Saltrock Odyssey

Thevina Editor's Pick

Saltrock Odyssey

Beta: Thevina/Thrihyrne    Any remaining mistakes are mine.
Rating: NC17
Spoilers: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit
Synopsis: This is a story of four hara, their journey to Saltrock and their life there.  It is set in the time of Saltrock just before and while Cal and Pellaz are there.   It’s also a story of their journey to self-discovery.
Disclaimer: All the characters, their world and all things Wraeththu belong to Storm Constantine, to whom I am very grateful.

It was another beautiful desert sunset.  We sat, as had become our custom of late, on a shelf of an outcropping of rock, gazing westward to view the sun making its descent, splashing in sequence its yellows, oranges, reds, blues and purples until at last the colorful display was replaced by the deepening hues of an indigo then black sky, dotted with bright stars in myriad number.  It was a dome of sparkling points, so infinite, yet seeming close enough to touch.

We sat there, night after night, my friends and I, with a bottle or two of liquor, taking in the desert night‘s splendor.  There was laughter, camaraderie and maybe even love in our conversation and banter.  We had come here by our own volition, to this dry and desolate place.  There were four of us in our little group; my best friend, Nyala, our other two friends, Sola and Lon, and me, Taj. We’d grown up together as humans and had been incepted together close to a year ago.  We’d lived in a city, so we had no tribe.

We had drifted until we’d found a place where we felt comfortable staying.  It was an outpost of sorts of the Kakkahaar tribe.  We were located close enough to an area where provisions could be procured and then sent on to the large tent city where the Kakkahaar leader, Lianvis, dwelt.  Because of this, and I assumed other outposts, Lianvis and his elite hara never had to leave their tent city unless they chose to, and they were still able to have all the necessities and luxuries they desired.

Lianvis and his entourage had deigned to visit our humble, and I do mean humble, outpost, Solarumn, once, since we’d been here.  Though he was very beautiful, he’d impressed me as being self-involved and dismissive of anyhar he thought beneath him; and he seemed to think most hara beneath him.   I remember there was much running around and many short tempers just before his arrival.  He came with his own luxurious tent which his servants set up at the highest point in the camp.  We couldn’t resist sneaking a peek inside one time when we thought no one was there.  It was lavish with beautiful materials of colors I didn’t even know the names of.  It was full of large pillows and ornate rugs.  There were flowing curtains,  shimmering fabrics and tassels everywhere. Nyala said it looked like the inside of a genie bottle.

Lianvis had come into camp with much pomp, riding a magnificent horse, quite a few hara behind him.  Some were obviously guards and soldiers, some were servants and then there were several exotically beautiful, bedizened creatures we supposed to be consorts or maybe decorative playthings.  We never found out why he’d stopped at Solarumn and we knew our outpost was probably of little importance.  I figured it was a convenient and safe stopover on the way to someplace important.  After all, the hara here were hardly the cream of the Kakkahaar crop and we never tired of speculating and laughing about how they may have ended up here.  Lon joked that it was probably a punishment for some crime or offense.  Then we’d joke about that, saying maybe Lianvis overheard some har make a disparaging remark about the size of his ouana-lim, or maybe they didn’t cook his chicken just right or had a roonfest and didn’t invite him.  Well, with somehar as pompous and flamboyant as Lianvis, it’s impossible not to joke about him.

As we sat there that night on the ledge,  I observed my friends as they laughed and chatted together.  We are obviously outsiders in this predominantly Kakkahaar camp, with our leftover human clothes and our comparatively short hair.  But for the better part of this, our first year as Wraeththu, we’ve called this place our home.

We sat there, we four, enjoying the night and the liquor when Nyala said, “This is beautiful.”  He took a large swig from his bottle and bluntly added, “Too bad the Kakkahaar treat us like shit.”

I looked over at him, laughing.  “What?  Where did that come from?”  I heard the other two chuckling.

“From the heart,” Nyala replied.  “You know they do.  Always looking at us like they’re superior.”

I shook my head .  “Yeah, but we have it pretty good here.”

Nyala shrugged saying, “You remember the hara from up north?”

“Yeah…” I said, wondering.

“Well, they said there’s a place where things are different.”

“Different?”  I inquired, curious.

“Yeah, really different.  It’s a place where hara work together and every har is equal.”

I looked at Sola and Lon skeptically, who returned my look and some snickers.

Nyala was obviously insulted.  “Laugh if you want to, but I believe it’s true.”

He seemed so hurt that I asked earnestly, “What are you talking about?  Where is this place?”

He regarded us as if we weren’t worth telling, but he then relented.  “It’s called Saltrock, and it’s roughly northwest of here.”

“Where did you hear about it?”  I was now genuinely interested.

“From Jarin and Mingo.  Remember?   From the group of hara from the north?”

I thought a moment, and then remembered.  “Oh, yeah.”

I also remembered they had both taken a liking to Nyala and he’d spent a good deal of time with them, day and night.  It was the nights that made me suspicious.  Sometimes hara will tell you anything when you spend the night with them.

Nyala continued.  “Well, they told me about Saltrock.  It’s a community of hara committed to equality, working together, caste progression – you know, everything!”

I eyed him sympathetically, but interested.  Nyala could be naïve at times, although it was a rather endearing trait.

He sighed, saying, “I know you all think I’m a fucking idiot, but I swear I believe them.  And if it’s true we should go there.  Why would we stay here?  The hara here look down on us because we’re not Kakkahaar, so to them we’re shit.”

I had to agree on that point.  They did seem to think us inferior.  I wouldn’t have said they treated us like shit, but they did seem to ignore us for the most part.  The Kakkahaar were all into caste progression so maybe they felt hara of lower caste weren’t worth their time.    Luckily none of us was in love with any Kakkahaar, which would have made it awkward.

As I thought about it, part of me was intrigued and excited about Saltrock, and part of me just wanted to enjoy the desert night, drink, roon somehar and sleep it off until tomorrow.

Well, tomorrow came, as it always does, and I was still thinking about what Nyala had said about Saltrock.  I sought him out and found him at his usual work, gardening, if you could call it that in this arid place.  I approached him and he looked up at me, sniffed, tossing his thick dark hair, and then went back to work.

I sighed and said, “Okay, I know I didn’t completely take you seriously last night, but I’ve been thinking…”

“Thinking?” he interrupted, “I thought you were ‘thinking’ about rooning that har…what’s his name.”

I rolled my eyes.  Why did he have to call me on this?  He knows rooning is normal.  He has no right… I took a deep breath and answered him.  “Well, I was also thinking about what you said, you know, about Saltrock.”

He feigned annoyance but his expression soon softened.  “Would you really like to know?  Or are you just trying to smooth things over?”

“I want to know – really.”

He began to relate to me all the two hara had told him.  I was magnanimous enough not to mention the fact that he’d taken aruna repeatedly with both of them, perhaps coloring his viewpoint of what they had told him.  For some reason what he told me about Saltrock rang true in my mind and soul.  I asked him to find out all he could about it; its location, how we could travel there – whatever.  He excitedly replied that he would.

I said, “If we do seriously consider going there, we have to know what we’re doing.  And I can’t speak for Sola and Lon but if we get enough information, I think we can assume that if you and I decide to go, they’ll want to go, too.”  Nyala nodded enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear.  I left him, thinking that his enthusiasm, as always at least to me, was infectious.

For the next few days, Saltrock was all we talked about.  As I’d thought, Sola and Lon were with us all the way.  We’d grown complacent here but none of us was truly happy or even inspired at all about our lives.  We were excited at the prospect of making our lives something more.  I hoped we weren’t just dreaming. The reality of a journey such as we were planning was daunting, to say the least.  It wasn’t impossibly far, but it wouldn’t be easy.  Sometimes in theory you can see an adventure, but the reality of it can be quite different.

We lived very simply at Solarumn.  There was no library, no archives, but we did have maps.  We needed them for our forays to buy, trade or otherwise acquire goods to send on to Lianvis.  They were detailed maps and Sola set about meticulously and clandestinely copying them.  We were completely free to come and go, but we still felt the need instinctively to keep our little plan to ourselves – at least for now.  Saltrock wasn’t on any of our maps, but from Nyala’s description according to Jarin and Mingo, we tentatively figured where it would be.  Nyala had actually written down what they’d told him.  We also figured when we got close to Saltrock, hara there would be able to direct us.  That was an unknown that worried me, but didn’t completely discourage me.

We also had to stockpile supplies, so we all began to collect and store things we would need.  We decided to set off on foot, and perhaps buy a packhorse and more supplies at the first settlement we came to.  Not a foolproof plan, but one we could probably bank on.  We figured according to the maps, that we’d get somewhere where we could get more supplies before we ran too low.

Sometimes I’d lie awake at night thinking the whole idea was crazy, then sometimes I’d be totally psyched, sure it was a good plan.  Basically it involved traveling northwest and there were too many variables to calculate an estimated time of arrival, but keeping to a plan based on the maps and the info from Jarin and Mingo should get us to places where we could get supplies, work if we needed to, rest up and get food.  It wouldn’t be a lark but the bottom line was – we’d survive.  Since we didn’t have to be concerned about harsh weather, it was up to us to decide when we were ready to leave.

Just knowing we had the plan seemed to lift our spirits, but underneath I think we all had some fears, mostly of the unknowns in our plan, that kept us putting off our departure, being unsure of when we were truly ready to go.  There is always security in the familiar, even when you’re unhappy with it.

I kept thinking in my weaker moments that maybe if Nyala wanted caste training the Kakkahaar would teach him, maybe if we all progressed, they’d have more respect for us, maybe…  Then I’d think about the reality of this place.  We had no bathrooms; we lived in tents – not luxurious tents – just tents.  We were low on the food chain, doing the work the Kakkahaar didn’t want to do.  When we weren’t hauling supplies around, Nyala dug in the dirt and sand trying to grow things, Lon and Sola fixed dwellings and dug latrines, and I, working in the mess tent, basically peeled potatoes and served up slop.  Not really what any of us envisioned when we became har.

After going back and forth over all this in my mind for quite a while, I finally decided one of us was going to have to take a stand and say it was time to leave.  I never thought it would be me, but as it turned out, it was. One day, after a particularly humbling experience which I won’t go into, I took stock of our supplies, maps, etc. and decided; we’re ready.  I knew that by taking the lead on this I might be blamed if things went wrong.  But if I didn’t say anything, we could stay here for months, ready to go, but no one taking the initiative to say so.

That night was windy, giving it a wild feel and as we sat on the ledge as usual, I actually stood up, faced them all and said, “It’s time.”  They exchanged looks.  “You know what I mean.  We have maps, provisions, a plan – we need to act.  Now is as good a time as any.”

They each looked apprehensive, but a smile crept onto Nyala’s lips.  “Taj is right.  We’re ready.  I know it’s scary, but we’re ready.  We need to go.”

Sola and Lon both nodded their agreement.  Sola asked, looking to me, his light blue eyes expectant, “When?”

I took a deep breath and decided, right then and there. “Day after tomorrow, okay?”

They all nodded again and then there were smiles all around.  Lon stood up, lifting his bottle, his tawny tendrils whiffled by the wind, a glint in his nutbrown eyes.  He toasted us and laughed saying,  “We’re really gonna do it!”

“Yeah,” I said, turning to Nyala, who looked happy and resolved. “We are.”

The next day, between our duties, we got our things together and made ready to leave before dawn the next day.  Nyala and I discussed it and decided we didn’t have to make any declaration of our leaving.  We would just go.  I wondered if anyhar would even notice.

Before dawn, the four of us set off on foot, heading northwest.  To our knowledge, no one saw us leave.  We had enough provisions for several days and according to the maps, we would reach a settlement called Red Cliffs in two days.  We planned to buy a packhorse there and procure all the imperishable items we could afford and would need to get us at least to the next settlement. Everything seemed copasetic.  As we walked along we were all in good spirits with hope for our future.

The first night, after traveling all day until dark, we made camp at a beautiful rock outcropping; a miniature mesa where all you could see were stars.  We’d each taken the initiative to pack the Kakkahaar liquor we had come to love, so we indulged.  We were high on our decision and our adventure and it was a magical night, albeit a drunken one – maybe that did contribute to its magic.

We awoke a bit late the next day and the heat of the midmorning was upon us.  Being har, we knew we could handle it, so we set off.  It was searingly hot but we made good time and we had plenty of water.  Still, I harped on us being frugal with it.

That night we camped in a flat, desolate area.  The wind whipped us.  At first it felt good after the heat of the day, but when we went to sleep, it was cold.  We doubled up: Sola and Lon and Nyala and me, sharing blankets.  We were so exhausted, even the biting wind couldn’t keep us from sleep.

The next morning we rose early, ate breakfast and got going.  By our calculations, maps and Nyala’s trusty compass, we figured we’d get to Red Cliffs some time that afternoon.  After a dry, hot, dusty day of travel, we arrived at the aptly named Red Cliffs.  We saw first the red rock outcroppings and as we moved closer, we saw some tents, shelters, and a few wooden buildings where the hara there lived.  It was a small but bustling place, with hara moving about busily.  Most of them we passed gave us a nod or a smile.  I looked to Nyala and said, “Seems like a friendly place.”

He nodded. “I wonder if they have a bar?”

“First things first, a packhorse and a place to stay.”

He shrugged.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

We walked through the settlement on the main road until we came to a square, of sorts.  It was all very primitive, but it obviously was the center of the place.  There were hara sitting outside at some tables drinking, eating and conversing.  Nyala asked me, “Should we ask somehar about a horse and a place to stay?”

“You ask,” I replied.

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re the prettiest,” I said, teasing.  He gave me a disdainful look.  “Go on.  We’re right behind you.”  Sola and Lon snickered.

Nyala shook his head and shot me another look.  “Okay.”

We approached two hara at a table.  Nyala smiled at one of them and asked,  “Hi.  We’re passing through here.  Can you tell us where we might get a horse and where we might find lodging for the night?”

The two hara exchanged looks and the one Nyala had addressed said, “Well, there’s the Red Moon.  It’s kind of an inn.  We’re pretty grassroots here but you can sleep under cover and get a bath.”  I could tell we were all glad to hear that.

“As for a horse,” he continued, “you can ask them there.  Ask for Holt.  He should be able to help you.  The Red Moon’s straight down the road on the right.  There’s a watering trough in front of it.  You can’t miss it.”  Real wild west, I thought to myself.

“Thanks,” Nyala said with a smile.

The har gave him a very smoky look.  “Any time.”

I laughed as we turned away, saying quietly to Nyala, “I knew we’d get results if you did the talking.”

“Shut up!” he said annoyed, but grinning.

We headed off and soon saw the place.  It really looked like an old west saloon or hotel from a movie.  We looked at each other and laughed.  I said, “I wonder if there are any dance hall hara.”  We went in and there was no piano or anything so ridiculous, just a counter and a har sitting behind it, reading.  It did look like it had been a hotel, though now it was pretty run down.  The har looked up at us lazily and stood behind the counter.

I looked to Nyala but he said, “Uh-uh.  Your turn.”

I sighed and walked up to the counter.  “We’d like a room or two or whatever.”

“The rooms each have one double bed.”

I turned around to the others.  Sola said, “We’ll take two then.”

I was surprised he’d answered so quickly.  I blinked, regarding him.  He and Lon just looked around uneasily.  I shrugged, looking back to the har behind the counter. “Okay,” I said.  We settled up and the har led us up some stairs to our rooms, which were next to each other.  As he handed us our keys, Sola said, “Lon and I’ll bunk together.  You and Nyala take the other room, Okay?”

“Okay,” I said to him, a bit puzzled.

Just then the counter har said, “At the end of the hall you can take a bath if you want.”

“You have running water?” Lon asked.

“Yep. The only place in town that does.  Enjoy,” he said as he slumped off.

“Hey!” I called after the har.  “Are you Holt?”

“No.  He might be here later.”  He walked away.

Nyala and I went into our room.  We put our gear down and I flopped on the bed.  “Ahhh, the comforts of civilization, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.”

Nyala sat on the bed, too.  “We’re no strangers to living primitively.”

“Yeah, but somehow this seems different.  We’re on…a quest.  Now it seems like an adventure, not an inconvenience.”

Nyala laughed, flopping down beside me, his arms behind his head.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

I turned to him.  “You know, we wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for you.”

He shot me a challenging look.  “Oh, no.  Don’t pin this on me.  You’re just saying that in case it all goes bad!”  He poked me in the ribs.  We were laughing as Lon and Sola came in.  Lon said, “Hey, what should we do first?”

Nyala and I said in unison, “A BATH!!”

We went to the end of the hall and peered into the bathroom.  There was one ancient footed tub with a bare pipe for a faucet.  “Better than nothing,” I said.  We took turns and when everyone was clean we decided to search out a place to eat.  The Red Moon didn’t seem to have a bar or a kitchen, so we went out to look for an eating establishment of some sort.

I suggested heading back to the square, but Nyala shook his head, “I really don’t want to run in to the har we saw before.”

“Tell him you’re with me,” I joked.

“Like that would make a difference!”

We headed in another direction and found a sort of café, if you could call it that.  It was basically a bunch of tables under a tarp, but we could sit and be waited on, so it felt luxurious.  We all ordered some kind of chili and cornbread.  The liquor of choice seemed to be something akin to tequila, so we drank up.  After a while, we were all well fed and feeling no pain.  We were really enjoying ourselves.  We each chipped in, paid the serving har and headed for the Red Moon.

When we got to our rooms, Sola asked, “What about our packhorse?”

“We’ll worry about that tomorrow,” I answered.  Everyone drunkenly agreed and we went into our rooms.

Nyala and I staggered in and threw ourselves on the bed.  “This place is weird, but the liquor is awesome,” I slurred.

“Yeah, it’s a trip, alright.”

We lay there a short while, but then, there we were, two drunk hara on a bed and the delightful inevitable ensued.  Nyala was exquisite, with thick dark hair falling over his face and playing at the nape of his neck.  He had intoxicating dark green eyes, tanned, perfect skin, and full red lips.  He was irresistible.

He looked at me and gave me a sensual smile.  Oh, God, I’m only har, I thought.  I gazed into his inviting eyes and pulled him to me.  As we shared breath, I saw a galaxy of stars, deep dark chasms, and felt a glorious need.  When we parted, he panted to me, “Do you want to be soume or ouana?”

Breathlessly I answered, “I don’t care.”

“You choose,” he replied.

I wavered, then I knew I wanted him to take me.  “Soume.”

He slid his hand to my soume-lam and I gasped.  Once I‘d decided, my ouana-lim withdrew.  I reached for his which was erect and ready.  Not long after that I moved down his perfect body with my mouth and when I reached his ouana-lim, it was like finding nirvana.  As I teased and pleasured him, I tasted an essence bittersweet and unique.  He moaned and caressed me.  After a time, he coaxed me back to his lips as he said, “You’re good…so good…”  I lay on my back and as he penetrated me I heard myself let out a pleasured moan, and as I writhed beneath him he caught his breath, then groaned with pleasure.  I claimed his lips and sent erotic messages into his mind as we moved together.   All too soon I felt the tingle of imminent release.  He broke away from our passionate kiss and buried his face in my hair as we both climaxed, the delicious spasms cascading through me.

When we had both regained our composure, I lay beneath him, utterly satisfied.  I stroked his back with my fingers.  He kissed me, caressing my face.  He eased out of me and spooned beside me, running his hand over my chest.

“God, Taj,” he murmured.  “We’re best friends but I never thought of us having this.  Why didn’t we ever do this before?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we still think like humans sometimes.  But better late than never, I guess.”  He laughed taking me into his arms.  I soon fell asleep, his creamy essence inside me, his breath in my ear.

The next morning when I awoke I could hear the noises from the street through the open window.  It felt hot and I had no idea what time it was.  Nyala was still asleep, so I lay back down.  I regarded him, thinking about the night before.  Being har was so different.  You could take aruna with your best friend and not have to feel weird about it.  I was just dozing off when I heard a knock on the door so I got up and Nyala stirred.  Sola and Lon came in, Nyala sat up, rubbing his eyes.

“How did you two sleep?” Sola asked.

Nyala and I exchanged knowing looks and smiles.  “Better than I have in quite a while,” Nyala answered, grinning.

“Let’s go eat!”  Lon said.

“Okay,” I said, “but I want another bath.  Who knows when we’ll get the chance again.”

When we went downstairs to go out, the counter har was talking to another har.

“Morning,” the counter har mumbled.  “Hey, you still looking for Holt?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied.

“Well, here he is.”  He gestured to the other har.

He extended his hand.  “I’m Holt.”

I took his hand.  “I’m Taj.  This is Nyala, Sola and that’s Lon.”

He nodded.  “What can I do for you?”

“We need a packhorse.”

“Follow me.”

We went down the main road until we came to an enclosure, a makeshift livery stable where Holt showed us a few horses.  None of us really knew much about horses, so I asked him about prices.  We agreed to take the cheapest one and he said we could pick it up when we left, telling the livery har, too.

“Hey!”  Holt called after us as we were leaving.  We all turned around.  “You hara have any guns?”

We looked at each other.  “No,” Nyala said, “Why?  Do we need them?”

“Well, if you do and you don’t have one, you’re pretty much up shit creek, aren’t ya?”

He had a point.  “You sell them, too?” I inquired.

“Sometimes.”

We conferred, and then I asked, “What do you suggest?”

“Come with me.”

We walked across the street to another rather run down wooden building.  We went up some stairs to his room and there against the wall were quite a few rifles stacked up.  He grabbed one.

“Here try this on for size.”  I took the rifle, not really knowing how to handle it.

“Let me show ya.”

He gave us a crash course in rifle handling, so we ended up buying one and some ammunition.  We figured we could use it for hunting, if nothing else. Next we went to get supplies and means to attach them to the horse and then we took the rifle and the supplies back to our rooms.  We went back to the café from the night before for breakfast and ate heartily on ham and eggs, biscuits and coffee.  By the time we were done, it was already noon, so we debated whether to stay there another night or not.  We decided to go, so we got our stuff together and set off.  It was partly cloudy, so the heat wasn’t so bad.

We traveled for three mostly uneventful days. The third night out, we camped near a creek, so we decided to swim to get clean.  It was invigorating. After that we ate dinner, then we sat around the fire, drinking.  I watched my friends as they drank, talked and laughed, thinking about each of them, how long we’d been together and how I felt especially fortunate to have them as close friends. Suddenly Sola waved his hand in front of my face.

“Taj!  Where are you?  What are you thinking about?”

I snapped out of it.  “Nothing.  Just spacing out.”  He shoved me good-naturedly.

I was very pleasantly drunk and getting sleepy, and it looked to me like the others were, too.  Sola got his blankets and laid them out in front of the fire with Lon following suit.  So Nyala and I did the same on the other side of the fire.  As we lay there I suddenly heard noises.  I looked over to see that Sola and Lon were going at it, sharing breath.  Nyala looked, too.  We smiled, chuckling and I asked, “Should we join them?”

Nyala crawled over to me and kissed me, saying, “Let’s have our own party.”

We kissed some more, then shared breath and for some reason I started to become soume.  Nyala seemed to like that idea and I soon felt his fingers gently stroking my soume-lam to further encourage me.  Shortly thereafter he crawled down my body and as I raised my knees he pressed his lips and tongue to my soume-lam.  Sighing, I ran my hands into his hair.  I glanced quickly over and through the flames I could see Lon and Sola moving together, adding to my rising desire.  I moaned and moved as Nyala kept at it.  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I begged him to stop and he moved over me.  I could see his ouana-lim, metallic green-blue, pulsing and shimmering in the firelight.  I took it in my hands and as it flowered, he let out a small cry.

“Now… please, please,” I groaned.  At that moment all I wanted in the world was him inside me and as he pierced me, I felt such exquisite pleasure.  As his thrusting continued, I felt like I was flying over the earth, high above.  Soon all sound faded, I felt my eyes flutter closed and soon the release and pulsing pleasure of completion overtook me.  I felt him go still a moment, then shudder.  He collapsed on top of me, panting.  I looked over to our friends, but they were still.  All I could see were the flickering flames of the fire.  Nyala then moved off and cuddled next to me.  We didn’t speak.  We looked into each other’s eyes as I stroked his hair and he ran his fingers through mine.   Soon after, we fell asleep.

The next day was extremely hot and the sun burned relentlessly in a cloudless sky.  Nyala and I were leading the way.   Sola led the horse and Lon was behind, seeming a bit more bothered by the heat than the rest of us.  I was just thinking that maybe we should consider traveling at night and sleeping during the day, when my thoughts were broken by a yell.  I looked to see Lon lying on the ground moaning and holding his ankle.  I glanced to the side just in time to see a rattlesnake slither off at top speed.

Sola was already there beside him, panicking.  What?!  What is it?!”

“A snake…it…it was a snake,”  Lon stuttered.

Nyala rushed over and rolled up Lon’s pant leg.  There were two bloody punctures and a large swelling.  Nyala looked at me with panic in his eyes.

“I saw it.  It was a rattlesnake,”  I told him.

Sola lost it.  He stood up and moved away, his hands twisted in his blond hair, his light blue eyes wild, his slender frame trembling.  “Oh, my God, Oh, my God, Oh, God, Oh, God!!”  I grabbed his shoulders, shaking him.

Nyala shouted, “Shut up!  Shut up!  We’ve go to think!  He paused a moment.  “Get me a knife!”

I ran to get mine.  Nyala said, “If I cut it fast, the poison will drain out.”

I quickly lit a match and ran it over the blade to sterilize it.  Nyala was ready to cut when I called, “Wait!  Can a snake even poison us?  We’re har.  Aren’t we immune?  I don’t think we can be poisoned, can we?”

Nyala hesitated, raking his hand through his hair.  “Fuck!  I don’t know!  We can’t take the chance if we don’t know for sure.  Fuck!”

“You’re right,” I said. “Do it.”

Nyala told Lon, “This is going to hurt.”

Lon nodded, gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut.  Sola stayed back.  Nyala made a long cut near the bottom of the swelling.  The blood and fluids ran down Lon’s foot and into the sand.  When the flow slowed, Nyala warned Lon, “Brace yourself.”  He pressed on the swelling, squeezing out every drop he could.  Finally he poured some water over it, and then he poured alcohol over it.  Nyala fell back to a sitting position on the sand and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve.  Lon sat staring at the fierce looking wound as Sola took a few steps closer.

“How do you feel?” Nyala asked Lon.

“Freaked out!”

“Do you feel sick?”

“No.”

“How long until we know?” Sola asked.  Nyala shrugged.

I saw a large rock not far away.  “Let’s get him into the shade,” I suggested.

Nyala and I carried him over into the shade of the rock.  Sola put a rolled up blanket behind him.

“Just lie still for awhile,” Nyala instructed.  Sola sat next to him, giving him water.

Nyala and I walked away and decided to lead the horse to some scrub brush to eat.  “You think he’ll be okay?”  I asked.

Nyala looked worried.  “I don’t know.”

“What are the symptoms?”

“I’m not completely sure, but I know you get really sick.  We’ll know.”

“What can we do if it happens?”

Nyala just shook his head.  None of us had any training in healing.  Until that moment I never thought of caste training meaning the difference between life and death, but if a har is too sick to heal himself…  We stood there a while, silent and worried, just watching the horse eating.  Then, for some reason, the thought came into my head that in our first crisis, the gun we just had to have didn’t do us a damn bit of good and it pissed me off.

When we went back to Lon, he was resting, Sola lying next to him, his head on Lon’s shoulder.  Lon appeared okay so far.  Nyala inspected the wound.  It looked to me like  the swelling had gone down a bit.

“Looks better,” Nyala said, sounding somewhat relieved.

A few tedious hours passed and as there were still no signs of poisoning, we all breathed a little easier.  The sun began its descent, cooling things off some.

“Let’s camp here,” I said.

Nyala and I gathered wood for a fire, and then we all ate dinner, feeling confident that Lon would have been sick by now if he’d been poisoned.  We didn’t know if he’d have gotten sick without the cutting or not.

Nyala leaned down, squatting next to Lon, looking at the cut.  “How’s it feel?”

“Not too bad.”

Nyala stared down at the ground.  “I’m sorry.  I may have cut you for nothing.”

Lon put his hand on Nyala’s arm and as Nyala looked up into his face, Lon gave him a reassuring smile.

“And it may have saved my life.  You did the only thing you could.  I wanted you to do it and I thank you for it.”

Nyala finally smiled, too.

As we sat around the fire that night, I asked Nyala, “He won’t be able to walk on it for a while, will he?”

“No. He can ride the horse.”

I nodded.  Then I had an idea. “Why don’t we try a healing?”

“We don’t know how,” Sola said.

“We can try.  It can’t hurt.  It can only help or do nothing.”

“I guess we can try,” Nyala said.  “We can try to concentrate our energy into him with healing intentions and see what happens.”

Lon hobbled over next to the fire leaning on Sola.  We had him lie down on a blanket and relax.  Nyala put more wood on the fire causing the flames to shoot higher into the air.  He decided  that maybe he should say some prayers and incantations for healing.  I knew none of us had any idea what we were doing, but we were giving it our best efforts none the less.  We knelt on the ground around Lon, letting all our hands hover over the wound.   Nyala said to try to send our healing energies and mental intentions into him.  We closed our eyes and began.  I don’t know what the others did, but I tried to channel energy into my hands, then into Lon, picturing it healing the flesh.  My hands actually started to feel warm and I imagined the warmth going into Lon.  We kept this up for quite some time and after a while, Lon said “I feel it. It’s warm!”

“Shh,” Nyala said.

We continued what we were doing.  Finally, I heard Sola let out his breath and sit back.  Soon after, I felt fatigued and stopped as well.  Nyala stayed with it for some time longer, then he, too, sat back seeming exhausted.  Lon sat up and we all looked at the wound.  It appeared unchanged, but Lon said it felt hot and tingly.  In spite of all our efforts, Nyala sensibly still treated it with alcohol to prevent infection.

Just before we fell asleep, I asked Nyala, “Do you think we did anything for him?”

“I don’t know.  Time will tell, I guess.”

“Did you feel anything?  I felt like warmth was coming out of my hands.”

“Yeah, I felt something like that, too.”

“Do you think we imagined it?”

He laughed.  “I don’t know.  It’s hard to believe we could heal him with no training whatsoever.”

“But we’re har.  It’s in all of us isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I believe so.  But to really find our full potential, we need training.  Imagine if all hara got that training.  Who knows what our potential really is.”

I fell asleep thinking of hara generations in the future who could do almost anything.

Ch 2

I awoke just before dawn the next morning.  I really needed to take a leak.  When I returned I lay back down, looking at the surroundings.  There were a few stars still visible in the sky, the fire was cold and everything looked gray and colorless except for a slight pink glow on the horizon.  Some kind of bird screeched overhead and the others began to stir.  I got up and started our breakfast of hot cereal and coffee as Nyala helped me.  I heard Sola ask Lon how his ankle was.  He pulled up his pant leg and gasped.  “Oh, my God! Look!”  Sola inspected it and looked at us amazed.

“Look!” Lon repeated.

Nyala and I went over to them and checked the wound.  It was half the size it had been yesterday and half healed.  We exchanged looks of complete surprise.

“Do you think we did that?” I asked, incredulous.

“Of course you did,” Lon said.  “Look how much better it is.  I couldn’t have healed that fast on my own.”

I had to agree.  Even without having a clue as to what we were doing, we’d engaged in a healing, or at least a partial healing.  I stared into space, one awesome thought filling my mind:  What WERE we capable of? I couldn’t fathom it.  After breakfast we gathered up our gear and set off, Lon riding the packhorse.

We tried another healing session that night and the next morning there was only a thin scar left on Lon’s ankle and he was able to walk.  I was certainly convinced of the importance of caste progression.  The implications were staggering and also sobering.  I felt a shiver as the thought that this power we all possessed could be used for good or evil crept into my mind.

We traveled another two days and according to our calculations, we should have already gotten to a settlement called Southtown but there was no sign of it yet.  That night we all pored over the maps, but still, according to them, we should have run smack into Southtown by now.  We had plenty of supplies and water but this was still a worrisome turn of events.  The next settlement looked to be another two days travel.  It was a larger settlement called Twin Forks.

As we traveled, we were tense and apprehensive, thinking that if the maps were wrong about Southtown, maybe they were wrong about the next one, too.  But on the afternoon of the second day we came to a small hill and there, seeming to appear by magic as we crested the hill, we saw the rather large settlement of Twin Forks nestled in the dry valley before us.  We whooped and hollered in happiness and relief at the welcome sight. As we approached, we could see that at one time it had been a good-sized human town with predominately adobe style dwellings and a somewhat organized layout.  The main street was lined with a combination of adobe and wooden structures, mostly eateries and I saw a fairly decent looking inn or tavern not far off.

Nyala hitched up the horse out front and as we walked onto the porch, Sola said, “Listen.” I heard music coming from further down the street.  “This must be a party town.  Let’s check it out.”

“Let’s check in first,” I said.

We got two rooms, a bed in each, and paired up like before.  A har was sent to care for the horse, so we went to the bar area to eat. We got a table and ordered dinner.  The serving har told us they brewed their own ale, so we all gave it a try.  It was a tasty and potent brew, with a strong flavor of yeast.  We feasted on meat stew, fresh bread and butter and quite a bit more ale. Afterwards we decided to check out the club with the loud music.

We walked down the street until we came to an area where there were several clubs.  It was dark now and I could tell they had electricity here as I noticed that some of the clubs had flashing strings of light out front.  The one we went into was called Seven Sins.  Inside the front door was another curtained door and when I parted it, the first thing I saw was a band on a raised stage at the far side of the club.  It was fairly crowded and Nyala pointed over to an empty table so we quickly went over and sat down.  The band was between numbers, so we discussed drinks and Sola went to get them.  By the time he came back, the band was playing loud, electronic music.  They were dressed in tight clothes, big boots and they each sported varying dyed hair colors.  They were extremely loud but not bad.

Sola grabbed Lon’s hand.  “Come on!” he shouted over the music.

Nyala and I exchanged sheepish grins, neither one of us being crazy about dancing.  Sola and Lon loved it, however, and only came back to the table to rest a moment and drink and then they were right back out there.

Before long I started to feel drunk and obviously so did Nyala.  We sat there talking and laughing, when suddenly I noticed two hara who seemed to be staring at us.  I thought maybe I was imagining it until one of them raised his glass and winked at me, smiling.  I blinked, thinking I was seeing things, but he then said something into his companion’s ear and they came over to our table and sat down.  Nyala, who’d been watching the band, looked over, surprised. They were both extremely good looking and I wondered what was going on.  One had reddish brown hair in a long braid down his back and light brown eyes.  He was dressed in tan suede pants and an oversized beige shirt, mostly left open down the front. The other one had shortish blond hair, tousled and spiked out in all directions and light blue eyes.  He had on black leather pants with silver studs on the pockets and a close-fitting short-sleeved  dark gray shirt with a symbol on it I didn’t recognize.

The music stopped and the band left the stage.  I looked through the crowd for Lon and Sola and saw them sitting at the bar, talking to one of the band members. The har with the braid addressed me.

“Hi.”  He looked to his companion.  “We thought you might be new here.  We’ve never seen you two before and we come here a lot.”

Nyala just looked at me, so I said, “Yeah, we just got here.”

The outgoing har smiled and extended his hand.  “I’m Cimarron, I mostly go by Cim, and this is Vooren.”  I took Cim’s hand, then Vooren’s.

“I’m Taj.  This is Nyala.”  Nyala shook their hands as well.

“Nice to meet you,” Cim said.  Vooren inclined his head to us.

“Are you staying here?” Cim inquired.

“Just passing through,” I replied.

“Where are you headed?”

Nyala broke in, “Northwest.”

Cim nodded, obviously taking the hint that we weren’t inclined to give him details.

Just then the band started again with a slow number.  Cim asked me to dance and Vooren asked Nyala.  I shrugged, thinking, why not?   Nyala must have had similar thoughts as we let them lead us out.  I must admit I was attracted to Cim, who was quite beautiful.  He took me in his arms and I felt a thrill.  As we swayed, I noticed he smelled heavenly; spicy and invigorating.  I was glad I had bathed at the inn.

He inquired into my ear, “Are you and Nyala chesna?”

“No, we’re best friends.”

He smiled into my eyes. “Vooren and I are, too.”

He pulled me closer and I dared to hope he might be interested in me, at least for the night. When the song ended we went back to the table.

Vooren said, “Let me get us all another drink.”

He came back with something strong and sweet and we all drank up.  I noticed that now Vooren was next to Nyala and Cim, next to me.

When we had finished our drinks Cim asked, “Why don’t you two come to our place?  It’s really close.”

I looked hopefully to Nyala.  Vooren was nibbling his ear.

“Okay,” Nyala said.

We got up to leave and I looked over to Sola and Lon.  I waved with a smile and Sola nudged Lon who waved also and gave me a thumbs up.  I shook my head, laughing. As we went out into the street, Vooren linked his arm in Nyala’s and Cim draped his arm around my neck.  He was holding a bottle of wine he’d grabbed off their table, from which he took a swig and then placed it to my lips.  Some spilled down my neck and we stopped walking as he licked it off.

“  Mmmmm…the only way to enjoy a good wine,” he joked.  I giggled, totally turned on.

We got to a one-story adobe house in only a few minutes.  As we went in, Vooren turned on the lights and immediately dimmed them.  It was dark but I could see that it was a really nice place.  There was a kitchen to the right and a living room to the left, both open to each other except for a large archway to the living room.  Further on down a wide hall, there was a closed door on the left and two small rooms on the right. Cim walked to the end of the house, beckoning us forward.  At the end there was a door and he led us through it back outside to the back of the house.  There in the yard was a large tub that looked like a huge barrel someone had cut in half.  Eight hara could have sat around it’s edge easily.  There was a table there piled with towels.

Cim extended his hand toward the tub.  “Shall we?”

I could hardly wait.  We all disrobed and got in.  It was cooling, but not cold.  There was a ledge all around the tub so we could sit in the water almost up to our necks. Vooren had brought along another bottle, so we sat in the water drinking and talking.  It was lovely.

Cim came over to me with his bottle of wine.  He held it aloft and poured it into his mouth, then held it up for me to do the same.  Again, some spilled over me.  He set the bottle down on the outer ledge of the tub and putting his arms around my neck, he licked and sucked it off my face and neck.  I sighed deeply with pleasure.  He moved to my lips and we shared breath.  He was golden orange sunset and clear blue sky with a fresh, spicy essence.  I opened up to him and gave him visions of my inner essence.  As we shared breath, he guided my hand to his soume-lam, so I got the message to be ouana.  He kissed me as he stroked my ouana-lim, the water lapping around us.  I looked over and in a blur I saw Nyala and Vooren sharing breath, moving, and heard their noises of pleasure.  It was all incredibly intoxicating and erotic.  Cim moved onto me, impaling himself on my ouana-lim, wrapping his legs around my waist.  His movements on me were fluid and deliberate, accentuated by the rippling water.  He alternately clenched and released me, the muscles in his soume-lam undulating against my stiffened shaft.  The effect was novel and intensely pleasurable.  As he moved on me, nibbling my neck and ear, I gazed up to see a heaven full of stars.  Soon Cim’s lovely eyes moved into my line of vision, limpid and dilated with desire.   He fixed his eyes to mine then he closed them crooning, “Mmmm…mmmmm”  with every movement as he licked his lips. I watched him, then I pulled him closer, feeling that I had to kiss him, right then, passionately and deeply.  When he parted our lips he held me tighter and whispered,  “Taj,” just before we climaxed.  As our movements caused some water to slosh over the tub’s side,  I lost myself in the sensation of completion, seeing curling blue wisps, golden starbursts and deep violet flashes of light, feeling the luscious spasms pulsing through me, enjoying every delicious quiver until they ebbed away.  Cim ran his hands into my hair and pulled me close, kissing me all over my face and neck as I stroked his back.  Then we were still, regaining our composure.  He looked into my eyes and smoothed back the hair that had fallen over my face.  “ That was great.  You’re amazing,” he said.

“You’re phenomenal,” I murmured.  He smiled and nuzzled into my neck.

I looked over to see Nyala and Vooren both leaning back, Vooren’s arms outstretched on the edge of the tub, Nyala’s head on Vooren’s shoulder.

After a while, Cim got his bottle and raised it.  “To our two new friends!”  He drank from it and passed it to me as Vooren  raised his bottle as well, then put it to Nyala’s lips.

“Let’s go inside.”  Cim suggested.  He had towels by the tub, so we dried off, dressed and went into their house.

We entered their living room which had a couch and loveseat, both covered in deep red velvet.  There were a few small tables, a large chair and lamps giving off a dim light, all making for a very sensual atmosphere.  Cim sat on the couch and patted the seat next to him for Nyala to sit.  Vooren smiled invitingly and sat close to me on the loveseat.  He turned my face to his and cupped my chin with his slim, pale fingers and as he leaned in to kiss me I felt his warm lips on mine, his tongue teasing my own.  Oh, my God , I thought, This is too good to be true.  We were soon sharing breath and I saw golden rays, yellow blossoms and tasted a sweet essence.  I gave back to him my inner self, letting him taste the pleasure I felt.  I heard Cim’s and Nyala’s heavy breathing.  I couldn’t believe I was so excited after just being so satisfied.  Vooren stood and pulled me up to him.  “Come with me,” he said.

He led me to a room down their hall, Cim and Nyala following close behind.  Vooren opened the door to the large room on the left.  Inside there was nothing but a huge thickly cushioned mattress, covered in moss green material, strewn with colored pillows.  It took up the whole room.  I stared, amazed.

“This is our playroom,”  he said, grinning.

He led me in and flopped on the bed, pulling me with him.  I laughed and as we lay there, we were soon sharing breath again, as were Cim and Nyala, not far away.  Vooren unbuttoned my pants and slid his hand to my soume-lam, deftly pleasuring me.

“Do you want to be soume?” he asked.

I nodded, breathless.  We quickly shed our clothes and as he moved his mouth to my soume-lam, I couldn’t control my noises and writhing.  I thought I would lose it when he stopped and kissed his way back to my lips.

“Mmmm, you’re delicious,” he murmured, kissing my throat.

Before long I moved my mouth down his pale body to his ouana-lim.  It was very beautiful; pale, shimmery gold and rose.  I caressed it and it flowered in my hands.  I then ran my tongue to every glistening petal, relishing his unique, sweet flavor.  Vooren moaned and stroked my hair.  I moved back to his lips and then he gently laid me back on the bed.  He moved onto me and as he slowly speared into me I felt an intense pleasure and gripped the bedcovers in my hands.  He began to move, slowly at first, leaning to press his lips to mine.  He caught my sighs and moans as I did his.  As our movements became more frenzied, and he parted our lips, I felt the buildup, then a tingle and a wave of pleasure.  I then lost reality and stopped breathing for a few seconds as I felt the tongue snake out of him and lash the desperate spot in my core.  The final wave crested over me as the throbbing pleasure of completion overtook me, body and mind.  I felt Vooren’s climax, too, adding to my own pleasure.  He fell onto me, both of us panting and shuddering.  We stayed there catching our breath, his head on my chest as I leafed my fingers through his spiky hair, which was surprisingly soft.  He finally rolled off and lay beside me, his arm across me at my waist.

It was only then I looked over to Nyala and Cim who were lying in each other’s arms.  They were so still they could have been dead.  I’d been so lost in Vooren that I had no idea what they’d been up to.

It was a good while before anyone stirred.  Vooren scooted over to the side of the bed and crawled back over with yet another bottle of wine.  We all sat up and drank some more.  We chatted a bit and then Cim and Vooren exchanged smoldering looks and devious smiles.

Cim said, “Let’s mix it up!”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it soon became clear that we were going to have a real foursome. Cim and Vooren guided Nyala and I to each other, so we caressed and shared breath as we knelt on the bed.  As we did so, Cim came up behind me, encircling me with his arms, sliding his hands down to stroke my ouana-lim and kissing me on the back of the neck.  Vooren crawled next to Nyala and nibbled his ear and neck as he smoothed his hands over his body and slid his fingers to his soume-lam.  My eyes fluttered closed.  Soon I opened my eyes to see Nyala’s face florid with desire, his lips swollen from our impassioned sharing.  I was bombarded with piquant sensations as I turned to kiss and share breath with Cim, then back to Nyala as Cim continued his skilled massaging and Nyala caressed me.  I practically collapsed on the bed, lying on my back.  Cim moved his mouth to my ouana-lim, which was slick with my essence. Vooren turned my face to his to share breath and Nyala kissed and nipped me on the neck.  After that, it was mostly a delicious frenzied blur of arunic ecstasy.  I remember being ouana with Nyala and soume with Cim, then I think Vooren took me right after that.  There really aren’t any words to convey the intensity I felt as three hara caressed, penetrated and pleasured me.  Many of the details escape me, but the delectable maelstrom of erotic pleasures, I will never forget.  Finally we all lay down exhausted and I passed out.

I awoke the next day, at least I supposed it was the next day, my eyes blurred, my mind disoriented.  I raised my head and looked around me.  There was Nyala on the far side of the huge bed, sleeping and Vooren lying on his stomach, one of his arms and a leg draped over me.  Cim was gone.  I carefully got up and left to find the bathroom.  As I stepped out, I smelled coffee and I soon found my way to the kitchen.  Cim was sitting at a small round table where he greeted me with a warm smile, which I returned.

