Ring out The Old, Ring in The New

Ring out The Old, Ring in The New
by Heartofoshun
(Heartofoshun@aol.com)

Pairing: All about Swift, Seel, Cal and Pell (in a foursome)
Words: 27,431
Rating: R
Summary: I began writing this Wraeththu fanfic story as my Christmas present to myself. It reflects self-indulgent time spent with some of my favorite characters, an AU resolution of an aspect of the original story that is unlikely to ever be covered in canon, and a nod to possible festivities and traditions of the winter holidays.

Ring out The Old, Ring in The New
(A Story of One Winter Solstice in Immanion)

Prologue

Almost any harling can tell you the tales of the four of us. Our love stories are the stuff from which Wraeththu legends have been constructed. People cherish the story of how the Tigrons had been separated for decades and yet each held the other in his heart until they found one another again. Cal’s journey from Megalithica to Almagabra, from murderer to beloved, finally restored to their adored Tigron Pellaz’s arms, has titillated and fascinated hara since the first rumors of it. The narrative of Calanthe’s quest for enlightenment rivals those of the ancient legends of humankind with its colorful supporting cast, the details of its twists and turns, tragedy, passion, exotic locations, and his unquenchable love for Pell.

Many even know the story of Seel and me, of how a wise and beautiful Gelaming intellectual, know for his reason and sound judgment, fell madly, inexplicably in love with young Swift, a rash, handsome, inexperienced Varrish prince. Together this oddly matched pair created by means of an amazingly potent Grissecon the magic elixir that would bring down the defenses of Fulminir and stop the bloodthirsty Ponclast in his tracks.

Fewer knew that Seel and Cal had been lovers even before they were incepted and remained chesna for some short time afterwards. Their early attachment had survived Cal choosing to stay with the Uigenna and Seel leaving him to join the Unneah. It even endured Cal taking another chesnari, the wild and dangerous Zack, and then turning up a short while later, no longer with Zack, but completely besotted by Pell. What their affection had not had not been able to survive had been that Cal, mad with grief and paranoia at the death of his beloved Pellaz, had blamed his friend and Seel’s mentor Orien and brutally murdered him.

By the time of that winter solstice, Seel and Cal had outwardly accepted one another for years. Yet they still watched each other with wary hawk eyes, afraid of discovering disapproval or mistrust lurking under a veneer of tolerance. Those who loved either or both of them knew that the continued estrangement was unnatural and ought to have ended years earlier. Other hara had long ago forgiven and pushed aside far worse crimes and betrayals dating back to those early days of cataclysmic upheaval. After Cal had passed through the crucible of suffering that burned away his anger and his guilt, after he discovered that Pell lived again, re-born and re-made, he would have welcomed reconciliation with Seel. It was Seel who could not let go of the past.

I had not the vaguest idea of how to break the deadlock. Seel refused to acknowledge the unbreakable ties of their ancient bond. Their festering lesions scarred over, leaving a dull constant aching. I understood that those wounds must be excised, cauterized, and salved in order for either of them to become completely whole.

Pell and Cal, occasionally accompanied by Rue, traveled to Forever from time to time. Cal adored Forever, the closest thing he had to a home in his life before reuniting with Pell in Immanion. Yet the effort Cal exerted to avoid a confrontation with Seel and not to impose upon him, made their sojourns tense. Only rarely, I think, did Cal completely relax during those visits to Galhea. Perhaps he almost did when he and I took long horseback rides together. As much as I loved Cal, I felt no guilt for bringing Seel there. Seel was my heart and my soul mate. But the few times at Forever when I saw Cal’s eyes light up with mischief, or heard him laugh, I could not but think it should always be that way and not only when he was safely out of Seel’s sight.

Sometimes Cal would tease me the way he had in my youth or call me “pretty Swiftling” and I would remember all that he had done for Forever, everything he meant to Cobweb and me. I suppose that the long afternoons that Cal spent tucked away with Cobweb and Snake, the three of them chatting over endless cups of tea or sheh, were a respite for him as well. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I wished Forever could be a refuge from the politics and protocol of Immanion for Cal. Cobweb’s irruptions of irritation with Seel over ridiculously inane things when Cal was around told me that my hostling felt the same way. To his credit, Seel did put forth a sincere effort to be considerate of Cal, especially after his rescue of Azriel and Aleem.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon one’s perspective, Cal and Pell never stayed with us for long, only a day or two. Less frequently Seel and I traveled to Immanion. When we went there, we often stayed for several days, commonly for a week or even two. It was easier for Seel to re-adapt to Almagabra and lose himself among the multitude of hara and projects demanding our attention than it was for Cal to feel at home again in Forever.

It was to be Pell who at last would take action.

Not long before twilight, we arrived in Immanion at the beginning of the winter solstice. At Pell’s urging we had agreed to stay for two weeks, throughout the extended Natalia celebrations. As long as Seel and I had been together, we had always spent Natalia in Forever. But I liked the idea of leaving Forever completely under Cobweb’s care during those festival days for once. He would enjoy organizing the holiday gatherings again without the need for consultation or negotiation with Seel or me. Cobweb could act as the host of Forever and re-create the nostalgia of good times past however he chose to remember them. Natalia is one of those holidays that seem to place hara under a compulsion to romanticize their past.

* * * *

If this were a tale for harlings it would probably begin with “Once upon a time two illustrious hara arrived from faraway Megalithica to celebrate Natalia with old friends, legendary in their own right, in the bright and shining city of Immanion.” It is not, however, a fairy tale for children, because its backdrop is one of estrangement and betrayal, jealously guarded resentments. It is filled with much too graphic descriptions of the magical, dark and light, addictive qualities of aruna to be fit for the ears of anyhar who has not passed through their own feybraiha and out the other side.

Our sedim pulled out of the ethers and into the earthly atmosphere. The white towers of Immanion glittered in the waning sunlight. The radiance of Immanion gleamed somehow portentous in the way in which only that celebrated city can. The mood of seasonal festivity was unmistakable, although the almost summer-warm air of Almagabra felt oddly out-of-place for a celebration of the winter solstice. Winking strings of colored lights incongruously draped palm trees and also had been wound around those dark waxy semi-tropical plants that line the road into Immanion. Such a tasteless display would never have been tolerated in the Gelaming city of light I had first know decades earlier. But this was not Thiede’s Immanion, but the Immanion of the triumvirate, still the jewel of Wraeththu, but no longer a city of only the Gelaming.

