Break Open the Massive Dark

Editor's PickBreak Open the Massive Dark
by Thevina

Story Notes

Author email: thevina33@gmail.com

Spoilers: Shades of Time and Memory

Canon Characters: Aleeme, Azriel, Cobweb, Moon, Vaysh, Cal (all others original characters)

Summary:

Now language escape, fugitive of forgiveness
Leaving as trace only circles of rust
– “Drought,” Vienna Teng

There are many casualties in the second assault on Ponclast that happens in The Shades of Time and Memory. This is a possible telling of Aleeme and Azriel’s story after their liberation from Fulminir.

Author’s Notes: Firstly, my huge thanks to my two betas, Elfscribe and Wendy. You have both helped tremendously in making this story as polished as it is— and thanks for pushing me to write Cal! Hopefully there aren’t any mistakes, but if any remain, they’re mine. My gratitude also to Persephone for being an advance reader and for sharing your enthusiasm and thoughts. One of my original characters makes reference to a Chickasaw legend; I found the story here initially.

Break Open the Massive Dark

Drifting into wakefulness felt like slowly rising to the surface from the bottom of a lake. Aleeme suddenly thrashed around, terrified that there was ice above him; he was trapped, he couldn’t breathe— he would drown if he opened his mouth to take a breath and his limbs were so heavy. He began to sink again, letting out a strangled cry despite the panic of expecting a rush of icy water to fill his lungs. He pulled in a deep breath of air, hearing an awful rattling sound that, with a shock, he realized was his own hoarse throat. There was a sound of canvas flapping, somehar muttering under his breath, approaching Aleeme at speed while with agonizing effort he forced his eyes open. He couldn’t even speak, he just gaped, fish-like, his mouth opening and closing as he struggled to figure out where the hell he was, why he was lying down, the source of the glowing soft light. Something horrific had happened; it lurked patiently in Aleeme’s mind, off to the side like something glimpsed in his peripheral vision, uncertain and shadowy. Whatever it was, it was really, really bad.

“Aleeme. Please look at me.”

The har’s voice was steady, but Aleeme could hear the worry in his tone, betraying his calm demeanor. With tremendous will, Aleeme turned his head to gaze heavy-lidded at the har standing at his bedside, clad in healer’s robes. He had porcelain skin and cat-like eyes that slanted slightly upward. He seemed to be struggling with emotions that he managed to keep in check, reaching down to brush some of Aleeme’s hair that had instinctively waved feebly toward him.

“Please don’t try to sit up or move around,” the healer said kindly. “You’ve done very well, but you’ll still be with us for quite some time. You’re safe now.” He held his hands suspended above Aleeme’s body, walking slowly around him, his lips moving silently.

Aleeme felt a soothing warmth in his torso when the healer passed over that area, but the sensation stopped as the har traversed above his pelvis, down his legs and up again. Not until he was above his stomach did Aleeme sense the heat and strange feeling that his blood was singing, responding to whatever energies the healer was channeling toward him. He tried to move his legs, managing only to wriggle his toes a little bit and feel a terrible ache in his inner thighs.

“What happened?” he asked the healer who had pulled up a chair and slipped his hands under the warm blankets to knead at his thigh.

The touch was professional, not at all erotic, but just as the exotic har opened his mouth to reply, Aleeme was assaulted by a memory of somehar else’s fingers gripping his shoulders in a bruising hold, a battering ram of an ouana-lim slamming into him over and over as he screamed and tried to escape, only to be hit in the jaw by a hideous-looking creature—

“NO!” he shouted, shaking with the abject terror, powerless to escape as his innermost chamber was wrenched open. “YOU FUCKING BASTARD!”

Aleeme swung with his fists, screaming and screaming, trying to kick, snapping with his teeth when he felt warm hands trying to pin him down.

“AZRIEL!” he sobbed, struggling against his would-be captors like a wild thing. There was a stinging in his left thigh and an icy sensation; hara with expressions of anxiety and concern came into his line of vision as he pulled against restraints they’d managed to attach to his wrists.

“Azriel!” he choked out of a raw throat, resisting the soothing waves of energy that radiated toward him. It was a trick— Ponclast had moved him, was going to do unspeakable things to him; Aleeme was too weak to fight it. He cried, the bitter, angry tears burning his eyes as he thought about another harling starting life in him, another harling created in hate.

“Just kill me!” Aleeme raged, though his mind was getting fuzzy. “I’ll die before this harling is born!” he yelled, gasping for breath. He began to feel as though his body had been filled with heavy cotton, becoming still even as he continued to struggle against whatever drug had been injected in him.

“Aleeme, you’re safe,” a voice said to his right; he sounded like he was trying to convince himself of that. “You’re with the best healers there are. Please believe me.”

Aleeme tried to spit at him, but his body no longer wanted to cooperate and instead he succeeded only in flinging spittle on his pillow. “You’re with him,” he moaned. “It’s a trick. Azriel…” The word tasted like blood. He wheezed pitifully, clawing at consciousness, desperate to stay awake. “Ulau…”

The world went black.


* * * * *

“You’ve come so far,” the russet-haired har said wonderingly. He seemed to glow with happiness for Aleeme, who nursed an unpleasant combination of feeling both disconcerted and useless.

“All I’m doing is sitting up and feeding myself,” he retorted, but his self-deprecation appeared to wash over the healer, who continued to beam at him.

“I know! It’s wonderful,” he gushed.

Aleeme let out a labored sigh. “What will be wonderful is when I’m walking out of here, not plagued by nightmares both waking and asleep, and some Gelaming officer tells me they’ve taken Ponclast hostage and I’m free to kill him with my bare hands.” The last part of his sentence was a growl, the words spat into the calm environment of the intensive care area.

A couple of weeks had passed since his first awakening. Countless times since then he’d had to be sedated, held, exorcised. His mind was a long corridor flanked with doors that went on and on; behind them were memories still too horrifying to remember, evidently, because he simply couldn’t retrieve them. But he knew they were there, and the anxiety of all of the protective doors flinging open, being assaulted by actual recollection of what had happened to him while he’d been tortured and held captive in Fulminir. He feared for his tenuous sanity; surely it would be shredded to ribbons.

The sickeningly earnest har tugged on a wave of his hair. “The injuries to your legs and,” he paused, presumably to judge how stable Aleeme was before continuing, “your sexual organs were quite extensive. The healers here have worked miracles, though,” he said, rushing through the words to reassure him. “You can probably get out of bed in the next few days. The harish body has tremendous abilities for healing, especially second-generation hara like you and me.”

Wide, blue-grey eyes gazed at Aleeme with reverence and awe, as though Aleeme were a dehar come to earth and not the battered, soul-sick wreck of a creature Aleeme knew himself to be.

“For all of your enthusiasm, I’ll be blunt,” Aleeme said, his words clipped and sharp, a hailstorm of broken glass. “I used to be loving. I used to be sensitive. I was brave and adored and even got along well with my chesnari’s crazy family. Now the thought of aruna, of touching anyhar, even my own—” He stopped, breathing quickly, bile rising like acid in his throat. Alarm was stamped on the healer har’s face. Aleeme ground out his new truth between clenched jaws.

“My own Azriel. My chesnari was forced to watch. I remember that. And you won’t let me see him. You won’t let me go anywhere fucking near him. And even if you did,” he snarled when he saw the shocked har open his mouth to defend his actions, “I don’t think I could stand it. I’ve been ruined. I should have died!” he shouted, reaching for the cup on his tray and hurling it across the room. “Let me see Azriel!” he thundered, seeing other healers come rushing in through the flap. “DON’T TOUCH ME!”

The healing hara encircled him, their hands linked. While Aleeme continued to rave, he began to hear a low hum of energy. It came upon him in gentle waves; compassion, healing, an inescapable knitting together of their benevolent power of goodwill into Aleeme’s furious psyche. Eventually his anger dissipated, unable to keep up its assault against the tender, commanding amelioration. He was lulled into a place of harmony, and this time they didn’t inject him with anything. His deeply wounded core was like a sponge, thirstily soaking up their outpourings of strength and wellness.

Then the living nightmares came to him; he pulled his knees to his chest despite the pain of regenerated muscles and began rocking, moaning into his knees, his lunch tray sliding to the floor with a loud clatter. The healer who’d first been with him disengaged from the circle to join Aleeme on his bed, taking him in his arms as the other hara re-formed their chain of protection. Aleeme was in the past: he saw himself on the putrid bed, moonlight streaming in over his distended belly, the pathetic mewling of the famished harling he’d hosted making him go mad. For all he knew, Azriel was suffering worse than he was, or had escaped further torture and had already died…

Aleeme sobbed and sobbed, his body wracked with anguish, remembering everything in ruthless detail. He cried into the firm hold of the healing har with his kind face and hawkish nose until his throat burned and his chest felt as though he’d been used as a harish punching bag. Exhaustion without any sense of true relief filled his limbs with lead; his tongue was thick in his mouth. He grimaced as he licked his lips, discovering the metallic taste of blood where they’d cracked open.

“You can see him,” the har he clung to said unabashedly. “But you should know, he’s still unresponsive. Maybe you can reach him— you may be the only har who can. The hara who specialize in severe trauma have been doing all that they can, but after an initial recovery, he retreated far, far within himself. I just don’t want you to suffer any more shocks. You can wait as long as you want before you decide to see Azriel.”

Aleeme continued to clutch at his aching legs, grateful that the healer wasn’t sugarcoating his chesnari’s condition. He also appreciated that he was being rocked gently in the har’s arms, that his narrow fingers kneaded soothing patterns on his back as his breathing slowly returned to normal. With an unspoken signal, the other healers disbanded, though their potent energy shimmered in the air for a few moments before fading like lambent mist. At last he was again alone with the healer, who’d begun humming a lyric melody under his breath.

“What’s your name? You seem young,” Aleeme said, far past any point of self-censoring.

The har snorted a laugh; Aleeme’s mouth twitched in a botched attempt at a smile.

“I’m Yazdyar. And yeah, I look a bit younger than some, but I’m probably your age. I’ve matured a lot due to what I’ve seen here,” he said soberly, carding his fingers through Aleeme’s hair.

Aleeme could feel the tendrils swaying minutely, the Colurastes part of him struggling for movement. He was suddenly curious about this no longer naïve har who wasn’t much older than he was chronologically. He felt as though he’d aged a lifetime since he and Azriel had been taken prisoner and suffered through extremes of physical and psychological pain that he’d have believed impossible to endure.

“What’s your background?” he asked.

“Very mixed.” A faint flush rose in his cheeks and down his neck as Aleeme noticed the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheekbones. “I’m Ferelithian, but my hostling and his chesnari came from Castlegar, here in Megalithica.”

“Castlegar,” Aleeme repeated. “Part of Varrish territory?”

“No, they’re further south. Tried to keep to themselves, but in the early days, especially, they paid a tribute of sorts to the Varrs, sending them information and swearing oaths to send any human males who could be incepted straight to them— and killing anyone else.”

Aleeme nodded; it was old history. “Have you gone to visit Castlegar since you’ve come to Megalithica?”

“Not yet,” Yazdyar admitted. “We’ve been run ragged since we were told to get here as quickly as possible, and to plan to stay for an indefinite time.”

He sounded pensive. Aleeme glanced up at his face as he wiped his nose on his tunic when he realized it was still running from his breakdown and crying fit.

“Azriel’s father is a Varr,” Aleeme murmured. “His hostling came from Saltrock. His highfather was originally Sulh, but essentially Varr, despite that. Azriel’s mixed, too, like me. Like us.” He gave Yazdyar a watery smile, feeling shaky and as though the peace he’d felt was only shifting sand, washing away with an outgoing tide.

Yazdyar pulled Aleeme more closely into the bower of his embrace. “Firethorn — my hostling   — his parents were from an ancient human tribe in Megalithica, ancient even in human terms.” He shook his head ruefully. “I’m just a Ferelithian who loves to dance and go skinny dipping in the bay when the waters are warm. But I also discovered that I was drawn to helping hara feel better, so my parents encouraged me to apply for a position in the healing center in Immanion. And now here I am.” He placed a chaste kiss on the crown of Aleeme’s head. “I’m really worried about taking you to see Azriel. I don’t want to see you go through any more torments that you’ve experienced since Calanthe har Aralis rescued you, don’t want to trigger them. I know you don’t remember, because we had to put you out in a type of auric coma while your body was healing, but I’ve spent a lot of time with you.”

Aleeme pulled back to look into Yazdyar’s face, seeing worry in his eyes. “You’re right, I don’t remember. But thank you anyway.” He shifted back into Yazdyar’s arms and the healer made a contented noise. “Speaking of family, has Swift or Seel come to see me or Azriel?”

There was a pause, then Yazdyar said quietly, “We didn’t allow them to. Now that your recovery has come so far, I can ask the head of the intensive care contingency, and he can alert them if you wish.”

Aleeme considered it, his feelings of fear and apprehension fluttering in his stomach like agitated moths. “No, not yet. But I’m ready to go to Azriel.”

“You haven’t even tried standing on your own yet!” Yazdyar chided him sweetly.

“I’ll lean on you. Or you can get me a rolling chair if my legs aren’t strong enough,” Aleeme said, his rare mulish tendencies coming to the fore.

“Jerizel will absolutely kill me if I do anything that causes you pain or hinders your progress,” Yazdyar insisted, but he allowed Aleeme to ease out of his arms and edge back against the headboard. Yazdyar stood, pulling the covers down so that Aleeme’s legs were exposed. Aleeme was assaulted by a memory, one of the last moments of lucidity he’d had before he’d cursed Ponclast and then prayed for death as consciousness had left him. The second pearl, the agony of birthing it, alone in his own filth on the bed, feeling his soume-lam rupture like rotted fruit…

He vomited up the contents of his recent lunch, heaving over the side of the bed, retching until his stomach was empty. Yazdyar was making soothing noises, holding his hair out of his face and wiping at his mouth.

“Sorry,” Aleeme croaked as he saw he’d thrown up onto the healer’s shoes.

“Don’t you even think about apologizing,” Yazdyar said briskly, helping Aleeme again to a seated position and tucking the sheets and bed coverings around him. “I’ll get a cloth and some water for you to rinse your mouth.”

Aleeme waited dutifully with a sinking feeling in his sore gut. After that moment of losing his self-control, he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. A junior aide came rushing in, blowing past Yazdyar as he came to join Aleeme on the bed. The floor was cleaned of the mess and sterilized while Aleeme gratefully let the Ferelithian wash his face with a warm, damp cloth scented with invigorating lemon. He rinsed his mouth and Yazdyar gave him a mint leaf to chew on. After chewing for a little while, Aleeme spit the flavorful leaf bits back into the cup the healer proffered. Once he’d thanked the aide, who dashed off to his next assignment, Yazdyar took his place next to Aleeme, drawing out a comb, of all things, from a pocket of his robes.

“You probably know what I’m going to say,” Yazdyar said, the apology infused in his tone.

“I’m not going anywhere quite yet.”

The healer nodded. “I’ve told you everything I know, and we’ll get you up and walking as soon as you’re up to it.”

Aleeme leaned into the healer’s touch as his hair was combed out.

“I’d like to bring in a tub so you can get a hot bath, too,” Yazdar went on. “I can either supervise or do the cleaning myself. We’ve taken care of you, of course,” he said hurriedly, but Aleeme already knew he didn’t stink, so they must have at least been giving him sponge baths since he’d been liberated. A bath, with somehar else washing him sounded like heaven.

“Of course. I’d love it if you’d wash me.”

Gratitude settled on Yazdyar’s features; he looked as though he’d been awarded a medal. “Marvelous.” He put the comb back into his pocket, peering tentatively at Aleeme. “Do you want to tell me what caused the sudden upset? Was it a flashback?”

Aleeme nodded, nausea threatening once more. “I don’t know how much Cal told you,” he said, the bitterness returning to his voice even though he didn’t mean to take it out on Yazdyar, who’d been nothing but kind and sympathetic to him. “I was forced to breed. The first abomination survived. The second—” Knots twisted in his chest; he had an inexplicable urge to scour out his soume-lam with acid, if it had been healed at all. “When I expelled the second one, I knew I was dying. Seeing my legs just now, spindly and… and…”

He took a deep, shuddering breath. Yazdyar was murmuring words in a language Aleeme didn’t recognize, but he could sense they were to protect and soothe him. “How healed am I?” he asked, the question smothered against Yazdyar’s shoulder, his auburn waves tickling along Aleeme’s cheek.

“Well, physically you’re nearly back to a complete recovery. There are still so many mysteries about harish reproduction, though. You may not be able to host a pearl again,” he said softly.

Aleeme could tell Yazdyar was waiting to gauge his reaction. “Never would be far too soon for that,” he said, his voice strained.

“I have a friend— he was a close friend of my hostling and father. He suffered a different kind of trauma, and he’s barren.”

“Should I be feeling better with this story?” Aleeme snapped, unable to stop himself. “If so, it’s not working.”

“No, no,” Yazdyar said, continuing to rub tenderly at Aleeme’s taut frame. “I mean, I guess so. His name is Vaysh, he’s the Tigron’s personal assistant. Anyway, he and I have a rapport, I guess you’d call it. I’m no hienama, but I have done some specialty work in arunic healing. Later, ages from now when you’re up and about and you’ve been able to come to terms with some of what’s happened, well, I’d like to continue on with your personal care. But we’ll cross that bridge once we get there.”

Trepidation coursed down Aleeme’s spine. He shivered, his mind beginning to race with panic at the thought of anyhar anywhere near his groin. It was a repulsive proposition, even if Azriel were to walk through the door, his face lit up and the juices of his beckoning soume-lam glistening between his thighs.

“Not yet,” Aleeme said hoarsely, his voice cracking.

“No, beautiful,” Yazdyar promised, breathing across Aleeme’s face so that he caught wisps of images: warm waters, a lazy sun, being held and cherished. “I think you should rest now. I’ll bring in the tub before your evening meal, okay?”

Aleeme nodded. On so many levels, he felt as if he wanted to bolt, still afraid this was another trick. Yazdyar looked knowingly at him; Aleeme didn’t doubt that he was listening to his thoughts on some level.

“Would it help if I brought somebody else you know to see you?” Yazdyar asked, gently untangling himself as Aleeme scooted back under the covers and curled into a ball. “The Tigron is still recuperating from his own serious injuries, but Moon, his sori… you knew him reasonably well, correct?”

Aleeme made an affirmative noise.

“Would it give you some peace of mind if he came to visit?”

Moon, Aleeme thought for a moment, visualizing his young face, and remembering a night of wild aruna in Forever, him and Moon and Azriel. A hint of a smile settled on his lips. “It would. It’s just hard for me to trust— anyhar.”

Yazdyar massaged at Aleeme’s scalp for a few moments before he said, “I don’t take it personally. We’ll start your physical therapy tomorrow, and try to get you on two feet again as quickly as you’re able. Does that sound good?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Okay. If you need me, at any hour, and I really mean that, you can contact me via mind-touch, or there’s a chime that will wake me if there’s a lot of disturbance in your bed. I’m attuned to you, as well.”

Aleeme gazed at the har, so stunning in his own exotic features, and realized just how much of himself Yazdyar had put into caring for him while he’d been unconscious. “Is somehar like you taking care of Azriel?” he asked plaintively.

“I’ve been looking after him as well, but he’s become Jerizel’s primary focus. Jerizel has had many successes; he’s determined to bring Azriel back. Personally, I think it will take the voice and touch of somehar he knows well.” He scratched at his forearm, his expressive face disconsolate. “My focus is you, first and foremost, but your chesnari’s not far behind.”

“That’s reassuring,” Aleeme said without irony.

“I hope so.”

After Yazdyar had left the room, Aleeme found he couldn’t sleep. Temporarily, anyway, he wasn’t brooding and he wasn’t plagued by visions and remembered atrocities. For now, that was enough.