“Coffee?” he inquired.

“Please.”  I sat down and started sipping.

“The other two still sleeping?”

“Yeah.”

“Vooren sleeps half the day sometimes.”

I looked around.  It was very lovely.  “You have a nice home.”

“Thanks.”

“How long have you lived here?”

He thought a moment.  “Six years.”

“How long have you and Vooren been friends?”

“About the same.”

“Nyala and I and our other two friends grew up together and became har together.  Did you know Vooren when you were human?”

“No.  We met up here, but we’ve been friends since the day we met.”

I paused taking a gulp of coffee and a deep breath.  “Do you have many nights like last night?”

He laughed, a pleasant, lilting sound.  “Well, not as many as we’d like.”

We were chuckling together when Nyala shuffled out.

“I’ll get him some coffee,” Cim said.

Nyala plopped down next to me, rubbing his face.  He drank his coffee, seeming to savor every swallow.  He said, “Lon and Sola must wonder what happened to us.”

“They saw us leave the club.  They waved at us, remember?”

“No.”

I heard Cim chuckling.  I did, too.

“How about some eggs?” Cim asked.  We both nodded.

As we were enjoying an omelet, Vooren joined us.  We sat awhile, talking, but I soon realized we were going to have to leave.  Nyala went to the “playroom”  to retrieve his shirt, then we said our goodbyes.  To my surprise, Cim and Vooren both embraced us and kissed us both goodbye.

“I really had fun,” I said.  “I’ll never forget this!”

Cim gave us a sparkling smile.  “If you’re ever back this way, come and see us.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

Nyala and I left and headed for the inn.

“Wow!”  I said.  “Last night was a blast.  I can hardly believe it really happened.”

“Yeah, it was fun.”

“I know you’ve done that before, right?  With the two northern hara?”

“Yeah, but never with four.”

“It was incredible.”

“Well, yeah, but I really prefer being alone just one on one.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, you can really focus and connect.  That stuff’s fun sometimes, but I don’t think it’s the best.”

I was truly surprised by his answer.  I’d had the time of my life.  But I let it drop and said, “Too bad we paid for a room we didn’t use.”

“Yeah, let’s at least take another bath.  That’ll be worth something.”

“I’m for that!”

We went to our room, each took a bath, then went to find Sola and Lon, but they weren’t in their room.

“Maybe they went to eat breakfast, or lunch.  What the hell time is it anyway?”  Nyala asked.  I shrugged.

We left a note on their door and went to our room to wait.  We lay on the bed and I fell asleep in about two minutes.  I was awakened by knocking on the door and I looked up to see Lon and Sola come in. Nyala was just waking up as well.

“Well, what have you two been up to, as if I didn’t know,”  Sola said.

Lon added, “Where did you go?  Those two hara were really gorgeous.”

Nyala and I gave each other knowing looks, both of us grinning from ear to ear, then we told them the whole story.  After we finished our tale I asked, “What time is it?”

“About five o’clock,” Lon answered.

“What? Shit!  We’ll have to stay another night.”

“No big deal,” Sola said.  “Don’t worry about it.  We can leave early tomorrow.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said.  Let’s just sleep til then.”

Lon and Sola snickered.  “Yeah, rest up,” Sola said.

They left and Nyala and I immediately went back to sleep.  But just before I fell asleep I couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be to go back to Cim and Vooren’s house again.  I was so tired, I probably couldn’t have handled it anyway.

The next morning, Nyala woke me up just as it was getting light out.  We got Sola and Lon, ate breakfast at the inn and made ready to leave.

As we were settling up with the har who ran the inn, I decided to ask him something.

“Have you heard of Southtown?”

“Yeah, it’s not real far from here.”

I got out our map and showed it to him.  “We had planned to stop there, but we missed it somehow.”

He studied the map a moment.  “This is wrong.  Southtown is here.”  He pointed quite a bit further east than our map showed it.

“Is the rest of this right?” I asked.

“I only know about to…here.”  He pointed.  “It’s right that far.”

I sighed.  “Okay.  Thanks.”

“Good luck,” he said as we left.

When we got to the edge of town, I looked back wistfully.  I’ll probably never have a night like that again, I thought to myself.  I would also miss all the conveniences of a town like Twin Forks.  It was the only civilized place we’d come across since leaving Solarumn.  I also thought if we never find Saltrock, we could always come back here.  I think I could be quite happy in Twin Forks.

****************************************

We traveled another four days until we got to Sandy Flats, a very unimpressive settlement.  The accommodations were so primitive, we decided to camp at the edge of the place.  We got a few more supplies and provisions and continued on the next day.

When we had traveled three days, we came to a settlement called Rockpoint.  According to our maps and information, it should be close enough to Saltrock that we supposed the hara here could direct us the rest of the way.  We figured this place was only hours away from Saltrock.

We found an inn and took two rooms as before.  Nyala asked the inn har about Saltrock, but he said he didn’t know anything about it.  We went to eat dinner at the tavern across the street and I asked the serving har if he knew the exact whereabouts of Saltrock.  He shrugged and shook his head.  I thought this was all very weird.  As we ate our meal of fried chicken, potatoes and corn, we discussed our dilemma.

Nyala, with a perplexed look on his face said, “I don’t get it.  If we’re as close as the maps say, how could the hara here not know about Saltrock?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe we’re way off on our calculations,”  Sola offered.

“Maybe,” I said.  “But still, we can’t be so far off that no har’s ever heard of it.”

“Well, obviously we are,” Lon pointed out.

I really didn’t know what to do next.  We decided to sleep on it.

The next day we went to different places in the settlement and asked around.  None of us got any answers.  I started to think Jarin and Mingo were either liars or delusional.  We went to an outdoor eatery for lunch.  As we sat there eating sandwiches and feeling deceived and discouraged, a tall sandy-haired har came over to us.  He pulled up a chair and sat down between Nyala and me.

He leaned in and spoke quietly.  “You hara have been asking about Saltrock, right?”

We looked at each other questioningly.  I turned to sandy hair and replied tentatively, “Yes.”

“Why?”

I wasn’t sure what to do or say.  Nyala, however, answered.

“Because we want to go there.  We heard about it and we’ve come a long way to find it.”

“What have you heard?”

“That it’s a place where hara work together, live in peace and every har is equal,” Nyala replied.

“Where did you hear about it?”

This time I answered.

“We’re from Solarumn, a Kakkahaar outpost southeast of here.  Two hara from the north told Nyala about it.”  I nodded to indicate my friend.  “They said they’d been there.”

“Solarumn,” Sandy hair repeated.  “That’s a long way from here.  You came all that way to find Saltrock?”

“Yeah!” Sola said.

Lon added, “According to our maps, we should be really close, but no har here knows anything about it.”  Then he added under his breath, “Or at least they’re not telling us anything.”

Sandy hair took a deep breath and looked at each of us.  “Who were the two hara?  What were their names?”

“Jarin and Mingo,” Nyala replied.

Sandy hair looked at the table top, smiling.

“You know them?” I asked.

He looked up, grinning.  “Yeah, I know them.  They got us our first generator.  Which isn’t up and running yet,” he added.  “I think I can help you.”  He extended his hand, first to Nyala then to the rest of us.  “I’m Reif.”  We introduced ourselves all around, then he explained.

“We have to be very careful.  We’re trying to build something good.  We have to be selective as to who comes to Saltrock.”

The others nodded in agreement.  I wasn’t so sure.  If Saltrock was what I’d envisioned, shouldn’t it be open to all hara?  Then I recalled all the tales of wild, murderous hara I’d heard and relented a bit.  Maybe they just wanted it to be a safe place; a haven where hara could live free of fear.

Reif asked us a lot more questions and afterwards said, “No one is idle at Saltrock.  Every har is expected to pull his own weight and we all work together to better the community as a whole.  What skills do you have?”

Sola spoke up first.  “Lon and I have experience with building things, framework and stuff.”

“Great!”  He looked to me.  “How about you?”

“I can cook.”

“Okay.  Can you or would you be willing to do other household type chores as well?”

“Sure,” I said.

Then he turned his attention to Nyala.  “And you?”

“I can grow things.”

“Excellent!  I think there’s a place at Saltrock for each of you.”

Nyala had been silent on the subject of caste training and I wondered why.  I knew it was of great importance to him.  Impulsively, I asked Reif, “What about caste training and progression?”

Reif studied me a moment.  “That’s not exactly my department, but we do have hara teaching and studying at Saltrock.  You’ll have to take that up with other hara when we get there.”

Reif got up to leave.  “I’ll take you there tomorrow.  Get all your gear and meet me at the north end of town at noon.  See you then,” he said as he strode off.

We all sat silent for a few moments, looking at each other, letting it all sink in, then we began to talk excitedly.

“I can’t believe this!” Sola said.

“Yeah, it’s like he came out of nowhere!” Lon added.  “How did he know we were looking for Saltrock?  I never saw him around here, did you?”

I pondered a moment.  “I’m guessing either someone we asked knows him and told him, or he’s been spying on us.”

“Who cares!”  Nyala exclaimed.  “We made it!”  We got a large bottle of sheh and emptied it, toasting our success.

That night as we drunkenly and happily went to our rooms, my mind, and I assumed my friends’ as well, was full of suppositions about what Saltrock would be like.

As Nyala and I lay on our bed, I asked him, “What’s your vision of Saltrock?  I’d like to know before we actually see it.”

He sighed thoughtfully, one hand behind his head, staring at the ceiling.  “I think it will be somewhat primitive, because Jarin told me it was founded less than two years ago.  Primitive, maybe, but so full of potential you can feel it in the air.”

I laughed.  “That’s quite a vision!”

He shrugged, flashing a smile at me.  “What do you think?”

“I think it will probably be a lot of work!  But it will be working toward something and building something that was never first inhabited by humans, sort of making that statement.  For some reason, I think that part will be important.”

Nyala was silent, so I looked over at him.  His smile had faded quickly and he looked pensive and a little sad.

“What?”  I asked.

He didn’t meet my gaze.  “I…I just have the feeling we’ll sort of grow apart, you and I.”  After pausing, he added, “Oh…and the others, too, I mean.”

I rose up on one elbow, regarding him.  “That doesn’t have to happen.”

“No, but I think it will.  It’s just a feeling, but my feeling is that it’s inevitable.”

I reached over and caressed his face.  He touched my hand as he turned his gaze to me.  “Well then, let’s decide it’s not inevitable,” I said.

He smiled wistfully and drew me to him to share breath.  When we parted, he buried his face in my hair.  He whispered, “Be ouana…?”  I couldn’t help wondering if it would be our last time.

The following morning as the sun was just dawning, I awoke to find Nyala inches away from my face, staring into my eyes.  I yawned, stretched and smiled sleepily at him.  He smiled back and pulled me closer and I relaxed into his arms and dozed off.  Later, I awoke again and found myself alone.  I got up and dressed and as I was pulling the bed together, Nyala came in.

“Where were you?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “Just walking.  I needed some fresh air.”  He sat on the bed.

I sat next to him.  “Is something on your mind?”

He looked at the floor.  “I just needed to think.”

“About what, exactly?”

“I don’t know.  Everything!  You know.”

I didn’t but I nodded.  I gathered that I looked confused because of his next words to me.

“Don’t mind me.  I guess there are things I didn’t think about before.  We’ve all been through so much together, especially coming here, and now I hate to see that closeness end.  I’m afraid things will change too much between us, that we’ll lose what we have.  I guess I’m a little unsure of all this now.”

I laughed.  “You couldn’t wait to leave Solarumn!”

“I know, I know.  It’s just…I don’t know.”

I put my arm around him.  “Don’t worry, we’ll like Saltrock, I know it.  He smiled weakly.  “And we’ve all been friends for so long, we always will be.  We’ll always be close, especially you and me. You know that.  And especially since we’ve added the new…‘dimension’ shall I say, to our friendship.”  I made him laugh and blush slightly.
“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s get Lon and Sola and go have breakfast.”

By the time we finished breakfast, it was eleven o’clock.  We went to our rooms, got our things together, got the packhorse and headed for the north side of town.  We weren’t there long before we saw Reif approaching on a horse.  He inclined his head to us with a smile.

“You ready?” he asked.  We all eagerly answered our agreement.  “Well, let’s go then.”

He led the way slowly as we followed.  We traveled, to the northwest for several hours.  Reif then suggested we stop to eat.  We ate apples and cheese we’d bought at Rockpoint and passed a bottle of wine around.  As we ate, Reif explained some things to us.

“At Saltrock hara are, of course, free to live where and with whom they please, but at first, I’m going to send you to stay with hara who are doing the same kind of work, at least until you can find your own place to stay if you want to.  You two,” he pointed to Sola and Lon,  “can stay together with some of the hara who are building a new stable.  You,” he pointed to Nyala,  “can stay near where the gardens are.  And you,” he said, gesturing to me,  “will be in Seel’s house to help cook and clean.

“Seel’s house?  What’s that?”  I asked, very curious.

He laughed.  “You’ll see.”

“This is all just to get started.  You’ll have plenty of time to get a place to stay together later if you want.  Besides, we all live pretty closely anyway, you can all hang out every day.  Oh, I forgot, are any of you chesna?” We all shook our heads.

“Okay, because we wouldn’t want to separate you even temporarily if you were.  Is all this okay with you?”

We all nodded silently.  I think we would have liked to stay together, but we didn’t know anything about this place.  Maybe there wasn’t a place for us to have yet.  I guessed this was how it had to be at first.  I sighed looking at Nyala, he seemed a bit melancholy but resolved.  I know he didn’t want us to be separated at all.  Neither did I.  After lunch we resumed our journey.

I walked over next to Nyala.  “You okay?”  I asked.

He gave me a genuine smile.  “Yeah.  I guess it won’t be so bad.  Sounds like we won’t be that far from each other anyway.”

“Right, and it won’t hurt us to make a few new friends, either.”  I leaned over and said into his ear, “Maybe some friends like Cim and Vooren, hmmm?”  He laughed out loud and shoved me playfully.  I was happy to see him cheered up.

We traveled on and dusk was approaching when we climbed a high path that, to me, looked a bit treacherous.  There was a rock cleft that appeared as though it had once been formed by water, but was dry now.  Out of nowhere, two figures on horses emerged, blocking our path, but they immediately seemed to recognize Reif and they let us pass.  We entered a very narrow rocky path and our packhorse balked at the difficulty of it.  At the path’s end I saw what appeared to be a lake, a mirror with steam coming off of it.  The vapors were stinging and distasteful to breathe in.  I heard Lon coughing, obviously he was made more uncomfortable by the acerbic fumes than the rest of us.  Mountains and rocks surrounded the caustic lake and there were strange mineral deposits all along the floor of the valley.  It looked like an alien planet to me.  I saw the outline of what looked like the settlement in the distance.  I looked again at the acid lake and it seemed to glow pink and silver in the setting sun.

As we got closer to the settlement, I saw that Nyala’s assessment of the place wasn’t far off.  There were a few wooden buildings and more than a few makeshift dwellings, tents and shelters made of various materials, whatever their builders had scavenged, I guessed.  All the hara seemed friendly and some were still busy working even though it was almost dark.  There didn’t seem to be electricity anywhere in the town.  Fires, oil lamps and candles appeared to be the only means of illumination.  I couldn’t help thinking that the human towns that were now inhabited by Wraeththu had a lot more amenities than the rough, totally Wraeththu settlements.  But maybe I wasn’t far off when I thought some hara felt it was more important to make their own mark on the world.  After all, it was really our world now.

When we got near the center of town, Reif stopped.  He pointed to a large wooden house and said, “That’s Seel’s house.  This is where you go.  Go on in and see Flick in the kitchen.  Through the front door and straight through to the back.”

I nodded, then asked, “See who?”

“Flick.  You can’t miss him.”

I looked to my three friends.  Sola and Lon came over and embraced me.  “I’ll see you soon,” I said.  Then Nyala embraced me.  I felt my eyes sting with held back tears.  When he released me, I smiled and said, “I’m sure you won’t be far away.  We’ll see each other soon.”  He nodded, managing a smile, but I saw that his cheeks were wet.  At that moment I wanted to grab Reif and beg him to let us stay together somewhere.  He probably would have done it, but I felt I had to just do what needed to be done, so I walked toward the house.  Before I went in, I looked back and saw my friends heading on through town behind Reif.  I had never felt so alone and even though I knew they’d only be a stone’s throw away, it wasn’t the same and something told me it never would be again.  I swallowed the lump in my throat, took a deep breath and opened the door.

As I focused my thoughts on the job at hand I felt some self-satisfaction knowing I’d be working in what looked to be the nicest house around.  The entry way was dark, but I could make out a high ceiling and a stairway leading up to a gallery on the second floor.  I also saw that the room at the end of the house, which I assumed was the kitchen, was lit up.  I headed for the light and as I entered the kitchen, I saw a har, the only har in the room.  He stood at the sink, washing out what appeared to be liquor and wine bottles.  He was about my height, but even thinner with a long dark ponytail and the sides of his head were shaved.  I assumed he’d just been incepted.  He had on a long apron, whistling over the running water, apparently not aware of me. I walked over next to him and he looked over at me with a rather blank, but impish grin.

“You Flick?” I asked.

He dried his hands on his apron.  “Yeah, and you are—?”

“Taj,” I replied, extending my hand.

He took it, saying,”  Oh, yeah. You’re here to work in the kitchen and stuff, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what they tell me.”

“We heard all about it.  You came a long way to get here.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t so bad.”

He turned back to the sink to finish and said, “You might as well get started.  Dry these bottles and put them on that rack over there.”  He indicated with a nod towards the other counter. As I did this, I took a good look around the room.  It was fairly big with a low ceiling and a wood floor.  The next thing I noticed was a large cook stove.  The kitchen also had a good deal of counter space, several built in cupboards above the counters and one freestanding cupboard.  Over to one side was a large table and quite a few chairs.  I then noticed there was a door to a pantry at one end, a closed door at the opposite end and beside the sink to the left at the back wall was a door to outside.

As Flick handed me the last bottle, he took a deep breath.  “Whew!  Finally!  Done for the day.  Dinner was over some time ago but if you’re hungry there’s some smoked ham.”

I nodded enthusiastically.  I was famished.  Flick got the ham and some bread, so I made a very large sandwich and started devouring it.  He got a bottle of sheh, removed his apron and sat down at the table with me.  He drank from the bottle and slid it over to me.  I took a large swig and continued eating.

“Reif told me this was Seel’s house.  Who’s Seel?” I asked.

“Nobody told you?  Seel’s big stuff around here.  He founded Saltrock.  You’re lucky, like me.  The living’s good at Seel’s house.”  I gave him a food-filled smile.  I had indeed lucked out.

“Can you really cook?”

“Oh, yeah.  I didn’t make that up.  I really can.”  Flick laughed.  I think he believed me.

After I had finished eating, he suddenly said, “Come on.”  Grabbing the bottle, he led the way out the back door.  He started walking quickly as I hurried to keep up.

“Hey, where do I sleep?”  I thought I’d better ask before it got too late.

“With any har you want!”   He giggled, more like cackled at me, then he added, “You’ll bunk with me.  My room hooks up to the kitchen.”  Ah!  The closed door, I thought.

Flick took a swig from the bottle as we walked down the street, before saying, “We’re trying to get electricity through the town, but we’re not there yet.”

I asked, “How long have you been here?”

“About a year.”

I was confused.  “Aren’t you newly incepted?”

He chuckled. “No.”

“But your hair…”

“Oh, that.  I just liked it this way, so I’ve kept it.”

I concluded that Flick was an odd one.  Likeable, but odd.

We got to a group of dwellings comprised of tents, shacks and houses in various stages of being built.  Behind them I saw a fire burning with several hara sitting around it.  I heard talk and laughter as we approached.  When we got close, the hara quieted somewhat.

“Hey, Flick,” one said.  Flick smiled and sat down around the fire.  I sat, too.  They regarded me, making me a bit self-conscious.

“Who’s the new one?” one of the hara asked.

Flick smiled at me.  “Taj,” he said.  “He’s in the kitchen with me.”

“Oh,” said a light haired har, snickering.

Flick sighed, looking at me.  “Taj, this is Dren.”  I inclined my head, as did Dren.  “This is Rica,” he indicated to a dark haired har with a nose ring.  “And this is Tosh.”  A har with wild, white hair inclined his head to me.

Tosh said, “Hey, you’re lucky.  You get to be in Seel’s house.”

I shrugged.  “Yeah, I think I’ll like it there.”

Rica asked, “Can you cook, or is it some other ‘skill’ you have?”  They laughed.

I looked him squarely in the eye.  “I can cook.”

They chuckled and handed me their bottle.  I drank, feeling at least somewhat accepted by the group.

I added, “Of course I’m sure I’m nowhere near the cook Flick is.”

They exchanged looks and together said, “Ooooh!”  Then Dren said, “Flick, looks like you’ve got an admirer.”

Flick gave him the finger then looked at me and winked.  I took more sheh.  We sat shooting the bull for quite some time, then Flick disappeared with one of them, leaving me with the other two.  They started sharing breath, so I left and headed back to Seel’s house.  Later, I got very sleepy, so I dozed off on Flick’s bed.  He came in at some point and shook me awake.

“Hey, I fixed you a bed on the floor,” he said.  “I’ll see to something better tomorrow.”

I sleepily said, “Okay,”  and flopped down on the makeshift bed.

The next thing I knew it was morning and Flick was pulling the covers off me.  “Come on,” he said.  “We’ve got to fix breakfast.”

I pulled on some clothes, went to the bathroom and splashed some water on my face and went to the kitchen where Flick was already at work preparing things.  He was at the wood stove cooking bacon when I came in.  He threw me an apron and said, “Crack those eggs in a bowl.”

I did so then I asked him,”Where are the herbs?”

Flick flashed me an approving smile.  “In the cupboard right above your head.”

There were dried herbs in containers, neatly labeled.  I put some thyme and savory in the eggs.  Flick got out a frying pan and handed it to me, so I heated it up and scrambled the eggs.  He put the eggs, the bacon and some toast he did in the oven on a platter and set it in the oven, waiting for the coffee to be done.

“You ready to meet Seel?”

I shrugged.  “Sure,”  I answered absentmindedly as I filled the pans with water to soak.

While busy at the sink, I heard somehar pull out a chair and sit down.  Flick got the coffee pot and I grabbed the platter.  I set the platter on the table, keeping my head down as Flick poured the coffee.  Then I looked up and froze.  I had never seen any har like Seel.  He was almost indescribable.  He looked unreal to me.  His face was perfect; almost too perfect.  His hair was a wild colorful jungle of braids and his eyes were hypnotic.  He scared me actually because I’d never before been face to face with such a har.  As I stood there dumbfounded, Seel regarded me looking either perplexed or annoyed or maybe both, I couldn’t tell.  Flick cleared his throat and took my arm, snapping me out of my stupor, somewhat.  Then I heard Flick’s voice.

“Uh, Seel, this is Taj.  He’s from the group of hara from Solarumn.  He’s going to be my…assistant around here.”

Seel studied me warily, but then his face softened.  “Oh, right.  Good.  Well, nice to meet you, Taj.  Welcome to Saltrock.”

I looked at him, still stunned and nodded.  Flick elbowed me.  “Thank you,” I found myself saying.  Seel turned back to his breakfast and Flick put his hands on my shoulders and sat me in a chair next to him.  As they spoke of  hara and goings on I had no knowledge of, I tried to get food on my plate.  Seel made me nervous, but I managed to eat.  Then without warning, Seel addressed a question to me.

“So, Taj, what’s your first impression of our little community?”

I looked up into those eyes and momentarily forgot the question.  I finished chewing, swallowed with some difficulty and said, “It’s nice.  Hara seem friendly here.”  Nice? Nice? Come on Taj, think, think! “Umm, well, it was dark when we got here.  I really didn’t get a chance to see much.”

“Oh.  Well, we’ll have to get Flick to show you around then.”

Flick nodded, smiling.

They went back to their small talk and I stopped sweating. After breakfast, Seel strode out of the kitchen and left the house, looking like he was on his way to do something important.  Or maybe that was just the way he always looked.  Flick and I were still sitting at the table.  He grinned at me, then started to laugh.

“You should have seen your face!  I haven’t seen anything that funny in weeks, at least not sober.”

“I’m glad you find my misery and embarrassment so hilarious,” I said sarcastically and more than a little annoyed.  I got up and started clearing up.

“Aww, come on, Taj.  I’m just teasing you,” he said as he put his arm around me.  He then slapped me on the back and said, “After we clean up I’ll show you around, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, giving him a relenting smile.

He winked at me, slapped me on the butt and disappeared into the pantry.  I wasn’t sure what to make of the exchange, but I guessed we were becoming friends.

Flick showed me some of the places of interest in Saltrock, and as we were walking I had an idea.  “Can you show me where they’re building a new stable?”

Flick looked at me curiously.  “Yeah…why do you want to see that?”

I laughed.  “Two of my friends are working on it and I’d like to see them.”

“So that’s it. Sure. Come on.”

As we approached the site, I saw a large group of hara working .  I searched the group and saw my friends both hammering on something.  I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “Lon! Sola!” before waving wildly.  They looked and ran over, smiling.  We embraced in a group.  When we let go, I said, “This is Flick, he’s in charge of Seel’s house.  This is Sola and this is Lon.”  They nodded to each other.

Flick looked at me with a wide grin.  “‘In charge of Seel’s house.’  I like that.  You’re alright, Taj.”  He put his arm around my neck, laughing.

“How’s it going?”  I asked my friends.

“Great.  We like it.  The hara here are all really friendly, nothing like Solarumn!” Lon said enthusiastically, Sola nodding in agreement.  I was glad to see they were happy.

Sola said, “We’d better get back.  Don’t want to make a bad first impression!  Come see us!” he said as they hurried back.

“Seeya!”  I called after them.

I looked at Flick.  “I have another friend, my best friend…”

“Okay.  Where is he?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s supposed to be doing gardening.”

“That’s at the end of town.  Come on.”

We got to the edge of the settlement and there beneath some black rocky cliffs was a large expanse of land – almost two acres, Flick had said – where there were both flower and vegetable gardens.  It was so large that I mentioned it would probably be impossible to find Nyala.

Flick said, “I think I know where they’d put a har on his first day.  Follow me.”

We walked over to a place where hara were weeding what I would call a salad vegetable garden where all types of greens were growing.  I looked for a few minutes.

“You see him?” Flick asked.

I was about to say no, when I recognized his hair.  “There he is!”

I went over and tapped him on the shoulder.  He looked up, confused, then embraced me, laughing.

“Taj!  What are you doing here!”

“I came to see you.  What do you think?”

“I think I’m surprised!”

By this time, Flick had joined us.  “Nyala this is Flick.  Flick, Nyala.”  They shook hands.  Nyala stared a bit apprehensively at Flick.

“I work for him at Seel’s house,” I explained.

“Oh.  Nice to meet you, Flick.”

“Same here.”

Somehar called Flick over, so Nyala and I had a moment alone.

“How is it for you.  Are you happy?”

He shrugged.  “I guess.  I’ve only been here overnight.”  He laughed.

“I know, I know.”

“It’s okay.  The hara I’ve met have been nice and I like the gardens.  They’re phenomenal.  I think I’ll learn a lot.  How about you?”

“I like Seel’s house, although he’s…well he’s…not like any har I’ve ever met.  He’s overwhelming.  Flick’s great, though.”

“Yeah, well that’s good, I guess.”

Flick came back over.  Nyala said, “I guess I’d better get back to it.”

“Okay.  Let’s get together soon.”

“I’d like that.”  With that he turned and walked away.

As we left, I looked back to see him watching us leave.  I gave him a smile and a wave and he did the same.  I thought he looked a little sad.  Why him of all of us.?  He wanted to come here most of all.  I thought he’d be ecstatic. Oh, well.  Nyala could be moody sometimes.

***********************************************

There was sort of a town square in Saltrock where hara gathered to drink, talk and generally hang out.  Sometimes there would even be music.   At first hara would bring their own liquor, but an enterprising har was in the process of making an outdoor bar.  My guess was he’d have no trouble making a go of it.

My friends and I had met there several evenings in the few weeks we’d been here and it was great to hang with them.  Nyala told us that he’d started caste training and studies, which did seem to make him happier.   Sometimes Nyala was still a bit quieter than usual, but after a few drinks, he’d usually cheer up.

This particular night, however, I was sitting with Flick and some of his friends.  We were drinking and just goofing around when Flick suddenly leaned over and said to me, “Hey, let’s get out of here.  There’s something I want to show you.”

I shrugged.  “Okay.”

As we got up to leave, Flick grabbed a bottle of sheh, draped his arm around my neck and then we walked off.  I heard whispering and snickering from some of his friends behind our backs.  I looked around.

“Don’t mind them,” Flick said.

We walked out by the soda lake.  At dusk it always had an eerie glow.  A few early stars studded the sky as the light from the settlement dimmed behind us.  We hadn’t gone far when Flick stopped, his arm still around my neck as he said, “There it is.”

He pointed up to what looked like a hole or gash in the rock.  It looked as though some giant spoon had scooped out the rock.  We climbed up a good way until we stood on a ledge in front of the hole.

“We call it ‘the cave,’”  he said proudly.

On the ledge was a pile of ashes surrounded by a circle of stones and rocks.  Flick went over to the side of the cave and came back with some sticks, logs and matches.

“We keep it stocked up here so we can make fires.”

He started a fire and we sat on the ledge, gazing out at the star strewn night sky.  It reminded me of our nights in Solarumn.  Flick passed me the bottle.

“It’s kind of warm for a fire, isn’t it?”  I asked, wondering.

“Oh, that’s just to let other hara know its ‘occupied.’”   He gave me a strange look.

I didn’t know what the strange look meant, but it gave me a feeling of apprehension or maybe more accurately; anticipation.

After a short time, he said, “Come on and have a look at the inside.”

“Okay.”

The “cave” was only about twelve to fifteen feet deep, with a rock outcropping near the middle.  We could stand up in it, but just barely.  As I stood assessing its dimensions, Flick took the bottle from me, took a swig and set it on the ground.  He gave me another strange look as he came closer to me, put his arms around my neck and leaned in to kiss me.  As he kissed me harder, he backed me up against the rock wall, and then we shared breath.  Flick was calm waters on a moonlit evening and I can only describe his essence as blue and cool.  His subtlety in spirit was quite a contrast to what happened next, physically.  As we kissed and shared breath, Flick pressed against me, grinding his pelvis into mine.  It was very effective and my ouana-lim responded.  We began to really get into it, feeling each other and rubbing together.  The cave was filled with our heavy breathing.  Flick broke away and backed up.  He removed his clothes and with one flip of his hand, he untied his hair.  He shook it down and gave me a predatory stare.  It was then that I noticed he was soume.  He moved slowly toward me, a dilated feline look in his eyes.  I swallowed hard, feeling a little apprehensive but excited at the same time.  He pressed his body on mine, once again backing me up against the wall.  Before he got me to the wall he peeled my shirt over my head.  As he moved against me, he undid my pants and slid them down, moving down my body with kisses from his talented lips.  I could hardly breathe.  He took my ouana-lim into his hot mouth, wrapping his arms around my thighs and eliciting an uncontrollable groan from me.  After a few minutes of this, I thought it was going to be all over when he suddenly let go of me.  He moved back up to stand, embracing me, kissing and nipping me on the throat.

He looked into my eyes and said in low, seductive tones, “I want you inside me.”

I was almost unable to move.  He went over to the outcropping, reached behind it and shook out a tarp, laying it on the cave floor.  It was nearly as dusty as the floor itself, but I figured it would afford us some cushioning.  He lay down on it, his eyes smoky and intense.  He raised his knees, spread his legs and beckoned me with his finger.  I almost tripped over myself getting to him, part desire and partly because my pants were still around my feet.  I quickly stepped out of them and fell on him in a fit of passion.  I lay on top of him, kissing all over his face and neck.  When I moved to enter him, he suddenly flipped us over somehow.  He looked at me like he was going to eat me alive and I knew I looked at him like I couldn’t wait.  He straddled me and pushed me into him, sinking down slowly, causing me to make a desperate moaning noise.  As he did so, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back.  I felt him grip me with his soume-lam.  Suddenly he flipped his head forward, letting his hair fall over his face and over mine, looking into my eyes.  At that moment, he was the only har in the universe and he was beautiful.  As he began to move up and down on me, I knew our release would be quick.  His aggressive soume mode was so effective and exciting and his movements on me were so forceful.  I soon felt the familiar tingle and wave of pleasure then the rush of release.  Finally I heard him moan, then he collapsed on me, the throbbing slowly subsiding.

We lay there recovering, his body on mine, as I leafed my fingers through his silky hair.  After a while, he raised his head.  We kissed long and slowly and he moved off me, lying beside me, his pale arm draped over my chest as I smoothed my hand over it.

“You were great,” he purred, kissing my shoulder.  “I’ll definitely be bringing you back to the cave.”

I felt him smile against me as he licked my arm.  I was a bit puzzled.  I felt like I hadn’t done anything.  I felt that I’d almost been a spectator in his sport; a very willing and now very sated spectator.  He reached for the bottle.  We had unknowingly knocked it over in our frenzy.  Luckily there was still some left.  He gulped some then offered it to me.  As I took it, I regarded him, somewhat perplexed.  He was back to his normal seemingly easygoing self.  He had turned into this predatory soume minx during aruna and now he was just…Flick again.  I closed my eyes, feeling him relax. The next thing I knew, I was being suddenly awakened by Flick’s voice.

“Shit!  Come on, Taj, we’ve got to go!  Seel wanted breakfast early today, remember?  He’s riding out with some hara to scope out some land for building or something.  Hurry!  Shit!  Shit!”

We pulled on our clothes and scrambled down the rocks.  Flick grabbed my hand, trying to drag me along faster.  We ran as fast as we could and when we got to Seel’s house, we went in through the kitchen.  All was quiet.  Had he gone?  Was he pissed off?

We tried to catch our breath, when suddenly Flick grabbed my arm.  “Shh!”  We held our breath.  Flick smiled.  “Listen!” I heard Seel walking around upstairs.

“Whew!” Flick breathed, all smiles.  He smacked me on the back.  “We’re two lucky fucks!  Hurry, help me get stuff ready, quick!”

I started the coffee while Flick got –  I don’t even remember what –  ready in record time.  We served it up, Seel none the wiser.  Two lucky fucks, indeed.

After thinking about it, I wondered if Seel sometimes had a really bad temper or something, even though I’d never seen evidence of it, because Flick seemed so upset that we wouldn’t get back in time.  But something told me he just cared a lot about what Seel thought of him.

My relationship with Flick didn’t change after our encounter in the cave.  We were like a lot of hara; friends mostly, roon friends sometimes.  I was asked to the cave now and then, but certainly not exclusively.  Neither of us got jealous or anything.  It was becoming a comfortable, easy friendship.  Strangely enough, we only took aruna in Flick’s room a couple of times, even though we shared the room most nights.  I didn’t know why we didn’t do it there, it was just the way it was, or more accurately, the way Flick wanted it.  It really was his room so I didn’t question it.  I sometimes wondered if it had something to do with Seel, or at least Flick’s relationship with Seel, which was another mystery to me.  Sometimes I’d see them talking intimately at the table or somewhere and other times, Seel treated Flick like a house har like me.  I didn’t get it.  I was sure he sometimes spent the night in Seel’s room, but it was Seel’s room, never “their” room.  I concluded that maybe they were roon friends like Flick and I were, except closer, but I got the distinct feeling that with Seel, Flick would have liked it to be more.

Even though Flick and I were friends and I liked spending time with him, I wanted to connect with Nyala, Sola and Lon.  We sought each other out when we could.  Sola and Lon worked and lived together in the same area and remained close.  I sometimes felt like Nyala and I were on different paths, even though we saw each other when we were able, and at those times I felt we were still close.

One evening I went looking for him and found him, as I had on several occasions, in the flower garden at Orien’s house.  He enjoyed working there, he said, using his hands instead of his mind for a change.  As I got close, I smiled, regarding him pruning a small flowering tree, humming some tune I didn’t recognize.  When he saw me, he put down his shears, all smiles, and came toward me.  To my surprise, he embraced me.

“Taj!  God, I’ve missed you.”

“Same here.”

He guided me, his arm around me, to a stone bench where we sat.

“What’ve you been up to?” he asked.

I shrugged.  “Not much.  Same old shit.”

We sat quietly for a few moments, then he looked at me intently.  “Are you…”   he paused, “happy here?”

I gave him a reassuring smile.  “Yeah, sure I am.  You still feel responsible for us coming here?”

“Yeah, a little I guess.”

“Hey, nobody twisted anyhar’s arm.  Besides we’re all way better off.”

He took a deep breath, looking at the ground.  “I really like my studies but sometimes I miss just being myself, you know, goofing around and stuff.”

I regarded him, puzzled.  What was he trying to say?

Still looking down, he continued.  “It’s all so serious and…deep.  It overwhelms me sometimes.  I really miss just rooning for fun, you know.”

What?  I knew about using arunic energy for power and purpose, like Grissecon, but I really hadn’t thought about what it would be like to actually study it.  Obviously Nyala needed a good old-fashioned drunken night out.

“You want to go drinking with me?” I asked.

He brightened, looking into my eyes.  “Yeah,” he said,” giving me a mischievous smile.  There was the Nyala I knew.

We headed for the square where, as fate would have it, we ran into Sola and Lon.  It was great – just like old times.  Then I had an even better idea.  We got a few bottles of sheh and I led them out to the cave.  I was surprised to learn they’d never heard about it or been there.  Luckily, it was unoccupied.  We climbed up and sat on the ledge.

“Remind you of anything?”  I asked.  We all exchanged looks, laughing.

Lon was the only one to say it out loud. “Solarumn.”

We sat a while just shooting the bull drunkenly, when suddenly Sola got quiet and I saw a strange look come over his face.  He looked to Lon, who gave him an even stranger smile.

Sola then said, “Uh, there’s something I’d like to tell you two.  Lon and I are chesna.”

Nyala and I looked at each other in surprise.  “When did that happen?” Nyala asked.

Lon answered.  “We’ve been kind of more than friends for a while, but we recently realized that we both felt more than that, so…” He shrugged.

“Well,” I said, lifting a bottle.  “Here’s to you!”  We drank a toast together.

After that revelation we just joked and drank and reconnected.  It was great.  In what must have been the wee hours, Sola and Lon said their goodbyes and headed off.  Nyala and I stayed and drank some more.

“Did you know about them?”  Nyala asked.

“No.  I was a little suspicious when they were so quick to pair up at the Red Moon that time, but I didn’t really put two and two together.”

“Why do you think they kept it a secret?”

I took a breath and thought a moment.  “I don’t know if they meant it as a secret.  Maybe they just weren’t sure how they felt and didn’t want to make a ‘thing’ of it – you know.”

“Yeah, maybe.”  He drew lines and squiggles in the sand with a stick as he continued.  “They’re lucky.”

I looked at him questioningly.  He met my gaze and said,  “Not all hara find somehar they really feel close to and want to be with.”

I got the feeling from what he said that he felt lonely.  I guessed it had something to do with all his studies.  I figured it was because he was so involved in the study of aruna that he never got to relax and enjoy it for its own sake.  Of course he’d virtually said as much earlier.  I knew I could remedy that for him but I wasn’t sure that was what he wanted.   He wore a melancholy smile and then his face took on a more serious, almost pleading look.  I couldn’t believe such a beautiful har could possibly be lonely, but I intuited that he was.

I sidled over to him and caressed his tanned cheek, looking into his gorgeous eyes.  He  closed his eyes, sighing, and I leaned to kiss him and share breath.  When our lips parted, he was breathing hard.

“Be ouana…will you?” he whispered as he undid his pants.

“Sure,” I whispered back into his ear, as I unbuttoned my own.

I slid in my hand down the front of his pants to find him already wet and soume.  That made my ouana side really kick in.  He moaned as I gently rubbed the outermost sikra, while covering his neck with kisses.  He reached to stroke my ouana-lim.  We were already heavily into it when I realized we were still mostly clothed.

“Come with me,” I murmured.

I stood up, hating that we had to part to walk.  I went further into the cave and laid out the tarp on the ground.  I removed my clothes and Nyala came over to me and did likewise.  We stood and moved to each other.  He looked me up and down, running his hands over my arms.

“You’re beautiful, Taj,” he said, breathless.  I laughed self-consciously, looking at the ground. He tipped my face up with his fingers.

“You are,” he said as his lips claimed mine.

I lost myself in him as we shared breath.  He was intoxicating.  I felt his great need and saw beautiful images, dancing in the heavens of his spirit, like an aurora borealis.  I tried to send him my innermost thoughts about how beautiful I felt this moment was.  We were sharing intimately and deeply, deeper than we’d ever done before.  Soon we instinctively moved to a lying position.   He licked and nibbled my ear, murmuring and whispering erotic words to me.  I sighed, and again traced my fingers to his soume-lam, moving deeper inside.  After a while he stopped me and began to kiss his way down my body to my ouana-lim.  The petals were already open and I thought for sure I would lose it as he licked and teased me with his tongue and lips.

Finally I panted to him, “Stop…please stop…please stop.”

He lay down and I moved over top of him.  As I entered him, I felt a pleasure so intense I can’t describe it.  He seemed to feel strongly, too, as he let out a long low moan.  As we moved together I felt something incredibly strong building within me.  We intensified our motions and time and reality shifted as I felt an explosive release that went on until I thought I would pass out.  I felt Nyala go still for a moment, heard him cry out then, gasping, he went limp beneath me.  I had collapsed on top of him, hardly able to breathe.   I lay there, feeling the waves of bliss slowly ebb away, unable to move.  I’d never had such a transcendent experience before.  Finally I eased out of him and lay beside him, my face on his arm.  We looked into each other’s eyes.  He pulled me into an embrace, rubbing his nose on mine.

“Taj,“ he whispered,  “that was really intense.  What happened?”

“I don’t know,” I said, laughing gently.  “I guess we both just needed it bad.”  He chuckled.  We relaxed there and fell asleep.

When we awoke, the sun was pretty high, so we agreed we’d better go.  When we reached the place where we had to part ways, I said, “Last night was great.”

“Yeah, really great.”

I gave him a parting smile.  “Well, see ya.”

As I began to walk away, he grabbed my arm.  “Taj?  Don’t stay away too long, okay?”

I took his hand and squeezed it.  “I won’t.”  With that we parted.

*********************************************

Several weeks passed and I settled in to feeling more at home in Seel’s house.  The town was evolving, taking shape as hara worked all day and into the night, improving their dwellings, as more and more temporary and makeshift shelters were being slowly replaced by more stable permanent houses and buildings.  Work continued on getting electricity through the settlement but there was still a way to go on that yet.  Just as I thought I’d gotten comfortable, something happened to knock me out of my complacency.  A har arrived in Saltrock that seemed to change everything, although it was on a very subtle level.

Seel seemed to be excited and nervous and Flick became a bit moody.  Seel set me to work cleaning a room on the first floor – sort of a salon or den.  It was full of silk, tassels and tapestries, with pillows and cushions on the floor and exotic holders for candles and incense everywhere.  I couldn’t help but think of Lianvis’s tent at Solarumn.  Obviously Seel was expecting somehar he wanted to impress.  Then one night he arrived.  I’d heard his name mentioned but it didn’t mean anything to me at the time.  But that night I met the har I would never meet the like of again – Calanthe.  I didn’t even know that was his proper name for quite some time.  He was introduced to me as Cal.  I remember the night he and his companion, Pellaz, arrived.  Remember?  It’s etched in my soul.

Seel had been informed, I assumed by mind touch, that his guest was nearing Saltrock.  He’d practically run out of the house to go meet him.  When I asked Flick what the big deal was he shrugged.

“It’s no big deal.  Seel’s just being an asshole.  Cal’s an old friend of his and he wants to show off to him, that’s all.”

I stared at Flick.  The way he was reacting said there was way more to it than that, but I wasn’t about to press the issue further.  Flick disappeared from the house for a while but came back suspiciously closely before the arrival of Seel and his guest. Flick and I were in the kitchen when I heard them come in.  He wordlessly left me and went out into the entrance hall to meet them.  I heard Seel tell him something.  I couldn’t make it out, but Seel sounded impatient and I heard Flick’s voice somewhat nonchalant and a bit rebellious.  Soon after, Flick strolled lazily back into the kitchen.

“We have to fix something for them to eat.”   Imitating Seel, sarcasm heavy in his voice, he said,  “Cal’s hungry.”

We set to work.  Flick lit the stove and asked me to bake some potatoes while I also helped him make a stew of meat and gravy with herbs.  It took us awhile.  I got the feeling from Flick’s attitude that this Cal had probably been more than friends with Seel.  Of course it was none of my business.  Besides choosing a meal that would take an appreciable amount of time, Flick seemed to be taking even more time than needed and I laughed to myself, thinking how Flick was able to push Seel’s buttons when he wanted to.

When the meal was finally ready, Flick fixed two plates.

“Is Seel eating again?” I asked.