Seel’s ill-suppressed anxiety broke loose the moment we had stopped just short of the entrance to Phaonica. He fidgeted on his sedu, before reluctantly dismounting and handing him over to the waiting stable hara. I took his hand and led him into the palace, up the stairs and around the bends of the labyrinthine hallways toward Pell’s chambers. The halls of Phaonica were festooned with greenery, its trimmings of white and faintly yellow lights far more elegant than the gaudier ones we had seen entering into the city. A train of courtiers trailed behind us, carrying the bags we could easily have managed on our own.

Pell and Cal met us in the doorway to Pell’s apartment. A smiling, relaxed Pell had for once dressed informally in a loose white linen shirt and black fitted trousers, his beauty if anything more stunning without the usual magnificent embellishments of courtly dress. Cal, clad in threadbare jeans dating to the human era, looked himself: insouciant, shabby-glamorous, and oozing sex appeal. It made me grin to wonder how he always managed to own a seemingly inexhaustible supply of those hard-to-find jeans. A light lavender-blue tunic, hanging unbuttoned from Cal’s broad shoulders, accentuated the violet hue of his eyes and did nothing to hide the glory of his form.

He hung back a bit—yes, Cal, reticent. I sighed involuntarily. Was I ready for this again? To be forced to suffer Seel nervous as a cat and just as jumpy. Cal uncertain in the way that I only caught a glimpse of when he was in Seel’s presence. My eyes met Pell’s. He flashed me a small conspiratorial smile, as though to say, Just a little while longer. I understood immediately that Pell had a Plan!

“Rue had an idea,” Pell said aloud. He obviously had chosen not to beat around the bush. “There are several available rooms attached to my suite. With so many visitors here this week, the usual holiday crowd, we will end up seeing too little of one another if you are housed in another wing. If you stay here with us–well, Cal and I actually, Rue is away until the end of the week–we’ll be able to spend more time together, have our own private festival of sorts. What do the two of you think?”

Pell looked directly at Seel, avoiding Cal’s eyes, but I saw in my peripheral vision, before Cal mastered his surprise, that his mouth had dropped open slightly. “We’ll still be expected to attend the official dinners and the traditional Phaonica-sponsored festivities,” Pell said, “but in between all that, our time will be our own.”

It was clear to me that Pell intended to force Seel and Cal’s hands. It seemed like a brilliant proposal to me. The enchantment of aruna was the simplest and most evident method to break the continuing loggerhead between the two of them. But I also feared that Seel might panic.

The standoff between Cal and Seel had to be ended. They would not, could not do it alone. Pell and I needed to push them. My sense was that Cal had suspected nothing of Pell’s decision but that he would not object. I only hoped that Seel could trust me as much as Cal trusted Pell. Before accepting for both of us, I grabbed Seel’s hand and squeezed. He understood my implicit query. He pressed back, not enthusiastically perhaps, but at least leaving me able to accept. I realized that as soon as we were alone he would harangue me with a list of his conditions, most of which would doubtless be untenable. Then we would argue. At least he was willing to try. I grinned at Seel. He scowled at me. My chesnari is adorable. I can barely keep my hands off him. Decades together, a grown son, grandchildren, and he is still to me the sexiest har I have ever known.

“We would like it very much,” I said.

Cal rolled his eyes affectionately behind Pell’s back and shrugged his shoulders at us. Seel either ignored or could not read the vulnerability behind Cal’s posturing.

Making the first move, Cal grasped Seel’s hands, pressing his forehead against Seel’s before drawing back. “In meetings hearts beat closer,” he said, half joking, half beseeching, echoing an old Uigenna greeting dating to their earliest days as Wraeththu. The phrase was loaded with significance for the two of them. It referenced their shared youth and inception, but also the roots of their estrangement.

“In blood,” Seel answered, jerking his chin up with a half grin, his words a challenge, indicating that he well remembered the acknowledgement of tribal brotherhood but also recalled the murder of Orien and dared Cal to absorb all of that. Hope and dread filled me, as though I observed a battle of two titanic wills. Neither would make it easy for the other.

Cal chortled uncomfortably in response, “Touché! You are cruel, Seel.”

“And you are not, my dear?” Seel asked, his beautiful almond eyes widening in a parody of sincerity. “Peace, then? I can make an effort, if you are willing.”

”I’ve always been willing,” Cal said. Falling into silence, he folded Seel lightly into his arms, dark eyelashes fluttering closed. My heart skipped a beat before thundering in my ears. I hoped I was ready for what reconciliation between Seel and Cal might mean for me.

—————
Note: Reference to Swift and Seel’s grandchildren: I’ve decided in this future fic that Azriel and Aleem have had another pearl since the last book of the second trilogy.

1 – Natalia Eve

Pell had given us a room on the other side of a sort of parlor, smallish by the standard of Phaonica, which opened onto his bedroom. After being shown our assigned quarters, I noted the muscle moving under Seel’s clenched jaw. I was overdue for my dressing down or at least some considerable grousing on his part.

“I think this might have been Loki’s room at one time,” I said mildly. “Or maybe not. Maybe it was a study.” I pointed across the room at an entire wall covered with dark mahogany bookshelves filled with colorful tomes bound in finely tooled leather. A double bed dominated the room. Festival greenery, the traditional holly and ivy, had been hung over the large doors leading onto a balcony.

“So, do you really care whose room it might have been?” Seel snapped.

“No. I was simply trying to make pleasant conversation because you look so anxious.” If he wanted a fight, I was determined to make him work for it. I brushed his heavy hair off his forehead, smiling as sweetly as I could at him. “That door behind you leads into one of Pell’s parlors, doesn’t it?” I asked. He knew the layout of Pell’s apartment more intimately than I did.

“I’d feel a lot more relaxed if there were a lock on that door,” he grumbled.

“Fine,” I said, focusing all of my mental energy onto the door leading to the rest of Pell’s chambers. Sometimes giving into Seel lets the excess steam out of his boilers. “Satisfied? Wards set now. If anyone wants to enter without my permission they will have blast down the door. But I am quite certain that no har, much less Pell or Cal, would think of coming in without knocking.”

Seel stepped closer and wrapped his arms around me, kissing me on the tip of my nose.

