Sojourn of the Spirit

SOJOURN OF THE SPIRIT

Author: persephone100 (persephone10034@yahoo.com)

Characters: Mostly OC’s

Beta: thrihyrne {Thanks again!} All remaining mistakes are mine.

Rating: NC17 (but only in a short section)

Spoilers: Enchantments, Bewitchments, Fulfillments

Synopsis: This is a story about a young pure born har going through feybraiha and his first aruna, including all the mixed feelings and embarrassing moments that always seem to go with coming of age, with the added twist of a mysterious houseguest next door with whom the young har is fascinated. It is set in a time period when most of the first generation incepted hara are nearing the end of their life span.

Disclaimer: All the characters, their world, and all things Wraeththu belong to Storm Constantine, to whom I am very grateful.

SOJOURN OF THE SPIRIT

The sun shone on my brother’s dark hair as he spun faster and faster, giggling, egged on by my two cousins, my best friend and myself. Soon he stopped and staggered around, out of breath and laughing until he tumbled to the ground in an exhilarated heap. My friend jumped on him and started tickling him, adding to his dizzy state.

“Stop! Stop, Coral! I’m going to pee myself!”

He finally quit and flopped down lying on the grass beside my brother, as my cousins and I began to twirl ourselves around playing the game we referred to as “getting drunk.” It was so called because we imagined that was what it would feel like to be high on sheh, wine or liquor. Not that we all hadn’t tasted it on special occasions, but we were certainly never allowed, at our ages, to get drunk. Being the oldest of our little clique, I would probably be the first of us to do so for real. Doubtless it was something my parents wouldn’t be too proud of me for looking forward to, even though they enjoyed it themselves with fairly recurrent frequency.

As we all lay on the grass catching our breath and letting the self-induced vertigo subside, my thoughts, as they were wont to do of late, turned to my parents’ almost constant admonishment that I would soon be approaching feybraiha. From all I’d heard from my parents and older cousins and friends who had gone through it already, it wasn’t something I was in any particular hurry to experience. I remember my cousin Solstice turning red, itching and crying at the drop of a hat. And then there was aruna. Of course I was curious and all the families in our community were completely open about it, but still as harlings not yet deflowered, we giggled, joked and speculated about it quite a bit.

The first inkling that maybe my coming of age was approaching faster than I’d thought, had happened only recently. Coral and I were playing near a small run, trying to catch dragonflies. We got heated from the sun and sought out a shady tree. Coral climbed onto a low branch and hung upside down by his knees. He giggled as his auburn hair hung down, almost touching the ground. His loose shirt had gone down over his head exposing him from below his hipbones to his neck. As I watched him I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off his golden skin. I wanted to smooth my hands over it and I had a strange sensation inside like I had fireflies in my stomach. The feelings surprised and embarrassed me and I was grateful that Coral’s face was covered so he couldn’t detect anything. I ran off into the bushes, feigning a need to pee and sat, trying to get myself together. Soon I heard Coral calling and searching for me. I took a deep breath and walked toward his voice. He didn’t hear me approaching him from behind so I tapped him on the back with both hands and yelled, “BOO!” He gave a cry of surprise, laughed and then chased me all the way back to the run. I’d escaped being found out–at least that time.

My hostling’s voice, calling my brother and me to dinner, abruptly ended my introspection.

“Willow! Wren! Dinner!”

“Come on!” Wren called, his whole face a smile. “Arrana’s making grilled chicken, remember? Race ya!”

We got to our cottage, exhilarated and out of breath.

“I win!” I shouted.

“You always win,” Wren said, pouting.

“Willow is two years older. That’s why he won,” our hostling said. “Sit down. We’re eating out here tonight.”

We sat at our outside table, near a grilling pit. The aroma of the grilled chicken was mouth-watering. Our hostling marinated the meat in his own concoction of honey, a spicy sauce and red pepper. It was my brother’s and my favorite meal. As Arrana, our hostling, turned the meat, our father came out of the house. He smiled at Wren and me but headed straight for Arrana. He pulled him into an embrace, kissing him. Wren rolled his eyes and I snickered. My father and hostling were obviously still very much in love which embarrassed my little brother but not me. I’d come to the age where I could appreciate their relationship to a degree.

“Gin,” my hostling murmured. Our father’s name was Ginseng but almost everyone we knew, including our hostling and my brother and I, called him Gin.

“I’ll get the drinks,” my father said as we all took our places at the table. He came out with a pitcher of iced tea for Wren and me and a bottle of wine for him and Arrana.

Arrana had prepared grilled summer vegetables and tomatoes with dressing as well as the chicken. Being that it was mid summer, we had an abundance of fresh produce, grown both as a community to share and in our individual gardens. Our little community was self sufficient, growing our communal gardens, raising sheep, goats, cows and chickens. We also had horses for transportation. We cultivated many fruit and nut trees and several varieties of berries and tubers. My parents and all the others knew how to preserve and store all the things we could grow for that purpose. My brother and I never wanted for any of the necessities of life and enjoyed many things we considered to be luxuries as well.

When we’d finished our feast, Wren and I helped to clean up and then went out to the table once again for dessert. Arrana brought out bowls of various seasonal berries with cream and sugar. Wren and I delighted in the summer sweets. All through dessert my parents made eyes at each other as we joked and talked about what we’d done that day. My father was a sort of overseer for a lot of the various workings of the community, but he was also still a very hands-on contributor when necessary. Our hostling mostly took care of our family and house, but was also available to help hara who were giving birth. All was going well until Gin suddenly asked me a question that put a damper on my contentment.

“So Willow, have you given any thought as to who your first aruna partner will be?”

I stared speechless as my hostling said, “Gin, don’t push him. He’s got plenty of time to think about that. He’s not even shown the first signs yet.”

“I know but he needs to prepare himself and choose the right one.” Then turning to me he asked, “Do you want us to choose for you?”

I gulped hard.

“I…I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. I…I…”

“See?” Arrana interjected. “He’s nowhere near ready. Just leave him alone for now.”

I wanted to kiss my hostling. He at least partly understood my suffering.

“Let him be a harling. His puberty will be upon him soon enough.”

Gin shrugged, letting the subject drop, much to my relief.

When our parents went into the house after dessert, our cousins, who lived in the nearest house, came over to us and sat at our table. Kaia and Luna were only a year apart in age, Kaia being a year younger than I was. Their older brother, Solstice lived close by with his chesnari. Our hostlings were brothers.

“What shall we do tonight?” Kaia asked.

I shrugged.

“We could catch fireflies,” Wren offered.

“We could go for an evening swim in the creek,” Luna suggested.

We were mulling over our choices when I noticed some movement in the yard on the other side of ours. Two hara who were my parents’ friends lived there. They didn’t have any harlings but they had, for about a year now, had a mysterious houseguest. I didn’t know if he was related to them or not, but it was rumored that he was at least a hundred years old and incepted, a term I wasn’t even sure I understood the meaning of. He kept to himself and spent most of his time in the small Nayati in the backyard that he’d constructed. We had a lovely big communal Nayati, but he never availed himself of it, preferring instead his own private one. The other harlings didn’t pay him much attention, but I found him fascinating. I watched as he made his way from the house to the Nayati. He strode with strength and confidence, his long blond ponytail neatly bound with a black cord. He carried himself with the stature of a warrior, not like I imagined a har of advanced years would. Of course I had no knowledge whatsoever about these things. The only aged creatures I’d ever seen were humans, and only then in pictures in books.

“Hey! Willow! So what do you want to do?” Kaia said in my face.

“Huh? Uh, I don’t know–a swim, I guess.”

Wren looked disappointed.

“Okay,” Luna said. “We’ll catch fireflies and then take a swim.”

Wren brightened and we set off for some midsummer evening fun.

When Wren and I returned home later, just after sundown, I noticed flickering candlelight in the small Nayati next door. I stood staring when my brother yelled from the back door.

“Willow, come on!”

“In a minute. I want to sit outside for a while.”

Wren shrugged and went into the house.

I sat for a few moments wondering what it was the mysterious har did in there. I looked around and seeing no other hara in the vicinity, I decided to find out. The Nayati was fairly far from the neighbor’s house, located at the very end of the yard. It was shaded by some large trees and surrounded by shrubs. I crept into the bushes and tried to approach without cracking any sticks. The Nayati was an open structure, something like a gazebo, so I had to be very careful and quiet. I finally scrunched myself between a bush, which hid me from the house, and a window, which if I knelt, I figured I could probably just peek over the bottom. Holding my breath, I slowly raised up to peer inside. It was fairly dark in the Nayati, lit only by a few candles but I had a side view of the har sitting cross-legged in front of a table with the candles, some burning incense and a few deharan statues on it. He sat perfectly still. From my vantage point I couldn’t even see him breathing. Had he been sitting there like that all evening? I assumed he was meditating or communing with the dehara or whatever extremely religious hara did. My parents took Wren and I to the community Nayati fairly regularly and they’d taught us about the dehara, our Wraeththu beliefs and mythology and all of that, but we usually only stayed a half hour or so. That’s all Wren could stand without fidgeting.

I noticed the strange har was clad only in some loose trousers and he was wearing something on a cord around his neck, but I couldn’t make out what it was. Once when the candles flared up, I thought I saw a tattoo on his left shoulder blade but I couldn’t be sure. He had several scars, including one very large one on his forearm and two on his chest. I guessed the rumors about him having been in battles were true. If he really was over a hundred, he’d probably had to do a lot of fighting in the early days of unrest amongst the different tribes. As I studied him, I couldn’t help noticing that he was actually very handsome. I found myself wishing he didn’t keep so much to himself. If I had the chance to talk with him I would have so many questions to ask. Or was I just–attracted to him? I rubbed my hands over my face. What’s wrong with me?

Suddenly I heard Wren calling me.

“Willow! Willow? Where are you?”

It startled me and I stood up. I looked into the Nayati to see the har staring straight at me, his face expressionless. I was so scared that I turned to run away and fell right into a bush. I struggled to free myself and ran, stumbling over my own feet until I got to our yard. I ran to the back door and into the house.

“Where were you?” Wren asked.

“Shhh! Nowhere. I just took a walk, that’s all.”

“Then why are you so freaked out?”

“I, uh…thought maybe Gin was mad because I hadn’t come into the house.”

“He’s not mad. He just wondered where you were and asked me to find you.”

“Okay. You found me.”

“But–”

“There’s nothing more to tell! Gods!”

I ran upstairs to my room and slammed the door. Once inside, I began to catch my breath and relax a bit. I went to my window and looked over at the Nayati. The lights were still flickering inside and I told myself that the har probably thought that he’d imagined me or maybe he’d been in such a state of meditation he hadn’t even seen me. I could only hope.

I lay on my bed, my hands behind my head, heaved a sigh and began to think. What was this “feybraiha” really all about? Was I going to be attracted to every har I saw? After all, I’d already had those thoughts about a hundred-year-old har and my best friend! I covered my face with my hands. Gods, I wished this was over. I wish I was a baby, I thought. I wish I was an adult, I wish I was anyhar but me! Why couldn’t Coral and I go through this at the same time? He’s only six months younger than I am. I think it would make it easier to have my best friend to commiserate with. I racked my brain trying to remember what my older cousins and friends went through when it was their time. I hadn’t paid that much attention. I remember just being glad it was them and not me. Most of my recollections were of the parties and all the fun we’d had. I had vague memories of my cousins and the hara they’d chosen leaving the party to many cheers and howls.

Some of the hara a bit older than I was had gone off to the cities and towns and some had stayed here and started families of their own. Maybe I should talk to one of them. My cousin, Solstice, still came to all the family gatherings with his chesnari. I could ask him how he’d gotten through it. But in reality, I’d be embarrassed. I knew feybraiha was a normal part of life but it was a part I wasn’t comfortable with at the moment. I panicked at the vivid realization that I truly must be just on the brink of my coming of age. What in all the dehara’s name was in store for me? Just then I heard a knock on my bedroom door.

“Yeah?”

Wren came in.

“Gin and Arrana want to know if you want to play cards with us.”

“Sure,” I said, getting up.

“Willow?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” I said smiling. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”

After a relaxing family night of playing cards and being together, I went to my room. I turned off the light and took one last look over into the neighbor’s yard at the Nayati. It was dark. I figured that the har probably hadn’t seen or at least hadn’t recognized me or he’d have come over complaining to my parents about my spying. I breathed a sigh of relief, climbed into bed and let the song of the crickets send me to sleep.

* * * *

Several weeks passed and when nothing untoward happened I began to relax, thinking maybe my feybraiha was not as imminent as I’d thought. Oh, the bliss of ignorance and wishful thinking. One night not much later, I was having a particularly hard time falling asleep. I felt hot, itchy and agitated for no reason apparent to me. It was a fairly cool summer night. I lay in my hot, itchy, sweaty condition for half the night and finally, thinking I would go insane, I left the house and went out and lay on the cool wet grass in the yard. I felt such blessed relief. I lay there a while and finally fell asleep.

The next morning I felt a har patting my face with his hands and when I opened my eyes, I saw Wren and heard his shrill voice.

“Willow! Willow! Wake up! What’s wrong? Why are you out here?”

My hostling’s voice intervened.

“Wren! Leave him alone. Go into the house.”

“But–”

“Do as I say!” Arrana insisted.

Wren went into the house as Arrana sat next to me. He gave me an understanding smile as a light breeze lifted his long dark hair, blowing part of it back over his shoulders.

“It’s started,” he said plainly.

“Huh?”

“Your feybraiha.”

I rubbed my face with my hands.

Arrana smiled. “Don’t fret, my lovely son. All hara go through it. It’s not the end of the world. In fact,” he said with a sly smile, “it’s just the beginning.”

He smoothed his cool hand over my face. It felt heavenly.

“Come into the house. It’ll be hot out here soon. And by the way if you want to sleep out here in the cool of the night, feel free–whatever gives you comfort.”

I looked with gratitude at Arrana. He seemed to be the only one who understood.

We had breakfast as usual and I started to feel like myself again. Arrana reminded me that the family get together for Cuttingtide was coming up. The timing couldn’t have been better since I had hopes that I could speak to Solstice about feybraiha.

“Will Solstice and Reed be here?”

“Yes, of course.”

I smiled with relief. I had to talk to somehar about all this. I figured that I’d be most comfortable, if you could call it that, with Solstice being the one. He was several years older and had never hung out much with us younger hara, but I’d known him all my life.

After breakfast I went out to sit at the table in the yard with a drink. Wren came out with me.

“What shall we do today?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll hang out with our friends and cousins like we always do.”

Wren stared at me.

“What? Quit gawking at me. You’re giving me the creeps.”

“Sorry. It’s just that you seem…different.”

“Well I’m not. Give me a break!”

“Okay, okay.”

Soon Luna and Kaia came over to us.

“Let’s go to the run,” Kaia suggested.

We started off, but I stopped and said, “I’m going to get Coral.”

“Okay, see you later,” Luna replied.

I walked over to Coral’s house, which was three houses away from ours. His hostling, Ginko, came to the door.

“Hello, Willow. Coral will be right down.”

I stood on the porch until Coral showed up.

“Hey!” he said.

“Hey. The others are at the run.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

When we got there they were already wading, splashing and goofing around. We joined them until I wanted to sit in the shade and Coral followed me. We sat there for a while as the others went further up the run, when Coral asked me, “ Are you feeling alright? Have you had any more signs of your feybraiha starting? You seem a little preoccupied.”

“Yeah, I had some trouble sleeping last night and felt hot and itchy. I think it’s started. Arrana thinks so, too.”

“What do you do to feel better?”

“I went out and slept in the yard. It helped.”

He nodded, and then gave me a strange look.

“What?” I asked.

“Have you ever shared breath with a har?”

“No. Of course not,” I said laughing. “Who would I share breath with?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just wondered. Have you ever been curious about what it would be like?”

“Sure, I guess so. Why?”

“Well…I’ve heard hara talk about it. How awesome it is, how nice it is, you know.”

He sat pulling at the grass and then looked over at me.

“Want to try?” he asked.

“What? You mean with you? Now?”

He shrugged again. “Sure. Why not?”

I hesitated, but had to admit the offer was tempting.

“Well, I guess we could…”

Coral smiled. “What do we do, exactly?”

“It’s like a kiss but we touch minds, I think.”

Coral scooted over closer to me and when our faces were next to each other he closed his eyes and puckered his lips. It would have probably been comical to me if I hadn’t been very eager to try it out. I leaned close to him and put my lips to his. Nothing happened and we pulled apart.

“It didn’t work,” he said.

“I think we have to open our mouths and breathe into each other.”

“Okay, let’s try again.”

This time he parted his lips and moved even closer to me. I did the same and breathed into his mouth. He reciprocated and I tasted something I would describe as a fresh spring breeze. We shared for a few minutes and then those strange sensations deep within me came back. It felt like a tickling low in my body and there was a weird warm feeling between my legs. It scared me and I quickly pulled away. I think it startled him because he caught in his breath and his eyes popped open.

“What happened? Why’d you stop?”

“I just–thought we were done,” I lied.

“What did you feel or see?”

“Something like a cool breeze. How about you?”

“I saw colors,” Coral said after thinking for a moment. “Crimson, black, violet and blue.”

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know, but it was fun, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

I heard the others coming back toward us.

“Don’t tell anyhar what we did,” I said.

“I won’t, but why not?”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to do it until we’re older.”

“Oh. Okay, I promise.”

We spent the rest of the day running around, playing games and wading in the run. I found to my dismay, that all the things I’d always loved to do were becoming boring to me. I didn’t want that to happen. I’d always had such fun with my cousins and best friend. I felt sad because I was changing and leaving them behind. And there was no one waiting for me beyond it all. I so wished Coral could be with me as I went through the change. I felt it wasn’t far off for him but he wouldn’t be on the same level for a while. I knew my parents would want me to choose a har for my first aruna–a subject that both excited and repulsed me. Were my feelings normal? My only hope was to speak to Solstice. I impatiently awaited the Cuttingtide celebration.

* * * *

Finally, Cuttingtide was at hand. Wren, Gin and I helped Arrana with the preparations. It was our family’s turn to host the festivities so we all pitched in and made ready. I’d always enjoyed all our holidays but this time I had a different agenda and purpose. I had to speak to Solstice. I hoped we’d get a chance to speak privately. Also, part of me hoped that the mysterious houseguest of our neighbor’s would join us. He’d never done so before so I guessed my thoughts on the matter to be just immature wishful thinking. My parents had, on most occasions, invited our neighbors to our family gatherings and they’d happily accepted, but their houseguest had never made an appearance. What was it about him? Why was I even interested? My high, high, high hostlings and fathers were younger than he was. I shook the thoughts away, assuming they were just feybraiha-induced musings. My soul-searching was, as usual, interrupted by Wren.

“Willow?” He grabbed my face and spoke into it. “WILLOW!!

“What? What?!”

“Arrana wants us to gather wood for the bonfire.”

“Oh. Yeah. Okay.”

As we went into the woods not far from our cottage, Wren said, “What’s wrong with you, Willow?”

I turned to him. “Nothing. What do you mean?”

He hesitated, then looking into my eyes said, “Don’t tell me ‘nothing.’ I’m not a baby. I know something’s wrong. You’re different. You’re changing. I know it’s feybraiha and all, but I really don’t understand. I don’t like it. It scares me.”

I sighed heavily and said, “Sit down, Wren.”

We sat in the woods and I tried to think of where to begin.

“Feybraiha is when a har changes from a child to an adult. Believe me, it’s not something I’ve looked forward to. But now I am looking forward to being through it. All hara go through this change. You will, too. It’s difficult, embarrassing and sometimes painful, so if I’m not myself or if I do something hurtful to you, please know that it’s not me, it’s just the change.”

Wren looked forlornly at me. I heaved a sigh.

“Look, you’re my brother. That won’t change. After I’ve gone through it all we’ll be just the same. I’ll be an adult, sort of, and I won’t, you know, ‘play’ anymore, but I’ll still feel the same toward you. I’ll always be your older brother and when you go through this, I’ll be able to help you.”

He still looked sad.

“What’s wrong? Tell me,” I pleaded.

He looked into my eyes.

“I…I’m afraid you’ll go away. I’m scared that you’ll move to the city and I’ll never see you again.”

I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

“I don’t have any such plans. I don’t want to go to the city. Solstice went through feybraiha and he’s still here.”

“I know but I’m just afraid.”

“Well, don’t be. I’m not going anywhere.”

I ruffled his hair and said, “We’d better get the wood for the bonfire.”

He nodded and smiled.

“Okay.”

He happily began to gather sticks and branches, so I assumed he’d been reassured. It touched my heart that he’d been worried that I’d leave.