“No.  Cal brought someone with him; a boy, a human to be incepted.  Here, take this.”  He handed me a dusty bottle.  “More of Seel’s vintage stash.  I’ve been instructed to break out the good stuff.”  Flick laughed.  I was glad his mood had lifted.

He took the plates and I took the bottle and the silverware.  We entered the room and there was a dark-haired boy sitting on a cushion to one side.  Seel was sitting close to a blond har who had his face turned away from us.  As Flick handed the boy his plate, Seel looked over.

“Finally!” he said. Then he smiled.  “Smells good, Flick, thanks.”

The blond har turned and when I saw his face, I almost dropped the bottle.  There was the most beautiful, desirable har I’d ever laid eyes on.  He had lightly sun-streaked blond hair, the most adorable face I’d ever seen and, as if that wasn’t enough, he had the most amazing violet eyes.  If I’d been asked to dream up the most incomparable har ever imagined, I could never have even imagined one to compare to Cal.   For me, it was crush at first sight.  I heard Flick call my name.

“Taj?”

I looked at him and blinked.  He took the bottle from me, gave Cal his plate and handed Seel the bottle.

Seel said, “Oh, that’s Taj.”

Cal smiled at me.  “Hi,” he said.

I smiled back, I think.

Seel continued.  “This is Cal and that’s Pellaz.”

I tore my gaze away from Cal and nodded to Pellaz.  He gave me a weak smile.  I felt sorry for him, still being human among all these hara, even though he was beautiful enough to be mistaken for har.

Seel and Cal were conversing privately when Seel looked over at Pell, then at us and said, “Flick, go talk with Pell.”

Flick flopped down on the cushions next to Pell and I sat uneasily beside Flick.  Flick turned his attention to Pellaz and all I could do was stare at Cal.  Soon I heard Flick say something to Pell about needing some air and they got up and left.  I sat a few moments, still gazing at Cal, observing him speaking with Seel.  Suddenly Seel glanced over at me and stopped talking.  He then gave me an impatient stare.

I snapped out of my Cal-induced trance and stuttered, “Uh, yeah, I’ll just take this plate away.”

I grabbed Pell’s nearly untouched dinner and somehow made it out the door.  I leaned back against the wall, taking deep breaths.

God, what an idiot I am!  What’s wrong with me?

I shook my head to clear it and went to the kitchen.  As I stood at the sink, I saw the silhouettes of Flick and Pell in the courtyard, sitting on the ground, talking.  Pell looked to be very upset.  I couldn’t hear them, but Pell kept wiping his eyes and face.  Then he crumpled to the ground, sobbing, as Flick tried to comfort him.

Poor Pell.  I recalled all the mixed emotions that plague you when you’re still human, about to become har.  All the fears, excitement, doubts – emotions run the gamut when facing inception.  I sighed, thinking how lucky he was to have Cal waiting for him to be har.  I’d certainly have been happier about the whole thing if I knew a har like Cal was to be mine at the end of my ordeal.  But I did understand what Pell was going through.  We’d all been where he was now.

I sat at the kitchen table.  There were some cigarettes there so I helped myself to one.  Soon Flick and Pell came in through the kitchen and headed back to Seel and Cal.  I’d heard some other hara come in while I was cleaning up.  They were all in Seel’s “nest” as he called it.  Shortly after, I heard footsteps on the stairs and in a few moments I heard more footsteps and Flick came into the kitchen.  He sat down with me and took and lit a cigarette.

“Whew!”  He took a long drag.  “Pell’s having a rough time.”

“I gathered.  How’s he doing now?”

“He’s taking a bath.  I’ll take him up some coffee in a while.”

“I’ll make it,” I said, getting up.  I wanted to make myself useful.  When I sat back down, Flick chuckled, smiling at me.

“How long did you sit gawking at Cal after Pell and I left?”

I sighed heavily and put my head in my hands.  “Oh, God!  I’m such a stupid fuck!”

Flick chuckled some more and patted my arm.  “No, you’re not, come on.”

I scrunched my hands in my hair and regarded him.  “I…I just couldn’t help myself.  I’ve never seen a more beautiful har.”

“Yeah, he’s gorgeous alright.”

Then I started to giggle.  “I was kind of a deer in the headlights, wasn’t I?”

“Don’t worry.  Cal’s used to it, I expect.”

“He must be.  But I’m not a complete moron or anything.  I know he’s with Pell, he’s unattainable, out of my league and all that.  He’s…he’s just a har to dream about and worship from afar, you know, like a movie star or something.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Flick took the coffee and grabbed the cigarettes, too.  He smiled mischievously at me.

“Just try not to be so obvious about it.”

He grinned at me and left.  I put my face in my hands, half groaning, half laughing.

**************************************

The next night at midnight, Pell was taken to the Forale House to begin his journey into hardom.  There was much talk about Pell’s Harhune.  He was special in some way, I gathered, especially because his initiation into Wraeththu was to proceed without delay.  On that day all the hara in Saltrock watched as Pellaz was taken, decorated with flowers, in an elegant carriage to the Nayati.  We all went inside and I sat next to Flick near the front of the tiered seats, feeling rather privileged.  I searched the crowd for Nyala, Sola and Lon but I didn’t see them.  When Pell came in the crowd began to chant “Harhune.”  I’d never been a part of something so…Wreaththu…before.  It was enthralling.  There had been no ritual at my becoming har.

I also searched the throngs of hara for Cal, but never found him either.  I’d half expected him to accompany Pell through all this or to even be the one to give him his blood, but that wasn’t how it was.

Pell proceeded to a large marble table with black curtains rolled up high around it.  Somehar, the like of which I’d never seen, stood at the table’s head.  He was a towering har with a halo of red hair which almost seemed to be on fire.  His eyes were lambent and glowing with purpose.  I’m sure I stared open-mouthed at him.  I even for a moment thought he was a dehar, come to earth for this sacred occasion.  Later I found I wasn’t that far off.  As Seel and Orien stood on either side of the slab, Thiede, I later learned he was called, raised his arms in ritual gesture and the black curtains floated down, hiding the rest of the proceedings from our sight.  I felt like I had witnessed something truly magical and ethereal and I felt blessed.  It seemed sacred to me and I knew that’s how becoming har should be – sacred – laying the groundwork for spiritual growth and aspirations.

Later, when Pell was brought back to Seel’s house. I heard his screams as the change started.  Cal spent a lot of time pacing, sitting with his head in his hands or drinking, Seel trying to offer his comfort and reassurance.  When it got to be too much for him, Cal would leave the house for a while.  I don’t know where he went, but he always looked worried.  I think he felt responsible for Pell’s pain.  I concluded that Cal had probably been in love with Pell since he’d laid eyes on him when he was still a human boy.  He didn’t try to hide his concern and seemed tortured by the fact that Pell was suffering.  Flick, however was a great help and very attentive to Pellaz.  He’s good at that kind of thing.

After seeing how Cal and Pell were through all this, I found myself thinking for the first time, how wonderful it would be to have a har care for me like that, and to care for another that strongly.  I considered that it was probably rare to find that something called true love, which I later learned we weren’t “supposed” to aspire to – but we do.   If that degree of love is rare, once found one should never let it slip away.  One should guard and protect it with life and limb through this life and on into eternity.  I’d never pondered such things before.  I mean, I’d always enjoyed a good roon and if it’s with a har I like or am strongly attracted to – so much the better, but true love?  That’s not something to which I ever gave much thought.  But after observing the strong feelings Cal and Pell seemed to have for each other, I began to think they were two of the lucky ones.  I also began to wonder if there was a har in this world for me; I mean really for me and me for him.  I guess Lon and Sola had found that; the kind of love that makes you chesna.  That no matter what happens or who else you may fancy now and then, you have those feelings that keep you together. I know not all chesna bonds are forever and I’ve heard of blood bonding and that it’s indissoluble, but I don’t know any hara who are blood bonded.  I thought we were supposed to keep all this stuff simple and not make the same mistakes the humans did.   I know love isn’t a mistake, maybe only selfish love is.

Cal, though suffering, did weather Pell’s althaia, and when the time came for Pell to take his first aruna, of course it was with Cal.  I can only imagine the magic of their first union.  I hadn’t been in love with my first aruna partner, most hara aren’t, but it must be something indescribably sublime if you are.

A few days after that Pell began studying with Orien.  His education took precedence, so Nyala and the other students had a lot more time off.  I didn’t know why or how Pell’s education was such a priority, but I enjoyed seeing more of Nyala.

One night as I sat out in the courtyard behind Seel’s house just thinking, I was startled by a hand on my shoulder.  I looked up, surprised to see Nyala’s beautiful smile.  He bent down and kissed the top of my head.

“Hi, Taj.”

I looked up into his eyes.  “Hi.”

I was surprised to see him because we usually met out somewhere or I sought him out.  He was a little intimidated by Seel’s house and hesitated to come here.  He then sat by me on the grass.

“I’ve missed you,” he said.

I smiled contentedly, leaning my head on his shoulder and said, “I’m glad you came.”

“Are you, really?”

I looked at him.  “Of course.  What are you saying?”

“Nothing.”  He shook his head.  “What have you been doing?”

I told him about Pell and Cal and all that had happened lately.

“Yeah, Orien’s been focusing on Pell,” he said.  “He seems special, set apart.  I think he has some kind of…destiny.”  He gazed out beyond the scenery as he spoke.

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

He sighed.  “Well, what do you say we regular hara go get drunk?”

I laughed.  “Oh yeah!  Sounds good to me.”

He stood up and pulled me to my feet.  We went off to the square to find some liquor and have ourselves a time.  After drinking for a couple of hours, he asked me back to his place.  He shared a house with several other hara he worked with and who were also taking instruction on caste progression.  Nyala had his own room, so we went there.  When we got inside, he lit some candles and got some wine, and then we sat on his bed and drank.

“To Cal and Pell,” he said.  “And to all hara who find true love!”

He was obviously very drunk, but I stifled a laugh and toasted knowing despite his drunkenness, his sentiment was true.  When we’d drained our glasses, he took mine from me and put it with his on his side table.  He moved closer to me and began kissing my neck and smoothing his hands over my body, under my shirt.  I took his face in my hands and drew his lips to mine.

“Taj…” he said.  I…I…”

He pressed his lips back on mine and we shared breath.  I don’t know exactly how to explain what I felt from him, but it was peaceful, beautiful, erotic and intimate and I didn’t want it to end.  I got the feeling to be soume and he wordlessly let me know he wanted to be ouana.  We were connecting instinctively.  He removed my clothes as he kissed me, then removed his own.  He caressed me and slid his fingers to my soume-lam and as he pleasured me I almost left this world.  Had he learned some deep secrets from Orien?  Whatever happened, it was incredible.  We lay on his bed and I tried to regain enough composure to give him pleasure as well.  His ouana-lim had already flowered, so I took it into my mouth, moving my tongue to every petal and fold, tasting his familiar tantalizing, bittersweet savor, his every sigh and moan adding to my pleasure and desire.  Finally he reached down and touched my face.

“Taj – please – kiss me,” he begged.

I crawled up and as we kissed, he turned us over and laid me back on his pillows.  Before he entered me he stopped and looked into my eyes, his gaze lustful, his pupils dilated.

“Taj…there’s nohar like you.”

I wasn’t sure I understood him.  Then he sighed, kissing me with passion.  He moaned my name as he penetrated me.  It was so exciting.  He moved slowly and I felt such delicious pleasure and anticipation.  When I was ready for more, he still moved slowly.  He kept this up and as I tried to move faster, arching into his thrusts, he still kept it achingly slow.  I was going crazy, but he continued his slow, deliberate movements.

“Nyala, what are you doing to me?” I asked breathlessly.

“Making you happy,” he murmured, smiling.

I moaned and writhed, breathing his name, begging and finally he began to move faster and deeper.  I could hardly stand it.  I felt myself and him coming to completion.  I saw waving curtains of iridescent colors behind my eyes, then I experienced a quaking climax that went on and on.  I felt his as well – such exquisite pleasure.  Afterwards I lay completely exhausted and sated, my body beneath his.  A good deal later, he separated us and lay beside me.  I turned to face him, smiling with satisfaction.

“You’ve certainly learned some awesome techniques.”

“It’s not that,” he said earnestly, looking into my eyes.  “You inspire me.”

He closed his eyes and kissed me slowly, almost chastely.  I looked at him in wonder, thinking that he was certainly full of delightful surprises tonight.  I started to speak, but he put his fingers to my lips as he silently pulled me closer and I soon fell asleep in his arms.  I slept so peacefully and soundly there, experiencing sweet dreams which vanished with the dawn.

******************************************

One day there was another event that rocked our peaceful community.  I never saw him, but I heard about a har who wandered into Saltrock emaciated, ill, and by all reports, half dead.  He’d been infected with a deadly virus manufactured by human scientists expressly to kill Wraeththu.  We were all stunned and afraid.  We’d pretty much felt invulnerable up to that point.  After a time of much worry and fear, with some hara thinking it was the end of us all, Orien finally received enough information to formulate a cure and protection.  He decided that there would be a Grissecon performed with Seel and Cal as the participants.  Their combined essences would produce the healing elixir. I’d only heard tales of Grissecon and knew what it was, but had never actually witnessed the ritual.  Like Pell’s Harhune, I would again be a part of something sacred and magical.

The night of the Grissecon, all the hara of Saltrock gathered at the square, full of hope and anticipation.  We sat around a large fire and looked on as Cal and Seel walked to their places.  Pell and Flick were next to me and Pell, his face serene and lovely, watched with pride and assurance as his chesnari  proceeded by.  Cal and Seel had the appearance of gods to me.  As they walked, their diaphanous garments flowed and clung around their bodies, making them appear to float over the ground.  When they got to the center of the gathering next to the fire, their flowing garments seemed to be taken off them by the wind and borne aloft, magically drifting into the flames.  Then Cal and Seel came together on the ground before the assembly to the rhythms of drums and chanting.  They were like two dehara making celestial arunic magic to touch and bless the lives of us ordinary Wraeththu.  Finally Cal stood and some hara went to Seel and milked their combined essences into a glass tube.  I beheld with awe the glowing, colorful, and potent elixir that would banish the sickness forever.  Cal fell back into Seel’s arms and I saw hara pairing up, taking aruna.  As I sat on the ground, I looked over to my side to see that Flick and Pell were sharing breath and suddenly somehar I’d never seen before knelt beside me and took me in his arms.  We surrendered to each other and the lure of the ritual.

**************************************

Time passed and I must admit I really felt at peace and happy in Saltrock.  One evening I sat outside Seel’s house, as I often did after dinner and I heard the pleasant sound of laughter on the evening air, coming from the room Cal and Pellaz shared.  I heard Pell squeal now and then and it sounded to me like he was being tickled.  Sometimes I really envied them.  They’d found something special and elusive and I hoped hara like me had a chance to find it, too.  I was also pondering the fact that I felt lucky to be employed at Seel’s house where life and work was comparatively easy.  Little did I know that was about to change.

One day we were all asked to help clear an area of land that was to be an orchard.  It was at the edge of the settlement, even beyond the gardens.  Every har who was able was asked to participate, Flick and I included.  The good thing was Cal was pitching in, too, so I got to look at him while he worked.  Even though he and Pell stayed in Seel’s house, I didn’t see them that much and I’d never had a private conversation with either of them.  I wouldn’t have a clue about what to say to such magnificent hara anyway, and would surely make a fool of myself.   Pellaz had been working, too, but like Nyala, he was studying and sometimes that took precedence.  I hadn’t seen either one of them for several days.

On one particular day as we dug rocks out of the ground, I heard a har call my name.  I turned around to discover, shocked,  that it was Calanthe.  I stared a moment, stupidly, then he called, “Will you throw me my cigarettes?  They’re behind you on top of my jacket.”

I picked them up and tossed them toward Cal but my aim was too short so when he tried to catch them he ended up hitting them into the air. They flew all over the place before falling in the grass.  I stood there frozen.  I really wished I could have sunk into the ground, become a rock or a potato – anything but Taj.

Cal laughed.  “Not your fault,” he said with a gorgeous, toothy smile, as I just stood there.

As he picked them up he held one out and asked, “You want one?”

Me?  He was asking me to have a smoke with him?  I started to shake my head, too afraid to say yes, when I heard Flick’s voice behind me.

“Go on Taj.  Take a break.  We can do without you for a few minutes.”

I turned and stared at Flick in what must have looked like sheer terror.  I couldn’t speak but my mind was screaming, Flick!  It’s Cal!  I can’t talk to him!  He’s too,too…he’s CAL! As I continued to stare at Flick, he nodded at me, gesturing with his hand telling me to go on, trying to give me encouragement.

I turned around and I must have walked over looking like some kind of stunned animal.  Cal didn’t seem to notice.  He lit two cigarettes and handed me one.  It touched his lips.  It was in his mouth. I found myself staring at his lips.  I felt like a star struck human schoolgirl and prayed I didn’t look like one.

Cal sat cross-legged on the grass, patting the space next to him.

“Have a seat.”

I sat down beside him.  Looking at him up close was mesmerizing.  He wiped the sweat off his brow with his arm.

“Whew!  I wonder what tortures Seel has in store for us next.”

After a few moments of moronic silence from me, I stuttered, “Yeah…uh, yeah, I wonder.”

“You thought you’d have it easy in the kitchen with Flick, huh?”  He smiled broadly.

“Yeah.”

He leaned back on his elbows, his legs outstretched, blowing smoke rings into the air.

“Nobody gets off easy in Saltrock.  Seel sees to that.”
God knows why, I asked, “What about your friend…er,  chesnari, Pellaz?”

He laughed.  “Okay, almost nobody gets off easy in Saltrock.  He’s getting ‘instruction’ from Orien.”  I could almost taste the sarcasm.

“My friend, Nyala is, too.  Sometimes I don’t see much of him.”

“Actually, I think I’d rather sweat and deal with the insects and sore muscles than listen to Orien spout his ‘wisdom’ at me all day.”

I laughed at that, thinking Cal was a fairly down to earth har.  I knew he had to be of higher caste because of the Grissecon, but he didn’t act all high and mighty like some of the others.  I hoped Nyala wouldn’t change too much as he progressed.

Cal turned his attention to me.  “You have a nice smile, Taj.”  Butterflies fluttered in my stomach.

“How long have you been har?”

I thought a moment. “Almost a year.”

“I thought so.  Just a baby.”

Easy charm oozed out of him like sweet nectar from a blossom and I wanted to bathe in it.

He stubbed out his cigarette on the ground and stood up and stretched.

“Well, back to the salt mines.  I better not say that too loud.  Seel might just make that our next project.”

I stared up at him as I still sat cross-legged on the grass.  He was magnificent.

“Well, see ya, Taj.”  He smiled and patted my knee as he left.  I was in heaven.

I wanted to thank him for the smoke but my brain wouldn’t connect to my mouth.  I just sat there on the grass watching him walk away, melting inside.  Oh, yeah, I had it bad all  right – Calanthe fever.  I figured it must be a fairly common ailment amongst hara.  Next thing I knew, Flick was snapping his long skinny fingers in my face.

“Taj?  TAJ!!”

“Huh?  Oh…yeah, what?”

“Snap out of it, come on.”

As I got to my feet, I looked over, still stupefied, to see Cal digging out rocks from the soil.

I sighed.  Well, back to worshipping him from afar, I thought as I resumed working, where actually I was much more comfortable, all the thrill of being close to him aside.

******************************************

Sola, Lon, Nyala and I had always celebrated each other’s birthdays when we were human, since we were children.  Now that we were Wraeththu, we decided to celebrate our “birthdays” together, making it the day of our inception.  It was Nyala’s idea and we all got together on that night to celebrate.  We sat around a table near the square, drinking sheh and reminiscing.  I wanted to keep it fun, but we couldn’t help talking and thinking back to how and why we became har in the first place.  We’d all come from broken homes, even though our families had once been pretty happy.  All the problems and sickness that had come into the world affected the majority of humankind in a gravely negative way, causing people to lose hope and families to break apart.  We’d realized the only hopeful future open to us was to become har.  I must admit, I’m very thankful to have shared this ultimately wonderful, but initially frightening experience with my three closest friends.  It must take a lot of courage to go through inception alone.

When the conversation moved on into a lighter vein, we really began to have a drunken good time. Nyala raised his glass.

“To us!  And to being har for a year!”

We all raised our glasses and whooped it up, eliciting some curious and amused stares from the other hara around us.

“I really can’t believe how much has happened to us in a year,” Sola said, his blue eyes sparkling.

“Yeah,” Lon added.  “Like our journey here, finding this place…”  He then turned to Sola with a sensual smile and said softly, “you and I becoming chesna.”  They leaned into a kiss.  Nyala regarded them wistfully.

“Hey!  Party now, roon later,” I joked.  Sola stuck his tongue out at me, laughing.

“You know,” I said.  “This birthday thing sort of makes us seem like brothers.”

“You and Nyala be brothers, Lon and I are lovers,” Sola slurred, giggling drunkenly.

I chuckled looking over at Nyala who just stared at his glass.  What’s gotten into him?  Damn, he’d been moody lately!  Sighing, I decided to lighten the mood.

“Everybody fill your glasses!  First har to chug it all wins!!”

We all filled up and at my signal, started guzzling.  Sola was the first to drop out.  He started laughing and spat his all over himself.  Lon did the same thing soon after watching Sola.  As Nyala and I continued, Lon and Sola chanted, “Chug, chug, chug!”  Nyala finished first and I almost fell over backwards trying to beat him to it.  Nyala held his glass up in victory but it slipped from his hand, falling onto the table, breaking loudly into pieces and we started to get some not so amused stares from other hara.

“Sorry, sorry,” I slurred, my hands up in surrender.  I then suggested quietly, “Let’s take a couple of bottles and get out of here.”  They all nodded.

“Let’s go out beyond the gardens,” Nyala offered.  “We sure as hell won’t disturb anyhar out there.”

We set off toward the edge of the settlement, bottles in hand.  The garden area was irrigated so it was as cool and lush as the soda lake area was rocky and barren.  Nyala spent a lot of time in the gardens and knew his way around, even totally sloshed.  We followed him until we got past the gardens to the edge of where we were working on clearing the land for the future orchard.  There were some fairly large trees there so we sat on the grass, leaning back against the trunks of a couple of them.

I heard the familiar sound of a bottle being uncorked as Nyala swigged and handed it to me.  As I drank, I looked up to see a silver crescent moon hanging in a dark sky sparkling with stars.

“I never would have thought of coming here.  I had no idea it was this beautiful at night.”

“I come here a lot,”  Nyala said.  “It’s peaceful and secluded. I like it here.”  He held his hand out for me to pass him the bottle.  I still sensed something amiss with him.

I shrugged it off and we sat there talking, remembering, drinking and laughing.  Suddenly Lon and Sola got quiet.  We looked over at them to see them sharing breath.  Nyala smiled shaking his head.

“Must be nice,” he said.  Come on.  Let’s leave them alone.”

“Okay,” I said, getting up to leave.

We walked over to another grove of trees.  Nyala sat on the ground and I sat across from him.  We did quite a bit more drinking and then I set the bottle down, gazing into his eyes and moved over to him.  I slid my hand under his shirt and moved to kiss him.  To my utter shock, he stood up and walked over to a tree, his face turned away from me.  I sat there dazed on the ground, feeling totally confused.  I blinked, then got up and walked over to him.

“What’s the matter?  What is it?  Did I do something wrong?”  He shook his head, still turned away from me.

When he finally turned to face me, his expression was unreadable.

“I just can’t do this anymore, Taj.”

“What?  Do what?”

“This!  This…roon friend thing!”

“What do you mean?  Why?  I don’t understand.”

“That’s the problem!  Look, I just can’t that’s all.  Just go home Taj.”

With that, he disappeared into the garden.  I stood there stunned and speechless.  What on earth happened?  What was he talking about?  Was he just drunk and out of his mind?  We’re best friends who take aruna together – what’s the problem?  Wait.  When I said I didn’t understand, he said, “That’s the problem.”  But I DON’T understand!  How can I if he won’t explain!  I started to go after him, but then stopped, giving up.  I ran my hands into my hair, groaning in frustration.  Then heaving a sigh of resignation, I headed for Seel’s house.

When I approached the back kitchen door, I saw that the house was dark.  I guessed it was pretty late.  I went into Flick’s room and lay on my bed.  Flick wasn’t there and I found myself wishing he was.  Maybe he could help me shed some light on this situation.  He was a good listener and very intuitive and understanding.  I sighed and tried to fall asleep.  God!  I’d certainly drank enough, why wasn’t I sleepy?  It pissed me off.  Fuck!  Why had this night, which was supposed to have been a celebration, turned to such shit?  What the fuck was Nyala’s problem?  He’d ruined everything!

Then I heaved another sigh, turning onto my side, trying to figure out what really happened.  I thought back on the evening, running through it in my mind, but I still couldn’t come up with any explanation for Nyala’s behavior.  The bottom line was,  I couldn’t sleep because I cared.  I cared about Nyala.  I cared about our friendship and our relationship and I couldn’t rest until I set things right.  But what was right?  I had to know what was wrong before I could set it right.  Fuck!  I was at a loss.

I got up and went to the kitchen to find more liquor.  Sometimes being able to tolerate mass quantities of alcohol was a disadvantage.  If I was going to sleep at all, I had to get oblivious.  As I started back to the bedroom, I heard Flick come in.

“Hey!  What are you doing still up?” he asked.

“Don’t ask.”

He smiled at me sympathetically.

“Actually,” I said.  “I could use your advice.”

He put his arm around me, leading me to the table.

“Sure.”

We sat down, the bottle between us.

“What’s the trouble?”

I related the story of what had transpired that night and a bit about Nyala’s and my relationship up to that point.

“What’s his problem?” I asked. “ I don’t understand.  The last time we were together it was awesome.  I’d never had a better time.  Now he’s all weird.”

Flick sat a few moments, seeming to ponder, and then looked me in the eye.

“How do you feel about him?”

“What?  He’s my best friend, or at least I thought he was.  Then we became roon friends, too, and it was great.  We both enjoyed it a lot.  I don’t know why he changed so suddenly.  I mean, if he has a lover or something, why wouldn’t he just tell me?”

“I don’t think he has a lover.”

“Why would he say he doesn’t want to be roon friends anymore?”

Flick shrugged.  “Maybe he wants you to be more than that.”

I regarded him, puzzled.

“Then why would he reject me, reject my advances.  It doesn’t make sense.  He was usually the one to initiate aruna.  I never turned him down.  I wanted it.”

Flick folded his hands on the table, sighed and then looked at me.

“Maybe he thinks you’re just happy with things the way they are – you know, just being his friend and taking aruna now and then.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing.  Nothing at all unless…”  He paused as I looked at him apprehensively.  “Unless he’s in love with you.”

I blinked, then laughed.  “In love with me?!  No way!  Have you seen him?  He’s gorgeous!  He’d never be in love with me!”

“How do you know?  That’s what it sounds like to me.”

“I’m sorry, Flick.  That’s just impossible.  I do appreciate your help, though.  I’m going to bed.”

With that I left and went to sleep. I didn’t sleep well, however.  I had confusing, senseless dreams and when I awoke the morning after, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all.  I rubbed my face, went to splash some cold water on it and got dressed.  I staggered into the kitchen to find Flick at the sink.  He regarded me with an understanding smile.

“Hey, don’t worry.  I already got breakfast for the others.”

I wanted to kiss him!  “Thanks.  I’m sorry, I…”

“It’s okay.  I saved you some eggs.”

“You’re the best.”

After some eggs, toast and coffee, I felt I could face a day of hard work.  I helped Flick clean up and we headed to the work area together.  He didn’t mention our discussion of the night before.  Being that he was intuitive, I suspect he could tell I just didn’t want to think or talk about it right then.  I took a deep breath to clear my head and decided to think about other things.

Flick and I began the workday by raking up sticks and debris.  I saw Cal piling up rocks and couldn’t help staring at him.  Later while still raking, Flick, out of nowhere, poked me in the ribs.

“Huh?  Was I staring again?”

Flick chuckled at me and then nodded his head indicating where I should look.

“No, but someone is finding you stare worthy.”

I looked over to the indicated direction to find a tall, well-built blond har staring right at me.  I quickly turned away.  Flick giggled at me, taking way too much pleasure in my embarrassment.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“I don’t really know him but his name is Lenaire.  He’s been here in Saltrock almost from the beginning.”

I looked back at him cautiously.  This time he had turned around, throwing rocks on the pile.  As he was shirtless, I saw that he was thin, but well muscled.  His sun-streaked straight blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, hanging to the middle of his back and he had a tattoo on the back of his left shoulder that I couldn’t make out from where I was.  He was no Calanthe, but he was pretty magnificent.  Why would a har like that look at me?  I thought that maybe it was because I was new to this kind of work and he’d never seen me here before.  Maybe it was the challenge to get to the new har first, work your charms on him and make the conquest.  Some hara are like that.  I couldn’t help the thrill I felt, and yet, I figured he was just playing with me.

On a scale of one to ten, I figured my roonability to be about a five.  I’m just skinny Taj, nothing special.  Lenaire was a ten, Flick and Nyala were at least a ten and Cal, Pell and Seel, to me, were off the scale.  I did, however, like to kid myself about roonability being in the eye of the beholder.  It gave me more hope to think that way sometimes – probably false hope.  I even entertained the thought that Flick had asked Lenaire to come on to me to make me feel better.  I quickly banished that idea, knowing Flick would never do that.

When  the day’s work was done, we sat under a tree, cooling off.  Flick and I were talking when Lenaire approached us, unbeknownst to me.  Suddenly he was in my line of vision and I stared, dumbfounded at him.

Flick touched my arm and said, “See you later.”   He got up and left.

Lenaire sat down next to me.  I was completely dazed and wished Flick hadn’t left.

He gave me a friendly smile and said, “Hi.  I’m Lenaire.  I’m sorry if I’m being a bit obvious, but I’ve noticed you working here for a while and I’ve been wanting to meet you.”

I must have given him a puzzled look, but I managed to answer.

“Uh, I’m Taj.”

“Taj.  That’s a nice name.  It goes with your charming smile and beautiful blue eyes.”

I hadn’t realized I was smiling.  I panicked because flattery embarrasses me and I didn’t know what to say next.  Luckily Lenaire spoke.

“Are you new here?”

“I’ve been in Saltrock for a while, but I’m new to this job.”

“Where did you work before?”

“I work in Seel’s house.  I’m just helping out here.”

“Oh, I see.”

He got out some cigarettes.   “Would you like one?”

“Sure.”

As we sat there smoking, I felt him look over at me.  I tentatively met his gaze.  He smiled warmly and spoke gently.

“Would you…have dinner with me tonight?”

“Well, I have to help with dinner at Seel’s house…”

“How about after that?  I could wait for you at a table at the square.  We could have a drink or whatever.”

“Okay, I’d like that.”

“Great. I’ll wait for you there.”

“Alright.  I’ll see you later then.”

I got up to leave when Lenaire touched my arm.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“ Uh…yeah, me, too.”

As I walked away from him, I was shaking.  Why was I so nervous?

When I got to Seel’s house, I went into the kitchen where Flick was busy starting dinner.  He looked up and regarded me expectantly.

“So.  What happened with Lenaire?”

I think I must have turned as red as the tomato sauce he was cooking.

“Nothing.  We’re meeting after dinner at the square.”

“Nothing!  I wouldn’t call that nothing.”

“Well, we’ll see.”  I couldn’t help smiling.

Flick put his arm around my shoulder.

“Way to go, Taj!”

“Cut it out!” I said, embarrassed.

After we finished dinner and Flick and I were cleaning up, Flick said, “I can finish up here.  Why don’t you get cleaned up and go meet Lenaire.”

“You sure?  He said he’d wait for me.”

“Nah, go on.  Have fun.”

“Okay. Thanks, Flick”

I took a bath and got ready to go.  I was excited, but I was also a bit uncertain.  Lenaire was very desirable, but I felt weird about the whole thing.  Why?  Why couldn’t I just consider myself lucky and enjoy it?  That’s what I did when we met Cim and Vooren.  Then I decided.  That was exactly what I was going to do.  I was going to stop questioning and worrying and just consider myself lucky and enjoy the evening.  Why shouldn’t I?  There was a bottle of sheh in Flick’s and my room, so I fortified myself with a glass and set off to meet Lenaire.

When I got to the square, I could hear music drifting on the night air.  Sometimes hara would play there in the evening.  As I approached, I saw Lenaire sitting at a table, drinking.  He had his long silky blond hair unbound and was dressed in black.  He was quite a vision.  When I got to the table he turned to me with a broad smile and as I sat down I noticed that he already had a glass there for me, which he filled with liquor.

“Glad you made it,” he said.

“I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“No.  I’ve just been enjoying the music.  Oh, and the liquor.”  We both laughed as I sat down, making me feel a little more comfortable.

I took a sip.  It was unfamiliar but delicious.

“Mmmm.  What is this?  I don’t think I’ve had it before”

“It’s called rhysynth.  It’s from the north.  Do you like it?”

“Yeah.  It’s different.  Are you from the north?”

“Yes.  This liquor reminds me of home.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Almost two years, pretty much since Saltrock was founded.”

“What drew you here?”

“Things were pretty bad in the north.  I went looking for something better, and eventually I found it. How about you?”

“Well things for me and my friends weren’t so good in the south, so we came here looking for something better, too.”

He gave me a lovely smile and then asked, “Will you dance with me?”

“Sure.”

He took my arm as we went to the center of the area.  He put his arms around me and drew me close.  He smelled delicious.  I laid my head on his shoulder and felt his breath on my neck.  I don’t know which was more intoxicating – the rhysynth or Lenaire.  I felt  wonderful.  I was sorry when the music ended, but we went back to our table and sat down, where Lenaire poured us some more rhysynth.  We drank and talked for a while and then he regarded me warmly, looked intently into my eyes and said,  “Would you come home with me?”

I gazed at his beautiful hazel eyes and answered, “Yes, I’d love to.”

He took my arm and we walked for a while, through the settlement.  We got to an area where there were several tents and a wooden structure still in progress.  Lenaire led me to a good-sized tent and opened the flaps for me to enter first.

“This is my home right now,” he said.  “I’ve lived here for quite a while.  Three other hara, friends of mine, and I, have been working on a house, but it’s not completed yet.  When it is, we’ll move in.”

“You mean the wooden building behind your tent?”

“Yes.  Oh, by the way, if you need to use the facilities, you can go over there.  Go through the front door, down the main hall and to the last room on the left.”

I’d drunk an appreciable amount so I said I would like to.

I went around to the back of the tent and up the steps of the wooden structure.  It was all dark, but I could see well enough and found my way there.  As I entered, the scent of new wood surrounded me and even in the relative darkness I saw that it looked like a solid, spacious place.  I found the bathroom with no problem.

I returned to Lenaire’s tent where he met me at the entrance and led me into the back.  As I approached the back room, he pulled aside the dividing curtain to reveal a very inviting room.  There were candles and dimly lit lamps.  There was no furniture to speak of, but there was a hand woven rug on the floor, some pillows and a low table with a bottle and two glasses on it.  He beckoned for me to sit on the floor near the low table as he poured us some drinks, more rhysynth, and I sat down.  It was then that I noticed there wasn’t a bed in his room.  There was, however, a hammock.  Hmmm, this could be interesting, I thought.  Lenaire sat down next to me.

He touched his glass to mine and said, “To you – a totally tempting and very beautiful har.”

I blushed, shaking my head.  He was obviously full of it, but I didn’t care.  We talked and drank for a short while and when our glasses were empty, Lenaire moved closer to me and I felt my pulse quicken.  I looked into his eyes and he smiled enticingly into mine.

“Share breath with me, young one,” he said, still smiling, his eyes on my lips.

I closed my eyes and parted my lips and soon felt his luscious mouth on mine.  Then I saw beautiful images; first there was just a full spectrum of colorful perceptions.  Then he shared deeper with me, showing me sparkling snow-covered landscapes, icicles gleaming in a winter sun and frozen waterways stretching on forever.  He overwhelmed me.  He must have sensed it because he parted our lips and I gasped for air.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I just want to give you all I can.  Give to me now.”

I don’t know what I gave to him, exactly, but I wanted to share my inner self with him and open myself completely. To the best of my knowledge, I did.  We were sitting on the rug next to the table as we shared breath, but soon after, Lenaire stood up and pulled me up to him.  He caressed me and kissed me and began to remove my clothes.  I felt I was shaking.  I’d never been with such a strong and experienced har before.

“You’re so young and lovely,” he said to me.  “I’ll try to control myself.”

I laughed at what he said but I was nervous.  I also felt I wanted to surrender totally to him.  He had such an effect on me.  I instinctively became soume.

He kissed my neck and whispered my name.  Then he stepped back and removed his clothes.  His body was a joy to behold;  thin, muscled and tanned where the sun had touched it and my eyes soon wandered to his ouana-lim.  In the dim light I beheld it; violet and crimson, so beautiful.  He then laid a blanket on the hammock and moved toward me.  I was breathing hard.  Never stopping his kisses, he led me to the hammock.  I crawled in and made space so he could lie next to me, facing me. I thought it would be cramped, but it was more like being cradled together.

“Ever been rooned in a hammock before?” he asked, laughing.

I shook my head.

“Well, you’re in for a treat.”

He really didn’t have to tell me that.  I figured being rooned by him anywhere would be a treat.

He kissed and nipped my neck, telling me how desirable I was.  Then he smoothed his hand over my body, tantalizingly squeezing one of my nipples as he deftly moved his tongue over the other one.

“You’re a living temptation,” he murmured.  “Mmmm, how could you possibly have become so beautiful in so few years?”

No one had ever spoken to me quite like that before.  Flattery, while embarrassing to me normally, was very arousing during aruna.

With an experienced sensual touch he slid his fingers to my soume-lam, telling me it was paradise.  I was already so excited that I could hardly control myself at that point.  I moaned and moved as he touched me expertly.  I tried to caress his ouana-lim, but he was doing such wonderful things to me that I could hardly do anything but enjoy myself.

It wasn’t long before he positioned himself over me.  He looked into my eyes, his own full of desire.  I reached for him and as he entered me, he pressed his lips to mine as I moaned against the heat of his mouth and held him to me.  As he moved inside me, I felt his breath in my ear and heard him groan and breathe with every thrust.  The hammock seemed to be like a cocoon wrapping us in our own little cosmos of arunic bliss.  As we both climaxed, I felt suspended in the air, or floating on an ocean of sensation.  After we’d recovered, he separated us, lying beside me.  I snuggled even closer to him, my face buried in his neck as he stroked my hair and kissed my cheek.

“You’re really something,” he said.  “So young, so eager and alluring.”

I looked up into his eyes.  “Am I really all that?”

I felt the low vibration of his laughter.

“Oh, yes.  All that and more.”

I grinned at him.  “I’ve never been with a har like you before.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I stretched contentedly in his strong arms and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was a bit disoriented.  I looked up blearily and saw the ceiling of a tent.  For a moment, I was confused, and then it all came back to me.  I relaxed, thinking fondly of the night before.  Then I realized Lenaire wasn’t there in the hammock.  I looked around and found him sitting, cross-legged on the floor of the tent, his eyes closed, seeming to be meditating.  I turned onto my side to watch him.  Soon he became aware of me, took a deep breath and opened his eyes.   He smiled in my direction and said, “Good morning, my lovely one.  How did you sleep?”

I rubbed my eyes, yawning.  “Wonderfully.  What are you doing?”

“Exercising my mind.”

“Oh.  How do you do that?”

“I just empty my mind and let it wander.”

“That’s all there is to it?”

“Well, sort of, but it takes practice.”

I rested my chin on my arms, sleepily leaning my head on the side of the hammock, marveling at his strength and beauty.

“You are so irresistible,” he said with a sigh. He got up and came over to me.  He knelt down by the hammock and pressed his lips to mine.

“Would you like breakfast?”

“That would be nice, but I should probably get back to Seel’s house to help Flick.   Do you know what time it is?”

He shrugged.  “It’s not much past dawn.”

I sighed.  “I should probably leave then.”

“Well, if you must.”

I got up and found my clothes.  When I was ready to leave, Lenaire pulled me to him.

“I can’t get enough of you. You’re my new obsession.”

I smiled and shared breath with him.

“I want to take you horseback riding.  Promise me you will.”

“Okay. When?”

“Tomorrow.  We don’t have to work then.”

“Alright.  I’ve never really ridden before.”

“Don’t worry about that. You’ll ride with me.”

I smiled in anticipation.  “Where shall I meet you?”

“Just come to my tent whenever you get up and can get here.  I’ll be waiting.”

“Okay.  See you then.”

He grabbed me into a passionate embrace and nibbled my ear whispering, “I can’t wait.”

He was so intense and charming.  I left, looking back over my shoulder at him.  He blew me a kiss and I was enchanted.

I walked back to Seel’s house and in through the kitchen door.  No one was up, so I started preparing breakfast.  When I was halfway through, Flick came out of his room.

“Well, I didn’t expect to see you here so early.”

I smiled, blushing.  I wish I hadn’t blushed.

“I guess I don’t have to ask how things went with Lenaire.”

“Give me a break,” I said as I turned red.

Flick grinned broadly and put on his apron to help me.  We got breakfast ready.  Seel was the only one to come down to eat.  We three ate together and Seel asked us to make two plates for Cal and Pell to heat up when they came down.  Then Flick and I went off to the future orchard area to work.

When we stopped for lunch, Flick and I sat down in the shade of a tree to eat.  Lenaire came over to us and I couldn’t hide my pleasure at seeing him.  After a few minutes of conversation, Flick excused himself to leave Lenaire and me alone.  We talked together and when I looked up I saw Nyala, not far off.  I was shocked because he never worked in this area.  Lenaire noticed my surprise.

“I see a friend of mine I need to talk to.  Please excuse me.  I’ll be back.”

Lenaire nodded and I got up.  When I got to my feet, Nyala looked at me blankly and turned away and hurriedly left.  I stopped in my tracks.  Should I go after him?  I started to, but he disappeared quickly.  I stood there, feeling strange.  Why had he been here?  And if he wanted to see me, why did he run away?  I rubbed my hands over my face.  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  We’d always been so close and now…  I heaved a sigh and started back to Lenaire.

“Did you find your friend?” he asked.

“No.  I guess I was mistaken.”

Lenaire gave me a look that said he knew there was more to it than that, but he didn’t press it.

“You know, if you have something you want to talk about, I’d be happy to listen.”

“Thanks, but it’s okay.”

“Well, I’d better get back to work.  See you tomorrow?”

“Oh, yes,” I said eagerly.  “I’ll be there.”

We smiled and parted.

That night I had a little trouble getting to sleep, thinking about Nyala.  Had he come to talk to me?  If so, why did he turn away?  I couldn’t figure it out.  There was nothing I could do about it anyway, so I finally went to sleep.

In the morning I helped with breakfast and when we were done, I told Flick that I was spending the day with Lenaire.  He told me to have a good time and not to worry about getting back.

“Are you sure?” I asked him.

“Yeah, someday you can return the favor.”

“Okay, thanks, Flick, really.”

“No problem.  Go enjoy yourself.”

I went to Lenaire’s tent where he was waiting.  He greeted me with a warm smile.

“Are you ready to go?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”  I was a bit nervous about riding since I’d never done it before.

We went to the stable and Lenaire led out chestnut horse.  It seemed to be a very large animal, nothing like the packhorse we’d had.  Lenaire jumped up and threw his leg over the horse’s back.  There was no saddle or anything, just a bridle and reins.  He held out his hand to me.

“Come on,” he said smiling.  “Grab my hand.  I’ll hoist you up behind me.”

With some trepidation, I took his hand and the next thing I knew, I was behind him on the horse.  He made a clicking noise with his tongue and the horse started off walking.

“Just hold on to me and grip the horse with your knees,” he instructed.

We set off out of town, the horse walking slowly.   When we got a bit further out, Lenaire said,  “Hold on tight to me, I’m going to show you what riding is all about.”

Before I could protest, the horse took off at a gallop.  I held on to Lenaire and at first I was scared, but then as we galloped down the road, I found it invigorating and fun. When the terrain got a bit more challenging, he slowed the horse to a walk once more.  He looked back at me.

“So, what did you think?”

“I think it’s a little scary, but really fun!”

“Well, it’ll be slow from here on out.  There’s no more open space where we’re going.”

“Where ARE we going?”

“Someplace special.  You’ll see.”

We traveled on a rough and rocky path and after a while, I heard what sounded like rushing water.  I couldn’t figure out why I heard that in this dry place.  Then as we went down a steep path, I saw it.  It was like an oasis – a waterfall in the middle of the wilderness, with green plants around it and a cool rush of air coming off it.  Lenaire slowed the horse and jumped off before helping me down.  He led the horse to the water and we sat down near the far edge of a pool that formed at the base of the waterfall. I gazed at it, amazed.

“Wow!  This is unbelievable!”  I said.

“I told you it was someplace special.  It’s spring fed.  It bubbles up out of the ground right up there behind the falls.  The falls are called Lariel’s Tears.  Legend has it that a lovesick har named Lariel threw himself off the cliff when his lover died, and that all the tears he’d cried formed the falls.  Of course it’s just a story, but it’s a lovely place.  Care for a swim?”

I nodded.  We got undressed and Lenaire went in first.

“Woo!  It’s definitely refreshing!”