“Swift,” he whispered. “I’m really sorry. Go ahead. Undo your wards. You’re right. I’m being stupid. You know how being around Cal agitates me. I suppose Pell, who likes everything neat and orderly, has now decided to take it upon himself to force Cal and me to resolve the issues between us. I should have expected he would get around to it sooner or later. I guess I hoped it would be later.”

Stroking his cheek, which felt as soft as the finest silk and warmed by the flush of his irritation, I asked him, “What could be so terrible about it? Don’t be afraid of it.” I have never grown tired of touching Seel and am not able to do so without my chest clenching with longing.

“I don’t know which I hate more—being around Cal or being around Pell on a mission.”

“Please don’t start with . . .”

Seel interrupted me with a feathery kiss, drawing back before we could share breath and nuzzling his nose against my neck. I shivered at the sensation of his breath tickling my throat. Aware of my reaction, his mouth curved into a smile against my bare shoulder. He already had distracted me enough to have finished unbuttoning and slipping off my tunic. At least there would be the absolute minimum amount of complaining for a quite a while.

“Do you think we have time to rest before they begin demanding our company?” Seel said, taking my hand and leading me toward the bed.

Our coming together was sweet, tender and unhurried. I have no idea if Seel continued to think of Pell or Cal. I suspect that he did, but I know I did not. I had just begun to consider having another go at it–the sight of Seel spread out under me, wanton and delectable was irresistible–when he said, “I can’t get the thought out of my head of Pell trying to stage-manage us into bed with him and Cal, behaving like Thiede with a frontal lobotomy.”

“With a what?” I asked, truly puzzled.

“Never mind you wouldn’t know. Terrible joke based on bad science from the human era. You know I don’t like being managed.”

“Especially since it’s turned out so badly for you,” I said, referring to Thiede’s initial manipulation of Seel’s falling for me. I tried without much success to hold onto a gruff tone. His mood was sour enough that he missed my lame joke anyway. I gave up and laughed while he frowned at me from beneath lowered eyebrows.

“I’m serious,” he said, sitting up in a huff. Just then someone rapped sharply on the door.

“Give me a moment,” I called out, struggling to my feet and throwing on a robe as I tossed a blanket over the lower half of Seel.

He shook his head at me in an indulgent smile. “Ah, yes. Knocking. Just like you said they would. Whatever they want, I am not moving from here for at least another quarter of an hour.”

I opened the door to find Cal, barefooted and tightly wrapped up in a robe, hair still damp from a bath.

“Pell wants to know if you need any help dressing for dinner,” Cal said with a snort. He and I shared a laugh over that. At Forever, adults manage to dress themselves.

Cal looked at Seel sitting on the bed, the sheet barely covering his lap, leaving his svelte torso exposed. His cheeks still glowed pink in the aftermath of aruna. The tumbling mass of his reddish blond hair framed his lovely face to perfection. Cal quirked a silly grin at him, raising his eyebrows approvingly.

“Glad to see you got a little rest after your trip,” Cal said.

“Don’t push your luck, Cal,” Seel growled. I controlled showing any reaction, but Seel’s remark relieved me greatly. He might grouse, but he intended to go along with the plan.

“We’d like you to come out and have drinks with us before we all have to leave for the banquet. Can you be dressed in about an hour?”

“I’m sure we can,” Seel answered. Cal backed out of the door and was pulling it closed when Seel called out to him, “Cal! May we use the big bath?” He was referring to Pell’s bathroom with the inset marble tub that resembled a respectable-sized swimming pool.

“Sure. It’s all yours. I presume you still know how to find it?” The question was an indication that Cal knew of Seel’s off and on involvement with Pell in the years before he had returned or Seel and I had first met.

“I remember everything,” Seel said meaningfully.

Cal closed the door gently behind him. Their jabs at one another since we had arrived were muted and some largely obscure to me. I still hoped for the best.

“How about a quick swim?” Seel asked.

* * * *
Exactly one hour later, we presented ourselves to Cal and Pell for the before dinner drinks, but not until after Seel had a near meltdown over his choice of attire for the night. When I visited Immanion, I usually brought at least one truly extravagant suit of clothing made for the occasion. In Galhea, I tended to adapt a somewhat old-style Harrish ambience for parties–a lot of black leather with only a few touches of color, although complimented with more jewelry than my father would ever have dreamed of wearing.

That night I wore an iridescent blue-green open tunic trimmed in silver and gold threads, which showed my entire torso, with matching trousers tucked into glossy black boots. Fine riding boots from the environs of Galhea were coveted in Immanion. Seel had chosen a flowing robe of a warm-colored cream which set off his smooth olive skin. The effect was simple but elegant in a Gelaming way. His lush, long tawny hair flowed down his back, seductively not quite hiding his one bared shoulder. Two simple gold hoop earrings comprised his only jewelry. His pretty bare feet clad in golden sandals completed the take-me-to-bed-now aura he had unintentionally projected.

Looking into a full-length mirror in our bedroom, Seel fiercely scowled at his image. “I look like a harling all dolled up for his feybraiha,” he moaned.

“Of course, you don’t!” I lied through my teeth. Despite the scowl, he looked charmingly naïve and good enough to eat.

He turned in front of the mirror again, running his fingers through his hair and frowning. “What was I thinking?”

I truthfully added, “You look completely amazing.” After a tiresome debate, I finally talked Seel out of changing his clothes. The exotic cast of his narrow face, with its large eyes, defensive chin and pouting lips simultaneously screamed haughty and fragile. I liked the idea of escorting such an appetizing confection among the throngs of Gelaming elite and their observers who would be present at the evening’s feast.

We let ourselves into the chamber that connected our two bedrooms. It was decked with more boughs of holly, trails of ivy, and three evergreen trees decorated with white lights and tiny red metallic globes. Large red candles in at least a dozen gold-plated wall sconces gave off the scent of the finest bee’s wax and a soft flattering light. The arrangement of one large and a smaller brown leather sofa, and two large overstuffed chairs conveyed an ambience of a lavish but well-used room.

I thought how it would have been amusing to see Cobweb cranking himself up with stage-whispered comments of “overdone” and his observations on the Gelaming’s heavy borrowings from historic traditions of the land of Alba Sulh in their Natalia celebrations.