When we’d both gathered all the wood we could carry, we headed home. We dumped the wood near where the bonfire would be. The larger logs and branches were already set in place by the older hara and other bunches of sticks had been brought by the other harlings. Gin was standing nearby talking to some other hara. I walked over to him and asked, “Should we get more wood?”

He smiled and answered, “No. This should do nicely.”

Wren and I stood there a few moments when our father said, “Maybe you should go and see if Arrana needs your help.”

“Okay. Come on, Wren.”

We went into the house where our hostling was busy arranging things on the kitchen table and counters to be carried outside. We’d set up tables earlier, with our surakin and friends bringing their tables and benches to our yard for the occasion.

“Here,”Arrana said, handing me a baking dish. “Take this out to the nearest table, please.” He handed Wren something, too, and as we headed out we saw Kaia and Luna running toward us.

“Can we help?” Luna asked.

We four made several trips until Arrana was satisfied that the first course of snacks and salads was out on the table. Arrana’s brother, Annara went into the kitchen to assist our hostling. Coral and his parents were the next to arrive. I was sitting on the grass by myself when Coral came over and sat with me.

“Still having trouble sleeping?” he asked.

“Yeah. I usually end up outside either on the grass or the picnic table. I tried sleeping on a blanket out here, but it’s still too hot.” I sighed. “I wish I knew how long this will take. Even a rough idea would help.”

“I wish I knew what to tell you.”

I gave him a grateful smile.

“Thanks, but I’ll have to ask an older har. In fact I plan to do just that today. I want to try to talk to Solstice alone. I’m sure he can clue me in on exactly what to expect. He’s been through it and not that long ago.”

“Why don’t you just ask Arrana or Gin?”

“I don’t know. For some reason I feel like I need to talk to someone closer to my age.”

Coral shrugged. “Well, if I can help you in any way let me know, okay?”

“Thanks. I appreciate it and I may need to do just that.”

We chuckled and sat watching our relatives and friends arrive. Many of them brought food and drinks and everyhar helped with the preparations. I was watching Gin and Annara’s chesnari, Toshka start the coals in the grill pit. I used to think Toshka was a strange har. Arrana and Annara once told me that I was afraid of him as a baby. I remember them laughing about it. Toshka had descended from the warlike Uigenna tribe. He’d had spiky hair, face piercings and many tattoos that were the typical adornment for many members of his tribe. He still had his tattoos of course, but he’d taken out all but his multiple ear piercings and his dark hair was long now, and usually tied in a ponytail. He was always very affectionate to Annara and a good loving father to Solstice, Luna and Kaia. He was always nice to Wren and me as well and we really liked him. I remembered Annara saying to my hostling that he’d been enamored of Toshka from the moment he’d laid eyes on him and knew he had to have him. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I think I knew what Annara must have felt. A lot of things were starting to look and feel different to me now. Was this a normal part of feybraiha, too? I had to talk to Solstice!

I looked expectantly to our neighbor’s house. They hadn’t shown up yet and I still, for some insane reason, hoped that their houseguest would accompany them. Later, as we were partaking of the snacks, the neighbors came over, each carrying a dish, and went over to greet Arrana. No sign of the houseguest. I sighed. I guess I never really expected him to come to such a gathering. I’d just hoped. I’d been so focused on the possible arrival of the mysterious houseguest har I hadn’t realized that Solstice and his chesnari, Reed, had arrived.

YES! They’re here, I thought excitedly. I just have to wait for my chance to get Solstice alone.

My little brother again interrupted my thoughts.

“Willow?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah?”

“Arrana wants us to help bring out the meat for the grill.”

“Okay.”

Coral rose to help us.

Gin and Toshka began to put the meat on the grill. It smelled delectable. Arrana had chosen pork ribs, the chicken Wren and I so loved, and meat patties. He’d made the rolls the day before. Solstice came over to help with the grilling and I wanted to rush over and grab him and take him into the house to “grill” him about feybraiha! Of course I didn’t do any such thing. I knew I had to be patient and wait until all the adults were a bit tipsy and relaxed and not really paying complete attention to what was going on.

I noticed Reed talking with a couple of hara who had small harlings on their laps and wondered if he was with pearl or at least thinking about it. Then it hit me that I’d never been aware of such things before. At all our other gatherings, I’d just thought about food and having fun with my friends and cousins. I felt more awake and aware somehow, but part of me still longed for the bliss of being oblivious and just having a good time. This being between two worlds was confusing and I began to be even more desperate and determined to talk to Solstice. I knew I could go to his house anytime but it just seemed to be more suitable and comfortable to talk to him here. To make a trip to his house in the bold light of day for this purpose just seemed too embarrassing.

It was tonight or never! I told myself, half realizing that I was being a bit overdramatic.

After a while it was announced that the meat was done. Many hara helped to bring out the other dishes that had been heated and cooked and as it was all set on the serving table, we began to fill our plates. I sat at a table with Coral, Wren, Kaia and Luna. As we ate, I noticed a har about our age sitting with one of our acquaintances at another table. I’d never met him. He kept staring at Coral and I found myself having the strangest feelings toward him. I wanted to tell him to stop, that Coral was MY best friend and that he had no business staring at him that way. He didn’t stop and I must have turned red or something because Wren shouted, “Willow! What’s wrong? Are you choking?”

“No, no. I’m okay. I’ll be right back.”

I went to the house and into the bathroom. I put the toilet seat down and sat on it, my head in my hands. I took deep breaths and tried to get control of myself. What the hell? I’ve got to get a grip! I got up, turned the water on in the sink and repeatedly splashed cold water on my face. Finally, I dried off and sat again, gathering my thoughts.

What was this all about? So what if some har stared at my best friend? Coral was too young for aruna. Was I even imagining his staring at Coral? Gods! What was happening to me? What did my feelings mean? I calmed down and realized what my feelings were: JEALOUSY! I wanted Coral for myself. But how stupid! He was still a harling! Was I some kind of pervert?

I was startled by a knock on the bathroom door.

“Willow? Are you all right?”

It was Coral. I opened the door and let him in.

“You look sick,” Coral said, as he smoothed the wet hair from my face. “Do you want me to get Arrana?”

“NO! I mean, no, I’m okay.”

Coral sat on the toilet with me, squishing himself next to me. He put his arm around my shoulder and asked, “Can I help you? What can I do?”

All I could do was shake my head and start to cry. Coral put both his arms around me and held me close. How could I tell him what was really wrong? He’d be repulsed and probably run away.

“I wish I could go through this with you but I’m too far behind. I haven’t had any signs of feybraiha yet.”

“I know.” It was all I could think of to say.

“But there is one good thing about you going through this before I do.”

I regarded him, unsure of what he was getting at.

Then Coral pulled back and looked purposefully into my eyes.

“Promise me something,” he said, looking a little embarrassed.

“Anything,” I replied, wiping my tears away with my hands.

He looked down and then, taking a deep breath said, “Since you started with all this, I’ve been thinking–a lot, you know, about you, me and my own feybraiha and everything and…well–” He paused. “Promise me that you’ll be my first aruna partner. I can’t imagine being with any other har. I want it to be you.”

I blinked at him, not sure I’d heard him properly. Then knowing I had, I said, greatly relieved and happily, “Yes! Oh, gods, yes!”

He gave me a beautiful tranquil smile and then said quietly, “I guess we’d better get back before somehar notices we’re missing.”

I nodded.

“I need to speak to Solstice tonight, too,” I said.

“Yeah!” Coral agreed. “And you’ve got to tell me everything.”

“Count on it,” I replied with a wink.

We joined the others at our table and resumed our meal. After completely stuffing myself I helped clean up. A lot of the food and drinks were left out so hara could help themselves as the evening wore on, so there wasn’t that much cleaning to do. A little while later we had a delicious dessert of ice cream with various liqueur and berry sauces to choose from as toppings.

My cousins and Coral and I and a bunch of other harlings played tag and goofed around until dusk. Finally I got myself some iced tea and sat at a table. I looked around the yard at all our friends and surakin. Candles on the tables lit up their faces as they talked and laughed together. I felt a warm feeling flood my chest as I thought about how lucky I was and what a good life we had here.

I knew they’d be lighting the bonfire soon after it got dark and I figured after that would be the best time to get Solstice to talk to me. I observed him with his chesnari as they sat together drinking, Reed’s head on Solstice’s shoulder. At first I thought it was cute but then I got worried about how to get Solstice alone. I sat for quite some time hoping Reed would go to use the bathroom or get some food or something so I’d have my chance with Solstice. I began to get impatient.

What’s with those two? Are they joined at the hip?

I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. When I looked back at them, Solstice wasn’t there.

Oh, no!! He finally left Reed and I missed it!! Shit!

I looked around desperately and caught sight of him heading for the serving table. I got up so fast that I spilled my drink, caught my foot on the table leg and fell down.

Shit! Shit! Fuck!!

When I got up, I hurried over to Solstice and stood there. He looked over at me, giving me a smile.

“Hi,” I said, a bit out of breath.

“Uh…hi, Willow.” He looked at me somewhat unsure.

“Yeah, um…how are you?” I stammered, not knowing how to ask him.

“Great. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. No. Oh, shit. Solstice–” By that time he was looking at me like I’d lost my mind.

“I…I’ve got to talk to you–alone.”

“Okay, Willow. What about?”

I swallowed hard and said the dreaded word.

“Feybraiha.”

He laughed. “So that’s what this is about. I should have figured. You’re at that age and acting all goony. Sorry I didn’t recognize the symptoms. How soon we forget.” He shook his head, chuckling and then regarded me with sympathy. “What do you want to know? Ask me anything.”

“Not here,” I said. “Somewhere where we won’t be interrupted.” I paused, thinking. “My room! Yeah, come on.” I know he thought I was being ridiculous with all my “intrigue” but he humored me and followed me to my room.

Once inside and sitting on my bed, I couldn’t think of where to begin.

Damn! This is my chance and I’m blowing it. Think! Think!

I guess he knew what I was going through because he got things started.

“Are you having trouble sleeping? Getting hot and itchy? Feeling like you want to cry?”

I kept nodding as he spoke.

“It’s all normal if that’s what you’re worried about. No fun–but normal.”

“I’ve had these…thoughts…about hara and a funny feeling inside.”

“That’s normal, too. It’s the awakening of your sexual drive. You start to look at almost every har as a potential roon, even though you really don’t know anything about it yet. It’s awkward and embarrassing and unfortunately also normal.”

I sighed. “And then there’s my parents. Arrana seems to understand, but Gin keeps asking me who I want for my first aruna and offering to choose for me. It’s humiliating!”

“My advice is don’t let them choose for you if you can help it. I mean it’s fun whoever you’re with, but it’s a lot more meaningful if it’s with a har you want.” He hesitated and then said, “I’m afraid it gets worse.”

I’m sure my face was the very picture of panic.

“Your parents will probably want you to go to gatherings in other communities. Half the hara here are our surakin and most hara want somehar they’re not related to. They’ll try to introduce you to other hara hoping you’ll ‘hit it off.’ The only way to avoid that embarrassment is to pick some har yourself.”

“But I don’t know of any har. The only one I want is Coral and he’s not started feybraiha yet.”

“Well, maybe somehar will come along. Actually, I’ve known a few hara that did find somehar they wanted at a gathering. Even though it’s humiliating, it can work out well in the end.”

“What else can I expect?”

“Confused emotions, blowing things out of proportion, feeling ashamed and embarrassed, giddy highs, depressing lows. Then there are the physical changes. Hair grows in your armpits and private area, and your ouana-lim and soume-lam seem to have a life of their own and seem to be running your life as well.”

I felt like my eyes were mirroring my total fear.

Solstice chuckled, patting me on the back. “Don’t worry. You’ll survive. I don’t envy you, except for your first aruna. I’d relive mine any day. I think it’s our reward for getting through it all. Once the change is over, you’ll love being a grown har.”

His voice softened. “Then you’ll meet your ‘Reed’ and life will be sweet.”

“How long does it all take?”

“It varies somewhat from har to har and always seems longer than it actually is. I think mine took several weeks from beginning to end. You‘ll start to feel a little better in the last week or so.” He sighed, looking at me with pity.

“If you need to talk to somehar again, please just come to my house. Reed won’t tell anyhar. We’ve all been through this. We understand.”

His kindness made my eyes well up. Soon tears were trickling down my cheeks.

“Willow, don’t cry. It’ll be alright, really.”

“I really wish I had somehar, you know, to be my first. I think that would make it all easier.”

“Yes, it would. When you find that har don’t let anyhar talk you out of it–even your parents.”

I turned tear-soaked eyes to Solstice. “Reed wasn‘t your first was he?”

“No. My first is long gone–off to the city. I wasn’t in love with him but I’m still glad he was my first. At the time I knew he was it. I knew he wasn’t my forever love but I also knew he was the right har for my first.”

“How? How did you know?”

He shrugged. “I just did. And if you find that har, you will, too.”

I heaved a sigh of relief and then looked into my cousin‘s eyes.

“Thanks, Solstice. Really, thanks a lot.”

He gave me an understanding smile. “No problem. And remember, come and ask me anything.”

I gave him a thankful nod and then I think we both knew we should get back to the party. After we got outside, Solstice gave me another reassuring pat on the back and a wink as we parted ways. I stood there feeling quite a bit relieved and reassured when suddenly out of nowhere, I heard my father’s voice.

“There you are, Willow!”

I turned to see Gin standing with a young har beside him. Then it dawned on me; it was the har that had been staring at Coral!

“Willow, this is Seren. He’s staying with some neighbors for a couple of weeks. I thought you two could get acquainted.”

I was completely mortified. I could tell Seren felt the same way.

I grudgingly extended my hand in greeting and he reciprocated, looking embarrassed. My father left, grinning from ear to ear. I wanted to sink into the ground and disappear.

Left alone together, Seren and I stood self-consciously for a few moments and then I suggested we go sit at a table. Once there, the deafening silence made me start the conversation.

“I’m sorry. I think I know why my father forced you to meet me.”

He looked at me, seeming at a loss.

“How old are you?” I asked.

He hesitated before answering. “I’m nine.”

“So you’ve gone through feybraiha?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so. I’m just starting and my parents are bent on finding me my ‘first.’”

He appeared to be very embarrassed.

“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry. I plan to choose my own first aruna partner.”

He gave me a look that was unreadable.

“It’s not that you aren’t attractive. It’s just that I won’t be told who my first will be.”

His face then broke into a smile, which turned to a laugh and we laughed together.

“There’s no reason we can’t be friends, but I apologize for my father.”

“I understand. My parents paraded quite a few hara by me until I chose. I can sympathize.”

“Why don’t they just leave us alone?”

“I guess they think they’re helping”

We talked and actually had a good time. I knew my parents would think that because we were getting along that I’d pick him. It was so screwed up! I felt like I couldn’t even look at a har in a friendly way without my parents thinking he was “the one!” I felt like my personal life was no longer my own, and at the very time when I so wanted it to be private!

Soon Coral, Kaia, Luna and Wren came over to us. Coral sat next to me and draped his arm around my neck. I introduced Seren to them all and we sat talking and enjoying ourselves. Seren still kept stealing glances at Coral repeatedly. I decided to make a statement. First I whispered to Coral, who nodded his agreement.

“Hey, I’ve got some news. After Coral goes through his feybraiha, he and I have decided that I’ll be his first aruna partner.”

Coral beamed, Wren looked confused, Kaia and Luna smiled and Seren looked disappointed. Exactly all the reactions I’d expected and hoped for. After our announcement, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the rest of the festivities. The bonfire was lit and I felt my soul soar to the heavens with the smoke and embers.

The party went on for quite a few more hours until finally hara began to leave. We all helped to put the food away but Arrana said to leave the rest of the cleaning until the next day, so we headed off to bed. I sighed as I faced another semi-sleepless night. The itching always got worse then and I felt like I could never get cool enough. Annara made some ointment for me that helped some, but I still itched. I lay in my bed wondering why I even bothered starting the night there as I always ended up outside unless it was raining. After tossing and turning for an hour or so, I gave up and went out to sleep on the grass. I’d been lying there only a short time when I heard a har walking toward me and sat up to see who it was. I assumed some har had left something here at the party and had come back to retrieve it, but when he got closer I recognized him and froze, not believing my eyes. It was him–the mysterious houseguest! My first impulse was to run away. I thought that maybe he was going to chew me out for spying on him. I was, however, fixed to my spot on the grass. I managed to stand up.

He gave me a small smile and asked, “You’re Willow, right?”

I nodded, not even wondering at the time how he knew that.

“I couldn’t help noticing you sleeping out here. I don’t sleep much either and usually go to the Nayati at night. I’m guessing you’re going through feybraiha?”

“Yeah.”

“Here,” he said, handing me a jar of some concoction that looked to be of leaves in a liquid.

“It’s a concentrate of herbs and water. If you put about a cup of it in your bathwater and soak in it for a half hour or so, it should help lessen the itchiness. Do it right before you go to bed. You’ll probably still be more comfortable out here, but it should give you some relief.”

“Thank you,” I replied, still not believing he was actually talking to me.

“No problem,” he said, then turned and walked away.

“Wait!” I called after him on impulse. He stopped and looked back to me.

“I don’t even know who I’m thanking.”

“I’m called Azure. Goodnight.” He walked away to the neighbor’s yard and into the Nayati.

I dropped down to sit on the grass, studying the herb water, still in somewhat of a daze about meeting the mystery har whose name I now knew was Azure. I wondered if he was a healer since he knew about the herbs or maybe he’d had harlings of his own he’d used it on. I couldn’t stop thinking about him as I lay on the grass, looking up at the stars. Where had he come from? Why did he come here? Why was he so devout? A million questions assailed my mind and I wanted to know the answers. Maybe he’d talk to me again.

* * * *

I don’t know why but I decided to keep my visit with Azure and his gift to me a secret. I would tell Coral, of course, but nohar else. Maybe it was because I felt like nothing was my own and everyhar knew my personal business. Whatever it was, it gave me solace to keep it a secret. Before I went to sleep I hid the jar under my bed thinking I’d use it in my bathwater and no one else had to know. I slept very soundly that night out in the grass, the knowledge that I still had some control over the events in my life giving me peace of mind.

The next week passed by without any horribly demeaning or embarrassing things happening except that the day after the party Gin gave me the third degree about Seren and what I thought of him.

I had already begun to change my perspective on a lot of things. When Coral and I hung out with Wren and my cousins, we usually ended up sitting around talking, watching the others play. I guess Coral was beginning to see things differently, too. That gave me a lot of comfort, that and Azure’s herb water. I’d been bathing in it every night for a week and the itchiness was greatly relieved and some of the redness went away completely. I still couldn’t get cool, so I continued to sleep outside. On one such night, as I had time to mull things over, I thought to myself that I had the perfect excuse to see Azure: to thank him. But I didn’t want my parents to know anything about it so that made it impossible. I thought maybe I could go see him when he was in the Nayati late at night, but I felt like I shouldn’t disturb his meditation.

A few nights later I was sitting on the picnic table, stargazing and unable to sleep, when Azure strode toward me from the Nayati. I felt my heart beat faster as he approached. He gave me a bit of a smile and sat next to me.

“Nice night to view the stars,” he said.

“Yeah, and it gives me something to do when I can’t sleep.”

“I was wondering if the herb water helped you.”

“Oh, yeah! It really helped a lot! Look.”

I pulled up my shirt to show him that my stomach and chest weren’t red anymore. I quickly pulled it back down, totally mortified at the impulsive and childish thing I’d done. He must have thought I was an immature idiot. I felt my face grow hot and wanted to disappear.

“It worked that well, huh?” he asked with a chuckle. “I’ll make you some more.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, still feeling stupid. Then, thinking this was probably my only chance to pose questions to the har I found so intriguing, I asked, “Are you a healer?”

“No.” He smiled, looking down. “Far from it.”

“Did you discover the cure for your own sons?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have any sons.”

He regarded me with a warm look. “It’s just something I’ve learned from a long life and experience.”

Then I got really bold, almost getting dizzy from my need to ask.

“Are you really over a hundred?”

He chuckled. “One hundred and twenty-seven to be exact.”

I must have stared like a moron.

“But–you don’t look old.”

“It’s the blessing and sometimes curse of being har.”

Why a curse? I wondered, but decided not to ask.

“You don’t look any older than Gin, my father.”

“Well I assure you, I’m probably old enough to be his high high high father, if not older.”

I stared at him, not knowing what to say.

“Looks and bearing don’t change that much for hara over the years, but other things do.”

“So your feybraiha must have been–”

“I didn’t go through feybraiha. I was incepted.”

I’m sure I gave him a completely confused look. I remembered something about hara in the beginning being incepted, but I hadn’t paid that much attention. It didn’t concern me so I promptly forgot what I was taught.