* * * * *

It took four days, but at last Aleeme could stand, and walk, as long as he could hold on to Yazdyar’s arm for support. They’d made a few laps around his pavilion until Aleeme begged to go somewhere, anywhere outside of his intensive care tent.

“Oh! That reminds me,” Yazdyar enthused, slowly leading Aleeme toward the flap of his room which presumably led to the rest of the healing tents. “I’ve been telling Jerizel about your progress, and he says we can move you. Out of critical care,” he clarified, fixing another of his beaming smiles on Aleeme. This time Aleeme returned the smile, even if he imagined his didn’t radiate quite like the Ferelithian’s did.

“So where will I go?” Aleeme asked as they stepped through the canvas flap. Then he lost the ability to speak. He knew they were in Galhea, at a temporary Imbrilim of sorts where the healing pavilions still stood. What he hadn’t expected was how few there were. It seemed nearly deserted, as though only a remnant remained behind, a temporary ghost town. He stumbled, crashing into Yazdyar, who caught him effortlessly. Aleeme had lost a lot of weight. It had been difficult to keep much food down until the last couple of days.

“Most of the injured hara have been returned to their homes or to Immanion for further healing,” Yazdyar hastily explained, having picked up on Aleeme’s distress. “This ties into the answer to your question. You still have much healing to do, but I’ve spoken with Jerizel, Tseenath and my other colleagues. They all agree that you’re strong enough now to travel by sedu.”

“To Immanion?” Aleeme asked in alarm. “I’m not going anywhere without Azriel.”

“I wouldn’t dream of separating you,” Yazdyar said, obviously trying to allay one of Aleeme’s deepest fears. “Speaking of, he’s in that pavilion over there. Do you feel strong enough to walk over?”

“Yes.” Aleeme turned, staring deliberately at Yazdyar, daring him to say they needed to turn back.

“You’re so brave,” Yazdyar breathed, putting his hand on top of Aleeme’s which rested in the crook of the healer’s elbow. “One day, when you’ve recovered and are settling into a new life, I’ll tell you just how scared I was for you, how determined I was to exhaust every bit of healing knowledge I’d ever been taught to pull you back from the brink of death.”

“Why?” Aleeme asked as he hobbled, putting one foot in front of the other to make his way to his chesnari. His stomach was full of butterflies; he couldn’t concentrate. “Why me, I mean?”

Yazdyar shrugged, a fluid gesture. He was compelling, with slightly bronzed skin and freckles, his dark red hair tending to fall into messy waves. He was a har ruled by honesty and thoughtfulness.

“Sometimes a har just speaks to your spirit, calls out in a way. You were in no position to communicate, but I was drawn to you, simple as that. Are you tired? Would you like to take a rest?”

“No.” Aleeme vigorously shook his head. “I need to see him with my own eyes and to hold him.”

They walked in silence as they approached the pavilion. Aleeme was conscious of the sun’s rays on his face, of a slight breeze that caressed his skin. “Can we bring him outside?” he asked, stumbling over the words. “It’s nice out.”

“He may be outside already, actually.” Yazdyar’s brows furrowed and he paused, closing his eyes to concentrate. Aleeme hung on his arm, frustrated, just wanting to see how bad the situation was with his chesnari. But if he himself had been snatched from death’s jaws, surely Azriel, with harish healer experts, would be able to recuperate fully…

“He’s in his chair, in the shade facing some trees,” Yazdyar reported, and then they were off again. “To answer your earlier question, I’d rather have you in Ferelithia than Immanion. Is that at all appealing? We’re less stuffy, and I think that the environment would be more relaxing for you and Azriel, both. You could live with me— I have a couple of spare rooms, and Immanion’s only a hop and jump from there. We could all go for long walks, get you used to riding… did you ride horses before?”

Aleeme was poised to answer when they rounded the corner of the tent. Azriel sat perfectly still in a wheeled chair, gazing off toward a copse of aspens. With a cry, Aleeme tried to bolt over to him and fell crashing to the ground after a few paces, his traitorous legs giving way underneath him.

“Here, let me help.” Yazdyar’s arms were under Aleeme’s armpits, hoisting him up with practiced efficiency. “He’s not going anywhere. Let’s just walk for now, okay?”

Aleeme couldn’t form words. He was a maelstrom of emotions, all careening wildly in his chest. His pulse raced and he felt short of breath as he approached, his eyes fixed on his lover. Once at his side, Aleeme crumpled into a heap on the ground, holding on to Azriel’s leg and leaning his head against his skin. Yazdyar stood a short distance away in a respectful silence as Aleeme clutched at Azriel’s leg, trying to get his feelings under control. After long minutes he turned his head to look up at his chesnari, who now looked down at him with a vacant smile. Aleeme felt as though a knife had been plunged into his heart.

“What’s wrong?” Azriel asked. “You’re beautiful, you shouldn’t look so sad.”

“Sweet Ag,” he choked out, grabbing a hold of the chair’s armrest to try and pull himself to a standing position. Yazdyar was at his side in a flash, assisting him.

“I can get you a chair so you can sit next to him, or in front of him if you’d like,” the healer said. “I’ll be right back with one.”

Mutely Aleeme nodded. He was in a state of abject shock. Out of long habit he reached out to Azriel in mind-touch, recoiling physically when he was met with near-emptiness. There was an echo of Azriel’s vibrant personality, a note dying away at the end of a symphony that had been his chesnari’s spirit. He was eased into a chair right across from him. Aleeme was barely aware of Yazdyar’s hands making sure he was seated comfortably, and his murmurings of encouragement as he placed Aleeme’s hands in Azriel’s. Aleeme was surprised to find Azriel’s fingers were warm.

“He’s still there,” Aleeme whispered, trying to believe it himself. “A sliver. Just barely, but he’s not totally gone, he can’t be,” he said. Tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks. With angry jerks he used his shoulders to wipe at his eyes. “Dammit Azriel, if I survived, you have to! You can’t leave me now, not after everything that happened…”

He squeezed Azriel’s hands and Azriel squeezed back, but it was obvious his attentions were unfocused, scattered around a mostly vacant shell of his mind. He didn’t react to his name, and didn’t remember Aleeme’s. Aleeme made a broken, anguished sound. He turned to look at his healer and saw concern etched on Yazdyar’s features. “Can we go to Ferelithia now?” he asked through syrupy hiccoughs. “I want to get him out of here. I need to get away from here, I can’t bear it, gods. Yazdyar, please!” He clenched Azriel’s hands, only stopping when he saw his chesnari wince, though there was still no recognition in his eyes. “Take us away. I have to make him better, I have to bring him back.”

Aleeme’s voice faltered and he sat crying unabashedly at the injustice of it all. Dignity was a concept he’d surrendered after his first moments of waking terror. Now he wore his emotions on his sleeve, and he didn’t care what anyhar thought as he veered from one emotional extreme to another. Besides, Yazdyar continued to suggest to him to express everything he felt without holding back.

Yazdyar gently prised Aleeme out of the chair, enfolding him in a firm hug. “We can go soon, but given yours and Azriel’s conditions, it wouldn’t be wise to do so on the spur of the moment. Why don’t you get some rest, and I’ll visit Jerizel. He or Tseenath can contact Vaysh, or Tharmifex in regards to getting a couple of sedim sent over from Immanion. Maybe we’ll have access to one or two here. Jerizel can escort Azriel and you’ll go with me. The Otherlanes can be quite disorienting— are you absolutely sure you think you’re up for it? I know you’re in shock,” he said quietly, a hand rubbing on his back. “And don’t forget, Moon will be here this evening, so I wouldn’t plan for us to leave until tomorrow at the earliest.”

“Oh. Right. I forgot,” Aleeme said sheepishly, feeling a pang of guilt that he’d been so overcome by seeing Azriel that Moon’s visit had completely flown out of his mind. He sniffed, nodding his thanks. The Ferelithian rummaged through his healer’s robes and produced a handkerchief.

“It’s my professional opinion that you should lean on me and return to your bed to rest up a bit,” Yazdyar said, holding out his elbow for Aleeme to take hold. “We do have some books around, and I’ve been receiving the Ferelithian newsprint, such as it is. I don’t know if you’d be able to concentrate or not, but the newsprint would give you an idea of the local flavor before you temporarily relocate.”

Aleeme glanced over his shoulder at Azriel, sitting as still as he had before. “Can he move into my room?” he asked suddenly. “Maybe it would help if we were sleeping in the same bed again.”

Yazdyar’s look was almost comical. His narrow eyebrows shot up his forehead, his slate-colored eyes wide as saucers.

“Um, well, I guess so,” he said thoughtfully as his face relaxed. “I should ask Jerizel first, but if you think you’d be able to handle it, that’s not a bad idea.” The healer pondered Aleeme’s suggestion as they slowly made their way back to the pavilion where Aleeme’s tent was. “Maybe if he smells you, and spends time next to you, that flame of self-recognition will burn a bit brighter. But Aleeme, I don’t want you to get your hopes up, and think that one night in your arms is going to make him okay.”

“I don’t,” Aleeme said, glowering and instantly defensive. “But I don’t see how it could hurt.”

“It wouldn’t hurt him,” Yazdyar said just as quickly. “But it could negatively affect your emotional state. I probably don’t need to point this out to you, but you’re pretty fragile. You’re in my care, and I won’t allow your tenuous hold on your well-being to be torn apart with unrealistic expectations.”

“Ag knows I’m not going to try and roon him to bring him back,” Aleeme snapped as Yazdyar lifted the flap to Aleeme’s quarters.

“Oh Aleeme, I know,” Yazdyar said heavily. “I do think aruna will help him, but not yet. Besides, we don’t know how you’ll react to seeing Moon. Let’s wait to decide about moving Azriel until after the visit.”

Grudgingly, Aleeme agreed. He spent the next couple of hours glancing through the Ferelithian newspaper and dozing off. It was the sprightly aide who came to get him for dinner, and Aleeme was afraid the young har would try to pull him along as he scurried from place to place. Yazdyar must have been quite specific in his directions, however, because the aide didn’t rush Aleeme at all. Aleeme sat down inside the dining hall pavilion at one of the tables where the few healers ate, taking a place next to Yazdyar. He’d nearly finished his meal when there was a change in the air and the sound of a horse galloping. Its whinnies and snorts sounded almost like equine laughter; it was the distinctive arrival of a sedu.

“Moon!” Aleeme exclaimed, dropping his fork.

Azriel was at a nearby table, dutifully eating but otherwise uncommunicative. Aleeme was excited and apprehensive, and he tried to quell his nervousness while awkwardly moving his legs to get up from the table. He’d righted himself into a standing position, still holding on to Yazdyar’s shoulder when the flap to the hall was flung open and two hara stepped through. Moon scanned the room until he saw Aleeme, at which point he let out a small cry. Aleeme smiled as Moon raced over, his own focus snagged by the exquisite har who hovered in the doorway, wearing traveling leathers instead of his usual flowing robes.

Cobweb.

He looked like a beautiful statue, his attentions locked on Azriel, who chewed on some bread, oblivious to the other har’s intense gaze.

“Aleeme, sweet Ag, I can’t believe it,” Moon said, gripping Aleeme’s arms so tightly Aleeme knew he’d be bruised. Moon’s eyes were bright as he stared until the tears came and he hugged Aleeme to him, murmuring things like: “Thought you were dead,” and “Not allowed to see you,” and “You’re a miracle.”

“Cobweb came with you,” Aleeme stated, breathing in the shadowy scent of apple in Moon’s hair.

Moon took a couple of deep breaths and eased away so he could look Aleeme in the face and give him a shaky smile. “Yeah. He wanted to see Azriel, even though he knows—” He paused, the smile sliding from his lips, which began to tremble. Moon was struggling, Aleeme could tell, but he gulped a couple of times and then said, “He knows Azriel’s still damaged.”

“We’re doing everything we can, believe me.”

Yazdyar’s proclamation seemed to take Moon by surprise.

“Are you a healer?” he asked, incredulous.

“Well done.”

A smile tripped across Aleeme’s lips at the slightly snide tone in the healer’s voice; he’d never heard it before.

“Moon, this is Yazdyar. Be nice to him; he’s the har who’s taken me on as his most important patient. He’s put up with me and done the impossible, helping me recover. He should be made a dehar or something saintly.”

Yazdyar laughed, a mellow sound that resonated behind Aleeme, but then the healer stepped around him to approach Moon. He laid his hand on his heart and bowed his head slightly, which appeared to mollify the young har.

“I love what I do, even though sometimes it breaks my heart,” Yazdyar said, his eyes flickering over to Azriel.

Moon and Aleeme looked as well, seeing Cobweb murmuring in his highharling’s ear, his elegant fingers sweeping gently through his long hair. Azriel seemed oblivious, though he didn’t pull away either. He sat calmly like a dog being groomed.

Aleeme watched Moon’s face as sorrow overtook him. Eventually he turned back to Aleeme and Yazdyar. “Is it okay if we talk, alone?” he asked the healer, who nodded.

“Of course. As you’re well aware, Aleeme was nearly dead a few weeks ago. Please be judicious in what you discuss.”

“I still get nightmares, and day-visions that are just like being there,” Aleeme said. “They may never go away completely. I have a few things to ask you, though, and I want you to fill me in on what’s been going on.”

Moon nodded, his expression solemn. “There’s a lot to tell.”

“If anything happens, or if you need me, I’ll be right there,” Yazdyar promised. “Nice to meet you,” he said warmly to Moon, resting his hand on his shoulder before walking over to Azriel and his striking high hostling.

“He’s stunning,” Moon said under his breath.

Aleeme’s ankle wobbled and he grabbed onto Moon’s arm to steady himself.

“I guess so,” he replied.

Moon gave him a skeptical look.

“Okay, I noticed. It’s those mixed-tribe backgrounds; we make such beautiful hara.”

Moon snorted at that as Aleeme went on. “Yazdyar is Ferelithian. We — Azriel and I — are going to go there with him to recuperate. I think it’ll be a more welcoming environment than Immanion. He has arunic training too, apparently.”

Moon’s eyes sparkled with intrigue. “Lucky you.”

Aleeme grew serious. “Moon, you saw what state I was in when Calanthe got me out of Fulminir.”

Moon winced and began to look ill.

“Don’t go there, not even in memory,” Aleeme pleaded. “It’s worse for me, remembering it. C’mon, let’s go to my tent. Anyway, Yazdyar says I’m healed, that my ouana-lim and soume-lam are functional, though I’ll probably never host a pearl again. But the thought of any of it is pretty repulsive. It’ll be slow going, any aruna activities. Though I guess my body will crave it sooner rather than later, no matter what my mind says.”

He held onto Moon’s arm as they neared his tent. Somewhat tentatively Moon said, “You don’t think you’ll want to be with Azriel again? I can’t imagine not wanting Tyson.”

Aleeme felt the weight of his torture and how, having survived it, he felt so different from the hara he’d been before. He doubted that anyhar who’d been involved with the war against Ponclast was unscathed, but a few of them were obviously more traumatized than others.

“Maybe in the future— I really hope so. Even from our first time at my feybraiha, taking aruna with Azriel has never been boring.”

“I’m so sorry for what happened,” Moon said, sounding so despairing that Aleeme felt the need to give him a reassuring pat on the arm.

“I am, too. Tell me about some good things, and I’m sure I’ll have questions for you.”

* * * * *

Later that evening, Moon had gone, but Aleeme wasn’t quite ready to summon Yazdyar to him. He was caught up imagining how it would feel to kill Ponclast himself, or see him sentenced to a lifetime in a special hell devised specifically by the Gelaming. He couldn’t believe that the Tigron, that Pellaz had sent him off into the aethers and some isolated world. There was no justice in that, no salve for Aleeme.

“He should have been made to suffer,” he ground out, his jaw clenched and a headache starting to throb at his temple.

Aleeme? Is it okay if I bring Azriel over now? Yazdyar asked via mind-touch, interrupting Aleeme’s dark and malcontented thoughts.

Fine.

There was a pause and then Yazdyar reached again, cautiously asking, Are you certain? It can be another day.

Yes. I don’t care right now if he recognizes me or not, I want him next to me. You, too, he said without thinking.

Aleeme was about to backpedal from his rather presumptuous comment when there was a rustling at the door to his pavilion and Yazdyar walked in, guiding Azriel with a hand behind his back and grinning widely.

“I thought you’d never ask!” he gushed.

Aleeme couldn’t help but smile in return. “Don’t be too excited,” he drawled. “This won’t be a roonfest or anything.”

“No, that’ll come later.”

Aleeme fixed Yazdyar with a skeptical look. “Much later,” he said.

For a moment he wondered if there were multiple layers of meaning to what the healer had said, then dismissed it as fanciful on his part. Yazdyar was certainly a warm-hearted har, but he was also professional.

“It may be sooner than you think. Your body will begin to crave aruna. It’s part of our lifeblood, as you know. Without it, we become husks of ourselves, dry and hollow; decimated. Here— do you think you could massage Azriel’s upper back for a little bit? He really enjoys that.”

It took all of Aleeme’s self-control not to yell that of course he fucking knew that, they were chesna. He knew every in and out of Azriel’s likes and dislikes. He knew how to make his beautiful olivine eyes roll back into his head, what his favorite childhood memory was… Aleeme stopped himself. When Azriel did come back, he might be different. A dreadful wave of sadness buffeted through him and he held Azriel from behind, burying his face against the juncture of his neck and shoulder, hands clasped around his abdomen. Azriel made a contented noise and put his own hands on top of Aleeme’s, tilting his head as Aleeme nuzzled into the soft skin, baptizing his neck with tears.

“I think sheh is in order before bed,” Yazdyar said quietly but firmly.

Aleeme had been so engrossed in the sensations of holding his chesnari again that he’d nearly forgotten the healer was in the room. “I could use a drink,” he said, nosing reverently through Azriel’s silky hair.

“And I’d be a poor healer if I weren’t treating you in the most holistic way possible. You just do what feels natural and right. I won’t be gone long.”

Yazdyar ran his hand along the wing of Aleeme’s left shoulder blade and placed a chaste kiss on the back of his head. “You’re doing so well,” he murmured. “I can’t wait to bring you to Ferelithia, and to introduce you to my father and hostling. Azriel, too. My hostling may have skills from his former human tribe that will help him. Anyway, I’ll be back with some sheh, three glasses, and my pyjamas.”

Aleeme made a grunt of assent, allowing himself to be suspended in a moment of peace. He listened to Azriel sigh with pleasure as he intertwined their fingers together and Aleeme whispered promises of his unwavering devotion. It seemed that no time had passed at all before Yazdyar reappeared, and situated Azriel on the bed. They all sat cross-legged, sipping the sheh. Azriel pressed his fingers to his lips after a couple of mouthfuls, as though they’d become numb. Aleeme ran his fingers through his hair, quirking a smile at him.

“You always were a lightweight,” he said, glancing at Yazdyar, who seemed quite adept at holding his liquor. “Which is ridiculous, given your parentage. Even Cobweb can put it away, and he’s as insubstantial as moonlight. Unless he’s pissed off at you.”

The alcohol danced in Aleeme’s veins; he was ready to lie down with both hara, to sleep with the reassuring warmth of Yazdyar behind him, and Azriel at his chest.

“Lee?”

Aleeme stopped breathing. Azriel sounded so distant, so lost. He looked down into his glass as Aleeme and Yazdyar stared at him, and then poured the rest down his throat. Azriel spluttered, wiped the back of his hand across his lips, and put the glass away from him in distaste. All at once he threw his hands in front of his face and rubbed at his wrists, seemingly surprised that nothing was on them. Slowly he looked at Yazdyar, and then over to Aleeme.

“Azriel?” Aleeme asked hesitantly, not wanting to get his hopes up, and yet, of course, desperately hoping that he’d broken through some self-imposed wall. He splayed his fingers on Azriel’s knee, rested them there.