Cal wore a shimmering red sleeveless tunic, unbuttoned to his navel, and blowzy harem pants, gathered at the ankles with solid golden cuffs. Pell was resplendent as always in emerald green trimmed in gold. Much as Seel had earlier, Cal stood scoffing at his reflection in a mirror. “Rue produced this get-up for me. I look ridiculous, like something out of a wet dream of Lianvis. Too much skin showing, do you think?”

”Yes,” Seel said, too quickly for politeness. Taking a long drag on the cigarette he held, Cal gave Seel a flirtatious moue. A total sham. Cal was at least as nervous as Seel.

“You look fantastic, Cal,” I said. “But stop admiring yourself and take a look at Seel.”

Cal jerked his head around. “Wow!” he sighed, eyes wide. “You look incredible, Seel. Swift looks as hot as ever, but you are breathtaking. You remind me of a beautiful young har outfitted for his feybraiha! All you need is a flower tucked behind your ear.”

Seel turned on me. “I told you that was how it looked!”

“I didn’t mean that in a bad way,” Cal protested.

Pell laughed. “You’re beautiful, Seel and, anyway, you don’t have time to change. Maybe Cal does look a little like one of Lianvis’s Aralid tarts. But not in a bad way either.” He reached over to fasten two buttons on the vest. “There. That should satisfy even Seel.”

“You’re not safe from criticism, Pell,” Cal said, cocking an exquisite eyebrow. “Together, with me in red and you in green, we look like a matched set of ornaments for a holiday tree.”

I asked. “Then how do I fit into this impressive company?”

“You look like a handsome barbarian prince out of one of those fairy stories from my childhood, arriving to rescue a bored and lonely princess,” Pell said, laughing again.

“And who would be the princess I am here to rescue? You certainly do not fit the profile. I can’t imagine you are ever bored or lonely with Cal and Rue always around. Where is Rue by the way?”

“He went with Thiede and Velaxis to spend a few days in Sykernesse,” Pell replied. “He is fond of Ariaric and Elisyin. Thiede is curious about the hard-partying reputation of the Sykernesse court and Velaxis is keeping him company. They are due back before the end of the week.”

“I’m glad we won’t miss Rue entirely,” I said, completely sincere. I had grown fond of Caeru. Then I remembered the bottle I held, a small gift to our hosts. I brandished it in the best theatrical tradition. “I think our mutual dissatisfaction with our finery for this feast requires a drink. Here is a bottle of the finest Varrish sheh. We can all toast that natural beauty always triumphs over style. Where can I find some glasses?”

Pell produced four cut-glass tumblers, much too large to use for serving sheh, from a cabinet near their bedroom door. I hoped he didn’t intend to get us drunk.

Cal snapped a red blossom off an elegant potted plant and approached Seel with it. “Here. An offering to your beauty. Let me fasten it behind your ear.”

I half expected Seel to swat the flower across the room. His eyes narrowed at Cal. But he did not even try to conceal a smirk, saying in a voice oozing with a pretense of sarcasm, “You always were a charmer, Cal.” Bending slightly, Cal gave Seel the lightest kiss on the mouth and then fastened the bloom in a golden clip above Seel’s right ear. Seel did not draw back and left the flower in place.

By the time we left Pell’s apartment, we had drained the large bottle of sheh. Not a hint remained of the usual rancor between Seel and Cal, but the arunic tension between the four of us was as heavy as honey in mid-winter.

The four of us entered the great hall, laughing and talking like old friends should on a holiday eve. An abrupt hush greeted us. Even the music slowed to a stop. A soft collective gasp wafted through the room. Must have been visitors. The members of the Hegemony would not have reacted so strongly. I am certain that the altered demeanor among the four of us had been noted and would be discussed by the habitués of Phaonica, however.

Freshly cut pine boughs gave off the clean, woodsy aroma of fir needles. The scent of nutmeg, cinnamon and roast meat and fowl permeated the bedecked banqueting hall. A myriad of tiny lights glittered.

“Great work!” Cal said, looking around him. “The hall reminds me of forest slopes of Ferike in the winter. . . ”

“Without the snow,” Pell interjected. Cal gifted him a feigned frown and an indulgent peck on the cheek.

“Or,” I said, “It sort of reminds me of Forever decked with firs and holly.”

“It’s true,” Cal said. “It even smells like Yarrow’s fruit and nut breads.”

Seel laughed, “Cobweb would eat his heart out with envy over the size of this hall and the resources available to decorate it. It actually reminds me of your childhood home at Yuletide, Cal.”

“The old house was not nearly as grand or spacious as this,” Cal scoffed.

“But easily as luxurious,” Seel retorted.

“I’m sure I must have told you that I was born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth, didn’t I, Swift?” Cal asked. “But not even dear old dad could have imagined this.”

“I’m sorry,” Seel said, slipping his arm around Cal’s waist. “That was uncalled for. I didn’t intend to be hurtful.”

“I know,” Cal said. He gave Seel a quick, chaste kiss. For a moment I felt like I wasn’t sure where I wanted to look. Pell quietly took my hand and raised it to his lips.

“I think we should make our way up to the front. They are holding dinner until we are seated, ” Pell said.

We made our way slowly to a raised dais at the back of the hall. Halfway there, I ran into Chrysm and greeted him with a warm hug, but was immediately drawn away by the bustle of other hara clamoring to speak to Pell, Cal, Seel or me. I knew from the look of disbelief on Chrysm’s face that I owed him an explanation. I would have to find time for that later.

Seel and I, as the highest ranking of the out-of-town visitors, had been seated on either side of Pell and Cal at the main table. The four of us stayed close throughout the evening.

After an overly long and heavy dinner—the servers even staged a processional of traditional dishes, magnificent platters of fish and fowl, even a roasted boar with an apple in its mouth. After the feast, we ended up together on a settee backed against a floor-to-ceiling window that faced the moon-swept courtyard. On one side of me Seel clutched my hand in a death grip, still nervous about Cal, while Pell leaned over me lightly touching my shoulder, occasionally reaching up play with a loose lock of my hair. Once Pell sucked on my ear lobe after tonguing the golden teardrop of my single dangling earring. I wondered what he might have been drinking or smoking before we had joined them. Never before had I discerned any spark of attraction in Pell toward me. I could sense that Seel felt discombobulated by the way Cal, draped on the arm of the sofa, stared at him as though mesmerized. Pell’s flirting had certainly disoriented me. Events were moving too quickly.