He gave me an understanding look and continued.

“It means I wasn’t always har. I started life as a human. It took a har’s blood mingled with mine to make me har. I went through a change called althaia. It was four days of physical and mental hell but at the end of it, I was har. Just as much har as a pure born like yourself. Although there are some differences. Pure borns have more power, more potential.”

“Are there many incepted hara left?”

“I don’t know. There weren’t many left where I came from.”

I wanted to ask him where that was, but something stopped me.

He was so interesting, so compelling, so unique and attractive. I studied him as he looked to the heavens, viewing the stars. He had a noble handsome face and beautiful long blond hair. He had a lithe, muscular body and he smelled like leather and apples. I was captivated. He caught me staring and smiled. I turned away, embarrassed.

“I’m an anomaly in this time, I know. But I remember a time when pure borns were just that.”

“I wasn’t thinking that, I–” I hesitated, at a loss for words. “I think you’re…unique, you know?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I’m definitely that, I guess.”

He got up to leave and I wanted to ask him to stay, but was too scared.

“I’ll make you some more herbed water. Nice talking to you, Willow.”

“Yeah, same here–and thanks.”

He gave me a smile and a wave and headed back to his Nayati. I found myself wishing he’d stayed longer, a lot longer. I could have talked with him and listened to him for hours. Obviously, he didn’t find me as riveting as I found him to be. I sighed.

I lay down on the grass, enjoying the coolness and thinking about Azure. I found him so enthralling. As I gazed up at the stars and listened to the crickets and katydids, I smiled to myself, knowing we’d have another visit when he gave me more herbed water. The next thing I knew, it was morning. I woke up, ate breakfast with my family and then went off to go find Coral. I had to tell him about my second visit with Azure. Wren went to get Kaia and Luna and I told him that Coral and I would meet them at the creek. It was a hot day and we’d decided to go swimming.

“Don’t get in until I get there,” I warned Wren. Our parents trusted me to watch the younger ones in the creek.

He nodded.

“Wren!”

He looked at me, obviously annoyed.

“I mean it. Wait until Coral and I get there. Tell Kaia and Luna, too. If you don’t wait, I’ll tell Gin, if you haven’t drowned, that is.”

“Okay, okay!”

I felt I had to put fear into him for him to take me seriously.

When Coral and I got to the creek, the younger ones were all waiting.

Good, I thought. They’d listened.

We had a long swim and finally when I climbed up onto a rock to dry off, Coral followed me. The others stayed in and we sat on the rock watching them.

“Azure came to see me again last night,” I told Coral.

“What happened?”

“I learned that he’s not a healer and that he doesn’t have any sons.”

“I wonder why not?”

“So did I, but I was afraid to ask. He also told me that he’s a hundred and twenty seven years old.”

“No way!”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. He doesn’t look that old at all. When I told him that, he said that a har’s looks don’t change that much but other things do. And that it’s both a blessing and a curse.”

“How could it be a curse?”

I shrugged.

“I didn’t have the courage to ask that either. Then he told me that he was incepted, that he’d once been human and went through something called alta–? Altha–? I forget the word, but he said a har’s blood mixed with his made him har.”

Coral regarded me with wide-eyed amazement for a second and then said loudly, “No shit!”

“That’s what he said. I kind of remember learning something about the first hara being human, but I guess I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time.”

“We’ve got to do some research. Maybe we can find a book that tells about this stuff.”

“Well, I remember learning it at some point. Whether it came from a book or my parents, I don’t remember. Oh, he also said that he remembered a time when being pure born was rare.”

Coral looked at me, totally impressed and interested.

“Azure is awesome. He’s the most mysterious, fascinating har, ever!”

I was glad that my best friend shared my obsession with Azure.

“Yeah. I know I’ll see him again because he promised to give me more of the herbed water.”

Just then, the others came out of the creek and sat with us, so our discussion of Azure had to end. Coral gave me knowing looks as the younger ones talked and played on the shore.

* * * *

All seemed to be going well for the next few days until Gin announced to me at dinner that my parents would be taking me to a gathering at a nearby community. I was not happy.

“I don’t want to go,” I said.

“Why not?” Gin asked.

“I don’t want my parents to ‘fix me up’ with a har for my first aruna.”

“We’re not going to fix you up,” Gin replied. “We’re just going to take you where you can meet eligible hara. What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything! I want to make my own choice.”

“But–but you can. How can you make a choice if there are no hara to choose from?”

“You don’t understand!”

I ran from the table and up to my room. I flopped onto my bed, completely at a loss as to how to explain to my parents how I felt. After pausing a moment I thought to myself, How do I feel, exactly? I don’t want them to choose for me but I don’t know any hara that I want. I’m the oldest in my group of friends and relatives. I want Coral but that’s impossible. I can’t have him until I’m through feybraiha and I’m his first. What was I going to do? I sighed and sadly realized that I would have to go to this gathering. I felt like this was going to be more than embarrassing. I could just see all the parents of us younger hara watching us as we met, danced and ate with eligible hara. What was the difference between this “gathering” and going to a brothel? It was going to be the most humiliating experience of my life, I was sure of it.

I took some deep breaths. Why was I so opposed to the idea? Solstice had told me to avoid it if I could but he also said he knew some hara who actually found a har they wanted at a gathering. It just seemed so…“arranged,” so not spontaneous, so not based on true attraction. I raked my hands through my hair and heaved a sigh. Then it hit me like a bolt from the blue. The reason why I didn’t want to go was that I did have a har I wanted for my first. He was a har my parents would never approve of and a har that would probably turn me down: Azure. He was the one. Now what could I do? I could just see my parents’ reaction when I told them I wanted a one hundred twenty-seven year old har for my first aruna! And that was even if Azure didn’t laugh in my face! Why couldn’t I just go with the flow? Then I decided. I’d go to this accursed gathering. I had no other choice.

* * * *

The day we left for the gathering, I felt like a lamb going to the slaughter. My parents had arranged for Wren to stay with Annara, Toshka and our cousins. As we rode off on our horses, I waved goodbye to my brother and cousins as they played in blissful innocence in our cousins’ yard. I wished I could be with them and that all this was a nightmare that I’d wake up from. Coral had given me his sympathy when I’d told him where I was going. I hadn’t even told him yet about my feelings for Azure. As we rode along, Arrana pulled his horse up next to mine.

“Are you alright, Willow?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He looked concerned. “Tell us if you don’t feel well.”

“I’m fine.”

He sighed and trotted to catch up with my father. I saw them talking, Arrana looking back at me.

I’m going. They can’t expect me to be happy about it, too.

It was only a few hours ride to the nearest community. It looked very much like our own and we also had some relatives of my father’s who lived there. We rode up to a grassy area, shaded by large trees, where many hara were sitting at tables and walking around, talking. There was food, snacks and drinks available on a large table. Most of the hara were young. Of course many were through feybraiha and many, like me, were here to meet them. Some hara took care of our horses and soon my father’s older brother came over and embraced him. My hura’s name was Omen and he looked very much like my father. He turned to me.

“Willow! Gods, you’re so grown up. I can’t believe your feybraiha is at hand.” He hugged me. I knew he meant well, so I tried to smile. He led us over to a table where he sat with his chesnari, one of his sons, his son’s chesnari and his high harling. My father beamed at the infant harling.

“I can’t wait until I have one of those. All the fun and none of the work.”

They laughed. I, however, saw no humor in any of this. Would I feel differently if I wasn’t obsessed with Azure?

The day wore on and I was told to mingle. What was I supposed to do? Corral some har and ask him if he’d like to deflower me? Make an appointment? It was ridiculous. Solstice was right. I should have avoided this at all costs.

After dark there was music and dancing. I decided just to sit at our table and wait until it was over and we could go home. My father, however, wasn’t going to let that happen.

“Willow, why don’t you ask some har to dance?”

“I don’t know who’s past feybraiha and who isn’t. I don’t see any har I want to ask. This whole thing is a waste of time.”

He sighed. “If you have that attitude we will end up choosing for you. You’re not even trying.”

I put my face in my hands. My father left in a huff. I looked over to see my hostling looking at me with sympathy. I was about to go off alone into the woods and hide until it was time to leave when a har came over and introduced himself. He had long dark hair and a nice smile.

“Hi. I’m Cheshire. Care to dance?”

I decided to make my parents happy and accept.

“Sure.”

He took me in his arms. I was a bit standoffish, but he was good looking, so I relaxed a little.

“You’re very attractive,” he said.

“Thanks, so are you. How long ago did you go through feybraia?”

“I’m not through it.”

“Then you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“No. I saw the same look on your face as I had on mine. I hate this. I know who I want and my parents won’t accept it. I thought maybe you were a kindred spirit.”

I smiled, looking into his eyes, then laughed out loud.

“Yes! This is perfect! Now I’m having fun!”

We spent the rest of the evening together, giving our parents false hope that we’d choose each other. Cheshire told me that the har he wanted was considered of lower status and his parents were against his choice. I told him the one I wanted was much older and unknown to my parents and even though I hadn’t told them, I was sure they wouldn’t approve.

We took a walk in the moonlight together and commiserated over our situations. I really liked him. He’d turned an awful day into an amusing experience.

“Won’t our parents be surprised when we tell them that we found a nice har, but that neither of us was through feybraiha yet?” he said. “I hope it makes them think that these gatherings are stupid. If my parents won’t let me have the har I want for my first, I’m going to run off with him.”

I wasn’t quite so adamant about my situation, especially since I didn’t even know if Azure would consent to be my first. After all it might be just a pipedream for me, but I didn’t let on.

“Well, no matter what happens, you’ve made a dismal day entertaining.”

After laughing together, Cheshire’s expression changed. He gazed into my eyes, slowly pulled me closer and touched his lips to mine to kiss and share breath with me. I eagerly reciprocated. It was different than with Coral. He showed me the moon over dark mountains, night blooming flowers and fireflies lighting up a pine forest. I shared with him images of golden fields, tall trees and blue skies. When we parted, he said, “I’m glad I met you, Willow.”

“I’m glad I met you, too.”

“I guess we’d better get back.”

I nodded.

When we got back to the group, the party was breaking up. Cheshire gave me a quick goodbye kiss and a wink. Soon my parents came over to me.

“Where were you?” Arrana asked, looking concerned. I guessed that he thought maybe I’d already been deflowered.

“Nowhere. Cheshire and I just took a walk.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. What do you mean?”

My father then approached, grinning.

“So. Who were you with?”

“His name is Cheshire.”

“He’s beautiful. What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, do you like him?” Gin asked impatiently, seeming to be on the edge of his seat for my answer.

“Yes, a lot,” I replied, knowing full well I was getting his hopes up.

“Is he the one?” My father looked at me with expectant optimism.

I sighed. “No. Unfortunately, he’s not through feybraiha yet either.” I shook my head and walked toward our horses. My hostling hid a smile and my father looked miffed.

Serves him right, I thought, for trying to force the issue and fix me up. I hoped Cheshire had gotten the same amount of satisfaction that I had. Hopefully both our parents would decide that this whole thing had been enough of a debacle and waste of time that neither of us would be subjected to another gathering.

We arrived home very late and after we’d taken care of the horses, we went into the house and to bed. Wren stayed at my cousins’ house overnight. I, as usual, went outside to sleep on the grass and as I began to get sleepy, I thought about the day and Cheshire and how everything had turned out so much better than I’d expected. For once, I went to sleep content and self satisfied.

* * * *

The next morning I wolfed down my breakfast and headed straight for Coral’s house, anxious to tell him all about my experience at the gathering. I also wanted to confide in him that I wanted Azure for my first aruna. His reaction to my tale was as I’d expected, except he got a strange look on his face when I told him I’d shared breath with Cheshire. I assured him that we did so just out of camaraderie and commiseration, so he seemed okay with that. I hesitated a moment before telling him about Azure. I wasn’t sure what he’d think about that.

“There’s something else,” I began. “I know who I want for my first aruna.”

He looked expectantly into my eyes. I paused and took a breath before speaking.

“Azure.”

He regarded me, looking surprised and then a smile crept onto his lips and he shook his head.

“Gin and Arrana will sure be thrilled about that, I’ll bet.”

I laughed.

“Ever since this whole feybraiha thing started, I’ve felt totally out of control of what’s happening to me. Well, this choice is mine. He’s the one I want and I’ll have him.”

Coral chuckled. “So, you’re sure he’ll say yes?”

I heaved a sigh and answered, “No. But I’ll die if he turns me down.”

I put my face in my hands and Coral put a supporting arm around me.

“He won’t. Why would he? You’re young, you’re beautiful. Any har would be honored to be your first.”

“Thanks, Coral,” I said softly, giving him a warm and grateful smile. “I know my choice seems crazy. I hardly know Azure, he’s a hundred and twenty-seven years old, my parents will disapprove and he’ll very likely turn me down when I ask him, but I can’t help it. He’s the one.”

“Then you have to ask him.” He gave me an impish smile. “And he has to say yes.”

I regarded him warmly, feeling very thankful that he was my best friend.

“I hope I can get to know him better before I pose such a question to him. I guess I have enough time before I’m through this change. I know I’ll see him when he brings me some more herbed water. I’ve got to think of a way to get him to stay and talk and a way to see him again.”

“Can’t you go over to the Nayati and see him?”

“I could, but I’m afraid I’d be disturbing him. I don’t think he finds me anywhere near as interesting as I find him to be.”

“You don’t know that. He talked to you quite a bit the last time you saw him.”

“I know. I just don’t want him to think I’m some immature harling that isn’t worth his time.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t think that. After all, he initiated your first meeting.”

“Because he felt sorry for me.”

“The reason doesn’t matter. Besides, maybe he wanted to help you. That’s not the same as pitying you.”

I shrugged. “Well, whatever he thinks, I’m still determined to have a long conversation with him somehow.”

“Maybe you should just come out and ask him to stay. He’s probably lonely. He said he couldn’t sleep much, right? Maybe he’d welcome a chance to pass the time.”

“You really think so?”

“Well, it’s sure possible.”

“I guess I’m just going to have to see what happens when he brings me the itch cure.”

* * * *

The next few nights I waited expectantly for Azure to appear. I was almost afraid to fall asleep, afraid that if I did, he’d just leave the herbed water for me and go away. I wanted–I HAD–to talk to him again.

Then, on a full moonlit night, I saw him approaching with something in his hand. My stomach tickled with butterflies and my heart raced. When he got closer, he gave me a friendly grin.

“Willow. I’ve got some more herbed water for you.”

I stood and took the jar.

“Thank you,” I said, looking into his eyes. I’d never noticed before in the dark, but with the full moon, I could see the deep blue of his eyes. Maybe that’s why he’s called Azure.

“It really has helped me. I’m very grateful,” I said.

He nodded and turned around to go.

“Azure–?”

He faced me.

“Would you mind staying and talking to me for a while? I have so much trouble sleeping–so many long hours.”

“Sure,” he said with a warm smile.

I was shocked. I’d really expected him to say something like he’d like to but he had to go to the Nayati or something.

We sat down next to each other on the grass. I was at a loss for words. Luckily he spoke.

“You see that group of stars?” He pointed up to one of the few visible star formations.

I nodded. “It’s Aruhani.”

“Yes. When I was human it was called Orion.”

I stared at him. “You mean the stars had different names then?”

He chuckled. “Yes, they were named after ancient human gods. That’s all changed now.”

I regarded him in wonder. He’d really been around a long time. Strangely, that made him even more attractive and fascinating to me.

I looked at him as he gazed at the sky. There was something I wanted to ask him, but I was afraid. Finally, I took a deep breath.

“Where did you come from?”

He turned to me.

“From a place across the sea. It was a beautiful place, but never home to me. I feel much more at home in a place like this. You’re lucky to live here.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I once lived in a place not so different from this one a long time ago.”

“Why did you leave?”

He sighed. “Leaving wasn’t exactly my idea. At first I didn’t want to. Things changed. I thought there was nothing left for me there. At that point I welcomed the idea of leaving.”

He had a sad and faraway look in his eyes and I felt like I shouldn’t pursue the subject.

“What was it like–being human?”

He laughed. “Not nearly as much fun as being har. I almost can’t remember,” he said as he looked again to the night sky. “It was…like being incomplete compared to being Wraeththu. It was kind of like I’d only been part of who I should have been. But then I’m looking back a long way and from a harish point of view. I guess I would have been perfectly happy to live out my life as a human if I’d never heard of Wraeththu.” He paused and then asked me, “Can you mind touch?”

His query puzzled me. I nodded. “Sure. Always could.”

His face wore a wistful expression. “The beauty of being pure born,” he said with reverence.

I decided to speak to him mind to mind.

You don’t have to answer if I’m being too personal, but you said you didn’t have any sons. May I ask why?

He regarded me a bit surprised, but his face softened and I felt him touch my mind.

There was only one har I’d have ever had sons with and he–well, it didn’t work out.

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I. But it was a long time ago, so long.”

“Are you happy here?”

“Yes, I’d say so. It’s a peaceful, friendly community.”

“Are you related to our neighbors?” I shook my head at how rude I might seem. “I’m sorry for bombarding you with questions like this.”

“It’s alright. No, they’re kind of friends of a friend. I was looking for a tranquil place and this one was recommended. I haven’t been disappointed.”

“How long are you staying?”

“I plan to stay here for the rest of my life, however long or short a time that is.”

I was heartened to hear that. I wanted him to stay.

“How about you?” he asked. “Have you always lived here?”

“Since I was born. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I like to visit the city. I think it’s exciting, but I don’t want to live there.”

“I don’t blame you.”

There was a rather long period of silence and I was afraid that meant our visit would come to an end. But then Azure surprised me.

“Would you like to take a look at my Nayati?”

I brightened.

“Sure!”

We walked over and entered the structure. Azure lit some candles so we could see better, even though the full moon illuminated it somewhat. The light in the Nayati turned from silver to gold as the light of the candles replaced the moonlight. Azure turned to me with a teasing smile.

“Of course, you’ve seen the inside before.”

I froze and felt my face grow hot. I didn’t know what to say.

Azure laughed good-naturedly at me. “I’m sorry. I just had to say that. I remember the night you stood up outside the window looking petrified. You had no reason to be scared. Of course I understand that you didn’t know that.”

I relaxed and chuckled. “I thought you were going to come over and tell my parents about my spying.”

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and said, “I spend a lot of time here. Mostly at night. I find comfort here, and peace.”

“Do you pray to all the dehara, or do you have a favorite?”

“At my age, I find solace in praying and focusing on what’s to come.”

I didn’t understand and it must have shown plainly on my face.

“You’re so young,” he said gently. “Such things are so very far in the future for you. I know you don’t understand.”

I paused a moment to consider his words and then replied, “But I want to. I really do. I’ve never been particularly religious, but I’d like to understand.”

“When a har nears the end of his lifespan, he begins to think of what comes after.”

“After?”

“After death.”

I’m sure I must have looked shocked. Death? But Azure seemed so alive, so healthy.

“Are you sick? Are you going to die?” I asked, a bit panicked.

He chuckled softly. “No, I’m not sick. And yes, I’m going to die. I don’t know when, but from my experience of being around other hara at the end of their span, I know that when the day approaches, you know. You know and you prepare yourself.”

I was afraid to ask, but absolutely had to.

“Do you know? Is it going to be soon?”

“I haven’t had any indication of it being imminent, but I know it can’t be too much longer.”

I was devastated. I wanted him for my first. What if he died before then?

“Don’t feel bad for me, Willow. I’ve already lived a long life. I’ve known true love and seen a lot of the world. Whenever the time comes, I’m ready. I know there’s something beyond this plane of existence and I’m prepared for the final adventure.”

I looked at him with awe. I’d never heard such words before in my life. I’d never known a har that died. Even my high, high, high fathers and hostlings were still alive and even able to have more harlings if they wanted. They hardly looked any older than my parents. This was all so remarkable to me. I had one more question I felt I had to ask.

“Do pure borns live longer than incepted hara?”

“A very astute question. I don’t know, but my gut tells me they do. I can’t venture a guess as to how much longer. I suppose time alone will tell.”

I dared to move to him and hug him. He seemed very surprised, but after a few moments, he hugged me back. I rested in his embrace and wished it never had to end. Finally we separated.

“I’ve never met a har like you,” I said.

He smoothed my hair.

“You should try to get some sleep, Willow.”

I nodded and started to walk away. I turned and asked him, “Please, can we talk again– please?”

“Sure, any time you want to. I’m in the Nayati a lot. Come to me here anytime.”

I smiled and nodded. I went back to my grassy bed feeling elated. I’d talked to the har I wanted and he said I could come to him any time. There was a bit of angst in my mind at the thought that he mentioned his death, but he seemed so vital and healthy, that I thought I still had the chance to ask him to be my first. I hoped I’d be ready for that soon and that he’d consent. Nothing was set in stone, but I had hope.