“You mean it’s really cold!”

“You won’t know until you come in!”

I went to the edge and stuck my foot in.  It was COLD!

“I guess you’re used to it if you’re from up north.”

“Oh, come on in.  I’ll warm you up!”

I laughed and jumped in.  Lenaire swam over to me.  I gasped and spluttered.  It was so cold it took my breath away.  He came closer to me.

“You can swim, can’t you?”  he asked.

“Yes.  It’s just so cold!”

“Let’s swim to the other side.  Moving will keep you warm.”

We swam across and back again and all around in the pool.  It was a beautiful place and I warmed up a little.  Later Lenaire regarded me intently.

“You’re lips are blue.  I think it’s time we got out.”

We swam to the shore and climbed out onto the rocks.  As we lay there on a soft sandy area on the shore, I began to warm up.

“Your lips are red again,” Lenaire said.  “Red and inviting.”  He leaned over and kissed me.  “I want you right now, right here.”

“Then take me.”

We shared breath and then he murmured in my ear,

“But it is I who want you to take me.  Be ouana for me, will you?”

I nodded.  As we shared breath, I found myself sending him images of my desire for him.  He seemed to enjoy that as he sent erotic images into my mind as well.  I took my time and explored his body, enjoying its firmness and relishing his scent, finally moving to his soume-lam.  He writhed, sighed and moaned as I used my fingers, then my tongue to pleasure him.

“Taj, I need you now…please…”

He lay back and I straddled him, penetrating him slowly, eliciting from him a breathy moan.

“Unnnhh, you’re young but you know what you’re doing,”  he purred, smiling, his eyes fluttering closed.  He made me feel good about myself.  I moved within him, trying to draw out our pleasure to the best of my abilities.  I felt him coming to completion, which fueled my own desire and I followed soon after.  After uncoupling, we lay there on the shore of the falls, so satisfied, the sound of rushing water surrounding us.

“You’re quite skilled for one so young,” he said.

“You’re always saying that – about me being young.  How old are you?”

“I knew we’d get to this sooner or later.”

“What difference does it make?  We’re har.”

“I know.  Well, I got incepted when I was twenty and that was fifteen years ago.”

I tried not to look shocked.  I didn’t know Wraeththu were even around that long ago.  That was about when I was born. Of course I’d heard tales about how hara had been around secretly for a longer time than anyone knew.  But I heard that Seel and Orien were only nineteen or twenty and they seemed older to me.

“So you’re thirty five?”

“I guess.  How old are you?”

“I got incepted a year ago when I was fifteen, so sixteen.”

Lenaire smiled wistfully.  “Well I like them young, slim and beautiful and that’s you.”

“You really think I’m beautiful?”

He gave me a puzzled look.  “Of course.  Don’t you know you are?”

I shrugged.

“Hara aren’t supposed to be modest.  We’re supposed to acknowledge our beauty.”

“I know I’m not unattractive.  I sure look better than I did when I was human.”

He took my face in his hands, shaking his head.

“You are so beautiful.  Didn’t I tell you you’re my obsession?”

I looked into his eyes and he kissed me on the lips.

“Let’s get dressed and go back, okay?”

As he turned to get his shirt, I again noticed his tattoo.  I reached over and fingered it lightly, as he turned his face to me with a smile.  It was some sort of symbol, I guessed.  It had a turquoise square in the middle with stylized shapes surrounding it in black.

“What is it?”

“It’s an ancient symbol of the indigenous humans that first inhabited an area not far from here.  It’s their symbol for tranquility.  I got it because that’s what I’d found in Saltrock.”

“I like it.  Maybe I’ll get a tattoo some time.”

He laughed heartily and replied, “You don’t need one.  Your body is decorative enough just the way it is.”

I grinned broadly.  He was so charming.

Lenaire fetched the horse and climbed up on it like before.  I stood to be hoisted up again behind him, but he said, “Come here.”

He helped me up to sit in front of him.  He put his arms around me and I leaned back and laid my head on his chest.  I really enjoyed our ride back.

After we returned the horse, Lenaire asked,  “Are you hungry?”

“Yes, very!”

“Come home with me and I’ll cook for you.”

“Sure!”

When we got inside his tent, he fetched something from the corner and carried it outside.  It was a small hibachi.  He put some kind of coals and some wood chips in it and lit it.

“It will take some time until it‘s ready, so lets have drinks.”

He came back with two bottles of ale.

“A friend of mine makes this, it’s pretty good.”

He spread a blanket on the ground and sat down, cross-legged and I joined him.

“What are you doing way over there?  Come closer,” he said with a warm smile.

I was only a few feet away.  I moved next to him so our legs were touching and he put his hand over my knee, caressing it.

“That’s better.”

As we sat together drinking ale, I thought to myself that Lenaire was the most disarming har I’d ever met.  We talked for a while and when our bottles were empty, he brought out two more.

“I think the coals are ready.  I’ll be right back.”

He got up and went into one of the tents not far away.  I wondered what he was doing.  In a few minutes he came back with a parcel.

“My friend, Kemahl, has a refrigerator and since we just got electricity out here, he’s had it up and running.  We all keep our food in it.  My other friend, Gerel, got this two days ago.  He says it’s lamb.  It’s the best I’ve got and only the best will do for my young beauty.”  He pinched my cheek.

He placed a fairly good-sized slab of meat on the hibachi.  It began to sizzle and smoke.  The aroma was mouth-watering.  As we sat drinking and talking, he flipped it over every so often and I thought if it wasn’t done soon, I’d grab it and eat it raw.

Finally he said the words I longed to hear.

“I think it’s done.”

He went inside his tent and came back with two plates, utensils and a large loaf of bread with butter on a platter.  He cut the meat in two on the hibachi and placed them on our plates.  I took my first bite of the lamb.

“Mmmmm, this is delicious, mmmm.”

Lenaire regarded me, looking amused.

“I’ve never seen you eat.  It’s quite stimulating.”

I’m sure I blushed a little.  I never knew what to say to his profuse compliments, but they were having a wonderful effect on me.

When we were finished, I sat back feeling satisfied and very full.  I’d really stuffed myself.  We took the dishes and things into the unfinished house where there was running water and cleaned them up in the sink.

“Maybe we should take a walk,”  Lenaire suggested.

“I feel more like taking a nap.”

“We can do that later.”

As we began to walk, Lenaire took my hand.  We walked out by the soda lake.  It was scenic in its own caustic way, I guess.  I couldn’t help but look up at the “cave,” remembering the last time I was there with Nyala.  Lenaire was very intuitive and even though I knew he would never invade my thoughts, I felt he could sometimes tell what I was thinking.

“What has darkened your mood, sweet one?”

I looked into his knowing eyes and decided to confide in him.

“I had a sort of falling out with my best friend.  We aren’t speaking.”

“Can you tell me what you argued about?”

“It wasn’t an argument, we just…”  I sighed and then I told him the whole story.

We stopped walking and sat together on a large flat rock.

“It hurt me that Nyala didn’t want to be roon friends anymore.  And he didn’t even explain.  He just told me to go home and ran off.  Now I guess we aren’t even friends.”

“Have you really tried to talk to him?”

“I was going to go to him, but when I saw him the other day at the work area, he turned away and ran off again.  He doesn’t want to speak with me.”

“Why do you think he came out there?”

“I don’t know, but it obviously wasn’t to find me.”

“I’m not so sure.  Maybe he saw that you weren’t alone and that’s why he didn’t approach you.”

“That doesn’t explain why he left when I walked toward him.”  I sighed, putting my head in my hands.  Lenaire put his arm around me and drew me to him.  I hugged him close.

“You want to know what I think?” he said gently.

I nodded into his chest.

“I think maybe he feels more for you than you know.  More than he intended, perhaps. Aruna is a powerful thing.  Sometimes it can change the way a har feels about another.  I think he’s afraid you don’t return those feelings, so rather than admit them to you, he’s decided to run away.”

So Flick had been right, I thought.  I sat up and looked into Lenaire’s eyes.

“What should I do?”

He drew me close again, kissing the top of my head.

“Go and talk with him. You’ve been friends all your young lives.  I’m sure he’s as anxious as you are to make things right between you.  I don’t think he’ll run away again.  There is something I have to ask you.  You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.  What are your feelings for him?”

“He’s my best friend, I…”  Despite my strong efforts, tears began to trickle down my face.  I sniffled and Lenaire kissed my hair.

“I care for him – a lot.  We’ve always been close.  I’ve been closer to him than anyone in my life.  I’m so unhappy that we don’t speak.  I just want things to be like they were.”

Lenaire put his fingers under my chin and gently turned my face up to look into his eyes.

“That may not be possible.  If his feelings are more than a friend’s, it can’t go back to the way it was.  You have to search your heart and find out how you really feel and then tell him.  Just be truthful to yourself and to him.”

“I’m afraid.  I’m confused about my feelings for him.”

“Don’t worry.  Just try.  You’ll sort them out, I promise you.  Then when you‘re ready, go see him”

He wiped my tears away and kissed my eyelids.

“Let’s go back to my tent.  I think the fumes from this lake are making your eyes water.”

I chuckled at that.  He’d made me feel so much better.

On the way back, Lenaire asked,”Would you like to stop at the square?”

“Okay.”   I think he wanted to cheer me up.

We sat down at a table and Lenaire got us two glasses of sheh.

“I really enjoyed today,” I said.

Lenaire smiled at me affectionately, sipping his sheh.

“I’m glad.  I was afraid for a while that you might freeze, though.”

“How could I freeze when I’m with you?”

He chuckled.

We were sitting close, drinking and talking intimately when I saw Lon and Sola sitting down a few tables away.

“I see two of my friends over there.  The other two who came here with me.”

“Ask them over.”

“Really?”

“Of course.  I’d like to meet them.”

I was all smiles.  I waved at them and Lon saw me.  He nudged Sola and they came over.

“Taj!  Hey, how’ve you been?”  Lon asked.

“Fine.  How are you two?”

“Great!”  Sola said.

They regarded Lenaire and me.

“Oh, this is Lenaire,”  I said.

Lenaire smiled cordially, inclining his head to them.

“This is Lon and this is Sola.”

They inclined their heads as well.

“Nice to meet you,” Lenaire said.

“Same here,” Sola replied.

“Won’t you join us?”  Lenaire offered, extending his hand.

“Sure,” Lon said.  They sat down.

“What are you drinking?” Lenaire asked.

“Uh, whatever,” Sola said, shrugging.

“Would you like to try something new?” Lenaire inquired.

“Sure!” Lon said.  Sola nodded his agreement.

Lenaire got us some rhysynth all around and we all drank up.

“Hey this is good,” Lon said.

“Nice and sweet and spicy,” Sola added.

“It’s called rhysynth.  It originated in the north.  That’s where Lenaire‘s from,”  I said.

“So you came to Saltrock together, huh?”  Lenaire asked.

“Oh, yeah.  Lon, me, Taj and Nyala.”  Sola answered.  Then he got quiet and looked at Lon, then me.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “Lenaire knows all about Nyala and me and that we haven’t spoken since that night.”

I sighed and then decided to ask them.

“Have you spoken to him?”

“You…you mean Nyala?” Sola asked.

“Yes, I mean Nyala!”

Lon and Sola exchanged unsure looks.

“Just tell me!”

“Yes.  But he didn’t say much.  Just that you weren’t speaking.  He didn’t say why,”  Lon offered.

“I tried to get him to open up, but Lon gave me a jab in the ribs,”  Sola added.  He looked to Lon.  “Which still hurts!”

Lon rolled his eyes.

“I didn’t know why either,” I said.  “But maybe I do now.  Anyway, it’s between Nyala and me.  I’m going to try to talk to him as soon as I sort out my thoughts.  Don’t say anything to him, okay?  Please?”

Sola and Lon both nodded.

“We promise,” Lon said.

I smiled, relieved, laying my head on Lenaire’s shoulder.  We talked and drank some more rhysynth and Lon and Sola eventually said they should go.  After they left, Lenaire touched my arm.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go to my tent.”

“ I’d like that.”

When we got inside Lenaire’s tent, he made his room so lovely and inviting, it warmed my heart.  We sat on the floor at his low table.  He kissed my cheek.

“Would you like more rhysynth, or are you tired of it?”

I chuckled at him. “No, I’m not tired of it.  I really like it.”

After we had a glass or two, I looked at him and realized how much I wanted and needed him.  He must have sensed my need, because he moved closer to me.

“I want you…so much, I…”

He silenced my pleading with an impassioned kiss.

“Be ouana, please…please,”  I murmured.

He nodded, taking me into his arms, sharing breath with me.  He gave me lovely images of his feelings and desire which I drank in eagerly.   We lay on his rug and he removed my clothes as he explored my body, planting kisses over me.

“You’re so beautiful, my sweet one,” he said.

I moaned with his every touch.  And when he touched his lips to my soume-lam, I groaned in consummate pleasure.  As he continued to tongue me, I felt such luscious sensations; I was rapt with the pure delight of it.  I feathered my fingers into his hair and when he finally moved his mouth back to mine, I whispered, “You’re so…good to me.”

He covered my lips with his own and we shared breath again.  He showed me sparkling images of a tranquil frozen world.  I took his ouana-lim in my hands and when it flowered, I moved down his body to take it into my mouth, relishing his salty, spicy, unique flavor.  I moved back up his body and kissed him, then murmured into his ear, “Let me give myself to you…now.”

As he entered me, I felt I was in another realm; a realm of explicit and intense physical euphoria.  We moved together and the corporeal world meant nothing to me.  It was just the two of us in our private paradise of longing and ecstasy.  Soon I felt the final wave of pleasure, signaling my release.  His serpent tongue silenced the aching need in my core and I experienced the perfection of my completion and his.  We then lay together, silent, savoring the feelings of complete satisfaction.  When he withdrew and lay next to me, he pulled me to him, kissing me slowly on my face and my lips.

“Please stay with me.  Stay the night.”

I looked into his eyes and nodded, then buried my face in his chest.  We moved to his hammock where we nestled together and I slept contentedly next to Lenaire all night.

When the following day dawned, I awoke to the comforting sound of Lenaire’s rhythmic breathing.  I drank in the pleasure of just being close to him.  I think it was then I realized, or at least put it into conscious thought, that even though we’d only known each other a short time, I was already beginning to have strong feelings for him.  I lay there watching him sleep for quite some time and I couldn’t help but also think of Nyala.  What were my feelings for him – really?  I was in a state of new love infatuation with Lenaire, but Nyala had always been the one closest to me for almost as long as I could remember.  I wouldn’t say we were soul mates, but something very close to that.  And since we’d not spoken there was a gaping void in my life.  My next thought was like an awakening – an epiphany:  I can’t imagine my life without him.

I’d always loved him as a friend or maybe a brother, and I’d enjoyed aruna with him and our closeness because of it.  As much as I desire Lenaire, aruna with Nyala had been on another level. But I didn’t feel I was in love with him even though my times with him had been the best I’d ever known.  Why?  Because we connected on a deep level?  Maybe.  Because we’d already had a kind of love for each other?  Then it hit me:  maybe because he loves me.

And there was Lenaire;  beautiful, wise and so good for me.  I craved his presence, the sound of his voice, his touch .  I had to be with him.  I knew my feelings for Lenaire were more like what Nyala wanted from me.  I also knew how much knowing that would hurt Nyala.  I cared for him and wanted him to be happy, but I can’t help how I feel.  I want to be with him, spend time with him and even take aruna with him, but I know I’m not in love with him.  Sometimes I wish I was – that would make everything easier.  Then there was the fact that I really didn’t know how deep Lenaire’s feelings for me were or if Nyala was truly in love with me.  I felt confused, torn and guilty.  It would probably serve me right if they both told me to take a hike.

I felt Lenaire stir and I pretended to be asleep.  I didn’t want him to sense what I was feeling and thinking.  He snuggled closer to me, his arm over my waist and seemed to doze off.  I lay there, the warmth of his body and the perfume of his scent enveloping me and I completely relaxed.

Later, I awoke to find Lenaire lying on his back, his hands behind his head, looking up at the ceiling of the tent.  He looked over at me and took me into an embrace.

“Mmmmm, good morning my beautiful love.”

I relaxed into his arms.

“Is something on your mind, Taj, my sweet?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course, lovely – anything.”

“You’re so…” I sighed.  “So wondrous, so beautiful and so splendid.  What do you see in me?   I’m not fishing for compliments.  I really just want to know.”

He stared at me a moment, then he shook his head and got up from the hammock.  At first I thought he was perturbed with me, but he went to the corner of the room and set up what looked like a wood panel against the wall of the tent.  He looked at me and waved me over with his hand.  I walked over, wondering what he was doing and when I got there I saw that he’d set up a full-length mirror.  He stood me in front of him, both of us naked, in front of the mirror, his hands on my shoulders.  He regarded my reflection, his face close to mine.

“Can’t you see what I see?” he asked.  “I see a beautiful har with an irresistible face;  young, fresh and slim, with lovely deep blue eyes, perfect sun-kissed skin, silken dark hair and tempting lips, just begging to be kissed over and over again.”

He turned me to him.

“Does that answer your question?”

I stared into his eyes and nodded, overwhelmed.  He pulled me close and kissed me.  I’d never felt so desired and beautiful.

I knew I should get back to Seel’s house to help with breakfast, but I couldn’t resist my immediate need for Lenaire, so as he laid me back in his hammock, my last non-erotic thought was:  Flick will understand.

Afterwards, as I lay on his chest, my ear to his heart, I sadly realized I would have to tear myself away.  We’d both shirked our duties a bit, so we were both going to work at the future orchard today.  I heaved a sigh.

“I guess I’d better go.”

I swung my legs over the side of the hammock to get up when Lenaire encircled my waist with his arms, kissing the small of my back.

“I’d like to keep you here in my hammock forever.”

“I’d like that, too.”

“Will you at least have breakfast with me?  It won’t take long, we can eat some fruit.”

“Okay.”

After that we kissed goodbye at his tent door.

“I’ll see you later.  Let’s have lunch under the trees,” Lenaire suggested.

I nodded, kissed him again and left.

When I got to Seel’s house, no one was around, so I put on my work clothes and headed out. As I walked, I pondered my dilemma.  Lenaire already knew about Nyala, and I had the feeling he’d understand that I needed him, but I didn’t know the exact nature of Lenaire’s feelings for me.  He was obviously attracted to me and we weren’t roon friends, we were lovers.  And what about Nyala?  I couldn’t imagine him being happy knowing I was heavily involved with Lenaire as a lover.  If he’d even see me, how could I tell him how much I care for him as a friend and then drop the bomb about Lenaire?  He’d probably think I was full of shit, not to mention the fact that he’d be very hurt.  Where do I even start?  My head was beginning to ache when I realized I was at the work site.  I put my conflicted thoughts on hold as I picked up a shovel.  Soon I heard a familiar voice.

“Hey, Taj, nice of you to join us.”

I looked up, startled,  to see Flick.

“I know.  I’m sorry.  I know I haven’t been pulling my weight, I…”

He chuckled at me.

“Taj, get a grip!  I’m just having some fun with you.”

He slapped me on the back.  I rubbed my hands over my face.

“So, how are things going?”

“Flick, if I told you you wouldn’t believe me.”

********************************************

Later I met Lenaire for lunch.  He sat down, his back against a tree, drew up his knees and patted the ground in front of him.  I sat between his legs and leaned back contentedly on him.  He had two bottles of ale and he gave me one.

“Where were you working today?  I didn’t see you,” I said.

“They sent me to help dig the irrigation canals.  I guess it’s better than chucking rocks around.  Of course I’m not working as close to you, but then you’re such a luscious distraction, maybe I’ll be more help this way.”

He swept my hair away from my neck and kissed me.  When we finished our sandwiches, we sat wordlessly, looking up at the fluttering leaves, Lenaire’s arms around my middle.  All too soon, it was time to go back to work. When we finally stood up to leave, Lenaire embraced me, kissing my hair, then he took both my hands in his.

“Will you come over tonight?  I know you have to help with dinner at Seel’s, but we could have a late meal together.”

“Okay.  See you then.”

He kissed both my hands and we parted.

That evening when dinner was over, I decided to go out in the courtyard to gather my thoughts before going to Lenaire’s.  Everyone seemed to have dispersed after the meal and gone their ways, so it was very peaceful.  Soon though, I heard a har approaching.  I looked up to see Cal.  Unable to speak, I just stared.

“Mind if I sit down?”  he asked.

I shook my head.  I had some butterflies, but with all I had on my mind, I wasn’t feeling so star struck.  He offered me a cigarette.

“Thanks.”

“You look like a har with the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

I heaved a smoke-filled sigh.

“That’s pretty much how I feel.”

“Well I’ll understand if you tell me to fuck off, but it might help to talk to an unbiased party.  I can be a good listener when I want to be.”

I looked into his eyes; such unique violet pools.  A har could drown in them.  He was smiling warmly and I knew I wanted to tell him my troubles.

“Well, long complicated story short – I really care for two hara.”

He laughed gently.  “Uh-oh, been there.   More than once.”

He might have been teasing but he’d put me at ease, so I related the whole story.

Afterwards he sat there thoughtfully for a while and then said, “Well, in a perfect harish world, there would be no jealousy, no hurt feelings, no resentment.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect harish world, just as it was never a perfect human world.  You said you and your friends had only been har for a year, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, take your time and be sure of your true feelings.  Being newly har, one can get confused.  Love, lust, friendship, chesna bonds – sometimes it’s hard to sort it all out and know which is which.  Sometimes it seems like all the ‘freedom’ we’re supposed to have puts us in a bind and makes things more complicated.  Some hara feel we shouldn’t fall in love at all.  I don’t agree.  It’s the greatest feeling there is, but it’s not always easy.  Sometimes Pell can irritate me more than any har I’ve known, but I’ve got to be with him.  He’s all I want.”

“How did you know you were in love with him?”

He chuckled.  “I knew I wanted him the moment I saw him.  I knew he had to be mine if I had to drag him away screaming.  Luckily that wasn’t necessary.  I bewitched him instead.”

I laughed.  I think he was kidding.

“But one har’s story isn’t every har’s story.  There are many kinds of love and happiness.  And it doesn’t always happen at first sight.  Besides, our story is just beginning.  Who knows what the future holds?  I hope Pell and I will stay together, but sometimes circumstances and the powers that be have a way of interfering.  I think we have a destiny together and I’m going to do my best to hold on to that.  My advice to you is to let it play out and don’t rush anything.  If I were you, I’d let my relationship with Lenaire grow and blossom and see where it takes you both.  With your young friend, Nyala, I would go and talk it out with him, and get an idea of where you both stand.  Then just take it from there.”

I just stared into space, trying to take it all in.

He stood up and gave me an encouraging smile.

“I hope it all works out for you, Taj.”

“Thanks, Cal – really.”

He patted my shoulder and strolled back into Seel’s house.

I sat a few minutes, considering all that Cal had said.  Then I set off for Lenaire’s.

When I got to Lenaire’s tent I found him and a dark-skinned har with coffee-colored braided hair sitting on a blanket at the entrance.  When I got close to Lenaire he reached for my hand and drew me down to sit next to him.

He leaned close and kissed me on my neck, speaking softly into my ear.

“Who needs the moon when I have you to brighten my night?”

I felt my face flush, but I loved his flowery words to me. I turned my attention to the other har.

“This is Kemahl, my friend with the refrigerator.”

“Hi, nice to meet you,” he said.

“And this sweet morsel of loveliness is my Taj.”

If my face was flushed before, I was certain it had become positively crimson.

Kemahl gave us a roguish smile and said, “Lenaire never stops talking about you, and now I see why.”

Did I say crimson?  I must have been a lurid purple by now. Thankfully, Kemahl got up to leave.

“Well, I’ll leave you two alone.  You’re a lucky har, Len,” he said over his shoulder as he ambled over to his tent.

“Let’s go inside, I fixed us some refreshments.”

We went to his room, where he’d set the low table with cheese, bread, salted nuts and a bottle of wine.  There was a lovely ornate candleholder decorating the table as well.  Lenaire lit the candle as we sat down.  It cast a mellow romantic glow over everything.

“This looks so inviting.”

“Like my lovely guest.”

He sat down and we began to enjoy our repast.

After quite a bit of wine, Lenaire began feeding me the salted nuts and soon we were sharing breath.  He tasted of salt and wine, and I’d never in my life wanted a har more.  We spent a long time, sharing breath and long slow kisses, his tongue leisurely playing with mine.  He was taking it slow and I was beside myself with desire for him.  I’d become soume and I was desperate for him to take me.  He removed my shirt, gently laying me back on the rug, and began to kiss me slowly from my neck to my navel.  My breathing had become jagged and quick and I trembled with hunger for him.  He covered my mouth with his as he undid my pants and deftly slid them from my body.

“My beautiful soume love,” he whispered.  “I crave you.  Let me fill you.”

I couldn’t speak anything but his name as my fingers twined into his hair and I pulled him to me to claim his lips.  After a few minutes he drew back and hurriedly removed his clothes. When he took me in his arms again and finally slid his fingers to my soume-lam I groaned in needy desperation and arched into his touch.  After a time I had to beg him to stop and I lay there a moment, trying to catch my breath and regain my composure.  Then I guided him onto his back and kissed my way to his ouana-lim, so firm and beautiful.  As I ran my tongue up its vermillion shaft, it flowered, eliciting from him a pleasured moan.  I delighted in every inch of its spreading violet petals, savoring his delicious tangy essence.  I was drowning in the ocean of his enjoyment, relishing his sighs and noises and soon he was breathing hard.

“Please…let me take you, please…”

I released him and lay on my back, opening myself to him.  He straddled me, looking into my eyes. As he pressed his lips to mine, I felt him pierce me slowly.  I moaned into his mouth, feeling such inexpressible pleasure.  I wrapped my legs around his waist and as we moved together, I was awash in a sea of sensual euphoria, every thrust sending waves of pleasure through me to my aching core, and when his inner tongue licked the waiting spot in the pith of my being, I was lost in a shuddering explosion as we found our release together.

As I lay in his arms, spent and completely sated, Lenaire whispered something in my ear, but I wasn’t cognizant enough to make it out.  When he finally separated us and laid beside me, he snuggled closer, nuzzling and kissing the side of my face.  I could have stayed there forever.  It had been such a uniquely intense experience.  I took his face in my hands and kissed his lips again and again.  A good while later he stood up, stretching.

“Why don’t we move to the hammock where we’ll be more comfortable?” Lenaire suggested.

He went over to a trunk he had in the corner, and also brought a bottle of wine with him when he joined me in the hammock, giving me a strange smile.

“Close your eyes, my love.”

I closed them, wondering what he was up to.  I felt him trace something along my skin from my stomach to my throat.  It tickled.

“Okay, open them.”

I opened my eyes to see a shimmering gold chain being dangled over my face.  He placed it in my hand.  It was beautiful and had a serpentine look to it.

“For me?”

He laughed.  “Of course, for you!”

“It’s beautiful!  Thank you!”   I threw my arms around him.

“Let me put it on you.”

I thought it was a bracelet, but he fastened it around my ankle, kissing me there.  I’d never owned such a thing before.  I held my leg up to further admire my new treasure.

“Where did you ever find it?”  I blurted.

“I know a har who goes out on foraging and trading excursions.  He finds some good stuff sometimes.  When he showed it to me, I knew I had to have it for you.”

“Really?  I love it.”

I embraced him, burying my face in his neck.

He took a deep breath.

“Taj, there’s just something about you.  I’ve felt it since the first day I saw you working at the orchard.  At first sight I found you irresistible.  Your cheeks were flushed from the heat, your dark hair blowing around your face, your luscious lips.”  He paused.  “I… haven’t felt this way about a har for a very long time.”

I leaned up to look into his eyes as he continued.

“I know I’m always extolling your beauty and desirability, and I do lust after you.”  He gave me a sly smile. “But I feel more than just that.  I like to be with you, talk with you, eat with you.”  He caressed my face.  “I like your laugh.  I think most of all I like your innocence.”  He then chuckled.  “And I love that you blush.”

That, of course, made me blush.  I didn’t know what to say. This was more than I’d dared to hope for, especially so soon.

I again buried my face in his neck.

“I feel a lot for you, too.  I want to be with you and I think about you all the time.  You make me feel so good.  And I want to make you happy.”

He kissed my hair.

“Oh, you do, sweetest one, you do.”

We lay there awhile, basking in our newly declared feelings for each other.  We shared the wine and talked a little.  Lenaire looked me up and down, smoothing his hands over my middle.

“You have such fine, silky skin.  I’m going to make you blush again.  Your ouana-lim is such a beautiful blue-violet.  I’ve never seen a body quite like yours.”

I felt myself flush furiously, but I managed to answer.

“When I first became har, I didn’t know what an ouana-lim was supposed to look like.  I thought mine was bruised.”

He laughed heartily at that.

“I finally got the nerve to ask Nyala what his looked like and when he told me his was blue-green, I felt so much better.”

Lenaire held me closer, still chuckling, and then he asked, “When are you going to speak with your friend?”

“I don’t know.  I’m not sure what to say to him, exactly.  That is if he’ll even see me.”

Lenaire sighed.  “I wish I could fix all this for you.  “I want you to be happy.”

I leaned up and traced my fingers over his lips.  “You make me happy,” I said, kissing him.

He sighed and held me close, saying, “You need to talk to him, though, don’t you?”

“Yes.  But I don’t know where to start, what to say.”

“How do you feel about him, truly?”

I couldn’t answer at first.  I thought a moment, then gave a tentative answer.

“I love him, but in a different way than I feel about you.  It’s like we’re close, like friends or brothers.  We took aruna, but –  I don’t know.  I need him, but I need him to be my friend like we’ve always been.  I know I have to talk to him.  But how do I tell him I love him, but not in the same way he loves me?  I know it will hurt him and that’s the last thing I want to do.”

“All you can do is be truthful with him.  In the long run it’s the loving thing to do.”

I nodded into his chest.  “I thought being har was supposed to do away with all this complicated stuff.”

Lenaire laughed.  “Well, whoever told you that wasn’t in touch with the real harish world!”

“Nyala told me before we came to Saltrock that he thought we’d grow apart.  I told him we needed to decide that couldn’t happen.  But it looks like it did.”

“Just because things have changed doesn’t mean you still can’t be close to him in whatever way you want to be.”

He seemed to know me better than I knew myself.  I stared at him and then broke into tears, that sometimes-infernal soume part of myself betraying me.  Then it all came out.

“I don’t know what way!  I want to be with you, but I don’t want to hurt Nyala or make him stay away.  I just want us to be close like we used to be.”

Lenaire smoothed my hair and kissed my cheek.  “You just need to talk with him.  Even if he’s upset at first, you’ve been friends for so long, he’ll come around.  Trust me.  I have a lot of experience.  You won’t be happy until you clear the air with him.  Then just wait it out.  It may not happen overnight, but it will happen.  Just be patient.  I know that’s hard for someone your age, but try. Things will fall into place.  You’ll see.”

I knew he was right. I soon relaxed in his arms and slept.

The next morning I got up early and as I was dressing, Lenaire awoke.  He regarded me saying, “Good morning, love.”

I went to him and lay back in his hammock, relishing his embrace and closeness.  “I have to get to Seel’s house,” I said with a heavy sigh.

“Yes, I know.  Will I see you tonight?”

“Just try and stop me.”

He smiled, we kissed goodbye and I left for Seel’s.  When I got there Flick was just getting started on breakfast so I helped.  When we were done Flick said, “We don’t have to work at the orchard site today.”

“Why not?”

“We have something else to do.”

He opened the pantry door to show me several bushels of tomatoes.

“Somehar from the gardens dropped them off.  We get to can them.”

“I’ve never done that before.”

“It’s easy.  Lots easier than digging.”  He smiled.

As we were working we talked about a lot of things.  Flick said it was going much faster with me to help and to talk to.  He finally got around to asking me about my situation.

“How’s it going with you and Lenaire?”

I smiled widely and blushed.

“That good, huh?”

“Yeah, we actually declared our strong feelings for each other.  And look.”

I pulled up my pants leg.

“Hey, that’s real gold.  Wow!  Things are going good.  I’m really glad for you.”  He gave me a warm smile that let me know he truly harbored positive thoughts for me.

“How about with your friend, Nyala?”

I sighed.  “Not so good.  I haven’t talked to him yet and he hasn’t come to talk to me.”

“Well, one of you is going to have to make the first move.”

“I know.”

“Let me ask you something.  Did you have much experience with love or sex as a human?”

I looked at him, surprised at the question.

“Uh, no.  I got incepted when I was fifteen.”

“Did you ever do it as a human?”

“Yeah, once.  It was at a picnic.”

“Girl or boy?”

“Girl.  She was three years older.”

“How was it?”

“Quick.”

Flick nodded and laughed and we chuckled together.

“How about you?”  I asked.

“I experimented a bit.  I was a little conflicted about the boy – girl thing.”

“I guess becoming har settled that for you.”

“Yeah, I definitely heard the call to be har – loud and clear!  My point is you’re inexperienced and that can cause a lot of anguish and uncertainty in affairs of the heart.”

I couldn’t help smiling at him.  He was so open and unassuming.  I looked him in the eye.

“You were right about Nyala, you know, about his feelings for me.  Lenaire told me the same thing.  After some soul searching I’ve realized that I care for him, but I’m not in love with him.  I think I’m really falling for Lenaire.  Now I have to tell Nyala.  I’m afraid I’ll hurt him and I’ll lose him completely.  I’m afraid to talk to him.  I guess it sounds stupid…”

“No, it doesn’t!  Of course you’re afraid, but think about it.  Do you truly believe he’ll tell you to get lost after all the years you’ve been close?

“I think he’ll be hurt and feel weird and just stay away.”

“Of course you know him better than I do, but even if that’s his first reaction, give him some time – and some credit.  He might take it better than you think.  And if he doesn’t it won’t mean he’ll never get over it.  Give him some space and talk with him again.  You two have been close.  He’ll be able to tell how much he means to you.  I promise you – you’re both har, remember?  He’ll know you’re being truthful with him and that you have to be.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  You always seem to help me see things clearer and get some perspective.”  I smiled gratefully.  “Thanks.”

“Well, it’s easier to get perspective when you’re on the outside of a situation.  Anyway, I’ve seen Nyala.  He won’t stay lonely for long.  You might be easier to get over than you think!”  He started laughing rather loudly.

“Thanks a lot!”  He got me laughing, too.

We finished half of the tomatoes that day, which meant we’d work on them the next day, too.  When we were finished with dinner, I set off for Lenaire’s, determined to go to Nyala the following night.  I really wanted Lenaire to tell me what to say to Nyala.  I didn’t have a clue.

I got to his tent, but he wasn’t there, so I sat out front waiting for him.   A short time later, he showed up with some bottles and a parcel.  He approached me, his handsome face glowing.

“Someone left a priceless treasure at my door.”

I blushed and stood up.  His arms were full, but he leaned in to give me a warm kiss.

“Mmmm, a tasty treasure.  Come on in.  I got us some goodies.”

He set everything down.

“I got us some sheh, some rhysynth, of course, and,” he said as he opened the parcel, “a cake.”

It looked like a fruitcake with lots of nuts in it, and it smelled like whiskey.

“Let’s go to my room to partake of the treats.”  He leaned over to nip my ear, and then murmured, “We’ll start with the food and drinks.”

More blushing.  He was so unbelievably beguiling.

We sat at the low table in his room and enjoyed the refreshments.

“I need to ask you something,” I said.

“Anything, my sweet.”

“Please tell me what to say to Nyala.  I want to try to talk to him tomorrow night.  I have no idea what to say or where to start, or…or…”

“Just tell him how you feel.  You could start by telling him you’ve missed him and hate that you’ve not spoken.  He’ll probably say he’s felt the same.  I can’t tell you everything to say.  You two know each other so well.  Just look into his eyes and you’ll know what to say.  I’m sure of it.”

“I wish I was.”

He came over to me and pulled me close saying,  “You’ll do fine.  Now, let me make you forget your troubles.”

He gave me a smoky smile and we shared breath as we sat on his rug.  He sent me calming waves of thought that made me feel relaxed and euphoric.  I returned what I thought was my contentment and peace of mind.

When we parted I asked him, “What do you see from me when we share breath?”

“Sometimes I see colors, sometimes purple flowers and sunsets, clouds and water.  Sometimes it’s more sensations or feelings – different things.”

I was very surprised.  I wasn’t always sure what I’d sent him, and some of the things were different than what I’d thought.

“Really?  I couldn’t tell.”

“It takes experience to focus what you give to another.  You’re a beginner.  That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable – maybe it’s even more enjoyable.”

He kissed my neck and I turned to share breath again, caressing him.  He gently guided my hand down the front of his pants.  He’d become soume.  He parted our lips and traced a trail of kisses up to my ear, where he whispered, “Taj.  My beautiful Taj, I’m yours.  Be ouana for me, take me.”

I nodded, my head in an erotic fog. We shared breath some more and I unbuttoned Lenaire’s shirt, kissing his chest.  I loved the way he smelled.  It made me want to lick him all over.  He lay back on the rug and I moved down his body to his stomach and tickled his navel with my tongue eliciting a rather breathy laugh from him.  I undid his pants and slid them off.  He began to breathe harder, raising his knees and spreading his legs.  As I moved my mouth to his soume-lam, which was wet and hot, I felt my ouana-lim quickly become hard.  He moved and moaned as I pleasured him with my tongue.  His delicious essence tasted of citrus and salt.  I felt I couldn’t get enough as I wrapped my arms around his thighs and moved my tongue as deeply as possible.  Before too long he gently guided me back to his lips.

He kissed me, saying, “You’re so exciting, so beautiful, so good.”

We kissed and shared breath again.  He seemed overwhelmed with desire.  He started to remove my clothes and I quickly aided him in shedding them myself.  We were kneeling on the rug, facing each other.  He gave me a lustful stare, then raked his hand into my hair and pulled my face to his, kissing me hard, as he skillfully stroked my ouana-lim with his other hand.  I couldn’t control my moans and noises.  We lay down on the rug,  sharing breath again.  He moved his mouth to my ouana-lim and I flowered.   I was lost in pleasurable sensation as he licked me and caressed me with his mouth.

When he finally stopped he whispered, “Please, please do it, come inside me, do it…”

He didn’t have to ask me twice.  I moved onto him and guided my ouana-lim into his body, all of my being focused on his pleasure.  He moaned and moved into my thrusts, throwing his hands over his head as he writhed beneath me.  We moved together until I felt my imminent release, our noises of mutual pleasure filling our senses. When the end came, I cried out at my completion. My fingers were entwined with his, grasping him as though he were an anchor as he groaned and shuddered at his climax.  In the ensuing quiet we lay together, our bodies connected.  Our minds intimately joined..  After we rested, totally sated, I slowly, reluctantly eased out of him.  He drew me close and sighed into my ear.

“Taj, my feelings for you are…I believe I‘m falling in love with you.”

I looked into his eyes.

“I do,” he said.  “I do.”

I stroked his hair, my heart full and said, “I think I’m falling for you, too.”

I buried my face in his hair as he pulled me into an embrace.  We lay there for a long time, not needing to speak aloud.  I’d never felt this way about any har before, not even Nyala.  It was different with Lenaire, more urgent, more compelling.  With Nyala I felt at home, familiar, though there was always an intensity there, too.  I heaved a sigh.

Lenaire stirred, kissed and nuzzled my face and asked, “What is it, my sweet love?”

“Nothing, nothing.  I just want us to stay here like this.  It’s perfect.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he murmured, smiling into my cheek.

Very early the following morning, I awoke and got dressed.  Lenaire and I had breakfast and soon after, I had to get to Seel’s.  I stood up to leave and Lenaire took me in his arms.

“Are you going to Nyala tonight?”

“Yes,” I said, drawing back a bit to look into his eyes.

“Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe I should wait until he comes to me.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I think it’s up to you.”

“I know,” I replied with a sigh.  “I feel that, too.”  I knew I looked troubled.

“If you want to, come over after you see him.  If you spend the evening or night with him, Ill see you tomorrow.  Okay?”

He tipped my face up gently with his fingers, looking into my eyes.

“Don’t worry.”

“I’ll try not to.”

I was shaking as I left his tent.  I was an emotional wreck over all of this and I was afraid to see Nyala.  The fresh morning air was invigorating and cleansing, so I took deep breaths as I walked.  It seemed to help me and I was able to get some perspective and determination.  By the time I got to Seel’s I had decided to just do what I needed to do.  If Nyala rejected me, I still had Lenaire.  Would that be enough?  I guessed that if it went badly with Nyala, it would have to be.

Flick and I worked all day on the tomatoes.  I know I was quieter than usual.  At first Flick didn’t say anything, but when we stopped for lunch and were sitting together at the kitchen table, I felt him regarding me intently, so I looked up from my soup.

“Uh, you’ve been rather quiet today, Taj.”

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.  I’m going to talk to Nyala tonight.”

“Oh.  Does he know you’re coming?”

I shook my head.  “He may slam the door in my face when he sees me.”

“Now why would he do that?”

I shrugged.

“Come on, Taj, it’ll work out.  I think you’re blowing this way out of proportion.”

“Yeah, probably.  It’s just that it’s so important to me.”

“I know.  Feel free to leave early tonight if you want.”

“No, no.  I’ll help with dinner and go after.”

“Okay. Suit yourself.”

The rest of the day we made small talk and worked.  After dinner, I was about to leave when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  It was Flick. He gave me a sympathetic smile.

“Good luck, Taj.  I hope everything goes like you want.”

I regarded him gratefully.

“Thanks, Flick.”

I headed out the door and as I walked, I began to feel better.  I was glad to finally be doing something rather than having it go round and round in my mind anymore.  Either way this went, it would be a relief to know I tried.  As I neared the house Nyala lived in, I got a bit nervous, but I knocked on the door and the har who answered it said Nyala was in his room.  I was apprehensive as I walked up the stairs and hesitated a few seconds before knocking on the door.

“Yeah, come in,” he called.

I opened the door to see him sitting propped up on his bed, reading.  He looked up and there was a look of shocked surprise on his face.

“Taj – ?”

“Yeah, hi,” I said with what I was sure was a very shaky smile.  He smiled back a little.

“How’ve you been?”  I asked lamely.

“Okay.”

A deafeningly awkward silence followed.

I walked over, sat on his bed and said, “I’ve missed you.  I know it hasn’t been all that long, but – ”

“Yeah, I’ve missed you, too.”

I took a deep breath and blurted, “This is so weird, it’s just too weird!  This is you and me.  We could talk about anything and here we are so – awkward.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.”  He got up and stood, looking out a window.

“It’s not just you.  It’s…”  I rubbed my face with my hands.

“Nyala?”

He turned to face me.

“Please come here and sit down.”

He came over and sat next to me.

He just looked down, his hands folded on his lap.

I very gingerly placed my hand on his.

“Nyala, I think I know what happened.  You don’t have to say anything.  I didn’t realize.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t get it.  I know you couldn’t tell me how you felt.”

“I knew you didn’t feel the same way.  I was just disappointed and hurt, so I couldn’t face you for a while.”  He paused.  “I’m sorry I ran off like that and didn’t explain.  I just couldn’t”

“I know.  It’s okay, really.”

“I feel better about things now and I can accept that your feelings for me are different.  I tried to tell you that once, but I chickened out.”

“That day at the orchard.”

He nodded.

“Nyala?”

He looked into my eyes.

“I’m really sorry.  You know how much I feel for you.  We‘ve been close forever, almost.  I loved aruna with you.  Our times together were great.  We’re good together, you know that.  You’ve always been my best friend.  Please don’t stay away.   Without you I feel an emptiness no one else can fill.”

He smiled tentatively at me and said, “Not even the handsome blond I’ve seen you with lately?

I smiled a bit apprehensively back.  So he already knew about Lenaire.  Why didn’t I figure he would?  Sometimes I can be so dense!

“He has his own place in my heart.”

“I figured as much.”

“So do you.”

He nodded.  I was a little afraid.  I couldn’t read him.  I hadn’t meant to even mention Lenaire tonight.

“Do you understand what I’m really saying?”

He sighed.  “Yes, I think so.  You can’t return my feelings, but you have strong feelings for me and want to remain friends.

“Yes, but not just friends. I want us to be close, like we always were.”

He got up and turned away from me.

“Taj, I need some time.  I can’t turn off my feelings – just like that.  I’ve been trying. Give me some time to work it out.  Okay?”

“Sure.  Whatever you say.  Well, I guess I’d better go.”

As I left, he surprised me by grabbing my arm.

“I want it to work out, too, you know.”

My eyes stung with tears.  I nodded.  Then I left.

I decided to go to Lenaire.  I needed him.  When I got to his tent, he wasn’t there, so I sat out front, waiting.  As I thought about Nyala again, I fought back the tears.  After all we’d been through I felt like things hadn’t gone at all like we’d anticipated.  I thought Nyala, Sola, Lon and I would be together forever.  I should have known, like Nyala did, that it wouldn’t be possible.  Lon and Sola had each other, but I couldn’t help my feelings any more than Nyala could.  It was just the way things were, but it made me sad.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get comfortable with this soume, this more female side of myself.  It’s fun to have the physical parts, but the emotional aspect of it leaves me confused and unsettled.

