to the last stone, and even the last inhabitant. How it must gall him, Seel thought – with some satisfaction – to have returned to find its population rather less elite than when he left. That had been Cal’s doing, but Seel knew it was not from any sense of obligation to open up Immanion to the less fortunate. Cal simply took delight in breaking and destroying. It would have amused him to see the haughty, self-regarding Gelaming forced to mix with the hoi polloi and the riff-raff.
There was little sign now of the cataclysm which had taken place on Cal’s arrival though. Immanion had absorbed its new status and its new Tigron gracefully.
Seel rode on, up the broad, tree-lined avenue which led into Phaonica’s formal gardens and parks. Fountains gushed musically, flowers bloomed in abundance, and the ride was rendered cool and pleasant by the shade provided by leaf-covered arches.. The gardens were tidy and immaculately kept – no unruly creepers or overgrown grass here to distract from the harmony..
Finally he arrived at the palace’s main gate, thrown wide and welcoming. Why would it be otherwise? Phaonica was not one of those grim fortresses barricaded against the outside world, and Immanion’s inhabitants respected their Tigrons’ privacy. Serving staff arrived at the sound of the Sedu’s hooves clattering on stone. Obviously he was expected. An elegant har dressed in the Tigron’s livery greeted him. He was tall and handsome, in that typically anodyne Gelaming way. He addressed Seel by name, formally, but Seel did not recognise him. Hardly surprising – there must a thousand and more hara employed to keep Phaonica running smoothly. Seel wondered how Cal felt about having his every whim met, his every need taken care of. No doubt it was something that anyhar could get used to, in time.
He dismounted, and another har led the Sedu away. The liveried retainer escorted Seel across the wide courtyard and through a side entrance, rather than using the main entrance. Inside, the air was cool and scented with roses and incense.
His guide indicated Seel to follow him down a long corridor, hung with paintings Seel put his hand on the other har’s arm.
“It’s alright.” he said, with a disarming smile, “I know the way.”
The har bowed politely. “As you wish, Tiahaar,” He retreated noiselessly, back the way they had come, leaving Seel alone in the long, resonant corridor.
Seel knew this passage – he had walked down this marble floor many times, scarcely even noticing his surroundings. He knew that at the end of the corridor there was a large pair of double doors, and behind those, the Tigron’s private reception room. It was where Pellaz chose to receive friends and family, rather than political allies and dignitaries. One day, Seel thought morosely, he would no doubt arrive in Phaonica and be shown to the rather stuffy room in the east wing where visiting Archons were officially entertained, and Pellaz would smile at him vacantly, shake his hand limply, and ask him where he was from….but for now he was glad that there was still at least one har in Phaonica who remembered him and would be pleased to see him.
As he reached the end of the corridor, the large double doors opened suddenly, with a small creak of complaint. Seel expected another liveried flunky to appear and escort him into the room beyond, but to his surprise a har with long dark hair burst through the doors and rushed out to greet him, flinging his arms around him in a tight hug.
“Seel! They told me you were coming!”
“Pell! I wanted it to be a surprise!” Seel found that he was returning the hug with equal fervour, and a broad grin lit up his face in spite of himself.
“You know nothing gets past my spies!” Pell laughed, pushing back a strand of silky hair from his face, where it had somehow come undone from its bindings. “It’s so good to see you. Have you heard the news?”
“Of course. Why do you think I’m here?”
“I can hardly believe it. It’s all so unexpected.”
“I can imagine.”
“Come on – there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Pell took him by the hand and half-led, half-dragged him through the doors and into the next room. Inside, it was bright compared with the gloomy corridor, and Seel blinked a little as his eyes adjusted.
There was a small group of hara standing in the middle of the room. Seel immediately recognised Terez, and his chesnari, Raven, and the Tigrina, Caeru. Next to Caeru was a young har whom Seel had never seen before, his hair a curious mix of dark locks flecked with golden threads. Judging by the possessive manner in which Caeru was clinging to him, Seel guessed that this must be the returned son. In other circumstances, the young har might have captured Seel’s attention fully; even disregarding his strange history, he was an extraordinarily arresting creature, but his glamour paled and faded in comparison with the room’s last occupant. To be fair, there was no har on Earth who could compete as far as glamour went with the tall figure standing a little apart from the group.