Azriel looked defeated, beaten to his core. He shook his head, and then covered his face with his hands, starting to cry with silent tears. Aleeme couldn’t bear it; he pulled Azriel to him so that he lay on his side, his head tucked under Aleeme’s own. After a while, Aleeme realized that the lights were out, the glasses gone, and the covers had been pulled over them. Behind him, Yazdyar also had a presence in the bed. Aleeme sagged against his chest, reassured to feel the healer’s arm enfold both him and his chesnari.

“Sleep, beautiful,” Yazdyar said quietly. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

* * * * *

Yazdyar and Aleeme burst from the Otherlanes in a shower of frost. Zephyr galloped ahead down the hill until Yazdyar reined the sedu in. Aleeme shook his head, trying to reconcile himself to his new surroundings and hoping that his disorientation would pass quickly. Yazdyar and General Aldebaran’s sedu both seemed invigorated by their travel but for Aleeme, the currently safe Otherlanes were a reminder of the war so recently fought. He’d tried to convince his healer for them to travel via horse and boat, but Yazdyar insisted it would take far too long.

“I know you can handle it,” he said reassuringly when Zephyr had appeared along with Afnina, Swift’s sedu. Personally, Aleeme hadn’t been sure that he could keep it together, passing through the strange clamor of the ethers. Although he hadn’t minded traveling that way before, when he was younger, as he had when he’d first gone to We Dwell in Forever from Roselane for his feybraiha, it now reminded him of golden days long past, and his spirit was troubled.

Azriel and the healer Jerizel suddenly manifested off to their left, the sedu and riders all a bit wild-eyed and exuberant from their Otherlane travels. Afnina trotted over to them, and the two healers looked at each other without speaking. Doubtless they were communicating via mind-touch. Yazdyar was very excited; Aleeme could practically feel it in waves as he loosened his grip from around the healer’s waist.

“What part of the city is your house in?” he asked as the scent of jasmine began to waft over him. There was an increasing noise of bustle and snatches of music as the sedim kept a steady pace toward the edge of the busy enclave. Aleeme felt insignificant and peripheral, damaged goods being brought into a land of happy hara who couldn’t possibly guess what he’d been through since he bore no physical scars.

“I live near the water,” Yazdyar replied. “But I want to see my parents first. They’re anxious to meet you and Azriel. I’ve been telling them a lot about you.”

“Really?” Aleeme said, surprised. “I wish we were in better shape. Azriel’s not himself, my legs are still somewhat weak.” He barked a bitter laugh. “Maybe it’s for the best that they’re seeing us like this. We won’t break their hearts. I won’t have to see them try not to cry, or see the pain on their faces as they try to reconcile what we were like… before.”

“My parents aren’t judgmental at all, I promise,” Yazdyar said fervently. “Firethorn, my hostling, he especially sees into hara, he sees who you are at your core, not the outside trappings. My younger brother is a bit of a different story, but he’s in Immanion. We’ll probably see him at some point, but not at first. Jaffa’s a great judge of character, and pretty easy going.”

They rode in silence for a while after that as Aleeme took in the sights and sounds of the vibrant harish city. He glanced over at Azriel from time to time, watching his reactions to their new location. He seemed to enjoy looking at the brightly clothed hara, and he twisted his head this way and that as they passed through wide streets where hara hawked everything from incense to leather sandals. Eventually they navigated to a smaller cobblestone street that meandered up a hill. By this point Aleeme had stripped off his cloak as the air was much warmer and more humid than in Galhea. It felt good to have the sun’s rays on his bare arms and his face; even his hair waved a bit as though seeking out its own warmth under the striking blue sky.

“This is it!” Yazdyar called over to Jerizel as they approached a house painted in a kaleidoscope of colors. No two surfaces were the same, and there was a flowing script in vivid magenta under the eaves, presumably going all the way around the house.

“It’s certainly easy to pick out!” Jerizel said, laughing. “How much of the design was your idea?”

“Not a lot, actually,” Yazdyar said, bringing Zephyr to a halt. He slid off of the sedu and was helping Aleeme to swing his leg over the sedu’s back when the robin’s egg blue front door opened.

“Thorn!” Yazdyar cried out, beaming at the ruddy-skinned har who stood in the doorway.

“Yaz! Come give your hostling a hug.”

Amused, Aleeme watched Yazdyar bound up the walkway and throw himself into his hostling’s arms. He was so absorbed in watching their dynamic that Aleeme started when he felt fingers brush against his.

“Azriel!” he exclaimed, and Azriel recoiled, whimpering like a kicked dog. “Oh Az, I’m so sorry. You just startled me. Please, hold my hand. That’s fine,” he babbled, thrusting his hand toward Azriel.

After looking from the proffered hand to Aleeme’s face and back and forth a few times, Azriel finally intertwined his fingers again. Cheered, Aleeme said to him via mind-touch, Do you know who I am?

Azriel’s eyes grew wide and he tapped at his head with the hand not clasped in Aleeme’s, his brows furrowed at hearing a voice there that wasn’t his.

“That was me,” Aleeme said aloud. “It’s Aleeme. Lee. Don’t you remember?” Sadness and futility were pulling and picking at him, vultures feasting on the hope he’d had that Azriel had, even briefly, known who he was.

“You must be Jerizel,” Yazdyar’s hostling said, coming down the walk and introducing himself to the other healer. “I’m Firethorn. And you must be Aleeme,” he said gently, regarding Aleeme’s hair before leaning in to kiss him on both cheeks. “When I was still a harling, before my feybraiha, a pair of Colurastes hosted a pearl, the first harling to be born in Castlegar. I’d been the only harling there before Lemuel came along. You’re part Colurastes, aren’t you?”

“Yes. My father is Colurastes, though he spent several years with the Kakkahaar. You’re unlike any har I’ve ever seen.” Aleeme was fascinated with Firethorn’s shiny, straight black hair that fell all the way past his waist, his expressive, black eyes and the prominent thin nose which similarly dominated Yazdyar’s face.

“My parents were both from an ancient human tribe,” Firethorn explained. “This must be Azriel. Come here, precious,” he murmured, opening his arms wide.

Azriel didn’t react to his name, but the message of entreaty seemed to be enough to rouse him into action. He let go of Aleeme’s hand and walked into the har’s arms as though he were a dear friend and not a complete stranger. Firethorn ran his hand down Azriel’s hair several times while Aleeme watched, despair creeping back into his heart as he fidgeted with his tunic buttons.

“I need to return to the camp,” Jerizel said to him, compassion in his expression. “Don’t give up hope yet. Please let Yazdyar know I’ve taken Afnina back to the healing pavilions, and Zephyr will get himself back to Immanion and Ashmael Aldebaran.”

Aleeme nodded absently, half-watching as the sedim and the healer began walking back down the cobbled road.

“Aleeme! Come and meet Jaffa!”

Yazdyar’s gleeful voice carried from inside the house, but Aleeme looked to Firethorn, still consoling or merely holding Azriel, he couldn’t tell. “We’ll be in shortly,” Firethorn promised. “I’ll talk with you and Yaz both about your chesnari. I think between what Yaz has been taught and my ability to dreamwalk, we will be able to rescue much of this one whom you hold so dear.”

“I hope so.”

Aleeme had meant to sound fiercely optimistic, but the words came out as barely a whisper. Head hanging, he walked toward the house, only partially noticing the riot of blooming shrubs and wildflowers thriving in the front yard.

“In here!” Yazdyar called.

As Aleeme crossed the threshold, he almost tripped over a sleek cat sleeping inside the doorway. A skinny har with bright orange ringlets was at his side in a flash, steadying him. His worried face was covered in freckles; pale skin glowed underneath.

“You okay?” he asked, loosening his grip on Aleeme’s arm. “Sorry about Serafina. She’d old and loves that spot. Damn cat gets in the way, though.”

“I’m— I’m fine,” Aleeme said, stuttering.

“Let’s go out back,” Yazdyar said. He was in what appeared to be an open kitchen, arranging some cheeses, meat slices, olives and bread on a platter. On cue, Aleeme’s stomach rumbled.

“I’m Jaffa, obviously,” Yazdyar’s father said as he gestured toward a door, also open, which apparently led to the backyard. “Make yourself at home. Ferelithia is a wonderful place, and while I’ll admit I’m biased, Yaz is an accomplished healer. I have tremendous hopes for you and your chesnari. Wine?”

“Yes, please,” Aleeme said gratefully. He wandered out to the patio, wine in hand, followed closely by Yazdyar. He drank the first glass quickly and it was refilled without his needing to ask. At glass number three, Aleeme began to feel fairly relaxed, and he wondered where on earth Azriel and Firethorn were. He’d been content to listen to Yazdyar and Jaffa’s banter and discussions about Teak, Yazdyar’s younger brother, who was apparently quite the social status climber in Immanion’s courts.

“Word’s gotten back to me that he even rooned… Well, it’s about time!” Yazdyar said, interrupting his line of gossip as Azriel and Firethorn ambled out to join them.

“Speaking of rooning,” Firethorn said in a solemn tone, “this one has needs that should be taken care of. Soon.”

Azriel seemed remarkably at ease. He also had wine in his hand. As he came and sat next to him, Aleeme idly wondered what number glass Azriel was on. He looked coyly at Aleeme through lowered lashes, then he placed a hand on Aleeme’s thigh.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, his voice huskier than usual. “That har said the feelings I have are natural, and I should tell you. My body craves yours. Do you crave me?” he asked hopefully. “Or you?” he said to Yazdyar, who nearly choked on the piece of cheese-layered bread he’d put in his mouth. “Maybe both, one at a time. The wise har said that’s a natural thought, too.”

“Ag’s stones,” Aleeme swore. Not only was that the most Azriel had said since Aleeme had seen him in recent days, but visions of possessing his chesnari had come at him with dazzling erotic clarity. “Are you sure? Both of us? Not at once, I hope,” he said, beginning to blush as not just one but three hara were hanging on every mumbled word.

“It’s been a long time for you, too,” Yazdyar said, encouragement in the words. “Do you think you’d be able to stay in the moment? I can chant some protection spells around us which could keep your memories at bay.”

“You mean right now?” Aleeme spluttered.

“Sure!” Jaffa said. “You can use our room. It’s full of positive energy. Unless that makes you uncomfortable, Yaz,” he went on.

Aleeme felt as though he was suffering a second feybraiha; his nerves were howling, his ouana-lim was beginning to throb and stiffen as Azriel’s hand rubbed tentatively on his top and inner thigh above his leggings.

“I’d rather be in my room,” Yazdyar said apologetically. “If it were going to be just the two of them, I’d definitely suggest it, but it’s a little creepy to be rooning in the bed where I was conceived.”

Aleeme grimaced, waiting for the tremors of memory to shake him. A few moments went by, however, and he was still as turned on as before. Maybe he was well enough to pleasure Azriel, and take pleasure in return. His ouana-lim twitched at that encouraging thought.

“Az, come here,” he growled, reaching over for Azriel’s other hand and tugging him relentlessly until he straddled Aleeme’s lap. Aleeme’s blood felt molten; he tuned out everything else, shoving away the fact that his healer and his parents might be staring at them. Nothing mattered except getting his lips on Azriel’s and sharing breath. He had to taste Azriel, the unique flavor of plum and snowflakes, to inhale it so that Azriel’s essence flowed through him down to the soles of his feet.

Azriel seemed alarmed, so Aleeme put his hands around his waist, holding him close as he leaned in to kiss him. “I want you, need you so much,” he murmured against Azriel’s mouth, claiming his lips and sending his tongue into the welcoming heat of Azriel’s mouth. He let the kiss deepen and blossom into a sharing of breath, his adoration and raw gratitude flowing into his chesnari. Aleeme sensed a hesitant mind-touch from Azriel, the barest shimmer of attraction and passion, held in check by a sense of needing to ask permission, of fear of getting things wrong.

“No, you couldn’t do anything wrong,” Aleeme said aloud, responding to the unspoken worry. “Do you remember what it’s like? Taking aruna?”

Azriel’s gaze grew both sly and heated. He reached behind his back and took one of Aleeme’s hands in his, bringing it between his legs so Aleeme could feel the damp spot at his groin.

“My love, my temple,” Aleeme groaned, fingering the wet cloth that separated him from the folds of Azriel’s soaking soume-lam. “Sweet Ag, it’s been so long,” he choked out, lust and a profound longing causing a tumult to roar in his blood. “Let me worship you. We need to go inside and get naked. Now.”

Azriel was grinding against Aleeme’s hand, the fabric now nearly drenched. With a sense of decorum vanishing faster than wine at one of Cobweb’s parties, Aleeme forced his hands onto Azriel’s shoulders, peering around him at the amused faces of Yazdyar’s parents. The healer himself had a predatory look in his eyes which didn’t shock Aleeme as much as it might have.

“I’ll show you to my room,” Yazdyar said as he stood up. His own arousal was immediately apparent, a fair-sized mound showing underneath his robes.

“Dinner won’t be for a couple of hours yet,” Jaffa said jovially. “Don’t rush through anything on our account.”

“Effective healing does take time,” Yazdyar said, smiling broadly before he downed his wine and gave the glass to his hostling.

Hand in hand, Aleeme and Azriel followed Yazdyar into the house and down a corridor to a doorway on the right side.

“I don’t live here anymore, only visit from time to time, so it’s not as tidy as my house is,” Yazdyar said with slight embarrassment.

“If there’s a bed we’ll be just fine,” Aleeme said throatily, swatting Azriel on the backside as he entered. Impulsively Aleeme grabbed Yazdyar around the neck and pulled him in for a scorching kiss that quickly changed to sharing breath. Aleeme was drowning, then soaring on the images: he was bathed in the Ferelithian’s taste, of sunset and the sweet tangy juice of an exotic fruit. He swooned, knees literally buckling as he sagged against the healer. Yazdyar pulled back, gasping for air and laughing.

“You’re so passionate!” he said, cupping Aleeme’s jaw and staring at him wide-eyed.

Aleeme saw wonder and a wellspring of desire in the healer’s gaze. He’d never experienced any specific healing in regards to aruna, and Aleeme assumed that Yazdyar’s enthusiastic ardor would express itself like this for anyhar he treated. Given the overwhelming excitement he’d felt as they’d just shared breath, he and Azriel both would be exhausted and utterly satisfied before the afternoon was over.

“Go. Take aruna with Azriel. I’ll chant protection and healing, then when you’ve taken your pleasure with each other, I’ll focus on Azriel. I’ll save my time with you for last,” Yazdyar murmured, swiping his tongue along Aleeme’s lips before he nipped at them and exhaled, sending an image of himself poised between Aleeme’s legs.

A whimpering noise brought Aleeme back to himself and away from the healer’s torrid imagination. Azriel had pulled off his tunic, which lay in a crumpled heap next to his sandals and socks. His arms were held out to Aleeme, every gesture one of imploring.

“Be with me, please, beautiful… beloved,” he said, a flicker of his former self ringing in his voice.

Aleeme walked unsteadily toward him, grateful when Azriel greedily took off his clothes and then stripped out of his leggings. There was a subtle change in the air as Yazdyar took up a low incantation and lit some candles. The delicate scent of almond and cedar emanated from a corner but then Aleeme shut everything out except Azriel. He devoured his chesnari, covering Azriel’s body with kisses, mapping every inch of skin with tongue and lips, nipping and suckling, marking the taut landscape of his beloved form.

With one thrust he plunged deep into Azriel’s soume-lam, burying himself over and over into the slick glove of his body. Azriel moaned and thrashed, raking his fingernails on Aleeme’s sweat-slicked back. His breath, panted into Aleeme’s face, was a psychedelic drug, filling Aleeme with an array of raw, brilliant emotions: desire, desperation, euphoria and frustration. Aleeme cried out as Azriel tightened the muscles of his soume-lam, the contraction rippling down the length of his ouana-lim and bringing him to the edge. From his toes, a wave of sparks flowed up to his pelvis, the tongue flashed out of his ouana-lim, striking the star ember nestled far within Azriel. Azriel shrieked, clutching at Aleeme as his body shuddered and jerked, ecstasy flashing around them in a dazzling shower. They were lights dancing on the night tide, laughing and crying, phosphorescence carried on the waves in a great arunic sea.

Aleeme had half dozed off when he felt Azriel shift beneath him. “Thank you,” Azriel said, his voice raspy from the noise he’d made during their aruna.

“Any time,” Aleeme whispered, kissing him firmly on his swollen lips. “I mean that.”

“My…” Azriel started, looking bewildered. “My… wild child.”

At the sound of his endearment, first spoken at his feybraiha, Aleeme wept, burying his face against Azriel’s shoulder. He cried until there were no more tears, until his eyes hurt and his ribs were sore and he realized that the soothing sounds he heard were coming from behind him. Yazdyar held him close while Azriel tenderly combed his fingers in Aleeme’s tousled hair. A soft smile curved his lips as the tendrils waved across his skin.

“Better?” Yazdyar asked, his heated breath sent directly into Aleeme’s ear, eliciting a stirring of renewed interest in his groin.

“Much. But you have other plans, actual healing in mind?” he asked, relieved that he wasn’t assaulted with terrible memories when he felt the healer’s sizeable ouana-lim pressed against the cleft of his buttocks.

“This was a healing act, too. But yes, there’s more to come. Why don’t you watch, or even nap if you’re tired? I’m going to spend some time with Azriel and ask him to focus on his ouana side. I have a theory that if I can get him to release some of that energy, it will free him to unbar some of his memories.”

“But you’ll get pleasure out of it, too?” Aleeme asked, feeling suddenly rustic and naïve.

Yazdyar’s warm palm slid down so his fingers could caress the delicate skin of Aleeme’s softened ouana-lim. “Most definitely,” he husked, planting kisses down the column of his neck. Aleeme arched into his expert touch, though he kept his eyes open, focusing on Azriel who lay on his side, facing him.

“You remembered,” he said, brushing away a tear from Azriel’s long eyelashes. “You called me your wild child.”

Azriel nodded, his face serious and yet peaceful. The bed creaked as Yazdyar moved off to stand up, and Aleeme rolled to his back.

“Aleeme, I’ll need you to scoot over. Azriel, I crave you, too, and I have healing to give you. I’ll need you to open your mind to me, and while we’re like that, mind to mind, I’ll pleasure you with my mouth. Is that okay with you?”

Azriel’s eyes took on a glazed expression. “Yes. I’ll do my best, healing har.”

“Yazdyar,” the Ferelithan said gently, easing back onto the bed and knee walking over to Azriel. “You can call me Yaz for short if that’s easier.”

“Yaz,” Azriel repeated, entrusting his pliant body to the healer as he situated him into a reclining position on pillows. He spread Azriel’s knees apart and tucked his own legs underneath him. Aleeme watched in surprise as the petals of Yazdyar’s flowered ouana-lim slowly folded back in, the luminous bronze fading as he leaned over and started to lick and suck along the folds around Azriel’s retreated ouana-lim. For some reason, Aleeme found it oddly reassuring that his healer wasn’t so swept away in his arunic endeavors, and then he felt guilty for thinking that. Of all hara who deserved to be released from cares and constant vigilance to his broken-but-recovering charges, it was Yazdyar.

Despite the powerful release he’d felt having been reunited with his chesnari in aruna, Aleeme’s own arousal reawakened as he watched Azriel’s rosy sentinel be coaxed to hardness as Yazdyar skillfully used tongue, teeth, fingers and a seemingly tireless mouth. The smacking, wet sounds were both lewd and fanned the flames of Aleeme’s rekindled desires. He breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw Azriel’s body grow taut and he grabbed at the pillows, gasping out wordless, bird-like cries with his second orgasm.

Had Yazdyar been able to break through and unleash more of Azriel’s memories? Aleeme didn’t want to be greedy, but he was anxious to know whether or not the Azriel he pined for would ever return, even if it was in small doses over a period of time.

“Az?” he said encouragingly, reaching out his fingers toward the shelf of his collarbone, holding them, hovering, when he didn’t answer.

“Lee.”

Aleeme’s hand shook, so he lowered it, fanning his fingers along the ridge. “I’m here. Are you…” He bit his lip.