Soon I saw Lenaire approaching.  I think he could tell by my expression how things had gone with Nyala.  Wordlessly we went into his tent.  He smoothed my hair and said softly, “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

I nodded and told him the whole story.

“Taj, I’m sorry, but it’s not so bad, really.  He said he wants it to work out between you.  I think in time it will.  We’re har, one thing we have is time.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said.

“Listen, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go with him on a trading excursion.  Would you like to come along?  I think getting away for a week or so might do you good.  Besides, I’d have you all to myself.”  He smiled slyly.

“Really?  Heck yeah!  I’d love to go!”  I thought a moment.  “Of course, I’d have to see if it’s okay with Seel and Flick.”

“Sure.  Ask them tomorrow.  We’re not leaving for a few days.  You’d be gone ten days at least – maybe longer, depending.  Seel knows all about these trips.  If you can’t go, I won’t go either.”

He had a way of always making me feel better.  Needless to say, we spent a very wonderful night together.

The following morning I was anxious to get to Seel’s.  I wanted to talk to Seel and Flick about going on the excursion.  I knew I didn’t actually need permission to go, but I wanted to make sure they could do without me.

When I came into the kitchen, Flick was just lighting the stove.  He looked up, aiming a particularly friendly smile at me.

“Seel said something about trying to find an electric stove now that we’ve got generators running, but I don’t know.  I’m kind of used to this old thing.”

I couldn’t help smiling back at him.  There was just something about Flick that almost always made me want to smile.

“Hey, Taj.  Get the ham out, will you?”

When we almost had breakfast ready, Seel came into the kitchen, followed soon after by Cal and Pellaz.  We all sat down to a meal of ham, eggs, coffee and cornbread.

I waited until breakfast was almost over, then, directing my question to Seel, said, “Uh, Lenaire wants me to go with him on a trading excursion.  I told him I’d like to, but I had to make sure it was okay with you and Flick.”

Seel regarded me over his coffee cup.

“I’d be gone ten days or so.”

He set his cup down nodding.

“Yes.  You should go.  It’s a good experience for any har, I think.”

“Is it safer now than it used to be?” Cal asked.

Safer?

“There haven’t been any skirmishes for quite a while now.  Almost a year,” Seel replied.

Skirmishes?

Cal shrugged.

“Hey, it’ll be an adventure for you.  And you and Lenaire together day and night?  Hope you’ll both have enough energy left for traveling,” Flick said, giggling and nudging me with his elbow.  I felt my face burn with embarrassment and I heard Cal and Pell stifle their laughter.

“Yeah, well okay.  Thanks,” I said.

“When do you leave?” Pell inquired.

“Lenaire said a few days from now.”

“Well, I guess we’d better work your sweet ass off for the next few days then,” Flick said, grinning – a bit too widely, I thought.

I gave him a tolerant smile and then we cleaned up after breakfast. We were finished with the preserving, so it was back to the orchard site.  I couldn’t wait to tell Lenaire I could go, so at lunchtime, I went to find him.

When I almost got to where he was working, I saw him striding toward me.  Again it struck me; what a handsome specimen he was.  I sometimes could barely believe he was mine.

“I can go!”

“Great! I’ll tell my friend,” he said. “I can’t wait to have you with me all day and night.”

He looked into my eyes, taking my face in his hands.

“God, you’re lovely!  I want you so badly right now.”

We shared breath and I felt my need for him.  I’d become soume already.

I glanced around and taking his hand, led him into a thicket of shrubs and trees.

He leaned me against a tree and kissed me with passion.

“This will have to be quick,” he said.

I nodded.  “Quick can be good.”

“With you, every time is good,” he purred.

He kissed me, his hands on the tree, next to my shoulders.  When he pressed his body to  mine, I could feel the hardness of his ouana-lim against me. We shared breath as he slid his hand down my pants.  His touch sent pangs of aching need through me.

“Lenaire,” I said, “Mmm, you’re so…so…”

I kicked off my pants and laid back in the soft grass. He did the same, positioned himself above me and said,  “I wish we had more time”

“It’s okay, it’s exciting.  Take me.  Just take me.”

He speared into me and we shared breath as he moved inside me.  It was fast, but it felt so achingly good.  His urgent movements, his scent and his images all seemed to swirl around me and I soon felt the bliss of release.  I felt him pulsate within me as he came to his completion as well. Then we lay together in the grass, coming back to ourselves.  When he was able he said, “This is the best lunch I’ve ever had.”

I laughed and answered, “Me, too.”

We lay together as long as we dared, the breeze rustling the tall grass and cooling our heated bodies and then he said, “I guess we’d better get back.”  I nodded and said, “Yeah, I guess we’d better.”

We cleaned up a bit, each pulled on our pants and headed back to work.

“Will I see you tonight?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said.  “I’ll come over when dinner is finished at Seel’s”

We both went off to our respective jobs for the day.  As I walked back, I couldn’t help smiling to myself, savoring in my mind our quick tryst in the grass.

At the end of the workday, I went to Seel’s and helped Flick with dinner.  I was famished and the stew we’d made tasted like the best thing on earth to me.  When we’d cleaned up, I said to Flick, “If it’s okay, I’ll go to Lenaire’s now.”

“Yeah, it’s okay.  Have fun,” he said.

“I’ll see you at the orchard site tomorrow.”

“Okay.  Only a couple more days, and you’ll be on your adventure with Lenaire,”  Flick said, smiling.

I think I blushed a little.  “Yeah,” I said.  “I’m really looking forward to it.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet!”  He winked at me.

I shook my head.  “See ya.”

I started off to Lenaire’s tent, my mind full of anticipation, my heart full of affection for him.

When I got to the entrance, I could tell he was there.  I saw candlelight flickering inside his tent and when I pulled the flap aside, the smell of incense filled the air.  I called his name.

He came to the entrance, dressed in a silky floor-length indigo kimono.  He was stunning.  He smiled at me, taking me into his arms.

“Taj, my love.  Today at lunch was so exciting.  I’ve thought about it all day since.”

“Me, too.  I was really hungry for dinner, though.”

He laughed.  “Well, the only thing I’m hungry for is you,” he said, nipping me on the neck.  So you’ve had dinner, then?”

I nodded.

We shared breath and after, he said, “I’ve got some snacks and some rhysynth.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

We partook of the refreshments and then I couldn’t control myself any longer.  I moved over to him and after kissing him, I murmured,  “Be soume for me.”

God, he was beautiful.  I pressed my lips to his and we shared breath.  I saw vivid colors and white sparkling, snow-covered hills and trees.  I saw a landscape that looked to be made of glass.  After we shared breath, Lenaire stood and, gracing me with a smoldering gaze, let his robe fall to the floor, revealing his magnificent body.  I could only stare as I quickly disrobed.  He pulled me to him and we instinctively moved to his hammock.  He laid back in it and I moved next to him as we kissed and shared breath some more.  I craved his taste, his smell, his essence.  I wanted to be one with him. I slid my fingers to his soume-lam.  He was warm and slippery.  As I pleasured him, he caressed my ouana-lim.  I felt such cascading waves of pleasure as he touched me.  Soon I slid into him, eliciting from him, a soft pleasured cry.

He looked into my eyes.

“Taj…”

“You’re mine…you’re mine…” I murmured.

He closed his eyes.

I moved inside him and soon I felt the tingle preceding the release of my inner tongue, groaning as I felt it lash out of me and touch his core as we climaxed, colors melting and flowing behind my eyes.

Afterwards, when we lay together in his hammock, I felt such utter satisfaction.  I cuddled closer and as I drew invisible circles over his chest and stomach with my fingers, I asked, “Where is this place we’re going?”

He smoothed my hair, and answered, “Roughly northeast of here.  It’s a three-day trip, usually.”

“Seel and Cal said there were – skirmishes?”

“Yes, there have been some run-ins with humans.  More pathetic than dangerous.  Usually they’re just desperate and starving.  If they have guns, of course they’re every bit as deadly as hara.  I don’t think there’s been any trouble for a long time, though. The place we’re going is called Talith-rana.  It means one thousand pavilions in a harish language – I don’t know which one.  It grew into a trading center over the years because of its location and it’s fairly well known for quite a distance around, so I’ve been told.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I’ll tell you that you’ll see hara from a lot of different tribes there.  It’s a truly fascinating place.  We’ll have fun, I promise you.  They have all kinds of places to eat and drink and whatever.”  He laughed and turned my face to his.

“But the best part will be spending time alone with you,” he said, kissing the tip of my nose.

I smiled up at him and asked, “Do you know when we leave?”

“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.  Day after tomorrow.”

“I’ll tell Flick.”

We drank some more rhysynth and laid in Lenaire’s hammock.  The next thing I knew it was morning.  Lenaire and I shared some eggs, mushrooms and cheese for breakfast, and then we left for work.

When I got to the site, Flick was already there.  I felt guilty.  I think he could tell by my face because he said,   “Hi, Taj.  Don’t worry, I got breakfast together fine.”

“I’m sorry, Flick, I – ”

He chuckled. “It’s okay.  Really. No big deal.”

“You’re being awfully nice about this.”

“Aw, come on, Taj.  Don’t get all emotional on me.”

I lowered my gaze, shaking my head.

“Come on,” he said.  “There’s work to do.”  Taking my arm, he led me to the place we were going to work that day.  When the day was done, I walked back to Seel’s with Flick.  He said, “Tomorrow is the big day, huh?”

“Yeah, I’ll be going to Lenaire’s tonight after dinner.”

“Well, I wish you the best.  It’s been nice having you to help me.”

I regarded him.

“You sound like you don’t expect me to come back.”

He laughed.  “It’s not that!  Of course I expect you to come back.  I just think things might be different when you do.”

I looked at him, puzzled.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing, Taj, nothing.  Just enjoy yourself, that’s all.”

I still didn’t know what he was getting at, but I let it drop.

When we cleaned up after dinner, I went to Flick’s and my room to get my few things together.  I didn’t have much – a few pairs of pants and several shirts and a jacket.  When I got them all into a pile, I realized I didn’t have anything to put them in.  I was thinking I could ask Lenaire to put them with his things, when Flick came in.

“Hey.  I’ve got a backpack you can borrow if you need it.”

I smiled widely at him.

“Flick, you always seem to have the right thing at the right time.  Thanks.”

“It’s a gift,” he said, giving me his familiar impish grin.

“Well, I’m ready.  See you in a couple of weeks.”

As we walked through the kitchen, Flick put his arm around my shoulder, giving me a quick hug.

“Have a good time.  And take care of yourself.”

“Thanks Flick.  I will.  See ya.”

I left Seel’s house and headed for Lenaire’s tent.  When I got there, he was outside, sitting, waiting for me.  I walked up to him, all smiles.  He stood up and said, smiling warmly, “Taj, This trip is going to be so great.”

I melted into his arms and murmured, “I know, I know.”

We went into his tent and spent a glorious night together.

The next morning, early, we ate some eggs and bread and headed off to meet the rest of the hara who were going to Talith-rana.

Suddenly, an integral part of this excursion occurred to me.

“How are we doing this?  Will I ride my own horse?”  I was rather apprehensive about that.

Lenaire laughed, softly.

“I volunteered to drive the wagon carrying the goods to trade.  I figured you weren’t ready to ride a horse for three days.  We’ll ride together on the wagon.”

I regarded him, relieved.

When we got to the place where the hara who were going on the excursion gathered, I saw five hara on horses and the wagon loaded with goods that Lenaire would drive.  I noticed that the five hara all had rifles in holders on their horses.  I didn’t know whether to feel secure or apprehensive about that.

I recognized the dark-skinned har, Kemahl.  The others were strangers to me.

“Lenaire!” Kemahl called.  “We’ve been waiting for you.”  He smiled widely.

Lenaire gave him a wave and a smile.  We climbed up onto the seat of the wagon, after putting our bags inside and securing the covering tarp.

“Oh,” Lenaire said.  “Everyone, this is Taj.”  They each either nodded or waved at me. Lenaire continued, pointing in turn.

“And this is Chey, Kala, Tof, Iveth and you’ve met Kemahl.”

“Hi,” I said, nodding to each one.  Lenaire had gone so fast I wasn’t really sure who was who.

We then set off, two hara in front of the wagon, two beside it and one in the rear.

Lenaire gave me a smile and kissed my lips, saying, “We’re off, my love.”

Smiling back, I took a deep breath, and readied myself for an adventure.

As we traveled, I regarded the other hara, wondering about them.  They talked together and seemed to be in good spirits, with the occasional laugh punctuating their banter.

Lenaire must have noticed my curiosity about our traveling companions because he said, jokingly, leaning close to me, “See anything you like?”

I turned to him, shocked.

“No!  No, I was just curious…”

He laughed heartily at me as I felt my face go florid, then I had to laugh, too.

“I’m sorry I had to rush through the introductions this morning.  You’re probably confused.  Well, you know Kemahl.  The blond next to him is Kala.  The one over here with the two black braids is Chey.  The one over there with the short brown hair is Tof.  And spiky ash blonde over there behind us is Iveth.  He’s the other friend of mine whose working on the house with Kemahl, Gerel and I.  Kala and Chey are younger.  The rest of us have been har much longer.  You’ll get to know them.  They’re all good hara.”

We rode until midday, when we stopped for a meal.  Lenaire and Chey rolled back the tarp to reveal our supplies.  I saw we had dried meat, potatoes, onions, rice and beans and some apples, cheese and bread.

Lenaire said, “I’m glad you’re analyzing our food supply.  I told them you could cook – hope you don’t mind.”

“No. I’d like to make myself useful.”  I started planning a dinner in my head.

“We didn’t give you much to work with,” Chey added with a friendly grin.  He had gorgeous copper-toned skin and dark brown eyes.

“It’s okay.  I’ll come up with something.”

We ate the jerky, bread and apples for lunch.  I noticed Chey and Kala sitting close, sharing an apple and giggling.

“I guess they’re together, huh?” I asked Lenaire.

“I don’t know if they’re chesna, but they’re definitely a couple.  Like you and me,” he added, giving me a peck on the cheek.

Soon lunch was over and we resumed our journey.  We traveled over some very rocky, stark terrain, with nothing but scrub brush, the hot sun a relentless overseer.  As the wagon swayed and bumped along, I started to get sleepy and dozed off for a while.  When I awoke, my head was in Lenaire’s lap.  I sat up groggily and a little embarrassed at falling asleep like that.  Lenaire gave me an inviting smile and I leaned on him, my head on his shoulder.  It felt so good just to be close to him and to think about all the days and nights we’d be together.  As the sun finally got lower and things cooled off a bit, we stopped for the night at a sandy spot with some large rocks that would afford us some shelter from the wind, and also provide some shade in the morning.  These hara had made the trip many times, and knew where to stop, get water, and hopefully the places to avoid as well.

As they began to set up camp, I started dinner.  Kemahl came over to me with a sort of grate in his hands.

“Here.  This should make cooking easier.  The pots are in the wagon.”

They really had this down to a science!

I made a circle of rocks, filled it with some wood and got the fire started, then set the grate over the burning wood.  I decided to make a stew by rehydrating the dried meat for broth, adding potatoes, beans and onions.  I served it with bread and coffee.  We all used tin plates and cups and when dinner was over, Tof filled one bowl with soapy water and one with clear and each har washed his own dishes.  Quite different from our trek to find Saltrock.  These hara knew what they were doing.

When it got dark, we all sat around the fire, sharing bottles of wine, just shooting the breeze.  I noticed how different Chey and Kala were.  Kala was as light as Chey was dark.  His pale hair and skin almost blended together in the reflected firelight.  Lenaire noticed me staring.

“They say opposites attract,” he said into my ear.

“They look quite striking together, don’t they?”

Lenaire nodded.  “Chey is of Native American and Hispanic descent.  I don’t know about Kala’s heritage, but they are like day and night.”

“Are any of the others together?”

“Not officially, but they’ll pair up when they get roony enough.”

Lenaire and I started laughing.

“Hey!  What’s so funny over there?”  Kemahl called.

Lenaire shook his head.

“Nothing, nothing – private joke.”

I stifled some more chuckling.

After a while everyone appeared pleasantly drunk and relaxed – everyone but Iveth.  He’d been drinking coffee.  I wondered why he wasn’t joining the party.

“How come Iveth isn’t drinking?” I asked.  “He looks like he’s not having a very good time.”

“He’s got the first watch tonight.”

“You mean like guard duty?”

Lenaire laughed.  “Well something like that.  We just never take any chances.  In the past, humans have tried to steal things, mostly food.  Like I said – pathetic.  Sometimes I’ve felt sorry for them.  When we’re sleeping, Iveth will position himself on top of that rock.”  He pointed.  “He can see for miles in all directions from there.  If he gets tired, he’ll wake up either Kemahl or Tof who’ll take over.  Iveth usually just stays up all night when he’s watching.  It doesn’t seem to bother him.”  Lenaire leaned in, kissed my neck and said softly, “I’ve been relieved from watching duty because you’re here.  That was either very thoughtful or maybe they figured I couldn’t concentrate, knowing you were in my tent, waiting for me.”

I giggled; his breath on my neck tickled.  I turned and kissed him, then we shared breath.  When we parted Lenaire said, “Let’s go to bed, my lovely one.”

We went over to our tent.  It was very small, just room to sleep two.

Lenaire took me in his arms, nuzzling my neck and murmured,  “I know this tent is nothing fancy, but soon it will be the sweetest place on earth.”

I hugged him close and slid my hands under his shirt, caressing his warm skin.  I was completely enamored of him and wanted him so much.

We crawled into the tent and sat across from each other.  I reached over and began to unbutton his shirt.  He wriggled out of it and pulled mine over my head.  I lay down on my back and reached for him.  He lay on his side and looked me over while he smoothed his hands over me.

“Taj, God you’re so beautiful, so beautiful…”

He kissed me.

I whispered, “I’m soume.”

He undid my pants and slid his fingers to my soume-lam.  I was wet with desire for him.  As he lay closer to me, I felt the hardness of his ouana-lim on my thigh.  I undid his pants and caressed him as we shared breath.  He parted our lips, breathing hard and knelt beside me.  He slid my pants off and took off his own.  As he knelt again I positioned myself in front of him and took his ouana-lim into my mouth.  As he moaned above me, I savored his warm, tart essence.  When I stopped, I moved up and took him into a passionate embrace, nipping him on the neck.  He grabbed my buttocks and pulled our bodies together, hip to hip.  We rubbed together as I luxuriated in the pleasurable sensations pulsing through me.  He laid me down gently, my soume-lam throbbing and aching for him.  He straddled me and as he pierced me I writhed beneath him, groaning in ecstasy.  He thrust deeply and slowly, his pleasured noises combining with my own.  The deepest part of me cried out for completion and when finally his inner tongue struck  I saw stars bursting as we both climaxed so strongly I could hardly stand it.  After, we both lay in a sweat, completely still and totally spent.

When he could move, Lenaire gently pulled out of me and laid his head on my chest as I leafed my fingers through his damp hair.

“My God, Taj,” he said, kissing my chest.  “It’s never been like this for me with anyhar.”

“It’s the same for me.”  I felt a bit guilty because it had really been intense with Nyala, but it wasn’t a lie.  It was different being with Lenaire.  That difference, I concluded, was because I was falling in love with him.

I felt Lenaire’s slow even breathing and I fell asleep soon after.

I was awakened in the morning by the sound of a horse whinnying.  Lenaire was still sleeping, his head on my chest.  I lay there remembering our passionate coupling the night before, enjoying the feel and scent of him.  I pondered about my feelings for him and the feelings I believed he had for me.  Could we really have what Cal and Pellaz have?  I sighed.  Lenaire stirred and rolled over onto his back.   He then turned onto his side and propped his head on his hand, regarding me.  He ran his hand over my middle and leaned over, kissing my shoulder.

“I think you become more beautiful with each sunrise.”

I felt myself blush, as Lenaire caressed my face.

“We’d better get up or I won’t leave this tent today,” he said.

“I wish we didn’t have to.”

We kissed and then got up to dress.

We went out to where the fire was and saw that Tof and Iveth were the only ones up.  One of them had started coffee.  It smelled wonderful, as I suddenly realized I was famished.  I went to the wagon to retrieve the rest of the stew.  If we ate it for breakfast, I wouldn’t have to throw it out.  I reheated it on the grate next to the coffee, stirring it.

Before long, the rest of the hara showed up and we had breakfast.  After cleaning up, we took our positions and set off for the day.  It was pretty much a repeat of the day before.  I did enjoy being with Lenaire all day, though.  We had a lot of time to talk.

He asked me, “Were you incepted into a tribe?”

“No.  My friends and I were incepted in a city.  We’re unthrist. What about you?”

He was quiet for a few moments.  A distant look came into his eyes as he answered, “I was incepted into a tribe, but I’m not part of them.”

He looked so troubled and serious that I was loath to inquire further.  But I had to.

“What tribe?  Can you tell me?”

He took a deep breath.  “Not now.  This isn’t the time…”

I lowered my head, ashamed that I’d forced the issue.

“Taj,” he said gently.  “I don’t want to have any secrets from you, but please be patient.  It’s a long story.  I’ll tell you everything in time.”

I nodded, clinging to him, my arms around him, and my head on his shoulder.  He sighed.

We rode along, stopped for a midday meal and rode some more until almost dark.

When we stopped, I made a meal out of dried meat, beans and rice, with bread.  We also had coffee.  Afterwards, we sat around the fire as before, drinking wine and liquor.  Everyone seemed drunk and happy.  Tof was on duty, so he drank the least.  We’d stopped overnight at a grassy place at the side of a creek.  There was a steep bank on one side that leveled off a good distance to the creek.  We set up our tents on the level ground. Tof would spend the night on the high part, looking around.

Lenaire grabbed me into an embrace asking,” Would you like a swim?”

“How cold is it?” I asked.

“Warmer than the pool at Lariel’s Tears.”

I smiled.  “Okay then.”

We disrobed and went in at a place where the water had pooled.  Kala and Chey went in, too.  I heard them giggling and splashing around.  Lenaire and I swam and embraced in the tepid water.

“Why is it so warm?”  I asked.

“It’s fed by an underground source, probably akin to a geyser.”

“It’s not going to blow up is it!?”

He laughed.  “I’ve been here several times, and nothing’s happened so far.”

I laughed and clung to him.  We kissed and swam and huddled together in the water.  It was wonderful.

Soon we saw Chey and Kala sharing breath.  I looked into Lenaire’s eyes.

“They seem to have the right idea,” I said, wrapping my legs around him and pressing my lips to his.  I thought of Twin Forks and wanted to try it in the water with Lenaire.

“Mmmm, Taj, you’re just – ”

“Take me,” I said. “Right here in the water.”  I fondly remembered how much fun it had been with Cim in the tub.

As we kissed and shared breath, I touched his ouana-lim, which was soon stiff and ready.  I pushed him into me and gripped him tightly with my soume-lam as we moved.  He grabbed my bottom, supporting me, countering my moves and moaning breathily.  I was lost in the sensations; him inside me, the warm water surrounding us and cushioning our movements, the fresh green scents.  We moved only a few moments and found our release together.  Lenaire kissed me passionately as I stroked his hair.  We parted our bodies and he looked into my eyes.

“Taj, you’re so full of surprises.  You keep me guessing.”

“Good!” I said, swimming away.  He swam after me.  We kissed and caressed at the water’s edge.  I glanced over to see Chey and Kala doing the same thing we’d done.  I heard their noises of pleasure.  Lenaire regarded them as well.

“Maybe we’d better leave them alone,” he said, grinning.

“Yeah, let’s get out.”

We dried off, dressed and then went to our tent.  We crawled in and lay down, after undressing.  The night was chilly, so we got under some blankets, snuggling together.

“Taj, I’ve never felt for a har like I feel for you.  I think you already know how crazy I am about you.  Hara have a word for it: kelos.”

“Well, whatever you call it, I feel it for you, too.”

He drew me close and kissed me.

“It was so quick in the water,” he said.

“Then let’s do it again and take our time,” I murmured into his ear.

****************************************

The next morning we resumed our journey.  We were supposed to get to Talith-rana  by sundown.  I was full of anticipation about what it would be like.  I knew it was a place         especially for hara to have successful trading and a good time.  I pictured it something like Twin Forks.  Perhaps our tryst in the water the night before had refreshed my memory of Twin Forks, coloring my opinion a bit.  Anyway, I decided to ask Lenaire.

“What is Talith-rana really like?”

“I want you to be surprised, but I’ll tell you it’s a place I’m sure you’ll like.”

“Is it big?”

“Big enough.”

“Is it fancy?”

“Why don’t you just wait and see?”

I heaved an impatient sigh.  “Oh, alright.  I give up.”

When we got to a narrow pass, I saw concern on most of the hara’s faces for the first time.  They drew their weapons and we proceeded cautiously.

“What’s going on?  What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Lenaire answered.  “This is really the only place where we’re completely vulnerable.  They’re just being careful.”

It seemed to take us a long time, but when we got to the end of the pass, I saw everyone relax a little, and it wasn’t long before they put their rifles away again.

We stopped at a relatively shady spot for lunch, and then commenced our journey for the afternoon.

As we sat on the wagon seat, I turned to Lenaire.

“How much farther?”

“I don’t think we’ll make it by dinner, but probably by dark, if memory serves me.”

“What will we do first?”

“I guess we’ll find a place to stay.  It’s a city of tents.  Really nice tents, though.  Bigger than the one I’m living in.  I don’t remember where we stayed, but it was very comfortable.  They didn’t have running water everywhere, but there is one place – ”  he hesitated.  “No, I’m not going to tell you anymore.”  He smiled teasingly.

He was really piquing my curiosity.

We finally stopped for our evening meal.  I made rice and beans with onions to go with the dried meat, and made “baked” apples in a pot.

Iveth, Kemahl and Lenaire joked and laughed about some of the wild times they’d had in Talith-rana.  And I found myself wondering what kind of relationship they’d had before.  I guessed they were probably friends that took aruna sometimes.  That seemed to be a pretty common way for hara who were friends to relate.  I wondered if he’d been particularly close to any of them.  Then I wondered if he still was.  If he did take aruna with any of them, would I be jealous?  I shook the thoughts away.

Lenaire put his arm around me and drew me close.

“Are we boring you, love, with all our talk of past days’ debauchery?”

I laughed, self consciously, answering, “No, not really.  Of course not.”

Grinning broadly, Iveth said, “Let’s stop talking about it and get there!”

We cleaned everything up and set off.  I was really getting excited about this mysterious place.

It was almost dusk when suddenly Lenaire stopped the horses.  There was a ridge on our right, to which he pointed.

“Let’s go up there.  I want to show you something.”

We climbed up and when we got to the top Lenaire said,  “I want you to get the full effect.”

He went to the edge of a cliff and waved me over.

I looked down into a valley and gasped with surprise.

Lenaire held up his arm and said, “Behold Talith-rana!”

It was truly a breathtaking sight.  The valley was full of what looked like multicolored tents, all glowing from the inside from whatever forms of illumination they used.  There were flickering lights everywhere.  It looked unreal, like something out of Arabian Nights.  The tent city seemed to sprawl in all directions, filling the small valley.

“It’s beautiful!” I blurted in hushed tones.

“We got here at just the right moment, when it’s at it’s most impressive. Come on, let’s get down there!”

I followed him back to the wagon.

The road down was fairly steep and winding, but soon we were close enough to hear voices and music in the air.  There appeared to be a main road through and as we slowly rode on, I saw crowds of hara.  Some were obviously bargaining, some sitting at tables eating and drinking.  It was a loud, busy place, with all kinds of hara.  Some were dressed in colorful robes with lots of jewelry.  Some had their faces painted, some had piercings in their faces.  Others were dressed elegantly with kohl lining their eyes and their lips reddened or glossed.  I was also bombarded with all kinds of scents; everything from cooking meats to incense and perfumes, one fading and blending into the other as we passed through.  I was awestruck, barely able to take it all in.

When we’d traveled all the way to the other end of the main road, Lenaire said, “Ah, I know where Iveth is leading us.  It’s much quieter out here, a bit less crowded.”

We stopped in front of a large tent.  Every har dismounted and Lenaire and I jumped down from the wagon.  Hara came out immediately to take charge of the horses and the wagon.  A dark skinned har, dressed in white with very long dark hair came out of the tent.  He embraced Iveth, grinning broadly.  I got the feeling they were friends and we and our goods would be well cared for.  Iveth led the har over to our little entourage.

“This is Sahan.  I think the only har you’ve not met is this one.”  He pointed to me.  “This is Taj.”

Sahan came over to me and took both my hands in his.

“Nice to meet you, Taj.  Welcome!”

I inclined my head and said, “Thank you.  It’s a pleasure to meet you, too.”

Lenaire beamed at me with approval, so I surmised that I’d said the right thing.

Sahan said, “Please, come in, come in.”

We entered the large tent.  There was what I would call a reception “room” with a counter.  They were certainly friendly and welcoming here.  But I supposed they were always glad to see hara with goods to trade.

Sahan led us further into the tent to a room with pillows around a large low table.  He beckoned for us to sit.  He next asked us if we preferred coffee or liquor.  The unanimous consensus seemed to be liquor and Sahan clapped his hands.  Soon two hara appeared.  He asked them to bring some liquors I’d never heard of and they quickly disappeared.  They soon returned with several bottles and enough glasses for us all.

I whispered to Lenaire, “What should I try?”

“Whatever you want, my sweet.  But be careful.  They’re very potent.”

“I’ll just have whatever you have, okay?”

He nodded.

Lenaire chose one that was gold in color with some flecks in it.  I indicated that I would take the same.

The serving har filled our glasses.  I asked Lenaire what we were drinking.

“It’s called auric.  Don’t drink it too fast.”

I sipped it.  I really didn’t like it.  It tasted bitter.

“Do you really like this?”  I asked him.

“It’s an acquired taste.”  He smiled.  “But its effects are strong and quick.  Maybe you shouldn’t – ”

I downed some more, making what I’m sure was a very sour face.

Lenaire laughed.

He was right.  Soon I felt my head swim and I decided to take it easy with the rest of my glass.

A short time later, I heard a commotion as several hara followed Iveth into the tent. I hadn’t noticed his leaving.  They had five or six bundles with them, which they placed at Sahan’s feet.  He inclined his head to Iveth, then looked to all of us and said, “Thank you tiaharra.  I hope your stay in Talith-rana will be a pleasant one.”

Everyone resumed drinking and talking and I asked Lenaire what happened.

“Iveth just gave Sahan our payment for staying here at his establishment.”

“Will we stay in this big tent?”  I asked a bit drunkenly.

“No, my lovely one.  There are many smaller tents here.  We’ll stay in as many as we need.  Iveth gave him gifts to cover all of us staying here.”

I leaned over, feeling very dizzy and asked him, “Will we have our own tent?”

“Yes, love.”

“Good.  I want to be alone with you.”  I laid my head on his shoulder, very pleasantly drunk.

He laughed softly.  “I think you’ve had enough auric.  I don’t want you passing out.”

I remember gazing into his eyes and shaking my head.

The next thing I knew Lenaire and I were in a different tent.  It was smaller than the one we’d just been in but much larger than the one he had at Saltrock.  It was equipped with a low ample-sized bed, some candles and lamps, rugs and a place to hang clothes.  It also had a sitting area, with a low black table with pillows around it and in a corner was a stand with a bowl and pitcher for washing up.  It looked very comfortable.  I wasn’t anywhere near sober, but I could tell it had a lovely ambiance.

Lenaire came over and lay on the bed beside me.

“Are you feeling alright?”

I nodded.  “Is this our tent?”  I asked, completely plastered.

He snickered.  “Yes.”

“Well, why don’t we ‘christen’ it, then?”

“I don’t want to take advantage of a lovely young drunken har.”

“Please, please, do,”  I said, putting my arms around him and throwing my leg over him.

We kissed and shared breath, then I looked into his eyes and said, “I’m okay, really.  I’m drunk for sure, but I want you to roon me.”

He smoothed my hair and pressed his lips to mine.

“Lenaire,” I whispered.  “I’m soume.  I want you to take me.”

I remember lovely waves of pleasant sensation, his scent, his touch and calling his name at the moment of completion.  I’m sure I got more out of it than that at the time, but that’s all I remember.  I decided I should probably avoid auric in the future.

In the early hours, I awoke, needing desperately to go to the bathroom.  I didn’t know where to go, so I just went outside and found a place where no one would see me.  I fumbled my way back to our tent and went back to sleep.  My head ached a bit.  I’d never before felt the negative effects of alcohol since I’d become har.  That auric must have been excessively strong.

Later that morning, however, when I woke up, I felt no ill effects.  I looked over to see Lenaire still sleeping.  I hoped he wasn’t disappointed that I’d been so drunk the night before.  I spooned behind him, relishing his warmth and scent, and promptly fell asleep.  At some point later, Lenaire’s movements caused me to wake up again.  He turned to face me and I looked sheepishly into his eyes.

“I hope you’re not upset with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was so drunk last night.”

He laughed, taking me into his arms.”  Of course not, sweet love.  I would never be upset with you over something like that.  Besides, I don‘t think there‘s one of us who didn’t get very drunk on his first night here.”

I relaxed into his embrace, relieved.

“I don’t think I’ll be drinking any more auric, though.”

Lenaire chuckled.  “Well, that’s up to you, love.”  He drew me closer.

After enjoying snuggling with him for a while, I asked. “What will we do today?”

“Well, first we’ll eat breakfast, then we’ll look around for the items we need and begin bargaining.  We have a list of the things most needed, so if we find them, we’ll try to trade what we have for them.”

“What are we looking for?”

“We need canned goods, furniture, which will be hard to find, food items that will keep, like dried beans and rice, wood to burn, fabrics.  I forget the rest, but I have it written down.”

“That’s a lot of stuff.”

“Yes, but this is the best place to find it.”

“I remember a lot of strange hara I saw last night.”

“Yes, there are all kinds from different tribes who come here.  That’s what makes it so interesting.  You’ll see more today.”

I smiled at him in anticipation.

“But there’s no hurry,” he said.  “This place is open for business twenty four – seven.”

Since there was no reason to rush, we relaxed and dozed some more.

Finally we got dressed and headed to the main tent we’d been in the night before.  When we entered, Sahan was there.

“Good morning,” he said, grinning broadly.  “I hope you both slept well.”

“Yes, very well, thank you,” Lenaire replied.  “Are any of the others in our party around?”

Sahan nodded, then extending his arm to the right said, “Several of them are having a light breakfast I’ve provided.  Won’t you join them?”

“Yes, we will.  Thank you.”

We followed Sahan into the area where we’d been drinking the night before.  There Iveth, Kemahl and Tof sat, eating breakfast and drinking some very strong-smelling coffee.  We joined them and a serving har promptly set two steaming cups in front of us.

“Will you have some biscuits with syrup and some eggs, tiahaara?”

“Yes, please!”  I said.

Lenaire nodded.

The serving har disappeared quickly and soon returned with our plates.

Lenaire said to the others, “I guess we’d better divide up the list and get started after breakfast.”

The others nodded and Tof asked, “What about Chey and Kala?”

“Have you seen them this morning?” Lenaire inquired.

The three of them exchanged looks and shook their heads.

Iveth chuckled and said, “Young love.”

The rest of them snickered.  Lenaire said, “Well, we’ll divide up the list and leave theirs with Sahan.”

The rest agreed and the four of them split up the list to every har’s satisfaction.

“We’ll meet up this evening here and share our results from the day, okay?” Lenaire asked.

Everyone agreed and the rest of the breakfast was spent in eating and pleasant conversation.  When we were finished, we went our separate ways.

“What are you supposed to find?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see.”  Lenaire reviewed his list.  “Fabrics, furniture, wood.  Fabrics and wood won’t be so bad, but furniture – that’s on every har’s list because it will be so hard to find.  I guess we’d better get started.”

We wove our way through the throngs of hara going about their business and got to a place that had a lot of different items.  As we walked through the market area, I noticed so many different hara.  The weirdest group I saw had their faces tattooed with blue markings and their eyebrows shaved.  Their hair was corn rowed in weird patterns.  They looked seriously strange to me, but I couldn’t help but be fascinated.  I then turned my attention back to the job at hand.

“How do you know where to find what you’re looking for?” I asked.

“Most of the hara have all kinds of items.  Specialization is a rare luxury.  We just have to look around at several tents to find what we want.  However, in a more exclusive part of Talith-rana there are tents that are able to specialize.  They offer clothing, jewelry, fine fabrics and a few other specialties.  We’ll start here, though.”

We entered a tent that showcased many varied objects out front on tables.  I smelled an intense mingling of aromas. The heady mixture of foods, incense, wood and perfumes of varying kinds was even more potent than when we were on the wagon.  Now we were right in the middle of it all. I thought to myself, if I’d still been human, I’d have been overwhelmed, and perhaps even sick to my stomach!

As we perused the tables inside, the attending har addressed us.

“Good morning, tiahaara.  How can I help you?”

Lenaire replied, “We’re in the market for fabrics, wood or furniture.”

The har, who sported gauzy robes and many piercings, rubbed his chin as he said, “I don’t have any furniture or wood, but I can show you a few pieces of material I’ve acquired.”

Lenaire nodded and the har showed us a few pieces of colorful material.  Lenaire assessed them and then answered, “These are a little too delicate for us, but thank you.”

The har bowed respectfully and said, “There’s a place at the east end of town where you might be able to get the wood you need.  Ask around for Tallow.  He might have what you’re looking for.”

“Thank you!” Lenaire said enthusiastically.

We left the tent and headed in the direction the har had indicated.  As we walked through Talith-rana I found all my senses being assailed.  Not only with spicy scents but also with strange languages and dialects and many colorful objects and exotic looking hara.  When we got to the east end, again there were many tents with many sundry items.  Lenaire and I went into one and looked around.  There was a vast assortment of wares.  Some tables had glass and ceramic articles, there were also tables full of books, paper, and clothing.  Not finding what he was after, Lenaire asked the har if he knew of Tallow.  He directed us to a tent not far off, so we went toward it.  Entering it, we didn’t see any evidence of wood, but the har attending came over to us.

“May I help you?” he asked.

“I’m looking for Tallow,” Lenaire said.

The har bowed and replied, “You’ve found him.”

Lenaire smiled and extended his hand.

“I’m Lenaire and this is Taj, We were told you might have some wood you’d be willing to part with.”

“Yes, yes, it’s in the back in a pile.  Would you like to look at it?”

“Yes, thank you.”

As we walked out to the back of the tent, I noticed the har looking me up and down in a way that made me uncomfortable.  As I felt my face burn, I decided to just tolerate it until the deal was made.

Lenaire looked at the piles of wood and smiled.

“This is just what we need,” he said to me.

He then turned his attention to the har, handing him a list as we walked back into the tent.

“These are the things we have to trade for the wood.  If anything on the list is of interest to you, I’ll take you to see it for yourself and then perhaps we can make a deal.”

The har looked over the list, then hesitantly returned his gaze to Lenaire.

“Well, I can always use some fresh produce, but that’s not quite enough.”

“What else do you require, tiahaar?”  Lenaire asked politely.

The har paused, shifting his eyes to me momentarily, and then back to Lenaire.

“Well -”  He cleared his throat.  “How about the young one?”

Lenaire stared at him, blinking.

“What – ?”

“The young one;  this dark-haired beauty.  I’ll take him for the night and a small amount of produce and all the wood you care for is yours.”

Lenaire’s face turned red, his nostrils flared and he grabbed the har by the throat.

“You fucking piece of shit!  I should strangle you right here!  He’s not for sale you – you fuck, you complete fuck!”

“”Lenaire!!” I shouted.

He looked over at me and released his hold on Tallow’s neck, causing him to cough and stagger backwards.

He whimpered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry tiahaar, I misunderstood!  Please, please! I didn’t know he was yours.  Take all the wood you want.  Take it!”

“I don’t want anything from you.  Come on, Taj.”

He grabbed my arm and hustled me out of the tent.

We walked quite a way, Lenaire still fuming.   Eventually we stopped and he sat on the ground, his head in his hands.  I sat beside him and put my arm around him.

“I’m sorry.  I ruined the deal.  I didn’t mean to.”

He looked up.

“What?!!  You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.  That har’s a sleazy fuck!  For God’s sake, Taj.  Fuck!”  He put his face back in his hands.

I didn’t know what to say.  I’d never seen him so upset before.  It scared me a little.

He took deep breaths and finally looked at me.

“Taj, I’m really sorry.  I would never have exposed you to such a low-life if I’d known.  I’m sorry.”

“How could you have known?  I’m just sorry we can’t get the wood we need.”

“He’s not the only har in Talith-rana with available wood.  We’ll get it.”

He stood up and took my hand, pulling me up.

“Come on.  There’s a lot more places we can look.”

He led me back to the main trading area, and began to look for fabrics.

One of the tents had a lot of materials to offer, so we went inside.  As Lenaire looked around, he said, “This is more like it.  Leathers, fairly heavy fabrics – things we can use.”  He looked around. “I wonder where the har who owns this tent is?”

I looked around, too. Nohar seemed to be around.  Soon, however, a light-skinned har with white hair came out of the back of the tent.

“May I help you find anything, tiahaara?” he asked.

“We’re interested in some fabrics.”

“Ah, well everything I have is here on the tables.”

Lenaire chose quite a few bundles of material, and then said, “These are what I’m looking for.  I have a list of things to trade for it.”

He handed the list to the har.

The har nodded, smiling.  “Yes,” he said.  “I think we can make a deal.”

They discussed it and Lenaire offered to take the har to see what we would trade for his goods.  He chose what he wanted from the wagon and the deal was made.  Lenaire put the fabrics in the wagon and sighed with satisfaction.

“Well, we got one thing on our list.  We made a good deal.”

No thanks to me, I thought.  I know it wasn’t my fault about losing the other deal, but I still felt bad and embarrassed.

Lenaire turned my face to his.

“Taj?  Don’t even think about that other deal.  I’d go back empty handed rather than deal with a har like that.”

He smiled warmly and said, “I think it’s time we stopped for lunch.  I know just the place.”

Lenaire walked the short distance to the wagon and took out a small box.

“These are some dried herbs,” he explained.  “Everything here is done by trade.  We should be able to get a couple of nice meals for these.”

We walked to the quieter section of the ongoing bazaar and went into a red tent.  It was a pleasant place where hara could eat at tables either inside or outside.  The fact that the tent was red gave the inside a warm, intimate atmosphere.  We chose to eat inside and sat at a table.  A serving har came over and Lenaire gave him the box of herbs.  Soon a slender ebony-haired har dressed in red silk and grinning from ear to ear, came over to us.  He took Lenaire’s hand in both of his.

“I’m Ziera, the proprietor.  I’m thrilled to get the herbs.  They’re of highest quality and are much needed and appreciated.  Thank you.  Here are your tokens.  Please enjoy yourselves.”  With a polite bow, he left.

Lenaire laid several coin-like metal tokens on the table.

“What are those for?”  I asked, very curious.

“We give these to the serving har before we eat to show we’ve made payment for our meal.”

Lenaire spread out the tokens.

“Wow!  He gave us three each!

The serving har came back to the table and Lenaire tried to hand him two tokens.  The har shook his head.

“No, tiahaar.  Ziera says this meal is already taken care of.”

Lenaire smiled and answered, “Please tell him we’re very grateful.”

The har nodded and proceeded to tell us what our choices of food were for the day.  We chose lentil soup, sourdough bread with butter, and ale.

After finishing our very hearty lunch, we resumed our search.  As we looked over many items in many tents, I found my attention turning as much to the exotic and varied hara we encountered as to what we were looking for. There was just so much to see.  When I saw hara that particularly piqued my curiosity, I’d ask Lenaire what tribe they were from.  Sometimes he knew, sometimes he guessed and sometimes he admitted even he’d never seen the like of some of them.  I was utterly fascinated.

We did manage to acquire some cords of wood, so I felt that even after our run-in with Tallow, we were ultimately successful.  It was getting on to dinnertime, so we headed back to Sahan’s tent.  When we got there,  Kemahl and Iveth were standing out in front.

“So, how’d you do?”  Kemahl asked, giving us a smile that said he’d been successful.

“Good,” Lenaire answered.  “We got some wood and some fabrics.”

Kemahl continued, beaming. “We got a table and some chairs.  I had to bargain with the har for over an hour, but we got them!  They’re just right for the kitchen in the house.”

I looked at Lenaire and asked, “You mean you get to keep them?”

“Because we take the risk and do the work of coming here, we’re allowed to get some things for ourselves.  As long as we don’t get greedy.”

Soon Chey and Kala came around the side of the tent with some hara carrying bundles.  They shook hands and said goodbye, so I assumed they’d just finished a deal in the back at the wagon. They joined us in front of the tent.

“We were able to get some canned goods and some glass jars today,” Kala said, looking pleased.

“And we didn’t have to give much for them,” Chey added.

Everyone seemed to have had a fruitful day.  Only one har was missing.  As soon as I had that thought, Tof appeared, his arms loaded with goods.  He came up to us.

“Hey,” he said.  “I was able to get a huge bag of rice, one of beans and some lentils.”  He was all smiles as he said, “And I got us all invited to a party.  It’s fancy dress, tomorrow night.  I’ll show you where.  There’s going to be a lot of food, drink and music.  We’ll have a blast!”