* * * *

The next day I couldn’t wait to see Coral and tell him everything that had happened. Wren, Kaia and Luna were playing in our yard the next morning when I told them I was going to get Coral. When he and I were walking back to my yard, I stopped and said, “I’ve got so much to tell you.”

He regarded me with eager enthusiasm.

I related everything that had happened between Azure and me the night before. Coral looked at me with happy amazement.

“You’re so lucky!” he said. “Most hara never meet anyhar so unique and awesome.”

I laughed and said, “Does this mean you’d prefer him for your first, too?”

He giggled, giving me a playful shove.

“If I can have you, I’ll have a unique and awesome har, too!”

Laughing together I felt so grateful for our close bond of friendship.

Just before we got to my house, Coral asked, “When are you going to ask him?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. I feel like I have to get to know him a bit better, but I also feel like I shouldn’t wait too long. I guess I’ll just have to play it by ear and trust my instincts. Then there’s the fact that my parents will probably not approve. I think maybe Arrana will be okay with my choice, but Gin…”

Coral put his arm around me.

“They’ll have to understand. Your first aruna is important. You have good parents. I think they’ll ultimately leave the choice up to you, even though it may not be what they’d have chosen for you.”

“I hope you’re right.”

When Coral and I got to our yard, Wren came running up to me.

“Spin me around!”

I grabbed him around the wrists and started to spin, lifting his feet off the ground as we did so. He laughed and squealed as I twirled him. Afterwards, Kaia and Luna wanted a turn, too. I felt exhilarated as I spun them, enjoying what were probably some of the last vestiges of my childhood that I would experience.

We spent the day in the usual summer pastimes: playing, swimming in the creek, drinking lemonade in the yard and lying in the grass looking at the clouds. After dinner, when the younger ones were goofing around, I was sitting at the outside table, watching them when Arrana came and sat with me.

“How are you feeling, Willow?” he said as he stroked my hair, then added thoughtfully, “Wren has my dark hair. Your hair’s sandy, like Gin’s.”

I looked into his eyes. “I’m okay, I guess.”

“You’re thinking that your childhood is over, aren’t you?”

I gazed at him, surprised that he understood.

“That may be true, but there are many pleasures and delights to come. And when you have your own harlings someday, you get to relive your childhood. And I’ve heard that when you have high harlings, you get yet another chance. Life is full of wonderful things, believe me. This is a difficult time for you, I know, but I can tell you from experience; the best is yet to come, my lovely son.”

He held me close and kissed my cheek. Then he gave me a beautiful smile and went into the house.

I sat watching him walk away, full of appreciation for how understanding he was. I loved both my parents, but my hostling was the one who always seemed to really know me.

When I looked back to my brother and cousins, I saw Coral walking toward me, an inviting smile gracing his countenance. He sat next to me and I really felt like the luckiest har in the world. I guess this was another one of the giddy highs Solstice had spoken of, but I didn’t care. I felt genuinely happy and at peace and I was going to enjoy it while it lasted.

* * * *

A few nights later, I went to see Azure in the Nayati. He appeared to be engrossed in meditation as I entered, but he took a cleansing breath and looked over at me, obviously sensing my presence. He smiled serenely.

“I’m sorry. If I’m disturbing you–” I began.

“No, it’s fine. Come and sit.”

I happily went over and sat down next to him.

“Who were you praying to?” I asked.

“No dehar in particular. I was just trying to center myself and feel peaceful.”

I regarded him, not fully understanding his words.

“It’s hot tonight,” I remarked. “Would you like to walk with me to the creek?”

“Yes. That might be refreshing.”

We walked together through the field and down to the creek shore. It was a partially moonlit night, the luminous waning moon being in half phase. We sat on the bank where we enjoyed the sound of the water bubbling over the rocks and observed the night sky. It was much cooler there and I think we both found relief in that.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Much better, actually. I hope it won’t be too much longer until I’m through feybraiha.”

“Have you given thought to who’ll be your first?”

Oh, Gods! What can I say? I’m not prepared to ask him!

“Um, well…yes I have, but–”

“Well!” he said grinning. “Who’s the lucky har?”

“I, uh, I can’t exactly say yet. I’m afraid to ask him.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m afraid he’ll turn me down and then I’d be devastated.”

“Why would he do that? You’re a lovely young har. He’ll be honored if you ask him, I’m sure.”

I hoped it was dark enough that he couldn’t see the crimson in my face.

“I…I just–” I put my face in my hands.

He put his hand on my shoulder.

“Listen, being a har’s first is a unique and beautiful experience. I’ve done it a few times in my life and I still have fond memories.”

I gazed into his piercing blue eyes. He looked back into mine and I dared to lean closer. I was trembling as I moved even closer and pressed my lips to his. He didn’t pull away and I almost swooned with delight as he returned the kiss, caressing my face. I felt such strange sensations deep in my belly. It was a perfect pleasured ache that spread all through me as we kissed. We both began to breathe harder. We shared breath and he showed me a beautiful alien city and the delightful scent of a fresh sea breeze. The sun shone on sparkling waves lapping at a white sandy shore. I was delightfully lost in him when suddenly he pulled away, leaving me breathless. I opened my eyes and stared into his.

“I’m sorry, Willow. I shouldn’t have–”

“NO! It was beautiful, perfect, wonderful.” I moved close to him again.

“I loved it,” I murmured. “Please don’t stop, please…”

“I have to, Willow. It isn’t right. You’re so young.”

He stood up and raked his hands through his hair.

“You’re not even through feybraiha–”

I stood up, too.

“What if I was?”

He regarded me, puzzled.

“Would it be right then?”

He shook his head, “Willow, I–” He backed away.

“I think we’d better go back. You need your sleep.”

He strode off and as I watched him walk away, I just stood there, feeling rejected, disappointed and horrible. I sat down on the grassy shore, staring at the flowing water for a while and then began to cry. He seemed to enjoy our kiss at first. Why did he stop? He obviously thought of me as a stupid immature harling. How could I ask him now? Just as I’d told him: I was devastated.

Finally I got up and walked back to my yard. As I walked, I noticed my underwear felt wet. Had I been so excited that I wet my pants? Oh, gods, I really was an immature idiot! When I got home, I went into the bathroom to see and discovered that it wasn’t pee. It was coming from my soume-lam and it was more like the juice from the aloe plant that Arrana put on our cuts and burns. What the hell was wrong with me? I wiped up, changed my underwear and tried to sleep in my room. I couldn’t sleep a wink for many reasons, but I stayed there because I wanted to hide.

The next few days Arrana, Gin, Wren and Coral all asked me what was wrong. They’d noticed my depression. I told them all that it was probably just part of feybraiha and that it would most likely soon pass. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell Coral the truth. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. It was too painful to relate. What was I going to do? I had no other har I wanted. I only wanted Azure. Now I supposed my parents would have to pick somehar and my first time would be a disappointment and a disaster! I wanted to die.

Several days later, I couldn’t stand feeling so hot sleeping in my room, so I went outside and laid on the grass. I dared to look over at the Nayati and saw the candlelight flickering. Anguish filled me as I thought of how I used to feel so happy and encouraged when I saw the soft glow and knew I was welcome to talk to Azure there. Now it was all over. I felt completely hopeless. I crawled under our picnic table, turned onto my side and tried to go to sleep. I lay there, my eyes closed, unable to relax when I heard a voice.

“Willow?”

I turned to see Azure peering under the table at me. I was startled and afraid. What did he want?

“Willow, will you come out? I think we need to talk.”

I crawled out, not knowing what to expect. Was he going to reiterate how much he didn’t want me? I didn’t think I could endure that. Gods! I wanted to evaporate. I sat on the tabletop, regarding Azure with trepidation as he sat beside me.

“I haven’t seen you since–” He paused. “Since the night we went to the creek.”

I looked down at the ground. I had absolutely nothing to say.

“I’m sorry–” he began.

“Okay!” I blurted. “I get it! You’re sorry you kissed me. You think I’m a dumb harling. You don’t want it to happen again. Okay! Just don’t say it out loud. I can‘t stand to hear you say it!”

I turned away from him and hugged my knees with my arms, hid my face and tried not to cry.

After a few moments, I felt his hand on my shoulder.

“Willow,” he said gently, “that’s not it at all. I don’t think you’re a dumb harling. I think you’re beautiful and desirable. I enjoyed our kiss. That’s why I stopped. I enjoyed it too much. I didn’t want it to go too far. That would have been wrong of me. Can you understand?”

I turned back to him. Was he serious?

“I’m so much older than you. I should have controlled myself.”

“You–you really enjoyed it?”

“Yes. Yes, of course I did.”

I smiled and moved closer to him.

“I thought you were grossed out, thinking I was stupid and immature.”

“Grossed out? Come on, Willow. You must know that it’s not every day a har my age gets to kiss and share breath with one so young and gorgeous. I was afraid I was taking advantage.”

“No way! I started it.” Then it hit me. I looked at him, wide-eyed.

“You think I’m gorgeous?!”

He laughed. “Yeah, I do.”

I couldn’t help my blushing or my smiling from ear to ear. I thought that if there ever was a time to ask him to be my first, this was it.

“Azure? Remember when I said that I’d chosen the har I wanted but was afraid he’d turn me down?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I think I’ve got the nerve to ask him now.”

He smiled blankly at me.

I took a deep breath.

“Azure, will you be my first?”

He hesitated a moment. I held my breath.

“I’d be honored, Willow, truly, but I don’t think your parents would approve.”

“It’s my choice! They’ll have to understand. Anyway, what objection could they have?”

Of course in all honesty, I knew exactly what objection they’d have.

“You know, Willow. My age. I’m old enough to be your–”

“Yeah, I know all that. I don’t care! What difference does age make to hara?”

“I have a feeling your parents will think that it does. And I really can’t blame them.”

“Just tell me the truth from your heart. Would you like to be my first aruna partner?”

“Very much,” he said quietly.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach and pure joy filled my heart.

“Then no one can tell us we can’t.”

I scooted over and hugged him close. He sighed and kissed the top of my head.

“I tell you what, Willow. I won’t go against your parents’ wishes. I can’t. But if they give their consent, I would like nothing better than to be your first.”

I hung onto him, praying to every dehar I could think of that my parents would approve.

Finally, he pulled away, sighing.

“I think we’d both better try to get some sleep, Willow.”

I nodded, but what I really wanted was for him to take me right there, right then. No asking permission, no waiting, no nothing! However, I just smiled at him and said goodnight. As I watched him walk away, I looked to the heavens and prayed that he could be my first. I told Aruhani that I would just die if I couldn’t have him. Wasn’t aruna supposed to be the most sublime thing in the universe? Well, how could it be if I didn’t have the har I so desired for my first? Solstice’s words echoed in my mind: “It’s a lot more meaningful with a har you want. When you find that har, don’t let anyhar talk you out of it–even your parents.”

They just had to approve. Then I began to think about how I’d tell them. How could I put it to them so they’d say yes? I had to figure it out.

* * * *

Time seemed to drag as I awaited my being through feybraiha. How would I know when it was over? Would I stop being itchy and hot? Would something else indicate that I was finished with it? I decided to ask Arrana.

One afternoon when Gin had decided to go fishing to catch something for dinner, I stayed behind. Usually, I loved to go with him and Wren and whoever of our cousins and friends went along, but this time I decided to stay home. I wanted to talk to Arrana. I watched them head off happily to the creek, as I sat at the picnic table. Arrana, intuitive as always, came out and sat next to me.

“Everything all right, Willow?”

“I wanted to talk to you alone.”

He reached over, touched my face and said, “Well, here I am, my sweet son.”

I sighed and looked into my hostling’s limpid blue eyes.

“How will I know when my feybraiha is over?”

“Well, you’ll stop itching, you’ll be able to sleep again and your emotions will stop feeling all mixed up. You’ll feel serene and at peace. Do you feel like that, yet?”

I shook my head. “No, not yet.”

Arrana put his hand on mine and gave me a sympathetic look.

“What is it, Willow? What’s making you so unsettled? It‘s more than just feybraiha, I can tell.”

I decided it was now or never.

“I’ve chosen the har I want for my first aruna. And I don’t think you or Gin will like it. But he’s the one I want. It’s only him and if I can’t have him–” My voice broke and my eyes filled with tears. Arrana moved closer and took me into his comforting arms.

“Willow. Tell me. Who is it?”

I pulled back and looked into his eyes.

“It’s Azure.”

He looked at me blankly, then confused.

“You mean…the har that’s staying with Varda and Quint?”

“Yes.”

“But how–? I’ve never even met him. How did you–?”

“He gave me something for my itching. We got to talking and then…”

“Willow, I’ve heard that he’s over one hundred years old.”

“I know. I don’t care. He hardly looks or acts any older than you or Gin. Look at my high hostlings and high fathers. They’re still in good shape and can even have harlings.”

“He’s older than your high hostlings and fathers. He’s–”

“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me or him. He said that he’d like to be my first.”

Arrana shook his head and sniffed. “I don’t doubt that!”

“No! It’s not like that! He said that after I asked him. It was my idea. He said he won’t go against my parents’ wishes, but if you give your approval, he’d be honored. That’s what he said: “honored.”

“He said that?”

“Yes!”

“I don’t want to embarrass you, but I think I’d like to talk to him before I give my approval.”

I heaved a sigh. “I wish you’d trust my judgment, but I guess I understand. I’ll tell him.”

I began to feel very hopeless.

“What about Gin?”

Arrana shook his head and looked back to me.

“He’ll be less understanding than I am, you can bet, but if I talk to Azure and think it’s alright, I’ll convince Gin. Just let me talk to him. I don’t like keeping secrets from your father, but this time I think it just might be for everyone’s good if I do.”

I threw myself into my hostling’s arms, trying unsuccessfully to hold back my tears, thanking him for his understanding.

“It’s alright, Willow. Please stop crying. Everything will work out. Gin and I both just want you to be happy.”

* * * *

The next night I went to the Nayati to talk to Azure. I wasn’t sure how he’d react to my hostling’s wanting to talk to him. I knew Arrana would handle it with finesse. I was also very thankful that Gin wasn’t the one who wanted to talk to him. I loved my father but he could be a bit blunt at times.

As usual, Azure was sitting cross-legged in front of the table with incense and candles burning. I walked over and sat beside him, not wanting to interrupt him abruptly. A few moments later, he took a deep breath and looked over at me.

“Hi Willow,” he said with his handsome smile.

“I’m still always afraid I’m intruding on your meditation.”

“Don’t worry. I welcome a break now and then.” With a twinkle in his eye he added, “And I’m always glad to see you.”

After blushing profusely, I decided to get right to the point.

“I talked to my hostling about you being my first aruna partner.” I hesitated, almost afraid to tell him.

“He says before he gives his approval, he’d like to speak with you.”

I waited anxiously for his response.

He nodded. “Your hostling’s very wise. I’d do the same if you were my son.”

I brightened, surprised. “Then you don’t mind?”

“No, of course not. When should I talk to him?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I’ll, um…” I thought for a minute. “How about if I have him come over some time when you’re in here. Would that be okay?”

“Sure. Send him over any time you want.”

“Okay!”

I knew the happiness showed in my face. Azure reached over and ruffled my hair.

We walked outside and lay on the grass in the neighbor’s yard, looking at the stars. Azure knew all the star formations and all their names, both human and harish. He knew the mythology that went with them, too, in both cultures. I was fascinated with his stories and explanations. As he looked skyward and related the tales, I couldn’t help gazing at him. The only hint that he was old at all were the small lines at the sides of his eyes that showed only when he smiled widely. I found them attractive, probably because it made him unique. Sometimes it was difficult to lie beside him and keep my hands off him. Feybraiha makes you roony but I knew after our experience at the creek, if I wanted him to feel comfortable with me, I had to control myself.

Later, when we lay in a companionable silence, I asked him something.

“Do you have any idea how much longer it’ll be before I’m through feybraiha?”

He turned to look at me.

“Sorry, Willow. There’s no way to know that. It’s a bit different for every har. Judging from all you’ve told me, I’m guessing it won’t be too much longer. I think you’ve passed through the worst of it. I couldn’t venture an accurate guess, though. Feybraiha’s a tricky thing.”

I sighed. “I’m tired of being in this…limbo!”

Azure laughed at my archaic reference.

“I’m not a harling and I’m not an adult. It’s frustrating!”

“I wish I could say that I know how you feel, but the truth is, I don’t. I was about halfway through human puberty when I became har, and in all honesty, it was so long ago I can barely remember it. If it’s any consolation to you, harish puberty is much shorter than the human variety.”

“Not short enough!”

Then I had an idea.

“Hey! Let’s take a midnight dip in the creek. I’d love to feel the cool water.”

He smiled, but shook his head. “I don’t know, Willow.”

“Why not?”

Then I realized why he was hesitant and grew embarrassed. I wasn’t sure what to say, but felt I had to say something.

“We could, you know, keep our pants on. I mean, I wouldn’t. Oh, shit!”

I covered my face with my hands.

“It’s okay, Willow. It’s not you I mistrust, it’s me. How about if we take a walk instead?”

“Okay.”

We took a long, leisurely walk through the woods and by the creek. The cooler air there felt marvelous. I wished I could sleep there, but I figured my parents would worry about me if I did that. I wanted so badly to at least hold Azure’s hand in mine, but I was afraid he’d feel awkward, so I didn’t. I must have heaved an audible sigh because he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Nothing. I’m fine.”

We walked back to my yard and said goodnight. He went back to the Nayati and I lay on the grass to sleep. Before I finally drifted off, I prayed to Aruhani that Arrana would give his approval. That was all I needed because I knew he would convince Gin. That night, I had sweet erotic dreams of Azure and me being together.

* * * *

The very next day, soon after lunch, Gin went off to inspect the orchards and then go fishing, taking Wren with him. After they’d gone, Arrana asked me about seeing Azure. I told him that I’d spoken to him and for him to go over to the Nayati. I explained that he might look like he was in a trance or something, but just to sit and he’d sense my hostling’s presence. Arrana nodded, smiled as he touched my face and then walked across the yard. I went to my room and watched Arrana go into the Nayati. Then I threw myself on my bed and prayed my heart out that Arrana would give his approval. Part of me wished that I could be a spider on the ceiling, hearing their exchange but I was too nervous to be there in any form. I tried not to think of what would happen if Arrana didn’t think that Azure was the one for my first. I paced around my room, lay on the bed, prayed and fretted and found myself wishing I was old enough to get drunk and drown my angst. I finally lay face down on the bed and covered my head with my pillow. When I finally heard Arrana coming up the stairs, I held my breath, hearing the pounding of my heart in my ears. My thoughts raced, yet I had no thoughts at all. I felt suspended in time. Was I being over dramatic? If so, I couldn’t help it. Arrana knocked softly on my door and came in. His demeanor was calm as he sat beside me on the bed.

“Azure and I had a lovely long talk,” he said.

And? And? The suspense was killing me.

“He’s quite a charming har. He seems experienced, respectful, wise and kind. Despite your vast age difference, I believe his intentions are honorable. I give my approval.”

I began to cry tears of joy. I flung myself at my hostling, blubbering and thanking him profusely.

He chuckled. “It’s okay, Willow, really. Calm down. It’s okay.”

I pulled myself together and looked into Arrana’s eyes. I could only say one word.

“Gin.”

Arrana caressed my face.

“Leave him to me.”

I don’t think I’d ever felt more love for my hostling than I did in that moment. He got up to leave.

“Maybe you’d better take a nap, my sweet. You’ve had a bit of a trying afternoon.”

I smiled at him as he closed my door and then I flopped back onto my bed, my mind full of Azure as I began to get sleepy. The next thing I knew, Wren was waking me up to tell me it was time for dinner. Groggily I sat up as he jumped on the bed and sat beside me.

“We caught all kinds of fish today!” he told me enthusiastically, beginning to count on his fingers.

“Let’s see…two catfish, four trout, and about eight crawfish.”

“Wow! I guess we’ll have a feast!”

“Yeah! Arrana’s grilling everything. It smells great!”

I put my arm around Wren and then hugged him.

“Hey! What’s gotten into you?” he asked, a bit shocked at my show of affection.

“I’m just happy, that’s all.”

He looked at me like I was a stranger.

“Feybraiha’s weird!”

I laughed at him and he laughed, too, jumping on me and tickling me.

* * * *

One night a few weeks later, I lay as usual in the cool grass to sleep. I woke up in what I assumed was the middle of the night, shivering. At first, I just felt uncomfortable, and then came the revelation.

I’m cold! I’m actually cold, like a normal har sleeping outside in the wet grass!