Azriel slowly moved his head back and forth and let his legs sprawl. “I know my name, I know you, but only in the present. I get glimpses of what we were like, snatched phrases, puzzle pieces of a life I can’t fucking remember. I’m so sorry,” he said, looking mournfully at Aleeme. “And I’m sorry, Yaz, for not being able to offer more.”

Yazdyar held his chin in his hand, head tilted. “You were very responsive,” he said warmly. “Please don’t apologize or I’ll get a complex.”

Azriel made a half-snort, half-laugh as he tried to regain his composure. “I feel like I’ve been rooned to the stars and back. Would either of you mind if I curl up over there in that corner? The cushions look so cozy. You’re still going to work with Lee, right?” he asked Yazdyar.

“It’s only right,” the healer said, holding out his palms and shrugging with nonchalance that Aleeme could somehow tell was an act.

“Okay, good,” Azriel said, his voice betraying his relief. “Aleeme, I want to remember, I do,” he declared, taking one of Aleeme’s hands and kissing the palm. “But even if I don’t, I’m entranced by you anyway. I must have been the luckiest har ever.”

Aleeme blinked back the tears that blurred his vision. “You still are. Go get your rest, and then we’ll eat. You’ve said and done more in the past few hours than you have in weeks. You’re bound to be exhausted.”

He watched Azriel unfurl from the bed and walk the few steps to a beckoning pile of cushions. He pulled a lightweight blanket over him as he lay on his side, an arm thrown over his head. Aleeme’s attentions were drawn back to the bed. Yazdyar sat cross-legged, his ouana-lim showing signs of life once more. A glint at his navel caught Aleeme’s eye and he blurted out, “What’s that?”

Yazdyar’s eyebrows furrowed as he glanced down, then he grinned, his face shining like a meadow after a storm.

“Piercing. Ferelithians are pretty big into that. Tattoos, too, though I haven’t gotten one. Yet,” he said conspiratorially, letting his gaze rake down Aleeme’s body.

“Hadn’t thought about it,” Aleeme admitted, newly aware of a strangely familiar sensation in his groin; he was damp, wet within the soume-lam he’d thought would never again respond.

“I want to taste you,” Yazdyar said, the entreaty almost painful in its honesty. “I can show you, prove to you that you’re still whole. May I?”

Aleeme wanted to laugh— there was no way he could possibly have said no. He was drunk on the progress Azriel had made; loopy with the gossamer links he’d rejoined with his chesnari through their aruna, and now this stunning creature wanted to roon him as well.

“I thought you’d never ask,” he purred, echoing the healer’s words when Aleeme had asked him to spend the night. That had only been yesterday, he realized with a shock. With the Otherlanes travel and meeting Yazdyar’s parents and being in another country, it felt as though months had passed.

“Aleeme,” Yazdyar said, drawing out his name as though each syllable was a succulent flavor. “Would you… lie back? Your soume side suffered the most, and that’s what I want to bring back to life,” he whispered, more to himself than to Aleeme, or so it seemed from the reverential tone in the healer’s voice.

Cautiously Aleeme arranged himself in the middle of the bed, letting his legs fall open, praying fervently to Lunil, his dearest dehar, that he not fall apart. Evidently the dehar was listening because Aleeme was able to feel as though he was a gift, being unwrapped at glacial speed. Yazdyar sent his tongue into Aleeme’s tense muscle, finding a spot Aleeme hadn’t known existed and rubbing it until it seemed to swell. It had a sound, a note— Aleeme sagged against the bed, making pitiful, needy noises when Yazdyar hummed happily against the tremulous skin, and Aleeme cried out. Yazdyar’s devilish tongue reached in further, found another of the sensitive nubs, and lapped at it until it, too, rang out in the growing symphony of pleasure.

“No more!” Aleeme panted, clawing behind him at the headboard. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop. Roon me. NOW!” he cried, bucking his hips as Yazdyar hastily backed up, a dazed look on his face.

“Sikras,” he said, gazing at Aleeme as though he were a feast and Yazdyar was a starving har. “You’ve never…?” He sat up, face glistening, his chin covered with the slightly viscous, pearlized fluid of Aleeme’s essence.

“What do I taste like?”

Yazdyar slowly eased down, reaching between them to take his fully flowered ouana-lim in hand, sinking into Aleeme’s body like a fish released to water.

“Taste me, and taste yourself. You’re nectar,” he breathed, kissing Aleeme and filling his mouth so that Aleeme tasted hot tongue and lemonwine, an ambrosia he thought had been chafed and bled from him forever.

Once again, Aleeme let Yazdyar guide him on currents of devotion. He was soaring, diving, then gliding and watching outside of his corporeal self as Yazdyar’s ouana-lim slid past the sensitized sikras, seeing arunic sparks cascade to curtains of light as he was captured, held, reverenced by Yazdyar, coaxed back into his body with gentle entreaties until Aleeme let out a wounded sigh. His limbs felt so heavy.

“Sleep, dear heart, sleep.”

Was that Lunil or Yazdyar?

Aleeme wasn’t certain, but he nodded his agreement, stretching out his neck to receive the proffered kiss to his eyelids, and then sank into a dreamless dark.

* * * * *

The stench permeated everything. Aleeme was half-dead, anyway, what did it matter anymore? Why didn’t he just die? Groaning, he tried to turn on his side only to realize that he was heavy with pearl, misshapen and aching.

Lunil,” he begged, sending out voiceless prayers to the dehar, hoping that even though he might well be insane, the dehar of love and spirit would come to rescue him, take his soul from this wretched flesh and let him loose. A pang shot through his abdomen, a fierce jab. He cried out and felt soft, dry fingers on his forehead. The touch was gentle, not at all what he expected from his torment at Fulminir. Dazed, he forced his eyes open though they seemed to be glued together.

“This is a dream,” Firethorn said, gazing down at him. “Well, for you, a nightmare.”

“What are you doing here?” Aleeme rasped. “Get out! Go away before Ponclast finds out you’re here! Dear Ag, no, not you, too, they can’t have captured you…”

He clawed at the shredded sheets, heard the faint mewling of the harling he’d borne. He rubbed at his eyes so hard he saw phantom red and white fireworks behind his eyelids.

“Aleeme. You’re dreaming,” Firethorn said again, patiently. “Come. Let me take you away from here for a time. I have a story I’d like to tell you, one my parents told me when I was a harling.”

Though Aleeme’s heart was racing, attempting valiantly to burst out of his ribs, he allowed himself to be helped to a standing position. Once he took Firethorn’s hand, Aleeme discovered that they were walking on the periphery of a lake ringed with firs. The gloaming hovered around them; violet dusk canopied the sky. He was no longer with pearl.

“How?” he began, gulping. “Where are we?”

“We are in the realm of dreams. I told Yazdyar that I thought I had a part to play in your healing since I’m a dreamwalker. It’s not the harish way, but it’s the way of my forebears, and it does continue on. Here, let’s sit by the fire.”

Sure enough, a small campfire burned cheerily, looking for all the world as if somehar had just tended it and walked away. Aleeme looked up when he heard the hooting of an owl, and saw the sky blazing with stars. They glistened, hanging in the deep midnight sky as though a giant had thrown a sack of diamonds up into the heavens.

“Please, sit,” Firethorn said, gesturing to a hewn log that made an inviting bench.

“I’m not… dead?” Aleeme clarified. He wasn’t overly troubled by either response he might get; if this was death, it really wasn’t too bad. Having Firethorn as a guide was especially appreciated. And if he was only dreaming, well, having Firethorn around made things much better than they had been.

Firethorn’s lips quirked to the side, an expression that reminded Aleeme of Yazdyar.

“No. As I said, you’re dreaming. I thought I might find you here; I’ve been seeking you out since I met you. I’m glad that you’ve not had to walk these trails for a few days after taking aruna with my son, but I assumed you’d be back. Anyway, I have a story to tell, and it’s for you, for your Azriel, and Yazdyar. I love Yaz with all that I have, but I knew he’d run into difficulties. He suffers from having a large heart. I can blame only myself. Well, Jaffa’s a softie, too.”

Aleeme snorted back a laugh, grateful to be in the company of such an endearing har. He reminded him of his own hostling when he was at peace, and Aleeme was haunted by the knowledge that Flick didn’t know where he was. When he woke up, he’d need to remedy that.

Firethorn nodded, evidently privy to Aleeme’s thoughts in this non-world world.

“This is about the ghost of the white deer. I’m going to change the gender, since we’re all hara now, holding both male and female within ourselves. Are you hungry?”

After a quick self-evaluation, Aleeme figured out that he wasn’t, and shook his head. He sat down in front of the log, sitting cross-legged and warming his hands in front of the fire.

“Okay. Once there was a brave, young warrior who fell in love with the son of a powerful chieftain. The chieftain didn’t like the warrior, and so he told him that he could be bonded with his harling, but only after he brought the hide of a white deer. Albino deer were exceedingly rare, and treasured for both their rarity and their pelt, used for wedding garb. The warrior went to his beloved, named Bright Moon, and he told the har that he would return within one moon with the white hide, and then they could be bonded.”

Firethorn paused, taking out a piece of dried meat and a flask. After he bit off a bit of the meat and took a swig of the flask’s contents, he continued his story.

“The warrior har took his sharpest arrows and knife, and he suffered greatly for three weeks amongst the briars and his own loneliness. Then, on the night of the full moon, he saw a luminous deer among the shadows. He aimed straight for the deer’s heart and his aim was true. Instead of sinking to the ground to die, however, the deer charged at him with fierce eyes and deadly horns.”

There was a period of silence for the fate of the warrior har, then Firethorn continued, “Bright Moon waited for his champion, who didn’t return. After a few months passed, the tribe decided the warrior wasn’t ever coming back. Bright Moon never sought another as his chesnari, and on the nights of the full moon, in the smoke of the campfire, he saw the white deer running, an arrow in its heart. He hoped that one day the deer would fall, and then he would be reunited with his beloved. He never lost hope.”

Arms wrapped around his knees, Aleeme stared at the fire, at the wood turning to charcoal, the blue flames licking upward and becoming yellow as they cooled.

“I wish I could have Ponclast tied to a tree, or even running around out in the woods. I’d shoot the bastard,” he said without his usual venom. “Why did you tell me this? And what does Yaz have to do with it?” Aleeme asked, genuinely perplexed.

Firethorn raised one eyebrow, looking very young. Aleeme suddenly realized that his dream-spirit was much younger looking than his harish manifestation; doubtless he had all kinds of stories to tell about his own upbringing and years in Castlegar. He was about to pepper the har with questions when Firethorn gave him a lazy smile, halting Aleeme’s investigative torrent.

“My son loves you. He knows it’s inappropriate, and yet, he fans his own flames. He meant well, I know that. He’d like to think that desire came along and sought him out, that it wasn’t his fault, but the truth is, the moment Calanthe thrust you into his arms and told him to take care of you, that you were precious, he was lost.”

The wood of the fire crackled and popped; Aleeme found that bitter, dark chocolate was in his fingers. He ate it gratefully, waiting to hear what else Firethorn had to say.

“You’re in this story too, however. You’re seeking out the elusive creature that, once he’s been slain, means you’ll get your loved one back. Ponclast isn’t coming back, at least not in a way that you can understand. But unlike this tale from my father, and generations back into the dreamtime, you aren’t bound to it. Azriel is your moon. I know that you have an affinity for Lunil, the moon dehar. He cares for you. Keep worshipping him. And continue to seek your chesnari. I don’t know whether or not he’ll be able to remember his past, but he’s meant to be with you.”

“I feel so safe with Yazdyar,” Aleeme confided in Firethorn. “I’m drawn to him. Azriel first, but Yaz was there, he brought me back when I wanted to die.”

“He’s a compelling, deeply affectionate har,” Firethorn said ruefully. “And he has his father’s good looks. But I feel he’s misguided. Only you can know your true thoughts, of course. I’m just here with you in this realm to tell what I think. I want to protect my son, though certainly he’d be the first to tell me to keep my big nose to myself.”

“He wouldn’t!” Aleeme said, indignant.

Firethorn laughed, a pleasing, resonant sound. “Of course he would. If he were being totally honest, which he never will, and thankfully this is a dream, so you won’t remember it clearly either, but he hopes Azriel stays a peripheral har for you, and that he can sweep you off your feet, and you two will become chesna and live happily ever after, with Azriel there as a not-too-occasional rooning partner. He despises himself for thinking it, but he wants it more than anything. And now, beautiful, you must go back to your dreamless sleep.”

“But…” Aleeme scowled, frustration blossoming against this har who had the audacity to fill his mind with stories and crazy talk about his healer’s motivations.

“We may meet here again,” Firethorn said, suddenly across from Aleeme and blowing gently across his face.

“You can’t just…”

* * * * *

“Hey Yazdyar? Do you have ingredients for making bread?” Azriel called out.

“You want to make bread?” Aleeme asked, giving his chesnari a strange look.

“Sure! It’s something to do, and it seemed like a good idea. You have something else in mind?”

He poked Aleeme in the ribs, an easy enough gesture since they were sunbathing without the benefit of clothes, another Ferelithian tradition the healer had introduced them to since they’d come to recuperate with Yazdyar.

“Well, no, but… do you even have a recipe?”

“No! I’ll bet Yazdyar does, though. Let’s go find out,” Azriel said, grinning as he pulled Aleeme to a standing position and then kneading gently into the small of Aleeme’s back. “No wonder I fell for you. What a gift to re-discover that I had such superb taste in hara before,” he murmured as Aleeme allowed himself to be held.

Unbidden, an image of Azriel, chained and his face wrenched toward Aleeme, Azriel’s jaw held in Diablo’s grip, careened into Aleeme’s mind.

“No, don’t watch!” he gasped, feeling Ponclast’s cold hands, seeing his flinty, hate-filled eyes, sensing the wide pike of his ouana-lim, soon to split him open while his beloved chesnari was forced to watch.

“Azriel!” he cried out, trying to collapse into a tiny ball. He was down on his knees, shaking and crying as Azriel tried to console him.

“I don’t remember that, Lee, I love you, love you. Please come back from that dark place,” he begged, covering him with his arms while Aleeme struggled, caught up in the visceral tug of war between his waking nightmare and real life.

“Aleeme! You’re safe, I promise you!” Yazdyar said, having bolted from the house and throwing his arms around Aleeme as well. “It’s okay, you’re not there. Azriel and I are here for you. Let me share breath, show you what’s true,” he went on, cradling Aleeme’s jaw as he cupped his face, his eyes full of compassion.

Aleeme didn’t resist; he lay back in Azriel’s arms as Yazdyar shared breath with him, filling him with images of adoration and contentment until Aleeme’s heart quit hammering in his chest.

“Better, sweetheart?” Yazdyar asked, and Aleeme nodded, continuing to clasp tightly to Azriel’s hands. Yazdyar still seemed worried, so Aleeme gave him a reassuring smile.

“Yes. Thank you both. I’m just glad that those memories haven’t been coming back as often.” He raised Azriel’s hands to his lips and kissed the backs of them. Yazdyar smiled, but there was a shade of melancholy to it. Aleeme decided that they all needed a distraction, and Azriel’s idea seemed as good as any. “And Azriel wants to bake bread. Do you have the makings for that?”

Yazdyar’s forehead wrinkled as he contemplated the request. “Um, doubtful. Let’s go to the kitchen and find out, shall we?” he enthused, springing up from the grass and leaning down to lend Aleeme and then Azriel a hand up. “I’ve not been much of a bread baker, myself, though there’s nothing like the scent of fresh bread. We can go to the markets if I don’t have yeast and flour. Sounds like fun, regardless,” he continued on. “Azriel, you’re in charge of ingredients. Let’s get dressed and see what wares Ferelithia has to offer us today!”

Aleeme had temporarily forgotten he was naked. He and Azriel and Yazdyar spent much of their time unclothed or nearly so at the healer’s house, and he’d quickly gotten used to that.

“Excellent suggestion,” Aleeme said agreeably, walking at Azriel’s side. “Oh, your pendant,” he said, draping his arm across the back of Azriel’s hip. “I’ve noticed you’re always wearing it. What is it?”

“It’s a phoenix. Vaysh gave it to me when I was young. I’d admired it on him and he decided I should have it. It was initially a gift to him from a har he’d been involved with in some northern country.”

“It’s lovely.”

“Thank you.” Yazdyar tapped it, looking thoughtful. “I should try and see him the next time I’m in Immanion.”

A chime sounded and Aleeme looked curiously at Yazdyar.

“Who on earth could that be?” the healer mused aloud. “I’m not expecting anyone today.”

“I definitely need to put on my robes!” Azriel said, jogging back to the room he and Aleeme were sharing.

“We all do!” Yazdyar said, laughing.

Aleeme was still fumbling with the ties on his tunic when he heard the front door open and Yazdyar’s noises of surprise. Taking Azriel’s hand, Aleeme walked back to the front room where Yazdyar was chatting avidly with two hara dressed in tight-fitting pants and short tunics of shimmering teal. They were both quite tan and carried an air of officiousness.

“Aleeme, Azriel,” Yazdyar said, gesturing to each in turn, “this is my brother, Teak, and his friend Parallax.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Aleeme said as Azriel made an affirming noise.

“I’m the brother,” Teak said, “not that anyhar would know that. We don’t resemble each other very much.”

“Maybe not, but with all of those curls, I can tell you’re related to Jaffa!” Aleeme exclaimed.

Parallax snorted. “You’re getting the full effect because he just cut his hair. It used to be much longer and the curl was weighed down.”

“Aleeme and Azriel are staying with me for a little while as they recuperate. They’d been held prisoner in Fulminir prior to the war.”

Parallax’s eyes grew wide. “We heard about you! Teak and I are in the Gelaming army under General Aldebaran. We fought there; it was pretty nightmarish. We lost some good hara.”

Teak reached out and held Parallax’s hand and squeezed it. Aleeme got the feeling that the two were more than simply friends or frequent rooning partners, and he started to feel badly for Yazdyar as a single har. Then again, maybe he wasn’t the pairing-off type. Certainly not all hara developed chesna bonds. Yazdyar did seem like the type who would bond deeply with somehar else, but maybe he’d had a bad relationship recently.

“Teak and Parallax are in town for a party, so they decided to stop by,” Yazdyar explained. “We were going to go to the markets— Azriel’s decided to bake bread and, well, you know me and the state of my kitchen!”

“It’s a good thing you’re patients,” Teak said, winking at Aleeme and Azriel. “Otherwise you’d be lucky to find much of anything in his pantry.”

Yazdyar blushed and shrugged. “It’s true. I’ve never been much of a cook and I tend to eat at the training center or the hospital.”

“I wouldn’t have known,” Azriel said, looking genuinely surprised. “The meals you’ve made have been delicious. I’m happy to cook, too. Sorry I hadn’t offered to do so before now.”

“Please don’t worry about it,” Yazdyar said, an embarrassed flush still in his cheeks. “But if you want to cook, feel free. What are your plans before the party?” he asked his brother. “Care to join us?”

“I think that we’re going to go down to the waterfront,” Teak said. “Thanks for the invitation, though.”

“Teak here says that the waterfront is the place to see and be seen,” Parallax said, smoothing out invisible wrinkles from Teak’s tunic. “And he does like to be seen,” he said with a rakish grin.

“Yes, Teak has never been shy about parading himself for anyhar who’ll look,” Yazdyar commented. From his tone, Aleeme wasn’t sure how much of it was said in jest. Given the fleeting sour look on Teak’s face, this topic was one of contention between them.

“So I was blessed with atypical good looks—”

“And an atypically sized ego to match,” Yazdyar muttered.

“I think that we should go and let your brother and his guests get on to the markets,” Parallax said, appearing unruffled by the spat heating up between Teak and Yazdyar.

I think he suspected this was coming, Azriel said to Aleeme in mind-touch.

Yeah, chances are they’ve had this discussion before.
“It was nice to meet you both,” Aleeme said aloud.