Across the room Chrysm watched us. Knowing Chrysm as I did, I expected him to tease me later about the impression we must have been creating. But I also assumed he might conceal wounded feelings under his chary gaze. It would have been natural for him to think I ought to have found an opportunity to speak with him sooner about the whole situation.

Several years earlier I had taken to spending at least a night or two with Chrysm whenever I visited Immanion alone. I had never invited him to share a bed with Seel and me. He and Seel rubbed one another the wrong way. Chrysm found Seel pompous and Seel in turn thought of Chrysm as a light-minded, unserious type of har. Many hara had commented to me that Chrysm physically resembled Seel–the same finely attenuated features, similar small-boned, graceful, slender builds. No doubt gossips claimed behind my back that I chose Chrysm as a roon friend because he reminded me of my chesnari. Quite the contrary, Chrysm’s satisfaction with a no-strings-attached physical relationship diverged so dramatically from the complexity of what I shared with Seel there was really no basis for comparison. I filed Chrysm away to think about tomorrow, hoping I was not presuming too much on his good nature. It would not have mattered to me, however, if I had known I had been. Seel, Cal and Pell were all that I could handle at that moment.

As the evening progressed Seel appeared more and more inebriated. Seel did not make a practice of hard drinking. Dangerously, to my mind at least, Cal had completely avoided anything alcoholic. Yet, Cal’s wild swings between attempting to appear casual or indifferent to Seel and his desperate attempts at seduction caused me acute embarrassment on his behalf. It became more and more obvious to me that Seel as prey to Cal’s clumsy wooing had already been virtually cleaned, trussed and bagged. Meanwhile, the idea of aruna with Pell was driving me crazy, that and his scent of sandalwood and cinnamon and the languid looks he was shooting me. It had been a standing joke between Seel and me for years that I lusted after Pell. Seel found it amusing that I took such care never to do anything that would give Pell any clue of my interest. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to get out of that banquet hall fast enough that night to suit to me. I envisioned all of Immanion watching the four of us in shocked disbelief, half expecting to see one pair of us or another rooning on the main table before the party had ended.
2 – First Night

Back in Pell’s quarters, we settled into our sitting room. Pell uncorked a bottle of sparkling wine with a satisfying pop and filled four long-stemmed crystal glasses, handing them around. Seel and I sat together on the larger sofa. Cal leaned against one of the overstuffed chairs across from us, a long leg stretched out before him and his other knee bent collapsed to one side. Cal’s gaze flickered from my face to Seel’s. A faint challenge burned in his eyes. Despite all of the mind-exploding arunic experiences I had been gifted by Seel, whom Cal had often sardonically described to me as the sexiest har in the world, Cal would always exist in a class by himself for me. But Cal craved only Seel that night. The air in the room pulsed hot and cold with the desperation of his hunger. I didn’t believe that Cal could bring himself make another overture to Seel. The next move would be up to my guarded partner. Seel held his shoulders rigid with the force of his reluctance to reach out to Cal. He had nurtured his bitterness for years. He meticulously kept a list in his head of all the times he supposedly had accommodated Cal and come away with less than he had hoped to receive. I silently cursed them both for their stubbornness.

Unexpectedly, Pell broke the impasse. “Enough. Let’s quit fucking around and get down to the business at hand. We have known one another far too long and too well to be shy. All of us, except Swift and I, have been intimate with one another countless times. And I don’t think I am wrong to believe that Swift is as attracted to me as I am to him.”

Nohar said anything in response until I finally muttered, embarrassed at my burning cheeks, “Aru, Pell! Who wouldn’t want you?”

“Swiftling, you underestimate yourself,” Cal drawled. “Have you really not noticed how he watches you?”

“Shall we take a bath first?” Pell asked, ignoring Cal and smiling at me, disingenuously wholesome sunshine gleaming in his limpid eyes. “I am sure the water is perfect and there is more than enough room for all of us.”

“You know I prefer you unwashed, sweetheart,” Cal said, leering at Pell. “And the scent of Swift au natural drives me crazy.” Seel glared at Pell, but stood and unfastened his festival robe, dropping it and allowing it to pool on the floor at his feet. Much to my surprise he wore nothing underneath its elegant folds.

Cal unsuccessfully tried to swallow a needy groan. Making a quick recovery, he smirked and languorously extended his hand to Seel. “Don’t even try to deny that you like me all hot and sweaty, Seel. I have a very good memory,” Cal said. The gesture, like the tone of Cal’s voice, was cocky, but his eyes glinted with insecurity.

“Fuck you, Cal,” Seel growled. “Have I ever turned you down?” Cal pulled his shirt over his head, without another word, his eyes locked with Seel’s. In a matter of seconds, Seel was on Cal’s lap frenetically sharing breath, fiddling with the lacings on Cal’s trousers. Cal whimpered against Seel’s mouth.

Pell and I gracelessly shed our own finery. I plopped back onto the sofa, noting that Cal’s pants were by then tangled around his ankles, while Seel squirmed shamelessly against him. ‘Animals,’ I thought, laughing half at them and half at myself. It is far different to be an active participant than to simply find oneself watching. And Cal had always accused me of an excess of modesty for a har. Personally, I had always found it mildly pretentious that incepted hara made indelicacy and a lack of the need for privacy a point of principle.

Pell slid down next to me on the sofa, wrapping his arms around my torso from behind, resting his face against my shoulder, his cheek felt as soft as a harling’s behind. He pressed his ouana-lim against the small of my back. I could feel the petals unfolding, slightly stiff and gently prickling against my naked skin.

“And to think I actually believed we might have had a bit more of a struggle with them,” Pell whispered. “Give me a kiss, Swift.”

The tiniest twinge of jealousy had tingled in my chest at the sight of Seel’s sudden onslaught of Cal, but the thought of the incomparable Pell drove it away. I twisted around to face him. It turned out that Pell wanted a simple kiss, holding back sharing breath for the moment. His lips were silken, tender, and yet firm against my own. Perfect, as I might have expected. But when the kiss turned into the sharing of breath at my instigation–I have never been good at restraint–Pell opened up sweetly to me, showing me that he wanted me and also knew that I was anxious, distracted by Cal and Seel. I knew then that he would take care of me, ensure that I could handle anything that would happen that night. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shut out Cal and Seel’s voices.