I got up and went to my room and lay on my bed, realizing that my feybraiha had taken a turn for the better. I hoped I was at, or at least near, the end of it. I fell asleep, warm and secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be long until Azure and I could be together. If Arrana could convince Gin, that is. And I had every confidence that he could.

* * * *

A whole week passed without my having to sleep outside, the itching, redness and confusion, a thing of the past. When I told Arrana, he said the time had come for him to talk to Gin.

“When will you speak with him?”

“I don’t know, Willow. I’ll just have to see how things go.”

He took me into his arms. “Don’t worry, my darling. When the time is right, I’ll know.”

He gave me a squeeze, a kiss, and an encouraging smile.

* * * *

Several days later, after playing hide and seek with Coral, Wren and my cousins, I got thirsty and went into the house for a drink. I heard my parents talking in the living room and, thinking they might be talking about me and my first aruna, I crept to the doorway, hid myself and listened, peeking around just enough to see them with one eye.

“But, Gin,” my hostling pleaded, “what’s the big deal about the difference in their ages?”

I froze, petrified.

“It’s just–weird, strange. What do you think our friends and relatives will think if we let our firstborn son take his first aruna with an ancient, reclusive har? They’ll think we’ve lost our minds, that we have no sense!”

Arrana pursed his lips and looked away from my father. He took a deep breath, turned to face him again and spoke.

“Whose feelings do you care more for, our friends, our family’s, your own, or our son’s?”

Gin seemed to be holding his breath. He looked into Arrana’s eyes for quite a few moments, then sighed, raising his arms in a gesture of surrender.

“Our son’s, of course, but–”

“Well, it doesn’t sound that way to me,” Arrana said solemnly, crossing his arms and holding my father’s gaze.

Gin shook his head, seeming exasperated.

“Arrana–”

My hostling held his stance, tilting his head to one side.

“Arrana, I…I just think… Why can’t Willow choose someone close to his own age?”

“Because he didn’t.”

Gin shook his head, seeming at a loss for words. Arrana moved over to him and took his face in his hands.

Looking into my father’s eyes, Arrana said, “It’s his decision, my love. I’ve spoken with Azure, as I told you, and I think he’s worthy of our son.”

My father sighed, nodded and took Arrana into his arms, burying his face in my hostling’s abundant hair.

“Alright, my sweet, my beloved, alright.”

They began kissing, so I figured I’d better make myself scarce.

I ran outside, but before I could join the others, I had to pray in thanks. I was so excited and elated. I finally got control of myself and went back to my cousins and friend. I couldn’t let on that I’d eavesdropped, but I couldn’t wait until my parents gave me the happy news.

The next night as I was reading in my room before going to sleep, there was a gentle knock on my door and my father entered. I closed my book as he smiled at me and sat next to me on the bed. He looked a little stiff and unsure. I jokingly guessed that he’d lost a coin toss between himself and Arrana as to who would tell me about their permission for me to be with Azure and my “talk” about aruna. I tensed a bit as the realization came upon me that Gin was going to tell me the facts.

“I’d like to talk to you, Willow, if you’re not too tired.”

“No, I’m fine.”

He cleared his throat.

“As you know–well of course you know– umm, your feybraiha is about over and you have to give some…thought to your first aruna.”

He began to nervously pick at his fingernails. I wished that I could make it easier for him.

“Your hostling and I discussed it and we approve your choice for your first aruna partner.”

I’m sure I grinned from ear to ear. I hugged my father and thanked him profusely as he hugged me back. When we separated, there were tears in both our eyes.

“Of course there are some things you should know before–before that night.”

I waited anxiously and with a generous amount of dread. I knew this would be embarrassing for both of us.

“I don’t know how much you know about aruna, but being that you’re the oldest of your group of friends and family, I have to assume that nohar has told you much about it. Is that true?”

I nodded.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He opened them and looked into mine.

“Aruna is–is an important part of being a grown har. It’s necessary for our health and well-being and it’s a very natural and enjoyable part of life. It feeds us bodily, mentally and spiritually. It can be used for healing, power, magic, procreation, and simply for enjoyment and as an expression of love. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any questions about your first aruna?”

“I–I don’t even know what to ask.”

“Well, you know about your soume and ouana aspects, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“Well, you have to be soume for your first encounter. You need to have another har’s essence in you to complete your transformation from child to adult. After that, it doesn’t matter what role you take. You can suit yourself and your partner.”

He cleared his throat again.

“In your soume-lam there are sikras. They’re points of pleasure that correspond to the petals of the ouana-lim. Your partner will stimulate these as he–”

My father rubbed at his forehead.

“It’s okay, Gin. Azure’s experienced. He’ll know what to do and what to tell me. Besides, maybe I should have some surprises.”

My father looked at me gratefully. I think in that moment, he was very thankful that I’d chosen a seasoned har.

“I just want your first time to be special and wonderful, giving you a good idea of what’s to come.”

I hugged my father and said softly, “It will be. Thanks to you, Arrana and Azure, it will be.”

* * * *

After consulting with Arrana, I learned that it would be my pleasure and privilege to tell Azure that he could be my first. I slept in my room, but still stayed up late and the night after Gin’s talk with me, I went to the Nayati.

Azure was there, as usual, sitting cross-legged in front of the altar. I sat likewise and waited for him to sense me. Finally, he looked over at me with a serene smile.

“Your parents approved, didn’t they?”

I stared, wide-eyed at him.

“How–how did you know?”

He shrugged. “Just a feeling.”

I moved closer to him and hugged him, speaking into his mind.

Yes. They gave their approval. Oh, Gods! I can’t wait.

His mind touched mine.

You’ve made a much older har very happy, Willow. It will be an honor and a pleasure to be your first.

We stayed there, holding each other for a long time. I wanted him so badly, but knew I had to wait. It wasn’t easy!

* * * *

Finally, when it was determined that I was through feybraiha, a date was set for my celebration and first aruna. I had to ask my parents where this first aruna would take place. It was decided that it would be in Azure’s room at the neighbor’s house. He didn’t use it much, and it would be private. Usually, the guests at the celebration would keep the party going and the couple wouldn’t be disturbed. I was happy with the arrangements. I couldn’t imagine having my first aruna in my room with my parents and little brother there in the house! I’d have been really hung up! Everything seemed to be working out and I was extremely happy.

My feybraiha celebration was three days away when I was hanging out with my cousins, brother and Coral. We were at the run and I sat down on the grass to watch the younger ones. Coral sat next to me, looked over at me and gave me a puzzling smile. I looked at him, confused, and he sighed and spoke.

“You know, Willow, I’m really glad that you get to have the har you really wanted for your first aruna, but…”

I looked at him with consternation.

“But what, Coral, what?”

He looked away, picking at the ground with a stick, then back to me and said, “But I’m–I’m a little jealous. I’m sorry, Willow. I want you to be happy.”

“Coral, if I could have chosen you, I would have. You know that. When you’re ready, I’ll be your first. I’m counting on it. You know how I feel about you.”

“How do you feel,Willow?”

“Like…like you’re my best friend. And after you go through feybraiha, well, that opens up a lot more possibilties for us to be close. You know what I mean?”

He smiled widely.

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

I was going to say more when Wren ran up to me and shouted, “We saw a snake! Come look, Willow! Come on!”

I rolled my eyes, gave Coral a tolerant smile and answered Wren.

“Just leave it alone. Tell the others to come here. We’ll go back to our yard.”

We all went back and Arrana fixed us a snack and some iced tea. Gin gave me a knowing smile from the back door. I felt so right and at peace, something I hadn’t felt for weeks. I fell asleep that night, thinking of the sublime night I’d take my first aruna.

* * * *

Finally, the day of my feybraiha celebration dawned: sunny and temperate. The dehara must have smiled on me. I awoke rather late and after breakfast, Arrana instructed me to take a bath in some perfumed water. I felt very pampered and special. I had a luxurious soak for quite a while and then dried off and put on a robe, towel-drying my hair. My hair fell to only a few inches below my collar bone and I wondered what Arrana would do with it to make it look styled. It didn’t have much curl and I sat on my bed, staring at myself in the mirror above my low dresser, hoping he could make me look beautiful. Just then Arrana came into my room. He gave me a loving smile and sat next to me giving me a hug. He buried his face in my hair.

“I can’t believe you’re a grown har. It seems like only yesterday I watched you take your first steps, heard your first word–which was Arrana, by the way.” He laughed. “Actually it was ’Rana.’” You called me that for a long time. I was kind of sorry when you learned to say it correctly.” He sighed. “And now it’s time for you to take your first aruna.”

I held on to him tightly, perhaps trying to hold on to my childhood for just a few more moments. He pulled away, sniffled and wiped his cheeks.

“Okay, no more tears. Today is a joyous day.”

He ran his fingers through my hair.

“It’s still a little damp,” he said. “I’ll go take care of the food and be back shortly. Then I’ll do your eyes, okay?”

It was the custom in our community for the celebratory family to be responsible only for the main course. Neighbors and friends brought all the rest of the dishes to leave the family free to decorate, dress and get ready without stress. As I waited for Arrana and for my hair to dry, I looked out to the yard, already set up with tables, candles and flowers, also garlands hanging from the tree branches. It was almost incomprehensible that all this was for me. I smiled to myself, feeling tickled about it all. I was soon, however, interrupted by Wren. He came in and flopped himself on my bed.

“You smell really good,” he said.

I snickered at him. His face took on a serious expression.

“Are you scared, Willow?”

“No, of course not. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“I’d be scared!”

“Of what?”

“You know–aruna.”

I laughed out loud, especially since Wren had said the word “aruna” with wide saucer-eyes.

“Well, to be honest with you, I was a little before, but now– now, I can’t wait.”

Wren screwed up his nose.

Just then Arrana called to us to come to the kitchen. He’d prepared some snacks.

“Here, sit down and have a little something to eat. I don’t want you to feel light-headed, Willow.”

He gave me a sly smile. “At least not because of lack of food.”

“Arrana!” I exclaimed, turning red, but giggling.

My father came in from the yard and said, “Everything’s done out there. The coals are in the grill and all the meat is in the refrigerator, ready to go.”

“Good,” Arrana said. Sit, Gin and have something to eat.”

We spent quite a bit of time snacking and talking. After we cleaned up, Arrana said, with a smile to me, “Let’s go upstairs and get you ready, Willow.”

I sat on my bed and shortly, Arrana came into my room with his tray of cosmetics. He asked me to sit on the trunk at the foot of my bed and he moved a chair in front of me for himself. He first lined my eyes with black kohl and then he brushed a lavender shade on my eyelids. After that, he put a pink lip color on me. By the time that was done, my hair was dry. He left most of it down, but put in a lot of thin braids on the top layer for accents, finishing them off at the bottom with tiny lavender beads. He scooted back and looked me over.

“Perfect! Now we need to get dressed.”

Arrana left to help Wren and I looked at my reflection. Whoa! Is that me? Arrana had really done a number on me. I felt beautiful.

I carefully removed my chosen outfit from my closet: a lavender, close fitting tunic and black leggings.

Soon after I’d dressed, my parents and brother came into my room. Gin handed me a belt made of round silver coins. It fastened in a “v” at my hips, the extra coins hanging straight down. It was an heirloom that my father had worn at his feybraiha, and his father before him and back for several generations.

Arrana had something for me that had been traditionally worn by him and his ancestors, too: an earcuff fashioned as a silver serpent with emerald eyes. He gently attached it to my ear, making sure it was secure. I put on my black boots and I was ready.

Arrana came over and hugged me. “You’re beautiful, my perfect son,” he whispered.

Wren giggled. “You look pretty.”

“Thanks.”

Wren and Arrana left, but Gin stayed behind.

“Azure should be here soon,” he said.

My heart leapt.

“Wait here and he’ll come for you so you can come out to the yard together and make your “entrance.”

He grinned. “I’m really proud of you, Willow. A father…” He swallowed, obviously holding back tears. “A father couldn’t ask for a better son.”

He took me into a strong embrace and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Gin.”

“See you in a few minutes.”

I peeked through the curtains and watched the guests start to arrive. I couldn’t help glancing over to the Nayati, thinking back to when all this had started. I never dreamed it would turn out the way it had. When all the guests seemed to have assembled, I got a little nervous. I hadn’t seen Azure come through the yard and I hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to be around all the hara since he was used to keeping to himself. Of course, I assumed he hadn’t always been that way. I sat on my bed and tried to relax. I was soon slightly startled by a soft knock on the door.

“Come in.”

Azure opened the door and stepped in. I stared at him, dumbfounded. He was dressed in black leather, head to toe. His outfit was decorated with silver chains and other accents. His blond hair hung loose, straight and shining, his eyes lined lightly in black. He was to die for! I sat speechless and hoped I wasn’t drooling.

“Willow, are you alright?” He walked quickly over to me, seeming concerned, and sat next to me on the bed.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just– you’re so…”

He laughed heartily. “It’s been a very long time since a har looked at me like that. Thanks, Willow.”

He gazed softly into my eyes. “You look beautiful, Willow, really beautiful.”

I felt my face flush.

“Are you ready?” he asked, smiling.

I nodded. He stood up and offered me his arm. We walked down the stairs and to the front door, ready to go outside.

“Azure? I…I’m so happy.”

He patted my arm.

“Let’s go.”

We walked through the door, and as we stepped onto the brick pathway through our yard, all the hara who were standing on either side of the pathway began to shower us with flower peatals and to strew them in our path as we walked to our table. It was like a fairy tale. I caught sight of Coral, smiling happily and throwing petals and I let my gaze stay with his until I had to turn away. Soon, I saw my parents and brother smiling and Arrana blew me a kiss. My cousins whooped and threw petals at us. It was almost too much for me to process. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. I’d never felt more beautiful or elated, except, that is, for when Azure had kissed and shared breath with me.

When Azure and I got to our table, we sat down together and the other hara went to find places for themselves at the many tables.

I looked to Azure, who gave me an encouraging smile, put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze. I closed my eyes, relishing his attentions and looking forward to our time alone together.

We all sat for awhile and then Gin stood up and got everyhar’s attention. After he made sure we all had a glass of sheh, including me, Gin made a toast.

“To Willow, my son, my firstborn!” He lifted his glass in the air, as did the rest of us.

He looked over to Azure and me.

“To you, Willow, on the day you become an adult.” He hesitated, emotion in his voice. “To my perfect son.”

He drank the toast and we all followed suit. I was completely overcome and touched by my father’s words.

“And to Azure,” he added, to my complete surprise. “My son’s wise choice.”

I looked to Azure, who gave my father a nod of thanks, before drinking.

Then there were a lot of hoots and whistles, which both embarrassed and thrilled me.

Azure and I had a few minutes to sit together before we were expected to mingle and talk with other hara.

“Are you okay with all this socializing?” I asked him, a bit concerned.

He smiled.

“Yes. I used to have to mingle with a lot of hara I didn’t care for. This is different. I like the hara here. I’m fine with it.”

I felt relieved. The next thing I noticed was Coral. He was looking at me from a table across the lawn.

“Azure? I have to talk to my friend, Coral, okay?”

“Of course, Willow, go ahead.”

I gave Azure a grateful smile and headed over to Coral. When I got there, he stood up and hugged me.

“Congratulations, Willow.”

“Thanks, Coral.”

We held each other for a few moments. When he let go, he looked into my eyes and touched my hair.

“You look so beautiful.”

“Arrana did it.”

“Azure’s the luckiest har in the world.”

“Well, I’ll be the luckiest when I get to be your first.”

He looked down and smiled shyly.

I tipped his chin up with my fingers.

“I mean it, Coral. I mean it.”

I was going to kiss him when I was interrupted by my cousin Solstice clapping me on the back.

“Willow! You look great. I told you you’d get throught it. Congratulations!”

“Thanks, Solstice. Thanks for all your help and advice, too.”

“No problem. Hey, strange but awesome choice for your first. I guess there’s more to you than I thought, Willow.”

I regarded him, at a loss for words as he walked off, looking back and giving me a thumbs up, before he went to his table to join his chesnari.

I shrugged at Coral and said, “Solstice is a little weird.”

He laughed and took my hand. As we were standing there, Wren came up to me.

“Willow, can I ask you something?”

I looked to Coral and shook my head.

“Yeah, sure Wren.”

He took me aside and I mind touched to Coral.

I want to talk to you again tonight.

He answered in kind, Yeah, me, too.

“What is it, Wren?”

“Are you going to stay overnight with Azure?”

“Well, yeah, that’s kind of the idea.”

He looked at me, puzzled.

“Are you going to live there with him?”

“No. Of course not!”

I actually started to become impatient with my parents for not telling Wren what was going on.

“I’m going to spend one night with him at the neigbor’s house in his room. That’s all.”

“Why?”

“To take my first aruna. You know what, Wren? You need to ask Gin and Arrana to explain things to you. I believe they don’t realize that you’re as aware of things as you are. You need to tell them and you need to ask them the questions you need answers to. Do you understand?”

He looked me squarely in the eye and nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “I do.”

“Good. As special as this all is, I’ll be back to sleep in my room tomorrow night. Or maybe, if I’m lucky, the night after. Anyway, I’m not going away for any reason. Okay?”

“Okay.”

He ran over to join Kaia and Luna and I went back to join Azure. By that time, the meat was done and we all indulged in the food and drink. I felt so privileged to be able to drink liquor, but I didn’t want to get sick or too drunk on my special night, so I didn’t overindulge. I did like the mellow, high feeling, though.

All of our neighbors, friends and relatives came over to me at some point, giving me congratulations and their best wishes, including my hura, Omen, Gin’s brother and his family, my high hostlings and high fathers who’d traveled from their settlement for the occasion. I felt very special and appreciated.

Later, after dark and after all the eating and drinking, came the music. Several of our friends and relatives could play instruments, so we had a bit of music and dancing. The first dance was supposed to be Azure and me, so when the music started, we went out to the middle of the yard and Azure took me into his arms. He was taller than I was, so I put my arms around his neck and he put his around my waist. As we swayed, I laid my head on his shoulder as he drew me closer. I wanted to run away to his room right then. He smelled delightful; still like leather and apples. I knew everyhar, including my parents and brother were watching, but I didn’t care or feel intimidated. I felt wonderful. I relished in feeling that his arms were around me, that I could bury my face in his neck and that soon, we’d be alone together. I couldn’t wait.

“Azure,” I murmured. “Kiss me, please kiss me.”

He pressed his lips to mine and I left reality.

I heard a couple of hoots and some applause, but it didn’t embarrass me. I wanted to be with him so badly.

After our first dance, many hara joined us in the yard, dancing. After a while, Azure and I went to our table to sit, talk, and enjoy the refreshments. While we were sitting there, Coral came over to us.

“Hi, Azure,” he said, a bit tentatively.

“Hello, Coral,” Azure said.

Then Azure got up and said, “I’ll leave you two alone for a while.”

I felt I should protest, but I really didn’t want to.

“I’ve got something for you,” Coral said.

I looked at him, puzzled.

“Come on,” he said, taking me by the hand.

He led me away from the festivities and we sat together on the grass.

“I’ve got a gift for you. For your feybraiha.”

I looked at him, happily surprised.

“Here.”

He handed me something wrapped in thin paper, tied with lavender ribbon.

“Coral. I’m touched. You didn’t have to–”

“Open it!” he said, smiling in obvious anticipation.

I peeled back the paper to reveal a beautiful carved wooden dragon pendant with a suede cord attached. I was astonished. It was polished to a beautiful shade of red-brown, with some lighter veins from the wood grain.

“It’s…it’s beautiful, exquisite. It must have cost you a fortune. Coral–” I looked to him, tears in my eyes. “I…I love it. Thank you!”

I hugged him close.

“Where did you find it?”

“I didn’t. I made it.”

I was flabbergasted.

“You, you mean you made this?”

“Yeah. I carved it, then my father helped me stain and finish it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you had such a talent?”

“I never tried it before. I just wanted to make you something special.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks.

“Coral, special doesn’t even begin to–”

He gave me a slightly sly smile as I wiped the tears from my face.

“I know your time with Azure will be something else, but I wanted you to remember me, too.”

I laughed. “Oh, gods, Coral! As if I could forget you!”

We hugged and I kissed him.

He parted us and said, “We’d better get back.”

I nodded.

“Even though I’m a little jealous, I think Azure’s an awesome har and if it can’t be me for your first aruna, I’m glad it’s him.” Narrowing his eyes, he added, “I think.”

We laughed together and headed back to my yard. On the way there, Annara and Toshka came over to me. Annara embraced me.

“Congratulations, Willow.”

He drew back and looked me over.

“You’ve grown into a lovely and beautiful har. I’m so proud of you and happy for you.”

Toshka, my hura, added, “Me, too, Willow. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Our gift is on the table with the others,” Annara said. He smiled at me with a twinkle in his eye. “Of course I know you probably won’t get to that for a day or so.”