“You, too,” Teak replied, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. “You should come to Immanion, even if only for a few days. It’s worth the visit, once you’re well enough to do so. Yaz has his flaws, but he is a very good healer,” he added a bit grudgingly.

“We’re both very grateful for him,” Aleeme declared.

“Yes, very,” Azriel spoke up. “Thanks for your part in fighting Ponclast and his forces, too.”

Parallax nodded, his expression somber. “Fortunately we aren’t needed all that often. I’ve been a companion of Ashmael’s since, well, since I first became har. I believe in the Gelaming and am proud to be a part of the General’s forces.”

There was a period of silence, each har caught up in his own thoughts. At last Teak shook his head, causing his ringlets to dance around his high cheekbones.

“Well, this conversation has gotten way too serious. We’re here to have fun, and it’s time to get to it. Yaz, see you later. Aleeme, and— what was your name again, handsome?”

“Azriel har Parasiel,” he said, sounding almost uncertain.

“Hmmmm. Delightful. Well, we’re off.”

Teak gave his brother a perfunctory kiss on both cheeks and then he and Parallax let themselves out, closing the door firmly behind them. Yazdyar quirked his mouth to one side and pressed the fingers of his left hand against his temple with a pained sound.

“Teak’s visit has given me a headache. Azriel, would you be heartbroken if we sat around for a bit over some sheh?”

“No, that’s fine. I can get it and some glasses.”

“Thanks. You’re a gem.”

Aleeme followed Yazdyar to a low-slung couch in his cozy sitting room. He’d painted the walls an unusual cerise, and the couch was an eye-popping orange. For all of the vivid russet shades in the room, it was surprisingly relaxing.

“Teak’s right, though. We should go to Immanion and Phaonica,” Yazdyar said once he had a tumbler of sheh and had taken a couple of sips. “You’ve both gotten tremendously better and I don’t think the Otherlanes travel would give you any trouble. I should send an overnight letter to Vaysh and see if he’s too overworked for us to visit.”

“I’d like to see Cal again, and thank him for rescuing us,” Azriel said quietly, gazing into his glass. “I was able to talk with him in those first few days, but then it was like something snapped, and I retreated into myself. Maybe they took me to see you, and I couldn’t handle it,” he murmured, looking at Aleeme. “I do know that Cal was the har who broke my chains and could travel through those dangerous dimensions to get me out of Fulminir.”

Yazdyar swirled his glass, stretching back against the soft weave of the couch and crossing his feet at the ankles. “Calanthe learned some truly amazing things while with Thiede,” the healer said reverently. “Only he, or the Tigron, or maybe one of the Nahir-Nuri could have had the ability to pour enough life back into you, Aleeme. He gave me a hasty briefing, just said that the candle of life in you had been all but snuffed out.”

Aleeme found he was wading through a churning whorl of gratitude, dulled horror of remembrance, and an itchy prickliness of realizing just how close he’d come to dying; he’d wanted nothing more before he’d come to at the healing pavilion.

“Maybe an afternoon of sheh and lazy aruna would be more beneficial than bread baking,” Azriel said into the hush.

“Do you remember that one particular night we spent with Moon when he visited Forever?” Aleeme asked, giving Azriel a sultry look.

Azriel closed his eyes for a few moments, biting on his lower lip. That hadn’t been a gesture he’d tended to do before when concentrating, and Aleeme found it was unaccountably erotic. Then he opened his eyes and shook his head, obviously disappointed.

“Well. You’re both in for a treat then, unless, Yazdyar, you’ve been involved in many threesomes?”

“No, but I’m already looking forward to us creating new memories,” he said, the beginnings of his excitement roughening his voice.

Much later, when the sun was setting and they’d frolicked in each other’s arunic seas like tireless seals, Aleeme let out a soft sigh. His head was in Yazdyar’s lap, and his feet in Azriel’s. The healer played with his hair while his chesnari languorously rubbed at the balls of his feet.

“What’re you thinking?” Azriel asked.

“Well, I’ve been enjoying Ferelithia, and I just feel so much more alive, and invigorated,” he said, reaching a hand up to stroke Yazdyar’s cheek. “I think my legs are fully back to normal, and after this afternoon, I’m pretty sure that in the aruna organs department, miracle of miracles, I’m healed as well.”

Yazdyar’s face softened at his words, and his eyes grew bright with tears as he smiled tenderly at Aleeme.

“The thing is that I miss our home,” Aleeme went on, curling down his toes and focusing on Azriel. “I miss Forever, and our herb garden, even your batty highhostling.”

Azriel cawed a laugh. “If you’re missing Cobweb, you’re not as well off as you think!” he said, smiling impishly until amazement bloomed on his features. “Cobweb. I remember,” he said slowly, a troubled look settling in his eyes. “He told me that Ithiel was killed. Oh, poor Cobweb.” He shook his head. “Still, I’m ready to go to Immanion and see Cal— I just have this feeling that he’ll be able to help me retrieve much more of my past.”

Aleeme felt something wet fall on his face and turned his head. Yazdyar continued to play with his hair, and was crying silently, the occasional tear rolling down his cheek and dripping from his chin.

“Yazdyar, are you okay?” Aleeme asked, suddenly worried that the healer’s tears were of sadness and not joy.

He sniffed, nodding, and then leaned over to get the edge of his shirt to wipe his nose. “I’m just going to miss you so much when you go,” he said, his voice a soft lament. “Both of you. It’s a hazard of being a healer, caring so much for the hara you take care of, but I’d never dealt with somehar as damaged as you were, Aleeme…” He wiped at his eyes with his thumbs, looking apologetic. “I put so much into you. I wanted your recovery so much, and being able to have you both in my home, spend time with me as friends as well as patients, and our aruna— it’s, well…”

“Bone-melting?” Azriel suggested, squeezing Aleeme’s feet.

Yazdyar laughed, sniffling at the same time. “Yes, it is that, but I also feel that it’s done so much for me. I hope that it’s been a contributing element to your healing. To be candid, I don’t know that aruna for me will be the same again.”

“Oh Yazdyar, you’re skilled, you’re quite dashing, and have a heart the size of Megalithica. Surely you’ll be snatched up in no time flat once we’re out of your hair,” Azriel said, his words obviously heartfelt.

“Well, I certainly can’t predict the future, but I know my past. You two are so fortunate. And that’s all I’ll say about that topic,” he stated firmly, giving them a shaky smile. “Let me go write quick notes to Vaysh and Cal that I can send via overnight courier, and then I think we should go to one of my favorite restaurants. I’m starved.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Aleeme said, though of course he was now dreadfully curious about the healer’s past. Once Yazdyar had carefully raised Aleeme out of his lap and walked back to his room, Aleeme and Azriel quietly discussed what might have happened to the Ferelithian.

“We are fortunate,” Aleeme said, leaning over to kiss Azriel deeply, keeping it a physical kiss of tongues and lips until Azriel’s breath transformed it. When they pulled apart, Aleeme sensed Azriel’s hesitation.

“What is it?” he asked as they got up from the floor and began to dress.

“Well, you love me, but you’re remembering years of experiences with a former me that may never come back,” Azriel said, halting every few words as though afraid to speak them aloud. “How can you stand it? Would you choose me— again? Even if Cal can’t help me into myself to unlock the memories, if they’re there? I feel like I’m full of gaping holes,” he said miserably.

“Az, come here,” Aleeme pleaded, enfolding him in a firm hug. “You’re still you, still trusting and kind, you seem to adore me, and seeing you makes my heart speed up. Being with you feels like I’ve come home. We’re scarred, and imperfect, and we went through separate hells.”

He stroked Azriel’s back as Azriel gently nuzzled against his neck. Aleeme closed his eyes, smelling the familiar, unique scent of his chesnari’s warm skin. “We’ll make new memories, together,” he promised, nosing next to the sensitive curve of Azriel’s ear. He’d had several piercings, before, but now the holes were empty; Aleeme decided he’d get him a few thin rings in Azriel’s metal of choice before they left Ferelithia. Surely he would still take pleasure in being adorned.

“You were chosen for me for my feybraiha, but we selected each other of our own will after that. If those memories won’t return, our first night back I’ll tell them to you. Better yet, we can almost re-experience them,” Aleeme said.

“Almost?” Azriel’s voice was more playful now than despondent.

“Well, I could pretend to be inexperienced, I guess,” Aleeme murmured.

“No, that’s okay.” Azriel leaned back, his face hauntingly beautiful, a complex architecture structured by the lineage of hara from whom he was descended. “Just choose me.”

Yazdyar’s tear-streaked face, bravely attempting a smile, haunted Aleeme, but he chanted the mantra that drummed in his heart: “You, Azriel. Again, and again, and again.”

* * * * *

Immanion rose in front of the three hara. It was resplendent and shining, a luminous homage to harish sensibilities. Soaring towers thrust opalescent cries of triumph into the air. Banners waved; the city gleamed, every surface sending the message that the creatures inhabiting such an environment were superior, aesthetically obsessed, and a force to be reckoned with.

“At least it’s not ostentatious or anything,” Azriel deadpanned, and Yazdyar laughed, a full-bellied sound that made Aleeme smile.

“I guess Phaonica is the highest tower?” Aleeme asked.

“Oh yes. I thought I’d take you by the healing training centre, then go eat somewhere, then we can make our way walking up to the realm of the Tigrons and Tigrina and their staff of thousands.”

“What about the sedim?” Azriel asked, letting the creature lead them into the city.

“There are different stables, including one near the training center. I want you to meet some of my colleagues, but you’ll also both get a thorough evaluation by one of the senior healers.”

“Physically I don’t doubt I’ll get a healthy assessment,” Azriel said. “But the other aspects—”

“Will be what they will,” Aleeme interrupted. He was sitting behind Azriel on Tassia, Vaysh’s sedu. “I can see how your brother would fit in here well,” he said to Yazdyar as they made their way to the outskirts of the city. The hara wandered through markets without haste; there were hara of many exotic colorings, clothes and other elements to their appearance that set them apart even from the diversity of Ferelithians. The Gelaming were easy to pick out, tall and regal-seeming, poised courtiers and stewards of this orderly realm.

“Teak does prefer living here to Ferelithia,” Yazdyar agreed, letting his gaze sweep along the wide street lined with glossy foliage before turning to look at Aleeme. “I like it here too, really I do. But it can seem almost too efficient, too well mannered. And it’s definitely political. I couldn’t care less about prestige or being a sycophant to get closer to hara in places of power.”

His last words held a hint of venom; more than ever Aleeme was curious as to what made him and Teak chafe, and if that was related to Yazdyar’s cryptic statements about his past. Soon they were at the pristine, bustling entrance to the healing center. Aides came out to greet them, and after dismounting, Yazdyar gave one of the young residents instructions about the sedim.

“Well!” he enthused, waving at the door. “This is where I was transformed from a naïve young har who wanted to help his harbrethren to the jaded healer you see before you.” His wide grin and sparkling eyes told the true tale.

“You’re such a liar,” Azriel said, smirking.

The rest of the day was a blur for Aleeme, though it also seemed to go at a snail’s pace. He was anxious to meet Cal if possible, but primarily for Azriel to spend the evening with him since the Tigron had graciously carved out several hours to chat and work with Azriel, one on one. For his part, Aleeme had strange butterflies in his stomach about meeting this mysterious Vaysh person, the original Tigron’s personal aide, and also at having several hours alone with Yazdyar. Aleeme continued to feel the occasional twinge of disloyalty when he thought of the healer, though the source of the ghostly jabs remained a mystery. Their aruna was first and foremost for healing; Yazdyar hadn’t spoken or acted inappropriately.

You need to stop obsessing about his personal life
, he chided himself as they walked up the vast wave of stairs that led to Phaonica.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Azriel murmured in Aleeme’s ear.

There were guards in bright pavonian garb much like Teak and Parallax’s uniforms standing every dozen steps or so, though they were unarmed as best as Aleeme could tell. He didn’t doubt that they listened in somewhat to hara’s words, whether spoken or in thought, in order to protect the royal household.

“This environment seems like the near opposite to that of your hostling and father,” Aleeme said to Yazdyar, who nodded.

“I think some hara rebel against their upbringing, but Teak is truly drawn to the intrigue here. He’s very popular in Ferelithia, too,” he said dryly, producing a scarlet envelope which he gave to the har who stood at the entry arch.

The har had a long face with olive skin, sensuous lips and elegant gestures like those of a dancer. After scanning the note, he gazed at the three with languid interest.

“Greetings, Yazdyar har Ferelith, Azriel har Parasiel and Aleeme har Sarestes. You are expected. Azriel, you are to come with me. I will take you to see the Tigron Calanthe. Healer Yazdyar, do please escort your charge to the fourth level courtyard and Vaysh will meet you there. I am told you know your way…” The har’s eyebrow arched delicately, the action changing the statement to a question.

“I do. Thank you.” Yazdyar placed his palm in the middle of Aleeme’s back to steer him around the courtly sentinel, but Aleeme stepped over to Azriel.

“Don’t rush or force anything,” he said quietly, running his fingers through Azriel’s thick hair. “Just trust him, and please tell him how grateful I am for what he did for me.”

“He may be able to visit tomorrow,” Azriel insisted as Aleeme clung to him for a moment. He felt unsettled and out of place, especially when unfamiliar, warm fingers light as moth’s wings came to rest on his shoulder. Startled, Aleeme pulled away from Azriel. The sentry-har seemed to glow with benevolence and goodwill.

“All hara without hate in their hearts are welcome here,” he said, his voice as smooth as rich cream. “Don’t be of troubled spirit. The sun is warm, the air fragrant. Be at peace. No harm will come to this one you cherish.”

His words seemed terribly formal to Aleeme, but he sensed the comfort behind them and some of the tension eased out of him.

“See you tonight, tomorrow morning at the latest,” Azriel said, giving Aleeme a quick, firm kiss before looking expectantly at his escort.

“Please give my best to Calanthe as well,” Yazdyar said, standing at Aleeme’s side as the sentinel and Azriel walked down a marble corridor. Another har in similar plum robes took the first har’s place and Yazdyar inclined his head in the direction of a curving staircase. Onyx statues of swans sat poised at its base, their heads turned toward each other. Aleeme kept his mouth shut until they’d arrived at a set of glass doors in the shape of wings. The doors were wide open, their crimson curtains pulled over to one side and held back with gold cording. Green shrubs that seemed to have been trimmed into shapes of animals came into view in the courtyard.

“This is unbelievable,” Aleeme said hoarsely, looking at Yazdyar for grounding. “I mean, the Parasiels aren’t exactly poor. They have staff, and gardens, an estate… Azriel’s highfather was the autarch! I’ve gotten used to living pretty luxuriously. But this,” Aleeme gestured feebly in an arc from the manicured gardens to the inlaid marble behind him. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, realizing he had nothing further he could say. Made mute by the scale of beauty and grandeur surrounding him, Aleeme walked slowly into the courtyard.

“It takes a little while to get used to,” Yazdyar confided, draping his arm over Aleeme’s shoulder.

Aleeme stood straight at first, then sagged against the healer, letting his head rest at the juncture of shoulder to neck.

“I assume I’m not interrupting anything,” a reedy voice drawled behind them.

Aleeme spun around, his hands itching to straighten out his robes when he saw the har who must be Vaysh approach. He was captivatingly beautiful, but his body language was a loud chorus of  ‘keep your distance.’ Frost practically radiated from him, so Aleeme was quite shocked when Yazdyar strode to Vaysh and took him in his arms for a tender embrace— which was returned. The healer then kissed him firmly on the mouth before turning to Aleeme.

“Vaysh, this is Aleeme har Sarestes.”

“So it is. I’ve known of you, of course, through Pell’s friendship with your hostling. Given what you went through in Fulminir, I must say that I’m pleased to be speaking with you now.”

Vaysh was so matter-of-fact about Aleeme’s lineage, as well as the torture he’d suffered that he was momentarily stunned into silence. He cleared his throat, and then said, “I’m pleased to be speaking at all.”

Aleeme found Vaysh disquieted him; he couldn’t help being captivated by his appearance, the porcelain skin, lurid hair the color of persimmon fruit, his soume side brought haughtily to the fore. A look into his grey eyes, though, and Aleeme saw the flashing knife blade. If Vaysh had loyalties, doubtless they were solid as granite, but Aleeme couldn’t fathom how anyhar would be allowed close enough to be a confidante or friend. He was aloof, a beautiful flower that blooms in the dead of winter, yet he was almost cozy in his treatment of Yazdyar. Aleeme had never been around an individual so enigmatic, and it made him uncomfortable. He was consumed by a childish wish that Vaysh would be called away and Aleeme could lay in Yazdyar’s lap, the healer playing with his hair.

“I trouble you,” Vaysh bloviated. “It’s written all over your face. Don’t apologize, I do that to a lot of hara. It allows me to pick my friends carefully.” A layer of ice melted; he pressed his lips together to refresh the gloss on them. “Come, let’s go over to the gazebo. I’ll have wine and some fruit brought to us.”

He gracefully extricated himself from Yazdyar’s hold, but stayed at his side while motioning to a path of rose-colored sand. It was just wide enough for the three to walk alongside one another, with Yazdyar in the middle. He reached for Aleeme’s hand and held it. The gesture was such a natural, un-selfconscious act that Aleeme was able to relax somewhat.

“You’re the personal aide to the Tigron? To Pellaz?” Aleeme clarified, having decided it was rude to not to appear interested in the high-ranking har.

“I am. We’ve been together in that capacity for many years, with only a few scars to tell the tale.”

Aleeme heard the droll undercurrent in his voice, but the overwhelming energy he felt was that of rigid guardedness. The Tigron had visited Aleeme’s parents in Roselane a lot when he was growing up. To be honest, Aleeme had had rather a crush on the dark-skinned har who sizzled with power and confidence. It was difficult for him to reconcile an image of Vaysh and him being emotionally close, much less Vaysh and the Ferelithian healer. As they entered the gazebo and sat in ornately carved chairs near a circular table, he blurted out, “How did you two get to be friends?”

Yazdyar glanced at Vaysh, who gazed fondly back at him. Degree by degree, Vaysh was thawing before his eyes. Aleeme could almost see the bond between them, a coruscated haze of familiarity.

“Vaysh was in the same tribe as my parents, and even knew my father before his feybraiha,” Yazdyar recounted as a serving-har approached. He placed a tray with two bottles of wine, glasses, and a heaping plate of fruits and figs in front of them. After he’d poured each of them some wine, each har murmuring his thanks in turn, the serving-har left. Yazdyar lifted his glass, proposing a toast.

“To treasured companions, both long-standing and new.”

Their glasses clinked brightly and they all drank. It was a crisp, tart wine; Aleeme took another sip, letting the flavor dance on his tongue before swallowing.

“Anyway,” Vaysh continued, “I told you, Aleeme, about the pendant that I wear and that it came from Vaysh. He also kept an eye on me during my time at the institute, especially during an intense half-year of training in Phaonica.”

“You make it sound as though I was spying on you,” Vaysh said archly, leaning forward in his chair to select a strawberry which he nibbled on with even, white teeth. His sensuality was much more apparent now. While Aleeme wasn’t drawn to him, it dawned on him that it was highly likely that he and Yazdyar had been rooning partners on occasion.

“I know you were busy with all sorts of other important activities to do with the Tigron and the rest of the royal household,” Yazdyar said, merriment emblazoned on his face. “But I also don’t doubt that the occasional letters I sent home weren’t the only correspondence they got from Immanion.”

“I’ll never tell,” Vaysh drawled, nudging the plate of fruit toward Aleeme. “Here, please help yourself. One of the advantages of being so close to the Tigron is getting the best of everything.”

“Thank you.”