“Say it Seel,” Cal whispered; the actual sound was barely more than an auditory wisp of smoke, but carried as clear as a clarion call to me.

“No,” Seel said, much louder, with that mulish look he can get when he is determined to resist. For a moment I almost laughed and then my heart clenched in unwarranted pride at the stubbornness of my mate. My reaction reminded me of the way a hostling must feel when he tries not to smile at his harling doing something atrocious but endearingly predictable. Anything more agreeable would not have been my Seel.

Say ‘ yes’,” I projected to Seel. “Stop fighting it so we can all move beyond your tired old resentment.”

Cal spoke aloud, his melodious voice seductive, persuasive, and relentless. “Say it, Seel. I will not ask again. Do you need for me to tell you that I treasure you and will guard your happiness with my life?”

“Oh, I think you will whether I say ‘yes’ or not,” Seel answered, the smallest smile cracking his deadpan expression.

“Damn you,” Cal chuckled with affection and Seel gave a shockingly giddy sort of laugh. If I had not been there, it would have been impossible for me to believe such a sound had come from Seel.

“All right, you bastard, you win this time. Yes,” Seel replied.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, I want you and, yes, I still love you, always have.”

“And?” Cal cocked a sardonic eyebrow.

“I forgave you long ago. I think you already knew that.”

Pell and I sighed in unison. Seel shivered in Cal’s embrace. “Oh, Seel,” Cal said. “I have missed you more than you can imagine.”

Pell murmured in my ear, “Happy now?”

“It is what I wanted for them. At last the end of Seel’s struggling against the inevitable,” I said, feeling a certain amount of trepidation at actually seeing the two of them together.

“I take it that you and Seel have not shared yourselves with others often,” Pell said, in a velvety, irritatingly wise voice.

“Not if what you call sharing is watching Seel jump on somehar else and forget that I exist.”

“Loosen up, Swift. Everything will be fine. You know Seel is crazy for you. You are to Seel what Cal is for me. The choice was never revocable. Your bond goes beyond promises or conditions. You have both admitted that. Anyway, because of that Cobwebish art of yours, you surely are aware that he is yours forever.”

We observed the two of them. I was the first to chuckle aloud at our forced voyeurism. I had to laugh or I might cry. They were as unaware of us as if Pell and I were on the other side of the universe.

Pell’s attempts to calm me down at last stilled my incipient jealousy. The feeling of Pell’s silken skin against my back and the gentle nudging of his hardened ouana-lim against me no doubt helped. Pell and I giggled like harlings for a moment. Then I looked up into his face. This was, in any case, the magnificent Pellaz-har-Aralis, Tigron of Immanion, whom I had not so secretly pined after for years. With his face so close to mine, I noticed that he did nothing to color his lips. Their luscious red was entirely natural. His hair was onyx black, its only colors those mirrored in the sheen of its reflected light.

Seel had told me countless time that if I really wanted Pell, all I had to do was ask. Pell tells me now that Seel had been right, but I’m not sure I really believe him. He may remember it differently, but I don’t think Pell had time to spare a thought for me before that first night we came together. Or perhaps I am too spoiled and simply wanted Pell to approach me first.

That Natalie Eve, Pell’s face shone like a holy icon of a priest of some ancient religion of magic or of sorcery. He smiled and whispered softly, “May I be ouana first, or would you like to?”

My universe exploded into a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, of luminosity and vibration. ‘This truly is going to happen,’ I thought. When I had considered aruna with Pell–it was not something I had fantasized about often or in any detail, beyond the recognition of desire–I had imagined myself as soume. Doubtless that had to do with rumors of the super scalding essence of Tigron, any of that half-truth, half-nonsense one hears. I am not one to turn away from a challenge. Or perhaps it was prompted by that imperious manner Pell falls into so often. Once I was close enough to touch him, to smell him, there had been an instant metamorphosis on my part into full ouana mode. I wanted to possess this flawlessly lovely har. I wanted to see him open himself to me. There is an inimitable purity about Pell. One could not possibly call it innocence. One cannot be a Gelaming Tigron for decades and retain much if any innocence. All I knew was I wanted to roon him until he begged for release.

“First?” I sighed. ‘Postponement not denial,’ I tried to tell myself. “I’d adore being soume for you. How can I say ‘no’ when you phrase the request like that?” Pell had taken my breath away. He still does for that matter.

Everyhar leaves one with his own arunic signature. Seel, as everyday as one might think our intimacy would be for me, remains a mystery. He exudes a flavor of smoky exoticism, as seductive and complex as sin. Yet Cal for me, perhaps because he was my first and I knew him so well before he ever touched me, despite his spectacular beauty, addictive edginess and much touted technique, continues to feel as familiar and safe as the lights of home across the fields at nightfall. By comparison to Cal, Pell defies familiarity. He sparkles and shimmers like a quick stream of crystalline mountain water, as sweet as springtime, but with a surprise kickback of extreme power that causes one to inexorably surge toward him despite the fear of being scorched. I recall thinking that to experience the three of them in one night seemed an extravagance that taunted fate like hubris.

After a moment of anxiety for the consequences, I surrendered myself to Pell. Fortunately for me, nothing but good would come of that night, although the aftermath would be unlike anything I might have projected.

What Pell may lack in the artfulness that characterizes Cal and Seel’s approaches to aruna, he makes up for in energy. He also draws one into his vertiginous dream world to an extent I had never experienced before. Our climax left me woozy. If I had any consciousness of what Seel and Cal had been doing, I have lost the memory of it. I finally refocused to find myself on my back, on the sofa, with Pell straddling me grinning.

“Still feeling jealous?” he asked.

I stuck my lower lip out at him. “I presume you are making fun of me?”

“In the most affectionate way imaginable,” Pell answered, licking my mouth open to kiss me again.

“The answer is ‘no.’ But ask me again in a couple of days.” I looked over at Seel and Cal. They had somehow ended up tangled together on the carpet in front of the fireplace. I could not tell if they slept or merely rested. Their auras radiated tranquility. Pell shook his head at them indulgently.

“Do you want to go to bed?” Pell asked. “They’ll follow us when they’re ready.”

“Sure,” I agreed.