If Seel had expected him to be changed or altered in anyway by his sojourn in the other realm, then he was disappointed. He looked exactly as he had the last time Seel had seen him; hair as red as blood, or fire; an aura of power and magnetism about him. Alluring, arrogant and alone.
Theide’s slanting, cat-like eyes regarded him with interest, as if he was a specimen under a microscope; a dead insect, pinned to a sheet of paper. Seel would not have been at all surprised to see a nictitating membrane flick quickly across those eyes – Thiede had an alien quality about him which caused the hairs on the back of the neck to rise in the most primitive of all responses to fear.
Seel fought and conquered the urge to flee, and approached Thiede with what he hoped was an air of confidence and composure. He was aware of the young har, Darquiel, watching him with interest, but introductions could wait until later.
“Seel, what an unexpected pleasure this is.”
Thiede was all conviviality, an affectation he could switch on and off at will when it suited his purpose. Seel was not fooled, he knew this gambit of old, and he could play the game himself with aplomb.
“Thiede. I could say the same. Unexpected is hardly the word for it!”
Thiede smiled, showing his teeth like a hungry tiger. He was dressed in a long, flowing garment of dark red velvet, with deep sleeves. His arms were folded across his chest, with his hands tucked into and concealed within the sleeves. Seel found himself wondering, rather crazily, what he had hidden up there.
“I confess, I am as surprised as anyhar here,” Thiede said, “but I have always rather enjoyed surprises. Life can be very tedious without the unexpected.”
“Why are you here?” Seel asked, rather more brusquely than he intended.
“Where else would I go?” Thiede replied, seeming not to notice Seel’s abrupt tone. “Immanion is my home.”
“No, I mean here. Rather than there. The place…he… banished you to. Why have you returned?”
“It’s complicated.” Thiede shrugged dismissively, as if it was a matter of little or no import, but all the while his hard, silvery stare never left Seel.
Are you afraid to mention his name?
The voice in his mind was as glacial as those eyes, and Seel had to fight to prevent himself from visibly recoiling.
I am not afraid. I choose not to.
Cal was not in the room. Seel had noticed his absence from the moment he had walked through the wide double doors. Obviously he should have been, given the circumstances. Equally obviously, Pell had made sure he wasn’t present. Except that he was. Cal’s presence in the room was like a great, invisible animal; lithe and muscular, prowling and swaggering around the room, daring anyhar to ignore him.
I chose to ignore him
It was a lie. He could not. He could feel the hot breath of the Cal-beast on his face, the close proximity of his musky presence.
“And how is your charming consort?”
For a moment, Seel did not realise that Thiede was addressing him. He dragged himself away, with difficulty, from the thought of Cal and attempted to put a face to Thiede’s query.
“I believe that is his name.”
“Swift is in excellent health.” Seel said, through gritted teeth.
“I am glad to hear that. He really is a very fine har, I could not have chosen better.”
“Yes, he’s a credit to your amazing judgement and God-like infallibility.”
Thiede’s eyes narrowed a fraction.
“I don’t – clichéd though it may sound – expect gratitude from you, Seel. I am aware of your resentment towards me – you’ve kept it warm and nurtured it well over the years, I’ll say that for you. But I can assure you that there is nothing to be gained from cutting off your nose to spite your face. Swift is a good har – his feelings for you are genuine, and that makes you more fortunate than many. Learn to appreciate that good fortune – it will do you more good than wasting your life on futile anger.”
“Thank you for that insight, Thiede. I don’t know how I’ve managed these past few years without it. You know, a long time ago, you told me that I would thank you one day.”
“I have never done so. I think the time has come. Thank you, Thiede. Thank you for ruining my life.”
You’re not the only one who has something up his sleeve.