Aleeme felt less awkward around Vaysh now, no doubt a combination of the wine and the fact that Vaysh had deemed Aleeme worthy of seeing behind the mask so apparent when he’d first arrived. Aleeme took a peach from the platter and a cloth napkin embroidered with a symbol of Immanion, two serpents twining around a sword. He bit into it and juice ran down his chin. The fruit was delicious, and he sucked at the furry skin where more juice threatened to spill before dabbing at the stickiness on his chin. He glanced up and saw Yazdyar watching him in rapt attention, his fingers gliding up and down the stem of his wineglass. If Azriel didn’t return until late this evening or in the morning, Aleeme was certain there would be some aruna with his healer in his future. Just the thought of his made his soume-lam tremble slightly, as though taking a breath. Biting into the peach for another mouthful suddenly seemed like foreplay.

“So, Aleeme. You’re part Colurastes, yes? It doesn’t show that much, but then again, I’ve not met many from that tribe.”

“I’m half Colurastes, half Sarock. Ulaume didn’t teach me much about our clan, but my hair does sometimes have a mind of its own.”

Vaysh nodded and leaned down to pull a footstool near him. He lounged back in his chaise so that the front vee in his robe opened a bit, showcasing prominent collarbones and a thin silk cord with a curvy piece of jade hanging from it. “What do you think of Immanion?” he asked, taking a deep swallow of wine. “It can be a bit much the first few times you visit.”

Aleeme nodded vigorously. “The scale of things is just enormous,” he said, turning the half-eaten peach in his fingers. “And it’s so diverse. I thought that Ferelithia was colorful and exotic, but there’s even more variety of tribes and cultures here.”

“Well, it is essentially the capital for all of Wraeththu,” Vaysh noted, “though there are still some tribes who prefer not to have anything to do with us. Pell would like to have harmony, and all tribes be at peace under our banner, but he has other things on his mind now that Cal has returned… again.” He let out a labored sigh. “And— well, it’s common knowledge, but you’ve been over in Megalithica until recently, Yazdyar. Has Teak told you the joyful news?”

Aleeme took the last bite of his peach and sucked on the pit, savoring every last bit of the sweet flesh. He was dying of curiosity since Vaysh’s expression was anything but joyous.

“No. He’s too busy talking about his own successes, or about the intrigues in the ranks of the army,” Yazdyar said, rolling his eyes and pouring himself another glass of wine. “Thank Ag he seems to have settled down a bit with this har named Parallax, so now I don’t have to hear about all of his rooning conquests.”

“Parallax? I’ve not kept up with him. How interesting,” Vaysh said under his breath, momentarily sidetracked.

“What about the Tigron?” Yazdyar probed.

Vaysh drummed the table lightly with his fingers. “He’s with pearl.”

“Really?” Yazdyar spluttered, but then his mouth split open with a grin. “That’s wonderful! But wait— he was injured pretty seriously during that last attack. Physically he wasn’t too badly off, but psychically and emotionally… is he really up for this? The timing could be better,” he mused aloud.

“Yes, it could,” Vaysh said, echoing his sentiments. “But there’s nothing for it. Caeru’s still dealing with his own loss, and the priest hara in the nayati around Immanion have reported an increase in hara praying for the safety of the Tigron and the unborn harling.”

Aleeme’s guard was down; he hadn’t expected that the conversation would involve harlings and being with pearl. As clear as day, he heard the pitiful mewling cries of the harling he’d borne. With jarring recollection, he felt how he’d been so repulsed by its need for affection and warmth, even though the barest sliver of him wanted to care for the creature that had been housed in his body. Mostly, however, he’d shunned it, especially when Ponclast had forced him to be with pearl again mere days after he’d expelled the first one, when Aleeme was in a constant push and pull of wanting to live and wishing desperately to die.

“Oh Aleeme, come here,” Yazdyar said urgently.

Aleeme shook his head, bringing himself back to the present, to the sun and succulent peaches and potent wine.

“Could you please pour me some more wine?” he said, his voice scratchy.

“I will, but I want you in my lap.” Yazdyar was firm.

“I’m fine,” Aleeme insisted, even as he realized his hands had balled into fists, bunching up his tunic. He prised his fingers open and placed his palms on the table.

“I don’t know what I said to have so affected you, but it was unintentional,” Vaysh said, leaning across the table to place his hand atop Aleeme’s.

“It’s okay.” Aleeme looked up at him, surprised at the concern he saw in his eyes.

“No, it’s not. And you’re not,” Yazdyar said, his tone verging on strident. “Vaysh, I hate to do this, but I think we should go. I need to do some healing work with Aleeme. We hadn’t addressed this topic, and this is a safe place to bring it out in the open. It’s time.”

“Yazdyar,” Aleeme growled. “I’m not a harling. You can’t just yank me around.”

“Through pelki you were forced to carry two pearls, and the first harling survived,” Yazdyar said in a low, pained voice. “We don’t have to deal with all of it at once, but it is my professional opinion that you let me engage in some healing rituals with you about this. Your reaction to Vaysh’s comments was so immediate and so profound that I’m not going to let you pretend it didn’t happen. Please, Aleeme.”

Aleeme bit the inside of his cheek, but the tears came anyway, bitter and angry. “Fine. An exorcism it is, then. Vaysh, I’m sorry you’re seeing me like this. I’m… I’m not the har I was,” he choked out.

Vaysh eased up from his chair, walked around the table and pulled Aleeme out of his chair and into his surprisingly strong arms. “One day I’ll tell you my story,” he murmured into Aleeme’s ear as Aleeme wept, unable to wrestle down the anguish that fought in him like a caged lion. “I was utterly broken and scoured out,” he went on, carding his fingers through Aleeme’s hair. “I’m not the har I used to be, either. We’re more alike than you know. Now go with your healer. I would be worried and a terrible host if you didn’t.”

Aleeme managed to calm himself down enough to croak, “Okay,” and allowed himself to be handed over to Yazdyar.

“Why don’t you go to my rooms,” Vaysh suggested. “I have a deep tub, you can both go soak in that as a part of any ritual you may decide on. I’ll notify my staff so they’re not surprised. You remember where my rooms are,” he stated, and Yazdyar made an affirmative noise.

“Thank you, Vaysh. We’ll go to one of the guest rooms in a couple of hours.”

“Take your time,” Vaysh said, sitting back down in his chaise. “I have a rare period of quiet and then I’m accompanying Pell to a dinner meeting with a newly-elected member of the Hegemony.”

“Better you than me,” Yazdyar said, shaking his head. “It was good to see you. I’ll visit again soon.”

“I hope so.” Vaysh poured himself a small serving of wine. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Aleeme. You’re perhaps stronger than you know.”

“Thank you.” Aleeme’s emotions were no longer galloping out of control and he managed a serviceable bow, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s been a privilege.”

Yazdyar guided them back down the colorful path to the winged entrance to the palace tower.

“I really am feeling a lot better,” Aleeme said sheepishly as they walked past wide vases sprouting peacock feathers, going down corridors and up staircases, passing fewer and fewer hara.

“I’m sure you are, but I’d be a terrible healer if I didn’t do some purifying chants, and for us to talk a little bit. Vaysh’s suggestion of a soak is a great one.”

“Well, I’ve learned to trust you, so I’ll follow your lead,” Aleeme said, feeling unexpectedly amenable to Yazdyar’s propositions.

“Thank you for that,” Yazdyar said gently. “I’m really sorry that meeting Vaysh sent you into a spiral— the news about the Tigron was startling to me as well.”

Aleeme waited for the miasma of distress to take hold of him, and was pleasantly surprised when that didn’t happen.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, but he was… different.” The words to describe him weren’t forthcoming, so Aleeme stopped with that statement.

“He is, and in more ways than you’d ever imagine,” Yazdyar said cryptically. They stopped in front of a door painted dark plum; swirling arcs of gold and crimson danced on its surface. Yazdyar knocked. The door opened and a har dressed in luxurious silks bowed to them, an obeisant flower.

“Vaysh said to expect you,” he said in a lilting voice. “Please avail yourself of anything in his lodgings. He has a study if you’d like a particularly quiet space, and there’s wine in each room. If you’d care for me to draw a bath, or to assist you in any manner, just ring any one of the silver bells you see.”

Aleeme couldn’t get over the har’s deferential treatment; he supposed that the serving-hara at Forever were simply much more down to earth. Well, that and the fact that most all of them had been raised as Varrs. He had no idea from what tribe this rarefied har came.

“Thank you very much…” Yazdyar inflected his voice, obviously hoping to secure the har’s name.

“Ocelii,” he replied demurely, backing out through the doors and closing them with a quiet snicking sound.

“So do you think you could get used to having somehar like that around, catering to your every whim?” Yazdyar asked provocatively, steering Aleeme past plush chairs upholstered in buttery leather into a smaller room with an ebony desk and matching chair. There was also a chaise lounge and a small couch, several bookcases against the walls were festooned with candles and abstract glass statuaries, and windows framed by sheer burgundy curtains.

“He was easy on the eyes,” Aleeme admitted. “Most of the hara here are, though. Is there some kind of alarm that goes off if a sub-beautiful har tries to enter this city of delights?” He was only half-joking.

“There’s probably a mechanism that allows some to get in because they’re balanced out by blindingly gorgeous hara,” Yazdyar retorted, grinning. His expression grew serious as he rubbed Aleeme’s shoulder. “Why don’t you lie down on this chaise, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Clear your mind if you can, and feel your blood as it pulses through you.”

“I can try. Do you mind if I have a glass of wine first?”

“No, at least not as long as you pour me one as well,” Yazdyar said, his mouth quirking in a smile.

“But of course.”

Aleeme drank his quickly and served himself another half a glass before lying down. The ritual didn’t take very long, but Yazdyar’s voice and the heat from his palms as he passed over and around Aleeme’s body caused Aleeme to feel as though some lingering anger was being breathed out through his skin. Yazdyar was coaxing it out of him, allowing Aleeme to take in golden light with each deep, purposeful inhalation. For a few moments he could have sworn he was so free of heaviness of any kind that he was floating above the chaise, held gently in place by Yazdyar’s intentions and affection which flowed from him, silken ribbons of thought which kept them connected. Yazdyar’s flutey tones faded away and Aleeme settled back into his corporeal self.

“How do you feel?” the healer asked quietly, brushing some tendrils of hair from Aleeme’s forehead.

Aleeme thought about how to describe his feelings and settled on a word that echoed in him as though his body was a struck bell.

“Liberated.”

Yazdyar made a low, pleased humming sound. “That’s marvelous to hear.” He leaned down to retrieve his wineglass and drained it. “I’m going to summon Vaysh’s lovely serving-har, and within a few minutes we’ll be able to enjoy a pampering soak.”

“Sounds divine,” Aleeme said, sinking even further into the chair. “Just peel me up when it’s ready.”

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you like this, relaxed, at peace—”

“Roonable,” Aleeme sighed, looking at Yazdyar through heavy-lidded eyes.

“You have no idea.” Yazdyar’s fingers drifted down Aleeme’s cheek to his jaw. “Azriel is truly a lucky har.”

“I thought I knew a lot about aruna,” Aleeme said, leaning into the healer’s touch, “but you’re practically a hienama.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Yazdyar said, a huskiness creeping into his voice.

“As long as I’m not taking advantage,” Aleeme said as he glanced at the healer sidelong.

“That’s one of the joys of being har, now isn’t it? And as you know, aruna can have tremendous healing aspects to it. Until you return to Galhea, you can take advantage of me as often as you’d like.”

Aleeme smiled lazily at him, easing up to pour himself more wine as Yazdyar walked to the black desk and rang the bell that was in front of a set of drawers.

Ocelii glided in moments later, as fluid as a swan on water. He conferred quietly with Yazdyar before vanishing again, leaving behind the faintest hint of woodsy spice. Aleeme realized he was especially susceptible to the effects of the wine, but he was really enjoying the sensation of being carefree. He didn’t even feel the need to think of how long it had been since he’d been without a care, so instead he lounged on the chaise, idly playing with his hair and making headway on his newest glass of wine. Yazdyar seemed to be engrossed in examining Vaysh’s selection of books, making an occasional intrigued noise.

“Your bath is ready,” Ocelii murmured from the doorway, bowing his head and sweeping his arm in a languid arc toward the bathroom suite.

“Thank you, Ocelli,” Aleeme said, slurring only slightly.

The serving-har demurely lowered his eyes and then was gone again.

“I need to use the bathroom,” Aleeme admitted, rising to his feet and heading that direction.

“I do, too,” Yazdyar said, picking up a new bottle of wine as he followed Aleeme out of the study.

Once his bladder was relieved, Aleeme disrobed and placed his wineglass on the side of the square tub, its rosy marble the same color as the sand out in the courtyard they’d visited. He stepped into the hot but not scalding water which, he noticed, had been scented with freesia.

“This is sublime,” he crooned, looking over to Yazdyar as he pulled his tunic over his head and then stepped out of his wide-legged pants and undergarments. “You’re sublime.”

He didn’t feel this was being disloyal; he loved Azriel, but Azriel was meeting with the mysterious, brooding, gorgeous-by-reputation Calanthe. Aruna didn’t have to mean anything: after all, it was as much a harish necessity as food, or sleep. Yazdyar opened his bottle of wine, a dark, rich red, and poured himself a glass before sinking into the tub to sit on a lowered bench next to Aleeme.

“This is dangerous territory for me,” he said, his expression haunted. The healer slowly kicked his legs in the water, a flush settling in his cheeks from the heat of the bath.

“What do you mean?” Aleeme asked, though he was nearly certain where the topic was headed.

“I could fall for you so easily,” Yazdyar said, his voice pained. “I haven’t wanted to be involved with anyhar aside from as a friend, or the occasional rooning companion, since— well, since Cel. Celafur.”

Aleeme was just drunk enough not to self-censor, and briefly to entertain ridiculous ideas of the three of them — Azriel, Yazdyar and him — living happily together. “Who was he?”

Yazdyar shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment and then reaching behind him for his wine. “He was the first har I really felt a bond with, and thought he did, too. We grew apart, which hurt, but then we got together again, and it was as though those few years in between hadn’t existed. It was like being reunited with part of my soul. And then…”

He pressed his lips together until they turned white at the seam. Aleeme placed a hand on his thigh, the fingers tantalizingly near to his quiescent ouana-lim. Yazdyar relaxed his mouth, turning to Aleeme and giving him a small, grateful smile.

“Well, he’d apparently continued to hold a flame for some other har he’d been with in the interim. The other har was trying to get him back— I’d seen some letters, but I’d respected his privacy. I had no idea that while I was building a future with Cel in my head, with a house near the water in Ferelithia and maybe a harling, he was busy being led back to this other har. I came back from a grueling day of classes one day and found an eloquent note, which basically told me that what I’d been living had been a lie. I was pretty bitter.”

Aleeme’s heart felt bruised for the healer; he’d never gone through anything like that. Yazdyar looked so disconsolate, though he was obviously trying to smother his feelings and focus on Aleeme again.

“I hope I don’t remind you of Celafur. He sounds like a real bastard,” Aleeme said softly, stroking Yazdyar’s leg and letting his fingers drift over to his dormant phallus, smoothing his finger pads along the soft skin. “I’ll admit that I don’t always know what to think about you,” he went on, firming his grip as Yazdyar emitted a low groan and sank down in the water, spreading his legs. “Azriel is my chesnari, and unlike the Tigrons and Tigrina, I don’t think I could bond like that to two hara at once. But you affect me, Yazdyar. The care you’ve taken with me, the light I see in your eyes when I’m around… After aruna with you, I feel like I could do anything.”

He continued stroking Yazdyar’s ouana-lim with long, unhurried movements, and with a shock, realized he himself was still very much in an ouana role.

“But I could never leave Azriel. I don’t want to. You’re so fucking sexy, though, and good-hearted…” Aleeme stopped, surprised at his honesty.

“I’m here to help you heal, not cause you conflict, or try and steal you away from Azriel.” Yazdyar took another deep swallow of wine and placed the glass off on the rim of the tub. “It’s probably for the best that you’ll be going home, and soon. I could make myself crazy, wanting you and not being able to be with you in ways… I’ve let my imagination get the better of me. So unprofessional,” he muttered as Aleeme ran his thumb over the domed top of Yazdyar’s awakening ouana-lim. “Ag, you’re driving me wild now!”

“I know. I want to take aruna with you. I’m not being a tease, I want you so much, need your energy, your hands, to taste you again…”

He’d slid over into Yazdyar’s lap, facing him, beginning an agonizingly slow rocking motion so that their ouana-lims rubbed against each other. Yazdyar whimpered, running his hands down Aleeme’s sides to cup his backside. His usual calm gaze had turned wild, almost surprised; he resembled a startled fox.

“I couldn’t possibly say no,” he said, gripping the swell of Aleeme’s buttocks. “Share breath with me,” he begged, arching into Aleeme’s hand, now circling their erect stalks.

The kiss was fierce, tasting of potent wine and desperation. Aleeme was swept away in the rush of Yazdyar’s passion, the feel of wet skin under his hand as he snaked the hand not already occupied around Yazdyar’s wide shoulders, devouring the heated images as though they were a favorite dish and he was famished. Yazdyar was incense, filling Aleeme with dizzying heat, his desire permeating him like a living thing. Aleeme rutted against him, sensing a pulsing energy around them, lambent auroras shifting and leaping outside of actual sight. He leaned back, panting, his gaze held captive by Yazdyar’s dilated eyes.

“Are we going to take aruna here?” he gasped, moving both hands so he could place them on Yazdyar’s chest, drawing his thumbnails over the hardened nubs.

“We could, but I’d rather be on the bed,” Yazdyar said, his mouth forming a silent ‘oh’ as Aleeme tugged gently on his nipples.

“Vaysh won’t mind?” Aleeme asked, genuinely surprised.

“He knows me pretty well, and I suspect he expected we’d make use of the bed. He and I have been rooning companions a few times,” Yazdyar said hoarsely, leaning forward to nip on the side of Aleeme’s neck.

“I thought that might’ve been the case. Careful!” Aleeme hissed as Yazdyar sucked harder on the sensitive column of his neck. “I don’t need to have a glaring sign on my skin that we’ve been together.”

Yazdyar licked him instead, planting light kisses up his jaw to his ear until he could breathe into it. “Sorry. I could get carried away, mark your body with my teeth, knowing the bruises and imprints would fade.”

A delicious shudder frissoned across Aleeme’s nerves; he leaned his head back, squeezing his thighs around Yazdyar’s.

“Yes, but—”

“I know, Aleeme. I won’t do it. But part of me wishes I could,” Yazdyar said plaintively.

“You’ve marked me forever by healing me,” Aleeme said, lowering his head and placing his hands on Yazdyar’s freckle-dusted shoulders. “We’re Wraeththu, and we’re not exclusive. But—”

“You don’t need to say any more,” Yazdyar said, kissing Aleeme into silence.

The shimmering, dancing arunic energy grew stronger as they shared breath; Aleeme felt a radiance from the healer’s groin and he moaned into his mouth.

“Bed,” Aleeme begged.

“Yes.”

It was sweet torture, being separated, as they sloshed water getting out of the tub and then dried each other off. Aleeme held Yazdyar from behind, wrapping his arms around his waist and kissing his shoulder blades and down the knobby range of his spine. The heat-reddened curve of his ass proved too tempting to resist and he bit it, not hard.

“Ow!” Yazdyar yelled, laughing. “No scarring your healer, that’s hardly fair.”

“Oh fine.”

Aleeme retrieved the red wine and Yazdyar took their glasses before they walked into the bedroom. Apparently Ocelii had anticipated what might take place: rose petals decorated the bed coverings, a decanter of sheh and two glasses, half-full, stood on a side table, and a menagerie of thin, burning tapers let off a pleasant citrusy scent. After putting their alcohol away in lieu of the sheh, they tumbled onto the bed, rolling and kissing, clawing at each other like sparring pups. At last Aleeme straddled Yazdyar’s groin again as the healer lay on his back, his hands thrown over his head in mock surrender.

“We’re both ouana,” Aleeme said, holding Yazdyar’s jutting organ for emphasis. “What shall we do?”