I thanked them, feeling my face flush.

When we got back to my yard, Azure was at our table, talking with Gin and Arrana. I looked to Coral with a panicked expression. He poked me in the ribs and we both began laughing.

“I guess I’d better get over there,” I said.

Coral gave me a smile and turned away.

“Coral?”

He looked back to me.

“I really love your gift.”

“See you soon, Willow, and I’m glad you like it.”

I walked over to where Azure and my parents were sitting, talking. I sat by Azure and put my head on his shoulder, closing my eyes.

“Nice talking to you, Azure,” my hostling said. “Let’s go, Gin, my love,” he added. With a sweet, knowing look to me, Arrana took my father’s hand and led him away.

I looked longingly into Azure’s sky-blue eyes.

“When can we be alone?”

“Soon, I think.”

I nuzzled into his neck and put my arms around him. I can’t wait much longer, I thought.

Azure and I sat for a while, wordlessly watching the flickering candles on our table. It felt so satisfying to finally be able to touch him and sit close, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted him. The feeling filled me with both excitement and yearning.

The evening sun finally dipped below the hills and I figured that the dream of being together that I’d had, for what seemed to me to be an eternity, would soon become a reality. I knew nothing of what aruna would actually be like or exactly what to do, but I knew I’d go with my instincts and feelings and I trusted Azure to lead and teach me. I knew the mechanics, but I also knew in my heart and from what I’d heard that there was a whole universe of indescribable delights that went with them. I was gently brought back to reality by Azure whispering in my ear, “Stand up with me, Willow, they’re making the final toast.”

This time Arrana made the toast.

“To Willow and Azure! And may Aruhani smile upon you tonight. I love you, my beautiful son.” He winked at me. Arrana whispered something to Wren who stood on the table and raised his glass, too.

“To, uh…”

Hara giggled as Wren seemed to be thinking.

“To the best brother EVER!!”

Hara cheered, Wren guzzled his drink and jumped down off the table. I laughed, but inside I was bursting with love and joy.

As the hara remained standing, Azure again whispered to me.

“This is where we make our exit.”

I stared into his eyes, excitedly.

“Really? We can go now?”

“Yes,” he said with a chuckle.

He offered me his arm and we walked toward the neighbor’s house as hara called, hooted and whistled at us.

After we got to Varda and Quint‘s yard, to my surprise, Azure led us to the Nayati. He knelt down in front of the table and I followed suit. He lit several candles and prayed silently and in whispers. After a few minutes, he took a deep breath and looked into my eyes, giving me a serene smile.

“Aruna is sacred, Willow. It’s a precious gift to our race. I thought a short prayer was in order.”

I nodded.

“Don’t look so serious,” he said with a glint in his eyes. “The rest will be pure enjoyment.”

We laughed, and I felt relieved.

As Azure and I knelt together in the candlelight, I couldn’t help myself. I moved closer and murmured “I’ve waited so long for this.”

I put my arms around him and drew us together until our lips met. We kissed and I thought I would leave this world. I could hardly believe that the har I’d wanted so badly was here in my arms; mine completely for tonight. I wanted to be one with him, to have him consume me. He returned my kiss fervently, our tongues stroking each other’s, his hands rubbing and caressing my back. It was heaven. I felt the pangs of pleasure and need radiate from my groin and belly to my fingertips. The liquid I’d felt come from me before was fairly flowing and I became soume. I felt my ouana-lim retreat into my body and guessed everything was normal, but all mundane thoughts were soon abandoned as I could think of nothing but giving myself to Azure.

He parted us and said, “I think we should go to my room.”

I nodded as I thought that no words were ever more welcome to my ears. We stood and, taking my hand, Azure led me to his room. Once inside, he turned on the light, lit some candles and then turned the light off. He moved to me and took me into his arms. I felt like I was in a dream. We shared breath and he showed me beautiful images of palaces, seas, ships, tall trees and stone buildings covered in snow. I imagined that it was all the beautiful places he’d been in his long life. I had nothing to show him to compare, so I sent him mental images and messages of my great need, my desire and how I wanted to give myself completely to him.

When we parted, he whispered, “Willow, I want you, too.”

I fumbled with his buttons, trying to remove his jacket or shirt or whatever you’d call it. He kissed me as he undid it himself. He left it for me to remove, which I relished. I pushed it off his shoulders, hardly able to breathe, and revealed his chest which had two scars on it. To me, his bared upper body was the most lovely vision I’d ever seen. I stepped back and removed my belt and tunic, hurriedly rushing back to claim his lips with my own.

Not long after, he guided us to his bed and we sat, still kissing and caressing each other. I loved the feel of his thin muscled body. He parted us for a moment and said, somewhat breathlessly, “We have some wine– a gift. Would you like some, before–”

“No,” I managed, caressing his face and looking into his eyes.

“All I want is you.”

He took me into a strong embrace as he kissed and shared breath with me again. I was beside myself. He parted our lips and murmured, “Are you soume?”

“Yes.”

He planted kisses on my neck as he undid my pants. I ran my fingers into his hair, never wanting this ecstasy to end. He slipped them off, then removed his own.

He stopped and drew back, running his hands over my torso and looking me up and down.

“Gods, Willow. You’re so young–so perfect.”

“So are you,” I said.

He laughed.

“Okay, you’re not so young,” I said giggling. “But you’re perfect. And perfect for me.”

We moved to lay down. He feathered his fingers into my hair, moved closer so his body touched mine, and kissed me with passion. I moaned into his mouth, feeling his erect ouana-lim against my thigh.

As he moved down my body with kisses, I shivered with delight. He kissed my stomach as he slid his fingers to my soume-lam, stroking me. I’d never dreamed of such pleasure. I couldn’t keep still or quiet. I found myself making noises that I couldn’t believe were coming from me. He moved his lips further down my body to my soume-lam and pleasured me with his mouth and tongue. I truly felt like I was soaring. I began to sense that there was a place deep inside me that desperately needed to be touched, but it was so deep that I felt it couldn’t be. I ached there and needed the ache to be quelled.

“Azure, Azure…” I moaned.

“Yes, Willow, yes.”

He moved over top of me and put his lips to mine as I felt him enter me. He did so slowly and gently, like he thought I would break. It was an exquisite feeling: the agony of need and the ecstasy of promised fulfillment.

He began to move, slowly thrusting into me. I drew up my knees wanting him to go as deeply as he could. As we kissed and shared breath, I began to see sparks of color, then they danced together, like a sparkling fountain. His scent, the feel of his skin, his pleasured sounds and the pure felicity of the sensations consuming my body were like nothing I’d ever imagined. We parted our lips, breathing too hard to share breath and kiss. Soon, I felt like my entire body was poised to melt into his, then, deep within me, I convulsed and I felt something strike my core and quash the aching need. As I spasmed, I heard nothing but our two heartbeats and felt Azure climax, then I collapsed, completely limp and feeling unable to move. He lay, spent, on top of me. He gently eased out of me and lay, boneless, at my side.

When we’d caught our breath, he turned to me and kissed my face and neck repeatedly. I smiled and sighed with pleasure. I turned to face him and we shared a long warm kiss. After, I cuddled closer, pressing our foreheads together and rubbing my nose on his, kissing him again.

“Gods, Azure. I never dreamed–it was so…”

I shook my head and kissed him. I couldn’t put what I felt into words.

“You’re so lovely, Willow.”

We lay, sated and relaxed for a while and then Azure smiled, kissed my lips and asked, “Would you like some wine, now?”

I nodded.

Sitting up in his bed, I watched as he reached for the bottle on the nightstand. He looked around and said, “I thought there would be glasses–”

“We don’t need them,” I interjected, not wanting him to leave the room even for a minute.

He smiled and shrugged, offering the bottle to me first. I took a couple of gulps.

“Mmmm, this is good; nice and sweet. Who gave it to us?”

“Varda and Quint.”

“That was nice of them.”

“They gave us another gift.” He gave me a smoldering gaze. “After the party they’re going to stay with some relatives for a couple of days.”

I regarded Azure with surprise and glee.

“You mean they’re going to be away?”

He nodded. “Yes. They wanted to give us our privacy.”

I laughed and threw myself into Azure’s arms.

“I LOVE them! That was so thoughtful!”

“You didn’t think I was going to let you go home tomorrow, did you?” he said, teasingly.

I clung to him, looking into his blue eyes.

“Azure… Thank you.”

He swigged from the bottle and gave me another smoky look. I felt the pangs in my belly again. He moved close to me and ran his hands over my body, nuzzling my neck and face and then whispered in my ear, “Would you like to be ouana?”

“Oh, yes,” I breathed.

He took my face into his practiced hands and kissed me. As our tongues played and we shared breath, I imparted to him visions of running streams, sun dappled clearings in the woods and dragonflies coupling on the wing. He showed me a gorgeous green place with stone, castle-like buildings and verdant woodlands, shrouded in mist. I drank them in as I also reveled in his touch. There are no words to describe the need, desire and hunger I felt for him. As he lavished his attentions on me, I let my desperate aching need for him consume me.

He took my already stiffened ouana-lim in his hand, possessing my mouth with his own. I could hardly stand it. In all my erotic dreams and anticipation of my first aruna, I never envisioned such bliss and enjoyment. Soon, he planted a trail of kisses down my body and pleasured me deftly with his lips and tongue. I felt a strange, exquisitely pleasant sensation and realized I’d flowered. I came to the brink and, sensing it, he released me. Breathing hard, I instinctively moved to straddle him. He closed his eyes and then opened them, smiling seductively into mine and said, “Take me, Willow… take me.”

I slowly pushed into him, emitting a low moan. It felt so unbelievably quenching. I luxuriated in the feeling of rooning him and in his low pleasured noises. I moved slowly at first, wanting to draw it out. Then I felt myself move with fevered swiftness and eagerness, our breath coming faster and harder. Azure gripped me with his soume-lam and I groaned, feeling my release to be imminent. Soon, I found it, as I continued to thrust into him. I heard his moans and felt his spasms and then collapsed onto his still-heaving chest. We lay together, our breathing slowing, our bodies limp and satisfied.

Azure kissed the side of my face. I reluctantly pulled out of him, as part of me would have liked to stay one with him forever, and lay by his side, trying to get as close to him as was possible.

“Azure…” I murmured, breathlessly. “Azure.”

He gathered me closer into his arms and touched my mind.

Willow. You’re so perfect…so perfect.

I answered in kind.

You’ve made my first time more than I could have ever imagined. I’m so very happy.

He kissed my hair as I lay on his chest. The next thing I knew it was morning.

I awoke a bit disoriented, and then remembered where I was and smiled to myself. I was lying on Azure’s chest and I stretched, thinking of the night before and the fact that I’d taken my first aruna and was a grown har now. I took a deep breath and relished Azure’s scent as I cuddled closer to him. I raised my head to regard him, but he was still sound asleep so I lay back down and promptly fell asleep again, visions of our night together replaying in my mind.

Later, I felt him stir and woke up again. He hugged me close and said, “Mmmm, Willow…” He rolled onto his side and pulled me to him. I buried my face in his neck. It had all been so wondrous, so fulfilling. I savored his unique fragrance as my fingers lightly played over his warm skin. It was the only place in the universe that I wanted to be. He touched my mind.

How about a shower and some breakfast?

Sounds wonderful!

We showered together and it was all I could do to resist initiating aruna with him again, but I knew we needed sustenance before we did anything else.

When we were clean, dried off and dressed, we went to our hosts’ kitchen, where Azure made us a breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee. To me, it was the most delicious breakfast of my life.

As I muched on my toast, I pondered. Did I feel any different? In some ways, I supposed, but in others I still felt the same. I didn’t feel any older or more mature, but I did feel deliriously happy and content.

“Willow? Willow?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry I was just–”

Azure chuckled at me.

“What do you say we take a walk and lie in the sun by the creek after we clean up.”

“Sure!” I answered, eagerly.

Azure fetched two towels and we headed out. We walked in the opposite direction from our usual place, heading for the deeper area of the creek where Wren and I were forbidden to go on pain of staying in our rooms for a week. Would Gin and Arrana still have the same rules for me now? I wondered.

I regarded Azure as we walked and slipped his hand in mine. He smiled at me, giving my hand a squeeze. Even holding his hand made me feel all warm and squishy inside. I’d already started yearning for the time we’d head back to the house and his bed. I hoped I wasn’t becoming a “roondog” as Solstice referred to hara who think about nothing but rooning.

After laying out our towels in a sunny spot on the creek shore, Azure laid down with a sigh, resting on his back, his hands behind his head, his eyes closed.

I sat and looked at him for a while. I wanted to ask him where he’d gotten the two scars on his chest, but I didn’t want to make him feel weird or self-conscious. I also wanted to ask him about his tattoo; a beautiful Pegasus on the back of his left shoulder. I‘d noticed it before when I‘d spooned behind him. It was a complete image, but you could see a sort of star formation evident at its core and it had a very tribal aspect to it. I thought it was beautiful. I surmised that it must have some special significance: commemoration of an event, or a special har? Maybe it was symbolic of something. I wasn’t sure whether to ask. Maybe later. Besides, I had some other questions to ask; questions I wanted only Azure to answer.

I lay beside him on my towel, but I really wanted to lie in his arms. I rolled onto my side and lay with my head on his chest, sighing as he gently trailed his fingers over my back.

“Azure?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Can I ask you some things, you know, about aruna?”

“Sure, Willow.”

“Well, when I was ouana and we were ready to be…finished? I felt something strange; like something almost separated from me or stretched out of me or something.”

“The ouana-lim has a tongue and at the moment of climax, it lashes out to reach the core of the soume har, and then it retracts quickly. That’s what you felt.”

“It was an awesome feeling, but I didn’t understand what had happened.”

“Didn’t your parents speak with you about aruna?”

I snickered.

“My father tried to, but he was so uncomfortable that I let him off the hook, telling him you’d guide and teach me. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind at all. Teaching you is going to be fun,” he said with a teasing smile.

“There’s something else.”

“What? Don’t hold back, Willow, you need to know the facts.”

“How do hara make pearls? I mean, could I get with pearl from aruna anytime? Will I know?”

“First of all; yes, you’ll know. Two hara have to be very close and concentrate on conceiving. Long ago, hara sometimes made pearls without being aware of how it happened. Now we know that hara have to open a “seal” deep inside them to conceive. I assume that being pure born, your instincts about that are more developed than an incepted har’s, like myself. It’s the har who’s taking the soume role in an arunic encounter who conceives. Even though I never conceived a pearl or fathered one, I’ve heard hara who had, tell me they just knew when it had happened. It’s very profound. So if you’re worried that you’ll conceive a pearl, don’t be. You can feel the seal open and you can decide whether to keep it that way or not.”

I felt relieved. Not that I would have been unhappy with Azure’s pearl, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready for anything like that!

“There’s one more question. Would you think me awful if all I wanted was to go back to your room and take aruna again?”

I kissed him on the mouth.

“Not at all,” he murmured, adding, “How about a dip in the creek first?”

I nodded, enthusiastically.

We shed our clothes, waded in, and swam around for a while. It was so refreshing and exciting. I’d never been allowed to go to this part of the creek before. After a while, I swam over to Azure and caressed him from behind, hanging onto his back. He swam for a while, me hanging onto him. It was so much fun! When he swam to where he could touch bottom, I swung myself around to the front of him and wrapped my legs around his waist, kissing him. He eagerly returned my kisses and I was undone.

Azure, gods, I want you!

Mmmm, let’s get out, Willow.

We got out onto the shore and Azure began to pick up his towel. I took it from his hand.

Please, just take me here on a towel, please!

Willow… sweet, passionate Willow.

I laid on a towel and Azure lay next to me. I drew him to me, wrapping my leg around him and putting my lips to his. We shared breath as our tongues engaged and we exchanged images. The cool breeze blew over our heated bodies as I indulged myself in his visions. Abstract shapes and colors assailed my mind’s eye as I gave him erotic pictures, symbolic of my need for him. I was blissfully lost in him, yet I was able to feel the sweat on his back as I caressed him, and to taste the saltiness of his skin as I licked and kissed him. I became soume and, in that moment, wanted nothing more than for him to take me. However, something else possessed me and I licked and kissed my way to his ouana-lim, wanting to take it into my mouth. I did so and savored his taste which was both salty and sweet. He moaned as I used my tongue and lips to give him pleasure. After all he’d given me, it was so satisfying to know I was making him happy. Soon he flowered.

“Willow, mmmm, stop, please stop…”

I released him and moved back up to kiss him, realizing I couldn’t wait any longer

“Gods, Azure. Come inside me, please.”

He lay on his back and coaxed me on top of him. I let myself down onto him, delighting in him being deep inside me. Instictively, I began to move on him as he reciprocated. I soon leaned over, burying my face in his neck and hair, moaning uncontrollably.

“Azure., gods, gods…”

“Unnnghh, mmmm, Willow…”

Soon, I felt the inimitable bliss of my body melting into orgasm, as I perceived Azure’s culmination, as well.

We lay after, letting the summer breeze cool our bodies. I separated us and lay motionless beside him. When I’d recovered some, I moved next to him, kissing his shoulder and murmured, “Azure, I, I just can’t get enough of you.”

He chuckled. “Oh, Willow. The har that gets to be with you will be so lucky.”

I giggled. “Whatever will I do until then?”

“Well, I have you for another day or so–”

I laughed, caressing his face and looking into his eyes. After a few moments, I had another question for him.

“Azure? Do all hara have their own scent and taste?”

“Yes.”

“You taste salty and sweet and smell like leather and apples.”

He smiled.

“You smell like fresh green grass and taste sweet, like honey.”

“Really?!”

He nodded.

“That’s good, right?” I asked.

“Very good,” he said, leaning over to kiss me warmly. “How about another dip before we go back to my room?”

I nodded.

After another refreshing swim in the creek, we went back to our neighbor’s house. Since we were both hungry, Azure made us a lunch of cheese, fruit and bread, with wine as a beverage. We had fun feeding each other, sharing the bottle and laughing together. After our repast, all I wanted was Azure. I felt so unashamed, even though all I wanted was to be with him and take aruna. We went to his room and spent the afternoon in sweet sexual abandonment.

Later, as I lay in his arms, I said, “Gods, Azure, how can I go back home to my regular life after this? I can’t live without aruna–without you.”

He held me close and said, “You shouldn’t live without aruna. And you won’t have to. You’ll find other partners and everything will be fine.”

I looked to him.

“But, I want you. I do want my friend, Coral, but I have to wait for that. Is this the end of me being with you? Can I be with you again?”

“Of course you can, anytime. I’d be happy to be with you whenever you want.”

I sighed with relief and snuggled closer to him.

Thank the gods, I thought.

* * * *

The next morning I awoke, still in Azure’s arms. I sighed with contentment and then stretched and laid back onto him, completely at ease. I knew I only had another day or so at the most to thoroughly enjoy him. After that I would have to go back home, but somehow I couldn’t imagine my life ever being the same after this. Azure had told me I could come to him anytime, but after I went back to my home, it would still never be the same as it was now. I decided not to think about the future but to just enjoy the present. I wanted to revel in Azure’s attentions, to drink in his scent and to enjoy his body and aruna to the fullest in this singular point in time.

I couldn’t fall asleep again, so I snuggled close to Azure and delighted in the feel of his skin and being close to him. I finally drifted off, content in the knowledge that we could be together like this until Varda and Quint came home.

It was hard for me to believe that I was still in the same world as I’d been in before my feybraiha. In fact, I was right next door to my parents’ house, but I felt like I was in another universe; a universe of ecstatic bliss and pleasure and that Azure and I were the only two hara inhabiting that magical realm. He showed me pleasure, how to give it to another and the many varied ways to take aruna. I was so glad I’d picked an experienced har for my first. He taught me things I never could have imagined or thought of. Of course, I hadn’t chosen him because of that. I chose him because I wanted him, plain and simple. No other har would do. I thought happily to myself that when I was Coral’s first, I would be able to show him the myriad delectable pleasures of aruna that I’d been shown by Azure.

In the afternoon, we napped in the neighbors’ hammock in the yard. We’d both managed to put pants on, but part of me wished I’d never have to get dressed again. Maybe I was being a roony “roondog” but if you can’t be roony after you’ve made it through your feybraiha…

When I woke up later, I regarded Azure as he still slept. I ran my fingers lightly over the scars on his chest. He stirred and woke up, pulled me tightly to him and sighed. I was so content.

“Azure?

“Hmmm?”

“How did you get the scars on your chest?”

He yawned. “Oh. Uh, in battle. I didn’t get them at the same time.”

“What kind of battle?”

“The kind where hara get scars.”

I rolled my eyes and he laughed.