Seel found that he could not prevent himself from thinking this thought as he pulled from its hiding place among his clothing the long knife he had concealed earlier. Its metal blade gleamed brightly in the daylight, oddly beautiful.
To Seel, it appeared that time slowed down in that instant – perhaps the ancient mainspring in the clock in Forever’s hall had finally given way, perhaps it was something else entirely, but he could suddenly see and hear everything in the room with painful clarity. He saw the look of puzzlement on Thiede’s face – not fear, not yet; he saw the Tigrina’s eyes grow wide, heard his rising squeal of horror, his arms wrap protectively around Darquiel; he saw Pell’s mouth opening to shout something inaudible, Raven’s dark, inscrutable countenance and Terez moving swiftly – yet in slow motion – towards him, too late.
Seel plunged the knife through the red velvet of Thiede’s robe. It met resistance, but he pushed harder, thrust with all his strength, felt the blade sink into something firm, like flesh, and become trapped and immobile, able to move neither forward nor back.
Then time ceased to slow down. It stopped entirely. This was very strange. Terez was caught mid-stride, his arm outstretched towards Seel, only inches away. Pell’s mouth was still open, giving him a dynamic expression strangely in contrast to his usual guarded reticence. Caeru hugged his son, distraught and frozen. Seel found that he too was incapable of movement. Everything in the room was motionless. Everything except Thiede.
The cat-eyes regarded him coolly. There was no sign of anger, or surprise, or pain. The arms remained folded, the hands deep within the enigmatic sleeves.
Perhaps a hint of reproach, the merest shake of the head.
“Do you really think I’m that easy to kill?”
Time resumed its proper course with a savage suddenness. Terez’s outstretched arms reached Seel and grabbed him in an unbreakable hold around his neck, simultaneously twisting the arm that held the knife behind his back, causing it to drop to the floor with a metallic clatter. The tendons in his shoulder protested painfully, and he would have cried out but for the fact that Terez’s armlock around his neck was crushing his windpipe and preventing him from drawing breath.
Caeru finished the short shriek he had begun earlier. Pellaz simply stared at him in disbelief.
There was a very uncomfortable silence, broken only by Seel’s occasional choking sounds.
“Let him go.”
Terez obeyed Thiede’s command, and the arm was removed from around Seel’s neck. Seel took a huge, gasping breath of air, which turned into a painful coughing fit. He rubbed his throat with his fingers, and bent forward, gasping and waiting for the dizziness to pass.
Thiede waited, patient as stone, until he had recovered. Another almost invisible signal to Terez, and Terez retrieved the fallen knife from the floor and offered it back to Seel, hilt first. Seel stared at it for a few moments, as if he was wondering where on earth it had come from, then gingerly took it from Terez.
“Seel…” Pell looked at him in anguished confusion; his disbelief was palpable. Seel deliberately avoided eye contact with him, staring firmly at a spot on the floor just in front of his feet.
“I should probably have you arrested.” Pell said.
“If you must.”
“Oh come now, I don’t think there’s any need for that.”
Thiede sounded quite unperturbed for somehar who had recently been attacked by a knife-wielding maniac. The others in the room regarded him cautiously, as if unsure what he would do next.
Caeru was having none of it. “I do! Lock him up! Throw away the key! As I recall, there’s a little basement room in the Hegalion which is suitable for prisoners.” he finished bitterly.
“We don’t really have the facilities for detaining prisoners in Immanion,” Pell said, “It’s not the Gelaming way.”
“Indeed not.” Thiede agreed. “Rehabilitation is always better than punishment.”
“Fuck you and your rehabilitation!” Seel muttered audibly
“Alright Seel, that’s quite enough. I want an explanation for this, and I want it now!” Pell was obviously in no mood for games.
Seel laughed, a little crazily.
I can’t tell you, Pell. I can’t tell you all the things I’ve done, the secrets I’ve kept… I would rather have you simply lock me up for the rest of my life than admit the things I have done.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Not a chance.
“You know what he did. My “arranged marriage”. I would have thought you of all hara would have understood.”
It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not a lie either.