“Would you find it… distressing if I were both? At once?” Yazdyar asked, looking uncertain.

“Both? How?”

Aleeme continued to stroke the luminous bronze organ, which began to flower, the petals opening just slightly.

“You just have to focus,” Yazdyar said, arching up and creating a titillating friction where the base of their erections rubbed. “At first it feels like being pulled in two directions, but with practice it’s unbelievable. Feel me— I’m soume, too, wet and so ready, gods,” he moaned.

“Those places inside that are so intense,” Aleeme said, breathing heavily, his mind reeling at the thought of being both soume and ouana at the same time.

“Sikras?”

“Yes,” Aleeme purred, scooting back so he could kneel between Yazdyar’s legs. “I’ve never tried… do you think I could reach them with my tongue?”

“Oh yes. Are you sure?”

“Definitely.”

Aleeme breathed deeply of the musky scent, his sensibilities jarred by the sight of the proud ouana-lim and the damp, silken folds of Yazdyar’s soume-lam that begged for attention. He sent out his tongue, tasting a salty-lemon flavor as he licked inside the petaled skin. Yazdyar groaned, the sound causing Aleeme’s ouana-lim to ache in sympathy. Remembering where his own sikras were, Aleeme sought out the first sensitive nub and rubbed his tongue against it until it swelled and a small rush of Yazdyar’s juices flowed onto Aleeme’s chin.

“Aleeme! Oh gods, so good,” Yazdyar said, spreading his thighs wider and making pleading, needy noises as Aleeme kept to his succulent task. He pressed his face in further, spurred on by the erotic sounds Yazdyar made as he delved further into his muscle and awakened the second sikra. Yazdyar cried out; Aleeme thought perhaps he was hallucinating, but it seemed as though there were overtones in the air, ringing in an ethereal harmony that corresponded to the sikras.

“In me, now,” Yazdyar said through a sob. “Bury yourself, touch me, need you so much, Aleeme, my guide star…”

Wiping his mouth and chin with the back of his hand, Aleeme sat back on his heels. He felt so powerful and confident, Yazdyar’s body spread out before him, a cornucopia of sensual delights. With one long thrust, he sank into Yazdyar’s body, crying out as Yazdyar gripped him with the rippling muscles of his soume-lam. Again and again, Aleeme withdrew and then pushed, his hands planted near the hollows of Yazdyar’s arms. Broken moans fell from his lips as he angled deep in Yazdyar’s heat, finding another sikra and sliding past it with intent until its note joined the others and Yazdyar thrashed beneath him.

“Should I—” Aleeme said, gasping, “touch you?” His heart stumbled over itself at how debauched and undone Yazdyar looked, being carried irrevocably away by the rising tide of their motions to an ecstatic pinnacle.

“I’ll do it,” Yazdyar said, his brown eyes shining with tears. “We’re hawks on the wind. Fly with me!”

Aleeme was soaring, held aloft on wings of desire. Yazdyar’s blazing star was a solitary note, ringing clear as the tongue in Aleeme’s ouana-lim flickered out to graze it. His limbs jerked, their combined release crackling in a torrid cascade of spark-lightning until at last Aleeme sank down onto Yazdyar, panting for breath. The healer’s stomach was unexpectedly slick, and Aleeme dazedly realized he must have climaxed in two ways at once. He took in a few shaky breaths as the resplendent curtain of arunic energy faded away and he slowly lifted his head to gaze at Yazdyar. The Ferelithian looked decidedly worn out, but sated and content.

Aleeme eased his ouana-lim from the snug confines of Yazdyar’s body and settled down at his side, pulling at part of a sheet from the shambles of bed coverings to wipe the opalescent fluid from his belly.

“Thank you.” Yazdyar’s voice was rich, still roughened from his shouts during their passionate coupling. “You’re quite talented, Aleeme. Aruna will never be the same for me,” he went on, smiling at Aleeme though there was a shadow of melancholy in his words.

“Nor for me,” Aleeme said. The truth of the words was heavy, and he knew he wouldn’t grasp the full magnitude of what he said for many years.

Eventually Yazdyar sighed and turned on his side facing Aleeme, draping his arm over his waist. He nuzzled against the side of Aleeme’s neck, occasionally mouthing kisses along his sensitive skin.

“I’ll treasure this,” he murmured, adjusting his legs so that his softening ouana-lim rested gently against the retracted folds of Aleeme’s soume-lam.

Aleeme took in a deep breath that caught a few times, exhaling through parted lips. “You’ve done all that you could for us, and more,” he said.

Yazdyar’s eyes closed slowly, blinds being turned to shut out the light of day. “We’ll return to Galhea tomorrow. It’s time for you and Azriel to go home.”

Aleeme let the pronouncement made in such resigned tones settle in him like disturbed sand returning to the ocean floor. He was of two minds about going home; certainly he wanted to get back to Forever with its routines and cycles, the familiar hara of the house and nearby town, and reclaiming a partnership with Azriel. The other part of him was keenly aware of the affection and attentions Yazdyar heaped on him so generously. It was terribly flattering to have two beautiful hara devoted to him. He forced himself for a moment to be brutally honest about the healer. Yazdyar hadn’t overstepped any bounds as his primary caretaker, but Aleeme knew in his heart of hearts that Yazdyar had fallen for him already, though he was doing an admirable job of keeping those feelings disguised and tucked away. Should he confront Yazdyar about it, though? What purpose would that serve?

As he gave it more thought, Aleeme decided that it would do more harm than anything else to come right out and say that he knew Yazdyar wanted him for himself. Aleeme wouldn’t act on an outright love declaration anyway; Azriel was his soul mate, and that would never change. That said, he was grateful for Yazdyar’s ardor, even if it made him a hypocrite.

“Yazdyar?” he asked quietly, snuggling closer in the Ferelithian’s arms.

“Yes?” Yazdyar answered, not opening his eyes.

“I think you’re right. The next period of our healing should be done at home. It’s time.”

Yazdyar nodded, brushing two fleeting kisses on the crown of Aleeme’s head. “I’ll stay with you two for a few days. I’d like to be around for the initial period as you get used to being back in that environment.”

Aleeme thought back to the day he and Azriel had been violently forced out of their room, and a tremor went through him. “We’ll need you to clean our room of any lingering bad energy,” he said. “Though Cobweb’s surely already done that. It was ages ago, now. It seems like I’ve lived several lifetimes since…”

He was choked up, his body beginning to tense as the memories of being beaten and then taken through the black, mind-mauling ethers to be presented to Ponclast came rushing at him.

“You’re safe now,” Yazdyar said soothingly, holding Aleeme even closer. “You’re safe. They won’t come for you ever again.”

Aleeme was gripped by a powerful need to be with Azriel. His handsome face, his slender fingers that knew how to play Aleeme’s body with the skill of a virtuoso, his forthrightness and his ability to make Aleeme feel cherished simply by a glance or the feathering of his touch— Aleeme felt parched, and only Azriel’s physical presence could slake his thirst.

“Yazdyar?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“I really miss Azriel. Do you think we could head toward wherever he and Cal are?”

The healer was quiet for a moment, then he said, “We could do that. I think they were going to need a few hours, but I can speak with Ocelii who can probably find out the Tigron’s status from another har on the staff.”

“I’d appreciate that. We should clean up, too,” Aleeme said, the smile audible in his voice. He leaned his head back so he could look into Yazdyar’s face. His wolfish, blue-grey eyes were open now, and his expression was carefully neutral.

“Vaysh has a complicated but imaginative shower. Why don’t you go enjoy it while I have a quick talk with Ocelii? I’ll clean up after you and then we can seek Azriel out. Would you be adverse to having a snack before we leave?”

“No, that sounds great,” Aleeme enthused. “Taking aruna with you has given me an appetite.

A cautious smile found its way to Yazdyar’s lips and he gave Aleeme’s backside a firm squeeze. “We were pretty energetic.”

He scooted back from Aleeme, wiping at his stomach before he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. Aleeme watched him walk to the bathroom, presumably to get his clothes. His body wasn’t as relaxed as Aleeme thought it should be, given the intensity of their climaxes. Guilt began to creep into his conscience, even though Aleeme couldn’t possibly have prevented Yazdyar from having the emotions that he did. He eased up into a seated position and stretched his arms over his head. Aleeme had just stood up and taken a couple of steps toward the bathroom when Yazdyar approached him, looking determined.

“Aleeme, I need to say something, and it’s not going to be easy for me to say out loud,” Yazdyar said, placing his hands together as though to keep from fidgeting. “You probably already know, but I have to put it into words.”

“Does it have to do with me?” Aleeme asked, and Yazdyar nodded.

“I can’t act on this, but in the bath I said I could easily fall for you. It’s too late.” He made a mordant chuckle. “Almost from the first moment you were given to me to take care of, I’ve felt more for you than a healer should for a patient. I’ve fantasized about us being together, maybe with Azriel as well, raising a harling or two, living happily ever after. That’s not how life works a lot of the time. I hope this doesn’t change things— part of me is selfish and wants to whisk you away, but my responsibility first and foremost is to ensure your well-being. Not mine.”

It was obvious how difficult Yazdyar found it to reveal his true desires face to face with Aleeme, and Aleeme’s heart broke a little at the confession.

“I know,” he said in a low voice. “And it doesn’t change things. I admire your telling me. I don’t think I’d have had the spine to do the same.”

“I’m a pretty unique har,” Yazdyar said, standing straighter. “One day, I hope, I’ll find somehar to share life with. I have a lot to give, as a partner or a parent, or both.”

“You do, so much,” Aleeme agreed, walking the few steps to hold him, briefly, in his arms. “It’ll come to pass, I just know it will.”

“Well,” Yazdyar started but his voice cracked. He cleared his throat, looking slightly less miserable than he had when he’d finished his speech. “I don’t know that it will or not, but I’m pretty sure there’ll be some changes in my future. Go get washed up and I’ll see if we can’t get you reunited with Azriel sooner rather than later.”

“Thank you.”

Aleeme felt both optimistic and melancholy. At least now there were no unspoken secrets and longings, it had all been put out in the open. He gave Yazdyar a sympathetic smile, brushed the back of his hand against the soft skin of the healer’s cheek, and then slowly walked past him.

* * * * *

Cal wasn’t intimidating in the traditional sense. He seemed fairly subdued when Aleeme met him, but he did carry himself with an understated power and grace, much as Aleeme guessed a jungle cat would, and Cal appeared just as potentially deadly. But this Calanthe — Tigron, murderer, and seducer of several hara in Azriel’s family — had also managed to work a miracle.

“Aleeme,” Azriel said in a voice so saturated with raw joy that Aleeme teared up. “I’m mostly me again. I can remember,” he murmured, taking a very willing Aleeme in his arms. “Good and bad and things I wish I couldn’t remember, but so much about you, and us, my childhood, my feybraiha and yours.”

Aleeme managed to keep his tears in check, finding himself unable to let loose his emotions while under Calanthe’s piercing, violet-eyed gaze. He gave off an aura of benevolence, but there were definitely unsettling and intimidating qualities to him. Perhaps it was his infamy that preceded him, or his feral beauty. Azriel eased his hold on Aleeme and then stepped to his side so Aleeme could be properly introduced to the Tigron.

“Here he is, the other har you saved,” Azriel said warmly. “This is how he’s supposed to look, absolutely unforgettable.”

For a moment, Aleeme’s thoughts spun crazily: should he bow or do something else deferential? Calanthe just nodded and said, “I’m Cal. You look much improved from when Moon and I found you. Your healer has done his work, for sure.”

“I owe you my life,” Aleeme said emphatically. “Nohar else could have brought me back. I know I was nearly dead. And now you’ve brought Azriel back to himself. I just… I don’t have words to thank you.”

Cal smiled, though he seemed preoccupied. “Thank you is just fine. What would show me the most gratitude is to return to your home and enjoy life. You’ve been through a lot of trauma and now you’re on the other side. Don’t take your happiness or each other for granted.”

His words seemed to be deeply personal. Aleeme knew of Cal’s background, of his exile and eventual reunion with his first and lasting love. Cal was a har who’d been beaten up by life but he’d become refined by it, like gold melted down and the impurities burned away. Except that Aleeme didn’t doubt that Cal was still quite flawed, and that Cal would be the first to tell anyhar that.

“I didn’t take Aleeme for granted before, and I don’t plan to start now!” Azriel declared, curving his arm across the small of Aleeme’s back.

“Wise har,” Cal agreed, scratching at his jaw. “Ah, good. Thank you,” he said to a serving-har who’d brought three glasses and a decanter of some liquor that smelled intensely of licorice. “Would you two like to sit outside on the balcony? The lights of the city are quite colorful from here. I’m not so involved in Immanion’s nightlife, but I can admire the view from a distance.”

“Where’d Yazdyar go after he brought you here?” Azriel asked as they wandered out to the balcony edged with a sinuously carved balustrade.

“He’s spending the evening with Teak and his… companion,” Aleeme replied, sipping cautiously on the unfamiliar and pungent liqueur.

“Azriel told me you and the Ferelithian healer went to see Vaysh,” Cal stated, raising a tawny eyebrow. He leaned against the railing, the casual jut of his hip drawing Aleeme’s focus to him. Cal really was impossible to ignore.

“What did you think of him?” Cal went on, idly turning a wide silver band on his index finger with his thumb.

“Well…” Aleeme hesitated. He wasn’t about to say unintended negative things about Cal’s chesnari’s best friend and aide.

“Don’t worry,” Cal said, smiling sagely. “He already has a reputation, one he wants to keep. I’m not going to go relay your comments when I see him. I was just curious.”

Aleeme found his hand taken by Azriel’s, their fingers intertwined. He turned and gave him a quick smile.

“Vaysh was surprising,” Aleeme said, his train of thought momentarily thrown when Cal pulled a chair toward himself and sat down, crossing one leg over the other. His tight leather pants left nothing to the imagination. “He’s beautiful, but so cold at first. I thought he was simply tolerating having to meet me out of some responsibility to Yazdyar, but we got along once he started to let down his guard. Yazdyar hinted that he’s been through a lot. It doesn’t show, not on the outside, but what is obvious is that he’s very protective of himself.”

Cal nodded, draping his arm loosely over the back of his chair. “You’re quite astute. That sums him up pretty well.” He let his gaze wander to Aleeme’s and Azriel’s clasped hands, then back up to Aleeme’s face. “You’ve both had pretty eventful days today. I’ll ask one of the hostiaries to get a room ready for you two and your healer. Will he sleep with you?” he asked without even a hint of intrigue.

“He has before,” Azriel said before giving Aleeme a smoldering look. “But I think tonight we’ll want to be on our own.”

Azriel’s familiar touch and desire to be physically communing with Aleeme made his pulse speed up. He also felt a wave of relief that things really would be okay. He squeezed Azriel’s hand, rubbing gently at Azriel’s wrist with his thumb.

“There’s no shortage of rooms in Phaonica,” Cal noted. “I’ll leave word for Yazdyar when he gets back from his night out that he’ll be in the suite next to yours.”

“What did you do to help Azriel?” Aleeme asked in an attempt to forestall their departure. He’d offered up so much of himself in the aruna he’d taken with Yazdyar, only a couple of hours prior. Plus he had to admit he was under Cal’s sway, as susceptible to his charisma as the dizzying list of hara similarly affected who’d gone before him.

“It’s a bit hard to explain in words,” Cal said, the apology apparent in his eyes. “Especially to a pure-born. The word hypnotize doesn’t mean anything to you, does it?”

Aleeme wracked his mind, but the word was totally unfamiliar. “No, sorry.”

“It’s a human term. It means to be in a trance-like state, kind of like some of the altered consciousness you’ve gone through with some of your caste training. I had Azriel listen to my voice while he focused on deep breathing and I was able to get him to a transcendent state. He was awake, but in a meditative place where you’re able to be talk about things and remember things that you can’t when you’re fully conscious. Once there, I was able to guide him through some chambers of memory locked up essentially as a means of self-preservation.”

“Could it happen again?” Aleeme asked. “I kept having these terrible waking flashbacks, although they’re much more infrequent now. Could something happen to Azriel that would cause him to forget again?”

“I suppose that’s always a possibility,” Cal said thoughtfully, “but it’s highly unlikely. You’re both much stronger in spirit due to having survived what you did. I wouldn’t spend the energy worrying about what ifs.” He finished his drink and poured himself another few fingers’ worth. “Go on and enjoy the luxuries of the palace. You’ll be back to the real world soon enough.”

“Thank you, again,” Azriel said, moving away from Aleeme to give Cal a somewhat awkward hug. “We’d be dead without you, in more ways than one.”

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Cal drawled.

“It’s more than that,” Aleeme said. “But we won’t press the point. Any time you’d like to come visit—”

Azriel and Cal both gave Aleeme an incredulous look.

“What? He rescued us from Ponclast,” Aleeme exclaimed. “Surely even Seel can get over his issues with you from the past. Without your help, his son, and I would have died in Fulminir.”

“Cobweb might be an easier nut to crack,” Cal said, shaking his head. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I feel more comfortable being this side of the Girdle from him.”

“Well, you do have a harling on the way too, don’t you?” Aleeme said, changing the subject. “You’ll be needed here for quite a while.”

“Yes.” Cal’s expression was rather baffling; he didn’t seem as happy as he should given that his chesnari was with pearl. “Pellaz is still in a fragile state, though don’t feel the need to go shouting that from the rooftops,” he said sardonically.

“Of course not,” Azriel said. “And congratulations! How’d you know?” he asked Aleeme.

“Vaysh told us.” Aleeme suddenly paled. “I’m not going to get him in trouble, am I?”

“Vaysh? In trouble?” Cal barked a laugh. “No. All of Immanion knows. Word’s probably gotten over to Megalithica for anyhar there who cares. Most hara outside of the royal realms do their own thing, which is as it should be. I do think we should help with rebuilding and researching how the fuck this all came to pass so we can be sure it doesn’t happen again. But Pell needs to get through his first-ever pearlbirth before anything else. And I need to be there for him.”

Cal seemed to be lost in a temporary reverie. Aleeme looked at Azriel, at his doting expression and the undercurrent of desire pulsing just under the surface.

“You will be,” Azriel said, resting his hand on Cal’s shoulder so that the Tigron looked up. His face cleared and he smiled, resting a hand on Azriel’s and patting it.

“Go on. Take a wander ’round Phaonica before you leave. Aleeme, it’s very good to see you again. I must admit that you don’t remind me of your hostling or father at all. Then again, most second-generation hara seem to be free of many of the issues that plagued those of us first incepted.”

“I love them both dearly, but I don’t resemble them in many ways,” Aleeme admitted grudgingly. “Orien, however, he’s a lot like Ulaume.”

Cal’s eyes had grown wide, his expression spooked. “Orien?”

“That’s my younger brother. Ulaume’s his hostling.”

Cal let out a deep breath and quaffed some of his drink. “I’m sure Flick picked out the name. Nice of him to saddle an innocent har with that,” he said under his breath. He waved his hand at Aleeme, who’d just opened his mouth to defend his hostling’s choice. “No, not going to talk anymore about that right now. Eat, drink, be merry, roon until dawn. You’ve more than earned it.”

Aleeme felt a pull to stay, to provoke Cal into saying what he felt, but Azriel could read the expression on his face and shook his head.

“We’ll do our best,” Azriel said emphatically, giving Cal’s shoulder a squeeze before threading his arm behind Aleeme’s waist once again and steering them back toward the main palace. “Won’t we?” he breathed into Aleeme’s ear, causing Aleeme’s desire sluggishly to come to life.

“Yes, we will.”

* * * * *

You’d think given everything we went through, our families might get along better, Aleeme said irritatedly to Azriel in mind-touch.

You’d think. But we managed to come from some hara prone to dramatics.

You did, Aleeme corrected, spooning up some creamed yams. Ulaume is on the exotic side, but he and Flick are nothing like Seel and Cobweb.