All the hara seemed excited and pleased.  I was, too, until I realized I didn’t have anything fancy to dress in.  For a moment, I thought maybe I could borrow something from Lenaire.  But since I’m three or four inches shorter and a bit slighter, I thought that wouldn’t really work.  All I had were jeans and t-shirts leftover from when I was human.  I tried not to look disturbed.  I must have failed at that because Lenaire said, “Don’t worry.  We’ll get you something to wear tomorrow.”

After we all had reported our acquisitions, we headed off for dinner.  Lenaire and I, of course, went to the red tent.  We still had three meals each coming to us.  We entered and a serving har came to us immediately.  Lenaire ordered us some wine and when the har returned with it, he told us what was available for dinner.   We chose baked chicken, rice and lima beans.

After we’d drunk a bit of wine, I said, “What do you think the party will be like tomorrow?”

Smiling, Lenaire replied, “I think it will be an experience for you and a lot of fun.”

“I don’t know how to act at a fancy party.”

He leaned over and kissed the tip of my nose.

“Just be yourself.  It won’t be all that fancy, I‘m sure.”

I nodded, but I wasn‘t convinced I’d feel comfortable there.

Just then the serving har brought us our dinner.  We had a very leisurely and enjoyable dinner together.  When we were ready to leave, the serving har brought us a bottle of sheh and said, “Ziera wanted me to give this to you.”

“Thank you.  And thank him for us, please.” Lenaire said.  The har bowed and nodded politely.

“Let’s take this to our tent,” Lenaire said.  He leaned in and kissed me.

“Let’s hurry,” I added.

When we got there, Lenaire closed the front flaps and lit a lamp.  He turned to me, giving me an amorous look.

“Taj, you are completely irresistible.  Come here.”

I walked over to him and he took me in his arms.  We shared breath and I guided his hand to my ouana-lim as I murmured, “Be soume for me.”

After we’d removed our clothes, we lay on the bed.  Lenaire smoothed my hair back from my face and pressed his lips to mine, sending shivers up my spine and all through me.  I opened my eyes to gaze into his.  He was so strong and beautiful and all I wanted in the world.  I was trembling with desire as I slid my fingers into the warm, swollen folds of his soume-lam.  He moaned and breathed into my ear.  He planted passionate kisses on my throat as he caressed my ouana-lim.  He soon positioned himself on top of me.  At first I thought he’d done so too soon, but when he sank down onto me I flowered inside him, shuddering in ecstasy.  I was awash in delicious sensation.  He closed his eyes as we began to move together.  I felt my own eyes flutter closed as I relished the feel of his kisses on my neck.  It was so easy and pleasurable to lose myself in him.  All to soon I felt the tingle signaling my imminent release.  When it happened, my back arched and my breath heaved with every pulse of pleasure.  I felt Lenaire reach his release as well as he groaned and then went limp on top of me.  I smoothed his hair and kissed his face.  In that moment he seemed so perfect for me.

In a while, he eased off me and lay next to me taking me into his arms.  I felt I couldn’t get close enough to him.  He pulled the covers up over us and whispered, nuzzling me, “Taj, my Taj.”  Soon I was asleep.

When I awoke in the morning, Lenaire was nowhere to be seen.  I lay back and looked up at the high ceiling of our tent watching it billow slightly with the breeze.  Soon Lenaire came in, dressed in a robe.  He came over and leaned down to kiss me.

“Mmmm, I’d like to have you for breakfast.”

He nibbled at my stomach, tickling me and making me laugh.

“Here, put this on,” he said dropping a purple robe on the bed.

I regarded him, puzzled.

“I borrowed it from Kala.  You two are about the same size.”

“Why do I need a robe?”

“Because I’m taking you somewhere special.”

“Somewhere I need to wear a robe?”  I couldn’t imagine what he was up to.

“Just put it on and come with me.”

I complied and Lenaire regarded me with approval.

“You’re gorgeous in purple,” he said taking me in his arms.  “But then you’re gorgeous in anything.  Or nothing,” he added playfully.

It was my first blush of the day, but with Lenaire’s compliments, it probably wouldn’t be my last.

He grabbed some towels off the table in our sitting area and said, “Let’s go.”

As we walked out into a clear, sunny morning, I guessed we were going to go for a swim in a creek or river or something.  I was very surprised when we approached the back of an extremely large blue tent.

“Well, we’re here,” Lenaire said.

“Where?”

“You’ll see when we get around to the front of this tent.”

I was dying of curiosity.

When I got to the front of the tent and looked inside, I could hardly believe my eyes.  Inside there were many sparkling pools with waterfalls and fountains.  The center of the roof was open, letting in shafts of sunlight that seemed to dance on the water.  There were small ornate lamps hanging all around and I could only imagine what it would look like at night.  I turned to Lenaire, almost speechless.

“How…how did they do this.  It’s amazing!”

“There’s a natural spring here.  The rest is harish ingenuity. Come on.  Let’s take a bath.”

He led me down one of many paved pathways that meandered around all the different pools.  The pathways were painted with colorful stylized fish and sea creatures.

“We’ll get in here.  The warmer pools are in this area.”

There were several racks, so we hung our robes and towels on them and got into the warm water.   There were steps down into it and there was actually steam coming off the water.  It was pleasantly hot.

“Mmmm,” I said, relaxing into the water.

“So we finally found water that’s warm enough for you!”

I nodded.  “I could stay here all day.”

We swam and luxuriated in the pool for quite a while.  I loved every moment of it.  As I looked around, I saw many hara walking, swimming, getting in and out of the many pools, in various stages of dress and undress.  It made me think of how uninhibited we all are, for the most part.  Humans would have called it immodesty; at least the humans of the generation I’d been part of.

“This reminds me of an ancient Roman bath,” I remarked.

“I’ll bet it had a lot to do with their inspiration.”

“How does the water stay clean?”

“I’m not sure, exactly.  It’s circulated somehow, I guess.”

“We need one of these in Saltrock.”

“You be sure to suggest that to Seel when we get back,” Lenaire said, laughing.

I splashed him and he came over and grabbed me.  We embraced in the warm water.

After a while Lenaire said, “We’d better get out.  The warm water and your lovely body are making me feel roony and  we’ve still got a lot to do today.”

I reluctantly agreed, but added, “Can we come back here one night?”

He looked hungrily into my eyes and said, “Oh, yes.  I would definitely love that.”

We got out and dried off, then donned our robes and went back to our tent.  When we got there, we both dressed and Lenaire said, “Let’s go eat breakfast at the red tent.”  I nodded and we set off.

We decided to sit outside this time.  We ordered an omelet with mushrooms and cheese and coffee.  Lenaire gave the serving har two tokens.  When we’d finished our breakfast, Lenaire said,” We need to get you some clothes for the party.  Let’s go to the more exclusive part of the city.”

“Won’t that be too expensive?  I don’t want to be greedy.”

Lenaire laughed.  “Getting you an outfit for a party won’t be a big deal.  Don’t worry.”

We went to a part of the tent city that I’d not seen yet.  We went by many tents offering a lot of what looked to me like fancy and exotic things.  There were tents that had nothing but jewelry, one selling cosmetics and hair ornaments and even a place where hara could have their hair braided, cut or decorated.   Finally Lenaire said, “Hey, this one looks promising.”

I wasn’t completely convinced, but we went inside.  The attending har gave us a rather cold smile and a stiff nod.  I felt intimidated.  Lenaire, however, seemed unaffected by the har’s snobbish greeting.  We looked around and I decided to really consider some clothing on a rack.  As I perused them, I was a little put off.  The outfits were all very gauzy, flowy and sheer.  I panicked a little in my mind, hoping Lenaire wouldn’t want me to wear these things.  He must have noticed the look on my face because he said, “What is it.  What’s wrong, Taj?”

“Uh, Lenaire?  These look like girls clothes.”

He threw his head back and laughed whole-heartedly, eliciting an arched eyebrow and a disapproving stare from the attending har. When he regained his composure, he wiped his eyes, saying, “Oh, God.  Taj, these aren’t for you.  Let’s look over here.”

On the other side of the tent were leggings, trousers, tunics, shirts and a lot of things that were more to my liking.

I was at a loss, so I asked Lenaire, “What do you think I should get?”

He answered, “Well, lets get some things for you to try on.  I think something blue, to set off your lovely eyes.”

He picked out a dark blue tunic, a saphhire blue silk shirt and some black leather pants.  I tried on the tunic first.  Lenaire shook his head.  “It’s too big for you.”

Then I tried on the blue silk shirt.  It had a slim fit and ornate silver buttons all down the front.  Lenaire regarded me in it and said,  “This looks perfect on you.  Beautiful.”

Then I tried on the black leather pants.  They laced up the front and fitted closely.  I’d never worn anything like them in my life, but I liked them and hoped Lenaire would, too.  When he saw me in them and the blue silk shirt, he said, “My God, Taj.  You look stunning.”

He turned to the attending har and said, “We’ll take them.  We’ll take these, too.”

I got dressed and handed my new clothes to Lenaire who placed them on the counter with some other things I didn’t see.  He gave the har some bottles of something. The haughty har uncorked them and smelled them and then smiled warmly and took Lenaire’s hands, thanking him.  The har also nodded politely to me and we left the tent.  When we got outside, I asked Lenaire what he’d given the har.  He answered, “Some perfumed oils.  I knew he’d be happy with them.”

“What were the other things you got?”

“Kohl, to line our eyes.  I got blue for you and black for me.”

I regarded Lenaire apprehensively.

He said, “Come on, Taj.  It’s time you embraced your soume side for more than just aruna.”

I’m sure I blushed.  I did love to be soume during aruna.  But I still considered myself to be male.  Maybe I would have to rethink that.

Lenaire then gave my very worn boots a keen look.  “I think we should get you some new boots, too.”

“I think you’re spending too much on me, I don’t want to -”

He interrupted me.  “Taj, a pair of boots won’t phase us, believe me.”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

We walked around until we came to a tent that had nothing but footwear and went inside.  There were tables full of shoes, boots and slippers.

“How do I find my size?” I asked.

“You’ll just have to try on anything you like and see.”

I must have tried on twenty pairs of boots, but finally, I found a black pair that fit perfectly.  They laced up to about the middle of my calf and felt so comfortable.  I smiled up at Lenaire.

“These are the ones.  They’re perfect!”  I said.

He offered the har something and he nodded.  The deal was made.  The har thanked us and we left his tent.

“What did you give him?”  I asked.

“Just some oil.  It’s good for softening leather.”

I shook my head.  “This barter system really works.”

“Well, it can, but you’ve got to know and have what the other har wants.”

We went back to our tent and put our purchases there.  Then we went to Sahan’s tent to find the other hara in our party.  We were a bit late, so Sahan told us they’d already split up the list.  He gave us ours, telling us that they wanted us to meet up with them in the evening. I asked Lenaire, “What’s on our list for today?”

“Let’s see – tools, candles, and wood for building.”  Lenaire sighed.  “Yesterday we were lucky to find wood for burning, but wood for building will be harder to find.  Well, the sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll be done.”

We looked in a lot of tents before Lenaire found something he wanted.  There was a whole table full of all kinds of tools.

“What tools do we need, exactly?” I asked.

“Any we can get.”

He spoke with the har for quite a while.  Meanwhile I poked around looking at all the items.  There were some nice carved wooden boxes, some hairbrushes and combs and even a few pieces of jewelry.  I wished I had something to trade.  Lenaire had given me such nice things and I wasn’t able to get him anything.  I knew he didn’t care, but I still would have liked to be able to get him a gift.  Finally, he came over to me, looking very pleased.

“I got us all the tools on the table.  This is really a good find.  Come on and help us carry them all to the wagon.”

The har had already called over three hara from the tent across the way.  I assumed he owned both tents.  Two of the hara helped us carry the tools and the other watched his tent until he returned.  We all took as many tools as we could carry and were able to get them all to the wagon in one trip.  The har took whatever he’d been promised in the deal and left.  I noticed he’d taken some fresh produce.  I assumed he was going to enjoy that for himself.

“Well, let’s get back to it.  We’ve got more stuff to find,” Lenaire said.

We went into a tent where everything looked like it had been just dumped into piles.  We began to search through a mound of fabrics when I noticed some hara near us rummaging through a heap of metal.  I couldn’t help staring at them.  The three of them had elaborate Mohawk-style hair and lots of ear and face piercings.  They were shirtless, but completely covered in black tattoos.  They also each had several different kinds of knives strapped on them.  I nudged Lenaire and whispered, “What tribe are those hara from?”

Lenaire tried to check them out without them noticing.

Looking a bit confused,  he leaned over and whispered, “I want to say Irraka, but they’re too well-behaved and they don’t smell.”

I started snickering.  Lenaire added, “Hey, they look real friendly. Why don’t you go ask them?”

We both started chortling and snorting, trying to stifle our laughter, when I saw Lenaire freeze.  I turned around and saw that the strange hara were staring at us.

“Uh-oh,”  Lenaire said under his breath.

“Let’s go,” he said, barely audibly.  “But don’t run.”

We tried to look nonchalant and walked out of the tent.  Luckily we didn’t have to go past them to exit.  When we got outside we ducked into the first tent we saw – quick.  Lenaire peeked through the tent sides, but they were nowhere to be seen.

“Whew!”  he said.  “I think they thought we were laughing at them – big mistake, whatever tribe they’re from.”

Since we figured ourselves to be safe, we had a good laugh over the whole thing.

We turned around and Lenaire let out a cry of surprise.  I caught in my breath and half hid behind him.  There stood the Mohawk hara; the meanest-looking one right in front of us and the other two a few yards away.  I started to sweat and tried to swallow.  Lenaire stood motionless.

“You dropped this,” the har said, his face expressionless as he handed Lenaire our list.

“Oh…uh, thanks,”  Lenaire said.

The har nodded once and they all left.

I felt dizzy and had to sit down.  Lenaire let out a breath he’d probably been holding almost the whole time.  Then he sat down next to me.

Obviously relieved, he started to laugh.

“You okay, Taj?”

“Yeah,” I said relieved and laughing, too. “I thought they were going to kill us!”

“Well, I didn’t think they were going to ask us to dance,” Lenaire joked.

“I think we need a drink,” he added.

After having a few bottles of ale and calming down, we got back to the job at hand and were looking over a table full of water pipes and cigarette holders sitting in colorful disarray, when Lenaire suddenly stopped like he’d heard something.

“Come on, Taj, hurry!”

I was confused, so I asked, “What?  Where are we going?”  I quickly glanced around, afraid for a second that the Mohawk hara were back.

“Kemahl found some building wood and wants me to talk to the har.”

Relieved, I asked, “How do you know?”

Then it hit me – mind touch.  Lenaire had never mentioned he could do it, although I guess I should have assumed such an experienced har would be able to.  After all, every har has the potential.

“Was it mind touch?” I asked.

“Of course.  We’re almost there, I think.  Yeah, look.  There’s Kemahl.”

He stood outside a very large tent waving us over.

When we got to him, he took Lenaire’s arm and said, “You’ve got to see this!”

Inside, at the back of the tent, were several piles of lumber, some smaller boards, a couple of doors and windows and some cans full of nails.

The attending har came over and introduced himself.

“I’m Dashahn, owner of this tent.  See anything you like, tiahaara?”

Lenaire continued to assess the goods.

“We might be interested in some of these building supplies.”

“Hmm,” Dashahn said. “Might be, or are interested?”

Lenaire looked the har in the eye.

“Might be, if the deal is right.”

“Come into my office,” Dashahn offered with a shrewd smile.

His “office” consisted of a table with several bottles of liquor on it and a few mismatched chairs.  We sat down and the bargaining began.  Lenaire showed him the list and he and Dashahn talked quietly and seriously as Kemahl and I partook of the liquor, which was a bit sour and tasted something like cherries.  As they spoke, I regarded Dashahn, thinking he looked like he had too many teeth.  The bargaining went on for a good while but finally it was settled to both Lenaire’s and Dashahn’s satisfaction.

He didn’t offer to help us, so we had to make several trips to carry everything to the wagon.  Dashahn then walked back with us on our last trip to the wagon, bringing a rather strong-looking har with him to carry his things back.  Needless to say, that pissed me off a bit, and I could tell it had the same effect on Lenaire and Kemahl.  Finally, when the strong har was all loaded up with the first batch of Dashahn’s goods, Dashahn bowed to Lenaire and said, “It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

Lenaire gave him a cursory, “Thank you,” and then breathed a sigh of relief as Dashahn walked out of sight.  Not long after that, he sent his har back for the rest of his pile of things.

Kemahl clapped Lenaire on the back saying, “You certainly earned your pay on that one!”

“I’ll say.  But it was such an amazing find.  I never thought we’d find anything like that.”

“Yeah, and he knew it.  You did a great job.  I knew dealing with him I’d be out of my league.  Thanks.”

Lenaire smiled at him and then got three bottles of ale out of the wagon.

“I think our work day is over,” he said as he handed Kemahl and me a bottle apiece.

“Here‘s to our success and mostly to you,” Kemahl said, looking at Lenaire.

We clicked our bottles together toasting our success.  I noticed it was probably fairly late in the afternoon.

“What time do you think it is?”  I asked Lenaire.

“Time for a late lunch, I’d say.  I’m starving.  Join us, Kemahl?”

“No thanks, I’ve got to get cleaned up for tonight.”

I’d forgotten.  The party was tonight.  I started to feel a little nervous.

“Okay.  Taj and I went to the bath tent this morning, so we’re going to eat.  See you later.”

We went back to the red tent and ate heartily.  I knew there’d be food at the party, but that was quite a few hours off, yet.  I found myself hoping I wouldn’t do anything to embarrass Lenaire.  I wasn’t used to fancy parties.  I already felt like a fish out of water just thinking about it.

Suddenly, Lenaire’s voice scattered my thoughts.

“If you’re worrying about tonight, believe me, there’s no need.  It’s just a party.  It’ll be fun.”

“I know.  I guess I’m just a bit unsure.”

“Of what?”

I shrugged.  “Of what to expect, how to act.”

Lenaire smiled reassuringly.  “Just be yourself and have fun.  That’s all!”

“Okay.  I know I’m being silly.  Okay.”

When we finished our meal, we went back to our tent to get ready.  Lenaire decided we should go to Tof’s tent first to find out when we were leaving for the party.  He was there and greeted us warmly.

“Well,” Tof said,  “it’s supposed to start at dusk, so when it’s getting dark, just meet me outside my tent.  We’ll all go together.”

We then went to our own tent.

“How long until dark?”  I asked.

“I don’t know.  An hour or so, I guess.” Lenaire answered.  “More than enough time to get ready.  He regarded me intently and said, “Let’s take a walk.”

We headed out past the tent city into a very lovely, quiet area with some grass, flowers and a fresh breeze.  I think he knew it would relax me.

We sat on the soft grass and watched the sun go down.  I leaned my head on his shoulder and all seemed right with the world.  Soon he said, “We’d better get back.”

I looked into his eyes and nodded.  I felt ready.

When we got to out tent, we both got dressed.  I put on all my new clothes and it occurred to me that I had no idea what Lenaire was going to wear.  I’d been so wrapped up in my own insecurity.  I figured whatever he wore, he’d look magnificent.  I was right.

He wore a powder blue tunic over tan suede pants with suede boots.  He had two thin braids in front and the rest of his blond hair loose, his eyes lined in black.  He was the most dashing har I’d ever seen.  I stared at him, speechless.  Then I said, “You’re… you’re beautiful.”

He came over and embraced me.

“Probably only to you,” he said smiling.

I knew that wasn’t true.

“There’s one more finishing touch,” he said.

He beckoned for me to sit on the bed, and he proceeded to line my eyes with the blue kohl.

“There,” he said.  “Now stand up and let me look at you.”

I stood, a bit self-consciously, as Lenaire looked me over.

“My God, Taj.  Look at you.  You’re ravishing, stunning.  You look beautiful.”

I felt my face get hot, and I shook my head.  Lenaire came over and took me in his arms.

“I mean it, Taj.  No har is as beautiful to me as you are.”  He kissed me, and I really knew he meant it.

“Are you ready?”  he asked.

“I’m ready.”

We left and went to Tof’s tent, where Chey, Kala and Kemahl were waiting.

“Where’s Iveth?”  Tof asked.  Lenaire shrugged.

Soon we saw him hurrying to meet us.  He was dressed in black leather, with a lot of black kohl on his eyes and his fingernails painted black as well.  He was something to behold.

We all left as Tof led the way.  We passed many tents still open for business, but most of the hara were eating, drinking or walking and talking together.  Shortly we got to a fairly large tent and went inside.  It was softly illuminated with many lamps and candles.  I heard pleasant music and saw many beautiful, well-dressed hara mingling.  Our host welcomed Tof and bade us to help ourselves to food and drink. There were several tables set with all kinds of delicacies and liquors.  I didn’t know what any of them were.

“What should I try?” I asked Lenaire.

He picked up some kind of pastry.

“Here, my love, try this.”

He put it in my mouth.  It was creamy with some kind of meat in it.  I liked it.

“Mmmm,” I said.  “That’s good.”

“Just try anything.  It’s probably all delicious.”

I began to try all kinds of things, and fortunately there was only one I didn’t like.  I don’t know what it was, but it tasted too fishy.

Lenaire poured us some drinks.

“What’s this?”  I inquired.

“Just sheh.  I thought we’d start with something familiar.”

As I sipped my drink, I began to relax.  It was a very friendly, inviting atmosphere and I began to really enjoy myself.  I looked around and noticed Chey and Kala laughing and eating all the different foods.  Kemahl was dancing with a har, and Iveth was in an intimate conversation with a lovely har.  Everyone, it seemed, was having a good time.

Lenaire took my drink and set it down with his.

“Care to dance, my sweet?”

“Sure.”

We went out onto the dance floor and as Lenaire held me close, it reminded me of the first night we were together.  As it was then, he smelled delicious.  I put my arms around him and snuggled into his neck.

“Taj,” he murmured.  “You’re the most beautiful har here.”

I looked into his eyes and said, “As long as you think so.”

I again buried my face in his neck and thought about how I’d like to stay there forever.   When the music ended we went back to retrieve our drinks.

As we were standing there talking, a har that looked vaguely familiar came over to us, or more accurately, over to Lenaire.  Then I remembered; it was the haughty har from the clothing tent.  He sidled up to Lenaire and said,  “Hello, I’m Vexana.  Do you remember me?”

Lenaire seemed a bit taken aback but answered,  “Oh…uh, yes. You’re the har we got clothes from.”

“You remembered,”  he said in a tone I didn’t like.

“I just wanted to tell you how much I loved the oils you gave me in trade.  I’m going to use some for trading, of course, but I kept some for myself.  Smell.”

He tilted his head and pointed to his long, slender neck for Lenaire to smell his perfume.  I stood there, staring.  Lenaire gingerly smelled the har’s neck and said, “Yes, it smells good.”

I caught a glimpse of Chey and Kala watching us.

Then Vexana said to Lenaire, “I’ve got something else I think you might be interested in.”

“Oh?  What’s that?”

“It’s outside.  Come with me.”

“I’ll be right back,Taj.”

He left with the har.  I couldn’t believe it.  Did he really think that har brought something to trade to a party?  I didn’t know what to do.  I went over to a row of chairs and sat down, my head in my hands.  I waited for what seemed to me like an eternity, but Lenaire didn’t return.  I was trying not to cry when I felt a hand on my arm.  I looked up to see Chey, with Kala standing beside him.  Chey sat down next to me.

“We saw what happened.  Are you alright?”

“No!  No, I’m not!  What the fuck?  I can’t believe Lenaire would leave like that.  That har said he had something to show him outside.  How could he fall for that!”

Chey put his arm around me.

Kala said, “I’m tired of this party anyway.  Let’s get out of here.  There’s a tent where they have loud music and lots of liquor.”

I wiped my eyes.  “Let‘s go.”

We left and went to the place Kala described.  I sat down and realized I didn’t have any way to buy drinks.

Chey said, “We’ve been here before and traded with the owner.  Here.  Take some of our tokens.”

I looked gratefully at him.  “Thanks,” I said.  “Really.”

“You need them more than we do,” he said with an understanding smile.

When the serving har came to our table I said, “Auric, a double.”

Chey and Kala looked a little shocked.

“That stuff’s nasty,”  Chey said.
I nodded saying, “I know.  But it’s strong.”

“Too strong,”  Kala added.

“I want to be drunk,”  I said.

The har came back with my drink and I started to down it.  With every swig I’m sure I made a face, but I was determined to seek oblivion.  After all, my world was turned upside down.  I know Lenaire had a right to roon anyhar he wanted, but I didn’t think he’d run off, just like that, with the first har who wanted him to smell his neck!  Five minutes before that he’d told me I was the most beautiful har there.  Were all his compliments just bullshit?  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  It was like a bad dream.  I started to get dizzy.  Good, I thought, the dizzier, the better.

Soon Chey and Kala got up to dance.  They asked me to join them, but I’m not that much of a dancer, and besides, I had some serious drinking to do.  I finished my auric and when the har came back to our table, I ordered another one.  The room was beginning to spin, but I could still remember what happened earlier and I wanted to blot it out.  As I continued drinking, I suddenly decided to have a really good time.  I finished the bitter auric, got up and staggered to Chey and Kala.  I started dancing with them when my ears began to ring and then everything went black.

When I woke up, it was light out and I was alone in a tent.  It looked like the one Lenaire and I had, but there were clothes strewn all over it and empty glasses and bottles on the table.  My head ached and I had to pee.  I got up to go and the room was reeling.  I felt sick and barely made it out behind the back of the tent before I threw up.  I felt so bad that I decided to just pee there, too.  I made it back to the bed and lay down.  Then I remembered.  It all came back to me and I just lay there sobbing.  If it had been Kemahl or Iveth I wouldn’t have minded but that har –  Then I had to ask myself; would I really have been okay with that?  I was such a hypocrite.  I still wanted to be roon friends with Nyala, but when it came to sharing Lenaire, I fell apart.  I felt I was acting like a jealous female.  Still, I couldn’t help it.  I couldn’t get control over my feelings.  I knew I should be sophisticated and think nothing of something like this.  Wraeththu aren’t exclusive.  I could tell myself that a thousand times, but when it came to the reality of it, I just couldn’t handle it.  I was ashamed and embarrassed, but still angry and hurt.  Confusion and turmoil didn’t even begin to describe the maelstrom inside me.  I cried myself to sleep.

Later I felt someone sit on the bed.  I looked up bleary-eyed to see that it was Lenaire.  I pushed my head into the pillow and bawled. Lenaire put his hand on my back.

“Taj.  Chey and Kala told me what happened.  Kemahl and I looked all over for you last night.”

I turned to face him.  “Why?  Were you tired of smelling that har’s neck?”  I sobbed back into the pillow.

“Taj, listen.  I just went with that har because I thought he had something to trade.  I told you I’d be right back.”

“You didn’t come right back.  What did he have to trade anyway?  His soume-lam?  His ouana-lim?  I hope you got what you wanted.”  By this time I was crying and talking out of control.  I knew I was being awful, but I didn’t care.

“Taj, please.”  Lenaire took me in his arms.  I sobbed uncontrollably into his chest.

“I didn’t take aruna with that har.  How could you think that?  I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I hurt you.  As I followed him out of the tent, he told me his friend was outside wearing a necklace he’d borrowed from him for the evening and he wanted me to look at it to see if he could trade it for more perfumed oils.  We went looking for his friend and, well, soon I realized he was lying to me, so I came back to the party, but you’d left.  I thought you might be with Chey and Kala because they were gone, too, but Kemahl and I couldn’t find you.  I didn’t know what to think.”

I couldn’t stop my tears.  I realized I’d been all wrong, which only made me feel worse.  We just stayed there as Lenaire smoothed my hair saying,“Shh.  It’s alright, it’s alright.”

I tried to speak, but my voice was in sobbing spasms.

“I’m – sorry.  I was – wrong.  You have the – right to roon other hara.  I just – didn’t want it to be h-h-him.”

“Taj, I didn’t want to roon that har, and I didn’t.  I would never just run off and leave you like that.  I thought you would know that.  I’m sorry.”

“I’m s-sorry, too.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, my love.  Look at me.”

I pulled away and looked into his eyes.

“Taj,  I know hara aren’t usually completely exclusive in their relationships, but right now, the only har I want is you.”

He held me close and said, “I love you.  I’ve never loved a har before, but I know that I love you.”

I smiled up at him through my tears.

“I love you, too.”

He held me for a long time.  My heart, which I’d thought was breaking, now sang within me.

Finally Lenaire said, “Let’s go to our tent.”

I nodded, reluctantly leaving his arms and began to look for my shirt and boots.  Lenaire found them and carried them for me, holding me up as we walked.  I was still a bit wobbly, and just when I got to our bed, a wave of nausea came over me, but thankfully I could lie right down and it subsided.  Lenaire gently pulled off my pants and pulled the covers over me.  He went to the washstand and returned with a wet cloth.  He washed off my face with it and the cloth turned dark blue.  The blue kohl I’d had on my eyes must have run down all over my face.  I must have been a sight!

“I think you’d better spend the day here, Lenaire said as he rinsed out the cloth.  “I’ve got to go take care of some trading, but I’ll come back later, okay?”

“Okay. I’m sorry.  I should be helping.”

“Don’t worry, everything’s fine. Just rest.  I’ll see you in a few hours.”

He smiled warmly, kissed me on the forehead and left.

I lay there thinking about all that had happened since yesterday, when unexpectedly a kind-looking har came in and placed a cup of tea and two pieces of buttered toast on the bedside table.

“Good morning tiahaar,” he said.  “Your friend asked me to bring this to you.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He bowed and left.

I propped myself up on our pillows and waited to see if I’d feel sick.  I was okay, so I began to sip the tea.  It tasted wonderful to me.  I ventured to try the toast and when it stayed down, I ate the other piece.  I began to feel a bit better.  Then I lay down and slept.

I awoke later, feeling warm and relaxed.  I then realized that Lenaire was asleep beside me, his arm over my waist.  He was lying on top of the covers, clad only in his pants.  I drank in his scent, feeling the warmth of his body next to mine.

When I awoke the next time, there were candles burning and Lenaire was sitting at the low table, on a pillow, smoking a cigarette.  I stretched and rolled all the way over to face him.  He smiled at me, putting out his cigarette and said,  “Welcome back, love.”

He came over to the bed and sat on it.

“How do you feel?”

“Much better.”

“Good.  Are you hungry?”

I nodded.

“I’ll go to the red tent and get us something to eat.  You just relax.  I’ll be back soon.”

He put on a shirt and left.  How could I possibly be so lucky as to have a har like that love me?  I knew he must truly love me to put up with all my immature sniveling bullshit.  As my thoughts were filled with my feelings for Lenaire, I hoped, after eating a meal, I’d be fit enough for aruna.   I then urgently became aware of my need to pee.  I pulled on some pants, and made it to the latrine without feeling sick. With great relief, I laid back in bed, waiting for my lover’s return.

Soon he entered our tent.  Whatever he’d brought back smelled heavenly.  I sat up in bed, sniffing the air. “What did you get us?  It smells great.”

“I got us fried chicken, baked potatoes and black-eyed peas.  I almost got us something bland, but I know when I’m hungover, something salty is what I crave.  I think you’d better start with the potato, though.”

He sat next to me, both of us propped up on our pillows, eating.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” He picked up two bottles and said, “Root beer.  Can you believe it?  I haven’t seen this since I was a human child.  I got us a few more bottles, too.”

I was ecstatic.  I tried the potato and it tasted unbelievably good.  I hadn’t realized how hungry I was.  I tried the chicken and the black-eyed peas, and I was able to eat about two-thirds of the meal, and I totally savored the root beer.  I felt so much better afterwards.  I looked over at Lenaire, feeling embarrassed and foolish for the way I’d behaved.

“I’m sorry.  I should have known-”

He interrupted me, putting his fingers on my lips and shaking his head.

“Taj, please.”  He smiled into my eyes.   He hesitated, looking down, like he wasn’t sure he should continue.  He took a deep breath and looked back at me.

“You know, even if we stay together, sometimes we’ll each be attracted to other hara.  It’s probably inevitable and it won’t mean we don’t love each other.  If I take aruna with a har, it doesn’t mean I’m going to run off with him, never to return.  Do you understand?”

I thought of Nyala and realized I understood all too well. I nodded, afraid to look him in the eye.

“I know you’re young, Taj, and haven’t been har for long.  It can take time to acclimate to the changes from human to har.  Some take to it more naturally and some have a harder time of it.  I just want you to know how things are and how they will be.  I wasn’t the least bit interested in Vexana.  Right now I only want to be with you, but you’ve got to understand that with hara who love each other and even for hara that are chesna, other hara come into their lives.  And when that happens, it doesn’t take away from what they have.  Do you know what I’m saying, Taj?”

“Yes.  I’m sorry about the way I acted.  I didn’t seem to be able to control it.  I understand.”

He took my face in his hands and said, “What I’m really saying is even if I’d taken aruna with Vexana, I’d still be in love with you.”

He gently pressed his lips to mine and we shared breath.  Such beautiful images he showed me;  small white star-like flowers blooming in the snow, a red bird on an icy branch, fresh cool scents.  I entered myself into his images and we shared together.

When he parted our lips, he said, “Do you feel up to going to the baths?”

I nodded eagerly.  I’d get to see the pools at night. I got up and dressed and grabbing some towels, we started for the bath tent.  I didn’t know how late it was, but Talith-rana, it seemed, never slept.  We got to the front of the bath tent and as I looked in, I was mesmerized.  The lamps were lit and the soft light gave everything an enchanting appearance.  The lamplight reflected in the water and the fountains made it look surreal and inviting.  We entered and went to the warmer pools.  We disrobed and got in.  It felt heavenly.  I wanted to totally immerse myself in the luxurious warmth.  We relaxed and swam in the warm water.  After swimming for a while, Lenaire came over and pulled me close.

“This romantic setting and your loveliness is making me very roony,” he said, nibbling my ear.  “Let’s go back to our tent – and our bed.”

I nodded and kissed him.  We dried off, dressed and went to our tent.  When we got inside, Lenaire swept me into an embrace and nuzzled and kissed my neck.

“Are you sure you feel well enough for aruna?”

“Yes, oh yes,” I answered.

Lenaire pulled off my shirt and kissed my chest, moving his tongue to one of my nipples as he held me close.  I was desperate for him.  I moaned and began to breathe heavily.  I regained some composure and removed his shirt.  As we shared breath, I saw blossoms opening, taking in their fragrance, and losing myself in his images.  My mind swirled with his pictures and my body ached with desire.

“I’m soume,” I panted to him.

He quickly undid my pants and I stepped out of them.  He removed his own and we moved toward the bed and lay facing each other.  I moved my hand to his ouana-lim.  It felt luscious, the skin so soft over its firmness.  I moved both my hands to it and as I caressed and stroked it, it flowered in my fingers.  I couldn’t wait and I murmured to him,  “I want you inside me now.”

I straddled him, sinking down on him.  My whole body was overtaken with waves of pleasure.  I groaned and then pressed my lips to his.  As we moved, our noises of mutual pleasure filled my mind and enhanced my desire. Soon I felt the soft explosion of our completion, flowering and blooming, flowing then ebbing slowly away.  Utterly sated, I lay on top of him. When I felt him soften within me, I slowly pulled off and lay beside him, wanting to melt into him and stay one creature, as we’d just been.  I cuddled as close to him as was possible.  He surrounded me with his arms and body, pulling the covers over us and said, simply, “I love you.”

*************************************************

We awoke very late the next morning.  When I opened my eyes, Lenaire was gazing into them.

“I’ve been watching you sleep.  So beautiful, like a statue of a sleeping har.”

I was barely awake and blushing already.  I stretched and said, “A very lazy statue.”

He laughed softly and caressed my cheek.  We snuggled sleepily for a while and then Lenaire sighed, saying, “I guess we’d better get up.  We’ve gotten almost everything we came for, so I guess in a day or so, we’ll leave for Saltrock.”

I had mixed feelings about that.  It had been so wonderful being with Lenaire all the time here, but I really was happy in Saltrock. This had been like a vacation to me.  But like all good things, the time had come for it to end.

We dressed and went to the large tent where occasionally Sahan would provide a light breakfast.  Even though it was probably close to noon, there were still some sweet rolls and some coffee left.  Afterwards we went to look through some more tents.  At this point, we knew the few things we still needed – the harder things to find and we mostly just searched the tents for anything we thought would be useful.  We’d been there several days and there were still many tents we’d not been in.  I wondered if there really were a thousand of them.  We found some more canned goods and some heavy canvas that could be used for tents or tarps, things we would always be able to use in Saltrock.  Then something occurred to me.

“How do you decide who gets what when we get back?”

“First, we’ll take the things we’re allowed to keep for ourselves, then Reif, Seel and some other hara go through and figure that out.  Sometimes it just gets stored and hara can help themselves as needed.  There’s never been a problem with anyone getting greedy or taking anything they didn’t really need.  That’s the only way this system can work.”

Another reason they’re so careful about who comes to Saltrock, I thought.

After a day of looking through things in the many tents, we went back to the main tent at Sahan’s place.  Iveth, Kemahl and Tof were there, just inside.  Lenaire told them what he’d found and they discussed things for a while.  Iveth said, “I guess we’ve pretty much gotten what we can.  We should leave for Saltrock maybe day after tomorrow?”

Tof, Kemahl and Lenaire concurred, so we only had one more day in Talith-rana.

“Let’s all have dinner together tonight.  A kind of going home party, what do you say?” Tof asked.

Lenaire and Iveth nodded, grinning.

“Where are Chey and Kala?”  Iveth inquired.

“They’ll probably show up soon,” Lenaire offered.

We stood there talking for a while and before long Chey and Kala came into the tent, too.

Kala was grinning widely and Chey said, “I know it wasn’t on our list, but look!”

We went outside the tent and there were three large boxes full of bottles.

“It’s whiskey!”  Chey said, proudly.

“We only had to give some cigarettes for it!”  Kala said.

“Oh, Yeah!” Iveth said, rubbing his hands together.  “We’ll break into it later.  I’ve got more than enough tokens for all of us to have dinner.  Let’s go.”

After putting the liquor safely in the wagon, we followed Iveth to a tent not far off.  It was a yellow color and as we walked in, the mouth-watering smells of food surrounded us.  We got to a large table and a har came over right away.  He told us our food choices and we agreed on what Iveth suggested.  The har brought sheh and rolls and butter to us and we started our feast.

“I think we’ve been really successful this time,” Chey said, his mouth full of bread.

Kemahl nodded and said, “Yeah, we’ve been lucky.”

“Lucky!” Chey said.  “It’s bargaining skill!”  He laughed.

Iveth shook his head.  “Youthful exuberance.  I guess it has it’s advantages.”

Chey chucked a piece of bread at Iveth.  Everyone was laughing and having a good time.

Soon the serving har brought us our meal.  We had some kind of meat in a tasty sauce, spiced and herbed lentils, potatoes and more rolls.  They also kept the sheh coming.  Partway through the meal, Chey, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said quietly, “Hey, I’m sorry about that night, you know, at the fancy party?  I feel like Kala and I jumped to the wrong conclusion and made you think the worst.  And then when you passed out I felt responsible, sort of.  I’m sorry.”

I put my hand on his arm.

“You didn’t lead me to believe anything I wasn’t already thinking.  All you and Kala did was try to help me and cheer me up.  Anyway, everything’s fine now.”

“I’m glad.  So you and Lenaire – you’re okay?”

“Oh, yes!  Very okay.”

He patted me on the back, as we both drank more sheh.

The conversation got more animated and rowdy as we ate and drank.  I think everyone was relieved that we’d been successful and that the work was over.  I didn’t think of it as hard work, but I wasn’t the one doing the bargaining.  I supposed it could be stressful and difficult at times.  They made it look easy, but I guessed it really wasn’t.

After dinner, we all ate some kind of confection and drank some sweet liqueurs.  When we were finally done, Iveth gave the har quite a few tokens and thanked him as we all left.

Kala and Chey went off on their own. Tof, Iveth and Kemahl headed back to their tents.

Lenaire said, “Feel like taking a walk?”

“Sure, I guess so,” I said with a bit of curiosity.

“There’s a place I’d like to show you.”

We walked until we got to a high narrow path.

“This goes up to a rocky area that overlooks the tent city from the opposite side.  It’s not as impressive as the ledge on the way here, but we can see most of Talith-rana from up there,” Lenaire said.

We climbed for quite a while and finally we got to a large rock ledge.  As we stood there, we could see most of the tent city, lit up and flickering.  It was quite beautiful.  Lenaire sat on the large rock and motioned for me to sit by him.  As we sat there enjoying the soft breeze and the flickering lights, Lenaire nuzzled and then kissed my neck.  I sighed with pleasure.

He caressed my knee, looking down.  After a few moments, he looked up again, his expression thoughtful.

“Taj?”  He took a breath.  “I’ve been thinking.  I want us to be chesna.  What do you say?”

I blinked my eyes, very surprised.  I didn’t see that coming!

“What?  Well, yes! Sure.  Of course!”

I was in a bit of shock and at a loss for words.  Thinking I really didn’t need them, I put my arms around his neck and we shared breath.  I let him know in the most intimate way how ecstatic and in love I was.

When we parted Lenaire said, “I want you to live with me when we get back to Saltrock.  I know Seel’s house is much more comfortable than my tent, but someday we’ll have the house finished -”

I caressed his face.

“I love your tent.  And your hammock,” I said suggestively into his ear.

He gave me an enticing smile and took a small amber bottle out of his jacket pocket.

“Here’s to us,” he said, drinking.  Then he put the bottle to my lips.
As I drank, I could have sworn the liquor was the sweetest I’d ever tasted.

We walked down the path and back to our tent.  When we got close, we heard some raucous laughter and as we got closer, we saw Kemahl, Iveth and Tof sitting on the ground not far from the main tent, sharing one of the bottles of whiskey.

Kemahl waved at us, very drunkenly.

“Heeey!  It’s Lenaire and his lovely young lover!”

I’m sure I turned red, but I had to snicker.

Lenaire walked over, took a swig from their bottle and said, “Correction:  it’s Lenaire and his lovely young chesnari.”

They exchanged looks and Iveth said, “Well, congratulations!  How did you get so lucky, Lenaire?”

He shrugged.  I turned vermillion.

“When did that happen?”  Kemahl asked, grinning.

“A little while ago,” Lenaire said, putting his arm around me and kissing me on the cheek.

“Here’s to you two then,” Kemahl said bringing the bottle to his lips.  “We’re all happy for you.”

“Well, we’re all definitely happy,”  Tof said, giggling.  They laughed, obviously totally sloshed.

“We’re going to bed,” Lenaire said.

“Wooooo!”  They all gave wolf howls and drunken catcalls.  Lenaire waved them off and shook his head, chuckling.  If I hadn’t been so happy, I probably would have felt too embarrassed ever to face them again.  With his strong arm around me, and their drunken laughter fading behind us, we went to our tent.

Once inside, Lenaire lit a lamp and some candles.  We sat at the low black table on some cushions and had some more of the sweet liquor.

“What is this?”  I asked.

“It’s called Samsu.  It means sweet love.”  Lenaire smiled.

“No wonder I love it.”  I laughed.

Lenaire moved close to me and as we embraced and he kissed and shared breath with  me, I felt myself leaving reality.  In a euphoric haze, I shed my clothes as he did the same.  When we shared breath again, the images he showed me took me away.  Soon I felt we were sharing the same vision, high on aruna, soaring as we came together.  I saw us as two dragonflies coupling, flying above a serene lily-filled pond, bathed in sunlight.  We soared higher until we reached our peak together, the sun bursting around us and we floated down, landing next to the pond, a cool wind blowing over us until we came back to ourselves.

After we’d parted our bodies, I kept my eyes closed for a while, reluctant to come back to reality.  I’d never experienced anything like that before.  When I did venture to open my eyes, I looked at Lenaire.  He smiled at me and pulled me close.

“What was that?  What happened?  Did you feel it, too?” I asked, amazed.

He chuckled softly.  “Yes, my sweet one.  We shared the same dream.  It happens when two hara are of one mind and heart.”

“It was beautiful.  Like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

“This is only the beginning.  We’ll soar together again, my love.”

He kissed me and held me close and soon I drifted off.

****************************************************

When I awoke, soft light illuminated the tent and I saw Lenaire sitting at the low table drinking something.  I yawned and looked over to see him smiling at me.

“There you are.  I thought you might sleep all day.”

“What time is it?”

“Late morning – eleven or so.  Would you like some coffee?”

I nodded and got up, putting on some pants.  When I got to the table, Lenaire had a steaming cup of strong-smelling coffee for me.  I sat down and sipped it.

“Well,” he said,  “this is our last day here.  What would you like to do?”

“Don’t we have to do some more trading?”

“We’ve found about all we came for, so this day is for us to enjoy.”

I smiled, trying to think of what would be the best way to spend our last day in Talith-rana.

“Well, we could start with the baths and go from there.”

“Sounds good to me, my sweet.”

We went to the bath tent and totally enjoyed ourselves.  Then we leisurely looked in the remaining tents that we hadn’t yet visited at all of the items. The most memorable one to me was a tent filled with tinkling wind chimes of all descriptions that also had some caged birds for pets.