3 – Natalia

A pink and lilac dawn sky gradually brightened to apricot and azure as I lay sprawled on my stomach in Pell’s bed looking out the open windows onto the balcony and beyond. Pell had collapsed half-on, half-off me. I inhaled his scent of sandalwood, cinnamon, and spring water. The faint essence of perspiration and aruna did not detract from but added spice to the blend.

My dearest one, my precious Seel, slept on the other side of Cal, completely at ease for the first time since I had known him. I leaned up onto one elbow to make out that Cal’s face looked as serene as that of a sleeping child as well. With the optimism that comes with the morning’s first light, seeing the Seel and Cal like that went beyond my expectations.

Cal breathed out with a contented huff and threw a long arm across my midriff to grasp Pell’s forearm.

“Sweet Swift,” Cal mumbled wetly against my neck. “Thank you.”

“No need to thank me.”

“Hmm. Yes, I suppose Pell thanked you for me quite royally.”

“Wanker!” Pell said. “We hoped to share an experience. But instead we were left alone. You may be assured that Swift and I made good use of the opportunity to amuse ourselves.”

“We’ll make it up to you,” Cal said, unruffled.

Pell sniffed. “I’m sleepy now.” Cal chuckled.

Aside from my satisfaction at the apparent healing of the breech between Seel and Cal, I needed to consider my excessive reaction to Pell. Perhaps somewhere in the veins of the Cevarros the blood of kings and princes pulsed. Maybe a bastard or a younger son had sought his destiny in that wide land that we call Megalithica. We might be the beneficiaries of their exile in the form of our first Tigron and his remarkable family. Or, more likely, the entire blood-of-kings concept is simply a fiction. Cal would surely scoff at it. I have been told that I was raised as a prince among Wraeththu myself. Cobweb insists his ancestry carried no royal blood and that my father, a remarkable har despite his taint, was simply the brightest and most attractive son of a working class human family.

Fanciful thoughts of like nature crowded my mind in that rosy dawn. I couldn’t forget for a moment that the heavy head, warm and damp with perspiration, that weighed upon my chest belonged to arguably the greatest legend of Wraeththu. Pell had rooned me until we were both silly with exhaustion. He at last slept snuggled up against my chest, his every breath tickling my throat, causing my heart to expand to include a new chamber newly constructed just for him. He had literally fragmented me and put the pieces back together again.

Seel often jokes that, a bit like Cal perhaps, I give my love easily and without conditions, and that he is lucky enough to have benefited most particularly from my failing. Naturally, I consider it my greatest virtue.

Pell exhaled a charming groan. “You two aren’t going to let me rest, are you?” he asked.

“Stop fussing and go back to sleep,” Cal said.

I hugged Pell tighter and pulled the thin coverlet over his bare shoulders. His bronze skin contrasted stunningly with the white fabric. I thought that I ought to have expected he would be the sort to wake up cranky. I smiled to myself that Pell could be nothing short of magnificent, not even when waking up hung over and short of sleep.

Pell kissed me and murmured, “Seel’s dreams are lovely, Swift. Can you sense them?”

“Yes,” I answered, becoming cognizant at that moment that I could. The older I grow, the more I become aware of how similar I am to Cobweb.

“We can all be truly happy now,” Pell said, voicing the childlike sentiment with the conviction of a sage. Not only is Pell exquisite to look at, but his dulcet voice is breathtaking. “I love to watch your face when you look at Seel. You love him so much. Maybe we should have done this sooner. Or it might only now have been the perfect moment. What do you think?”

“I love you too, Pell,” I said. The statement was not as much of a non sequitur as it might seem. He had cried out my name the night before in the throes of release and said that he loved me. I had not responded. The Gelaming fear of expressing emotions straightforwardly had long before tempered my ability to freely express what I felt in my uncomplicated Varrish heart. I recalled how hard it had been for Seel to tell me he loved me, how he had said to me, ‘You have infected me,’ as his first declaration of love. That morning I wondered if possibly all the philosophers and pundits of Almagabra had been onto to something when they had denied romantic love in the human sense. Love for one special har, one soul mate, or however one chose to name him, certainly did exist. I had been right about that. Perhaps the difference between human and harish love, was biologically determined by the multifaceted purposes of harish aruna. It might be that love among our race was not limited to one and only one, but could encompass several individuals, with the intensity of that love extending along a spectrum.

“I hope you do,” he responded. “I want you to—so badly.”

Seel groaned and then yawned. “Swift, where are you?” His voice raspy with sleep carried a note of sadness and uncertainty.

I answered him with a distinct edge of irritation in voice. “I am right here on the other side of the bed! Where else would I be?” He was the one who had all but accosted Cal the night before and hadn’t given me so much as a glance after that. It was easier I suppose, but not by much, to have been a witness to him completely losing himself in Cal than to imagine him doing it without even being present.

“Dammit, Swift.” Cal said. “Don’t be a brat. It’s not at all like you. Trade places with me.” He sat up, looking far brighter and more alert than any of the rest of us. “Move.” Cal poked me, none too gently, a wicked grin lighting that outrageously striking face of his. He clambered over me, pushing me against Seel and cuddling up to Pell, who welcomed him with a smile. “You were not suffering last night, if the noises you were making are any indication.”

“Fine. I’m sorry! Kiss me, Cal,” I said, leaning over him and planting a lopsided kiss on his mouth before turning to back to my chesnari. “Oh, Seel!” was all that I could say to him. I wrapped my arms around him, pulling him as close to me as I could, relishing the feeling of his smooth skin against mine. Seel was still Seel whatever witchery Pell had cast over me.

The four of us spent the rest of the day we alone together. Seel and Cal kept Pell and I laughing, at how they taunted one another and bickered over matters of no consequence. The restoration of their early camaraderie was perceptible to Pell and me in every aspect of their comportment. They were like oil and water, but their fondness for one another was unquestionable. We exchanged eloquent smiles on their behalf. Nothing could mar our elation.

The days of Natalia had been projected to be inviolable holidays for Pell. As we wandered the hallways and grounds of Phaonica, Cal would scowl menacingly and warn off with crude hand gestures anyhar who appeared inclined to approach Pell.

“He works all of the time,” Cal grumbled. We sniggered like harlings at his short-tempered protectiveness.