“Azriel and Aleeme, I don’t have words for how glad I am to see you sitting at this table again, looking as hale and whole as you do,” Swift said, his grateful, loving tone cutting through the couple’s private conversation. “Aleeme, I’m pleased to see your parents here as well. Forever is always open to you both.”

Aleeme couldn’t help but let his glance jump over to his hostling, who did an almost admirable job of not grimacing. A quick look at Seel revealed a similar expression of barely-disguised distaste.

“Right now, however, I want to toast to the healer who spent so many hours, days and weeks to bring our children back to health. Yazdyar har Ferelith, we are indebted to you and your dedication, to those who taught you, and for your unwillingness to consider our son and his chesnari’s condition hopeless.”

Yazdyar didn’t blush; Aleeme had noticed he’d been more detached in his demeanor since the afternoon they’d taken aruna in Vaysh’s rooms, though he was still as helpful and affectionate as he always had been. A pang of loss shot through Aleeme as he watched the healer graciously bow his head in acknowledgement of the praise being heaped on him.

“Thank you, Swift, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the har whose skills in many realms directly affecting Azriel and Aleeme far outstrip mine. I know from talking with them that his name isn’t always welcome here, but without Calanthe, not only would Azriel still be mostly without his memories, but both of these beloved hara would be dead. That would have been a tragedy nohar here wants to dwell on.”

He paused, obviously sensing the conflicted emotions running rampant among the hara at the dinner table at Forever. “It’s been my privilege to spend such sacred time with Aleeme and Azriel, two extraordinary hara. You may well have changed the course of my life,” he went on, the statement rather cryptic to Aleeme’s ears, but everyhar else seemed simply entranced.

“Well, while the circumstances for your coming into our lives were horrific, again I want to thank you for giving our sons back to us. To you, Yazdyar,” Swift intoned, his eyes bright. “May you have a long and successful life in your calling, and may you be given happiness at least as great as ours.”

Everyhar seconded the sentiment, and Aleeme noticed that now the healer’s ears had turned a rosy color. Glasses clinked and they drank to the toast. Bryony came in moments later, asking who wanted some coffee. Flick, Swift and Cobweb stayed at the table, conversing among themselves as they waited for the coffee to brew. Ulaume announced that he was off to Swift’s office to use his psycaller to get in touch with Katarin, who was watching Orien while he and Flick were in Galhea. Seel made noises about some bookkeeping and began to stride out of the dining room. He stopped behind Azriel’s chair, rubbing his shoulders for a moment, and nodding his thanks again to Yazdyar, who returned the gesture.

“I’d like to take a short walk if you two will show me the way to the infamous Forever summerhouse,” Yazdyar said, pushing away from the table.

“Sure!” Azriel said animatedly. “It still creeps me out a bit, but it’s worth visiting. An intrinsic element to the sordid history of We Dwell in Forever.”

“I heard that,” Cobweb said dourly, pulling his fingers through his silky hair. “Don’t prejudice our guest with your biased, naïve commentary.”

“I’ve learned to think for myself, not to worry,” Yazdyar said, his lop-sided smile tugging at Aleeme’s core. The healer was dressed in his Ferelithian garb; ‘dashingly handsome’ really were the only words Aleeme could use to describe the healer’s appearance.

“You may want a coat,” Azriel suggested to Yazdyar as they got to the entranceway of the large residence. “This time of year it can get chilly once the sun’s set.”

“Can I just borrow one of these?” Yazdyar asked, pointing to a row of hooks with woolen capes.

“Of course.”

Azriel took Aleeme’s hand once they were outside and Aleeme squeezed it before intertwining their fingers. In the days since Cal had helped him recover most of his memory, Azriel had been especially tactile with Aleeme. He was newly aware of their passionate history and treasuring their opportunity to continue on in life with new appreciation for being together. Just last night, in a cozy, post-aruna haze, Azriel had said he wanted to give Aleeme his blood, to make their union truly indissoluble.

“The stars here seem more brittle in your sky,” Yazdyar noted, pulling Aleeme from his reverie. “It must be due to the colder air.”

“You have the same constellations though, right?” Aleeme asked, breathing in the familiar tangy scent of early autumn, crisp and tart with memory.

“Yes, though I believe the night sky is quite different on the other side of the world, below the midline. I have no idea whether or not there are Wraeththu there, yet.”

Azriel guided them along the path to the summerhouse and nearby lake, each caught up in their own thoughts. A waxing moon hung in the starry sky, a thin crescent that didn’t provide much light. The glass panes of the partially-restored summerhouse glittered off to their right, its shadowy presence both welcome and yet mysterious. Azriel found a torch and a stash of matches he’d hidden there when he was younger. Yazdyar wandered past the burbling fountain, most of its surface a greeny color due to the moss that clung to it. A stone bench manifested itself in the flickering light and Azriel gestured to it for Yazdyar to sit down.

“That’s okay,” Yazdyar said quickly. “I don’t need to spend a lot of time out here. I just wanted to speak with you two alone.”

“I figured as much,” Aleeme said ruefully. “This being our first few days back, I think our parents and Azriel’s highhostling are rather unwilling to let us out of their sight, even to go to bed alone.”

“I can’t blame them,” Yazdyar said, his tone sympathetic.

“Oh, we have news, too!” Azriel said, smiling widely and giving Aleeme a fiercely loving glance before turning back to the healer. “We’re going to be blood bonded. We haven’t decided on when, but it seems like the most natural thing in the world to do.”

Yazdyar’s expression became inscrutable, but then he, too, smiled and appeared genuinely pleased for them. “That’s tremendous. I’m so glad that you’ve regained so much that could have been lost forever.” He looked from Azriel to Aleeme, who suddenly felt a shiver of misapprehension at what Yazdyar would say next. “This is a difficult topic to bring up, but have you thought about going to Healing Gardens to visit the harling you bore?”

It was more shocking and just as painful as a kick to the gut. Aleeme violently shook his head.

“No. Never. Cobweb doesn’t want that creature to be raised in Forever and I don’t want to see it.”

“Him,” Yazdyar corrected, mildly.

Aleeme found a vitriolic rage blooming in him with a ferocity that shocked him. “No. The answer is NO!” he said through gritted teeth, clenching Azriel’s fingers. “I wish it had died.”

“The harling should be dead,” Azriel said icily. “To the two of us and our families, it doesn’t exist.”

“Aleeme, Azriel,” Yazdyar murmured, looking as though he were a dog kicked and beaten by its master. “I’m not suggesting that you embrace the harling into your lives. I only asked if you’d considered going to visit him. Please look at me— I’m your healer and friend. I would never recommend anything that I felt would harm you or undo the miraculous healing that you’ve both experienced. Before I returned to Ferelithia, I just wanted to find out your feelings on that topic, which you’ve dished out with no hesitation or lack of conviction. I know exactly where you stand.”

The anger fell from Aleeme like a shelf of snow from a warming roof. “I’m sorry,” he said, releasing Azriel’s hand and walking over to Yazdyar, clinging to him in a desperate embrace. His face was pressed against the healer’s collarbone as Yazdyar stood a few inches taller.

“I didn’t mean to yell at you,” he went on, his voice muffled as he spoke against the cape. “It’s just so painful. I don’t want to think about it. We want to move on, and we have the blessing from all of our extended family to leave the harling in Lisia’s care. There have been enough losses and tragedies,” he said as he sniffled, feeling a guilty pleasure in Yazdyar holding him so closely. “Logically I know it’s not the harling’s fault that it survived, but I would never be able to bear spending time with it. I’d see Ponclast in its face; I’d smell the rotten filth of that room…”

“Shhhhh. Don’t think about that time,” Yazdyar said soothingly against his temple. “Your father will take back all of his generous words and your highhostling will serve up my head on a freshly-polished platter if I cause you to have a flashback nightmare even as I’d presented you as being mostly recovered.” He stroked Aleeme’s back as Aleeme basked in his care. “Azriel? Come take Aleeme. Let’s get back to the house— I could use some sheh. How about you?”

“No doubt Yarrow will join you,” Azriel said, sliding his arm around Aleeme’s waist as he stepped back from Yazdyar.

“I will, too,” Aleeme declared, and Azriel grinned at him.

“Actually, while it’s still just the three of us, I’d like to chant a blessing over you. It’s in the ancient human tongue of my highhostling and highfather, a language they spoke even after they became har. My hostling learned some and passed it on to me.”

“Of course.”

Azriel took Aleeme’s hand and they stood in front of Yazdyar, who took their free hands so that they formed a small circle. The healer closed his eyes and took a deep breath. In a melodic sing-song voice, he incanted words that were strange and unrecognizable, yet Aleeme felt their power and protection. When Yazdyar was done, they all stood in a respectful silence, eyes closed.

I’ll never forget all you’ve done for me, Aleeme whispered in mind-touch. Already he felt the ache of loss even though he knew he would always choose Azriel, again and again, as he’d told him early in their recuperation.

I wish you happiness. Part of me will always be with you. Treasure it, because I can never get it back.

Aleeme opened his eyes and saw the profound defeat stamped on Yazdyar’s features before he forced a pleasant look there instead.

“Time to take advantage of your family’s hospitality,” he said, letting their hands loose and adjusting his cloak.

“You’re always welcome back,” Azriel said, cupping Yazdyar’s jaw in his hands and kissing him firmly. “I’d be insulted if you don’t stay in touch. You’re bound to us for life, now!”

An enigmatic smile lifted the corners of Yazdyar’s lips as he looked from Azriel to Aleeme.

“Yes, I am.”

* * * * *

Epilogue

At the sound of an approaching horse, Aleeme looked up from the pumpkin patch where he was weeding. Leef, one of the former Varrish soldiers now part of the Parasiel volunteer militia, rode up to him. Aleeme shielded his face with one hand against the bright midday sun and sat back on his heels, placing his trowel on the dirt.

“Hi Leef,” he said, squinting as he stood up. “Can I help you with something?”

“No. I’m just delivering a letter to you that came to the carrier at Galhea. We don’t get a lot of actual post and packages that way any more, but this came for you, from Ferelithia.”

He threw his cloak back over his shoulder and reached into a vest pocket, pulling out a bright red envelope. Leef handed it to Aleeme, who looked quizzically at it, his brows furrowed. Flipping it over, he saw Yazdyar’s name and address and smiled widely.

“Ah, good,” Leef said, sounding relieved. “I was hoping it would be correspondence you’d want to receive.”

“Well, I haven’t heard much from Healer Yazdyar since he went back home,” Aleeme admitted, wiping his hands on his canvas leggings. As excited as he was to hear from the healer, he wanted to read the letter in private, especially since he noted it was addressed solely to him, not Azriel and him. “How are things with you?” he asked at an attempt at polite conversation.

“Oh, they’re fine,” the sturdy har said, taking his horse’s reins back into two hands. “Need to get back to my shop, though. Lots of hara have brought their leather goods to be repaired and there are only the four of us.”

“Thanks for taking the time to bring this out to me,” Aleeme said, tucking the vivid letter into the leather bag he’d brought out to the garden. “Am I missing anything going on in town?”

Leef snorted. “Hardly. But that’s okay— I’ve been through enough excitement in recent months and years. I’ll take the relative boredom of regular life. You’re welcome to drop by, of course,” he said, turning his horse around back toward Forever and the main road back to the settlement. “Oh! Congratulations to you and Azriel on your blood binding ceremony. It was good for everyhar in the community to see you two and to be witness to an affirming event. To me, anyway, it was reflective of positive changes as we rebuild.”

Pride flared unexpectedly in Aleeme as he looked at the former Varr soldier. “Thank you. I feel privileged to be a part of the Parasielian family and making new history here. That was really kind of you to say.”

Leef seemed suddenly self-conscious. “You’re welcome. It was a great party, of course. Cobweb’s events are always memorable.”

“That’s the truth!” Aleeme said, laughing.

“Give my best to him and Snake,” Leef said, giving him a gesture that was part wave and part salute as he departed. Aleeme nodded, turning to watch him as his horse trotted away.

A chilly breeze ruffled Aleeme’s hair; in looking down at the pumpkins, he decided he’d done enough weeding for the day and that he’d go back to the house. First, though, was the letter. His stomach seemed to have become a residence for a small band of butterflies. There was no reason for him to be nervous, getting a hand-written letter from his former healer. And yet, there was something about it, so bright and intimate, despite its being not at all secretive.

It’s just a letter, for Ag’s sake! he chastised himself, but then again, he’d received precious few pieces of written correspondence in his life. He’d learned to read and write while growing up in Roselane, of course, but his parents communicated in person or, very rarely, through the ethers. This was a novelty. Shaking his head at his overactive imagination, he packed up his weeding tools and then put on his own coat and walked to a bench near a stately ancient oak. Once seated, he took time to evaluate Yazdyar’s handwriting— it was reasonably legible, no extravagant flourishes and in an ink of dark teal.

The envelope was sealed with wax and had an imprint of some symbol that Aleeme couldn’t recognize. He retrieved a small jet-handled knife Cobweb had given him and sliced under the flap, careful to keep the seal intact; it was an exotic aesthetic. Inside was a piece of marbled paper, folded in thirds. Aleeme’s hands trembled slightly as he opened it up and then had to turn it around as it had been upside down.

    Dear Aleeme—

    Firstly, I hope you’re well, you and Azriel both. I’ve had some new and challenging patients since I’ve been back, but none have made the impact you did… they couldn’t. I’m sorry that I missed your blood binding ceremony. I’ll be honest, it was just too much for me. Please know that I still believe I didn’t overstep my bounds as your healer, but I let my imagination and affections get carried away.

    I really don’t know how you’ll react to what I have to say next. It’s why I haven’t written until now, but it seemed time for you to know. I visited with Lisia several times during my time in Galhea and checked on the status of the harling born in Fulminir.

Aleeme felt a flash of hot, then cold. All at once he could anticipate what Yazdyar had done, but his eyes had to refocus, he had to read the words himself.

    I adopted him, Aleeme. Once I knew for sure how certain you were that you wanted to go forward as though you’d never carried a pearl to term, I decided to bring him into my life. I couldn’t have you, and I knew that. You and Azriel belong together, and I only ever wished for your complete healing and happiness. I’m a flawed, sometimes very idealistic har who feels things deeply, perhaps too deeply. It’s not Kymer’s fault that he was created by such vile means, and I intend to provide a life for him in which he’s loved and protected. I suspect this means that you’ll never want to see me again. It was a price I weighed in my heart for a long time.

    I hope to hear from you, but I’ll understand if I don’t. While I’m coming clean on all of this, your parents, Azriel’s parents, Cobweb and Lisia all gave me their blessing. Your extended family was relieved more than anything, though I sensed that Swift may harbor a kernel of regret.

    How to end this letter? I’ll just close by saying that my door, like my heart, is always open to you.

    With peace,
    Yazdyar

Aleeme sat, letting his eyes unfocus so that the tidy scrawl became indistinct and unreadable. He felt numb, that whatever feelings were appropriate for a situation like this were simply absent from his rather well-stocked pantry of emotions. The harling… Yazdyar… growing up in Ferelithia… Aleeme began to wish that a torrent of responses, or any response, really, would manifest itself. The harling created through pelki was dead to him, he recognized, or more appropriately, non-existent. There was no regret.

He lowered his hand into his lap and looked out across the lawns of the estate to the hills beyond, now bedecked in their colorful autumnal finery. The harling was gone from Megalithica. Ponclast was in exile in some other dimension. His younger brother Orien would soon experience his feybraiha. Cobweb tended Ithiel’s grave, and he and Snake no longer slept alone.

If order existed in the world, it had settled on Aleeme and those he loved with the beauty and impermanence of new-fallen snow. Straightening his shoulders, he stood up, pocketed the letter, and heeded the silent call of his home.

The End

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11 Comments

  1. ffyrestarr said,

    February 17, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    beautifully written and very moving…

    i do have to say Thevina that i am jealous of your talent, but grateful that i have a chance to read the results of it!

  2. Ingrid Williams said,

    February 24, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    I loved this story; I always wanted to know what happened to Azriel and Aleem. They deserved to find closure from their travails and pain.

  3. Thevina said,

    February 24, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Dear ffyrestar- thank you so much! I’m terribly flattered that you enjoyed the story and had kind things to say about my writing. I appreciate your taking the time to read this and to let me know your thoughts!

    ~Thevina

  4. Thevina said,

    February 24, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Dear Ingrid-
    I really appreciate your enthusiasm for this story. I was quite troubled that Azriel and Aleeme’s story was never picked up again, but it was also the perfect opportunity to step in and write a gap-filler as to what *could* have happened! They did deserve closure. Thank you for taking the time to read my version of events.

    ~Thevina

  5. Elaine said,

    March 10, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I agree with the other posts. I really missed after the first book the Flick/Ulame relationship, and was surprised there wasn’t more closure to the Aleeme/Azriel problems. Thanks for this story of healing!

  6. Thevina said,

    April 4, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Thank you very much, Elaine! I, too, was puzzled that with such a devastating and yet compelling story for those second-generation hara (and from such prominent lineage!) that their story simply ended. But that’s what makes such fabulous fodder for fanfiction authors. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the story of their healing and that you let me know your thoughts.
    ~Thevina

  7. DKPT said,

    June 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    This was an amazingly well written and filled story. I am very amazed at how creatively you captured these characters. Now Bring on a story of new Harlings from the Parasielian family!

  8. EmilyS said,

    August 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Wow… It took me a long time to read this story (as I was still reading the sixth book and wanted to first complete the main six), but I’m glad that it allowed me time to really soak it in.

    At first I was a little wary that Aleeme seemed to recover rather fast from being brutally raped (since I know from two acquaintances of mine that being violated warps your emotions for up to *years*), but as I read on, I realized/remembered that hara heal much faster than humans, physically and — I believe now — mentally. Of course, expedited by Yazdyar helping. Plus I’d forgotten that harish bodies need aruna, so that would somewhat speed the process. I suppose when I started reading I was just so used to the concept of (human) victims needing therapy for months or years.

    I cried at the end, with the letter… I was very sad for Yazdyar. I was mildly surprised by Aleeme not wanting anything to do with the harling, as sometimes even a child of rape can be loved by their parent, but oh well. I can really understand if the harling has any appearance of Ponclast in him… I really can’t speculate if Aleeme and Azriel will go to visit Yaz now that he’s adopted Kymer. Honestly, knowing emotions, it could go either way…

    Anyway, I’m happy that I finally read this, and I hope you’re pleased to know that people are still being affected and enjoying this even after three years of your posting :3

    PS: It would be cool if this story was included with your in-betweens that are set to be published 🙂 There should just be a big ol’ book consisting of all the in-canon stories written by you, hehe. At the moment I’m still saving to purchase my own copies of ‘Fulfilments’ and ‘Wraiths’, but any of your stuff will definitely go into my collection 🙂

    • thevina said,

      August 15, 2012 at 8:26 am

      Oh, my dear reader, thank you so, so much. I’m a bit shocked (at myself!!) that it’s been three years since I was so engrossed in this story myself, and I want to thank you again and again for letting me know how this moved you. I’m actually going to write to you off-list if that’s okay; if you see an email from thevina33, that’s me. 😀

  9. harry said,

    October 4, 2014 at 1:34 am

    my comment won’t change the fact that this happens and that people write about it but I couldn’t finish reading this story. I never like reading about couples and the lonely people they try to get involved with usually just to use them for a short period of time even though they’re “oh so devoted to one another” and “the other person is second and expendable” sorry I really hated this story just had to say it. I hate anything about couples and unrequited love by an outside person. It’s selfish in my opinion and hurtful to those reading who’ve had to experience it. No response necessary the world is a terrible place and this shit happens to people whatever. Feel free to delete this comment if you’d like.

    • Thevina said,

      October 26, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      Dear Harry- I am so sorry that this so negatively affected you. It was meant to come across as true to life in many ways, and as you note, life can often be pretty sucky. That said, I regret even more that something traumatic has happened to you that would engender such a reaction to this. My best to you.


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