For lunch, we ate outside and watched the many diverse hara.  Sometimes we’d spy a couple talking, deciding to make up our own dialogue for what they were saying.  I laughed quite a lot!

We strolled around after that, taking in all the different things we could.  I reveled for at least the dozenth time at the incredible variety of hara as well as the barrage of sounds and scents of Talith-rana, especially knowing that we’d be back to our normal lives soon.   As darkness descended on the tent city, we went to a new vendor for dinner.  Lenaire had brought some things to trade and we actually found a place that had some rhysynth, so we stayed and enjoyed the food and drink.  Afterwards, we went back to our tent.

“How early are we leaving tomorrow?”  I asked.

“No one said anything specific, so I guess whenever we all get ready.”

“In a way, I hate to leave here.  I’ve had such a good time and have seen so many interesting things.  But I do love Saltrock.”

Lenaire smiled hungrily at me, drew me close and murmured into my hair, “Mmmm, you smell so good.  I’ve got to have you, right now.  Be soume -?”

I nodded as we began to share breath.  His touch sent pangs of need through me.  Soon we were naked on our bed, lost in a close and beautiful sharing of minds and bodies.  With him inside me, and his beautiful images flooding my mind, I abandoned myself completely.  Afterwards, as we lay together, Lenaire pulled me closer, nuzzling my ear and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”  Then, I decided to ask him something – something I’d wondered about since we’d been together.

“Lenaire?  There’s something I’ve wondered about.  Maybe it’s weird, but -”

He looked at me quizzically.

“What?”

“Well, what do I – taste like?”

He chuckled.

“Like the sweetest nectar from the gods.”

“I’m serious, really.”

“Okay.  Sweet, like strong honey, with a tang.”

I was happy with that and asked, “What is my scent?”

He thought a moment then said, “That’s sweet, too – like flowers, very flowery.”

“Huh?” I said.

“What’s wrong, Taj?”

“Well, that doesn’t sound very exciting.  It sounds, I don’t know, girlish.”

He laughed.  “Taj, come on!   There isn’t any ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ now.  It’s time you got used to that.”

“I know.  It’s just that you smell strong and spicy and you taste tart and tangy.”

He shrugged.

“Well then, I guess we compliment each other, right?”

I smiled in spite of myself.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Then something else I’d been wanting to ask him came to my mind.

“Lenaire?”

He regarded me with anticipation.

“Will you tell me about your inception?”

He closed his eyes took a deep breath before nodding and opening them once more.

“Yes.  You’re my chesnari.  I have no secrets from you, my love.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it was a long time ago, now.”  He sighed heavily and continued.

“I lived with my family in a small village way up north.  It was just my parents, my younger sister and me.  When I was eighteen, I moved out on my own, but still lived in the village.  When I was twenty, they came.”  He stopped talking for a moment, gathering his thoughts, and then continued.

“Wraeththu.  We’d heard of them, but I wasn’t even sure if they weren’t just an urban legend.  I soon found out they weren’t.  They descended on our little village, dressed in black leather, armed to the teeth and looking very strong and threatening.  They never shed a drop of blood, they didn’t have to.  I remember they rounded everyone up and into the square.  There really weren’t that many of us.  Their leader told us they were our lords and if we didn’t cross them, we’d be left in peace.  No one said a word.  Then some of them came around and picked quite a few of us out of the crowd, telling us to come with them.  I was one of them.  I was afraid, but I was more afraid to protest.  I still remember the panicked, helpless looks on the faces of my parents and sister.  They took about twenty of us with them when they left the village, all of us teenage boys and young men.  I figured they wanted to make slaves of us.

“A few days later, we ended up at what I would call a military barracks, full of a lot more Wraeththu.  They put us all into the same building, like a dorm with many beds.  After one night there, one of them came in and gave us a speech about how we were lucky. We were chosen for a great gift. We would become Wraeththu.  At the time, I didn’t feel lucky.  I just wanted to go home.

“Several of them came back later and told us there was a blood ritual to becoming Wraeththu.  They all cut their arms and proceeded to cut each of ours, touching their blood to ours, mingling it.  I thought it was just a formality, like becoming blood brothers or something, you know, symbolic.  Another thing I was completely wrong about.  Later, one of the boys started to double up, screaming in pain.  One of the Wraeththu came in and gave him a shot of something and it knocked him out.  As soon as some of the others had the same reaction, the same thing was done.  Finally, it was my turn.  I remember drifting in and out of reality. Sometimes the pain would overtake me, but then I’d get the injection and go out again.  Such strange dreams and hallucinations. I thought I was dying.

“Eventually when I woke up, I learned four days had past. I felt weak but pain free.  Most of the boys were gone.  I thought they’d died.  There were only four of us left in the beds.  Some attendants came in and washed me and it felt like my skin was peeling off.  I asked what happened to the other boys and was told they were through the change and at their classes.  That’s all he said.

“When I was first cognizant enough to notice my physical changes, I thought I was surely hallucinating or in hell.  But the next day when they told me to take a bath, I saw myself in a mirror and couldn’t believe it.

“Later on that same day, a har came in and told me to follow him.  He also told me that from then on my name was to be Loric.  He led me to a hut and told me to go inside.  When I went in, there was a har sitting on his bed.”   Here Lenaire stopped and hesitated for a few moments.

“He was my first aruna partner.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience.  He was – forceful.  Maybe if they’d told me what would happen…  Anyway, afterwards, I was har.

“The ‘classes’ we took were all brainwashing about being a soldier and how we were going to dominate the country.   The first mission I was sent on with about forty or fifty of us, involved killing about thirty humans who were defying them.  I want you to know that I’m not proud of what I did there.  I felt I had to do it to save myself.  It may have been cowardly of me, but at the time -”  He sighed.

“That was bad enough, but soon I learned that other hara were against them, too and we were expected to fight and kill them as well.  I couldn’t sanction that, so I ran off as soon as I had the chance.  Eventually I found Saltrock, and the kind of life I wanted.”

When he stopped talking, I just sat there, stunned.  I had a lot of questions, but I was afraid that asking them would bring back more bad memories for him.  In the end, I had to know.

“What tribe was it?”

“Varr.”

“Did you have any friends there?”

“I had a few and a lover.  He bought into the whole Varr thing, so we grew apart even before I left.”

“They never came after you?”

“I don’t know.  The first settlement I came to, I got some new clothes and burned my Varr leathers.  That and changing my name to Lenaire must have been enough to hide me even if they had come looking for me.”

I caressed his face, not knowing what to say.  I felt for him.  He’d been through a lot.

“My friends and I went through althaia in a rather nasty basement, but we went by our own choice and kind of knew what to expect.  It must have been horrible for you.”

“Well,” he said smiling warmly, “that’s all in the distant past, love.  I couldn’t be happier now.  Besides, I’ve heard some inception stories that makes mine seem like a walk in the park.”

I relaxed into his arms, and before I fell asleep, I thought to myself that all he’d been through had probably made him the strong, wondrous har that he was.

As I came up from a deep sleep, I heard voices and noises that brought me to full wakefulness.  I looked around me and Lenaire was going about packing his things and readying to leave.  I groggily regarded him and asked, “What time is it?”

He came over to me and kissed my lips saying, “Time to get ready to leave, my love.  I hated to wake you.  You seemed so peaceful.”

I stretched and soon got up and dressed.

“We’ll have our breakfast in Sahan’s tent and then when we’re all sure we’ve gotten everything together, we’ll leave for Saltrock.”

“Okay,” I said, yawning.  I had really been deeply asleep.  I remember wishing we could have had one more trip to the baths, but I got up and gathered up my things.

We went to the main tent where every har was there except for Chey and Kala.  Sahan had an appetizing array of foods for us.  I chose eggs, ham and fruit and sat down to a luscious breakfast complimented with Sahan’s very strong coffee.  Before long Chey and Kala joined us.

“Well, there you are,” Iveth said.  “I was afraid somehar would have to throw cold water on you two to get you going.”

Chey regarded him with playful disdain.  “Don’t worry, we’ve gotten our things together and are as ready as you are to leave.”

Iveth chuckled.

After we’d all finished eating, Sahan came over to us and said, “It’s been a pleasure to have you here, and I hope you’ll choose to stay here on your next trip.”

Iveth took both of Sahan’s hands in his own.

“Thank you.  You’ve made our stay here very enjoyable.  We’ll see you again when we return.”

Sahan nodded and smiled broadly, saying, “I wish you and your hara a safe journey home.”

Iveth nodded his thanks as did we all.  Each of us went off to our tents to retrieve our belongings and put them in the wagon.  The wagon was really full, more so than when we came here – a good sign that we’d been successful.

Everyhar took their positions and we headed out of Talith-rana.  I was sorry to leave. It had been such an extraordinary experience for me.  I pondered everything that had happened on our trip; the days and nights with Lenaire, the fascinating and unusual hara I’d seen, the somewhat unpleasant revelations I’d experienced about myself,  the wonderment of the tent city, particularly the baths, Lenaire telling me he loved me, becoming chesna – so much had happened to me that I felt like I’d been away from Saltrock for a hundred years!  As we put Talith-rana behind us, I took a longing look back.

Lenaire regarded me saying, “It was quite a trip, wasn’t it?”

I nodded.

“Don’t be sad,” he said.  “Our journey is just beginning.”

I laid my head on his shoulder, content to know that.

We traveled uneventfully until a few hours after noon, when we decided to stop for a meal.  We had some cheese sandwiches, fruit and sheh.  We rested a bit and then resumed our homeward trip.

When we got to the narrow pass the hara again drew their weapons, proceeding cautiously.  I thought all was well by the time we got to the other end of the pass, when suddenly, four figures jumped out into the middle of the road.  Chey and Kala shouted and fixed their rifles on the four figures who immediately put their hands up in surrender and started shouting.  They all yelled together and it was hard to hear what they said, but they were obviously trying to convey that they were not threatening.  Iveth, Kemahl and Tof jumped down from their horses.  Kemahl aimed his rifle at the four interlopers as Iveth looked all along the two ridges.  Chey and Kala went beyond the edge of the pass and searched the surrounding area on both sides to be sure it wasn’t a trap of some kind.

Lenaire shouted, “Taj!  Get down!”

I jumped behind the seat and lay on top of the tarp, looking through it, underneath the seat as Lenaire grabbed a gun from the wagon and ran to help Chey and Kala.  When they were satisfied that there were no antagonists around, they came back and shook their heads.  The others relaxed a little.  Then Iveth said to them, “Who are you?”

By this time, they’d all dropped to their knees.  A brown haired one said, “We’re humans, we’re unarmed.”

“What do you want?  Why have you blocked our passage?”  Kemahl asked.

“We, we just want help.  We’ve been lost, wandering.  We’re hungry and thirsty – desperate.”

Kemahl and Iveth exchanged looks and then looked to Chey, Kala and Lenaire.

The brown haired one stood up, his hands still up in a gesture of surrender.

“We were with a group of Wraeththu.  We wanted to become har, but we realized that we didn’t want to be a part of their clan and we ran away.  We had no idea where we were.  We just tried to survive.  We saw several groups of hara, but we were afraid to approach them in case they were like the ones we’d been with.  Finally, we decided whoever came around next, we’d have to make contact or we’d starve and die of thirst.  So, you were the next ones we saw and…”

Lenaire spoke up.

“We should search them.”

Chey and Kala searched them for weapons and found nothing.  Everyone relaxed a bit.  They looked emaciated and scared shitless.

The brown haired one spoke again.

“I’m Brendan, this is Marty,” he said, indicating another brown-haired human.

“This is Mike and this is Jack.”

He pointed to a blond and then a redhead.

“We just want to become har somewhere where we can live in peace.”

I saw the faces of all the hara soften.

Iveth said to them, “Give us a minute.”

I climbed back up onto the seat as Iveth, Kemalhl, Lenaire, Kala and Chey all conferred for a few minutes.  I couldn’t hear their words, but when they separated, Iveth said, “You can travel with us, at least for a while.”

They all looked to each other, seeming relieved.

Brendan came up to Iveth and said, “We won’t be any trouble, I promise you.”

We set off again and after a little while, Lenaire said to Brendan, “Hey, why don’t you all get on the wagon.  You look like you might keel over.”

“Thanks!” Brendan said.

Brendan, Mike and Marty found places in the back and Jack sat next to me.

He looked over at me, smiling gratefully.

“Thanks.”

I nodded, returning him a smile.

We offered them some water and traveled the rest of the afternoon.  When we stopped for the night, I had to remember to fix enough dinner to accommodate an extra four very hungry and malnourished humans.  I decided to make soup, which is easy to stretch and made biscuits and baked apples.  I could tell the humans wanted to devour every morsel of food they could, but that they were restraining themselves so as not to take too much from us.  I think everyhar realized this because Tof said, “Hey, don’t hold back.  We’ve got plenty and you need your strength for the journey.”  They gratefully gorged themselves.

They slept out on the ground.  From the speed with which they formed themselves in a protective circle, I guessed they were used to it.  I asked Lenaire if we could give them a blanket or two, at least.  He agreed and we took two blankets out to them. The others had the same idea and they all ended up with a blanket to lie on and one to cover up with.

As Lenaire and I lay in a post-aruna lassitude in our tent, I asked him, “Do you think we could take them to Saltrock?”

“I don’t know, but if not, we’ll leave them somewhere where they can become har in peace.”

I was glad to hear that.  I felt for them.

The next morning, I was starting the coffee when Jack, the redhead, came over to me.

“Can I help?”

“Sure.  You know how to cook?”

“Yeah, it’s about all I know, but yeah.”

“I’m going to serve scrambled eggs, leftover biscuits, fruit and coffee.”

He offered to fix the eggs.  Turned out he knew what he was doing and it all went smoothly.

Afterwards, he helped me take care of the food and we set off for the day.

Everyhar took his usual place and the humans walked with us. Lenaire again offered the wagon to them and they took the same places as the day before. They looked a bit more fit for having had a couple of meals and some water, but they were still painfully thin and obviously fatigued from spending so much time as fugitives.

Jack sat next to me again and when we set off, I leaned against Lenaire.  Jack regarded us.  I wasn’t sure what he could be thinking.

“You two – together?”  he inquired.

Lenaire said, “Yes, very much so.”  He kissed the top of my head.

Jack smiled and asked, “Where do you live?”

“We live in a place where we want to make lives for ourselves and discover our potential.  We don’t want to repeat the mistakes humans made,” I said.

Lenaire gave me a cautioning look.  I looked back at him and whispered in his ear, “I know I can’t tell him about Saltrock, but I think he’s sincere.”

Lenaire smiled at me, shaking his head.  Then, changing the subject he asked Jack, “What exactly happened to you that you ran off from the hara you were with?”

Jack looked straight ahead and answered, “Well, they came into the city we were living in.  Actually my friends and I were barely living.  Things were bad there.  They offered to take us with them and make us har.  We agreed.”  He stopped, fidgeted a bit, then continued.

“We traveled with them for days.  At first it was kind of exciting. They lived pretty well for being nomadic. Then they joined up with some of their friends.  There were about a dozen of them in all.  We watched them steal stuff and intimidate people in the small towns and villages we came through. They were nothing but thieves and bullies.  They had us do their cooking, take care of the horses, carry stuff.  They kept giving us excuses why they weren’t incepting us yet and we began to believe they had no such intention.  We thought they’d tricked us into coming with them and they only wanted to make slaves and servants of us.  We knew we had to get away from them – quick.  One night when they were all asleep or passed out, we just left.  We went back the way we’d come, thinking maybe they wouldn’t want to backtrack to find us.  As far as we know they never came after us.  We soon realized we were hopelessly lost in the wilderness.  You know the rest.”

Jack just got quiet after that.

When we stopped for lunch, Jack again offered to help me, so I asked him to slice bread as I got out smoked ham and cheese.  When we were cleaning up, I intuited that Jack had something to say.  I looked over at him.

He was quiet a moment and then asked me, “The place you live – can we go there?”

“I don’t know.  It’s not up to me, but if they ask me, I’ll certainly put in a good word for you.”

“Thanks,” he said.  “I’d appreciate it.”

I really wanted to help him and his friends.  If intuition counted for anything, I was sure they were good people that just wanted to be peaceful, normal hara.

We traveled the rest of the day and made camp at the creek, like before. After dinner, which Jack helped me with, we all sat around the fire, drinking and relaxing.

I spent some time studying the humans and said to Lenaire, “What do you think of them?”

“I think they’re okay.  From what I’ve seen, they would do well in Saltrock, but I’m not the one to decide.”

“Well, who is?  I mean, do we just leave them somewhere, or can we try to get them into Saltrock?”

“I think if all of us are convinced they’re okay, we can take them with us.  They seem alright to me.  They met some hara they didn’t want any part of.  I had a similar experience, myself.  I think I understand where they’re coming from.  They have my vote.”

I was happy to hear that Lenaire agreed with me.  I didn’t know what the rest of our group thought, but I knew them to be good hara, so I hoped they’d come to the same conclusion.

As we sat drinking, gazing at the flickering flames of the fire, Lenaire nuzzled my face and whispered to me, “Let’s go to our tent.”  I looked into his eyes, kissed him and we left.  I saw Jack watching us and I felt that he wanted what we had, just like I’d wanted what Cal and Pellaz had.  I really felt he belonged in Saltrock and hoped it would work out for him and his friends.

The next morning as I left our tent to start breakfast, I saw Iveth coming toward me.

“Is Lenaire awake yet?”

“Yeah, he’s in the tent.”

He walked over and went inside.  I wondered what he wanted.  I figured maybe it had something to do with the humans.

As I got to the campfire, I saw that Jack had already started the coffee.  He greeted me with a large grin.

“Hi, just thought I’d get things started.  Hope that’s okay.”

“Sure, I’m glad for the help.”

I made rice pudding since it’s filling and easy to make. And our rice supply was plentiful.  I had to use water instead of milk, but with plenty of sugar, it was pretty good.

Soon Lenaire and Iveth joined us.  When I had a minute alone with Lenaire, I asked, “What did Iveth want?”

“He wants to try to contact Reiff by mind touch and ask if the humans can be brought to Saltrock.  We all agree that they’re okay and that we believe they’d be an asset to us. Don’t mention it to any of them until we’re sure, I don’t want to get their hopes up just yet.”

“I won’t.”

I saw Iveth climbing up a hill.  I guessed he needed to be alone to concentrate on the mind touch.  I knew not all Wraeththu were adept enough to do it from a long distance.  Mind touch was definitely something I wanted to learn.  I decided I would ask Lenaire to teach me after we got home.

We cleaned up after the meal and made ready to leave.  Iveth hadn’t returned.  I hoped he wasn’t having trouble convincing Reiff about the humans.  We all just sat around on the ground, waiting.  I saw Chey and Kala joking around with Brendan and Marty and wistfully imagined how great it would be if all humans and hara could get along that well.

After a while, Iveth reappeared and made his way down the hill.  He came over to us, smiling.

“Well, I made contact with Reiff and after I explained all that had happened, he said it’s okay to bring the humans to Saltrock for inception.”

The boys exchanged surprised looks, grinning, and thanked all of us profusely!

I was happy for them and glad that they were allowed to come to Saltrock.

Later, as we sat in the wagon, Jack excitedly asked me, “What’s Saltrock like?  How many live there?  When do we get there?”

“Whoa,” I said.  “One question at a time!”  We laughed.

“Well, I haven’t been there that long myself,”  I said. “But it’s a place where hara work together as a community.  We all help out when and where we’re needed and we share the labor and share in the rewards.”

Lenaire added, “It’s still a bit primitive.  I don’t know what it was like where you’re from, but we just got electricity and a lot of us still live in tents and shacks, but we’re all working to build Saltrock into something better.”

Jack was quiet for a few moments, and then said, “Where I come from it had come down to every man for himself.  Saltrock sounds really good to me.”

“Well,” Lenaire said. “Saltrock needs good hara.”

I looked over at Lenaire and asked, “How much longer until we get there?”

He thought a moment and answered, “We’ll probably get there after dark sometime, I’m not sure exactly.”

We traveled all day and finally stopped for dinner.  Jack and I got some spiced rice and beans ready as well as bread and dried meat.  We also made some coffee.  After we were all done and had cleaned up, we set off again, expecting to arrive at Saltrock late that night.

When we finally got to Saltrock, it was sometime near midnight.  I saw the boys looking around, talking and pointing at things.  They reminded me a lot of my friends and I when we first got to Saltrock.  That prompted me to ask Lenaire a question.

“Do you know where they’ll all stay?”

“I haven’t got a clue.  We’re taking them to meet Reiff now.  He’s expecting us.  He’ll be the one to figure all that out.  My guess is he’ll put them where there’s room.  We hope someday to have a place especially for humans awaiting inception.  A place where they can live, learn and prepare to become Wraeththu.  Then they can choose what they want to do and where they want to live as har.  But that’s only a dream at this point.”

Part of me was wishing I could be here several hundred years from now to see what Saltrock would become.  Then again, being here near its beginning was exciting, too.

Reiff met us when we were almost to the square.  Iveth motioned for the boys to get down from the wagon.  Before he jumped off, Jack smiled at us and said, “Thanks.  Really, thanks a lot.”  Then looking like he thought he should hurry, he jumped down and joined the others.  We watched as Iveth introduced them all to Reiff, then we continued on our way to where we would leave the wagon.  Since it was after midnight, we’d unload it tomorrow.

We walked back with Iveth and Kemahl and when we got to our tents, we went our separate ways.

As we headed for the tent, Lenaire said, “Well, here we are at my tent.  But from now on it’s ‘our’ tent.”

We shared breath at the doorway and then went in.

Once in the newly christened ‘our’ room, Lenaire poured us some sheh and we sat down on the rug.

“That was some trip, huh, Taj?”

“Yeah, I had a blast!”

“What was your favorite part?”

I blushed because I wanted to say it was when we became chesna.

“Mine, too,” he said with a sly smile.

He drew me close to share breath.  Afterwards he said, “I’m dead tired, but I still can’t deny my need for you.”

“I’ll be ouana,” I murmured into his ear.

He chuckled and nodded.

We undressed and lay in the hammock.  We shared breath and I sent him images of my love for him.  I felt him accept them eagerly.  Usually even when Lenaire was soume, he was still somewhat aggressive in the role.  Probably because he was so much stronger and more experienced and I enjoyed him more or less taking the lead.  But the fact that he was fatigued seemed to make him take a more passive role this time.  It was a new experience for me, one I found I relished.  I drew him to me and we shared breath, while I pleasured him with my fingers.  As I did so, I felt him respond.  I was very much the aggressor, and it was highly arousing.  After we kissed and shared breath, I moved my mouth to his soume-lam, sliding my hands under his backside.  I wanted to reach every sikra I could.  He moaned and writhed as I tongued him, his every noise intensifying my own desire.  I then moved back to claim his lips with my own as I thrust my tongue into his mouth and he responded by pushing his tongue to mine.  He moved his hand to my ouana-lim and caressed me.  I hovered above him as he slid down to pleasure me with his mouth.  When he moved back up I looked into his eyes, which were dilated with desire.

“Lenaire -”

“Oh, God, Taj, take me -”

I kissed his lips as I entered him, enjoying his moans into my mouth.  I began to move within him.  It felt so unbelievably good.  I bent to kiss and nip his neck as I thrust into him.  He breathed and moaned with my every thrust, sending waves of euphoria through me to my core.  I began to move faster and deeper, losing myself in the ecstatic feeling of rooning him.  His punctuated noises filled my senses and as he climaxed, he dug his fingers into my back.  I soon followed, spearing deep into him until I climaxed with a shout.

I lay there on top of him, totally spent and satisfied as he smoothed his hands over my back and planted kisses on my neck.  This had been so novel and exciting for me.  I’d been soume and I’d been ouana, of course, but this was different somehow.

We lay there for a while, and finally I eased out of him, lying beside him.

“Taj, you’ve never taken me like that before.  It was wonderful,” Lenaire said.

“I don’t know what came over me, but I really liked it!”

He laughed, drawing me closer.

“We were made for each other,” he said, kissing me slowly on the mouth.

********************************************************

The next morning, we awoke very late.  Judging by the sun, I figured it to be close to noon.

Lenaire was dressing when I awoke.  I sleepily got up and headed for the bathroom in the house.  When I returned, Lenaire gave me a strange smile.  I looked at him, curious.

“Last night was something special,” he said as he came over to me and took me in his arms.

I know I turned red, but I said, “Yeah, I think so, too.”

“Like I’ve said before, you’re full of surprises.”

I buried my face in his neck, a little embarrassed, but ecstatic.

“Let’s have some breakfast and then go help unload the wagon.”

We fixed some hot cereal and coffee on the hibachi and then set off for the wagon.

When we got there, Kemahl, Iveth and Tof were already there.  There were some other hara there who took the goods we’d procured away to their designated places.

Iveth nudged Kemahl and they both looked our way.  Iveth said, “Well, at least one of our ‘couples’ decided to get up today and help out.”

Lenaire cocked his head to the side, regarding them tolerantly.

“Just tell us what we need to do,” he said, obviously taking their comments as a joke.

Kemahl laughed and said, “We’re dividing the things into groups.  Right now we need to get all the fabrics and materials together.”

Lenaire nodded and motioned to me to come over and help him.

We’d been working for about an hour when Chey and Kala showed up.  I knew they were going to be mercilessly bedeviled by Kemahl, Iveth and Tof.

Tof attacked first.

“What are you two doing here?  Don’t you know hara who are in love aren’t expected to do any work?”

Kala stuck his tongue out and Chey gave Tof the finger.  Of course, it was all in fun.  I’m sure Chey and Kala had always done at least their share.

“Shut up, Tof,” Chey said, smiling.  “You’re just jealous.”

“Jealous?!  Of what?”

“Of us.  Of what we have,” Kala said playfully.

“Of what you have?  You mean being stuck with the same har night after night?  I don’t think so!”

Chey and Kala made faces at Tof, but they all ended up laughing.

Then Kemahl started.

“Hey, you two didn’t time your arrival very well.  There’s still work to be done.”

“Fuck you,” Chey said, grinning and waving him off.

Kemahl laughed.

“Come on, all of you,” Iveth said, shaking his head, smirking.  “Quit fucking around and get busy.”

We worked for a few hours, getting things organized into groups and taken to the places they were supposed to go.  When everything was unloaded, Kemahl sat down on the ground and said, “Whew!  We had a really successful trip.  What do you say we all go to the square and celebrate?”

Everyone seemed in agreement, so we made off for the square.  When we got there, we moved two small tables and enough chairs together and all sat down.

Drinks were ordered and everyone seemed to be in very good spirits, due to our success.

We all drank for a while and Kemahl then somewhat drunkenly said, “To us, the most successful excursionists in Saltrock!”

Everyone cheered and drank up.  I looked around, thinking the other hara would be annoyed, but to my surprise, they raised their glasses.  After thinking a moment, I figured that they knew the things they needed and wanted wouldn’t be here without the hara who were willing to go on the excursions and get them.

After partying for a while, we finally separated and went our ways.  When Lenaire and I got back to our tent, there was a note tied to the entrance.  It was for me, I was surprised to discover.  It was from Lon and Sola.  It read:

Taj, we have some news.  We’ll try to come by again, or come and find us.
Lon and Sola

I looked at Lenaire.

“What could this possibly mean?”

He shrugged.

“I guess you’ll have to go see them to find out.”

As I regarded Lenaire and was about to speak, he said, “There’s a couple of hours before dinner.  Why don’t you go now and find them.”

“Okay.  I’ll be back soon.”

I left and went to the tent they lived in.  When I got there I called out to them.  When I didn’t get a response, I let myself in.  They were nowhere to be seen, so I left.  When I got a few yards from the entrance to their tent, I heard their voices.  Soon I saw them approaching.  Lon saw me first and nudged Sola.  They hurried toward me.

“Taj!” Lon said.  “Did you get our note?”

I nodded.

“Boy, have we got some news for you!  Come on in.”

We went into their tent.  It was a cozy place, with a mattress on the floor, a handmade table and three chairs.

“I’ll get us a drink,” Lon said.

I noticed Sola was uncharacteristically quiet and subdued.

After we sat down at their table, I looked to Sola and asked, “Are you okay?  You seem so quiet.”

Sola smiled and answered, “Yeah, sure, I’m fine.  I’m just feeling a little – ”

“Hey!  Don’t spoil it,” Lon said, putting his arm around Sola and kissing him on the cheek.  Sola looked at me and shrugged.

Lon poured us all some wine as we sat at their table.

“So, what’s your news?”  I asked.

Lon and Sola looked at each other.

“You tell him,” Sola said.

Lon nodded and took a deep breath.

“Taj – we’re with pearl.”

I almost spat out my sheh.

“What?!!”

They grinned at each other and Sola repeated, “We’re with pearl.  Or, I am.  I’m going to give birth to a harling.”

I stared at them wide-eyed and disbelieving.

“I, I wasn’t sure that was possible.  I’d heard tales, but -”

“Well it is possible,” Lon stated. “And we’re going to do it!  Or at least, Sola is.”

“How do you know?”

“Well,” Lon began.  “It all came about without our knowing.  One night when we took aruna something happened.”

Sola continued, “During aruna, I felt a part of me open up that I didn’t even know I had.  Lon said he felt it, too.  Like we went somewhere deep inside us both we’d never been before. We both had the same vision of our son.  A lovely young har that we both just knew was our son.  It was so profound an experience that we felt we had to tell somehar about it.”

Lon broke in.

“We decided to tell Nyala, who then told Orien.  Nyala told us Orien wanted to talk to us.”

“We were scared,” Sola said.  “We’d never spoken to a har like him before.”

“Yeah,” Lon added.  “He just sits there with this otherworldly look on his face and you feel like he’s analyzing you from the inside out.”

Sola nodded and continued, “Nyala went with us and when we told Orien what had happened, he seemed very moved and happy.  Orien laid hands on me and closed his eyes.  After several minutes, he said he could sense the mind of our child.  He told us we were going to have a pearl, a son.  We could hardly believe it.  Then he said he’d had reports of other hara who’d given birth, but he’d never seen it with his own eyes.”

I stared at the two of them, trying to take it all in.  Then I said the only thing that came into my mind.

“Are you sure?”

They both nodded.

“This is – this is awesome, almost unbelievable!”

I stood up, as did Lon and Sola.  I embraced them both, still incredulous.

“Congratulations!  I, I don’t even know what else to say!  I mean, do you know what this means?”

“Uh, yeah,” Lon said.  “Wraeththu can procreate.  I’m sure we’re not the first, but,” he shrugged, “maybe we’re one of the first.”

We sat and talked for quite a while.  Finally I said I’d better get back to Lenaire and we said our goodbyes.

“When will your son be born?” I asked.

“Orien said in about two months,” Sola answered.

I couldn’t help looking at Sola’s belly.

“Will you, you know, get fat?”

They laughed and Sola answered, “Orien told us that I would show at some point, but it’s not like a human woman would.  He said he only had other hara’s accounts of what happens but most likely when my time comes, I’ll give birth to a pearl, like an egg.  Then in a week or so the pearl will hatch and a harling will be born.”

I was awestruck at the whole thing.

“That’s amazing!” I said.

“Yeah, we know!” Lon added.

I left, telling them I’d be back to visit soon and headed for our tent.  The entire way back I just kept thinking about how astonishing the whole thing was.  A harling!  And Lon and Sola his parents!  It was astounding.  When I got to our tent, I could hardly wait to tell Lenaire.  I smelled something delicious on the hibachi when I got home, some kind of meat cooking.  I entered our tent and saw Lenaire sitting on the floor.

He turned and smiled warmly at me.

“Did you find your friends?”

“Yeah, and you won’t believe what they told me!”

I related the whole story to Lenaire and as I spoke, I watched a smile grow on his lips.  When I was done, he said, “I knew it.  I knew it was possible.  This is wonderful news, Taj.”

“I’ll say!” I replied, shaking my head in near disbelief.  “Lon and Sola – of all hara!”

“They must be very much in love,” Lenaire said quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve heard that only hara who are extremely close with very strong feelings for each other can create a pearl.”

“Really?”  I moved in closer to him and purred, “Then maybe we should try.”

Lenaire chuckled.

“Maybe.  Do you really feel ready for that?”

“No, not yet.  I think I’d like to have you all to myself for a while.  Besides, Lon and Sola both said they weren’t sure how they did it.”

“Well, we’ll figure it out soon, I think.  And when we do, there will probably be a Wraeththu population explosion!”

Lenaire got us each a bottle of ale and sat down again.

“What’s cooking?  It‘s mouth-watering,” I said.

“Venison.  A friend of Iveth’s gave him some.”

I took another swig of ale, enjoying the luscious smells of the cooking meat.

Lenaire and I sat drinking, waiting for the meat to be done.  Then I remembered we had some potatoes, so I fetched two, poked them with a fork and placed them on the hibachi.

Then we had some time before everything was done.

I sighed.  “I guess I’d better go and see Flick tomorrow.  I know I need to get back to work at Seel’s house.”

“Yes.  And I have to get back to readying the area for the orchard.”

“What kinds of trees are they going to plant out there?”

“I heard that there will be some fruit and some nut trees.”

“Where will they come from?”

“I’m guessing that some hara will be sent north to get seedlings.”

“Oh.”  I sighed, looking at Lenaire.  “I guess our vacation is over.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”  He chuckled.  “But our life together is just beginning.”

He kissed me and we ended up passionately sharing breath.

“Lenaire, please be ouana for me – if we have time before our dinner is ready.”

“There’s always time for aruna, my love,” he said as he took me in his arms.

We disrobed, moved to the hammock and lost ourselves in each other.  I had no sense of how much time had passed, but when we lay satisfied, I could still smell the delectable aroma of the sizzling venison, hopefully not burned to a crisp.

We cleaned up, got dressed and Lenaire checked on the meat and potatoes and looked to me, smiling.

“It’s done to perfection.”

We sat at the low table and enjoyed our meal.  After cleaning up, we went outside and sat at the entrance to our tent, drinking sheh and taking in the rather balmy evening and the full moon.  It didn’t take me long to get very sleepy.  I finally laid my head in Lenaire’s lap and dozed off.  I was awakened by Kemahl’s voice.  I sat up groggily and greeted him.

“I just wanted to tell you two that the four humans are all settled and they’ll be incepted fairly soon,” Kemahl said.

I yawned and asked, “Where did Reiff send them?”

“Well, Brendan and Marty are staying with Chey and Kala.  Mike’s helping at the stables, so he’s staying there and Jack showed some talent for mind touch, a bit unusual for a human, so he’s staying near Orien’s.”

Hmmm, I thought.  That means he’s in the same house with Nyala.  I was glad to hear they’d all found their places.

Kemahl sat down and Lenaire passed him the bottle of sheh.  He took a mouthful and said, “That was certainly some trip to Talith-rana.”

Lenaire nodded.  “More than you know.”  He smiled and winked at me.

We sat talking for a while and then Kemahl said, “I guess I’ll go home.  See you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight,” Lenaire said.  I waved to Kemahl.

Then I couldn’t help wondering, so I asked Lenaire, “Doesn’t Kemahl have, you know, anyone special?”

Lenaire chuckled.  “Kemahl isn’t a ‘one har’ type.  I think he likes to keep his options open.  Or maybe he hasn’t yet met the har that could change his mind.”

I hesitated, and then asked, “Would you say he’s your best friend?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.  We’ve known each other a while.  What are you really asking, Taj?”

I shrugged, turning red.

Lenaire gently turned my face to his.

“Kemahl and I are friends.  We’ve taken aruna a few times.  Is that what you’re wondering about?”

I put my head down so my hair covered my face and shrugged again.

“It’s okay, Taj.  You can ask me anything.  I’ll always tell you the truth.”

I hugged him, my face in his chest.

“I know.”

“Come on,” he said.  “Let’s go to sleep.”

The following morning, I awoke early.  Lenaire was still asleep.  I quietly got some bread and fruit and then left for Seel’s house, leaving a note for Lenaire.

When I got to Seel’s, I could smell coffee brewing, so I knew Flick was up.  I walked in to see Flick cracking eggs into a bowl.  He looked up and smiled broadly at me.

“Taj!  I heard you were back.  How was the trip?”

I shook my head.  “Unbelievable!”

As we got things ready, I related the highlights to him, all except about Lenaire and I.  Then I said, “Oh and there’s one more thing.”  I felt myself blush.

“Lenaire and I are chesna.”

“Really?!  I’m happy for you both, Taj.”

I knew he meant it.

“I’ll be living with him from now on.  But I’ll still be here just like before to work.”

“Great!  I told you I thought things would change.”

“That’s right, you did.  How did you know-?”

He shrugged. “Just a feeling.”

I smiled, shaking my head and got the toast ready.

Soon Seel came into the kitchen and greeted me.

We set the eggs, toast and coffee on the table.  Not long after, Cal and Pellaz came in and sat down.

As we sat down to breakfast Seel said, “Well, Taj, from all reports you had a very successful trip.”

I looked up, not sure what to say, but managed to answer, “Yes, all the hara were very experienced and knowledgeable, and were able to get what we needed.”

Pellaz offered, “And you also managed to add four more hara, or soon to be hara, to our community.”

“Well, yeah.  We think they’ll fit in fine here in Saltrock.”

“That seems to be the consensus,” Seel replied.

Cal and Pellaz exchanged looks and then Cal said, “Well, congratulations seem to be in order.”

Seel regarded them, somewhat unsure.

“To Taj.  And all the hara who went to Talith-rana,” Cal offered, waiting for Seel’s response.

“Oh, yes.  Well done,Taj.  Tell the others,” Seel answered.

“Thanks.  I’ll convey your regards,” I said with a grateful smile to Cal and Pell.

As we all partook of the repast, I particularly relished it. Not so much the food, but the respect Cal had elicited from Seel for my companion’s endeavors.

“Hey, we had some excitement here while you were away,” Flick said to me as he stuffed a piece of toast into his mouth.  “Your friends, Lon and Sola.”

“Yeah!  They told me.  It really blew me away!”

I saw Cal shiver.

“Better him than me.  The whole thing seems freaky in my opinion.”

Pell laughed and Flick said, “Come on, Cal!  It’s a miracle.  It means our race will survive and flourish and fill the earth!”

Cal made a face.

“If you say so.  I just couldn’t do it, that’s all.”

“What about you, Pell?” Flick asked.

Pell’s eyes widened over his coffee cup.  He swallowed with some difficulty and after looking to Cal, said, “Well – maybe someday.”

Cal quirked up the side of his mouth and said, “If we stay together, my love, it will have to be you.”

I saw Seel smirking and we all had to laugh.

After breakfast when Flick and I had finished up, he said, “Seel asked if we would do some cleaning around here.”

“Okay,” I said.

We first started with cleaning the kitchen, and then moved to the other downstairs rooms.  We had some fun poking around in Seel’s “nest” and looking at all his rather exotic collection of decorative things.  I was particularly fascinated with an incense burner that looked like a dragon.  Smoke came out of its nose as the incense burned.

“Check this out,” Flick said chuckling.  He held up a statue of a naked man with a bull’s head.

As we swept up and dusted, Flick asked me, “What was Talith-rana like?”

“Well, it was like nowhere I’ve ever been.  There were all kinds of exotic hara, all kinds of food and goods and…it was awesome!”

There was so much to tell that I just started rambling.

“It’s a city of tents.  Lenaire told me Talith-rana means one thousand pavilions.  And there was a tent full of pools and fountains for bathing.  It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  We stayed in a sort of tent motel. We spent days just looking through the many tents, trying to find what we needed to bring back to Saltrock.  Everything is done by bartering and they were all really good at trading.”

“Did you try your hand at it?’

“Me?  No way!  I just observed.  I’d love to learn, though, so I could go back and really help someday.”

“I’m sure Lenaire would teach you.”

“Yeah.  I want him to teach me mind touch, too.  I’m going to ask him soon.”

Just then there was a knock at the door.  Flick went to answer it and to my surprise, Nyala walked into the kitchen.

“Hi, Taj.  Got a minute?”

I nodded.

“Sure.”

We sat at the kitchen table.

“Lon and Sola told me you were back -”

I grinned excitedly at him.

“How about them!  I still can hardly believe it.  A harling!”

Nyala chuckled, “Yeah I know.  It’s pretty mind-blowing.  They’re kind of celebrities around here now.”

We had a good-natured laugh about that.

Nyala then looked a bit more serious.

“Taj?”  He sighed.  “After you left I felt bad about the way we left things, or about the way I left things.  I even thought about what if something, you know, happened to you.  What if you didn’t come back.  I know that was unlikely, but it really made me think.  I don’t want us to be weird with each other.  I want us to be close.  And I think taking aruna with you just made me kind of go out on a limb, if you know what I mean.  I…”

I could tell this was hard for Nyala.  He was being completely honest with me.  I wanted to end his discomfort.

“I know,” I said.  “We’re best friends.  We took aruna.  Sometimes that can alter a har’s true feelings.  I have to admit to you, I enjoyed it and if you want to be roon friends, even though I’m chesna with Lenaire, I‘d like that.”

Nyala shook his head and said, “No, Taj, I can’t.  That’s part of what I wanted to tell you.  I want us to be friends, I want us to be close, but…I can’t be roon friends.  I hope you understand.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, I do.  It’s fine.”  I was a little disappointed, but I understood. And I was thankful that he still wanted to be close friends.  I knew that being roon friends made him want more from me than I was capable of giving.

“Well,” he said.  “I guess I’d better get back.  My friend’s waiting for me outside.”

“What?  Well, ask him in.”

“I’d like to, but we have an appointment with Orien.  You know my friend.  It’s Jack, one of the humans you brought here.  I’ve kind of taken him under my wing.”

I smiled widely.

“Really?  I think he and his friends will make first-rate hara.  When are they to be incepted?”

“I’m not sure, but Orien’s taken an interest in Jack.  He showed some aptitude for mental abilities above those normal for humans.  I’m kind of his teacher.  Of course Orien will be his mentor when he becomes har.”

“I like Jack and it’ll be good for him to have you for a teacher.”

Nyala blushed a bit.

“Thanks,” he said.

I thought I detected a bit of real fondness for Jack in Nyala’s words and attitude.

Nyala got up to leave and said, “Are we okay, then, Taj?”

I moved to him and embraced him.

“Of course we’re okay, like we always were.”

He hugged me tightly, then with a smile, he let go and left.

I looked out the window and saw him go out to Jack, who was waiting in the courtyard.  They left together and I saw Nyala take Jack‘s hand.  It seemed they already had feelings for each other.  I sighed as I realized that it would never really be like it always had been for Nyala and me, but we were kind of re-establishing our friendship on new ground.  I hoped all we needed was time for it to grow into something new, but just as close.

My somewhat sad reverie was broken by Flick peering into the kitchen giving me his impish smile.

“Did your friend leave.  I thought I heard the door.”

“Yeah.”

“You okay?  You look a little  -”

“I’m fine.”

“Seel wants us to clean and polish the wooden banisters on the stairway.”

As we were cleaning, I thought about how Seel seemed very driven to make his house somewhat of a showplace.  I guessed he wanted it to be an example and inspiration of what Saltrock could become.

When dinnertime came around, Flick and I fixed chicken and noodles, with greens and bread.  And of course, sheh.

As the four of them ate, the conversation turned to the humans we’d brought here and their inception.

“When will they be incepted?” I asked.

“Fairly soon, I think,” Seel replied.  “There’s no point in waiting, really.  We’ll incept the four of them at the same time.  And I want to have all the ritual.  I think it’s important for them and the rest of us to have some ceremony.”

I nodded.  I agreed completely and was very anxious for all this to take place.

“Why aren’t you eating with us?” Seel asked me.

I opened my mouth to answer, when Flick said,  “He’s going to have dinner with his chesnari.”

“Oh,” Seel answered.

I gave a grateful smile to Flick.

When dinner was over, I helped Flick clean up and when we were finished, he said, “All done.  Would you like to take some of the leftovers with you?”

“Yeah! Sure! I would appreciate it!”

Flick set apart enough of the leftovers for two and I took them gratefully.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.

Flick nodded, smiling at me.

I walked home to our tent.  I hadn’t been able to see Lenaire for lunch and I really looked forward to seeing him tonight.

“Lenaire?” I called, as I walked in.

There was no answer, so I decided to go to the house and take a bath before he got there.  As I walked through the kitchen, I noticed the new table and chairs Kemahl was able to get from Talith-rana.  I went upstairs, ran myself a bath and got in.  I was just about finished bathing when I heard footsteps.  Lenaire called, “Taj?’

“Yeah,” I answered.

He came into the bathroom and smiled at me.

“I was hoping it was you in here.  Mind if I join you?”

“Of course not,” I purred, giving him an inviting smile.

He undressed and got in with me.  We added some more hot water and Lenaire rested in the tub, opposite me, our legs stretched out beside each other.

“Ah, this feels good,” he said.  “We did a lot of digging and rock piling today.”

“I thought that would have been all done while we were away.”

“No such luck,” he answered.  “The irrigation ditches are still being worked on.  That’s where they sent me today, and there is still a lot of digging and clearing to be done there.  What did you do today?”

“Flick and I got breakfast fixed, then we cleaned the kitchen and the downstairs rooms, then we polished the wood on the stairs.”  It sounded pretty lame next to the hard work Lenaire did.