“Is that it?” Pellaz looked genuinely puzzled. “But I thought you and Swift were happy together.”
Seel remained mute.
“And anyway,” a note of impatience crept into Pell’s voice, “Even relationships that don’t start off particularly promisingly can blossom, if those involved are prepared to work at it.”
A fleeting smile toward Caeru, who rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, but blushed fetchingly none the less.
“There’s more to it than that, and you know it, Pell.”
There is a half-formed body lying floating in a tank of green and milky liquid, with tubes and wires worming their way from it. And there is a har with murder in his heart standing next to it, but unable to pull the plug and commit the deed.
“And what else is there, Seel?”
There is a mad har in a high tower, lying on the floor, drugged and filthy, while his nemesis stands there and pours all his hate and scorn into him. There are bright stars, and a scream, and a silent plea for forgiveness, which has never, ever come, for how could such a thing be forgiven?
And there is a camp, with tents and pavilions and bright pennants flying, and a young har with beautiful eyes, a demon with long red hair, and box that is empty…
All argument ceased. Both Pell and Seel turned to face Thiede guiltily. Seel noticed that he still had his arms tightly fold around his body. The red velvet of his robes and long red hair draped fluidly around him, as if they desired only to be close to him. Seel found himself thinking that if the knife had found its mark, there would be no way of knowing; the velvet was the exact shade of freshly spilled blood.
“You asked me earlier why I had returned to this realm. I will tell you. And, yes, I see that you have no desire to listen, or to lap up the pearls of wisdom spilling from my lips, but I intend to tell you anyway, so kindly have the good grace to remove that disgruntled look from your face while I do so. Yes – that’s much better.”
“I am not here to atone for my sins, or put right any wrongs, real or imagined. I have no magic wand to wave which could erase the past, and even if I did, I would not use it. I am here because I chose to be, and because I have the freedom to do as I chose. I am here to begin again.”
“You are angry because you cling to the belief that you do not have such a choice, but you are wrong. You consider that I have coerced you into the life you now lead, and forced you to remain in an untenable situation, but you are wrong. I have been absent from this realm for several years; if you had wanted to escape the life you have, you could easily have done so. Nohar would have prevented you. In fact, even if I had been here, I would not have prevented you.”
“You simply find it more comfortable – as many do – to remain paralysed by inaction, and blame that inaction on something – or someone – else. Because making changes would be difficult. I understand that, Seel, believe me. I know how painful change can be. And yet sometimes it is necessary.”
“So then, if you still consider that you are in thrall to my influence, that I have cast some spell over you which is preventing you from achieving your heart’s desire, then I release you, as of this moment. You are free, Seel. All the choices you must make from now on will be yours alone. The responsibility is yours alone. It is somewhat terrifying, isn’t it?”
“As for the mistakes you have made, the things you have done that you regret, the guilty, secrets long buried – you will just have to learn to live with those, my dear. You cannot be rid of them, but neither need you allow them to devour you. The past is over – let it go. Look to the future. Decide what it is that you truly want, Seel, if you even know. Begin anew.”
Speech concluded, Thiede turned to leave. The small group of hara parted like water to let him past. Seel could only stare at the floor, his thoughts refusing to be ordered.
As Thiede swept past Darquiel, he turned to the young har, and smiled reassuringly at him.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “It isn’t always like this.”
The double doors closed silently behind him as he left.
“Actually,” Caeru said, putting his arm around his son’s waist and pulling him close, “It usually is.”
Past the western bounds of the city an ancient, long-abandoned temple marked the outermost limit of Immanion’s influence.. From here on, the hinterlands stretched away uninhabited towards the high, jagged peaks which both protected and encircled the Gelaming city.
Seel rode past the temple without paying it any heed. He had seen it many times before – a relic of the former inhabitants of this part of the earth. Its white marble was long since dulled and discoloured, and the interior was open to the skies. . Birds flew in and out, cawing noisily, carrying straw and feathers in their beaks. Their droppings were clearly visible on the upper parts of the temple, whiter than the stone. One lone, tall cypress tree grew up in the centre of it. Perhaps one day Immanion itself would be reduced to such straitened circumstances, but that day would be long in the coming.