“It was a long time ago. We were fighting to unite the tribes and have peace. I know that sounds ridiculous to a har your age, but that’s the way it was at the beginning.”

“How about the one on your forearm?”

“That’s my inception scar.”

I must have looked at him, bewildered.

“I was cut there to receive a har’s blood.”

I still didn’t completely get it.

“A har cut himself as well and then held his cut to mine so our blood would mingle. That’s how a human became har in the beginning.”

“Sounds messy.”

He laughed. “Oh, it was, it was, and painful, but worth it in the end.”

Then I got really brave.

“What about your tattoo? Is it symbolic of something?”

He hesitated, looking serious and staring up at the clouds.

“Yes, yes it is. Remember when I told you that there was only one har that I would have had harlings with?”

I nodded.

“Well, I got it for him; a sort of symbol of our never ending love. He got one, too.” He smiled to himself. “I wasn’t sure he’d do it, but he did.”

I was afraid to ask, but I had to.

“What happened? Where is he? You don’t have to answer me if it’s too personal.”

He heaved a sigh and traced his fingers over my back.

“He died.”

“Gods, Azure. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I asked.”

“It’s okay, Willow. It was a very long time ago.”

I hugged him close, wanting to make him feel better.

He brightened and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“Yeah!”

“Let’s start our dinner.”

We got out of the hammock and headed for the kitchen.

After a delicious dinner of meat on the neighbor’s grill and baked potatoes, we again lay in the hammock. We watched the sun go down, the stars come out and lay there together listening to the sound of the crickets.

It was all very beautiful and relaxing, but still, all I wanted was Azure. I began to kiss his neck and ran my hands into his hair. I sent him mental images of my need for him and he sent me his thoughts of us being together, too.

Azure, I want and need you, so much.

Please, Willow, be ouana, will you?

We took aruna there in the hammock. We had a few laughs because of the limited space for us, but that only added to my enjoyment. When I finally was able to move on top of him and take him, it was so satisfying. And after, when I’d pulled out of him and lay beside him, we fell asleep in the hammock, cuddled close and listening to the sounds of the night. I thought to myself that I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.

* * * *

The next morning, I awoke with the sun in my eyes. I quickly turned and buried my face in Azure’s chest. Oh, gods, how would I ever live without being with him? I thought, as I realized that that Varda and Quint would probably come back that day. Tears formed in my eyes as I thought of us being separated. I had to regain control of myself. He’d been my first; the one I wanted and dreamed about. I’d been fortunate to have him, but my feybraiha was over. I had to face it. Azure had told me that I could come to him for aruna whenever I wanted, but I knew it wouldn’t really be the same as the time we’d had at the end of my feybraiha.

I began to sniffle, trying not to let Azure hear me. Of course, I was unsuccessful and he stirred and spoke softly to me, taking me into his arms.

“What’s wrong, Willow? Please don’t cry. Tell me.”

“I, I’m just sorry that our special time together is almost over. I know it’s silly. You’ll still be here and you said we can be together, but it’s just–”

“I know. This has been a very emotional time for you. Your life has changed and will be different from now on, but hara will understand. Even your parents will understand your need for aruna and will encourage you to find partners. I’ll be here for you as long as I can, but you need to find hara nearer to your own age, too.”

“I know, but you’ve been so wonderful, so perfect. I can’t imagine anyhar ever comparing to you. How can I–Oh, gods, Azure.”

“Willow. I’m flattered. But really, you’ll find other hara that will move you and excite you and bring you more pleasure than I have.”

I regarded him skeptically. “No har could ever give me more pleasure than you have.”

He smiled. “What about Coral?”

I laughed. “Well, I guess, thanks to you, I’ll be well equipped to show him the delights you’ve shown me.”

“I know you care for him and when you two get to be together, I’m sure he’ll give you equal pleasure as well. Just like you’ve given me.”

I caressed his face with my hands and kissed him. No more words were necessary.

* * * *

After breakfast, Azure suggested a walk and another swim in the creek, so I eagerly agreed and we set off. When we got to the creek, we sat for a while before getting in. As Azure sat cross-legged on the grass, I lay down with my head in his lap. He began to comb his fingers through my hair. It felt heavenly. I could have stayed there forever.

“Willow, you’ve given me a lovely gift and made me very happy.”

I rose up and looked at him, surprised.

“Gods, really?!”

He chuckled. “Yes, really.”

“It can’t compare to what you’ve given me.”

I moved closer and claimed his lips with mine.

“I’m flattered that such a beautiful young har would choose me for his first. It’s been wonderful.”

“Not as wonderful as it’s been for me.”

I kissed him more fervently.

“Mmmm, Willow. Let’s take a dip and then go back.”

“Okay.”

We shed our pants, which were all we were wearing and went in. I delighted in swimming with him, clinging to him, kissing him as we enjoyed the coolness of the creek. I tried to push away the sad thoughts that this was the end of our special time together. I didn’t want that to ruin our last precious moments.

When we finally got out and headed back to the neighbor’s house, I suddenly stopped walking.

“What is it, Willow? What’s wrong?”

“What–what if Varda and Quint are there? I mean, I’d like to…I mean–”

Azure chuckled at me and put his arm around me.

“We can still go to my room for a while. They’ll understand.”

I melted into him, relieved. I’d just die if we couldn’t be together at least one more time.

When we got back to the house, there was no sign of the neighbors, so after a light lunch, we went to Azure’s room.

After we lay down together on his bed, Azure looked at me, a grin upturning his lips.

“You know, the last few days are the most time I’ve spent in this room since I came here.”

I laughed, and then looked lustfully into his eyes and spoke into his mind. Azure, gods, I want you, to be with you. Please kiss me, please take me.

He took me into his arms and gave me an impassioned kiss as I indulged myself in his every touch and sound. I was acutely aware of every sensation, wanting to imbed it indelibly into my mind, heart and soul. As I became soume, I let myself be completely overtaken with arunic abandonment to him, reveling in the intensity and sweetness of the experience.

Afterwards, I felt I couldn’t get close enough. I wanted to meld with him. I know I was being overdramatic. Maybe it was still leftover feybraiha weirdness, but somehow I knew things would never be the same for me again and the thought of going back to my parents’ house after all this made me feel strange. Would they treat me differently? Would they try to act like nothing had changed? Would they really consider me an adult? Azure must have intuited my thoughts.

“Don’t worry, Willow. Going home won’t be as weird as you think.”

I regarded him, amazed.

“How did you–?

He laughed. “It’s a common feeling. After feybraiha, it’s normal to have fears about going back to your normal life. Remember, I’ve been with a few other hara for their first. After a first aruna, most hara feel like no subsequent experience will ever be as awesome and earth shattering. There is something special about your first time, if it’s a good experience that is, that makes you feel like everything else will fall short. Believe me, you’ll have lots of wonderful arunic times. In some ways, the first time is the most intense, but only because it’s the first time. I know. I’ve been there. And when you meet a har you truly love, that experience will be the most special.”

He gave me a sly smile.

“However, most hara never forget their first aruna or the first har they took it with, so I’m happy to know that I’ll always have a place in your mind and heart.”

I threw myself into his arms. “Oh gods, yes, Azure you will, you will. Will I have a place in yours?”

“You must know you will, Willow; a very special place.”

A few minutes later, I heard voices downstairs. Varda and Quint were back. I looked desperately into Azures eyes and touched his mind.

Once more, please just once more…

* * * *

After one last, sweet taking of aruna, I knew I had to go home. I put on my leggings, tunic and belt and went downstairs with Azure.

I had myself together enough to thank Varda and Quint profusely for letting us be there and for the wine they’d given us. They were very gracious and said they were glad to do it.

Azure and I went outside to say our goodbyes.

“Do you want me to walk you home?”

I shook my head. “Let’s just kiss goodbye here.”

“It’s really not goodbye, Willow. We can be together whenever you want. I look forward to being with you. Please don’t stay away.”

I was thrilled. I hugged him close and murmured, “Nothing can keep me away.”

When we parted, Azure smiled at me and said, “See you soon, Willow.”

“Count on it,” I said, grinning.

I turned and started the walk to my house. It was a short distance, but it seemed to me to be the longest walk of my life–more residual feybraiha drama, I’m sure. I looked back to see Azure still standing there. We waved to each other just before I went into my house. I felt my eyes begin to prickle with forming tears, even though I knew I was being silly. I got hold of myself and walked through the door.

The first thing I noticed when I entered was the smell of dinner cooking and the sounds of my family’s voices. When I walked into the kitchen they all turned to me. There were a few seconds of silence, then Wren ran to me.

“Willow! Yay! You’re back!”

He jumped on my back and I happily spun him around as he giggled. I ran to the living room and dumped him on the couch, flopping down beside him.

“I’m glad you’re home. I’ve got something to show you. Come on!”

I followed Wren outside where he showed me where there was a bird nest in a bush.

“Look! Eggs!”

I peered into the bush and saw some eggs in a nest.

“You didn’t touch them, did you?”

He shook his head. “No. Gin and Arrana told me not to. That the…the…”

“Mother bird,” I interjected.

“Yeah that he wouldn’t hatch the eggs if I did.”

I chuckled at his assumption that the mother bird was a “he.”

“She,” I said.

“Huh?”

“Never mind, Wren.”

The next thing I heard was my hostling calling us to dinner. We all sat down as my hostling and father placed the dishes on the table. We were having a dinner of beef, cabbage, carrots and various vegetables in a stew, and a large loaf of beer bread. I felt special and that I’d “arrived” as my father poured me a glass of wine along with his own and my hostling’s.

“We’re so glad to have you back, Willow,” Arrana said.

I raised my glass to him.

“What was it like? What happened?” Wren asked, enthusiastically.

I stared, wide-eyed.

“Wren!” my hostling intervened. “That’s personal. That’s between Willow and Azure. No more questions. Your time will come and you’ll understand. For now, leave Willow alone.”

Wren shrugged and began eating. Again, I was so grateful to my hostling.

After dinner, Wren asked me if I’d like to catch fireflies with him. I did so for a short while, but then told him I had to go see Coral.

“Alright,” he said, looking dejected.

“Go find Kaia and Luna. Coral and I will be back later.”

“Okay.”

I went to Coral’s house and knocked on the door. Coral’s hostling, Ginko answered and smiled at me.

“Willow, come in.”

He led me into their living room and asked me to sit on the couch. This had never happened before and I began to feel strange. Ginko sat across from me on a chair and I had a definite urge to run away.

He cleared his throat and looked into my eyes.

“Willow, since you’ve been through feybraiha– and I congratulate you again–”

“Thank you.”

“Anyway, our son has told us that when he goes through it, he wants you to be his first aruna partner.”

I froze, turning red, not knowing what would come next.

“I just want to tell you that Coral’s father and I heartily approve.”

I let out a relieved breath.

“You and Coral have been best friends since you were very young harlings. I like your family and I couldn’t choose a better har for my son.”

He hesitated only a moment. “However, I want to be sure you won’t do anything together until it’s time.”

I was somewhat horrified.

“No! Gods, no! I would never–” I just sat there with a terrified look in my eyes, I’m sure.

Ginko laughed. “Just the response I wanted. I had to be sure I could trust you. You haven’t disappointed me, Willow.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll get Coral,” Ginko said as he swept out of the room.

I put my face in my hands, trying to collect myself.

The next thing I knew, Coral was standing there, smiling at me.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Once we got outside, Coral said, “Gods, Willow, you’ve GOT to tell me everything!”

We went to the shore of the run and I did just that.

“It all sounds so beautiful, so wonderful, so HOT!!”

I laughed at him, but had to admit it was all of those things.

“Will you see him again?” Coral asked.

“Yeah, he said I can come to him anytime. Once you take aruna, you know you can’t live without it.”

The recent conversation I’d had with Ginko surfaced, and I decided I should bring it up with Coral, in case he didn’t know.

“Coral?”

“Yeah?”

“When I went to your house just now, your hostling told me that you told him you wanted me to be your first.”

Coral seemed frozen.

“He said he and your father approved, but he also said that he trusted me not to do anything until it was time.”

Coral was unresponsive.

“Coral?”

He hesitated. “Yeah?”

“Are you okay with that?”

“Not really, but I accept it.”

“Coral, you’ve not even started feybraiha, how can you feel like you want to–”

He pulled up his shirt.

I stared at his red, mottled skin, then I looked into his eyes, amazed.

Yeah, it’s started, he said into my mind.

Oh, gods, Coral–

Yeah, I know.

* * * *

Later that evening, after Coral and I joined Kaia, Luna and Wren, we pretty much sat together watching the younger ones spin, do cartwheels and handstands and such. Coral took my hand and spoke into my mind.

How are we going to hang out together and not feel roony?

I faced him feeling, and probably looking, a bit heartsick.

I guess we will feel that way, we’ll just have to resist it. I’ll be with Azure and that will make me happy and should help, but it won’t keep me from wanting you, too.

Good!

I squeezed his hand. Your parents would never forgive me if I took aruna with you before your feybraiha celebration. I would never forgive myself. We HAVE to wait.

I know. I don’t want to do anything to spoil things either. It’s just so hard!

We’ll make it. I know. It’s up to me and I’ll be strong. I promise.

Coral put his head on my shoulder and I sighed into his hair.

You’re not making this any easier, Coral! I joked.

He chuckled. Sorry, Willow.

* * * *

I controlled myself for about five nights and then I knew I had to be with Azure. I needed to tell my parents so that they wouldn’t worry, but I was very apprehensive. I decided to confide in Arrana. I went to him as he sat alone at the picnic table with a glass of sheh.

“It’s a lovely night isn’t it, Willow?” he said as I sat next to him.

“Yeah, it is.”

“What’s on your mind, my beautiful son?”

“Azure.”

Arrana chuckled, smoothing my hair.

“I want to be with him. He said I could anytime. I didn’t want you and Gin to worry–”

Arrana touched my face.

“Of course you should go to him. You’re an adult now. You need aruna to be healthy. I appreciate your telling me where you’ll be so we won’t worry. Go ahead, Willow, and don‘t ever feel embarrassed about it.”

I hugged my hostling.

“I love you, Arrana.”

“And I love you. Go on now. Go have fun,” he said with a wink.

I headed over to the Nayati and knew by the flickering light that Azure was there. I found him as usual, cross-legged in front of his homemade altar. I sat for quite a few minutes before he sensed me. Finally he opened his eyes and turned to me, giving me a lovely smile.

“Willow, I’ve missed you.”

“And I’ve missed you–a lot!”

I sidled over to him and put my arms around him, my head on his shoulder. It felt so good to be near him and touch him again. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Azure? Can we go to your room?”

“Of course we can.”

After a very wonderful few hours, I decided to confide in Azure about Coral. As I lay sated in his arms, I began talking about what was on my mind.

“My friend Coral has started feybraiha.”

“Well, that’s good news.”

“Yeah, but now it’s hard to be together without wanting to–well you know.”

Azure chuckled. “Has he told his parents that he wants you for his first?”

“Yeah and they approve, which is great. It’s just going to be so hard to wait because we’re best friends and hang out together every day like we have since we were little.”

“Well, you know you’re welcome in my bed anytime.”

I looked at him and gave him a lustful smile.

“Thank the gods!”

He laughed.

“I know I can wait, so it’s alright. I know it will be harder for Coral than for me.”

“It’s mostly up to you since he’s inexperienced. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“I know. He’s just so– He’s got such beautiful long auburn hair, amazing green eyes, golden skin. I’ve known him forever and he smells so–”

I looked into Azure’s bemused eyes.

“Oh, gods, Azure, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to– Shit!”

I put my face in my hands. Azure chuckled.

“It’s okay, Willow. Don’t feel bad. I really don’t mind you extolling the beauty of your friend. You should have other partners. Besides, I’ll probably be moving on soon.”

I regarded him, puzzled.

“You’re moving? Where?”

Chuckling, he answered, “On to greener pastures. You know–the great beyond.”

“Huh? Oh, no. Don’t say that!”

Azure took me into his arms, still chuckling.

“It’s okay, Willow. Really.”

“I don’t want you to go. I want you AND Coral! Shit! Am I a selfish roony jerk?”

“No, of course not. You’re a young, beautiful, normal har. None of your feelings are wrong. You should want your friend and me. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with more than one har. Even when you find your true love, there’ll be other hara who you’ll want to be with. It’s all normal.”

“I’m still confused and unsure.”

“Yes, I know. It’s all part of growing up. Try not to worry about it, just let things happen and learn.”

“Azure, please kiss me.”

When I felt his lips meet mine, all my troubles disappeared as we melted into each other and once more retreated into our own world of pleasure and desire.

* * * *

Things went along fairly smoothly for the next few weeks. Coral was doing pretty well handling all the angst and discomfort of feybraiha, thanks in part to Azure’s itch cure and–so he told me–thanks to me, too. Sometimes I had to wonder if my being with Coral almost all the time only made it more difficult for him, but I remembered how I’d felt about Azure; how trying it was sometimes to be with him and not be able to touch or kiss him. Coral and I did share breath and kiss a few times and were able to stop ourselves before going too far. We’d always been affectionate and somewhat physical with each other, so stopping all contact just seemed too weird for us.

I was able to be with Azure quite often and I confided in him completely about Coral and myself. I began to worry that Azure might think that I wanted to take aruna with him so much to assuage my desire for Coral, but I guessed that he knew me well enough to know that wasn’t true.

The days passed uneventfully for the most part, except for my father asking me if I wanted to start to go with him to learn the workings of the community and assist him. I felt truly honored that he’d asked me and told him I’d love to. He said for me to wait until fall and after Coral’s feybraiha celebration and all. Everything seemed to be falling perfectly into place. But then…

One morning as I came downstairs for breakfast, I heard hushed voices coming from the kitchen. When I came through the doorway, Varda was talking to Arrana. He stopped when he saw me and my hostling came over to me and took my hands in his. I was afraid to hear what came next.

“Azure’s failing. He’s nearing the end.”

“What? No. No!”

I looked at Varda, shaking my head, not wanting to believe what I knew to be true.

“I’m sorry, Willow,” Varda said, his eyes showing his sadness and his pity for me. “He’s asking for you.” Varda held out his hand and I took it, too stunned to speak.

As we walked to his house, Varda tried to comfort me, telling me Azure was ready, that all hara come to the end of their days on earth and things like that, but nothing was going to take away the void that would be left when he moved on. Varda walked me to Azure’s room, but when he put his hand on the doorknob, I faltered. I felt dizzy and had to sit down. Luckily there was a small chair and table in the hall.

“Willow! Are you okay? Willow?”

I nodded. “Just give me a minute, please.”

“I’ll get you some water.”

As I’d approached the door, all I could think of was all the magical, indescribable moments we’d had in that room, in that bed, and now it was his deathbed. How could I endure it? I knew I had to–for Azure’s sake and my own. After all, I was a grown har now.

By the time Varda returned with my glass of water, I’d come to terms with things a bit. I drank the water and then nodded to Varda.

“I’m ready.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

I gingerly opened the door and walked over to the bed. Azure was lying very still, but I could see him breathing. His face looked a little thinner, but other than that, he just looked like he was asleep. He was still handsome, even so close to death. I stood there watching him sleep, studying his lovely features so I’d never forget them and feeling like I’d surely wake from this nightmare any moment. He must have sensed me because he slowly opened his eyes.

“Willow.”

His voice was weak, but he gave me a beautiful sleepy smile and reached for my hand. I took it gently and knelt by the bed.

“I’m so glad to see you. I had to see you again before I go.”

“Oh Azure, Azure–” My eyes welled up with tears and then I broke down. I hugged him, laying my head on his chest and sobbed.

“Shhhh, shhhh, Willow. It’s alright, please stop crying.”

I couldn’t stop right then, but finally I felt cried out and lifted my swollen, probably snotty face. I was so distraught that I wasn’t embarrassed, wiping my face with the bottom of my shirt before resting on his chest again, wanting to hear his heartbeat and relish his scent.

“I…don’t want you…to…go,” I said, my breath catching, post sobbing.

“I know, Willow, I know,” he said, rubbing my back with his hands. “But it’s my time.”

“Can’t you, you know, heal yourself or something?”

He chuckled. “No. It doesn’t work like that. Willow, please open the top drawer of my dresser, will you?”

I wiped my swollen eyes and did as he’d asked.

“Do you see a locket in there?”

“Yes.”

I took a beautiful round silver locket into my hands. I took in it’s beauty and ran my fingers over its unique embossing of spirals.

“Bring it to me, please.”

He patted the bed and I sat down.

“Open it.”

I unlatched it to see a drawing of a beautiful blond har on one side and a lock of blond hair on the other. I knew who it was.

“Your true love?”

He nodded.

“He’s beautiful.”

“Yes. Will you put it on me, please?”