I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry you had to work so hard.”

He laughed.  “I’m used to it, my love.  And I like being outside.”

I reached over and ran a strand of his hair through my fingers.

“I love your hair.  It’s like white gold, so silky.”

He chuckled, saying, “Right now it feels dirty and dusty.”

“Let me wash it for you.”

He ducked his head under the water and then turned around.  I got it lathered up and worked it into his hair.

“Mmmm.  God, that feels good.”

When I was done, he ducked under again and then rinsed it under the faucet. Finally, we got out and went to our tent.  I lit the hibachi and put the chicken and noodles in a pot to heat up. Lenaire came out of our room dressed in brown leather pants and a brown long-sleeved pullover shirt.  Standing there in the lamplight, he looked especially gorgeous to me, his hair, even wet, shone light yellow-gold.  He had a hairbrush in his hand.

“I’ll brush it,” I said.

Lenaire sat in front of me and I brushed out his hair.  I loved playing with it, even though to me, that was a very “soume” pastime.  Maybe I was starting to be a bit more comfortable with that aspect of myself.

Soon the aromas let me know the leftovers were ready.

“I think our dinner’s done,” I said.

“It smells good,” Lenaire said.  “What are we having?”

“Chicken and noodles, with greens and some bread.”

We sat down to a dinner of hearty leftovers.

After we put everything away and cleaned up, Lenaire said, “Let’s take a walk, love.”

I nodded, smiling.

We walked through the settlement and out to the soda lake.  As we walked, Lenaire took my hand, giving me a warm smile.  We walked out past the lake and on into a cooler, somewhat grassy area and sat down. We looked up into the night sky. The weather was clear and the stars seemed innumerable. Lenaire lay down, his hands behind his head, gazing at the stars.

“This is beautiful.”

I lay down beside him and looked up into the heavens.

He looked over at me and said, “You rival the stars, my sweet.”

I put my arm over him and laid my head on his chest as he smoothed my hair. I looked up at him and we shared breath.  I saw the ocean with a reflection of the moon on it.  When we parted, I lay back down and said, “I saw the ocean.  Have you been there?”

He hesitated a moment, and then answered, “Yes, as a human child.  My family and I had good times there.  I didn’t realize that’s what I sent you.”

“I’ve never been to the ocean.”

He stroked my back.  “Well, maybe we’ll go there someday.  I’d like to be the one to show it to you.”

“Lenaire?  How long were you with the Varrs?”

“Too long, my love.”  He pondered a moment.  “Actually, it was about eight or nine months, I guess.”

“If it bothers you to talk about it, you don’t have to.”

“I always thought if I tried to bury it in my mind, eventually all the bad memories would go away, but strangely enough, I’ve felt better after telling you about it.  It was always there lurking in the shadows; a ghost haunting me.  Now that I’ve brought it all out, it’s more in perspective.  It’s an experience I had – a bad one, but just that.  I can’t deal with a ghost, but I’ve never had trouble dealing with reality – good or bad, I’ve gotten through it.”

He sighed and said, “I have you to thank for that, my love.”

I hugged him tighter.

“Ask me anything, Taj.  Really.”

“Well…Did you have to go on many missions like the one you told me about?”

“No.  After that one, I left.  Before that, I was trained for several months.  They had very strict rules and codes for us and some went beyond training for battles.  They had the attitude that we should only acknowledge our ouana aspect and that the soume aspect should not be encouraged.  That, they told us, was for consorts.  Of course, we soldiers took aruna with each other, but most of the higher-ups had consorts that looked like females.  I thought they were just rehashing a lot of old human notions and denying their own hara their full potential.  Maybe not all Varrs thought that way, but all the ones I met did.  I even heard rumors of facilities where they were desperately trying to figure out how to procreate to increase their numbers quickly.  Of course all hara have the right to their particular customs and way of life, but when they try to lord it over other hara and force their beliefs on them, they cross the line.”

“Didn’t the others from your village disagree with the Varrs, too?”

“I’m sure they did, some maybe only at first, but they were probably afraid to try to leave.  I decided if I couldn’t leave, I’d die trying.”

“Why didn’t you go home?”

“Partly because I thought they’d look for me there and maybe take it out on my family or others in the village.  But – ”  he paused.  “Well, I knew I really wasn’t my parents’ son or my sister’s brother any more.  They probably wouldn’t have even recognized me. The Varrs chopped off my hair and my uniform would have looked alien to them. My family would have been upset by the fact that I’d become one of  ‘them,’ I think.  I knew my future had to be with my own kind.  And I knew there had to be other hara out there that were peaceful.”

“God, Lenaire, you’re the bravest har I’ve ever met.”

“Taj, I’m not brave.  I just had to accept what life handed me and deal with it as best I could.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that, I just held him close. We lay there, looking up at the stars for quite a while.  Eventually Lenaire kissed the top of my head and said softly, “Let’s go home, my sweet love.”

**************************************

Life went on fairly uneventfully for a couple of weeks or so, then one day at breakfast Seel announced that the four humans were going to be incepted in a few days. He told us he’d already sent for a Hienama and that Brendan, Marty, Mike and Jack were in the Forale House undergoing the required fasting and cleansing.

I was really looking forward to the Harhune.  I remembered how I’d felt at Pell’s inception and also at the Grissecon.  I thought it strange that I’d never had much interest in spiritual things when I was human, but now I found ritual and ceremony inspiring. That evening after dinner as we sat in our tent, I told Lenaire about the inceptions.  Then something occurred to me.

“Lenaire?”  I asked.  “Is the Nayati just for special occasions?”

“Well, in some places the Nayati is only constructed for special occasions, but here in an established settlement, it’s permanent and you can go there to meditate or whatever anytime you want.”

“Really?  Have you ever done that?”

“On occasion – pretty rare occasion.  But it was very relaxing and pleasant.  I don’t know why I don’t go there very often.  I guess it just doesn’t occur to me.  We can go there if you want to, love.”

“Yeah, I feel like I’d like to go some time, even though I don’t actually know what to do there.”

“Well, some hara meditate to get to a fluid and tranquil state of mind or to exercise their mental powers and strengthen their skills.  Some go to sort out a problem.  And some go to speak to the dehara.  It depends on the har, I guess.”

“Do you believe there are dehara?”

He smiled, shaking his head.

“I’m not sure.  I like to keep an open mind, though.  And I’m convinced there must be other planes of existence or something of that nature.”

Then I thought of another burning question.

“Lenaire?  Will you teach me how to mind touch?”

“What?  Well, sure, but I’m really no teacher.  And I’m not adept enough to do it long distance.”

“I don’t care about that.  I just want to be able to do it with you or Flick or my other friends.”

He thought a moment and then said, “Okay.  Let’s try.”

He sat down, cross-legged in the middle of the tent floor and had me sit across from him.

“Let’s start with sharing breath.  Our minds touch when we do that, so we’ll start there.  I’ll send you images and then you concentrate on what you send me.  Remember our shared dream?”

I nodded, fondly recalling the experience.

“Well, we really connected when that happened, so even though this time we’re only connecting our minds, not our bodies, it still requires a degree of intimate closeness.”

He laughed, a twinkle in his eye, and added, “I might be a better teacher for you if I didn’t have constant roony thoughts about you.”

He made me blush and laugh.

“Let’s try to do this platonically,” he said with a smile and a deep cleansing breath.

We shared breath and I saw images of his homeland; fields, hills and mountains covered in sparkling snow, evergreen trees bent low with the weight of heavy snowfall and icicles glistening in the stark winter sunshine.  When the images faded, I decided to send him views of the desert: cacti blooming, wind-chiseled rock mountains and cloudless cerulean skies.  Lenaire parted our lips, took another deep breath and said, “I saw a desert with mountains of rock, cacti and blue skies.”

“Yes!  That’s what I sent you.  I was never sure before, but that was it!”

I was excited because all I had to do was concentrate, it seemed.  I was also relieved.  I’d had fears of being the only har ever incepted who couldn’t mind touch.

“Now let’s start by sharing breath, again sending each other images, but then parting our lips, trying to keep the connection going without touching physically and try to send different images after we’ve separated.  I’ll send some first, then you.  If you don’t see anything, still try to send to me, okay?”

I nodded.  This sounded a lot more difficult and I started to lose my new-found confidence.

We shared breath again and I saw his pictures of a flowing stream.  I concentrated and sent him images of a starry sky.  Then we parted our lips and I tried to hold the connection in my mind.  I saw a clear image of the moon, but I was so surprised that I opened my eyes and the connection was lost.

“Shit!” I spat out.

Lenaire laughed at me.

“I saw the moon and then I lost it.  Shit!”

“It’s okay, Taj.  I think that’s good for a first try.  After all, you saw it after we weren‘t touching anymore.”

I rubbed my hands over my face, feeling stupid, but then I had to laugh, too.

“Let’s try again, sweet one,”  Lenaire said.

We shared breath as before, and then when we moved apart I saw a field of orange poppies.  I kept calm and when the image faded, I tried to send him a picture of a lake with swans on it.

I kept trying to concentrate on the image and sending it, when I heard Lenaire let out a deep breath.

“Taj?”

I opened my eyes, full of anticipation.

Lenaire smiled and said, “Swans on a lake.”

“Yeah!  Swans on a lake.  We did it!”

“You actually picked up on this quickly.  Really.  And I’m not just saying that because you’re the love of my life.”

I blushed, as usual.

“Maybe it’s because we’re so close.”

“Maybe,” he said.  “But I think you show a lot of promise.  We’ll practice with images some more and then we’ll graduate to thoughts and words.”

“Okay.”

As always, Lenaire gave me confidence in myself.

***********************************************

The next day when I went to work at Seel’s, I asked Flick about the Harhune for the four humans.

“So the three-day stay in the Forale House has started?” I asked.

“Yeah, they went there yesterday, so day after tomorrow, we’ll have the ceremony,” Flick answered.

“Will that awesome har with the fiery red hair be there, like at Pell’s Harhune?”

“No.  Seel’s sent for the nearest Hienama.  He’s been here before for inceptions.  His name is Sestus.”

“Oh.”  I was a little disappointed.  I wanted to catch another glimpse of the unearthly Thiede.

“What exactly happens in the Forale House?”

“The inceptees have to fast for three days to make the physical changes go easier and they have to be bodily cleansed to eradicate any human pride.”

“Why would someone who wants to be har have human pride?”

Flick shrugged.  “For some it’s probably just a formality, but if there is any human pride or stubbornness, it has to be cleansed.”

I still didn’t quite understand, but I left it to those more intelligent and experienced than I am to figure it out.

“Will it be like Pell’s inception?”

“Not exactly.  His was…special.  The humans will process to the Nayati with the hara that will be giving them their blood.  We’ll watch and throw flowers and petals in their path and over them.  Then we’ll gather at the Nayati, like before.  There will be the Shicawm for each of them and then they’ll probably state publicly that they’re being incepted of their own free will and then the rest will be in private.  Seel may add some to the ritual, but that‘s pretty much how it goes.”

“You mean we won’t get to see the exchange of blood?”

“No, that’s always done privately.”

I nodded, a bit disappointed.  I thought that we didn’t get to see that before because Pellaz was an exception.  I guess I was just hoping to see it because there was no ritual whatsoever at my inception and I just wanted to see how it should be done.

Flick and I got breakfast and then there really wasn’t much else for us to do that day except to wash and hang out all the bedding.

When lunchtime came around, Flick said, “If you want to go have lunch with Lenaire, that’s fine.  We really don’t have much to do until dinner.”

I grinned.  “Thanks.  I’ll see you later.”

On the way to the orchard area, I stopped at our tent and quickly got a sandwich for myself and grabbed a few bottles of ale.  When I got to the area where they were working on the irrigation ditches, I saw Lenaire sitting with a group of hara, eating their lunches.  When he saw me, he smiled and got up, walking toward me.

“Taj!” he said.  “I didn’t expect to see you today.”

“We didn’t have that much to do until dinner.”

“I’m glad,” he said, taking my arm. “I know a good place,” he added.

We went a ways away from the rest of the hara, up a steep pathway and sat on a rock, overlooking the lush part of the gardens.  We sat and ate our lunches and shared several bottles of ale.

“Flick told me that day after tomorrow the humans will be incepted,” I said.

“I’m looking forward to it, love.”

“He also told me we won’t get to see the actual exchange of blood.”

“No, that’s usually private in civilized ritual.”

“I kind of wanted to see it, you know, to see how it should be done.  I leaned on the word should, realizing just how bothered I was that I’d not been able to have a proper ritualized inception.  In fact there’s been no ritual at all.

“I understand, but we’ll get to see them process to the Nayati and the Shicawm and their pledges.”

“I know.”

“As I understand it, they’ll have to be heavily drugged to undergo the cutting and what follows.  It would probably be considered barbaric to subject that to public view.”

I looked at him.  He was so knowledgeable and experienced.  I was in awe of him.

“Yeah.  You’re right.  I never thought about it that way.”

“It will be a joyful day, that I’m certain of.  And when they come through the change, the whole of Saltrock will celebrate.  Something else to look forward to, my sweet.”

That night Lenaire and I practiced more mind touch.  I could actually hear his words in my mind and he could hear mine.  As long as we were in close proximity and I concentrated, we could do it.  I was thrilled.

“You,ve learned very fast, love, really,” he said.  “Now you’ve got to learn to shield your thoughts from all but the one you’re sending to.  I’m not highly adept and I’m sure any har of high caste could easily hear my thoughts.

This sounded a whole lot more difficult and I started to wonder if I’d ever master it.  Despite that, I was determined to try.

“You’ve learned quickly to do mind touch at close range.  Now you need to learn to shield.  Then when you’ve mastered the two, you need to learn to shield your thoughts from all but the one you’re sending to.  It’s a process.  You learn to master one thing at a time. It’s a lot more difficult to shield than to send or receive.  Don’t get discouraged if it takes some time to learn.”

He sighed.  “It’s hard to teach shielding.  It’s like trying to teach someone to whistle.  You can show them how to form their lips and tell them to blow, but they just have to experiment until they get it.  Once you get it, you’ll know and you’ll never forget.  Shielding will become second nature, but you just have to concentrate on blocking and try until you get it.”

I looked at him, certain that it would take me forever, even if I ever could do it.

“Taj, I know you think it’s impossible for you, but it isn’t.  You caught on fast to mind touch, truly.  I have every confidence that you’ll catch on to shielding, too.  I wish you had a better teacher, then -”

“No!”  I touched his face.  “You’re the best teacher for me.”

He smiled, a bit of uncertainty in his expression.

“I mean it.  If I can’t learn from you, well, then I guess I can’t learn.”

He gave me a helpless smile and shook his head.

“Come on.  Just tell me what to do.”

He took a deep breath and said, “Alright, Taj.  I’ll send you an image.  When you see it, try to close your mind to it and block it out, okay?”

I nodded.

We sat silently for a few minutes, and then I got a picture of a mountain.  I tried to close my mind to it, but I couldn’t.  I tried harder, but then had to open my eyes and break the connection.

“I saw a mountain, but I couldn’t block it out.”

“Maybe, since I’m more adept and not a real teacher I can’t teach this to you.  Maybe there’s a trick to helping you to be able to block my images that I don’t know.  I don’t know how to block on a beginning level anymore, so maybe you need to get a real instructor.”

“I don’t want to do that.  Let’s try again, please?”

He smiled and said, “Whatever you want, my sweet.”

We tried again and again, many times, but I couldn’t block his images from my mind.

Finally, I said, “It’s no use.  I lack the knowledge and skill.  I can’t do it.”

“Let’s stop for now.  We can try again tomorrow.”

I nodded.

Later, when we lay in the hammock, I asked Lenaire, “Where did you learn mind touch and shielding?”

“The Varrs.  There are only three things I can thank them for: teaching me the basics of mind touch and shielding, how to fight and defend myself and how to survive in the wilderness.”  Then he added, chuckling, “Okay, four.  They were the first to distill sheh.”

I laughed, then asked, “How did you learn shielding?”

“From a har that was more adept…”  He paused, as though he had a revelation. “Yeah, from a har more adept!  We just kept at it until we all got it.  That’s it, Taj!  There’s no trick to it,  we just need to keep at it!  Of course!  You can’t learn from somehar on an equal level.  You just have to keep trying.  When you can shield your thoughts from somehar who is more adept, you’ve got it!  You’re a genius, Taj!”

“Me?  I don’t think so!”

“Well you’ve hit it.  We’ve just got to persevere.  When you can shield your thoughts from me, you’ve mastered the technique!  It’s just a matter of time and practice.”

He gathered me in his arms, and then looked into my eyes.

“You’re really something else, Taj.”

“I got lucky.”

“No, I did,” he said, pulling me to him.

**************************************************************************

The next day passed uneventfully and seemed long to me because I was so looking forward to the following day when the young men would be incepted.  I’d heard from Flick that the Hienama had arrived and all was set to go as planned for the ceremony.

That night Lenaire and I practiced more with my shielding.  The closest I came to blocking one of his images was when I thought I saw it fade slightly.  I figured I’d imagined it and gave a frustrated sigh.

“Don’t be discouraged Taj,” Lenaire said gently.  “We’ve both got a lot on our minds with the inception ceremony tomorrow.  I think we should just forget it for tonight.”

I nodded, feeling my shoulders sag.

Lenaire added with a sly look, “I bet we can come up with something else to pass the time.”

He slid his hands under my shirt, kissing my neck, then nibbling my ear.  I smiled in satisfaction and turned my face to his as we shared breath.  Soon we moved to our hammock, shed our clothes and totally abandoned ourselves to our love and need for each other.  Afterward, when we lay satisfied, Lenaire said, “Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am.  I’m almost afraid something will come along and spoil what we have, it’s so precious to me.”

I sat up.  “Don’t say that!

He laughed at me.  “I’m sorry, Taj.  It’s just so good between us, like it’s unreal.”

“But is IS real. Don’t jinx it!”

He chuckled, drawing me close.  He smoothed my hair and said, “We can’t jinx it. What we have is real and strong.  He turned my face to his.

“I love you, Taj.”

“And I love you,” I said just before pressing my lips to his.

***********************************************

The day of the boys’ inception dawned clear and beautiful.  After Lenaire and I had breakfast, we headed for the main road through Saltrock.  There were already bunches of flowers placed at intervals along the route the procession would take so that we could strew them in their path and shower over them as they passed.  We were among some of the first ones there, so we chose our position along the road close to the Nayati.  Soon hara began to fill in along the road and I saw Lon and Sola coming toward us.

“Hi Taj, hi Lenaire,” Lon said.  We returned his greeting.

“Beautiful day, huh?”  Sola added.

“Hey, look at this!”  Lon said excitedly.  He pulled up Sola’s shirt to show us his belly.

“LON!”  Sola said, embarrassed, but grinning.

There, I could see a small swelling.  Sola was so thin that it was obvious.

They both giggled.

“Can you feel him move?”  Lenaire asked.

“If I’m lying down quietly on my back, sometimes,” Sola replied.

“If I put my ear to Sola’s belly, I can feel it too, sometimes.”

I smiled at them.  They were so excited about the whole thing.  But then I thought – who wouldn’t be?

Soon the conversation turned to the ceremony.

“I think it’s great that Nyala is the one to give Jack his blood,”  Sola said.

“Yeah,” I answered.  “I’m happy for them.  And Chey and Kala are going to incept Brendan and Marty.”

We didn’t know who Mike had chosen.

We stood there talking and in a short while we heard cheering in the distance.  The procession had begun.  I was particularly excited because I knew so many hara coming down the road.  I was especially excited for Jack and Nyala.  Soon I saw flowers being thrown onto the road and petals flying through the air floating slowly down on the hara in the procession.  First I saw the Hienama, followed by Seel and Orien, then I caught sight of the boys and the hara.  We threw flowers in their path and tore off petals to throw over them as they passed.  The boys faces were glowing.  Chey and Kala were smiling and laughing.  Then I saw Jack and Nyala, hand in hand.

Lon yelled, “Hey Nyala!  Nyala!”

He looked over at us, grinning, as we showered them with petals.  He caught my eye and winked at me.  Jack, Chey and Kala and the other boys waved as well. They paraded into the Nayati as the crowd followed, some still throwing petals.  We found seats on the tiered benches and waited expectantly for the ceremony to start.  I looked around and saw Kemahl.  He, Iveth and Gerel sat behind us, not far away.

The slab was there as it had been for Pellaz’ inception, but there was a larger area curtained off for this ceremony.  I couldn’t see beyond the slab, but I assumed there were three more makeshift slabs for all the boys to lie on for the exchange of blood.

Soon we saw the boys and the hara take their positions and as the Hienama raised his hands, the crowd quieted.  Each boy stood beside the har that would be incepting him.  With the elation of the procession over, the boys’ demeanor had changed.  I was sure that looking at the slabs before them, the reality of what they were about to do became all-encompassing to them, showing in their faces; thoughts and images of pain and maybe even death pervading their minds. The Hienama turned his back to us and beckoned the first pair forward.  It was Brendan and Chey.  Brendan stood before the Hienama, Chey beside him, his hand on Brendan’s shoulder.  Even though tension was evident in each young man’s expression and stance, they each came forward boldly, their determined voices belying what must have been behind them.

“Brendan,” the Hienama announced.  “Do you do this of your own free will?”

“I do,” Brendan answered.

The exchange was repeated for the other three boys, all of them making their pledges in turn.  I found it especially poignant when it was Jack and Nyala’s turn and tears filled my eyes.

Then some hara came forward to carry out the Shicawm, the shaving of the sides of the boys’ heads.  They were each done in turn, brown, blond and red hair filling the silver dish that caught it after the shaving; a sacrifice for their rebirth.

Afterward they all stepped back, the Hienama raised his hands in ritual gesture and the black curtains were lowered as before, the rest of the ceremony to be done in private.

We sat silently for a few moments and then hara quietly began to file out of the Nayati.  It had been a very emotional experience for me; mostly because of Jack and Nyala, but also because I knew all the humans who were to become har.  Lenaire must have noticed.

“You okay, Taj?” he asked as he put his arm around me.

“Sure, I’m fine.”

I was glad to rest in his embrace.

“Let’s go to the square.”

“I’d like that.”

We sat with Sola, Lon, Kemahl, Iveth and a har I didn‘t recognize.

As we sat down Lenaire said to the har unfamiliar to me, “Gerel, this is Taj, my chesnari.”

Gerel, a swarthy har with a friendly smile, extended his hand.

“Well, nice to finally meet you, Taj.”

“Same here,” I said as I took his hand.

“Gerel’s just returned from a foraging excursion.”

“What’s that?”  I asked.  “Is it different from a trading excursion?”

“Yes,” Lenaire explained.  “A foraging excursion is much more dangerous.  Hara go a long way to abandoned human cities, sometimes in dangerous territory to scour them and find things we need and bring them back to Saltrock.  They have to brave hostile tribes out in the wilderness and sometimes brave the hara who claim to own the cities, or tangle with other hara vying for the same goods.”

“Have you ever done that?”

“Only a couple of times.  I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of work.”

“Good!”

He laughed.

We got plenty of drinks and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon having a good time.  No one worked on this day in Saltrock.  It was a sacred day.

Later, Lenaire and I went back to our tent.  We both had to use the bathroom, so we went into the house.  When I came out of the bathroom, Lenaire was in the room next to it – the room that would be ours when the house was ready.  He was staring out the window, a thoughtful expression gracing his handsome face.  I came up and embraced him from behind.

“You know, Taj, I should start building us a bed so we could move into this room.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot more space in here and I like the view out the window.  But I have a real emotional attachment to the hammock.”

Lenaire laughed.  “Yeah, me, too.  Maybe we should put it in the corner of the room.”

I chuckled hugging him close.

We went back to the tent and decided to take a nap.  We were pretty tired since we’d drunk a lot early in the day.  We nestled together in the hammock and with Lenaire’s breath in my ear, I fell into a peaceful sleep.  I woke up, I don’t know how much later with an insistently full bladder.  As I passed through the kitchen I saw Iveth and Gerel at the table, drinking.  They both gave me a friendly smile as I passed through.  When I came back down Gerel asked, “Where’s Lenaire?”

“He’s asleep in our tent,” I answered, still a bit bleary-eyed.

“Well, when he wakes up come back here, both of you.  I’ve got something to tell you.”

I looked at him quizzically and nodded but didn’t ask any questions.  I lay back in the hammock and slept some more.  When I felt Lenaire stir, I awoke, too.  He embraced me and said, “There’s nothing more peaceful than sharing sleep with the one you love.”

I held him close.  He had such a way of making me feel perfectly content.  Then I remembered and said, “Gerel wants to talk to us.”

“Huh?  When did you see him?”

I laughed.

“I saw him a while ago when I went to the bathroom in the house.  He and Iveth were at the table in the kitchen.”

Lenaire still seemed somewhat confused.

“Oh.  The kitchen?  Okay, give me a minute.”  He put on a shirt and we headed for the house.  Gerel and Iveth were still at the table, quite a bit more drunk than when I’d seen them before.

“Hey, there you are,” Iveth said as we joined them at the table.

“I’ve got something for you,” Gerel said.  “I found it on the foraging excursion.  I was going to keep it for myself, but since you two are chesna, I thought you could put it to more and better use.”

Lenaire stared at him and I wondered what it was he was talking about.

Gerel leaned forward and said, “I heard that you two would move into the room in the house if you had a bed.   I found a mattress.  It looks new and it’s very clean.  When I heard that and saw your room, I knew I had to give it to you two.  Enjoy it!”  He winked at us as he and Iveth chuckled.

I turned red, I’m sure, but I was excited.  Even though I loved the hammock, a mattress afforded a lot more room for comfort and “innovation.”

“Thanks!”  I said.

“I’ll go and get it-” Gerel started to say.

“No!”  I interrupted, feeling embarrassed as they all stared at me.

“Well, it’s just…we’ll get it tomorrow, okay?”

Gerel shrugged.  “Okay, whatever you want.”

I mind touched with Lenaire.  Just one more night in the hammock?

He smiled and answered back, Yes.  One more lovely, memorable night.

“Let me buy you dinner at the square,” Lenaire said to Gerel.

Gerel shook his head.

“Come on, it’s the least I can do for your thoughtful gift to us.”  He put his arm around Gerel.  He nodded, giving in and we set off.

After a congenial, somewhat drunken dinner we said our goodbyes to Iveth and Gerel and went back to our tent.  After Lenaire lit a lamp we sat down at the low table.  All I could think about was our memorable night to come in the hammock.

I spoke to him mind to mind – Lenaire

He moved over to me caressing my face, and gently pressed his lips to mine.  We shared breath, tasting each other and sharing images.  I heard his vioce in my mind, Taj, my love, will you be ouana for me?

I looked into his eyes, nodding as he feathered his fingers into my hair and planted kisses on my neck.  We disrobed and moved to the hammock, lying facing each other.  My ouana-lim came to life quickly and I found him already soume as I slid my fingers to his soume-lam.  He moaned as I touched him, adding to my growing desire.  I craved his scent and essence and moved down his body with my mouth to his soume-lam.  I savored his citrus-salty taste as I pleasured him.  I brought him to the brink of completion and then stopped and moved back up to kiss him.  He was breathing hard, his eyes closed, a lovely wanton expression on his face.  He breathed my name and I moved to enter him.  I did so slowly and elicited a sound from him that spoke both agonizing need and ecstatic pleasure.  I moved inside him, thinking of nothing on earth but our mutual fulfillment.  When the moment came it was blissful, quivering and strong.  I lay, totally spent on top of him.  We kissed long and slow.  When I finally softened within him, I withdrew and lay with my ear to his heart as he smoothed his hand over my back.  We didn’t need words either from our lips or our minds.

Later, after sleeping for a while, I asked Lenaire to be ouana for me and we became one again and then slept soundly until fairly late the next morning.

When I awoke, I was at first disoriented and started, thinking I should already be at Seel’s.  Then I remembered I didn’t have to be there that day, and relaxed.  Lenaire was still sleeping and I lay next to him, savoring his scent and the feel of his skin on mine.  I remembered our last night in the hammock and smiled.  However, moving our sleeping quarters into the house would be exciting.  There was the bathroom with the tub right next to it and the beautiful view out the window.  I knew we’d be happy there.  After dozing off again for a while, I later felt Lenaire stir and woke up.  He stretched and looked over at me.  Taking me into his arms, he said, “I enjoyed our last night in the hammock.”

“So did I.”

“Now we can look forward to many memorable nights in our new bed,” he said, smiling.
I nodded, relaxing into his embrace.

Soon, we got up, dressed and had breakfast.  I had something on my mind and said, “I’d like to go see Nyala.  I want to find out how Jack and the others are faring.”

Lenaire nodded. “Sure.  Go ahead.  I’ll clean up.”

I gave him a grateful smile and left.

When I got to the house Nyala lived in I knocked and a har answered the door and said Nyala was in his room.  I went up the stairs and knocked on his door.  He opened it and gave me a welcoming smile.

“Taj!  Hey, good to see you.  Come in.”

“Hey.  I was wondering how Jack and the other boys are doing.”

“As well as can be expected.  They’re in a house where some experienced hara can take care of them and keep them comfortable to a certain extent.”

“Have you been to see him?”

“No.  It’s not allowed.  But they keep me informed and when he’s through the change, I can see him.”

I hesitated and then asked, “Will you be his first aruna partner?”

Nyala blushed and said, “Yeah.”

“I’m glad.  Jack’s lucky.”

Nyala laughed, shaking his head.

Changing the subject, I asked, “Has he chosen a harish name?”

Nyala nodded.

“Cinnabar. Because of his red hair.”

“It suits him.”

We talked for a little while and eventually I said, “Well, I guess I’d better get back.  I paused and then added, “I’m really happy for you and Jack, er, Cinnabar.  I really mean it.”

“Yeah, I know you do.  Thanks.”

We embraced and then I left.  On the way back to Lenaire, I couldn’t help but think of how differently things had turned out than I had originally expected.  So many twists and turns that I hadn’t seen coming, but that’s life, I guess.  Human or har, things happen that you can’t predict.

**************************************************************************

When all the humans had come through the change, a celebration was held.  We all gathered at the square, in our best clothes to celebrate and welcome our new hara to the community.

The Hienama, Seel and Orien stood up with the new hara and introduced them with their new harish names.

We all quieted as Sestus the Hienama announced each of the new hara, introducing them in turn.  Brendan, Marty, Jack and Mike were presented to the Saltrock community as Fortune, Skye, Cinnabar and Equus.  We all cheered, officially welcoming them as har and as citizens of Saltrock.  A very long and celebratory party followed.

At some point, the new hara left with their first aruna partners to a lot of drunken cheering and howls.  It was probably a bit embarrassing for the new inceptees, but it was a very special night for them, so they probably didn’t care.

Afterward, the rest of us kept the party going for awhile.  Then, when we’d had enough, Lenaire and I went back to our tent.  We’d had the mattress in our room in the house for a few days, but still used the hammock.  After our “last” night in the hammock we found we just couldn’t bear for it to be our last.  When we got home that night, Lenaire said, “This is a night for firsts.  Let’s go to our room and our bed.”  It was only a mattress, but we called it our bed.

I nodded.

Lenaire took some candles and a lamp and some sheh with us.  We entered our new room and Lenaire closed the door.  He set the candles at intervals on the floor and lit them, which gave the room an inviting feel.  I threw some blankets I’d brought onto the mattress.

“Let’s take a bath,” Lenaire said as he put his arms around me.

He ran some water and when the tub was full, we disrobed and got in.  We soaked a while and then Lenaire gave me a sensual smile and leaned forward to kiss me.  The warmth of the water, his scent and his lips on mine were so arousing.  We began to share breath, his tongue engaging mine, and I lost myself in his images.  I tried to concentrate on the images I sent him, but they soon dissolved into my physical need for him.  We moved closer and I sat in front of him, my legs around his waist.  I instinctively became soume and wanted him to take me right then.  He stopped us and said breathily, “Taj.  Let’s get out and go to our bed.”

Reluctantly I pulled away and nodded.  We dried off and went into our room.  Standing there in the candlelight, Lenaire was so beautiful; his red and violet ouana-lim resplendent in the flickering candlelight.  I moved closer to him and held him fiercely in my arms.

“Taj,” he murmured, “you’re so beautiful, so beautiful, my love…”

We kissed and shared breath, standing next to the mattress.  Soon we lay down and Lenaire continued his kisses.  He moved slowly down my body with lips and tongue to my soume-lam.  I moaned in anticipation.  He gently spread my legs and touched me with his fingers.  Then he pleasured me with his fingers and tongue, reaching deeply to my sikras.

“Mmmm, oooooh,” I moaned uncontrollably.  Finally, he stopped and moved back up my body to kiss me.  I took his ouana-lim into my hands, gently caressing and stroking it until it flowered.  Then I laid him back on the bed and moved my mouth down his body.  As I moved my lips and tongue teasingly over his ouana-lim, I savored the unique taste and beauty of every petal, his essence glinting in the candlelight.  I relished his flavor, the delicious taste of my beloved and delighted in his every moan and movement.

“Taj.  My god, let me take you.”

I lay on my back and reached eagerly for him and as he penetrated me, I was lost in erotic euphoria.  As he moved within me, I felt like I was soaring, floating in another world.  Soon, I saw colors swirl around me and felt the delectable sensation of my imminent release.  When the moment came, the strong spasms left me breathless.  I heard Lenaire groaning in pleasure as he found his release as well.  Afterward, both of us lay spent and motionless.  It had been so intense, euphoric and surreal and I wanted to revel in it as long as I possibly could.

Finally Lenaire lay next to me, pulling me close.

“Taj,” he whispered.

“I love you,” I breathed.  The next thing I knew it was morning.

Lenaire was still asleep, so I got up quietly and went into the tent to get myself something to eat.  I had to get to Seel’s house and I knew Lenaire had to get up soon to work in the  orchard.  I quietly went back to our room.  Lenaire was still sleeping and I watched him, wishing I could crawl back into bed with him.  I sighed resignedly and left for Seel’s.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

The weeks passed and Lenaire and I settled into the rather busy routine of life in Saltrock.  The bulk of hard work at the orchard was finally finished and Lenaire had some time to work on things in the house.  He almost had a wooden bed frame finished and with help from Iveth, Gerel and Kemahl, he’d built an outdoor cooking pit.  It was made of bricks so it was actually an attractive as well as functional addition to the back yard area.  It was designed around a large grate to be placed over it.  Since it was much larger than the hibachi, we could cook whole meals on it.

Lenaire and I continued to work on my thought shielding and finally I was able to shield, then not long after I could shield from all but the one I was sending to.  Iveth and Kemahl helped us with that.

Iveth had also moved into his room in the house even though he was sleeping on a makeshift bed on the floor.  Things were shaping up and had changed quite a bit since I’d first come here.

One night after we’d finished dinner and were sitting at the table, a har came running in, stopping in the doorway, catching his breath.

“Which one of you is Taj?”

“That’s me,” I said, bewildered.

“Come with me.  Sola’s giving birth.  He wants you there.”

I looked to Lenaire.

“Well, go on!” he said, grinning.

“Hurry!” said the har.

We ran to Lon and Sola’s tent.  There I found Orien and Seel at the bedside.  Sola lay on the bed, half propped up on pillows, groaning in pain, Lon holding his hand and wiping the sweat from his face.  Soon Sola relaxed and seem to be getting a respite from the pain.  He smiled into Lon’s eyes as Lon bent down to kiss him on the forehead.  Sola turned his attention to me.

“Taj!  I’m glad you’re here.”

I moved closer and smoothed his hair.

“I wouldn’t miss this,” I said.

Soon I heard movement behind me and turned to see Nyala in the doorway.  I stepped back.

“You made it!”  Sola said to Nyala.

Nyala smiled and replied, “Of course I did.  How do you feel?”

“Fine now, but don’t ask me that when the next pain comes.”

It had only been a few minutes when Sola tensed up, gritted his teeth and moaned again.  I could see him squeezing Lon’s hand.  It must have hurt, but Lon didn’t let on.

Orien pulled the covers off Sola and asked him to draw up his knees and spread his legs.  I noticed Sola had a mat under him and figured they were expecting this to be messy.

Orien inspected Sola as he continued to grunt in pain.

“It shouldn’t be long now.  I can see the surface of the pearl as he’s bearing down.  Sola,” he instructed calmly after the pain had subsided.  “Next time a pain comes I want you to push as hard as you can.  Work with the sensation to bear down.”

Sola nodded.

He did as Orien instructed and after about twenty minutes of literally gut-wrenching pushing, we saw the pearl slide out of him.  Sola lay back, exhausted.  Lon buried his face in Sola’s neck as they both shed tears of relief and joy.

My own eyes welled up and it was then I noticed Nyala had slipped his hand in mine.  I looked into his eyes as he smiled through the tears running down his cheeks.

Orien and Seel were wiping off the pearl and carefully inspecting it.  I wondered if they really had any idea what they were doing.

Sola and Lon were craning their necks to see their pearl.

“Is it okay?  Can we see it?”  Sola asked.

Orien brought the pearl over to them.  Sola eagerly took the pearl into his arms and cradled it, his instincts seemed to be telling him to keep it warm.  He and Lon smoothed their hands lovingly over the brownish mottled egg.  They were talking quietly to each other and giggling.  Lon had climbed into bed next to Sola, their heads together gazing in wonder at the new life in their arms.

I was surprised at the egg’s appearance.  I had actually expected it to look like a pearl – white with a glowing pearlescent surface.  What I saw before me was nothing like what I’d imagined.

“All seems to be well with the pearl,” Orien said with a dignified smile.  “I’ll be back soon to check on you.”  He and Seel then brushed past us and swept out of the tent, the scent of incense, doubtless from Orien’s practices in the Nayati, wafting past us in his wake.

A few moments later, two hara came in with bowls of steaming water, cloths and towels.  They asked Lon to hold the pearl while they cleaned Sola.

Nyala and I both knew it was time for us to leave the little family to themselves. We approached the new parents while the hara were getting things ready. I leaned down and kissed them each on the cheek.

“This was a miracle.  I’m in awe of it all.  Thank you for letting me be here.”

Sola took my hand and Lon said, “Sola and I didn’t want to do this without you and Nyala here.”

Nyala kissed and embraced them as well.

“I’ll never forget this.  It was…it was indescribable,”  he said, shaking his head in near-disbelief.

“We’re just grateful you were here,” Lon said.

“Yeah,” Sola added, then continued in a whisper, “We thought it would be creepy with just Seel and Orien here.”

Nyala and I laughed.

“We wanted our closest friends with us.  After all we’ve been through together, we had to share this,” Lon added.

I nodded.  I noticed the hara were waiting for Nyala and I to get out of the way, so we stepped off to the side.

“We’ll let you know when it’s hatching.  We want you two there for that, too.”

“We’ll be there,” Nyala said.

When we got outside the tent Nyala said, “I could sure use a drink!”

I put my arm around him and we headed for the square.

When we got there, we got a bottle of sheh and sat at a table together.

I looked into Nyala’s eyes.

“That was – the most awesome thing.”

He smiled at me.  “Yeah,” he replied, shaking his head.  “Unreal. Unbelievable but real.”

I nodded.  “Sola and Lon are the real pioneers, aren’t they?”

Nyala chuckled.  “Well they’ve certainly ventured into uncharted territory!”

I agreed.

“I hope we get to see the pearl hatch.”

“Yeah,” Nyala replied.  “That would be awesome.”

Suddenly something occurred to me.  “I forgot to ask them.  Do you know what they’ll name their son?”

Nyala shook his head.  “Haven’t got a clue.”

We drank and talked for a long time, discussing everything from the birth of the pearl to whether we’d ever host or father one, to all that had been happening in our lives.  It was so good to really connect and talk with each other like we used to.  As much as I loved and was committed to Lenaire, I felt a strong desire for Nyala.  I didn’t say anything to him, and we finished our drinks, Nyala saying he had to get back to Cinn.  I intuited that he’d like to be with me too; both of us together just for a little while.

“Taj,” he said.  “It’s too soon.  But someday…”

I nodded.  “Go to the one you love.  I’m in love, too.  That doesn’t mean we can never be together again.”

Nyala nodded, closed his eyes, kissed me and then quickly left.

I sat there, contemplating all that had happened that day.  At last my thoughts came full circle and I realized I wanted to go to Lenaire; my chesnari, my life. I got to our tent and he wasn’t there so I went to our room in the house.  There was Lenaire, the love of my life, propped up in bed reading, waiting for me.  He looked up intently.

“Tell me everything!” he said, his eyes glowing with interest.  I undressed, crawled in beside him and told him the whole story.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

After a few days passed, everyhar in Saltrock, it seemed, knew about the birth of Lon and Sola’s pearl.  My dear friends kept to themselves but I knew when the pearl hatched, everyhar would want to catch a glimpse of the harling.  Nyala and I visited Lon and Sola as they awaited the pearl’s hatching.  They were kind enough to let Lenaire and Cinnabar see the pearl, too.

Finally, nine days after Sola had birthed the pearl, we were informed that the pearl had begun to hatch.  It was the middle of the night.  Lon and Sola had kindly invited Lenaire and Cinnabar to accompany Nyala and me to the hatching.

We arrived at their tent to find Orien and Seel already there.  Nyala and Cinn were there, too as Lenaire and I took our places to watch.

The pearl shifted and jerked.  I saw bulges come and go in it, assuming the harling was trying to push his way out.  We watched and waited for two hours and finally a small fist broke through the pearl’s membrane.  We all held our breath as two small hands tore open the egg to reveal to us a small, crying, wet, newly-born har.

Sola immediately took the small harling into his arms, crying tears of joy.  Lon embraced them both, tears in his eyes also.  They both regarded their new son with love and awe before looking to each other.  Lon kissed Sola on the lips.  Orien gently asked to take the harling and clean him, which Sola allowed.  When he was all cleaned and dried off, I saw that he bore Lon’s light brown hair and Sola’s intense blue eyes.

“What’s the child’s name?” Seel asked.

“Solon,” Sola said.  “For Lon and me.”

We each, in turn, came close to see the harling and congratulate Lon and Sola.  Though Solon had just broken out of the pearl, he appeared strangely aware of his surroundings.  He looked intently into my eyes as I came close to him and ran his tiny hand over my arm, like he was trying to get a line on who I was and what was happening.  He was nothing like the helpless newborn humans I’d seen.  I was rather in awe of him.  After visiting a short while we knew the time had come to leave them to their rest and went home.

When Lenaire and I got to our room, we broke open a new bottle of sheh and toasted the newborn Solon and his parents.  After drinking a while, Lenaire regarded me and asked, “Do you think having a harling is something you’d like for us to do sometime?”

I looked into his eyes and answered, “I think so, sometime.”

“Me, too,” he said as he moved closer and nuzzled my face.

We didn’t discuss who’d be the hostling and who’d be the father, but it didn’t matter.  We’d figure that out when the time came.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Several weeks passed and we learned there would be a party in the square to show the harling to the community and to welcome him, and also to congratulate Lon and Sola.

The day of the party, Lenaire and I dressed in our best clothes and headed for the square where the party was to be held.  When we got there, we felt privileged because we learned we were to sit at the head table with Lon, Sola, Solon, Nyala, Cinn, Orien and Seel.  I also noticed Cal and Pellaz at a table not far off.  Pell smiled as he looked at Solon, but the look on Cal’s face told me he still had mixed feelings about the whole thing.

After we’d all been eating and drinking for a while, Seel stood up and got everyhar’s attention.

He cleared his throat and said, “Hara of Saltrock.  We are here on this happy and momentous occasion to warmly welcome a new life into our community and to congratulate his parents.  This is an occasion to celebrate as it means we can continue and improve our race, ensuring our future on this planet.  I proudly introduce to you, Solon, the first pure born har in Saltrock!”

Lon and Sola stood, holding Solon for all the hara to see.

The hara all cheered and clapped for them, obviously ecstatic to know we were capable of procreation.  Solon appeared to be intrigued by it all.

The party went on for quite some time.  Later as I stood off to the side of the square I looked up at the sky to see twilight coming on.  My gaze drifted down to Lon, Sola and Solon, who was playing with Sola’s hair, and my eyes filled with tears for the pure joy of it all.  Near them, Nyala and Cinnabar were laughing and stealing kisses.  I felt a slight twinge as I watched them.  The next moment I felt Lenaire embrace me from behind, kissing the nape of my neck.

“There you are, my love,” he said.

I melted back into him, savoring the scent and feel of him, knowing I was exactly where I belonged and wanted to be.

“Yes, I’m here, Lenaire.  I turned my face to him and then said into his ear, “I love you.”
*    *    *    THE END     *    *    *

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2 Comments

  1. mystic87 said,

    August 23, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    This was a very nice read! I especially enjoy the novel length. I really felt that I connected witht he characters, especially Taj. I’m really hoping for a part two of this so we can experience Taj and Lenaire having their first harling as well. Thanks for the great story!

    • persephone100 said,

      August 28, 2009 at 12:23 pm

      WOW!! Thanks so much!! I love to write long stories and always wonder if they are too long for anyone to want to read. I’m so happy to hear from someone who liked the length. Thank you for reading and for your lovely comments! So satisfying to know you connected with the characters, too! It would definitely be fun to write a sequel! Thanks so very much!


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