Behind him, Phaonica rose like an exclamation into the sky, reaching heavenwards as if the earth was too mundane a place to contain its numinous presence. Once, humans had built their temples and cathedrals high and glorious to bring them closer to their God. Now God descended from his heaven and walked among those he had made in his likeness. Seel was not sure if this was an improvement or not, but he rode on steadily, never once looking back at the glittering towers behind him.
It had all been a bit of an embarrassment for Pellaz, Seel conceded that. Bad enough that such an incident should occur in Immanion at all, never mind that it involved a personal friend of the Tigron. If the other tribes should get to hear of this, it wouldn’t look good. Pellaz had shuffled his feet awkwardly, and twisted his hands a little, and suggested that perhaps the best thing would be for Seel to just, well, leave. And not say anything to anyone. Least said, soonest mended, and all that.
Seel agreed. What was one more guilty secret to keep, after all?
“I really don’t know what else to do with you, Seel. You’re free to go, I suppose”
Seel recalled Pell’s parting words, and smiled wryly to himself. Given the gift of freedom twice in one day, by The Tigron and The Aghama, no less! And what was he to do with such a blessing? How would he make use of this new-found freedom?
Behind him lay Immanion with its noise and bustle; the sound and smell of bridges burning, if he was not mistaken. Ahead the open lands of Almagabra, and beyond that – the world.
The ground was dry under his Sedu’s high-stepping feet. All around lay the fragile, skeletal remains of plants which had bloomed earlier in the year, and then died as the approaching Reaptide sun grew fierce. Deep within the parched earth their seeds lay dormant, waiting for the heat of summer to pass.
Perhaps he should return to Saltrock. He had built that place with his own hands; his own sweat and toil were the mortar which bound its stones together. If he closed his eyes, he could still smell the sulphurous taint of the bitter lake. A poisoned place; another har’s blood had joined his own sweat in its foundations. There were no dead plants in Saltrock, because there had never been any living plants to die. Nohar there would remember him now.
The Sedu stumbled slightly on a loose rock, kicking it out from under its nimble hooves. It was a largish boulder, almost square in shape. Perhaps it had once been part of the temple. The ground was loose and stoney all around, not a good surface for equine legs, even though Seel knew his mount was no such thing.
He remembered riding out at dawn near Galhea; the grass was long and lush and green, with ripples passing randomly across it, tracing the passage of the invisible wind.. The sky was pale, but in the distance there were already thunderheads building, and a slight electric tang in the air presaged the coming storm. Later in the day, the sky would grow black, and the wind bend the trees while overhead jagged forks of lightning would flare, as sudden and powerful as the climax of aruna…
Seel found himself suddenly overwhelmed by a sensation of emptiness; as if he was missing some vital organ within his body; a stomach or a spleen or a liver or something. He wanted to flee from it – run away and escape for good. He had the urge to dig his heels into the Sedu’s flanks and command it into a gallop, across the dry, stoney earth of Almagabra, across the dessicated corpses of plants, across the waving, rippling grasslands of Megalithica, onwards, towards a horizon that never came any closer – surely a Sedu was tireless? – he would ride forever, and escape this world entirely. He would be free.
Except that when you have ridden as far as you can go, around the world, chasing the sun over the horizon, you simply end up back where you started from. Seel knew this. Freedom could not be gained by running away – because there is nowhere to run to. Perhaps that was what Thiede had been trying to tell him. Perhaps not. Either way, he knew he no longer wanted to return to Immanion, it was too bright and brittle for him, its inhabitants too strange and complex for his understanding.
I have that to thank Thiede for, at any rate, he thought, and almost laughed aloud at the absurdity of the notion.