As I did so he said, “I’ve never shown that to anyhar, Willow.”

I smiled. “Why me?”

“I honestly don’t know. I just wanted to.”

“Willow–” He hesitated. “I really want to tell you some things. They may upset you, but I think you’re strong enough to hear them.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“I want you to know how things will go and there are some things I’d like to trust you with. After I die, I’d like to be dressed in my uniform.”

I looked at him, puzzled.

“You know, the outfit I wore to your feybraiha celebration.”

Uniform? I didn’t understand, but I knew this wasn’t the time to bombard him with questions.

“I want to be buried in it and with my locket on. Will you make sure of that?”

“Yes. I promise.”

He smiled at me. “I knew I could trust you. Also, a good friend of mine will come for my body. His name is Parallax. He’ll come through the Otherlanes and take me to Castlegar to be buried next to my beloved. You’ll like Parallax. I’ve known him since he wasn’t much older than you are.”

Azure closed his eyes and seemed to weaken.

“Are you okay? Are you in pain?”

“No… no pain…just tired.”

He seemed to have passed out. I panicked, thinking he’d died, but when I put my ear to his chest, I heard his heart beating and felt him breathe. Letting out a relieved sigh, I sat once again on the bed, watching him sleep. I wanted to stay there and spend every moment with him that he had left in this world. After a while, I got sleepy and crawled into bed and curled up next to him. I gently placed some of his hair over my face so I could fall asleep in its sweet, familiar fragrance.

When I woke up, the room was almost completely dark, bathed only in the dim twilight. The first thing I did was put my ear to Azure’s chest. He was still alive. I went to use the bathroom, which was just down the hall and when I came out, I heard footsteps on the stairs.

“Everything okay?” Varda asked.

“Yes. Azure’s sleeping. I was worried because he seemed to pass out.”

“He tires very quickly. Please come downstairs and have something to eat, Willow.”

“Thank you, but I can’t leave him. I can’t let him die alone.”

Tears formed in Varda’s eyes as he touched my face.

“Alright. I’ll bring you up a plate.”

“Oh, and can you please tell my parents I’m going to stay with him?”

“Of course.”

“And ask Arrana to tell Coral what’s going on, will you please?”

“Consider it done. I’ll be right up with your dinner.”

“Thank you. And thank you for letting me stay with him.”

“Don’t give it another thought. It’s where you should be.”

Azure didn’t wake up again all evening, so I lay back down beside him to go to sleep, my face touching his shoulder.

* * * *

The next time I awoke I felt cold so I flipped the covers over me and lay back down. Then my eyes popped open and I put my ear again to Azure’s chest; his heart was still beating and I lay back, relieved. I began to ponder and thought it strange that Varda hadn’t brought Azure anything to eat or drink. I’d have to ask him about that. I also wondered about Parallax and how Azure had known him, what their relationship was and whether I’d ever get the chance to ask Azure about it. I still had so many questions but wasn’t sure I had time to ask them or whether or not I should ask them. Soon Varda poked his head around the door and asked me if I’d like breakfast.

“Yes, thank you.”

I got up and walked over to him.

“Why aren’t you feeding Azure? Wouldn’t some food help him?”

He took me out into the hall. “No, Willow. When a har’s at the end, he stops eating. It’s part of the natural sequence of things. He may take a little water to be more comfortable, but he just loses his appetite. It’s all normal and natural.”

“But couldn’t he live a bit longer if he ate and drank?”

“I don’t know, but I think a har at that stage doesn’t want to live longer. Can you understand that, Willow?”

Varda touched my arm and gave me a sympathetic look.

Tears once again welled up in my eyes, but I did understand and I nodded.

“I’ll bring you your breakfast,” Varda said.

“Thank you.”

Afterwards, I moved a chair over next to the bed and sat, watching Azure sleep, hoping he’d wake up at least one more time before the end.

Late that afternoon, he stirred and looked into my eyes.

“Willow, you’re still here.”

“Yes. I’ll be here until…” The words were too painful to say out loud.

Azure gave me a smile.

“There’s something else I want to tell you, something only Varda and Quint know.”

I waited, wondering what on earth he was talking about.

“My real name.”

I looked at him, bewildered. “You mean Azure isn’t your real name?”

“No. I changed it when I came here so nohar would know who I really was.”

“Why?”

“I was kind of well-known and I wanted to spend my last days in peace and anonymity, with nohar bothering me.”

I was really confused.

“My real name is Ashmael, Ashmael Aldebaran. I lived in Immanion before I came here. I was a military strategist for the Gelaming.”

I just blinked and stared, trying to process what he’d told me.

“I didn’t mean to deceive you, Willow.”

“You mean you’re ‘the’ Ashmael Aldebaran?”

He smiled weakly. “Yes, I was the head of the Gelaming army.”

“I know. I’ve heard of you. But–”

I couldn’t do anything but stare into space, stunned. A million thoughts and questions swirled in my mind, not the least of which was: how on earth could a har like that consent to be the first for a nobody like me? I was comfortable with him being a normal har. If I’d known his true identity, I’d have been so intimidated I doubt that I’d have had the courage to even talk to him. But still, no matter who he’d been, to me he was still Azure, the handsome, intriguing har and the only one I’d wanted for my first aruna.

Tearfully, I got into bed with him and embraced him, laying my head on his chest.

I don’t care what you call yourself, you’re still the har I wanted and longed for. I want to be with you until the end.

He put his arms around me.

Willow, sweet Willow. Thank you. I hope you understand how happy you’ve made me. When I came here, I never dreamed I’d ever be anyhar’s first again. It’s been such an unexpected and welcome pleasure.

Azure, or rather Ashmael, fell asleep again in my arms.

* * * *

The next day when I woke up, as usual, I put my ear to Ashmael’s chest, relieved to hear his heartbeat. By evening, he still hadn’t awakened. Varda and Quint came in several times that day, checking on him and looking very solemn. I knew the end was imminent.

That night as I lay with him, my head on his chest, he breathed his last. Before the end, he opened his eyes for a moment and murmured a name weakly but lovingly, a wistful smile gracing his lips, “Vaysh.” I assumed he’d had a vision of a dehar who had come to lead him into the next dimension. I buried my face in his fragrant hair and cried my heart out. Varda and Quint came in later and confirmed what I already knew; Azure was gone. They tried to console me, but finally left me alone with him, telling me they’d contact his friend. I kept my promise as I tearfully dressed him in his uniform and arranged the locket neatly on his chest. It was too much for me. It was the same outfit he’d worn when he’d come for me at my feybraiha. He was still just as beautiful, even in death. I cried until I made myself sick.

A few hours later, I heard a knock at the door.

“Come in,” I said, wiping my nose.

I looked up to see a gorgeous har, dressed in the same leather uniform as Azure’s, enter the room. He came over to me and said, “I’m Parallax.”

I nodded. “I’m Willow.”

He went over to the bed, knelt down to take Azure’s hand in his, and started to cry. After we’d both seemed to cry ourselves out, Parallax turned to me.

“Varda and Quint told me all about you. I’m glad you made Ash’s last days happy. He was my first, too.”

“Really?!”

“Yeah.” He laughed through his tears. “I didn’t want any part of being Wraeththu, but Ashmael changed all that. He incepted me and I’ve been close to him ever since. He even took me to Immanion with him and I joined the Gelaming army under his command.”

He looked back to Ashmael.

“He was something else, the most impressive har I’ve ever known.”

I nodded my agreement.

Parallax stood up and heaved a sigh, wiping his eyes.

“I’ve got to take him home to Castlegar now and lay him to rest next to Vaysh. The Vaysh he loved, who died on the mountain.”

So that’s who he saw in his last moments. I hoped he’d led him to the next world and that they could be together forever.

With tears still running down his cheeks, Parallax lifted Ashmael gently and reverently into his arms and said, “I’m sorry we had to meet under such sad circumstances. I promise Ash will be laid to rest lovingly, respectfully and where he wanted to be.”

I nodded at him through my own tears and thanked him. He carried Ashmael downstairs and outside to take him through the ethers to Castlegar. I stood alone in the room, feeling such emptiness. I knelt by his bed and pushed my face into the covers to breathe in his scent and imprint it in my memory and then, not able to go home yet, I went to the Nayati. I prayed to the dehara for Azure’s safe journey to the next life and cried myself to sleep there.

The next thing I was aware of was my hostling gently waking me. I looked blearily into his eyes.

Come with me, Willow. Come along home now.

He led me home and to my room to bed. I undressed and lay down as Arrana smoothed my hair and sent me to sleep with his comfort.

* * * *

I woke up the next day sometime in the afternoon to find Wren asleep at the foot of my bed. I had to smile to myself, touched by his childlike show of sympathy for me. I tried to get up without waking him but as soon as I moved, he groggily lifted his head and scooted over close to me.

“Willow? I’m really sorry about Azure. I know you’re sad and I’m sorry about that, too.”

“Come here, Wren.”

I propped myself up to sit and Wren settled next to me. I put my arm around him and drew him to me where he laid his head on my shoulder.

“I am sad,” I told him with a sigh. “But all hara die sometime. Azure lived a long time, like most hara. He told me he’d had a great life and was ready to move on.”

“Where do you think hara go when they die?”

“I don’t know, Wren, but Ash–Azure believed there was something beyond this life and I do, too. Some other plane of existence or something.”

Wren looked up at me, puzzled. I smiled down at him.

“A good place, you know, like a paradise.”

“I’m glad he’s in a nice place but you’ll still be sad for a while won’t you? Because you miss him?”

“Yeah, that’s true but as time goes on, I’ll feel better. I know Azure would want me to. Come on Wren. I’m hungry. Let’s go downstairs.”

After Arrana had heated up some soup for us, I told him I was going to see Coral. As soon as I went out the back door and looked across the yard, there was Coral, walking toward me. When we met, we hugged and I started to cry.

“I’m sorry, Willow. I’m so sorry.”

After a few minutes, I let go of him and looked into his expressive green eyes. I slipped my hand into his and we walked to the creek and sat on the grassy shore, where I told him everything, including Azure’s real name. He stared at me, incredulous.

“Ashmael Aldebaran?! I can hardly believe it. Wow.”

“Me either,” I said with a smile. “Of course I’d heard of him, but I never knew what he looked like.” Growing thoughtful, I added softly, “To me he’ll always be Azure. I haven’t told any har about it yet. I wanted to tell you first. Maybe you’ll be the only one I’ll ever tell.”

Coral lay down on the grass and put his head in my lap. I leafed my fingers through his thick auburn hair as we spent some time in a comfortable silence, listening to the tranquil sounds of nature.

“I wish I could have gone to his funeral, you know, to pay my respects,” I said. “But I probably would have made a fool of myself crying and sniveling.”

“There’s nothing wrong with grieving for a har you loved.”

I was surprised by what he said.

“Coral, I had very strong feelings for Azure, but it wasn’t love. It was…” I had to think a moment. “It was attraction, fascination. I wanted him and liked him and wanted to be with him. I guess part of it was lust, I don’t know. I knew he was the only one to be my first, but even if he were still here, he wouldn’t be my true love or anything like that. I’ll miss him. I’ll never forget him, but–”

Coral sat up and looked into my eyes as I continued.

“True love is deeper than that, it’s–”

Before I could finish, Coral pressed his lips to mine. We kissed and shared breath, our tongues tantalizingly touching. He sent me consoling feelings and beautiful images of starry skies and moonlit seas. As I absorbed them gratefully into my mind, I began to feel the familiar pangs of need. It was all I could do to separate us.

“Gods, Coral,” I said, breathing hard. “We’ve got to go back. We’ve got to–”

I want you, Willow. I want to be with you. I guess I always have.

“We can’t, Coral, not yet. Oh, gods, gods.”

I stood up, shocked with new and intimate understanding of how I must have made Azure feel that night at the creek. I turned away from Coral and rubbed my face with my hands. He embraced me from behind and touched my mind.

I’m sorry. I just want you so badly. How can I wait? How?

I want you, too, more than you know, but we can’t. We just can’t! Oh, gods!

I knew I had to be strong for both of us. I turned around to face Coral.

“I want to be with you right now, so bad, but I won’t because…because…”

“Because you care for me.”

I grabbed him and held him tightly.

“Yes. Yes, Coral–because I care for you. I promised your parents. They trust me. And I want your feybraiha celebration and first aruna to be perfect, like mine was.”

“I care for you, too, Willow, so much. And I know you’re right.”

Somehow, our declaration gave me relief and strength so I breathed a sigh.

“Let’s go back. Please, let’s go back.”

He nodded and we started back, arm in arm.

When we got back to our houses, we separated to have dinner with our families.

“Come see me after dinner?” Coral asked.

I nodded and we went to our homes.

All through dinner, I thought about Coral and how much he meant to me and how much I wanted to be with him.

“Willow?” my hostling said. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”

He gave a concerned look to Gin, who cleared his throat and said, “Well, it probably won’t be much longer until Coral’s through feybraiha.”

I looked up from my meat loaf. “Yeah, he’s coming along.”

“I look forward to the day my oldest son will come with me to help me oversee things.”

I smiled at my father. “I do, too. I hope it won’t be long.”

We finished dinner and as I left to go to Coral’s, Wren grabbed my arm.

“Willow? Will you and Coral come back and play–” He paused. “Er, I mean watch Kaia, Luna and me?”

“Sure, Wren, after a bit.”

He smiled and ran off to our cousins’ house as I went to Coral’s. Before going back to my yard, Coral and I took a walk. I felt a little afraid of being alone with him. We both wanted to be together so badly, but we had a nice relaxed walk. Coral seemed thoughtful and instinctively, I waited for him to speak.

“I’m sorry I didn’t control myself, Willow,” he said. “I know it’s important for us to wait. I didn’t mean to make things harder for you.”

I laughed. “Well, I came close to losing it, but I won’t. I’m older and I’ll be strong for both of us.”

“Let’s go back with the younger ones,” Coral suggested.

“I’m all for that!” I said emphatically. We went back to watch them catch fireflies and indulge in all the other childlike fun of summer evenings.

Coral and I watched the younger ones play. We joined in some of the fun, but then sat together, enjoying the evening and the talk and laughter of our younger companions. Coral laid his head on my shoulder.

“I think I’ll miss being a harling,” he said. Looking up into my eyes he added, “But I believe there’s a lot to look forward to.”

I smiled and kissed the top of his head. “Oh, yes, Coral. There are a lot of good things to come.”

“What was it like, you know, being with Azure your first time?”

I took a deep breath. “Better than I’d imagined. It was–indescribable.”

I stroked his hair and said, “I’m not an experienced har like Azure was. I’d like to make your first time monumental, but–”

Coral put his fingers on my lips. “I know it will be perfect because I’ll be with you.”
I wanted to take him into my arms and let him experience all I’d learned, to breathe in and feel all of the affection and passion I felt for him. It was difficult to restrain myself.

“Coral, if you aren’t through feybraiha soon, I think I’ll go insane.”

He laughed and said, “If I could hurry things along I would. It can’t be too much longer–it just can’t!”

Wren came running up to us. “Can we go wading in the run tonight, please?”

I looked to Coral and smiled, then back to Wren. “Sure. Why not?”

We all enjoyed the cool of the running water on our feet as we waded in the moonlight, listening to the crickets, katydids and frogs. I looked skyward to the moon and the few visible stars, feeling the balmy air of the summer’s eve, listening to the animated voices of the younger hara as Coral and I waded together in the cool run. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be on earth. Coral gave me a beautiful smile and I thought my heart would burst with happiness. The giddy highs of feybraiha were in the past for me, but I felt something very close to it that magical evening. I thought of Azure, but didn’t feel sad. I felt that I’d been so fortunate to have known him and to have been with him. I believed he was at peace and in a good place and began to feel my grief for him fade as my precious happy memories of him replaced it.

Coral looked intently at me.

“Willow, you look–luminous.”

“Must be the moonlight,” I said.

“No, it’s more than that.”

“I’m happy, really happy, that’s all.”

Coral took my hand, giving me an understanding smile and we stayed there, wading and enjoying our time together and with the younger hara for quite a long while.

A bit later, I heard my parents calling Wren and me and knew it was time for Coral and I to separate and go to our homes. Coral looked disappointed. We started back and I touched his mind.

Soon we won’t have to be separated. We’ll be able to stay together–all night, as long as we want.

I can’t wait! he answered.

Just hurry up and get through feybraiha! I teased.

He laughed and went toward his home as Wren and I saw Kaia and Luna home and then went to our house.

* * * *

A few days later, as we were having lunch, Varda came over. He had a knapsack with him and he approached me and laid it down on the table.

“These are Azure’s things. He instructed me to give them to you. He wanted you to have them.”

I looked at Varda and thanked him. This was something I hadn’t expected. I excused myself and went to my room. I opened the sack and took out a shirt, a couple of pairs of pants and a couple more shirts. He’d also included his deharan statues, a prayer/incantation book and some lovely colored stones. I had no idea what they meant. Then, as I looked into what I thought was the empty pack, I found a note.

My lovely Willow,

If you’re reading this, I’ve already gone on to the next world. You’ve meant so much to me and given me such pleasure, I wanted for you to have all that’s left of my worldly belongings. I’m sorry it’s not much. The stones are from the places that meant a lot to me in my life. The gray one is from Castlegar, where I met and lived with my true love. The crystal one is from Immanion, where I spent most of my long life, and the tan one is from your yard–all the places that had special and wonderful memories and meaning for me. It was an unexpected pleasure and joy to know you. (and to really “know” you and to be your “first” .) I wish you happiness and a long life.

Affectionately,

Azure/Ash

I was overcome with emotion and cried tears of sorrow, gratitude and happiness. I treasured everything he’d left me.

* * * *

Several weeks later, Kaia, Luna, Wren, Coral and I went to the creek to swim. It was very late summer, almost fall, but very hot. As we swam with the younger ones, Coral touched my mind.

Can we get out and watch the others? I’ve got something to tell you.

Yeah, sure.

We climbed out onto a large rock and sat, still able to keep an eye on the younger ones. I looked over at Coral and smiled.

“What is it?”

“I’m through feybraiha.”

“What? Really?!”

He nodded. “I’m not hot, red, itchy or in turmoil. It’s done. Finished. My parents set the date for my feybraiha celebration for seven days from now.”

“Oh, gods, Coral! Gods!”

I moved closer to him and hugged him, speaking into his mind.

These are going to be the longest seven days of my life!

Mine, too.

I pulled back and looked into his eyes.

“I can’t wait!”

“Me, neither.”

I was so happy. My soul soared to the heavens. I could tell Coral felt the same way. We put our arms around each other as we watched the younger hara play and swim. And when I gazed into Coral’s eyes, I saw the promise of our first time together, soon to be fulfilled. In the core of my being, I also thought I felt a twinge that told me we would have a future together. As our eyes met, I could tell he’d had the same thought. We smiled knowingly at each other, still sitting on the rock, watching the younger hara and as Coral laid his head on my shoulder, I kissed his hair. Both of us knew we’d soon be together and that our future belonged to us.

*~ *~ THE END ~* ~*

8 Comments

  1. mystic87 said,

    December 7, 2009 at 1:53 am

    This was a beautiful and well written story. I was so suprised to find out that Azure was really Ashmael! I was relieved to see that even though Azure passed on, that he still had Coral. I hope to see more about these characters! Lovely read!

    • persephone100 said,

      December 9, 2009 at 2:50 pm

      Thank you so very much for your wonderful comments! <3 I'm happy you enjoyed my story and that Azure's true identity surprised you! I'd like to write a sequel sometime and follow up on Willow and Coral and when a story line comes into my head I'll do just that! Thanks again!

  2. wdarling said,

    December 9, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Really enjoyed this. I did figure out who the har was a while before the big hint, but still, thought this was a unique story, coming from a harling’s point of view and being somewhat complex. Thanks!

    • persephone100 said,

      December 10, 2009 at 11:51 am

      Thank you SO much for your very kind words! My original hope was that readers would be surprised, but two of you so far guessed Azure was Ashmael way before the end, both of you being familiar with Thev’s Maelstrom and Mage and I’m happy about that, too. Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  3. Gingerspark said,

    December 15, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Nice work!!
    I really enjoyed this.

    • persephone100 said,

      December 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm

      Thanks so VERY much! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed writing it! Thanks for your lovely comment!

  4. Snippety said,

    March 3, 2010 at 8:39 am

    I loved this gentle, beautiful story. Very emotive and interesting to read about the death of a har from old age :0) Lovely !

    • persephone100 said,

      March 7, 2010 at 8:35 pm

      Many many thanks for your lovely comments!! <3 I'd wondered what it would be like for a har to come to the natural end of life. I took some cues from the canon material and this is what I came up with. I'm glad you enjoyed it!


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