He pulled the knife out of his pocket. That they had let him keep it – handed it back to him, hilt first – merely served to emphasise his impotence. He was about to throw it away – best to get rid of the evidence – when something caught his eye. Along the edge of the metal, and at the point where the blade joined the crosspiece of the hilt, was a thin line of something dark and dull, reddish-brown. Seel lifted the dagger up and examined it more closely. The weapon had been clean before, no doubt about that…
Seel reined the Sedu to a halt, and spent some minutes staring at the trace of red-brown stuff on the knife. After a while, he was quite sure that it was exactly what he thought it was.
Change is possible
Was that what Thiede had said? No, he had said that change is difficult. But not impossible. The substance on this knife, those very cells – red blood cells – had changed an entire world. Scoured it like the caustic poison it was. Seel was almost afraid to touch the stuff, and yet, that was ridiculous. Thiede’s blood already flowed in his veins; it could do him no harm now. The change had been made.
If an entire world could change, what was one life in comparison? For the first time, Seel thought about the enormity of what Thiede had done. He could remember the world as it was, before this red-brown substance on his fingertips had altered it forever. He thought about what he had gained. And what he had had to give up. Perhaps that was simply the way of things – in order to gain, you must also lose.
Did Thiede resent whatever random throw of the universe’s dice had dictated that he be the catalyst that would change the world? He’d had no choice in the matter; his destiny had been sealed from the moment he was conceived. Seel tried to empathise, and failed utterly. It wasn’t the same thing at all…
Perhaps it’s the other way round, he thought, Perhaps it is only by giving something up that something else can be gained. Thiede had given up his godhood, and in return had gained – what? The possibility of mortality? Seel looked down at the knife again. It didn’t seem like much of a bargain.
Why do we only realise how much we value something when there’s a chance that we might lose it?
He was suddenly weary of Immanion and its intrigue; of wondering about the motives of its unknowable gods and rulers
I wanted to understand you, be a part of you, but you never wanted me…Cal
He forced himself to pick at the old scab. To his surprise, it didn’t hurt as much as it once had.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Things can change. This is not all there is.
There was also one night in a jewelled pavilion, with the heady scent of passion in the air, and a young har with beautiful eyes who had touched him in a way that no other har ever had – not even Cal – who had opened his body and his mind and filled him with an almost unbearable rapture, and there had been a child – a grown har now – as evidence of realness of this ecstasy. Love made flesh. And there had been a promise that it could happen again:
“One day, I’m going to make you go through this…”
Only he never had. Why not? He could not blame Thiede for that, much though he would like to.
It is my responsibility, and mine alone.
That being so, it was within his power to change things. He could reassemble his life to his own order. Stone by stone, he could carve and fashion the blocks, and place them one upon the other, to build a new structure from the ruins of the old.
It is easier to destroy than to create, but it is more satisfying to create.
He turned the Sedu around with a sharp tug on the reins. He faced Immanion, but all thoughts of the shining city, and of Cal, and of Saltrock were gone. In Galhea, it would be early; this day would not yet have begun. It seemed strange to Seel that time should be so fluid, that you could replay today merely by travelling, but he knew it was only distance, not magic. It still felt like magic. A change to do things again; to do them right this time.
He opened his mind and directed a thought at the Sedu
Take me home.
The creature’s ears flicked backwards, but it made no move. Seel laughed to himself. The being upon whose back he rode had no concept of “home”. Neither did it know of love, or hate, or disappointment, or revenge, or of passion or pain. These things were unknown in the other dimensions. Perhaps it was only in this realm, and no other, that such things could be experienced. Perhaps Thiede was right – to live as a har, in this world, in this time, offered more than any godly experience ever could.
Seel re-ordered his thoughts and modified his command:
Take me where it is that I belong.
This time, the creature’s haunches flexed, and it leapt forward eagerly, finding its stride quickly and easily despite the rocky terrain. If there had been an observer present, he would have notice a sudden ozone tinge in the air, a hint of electric tension, as if a storm had blown up from nowhere, and if he had closed his eyes, he might have seen in his mind the impression of lush, waving grasslands that stretched on forever, but in the briefest of moments all these were gone, as was the har with long, flying hair and his shining silver mount, leaving only the dusty landscape shimmering in the heat.