All of us were loath to relinquish physical contact with one another. Seel often clutched my hand tightly, while Cal’s arm draped across his shoulder. Pell, holding my other hand, would stroke the sensitive skin on the inside of my wrist with his thumb, sending fissions of promise up my spine.

I discovered that Pell, like Seel and I, was addicted to kissing, not only the intoxicating sharing of breath, but ordinary messy kisses of lips, teeth, tongue and saliva. Cal was happy to share our obsession, but he admitted he had never got past his initial fascination with the sharing of breath. Leave it to the most sybaritic of our little group to be the one mesmerized by the most spiritual aspect of harish sexuality. I was sure there was something profound to learn about Cal from that insight. The point is the four of us really liked one another, exactly as we were. Seel was positively giddy with his rapprochement with Cal. The balance had shifted for them since they had last been together. I was the difference and it changed everything for them, for the better.

That evening we presented ourselves at a smaller gathering planned to include only members of the Hegemony, their chesnari, staffs and the extended families of all. Already the intensity of interest in the obvious alteration in the relationship between Seel and Cal, and by extension that of Pell and me, had waned. Curious and gossip hungry as hara are, dramatic changes are quickly accepted by those whose very existence is rooted in mutation.

I decided that this should be the night when I would seek out Chrysm and make my apologies for neglecting him entirely. I must try to explain I thought, although I wasn’t sure how I could articulate that which I did not fully comprehend myself.

The number of harlings scattered among the crowd comprised only a dozen or less in number, but nonetheless the ambience from the night before had subtly altered to accommodate them. This was a more informal, family evening. The music that flooded the hall was livelier and the manner of dress more prosaic. The squeals of harlings over gifts and games drowned out attempts at serious talk.

A blond-haired, elfin-faced youngster, with eyes of emerald green, stood next to me. “I know who you are, tiahaar!” the cheeky harling of perhaps seven years of age shouted up at me. He might have resembled Tyson at that age, had his demeanor been less exuberant.

“Oh, you do, do you?” I asked him.

“You are Lord Swift of Galhea,” he confidently announced. “The lord of all of Megalithica. I think you are the greatest of any of the archons, phylarchs, or Hegemons, except for the Tigrons of Immanion perhaps. I’ve always loved your story. You were not much older than me when you helped bring Megalithica under control and transformed the largest confederation of hara from a scattered tribe of vicious warlords into a peaceful productive people. And you are second generation like me.”

I laughed and grabbed his hand, dragging him out of the way of one of those rollicking, silly circle dances. It struck me as incongruous in the halls of Phaonica. But this was the season for reviving old half-dead customs that connected us to our ancient roots, without respect for any Gelaming veneer of sophistication. Immanion was no longer the city of glossy fastidiousness it had been when I first saw it. The fact that it was now comprised of hara of many cultures and traditions overshadowed the once dominant Gelaming attempt at an artificial perfection.

Looking down into the harling’s animated face, I practically had to shout to be heard above the music and shrieking and stomping of the younger dancers.

“If you’ve learned so much about the history of Wraeththu, then you must know that I was only an instrument of those much wiser than me. The real work came later, still continues, and might not look nearly as heroic to you.”

Undaunted the imp insisted, “But you are even handsomer than the legends and still much younger than my hostling or my father. Is that your consort, the mysterious-looking har talking to Tigron Calanthe? The one who looks like a fairy prince or an elf lord out of Sulh legends? I heard you were awarded him as a prize for your courage and he has been enchanted to love you forever with all of his heart.”

Horrified, I stammered, “Is that how they tell our story in the Gelaming school books? For Ag’s sake, don’t let my chesnari hear you say that! I don’t think Tiahaar Seel would be happy to learn that hara say he was involuntarily bound to me as part of the spoils of war.”

I began to suspect that the youngster would be undergoing feybraiha before long and was brazenly flirting with me. No doubt he would be a formidable seducer in a short while.

“Oh, no!” he piped. “That part is not from the history books we read in school. I heard it from my parents. And they are not truly Gelaming. They came here from Alba Sulh to work for Tiahaar Chrysm. They conduct archeological excavations, study interesting artifacts, and write about them.”

“They sound like the kind hara that Chrysm might recruit. So you like history also?”

“I like any kind of stories. You know Tiahaar Chrysm?” he asked, his hero worship of me appearing to ratchet up an additional notch.

“He is an old friend of mine.”

The breath of a laugh against ear and a hand resting on my shoulder alerted me that Chrysm himself had come up behind me.

“Did you introduce yourself properly to Lord Swift?” he asked.

“Sorry,” said the incorrigible harling. “My name is Emrys.”

“Emrys’ parents are Sulh like your hostling. They are archeologists who came to Immanion to work for the Museum of Human Antiquity. They had an interest in the lands which once made up Almagabra and its surrounding area. They’ve made tremendous breakthroughs in harnessing energy to locate deeply buried sites of great import. You must meet them sometime. I know you share their fascination with those civilizations. Alba Sulh, often referred to as a land of myth and magic, is well studied and they wanted to investigate new ground. I snatched them up before anyone else could.”

“Clearly they still have an attachment to their own roots if they named the harling after the most famous mage of Sulh myth,” I said, unable to break the lock of Chrysm’s eyes, happy to relax into the warm mantle of his affection.

“Run along now, young one,” Chrysm said. “Swift and I have things to catch up on. We haven’t talked in ages.” Chrysm gave me a pouting moue. He teased me, knowing the blame for any lack of recent communication rested equally upon both of us. We each tended to immerse ourselves in our day-to-day cares and did not stay in touch between my trips to Almagabra.

“Charming, cheeky rascal, isn’t he?” I said when he was out of earshot.

“I came to rescue you. I just learned that he had the effrontery to make a bet with his friends that he would ask you to be his first. His feybraiha should be coming up any month now.”

”Thank you. Normally I would be tempted, but his timing couldn’t be worse. I am completely overwhelmed right now.”

“I noticed. Surely you are aware that I am dying of curiosity,” Chrysm complained.

“Let’s find a quieter spot,” I said, hooking my arm through his and leading him out of the crowded dining hall.

“So, what magic or mischief are you up to this week?” Chrysm’s voice sounded strange. I ducked into a nearby empty chamber, usually referred to as the ground-floor-west reading room, lugging Chrysm behind me by the arm.

“It’s a long story, all to do with Cal and Seel . . .” I said, closing the heavy mahogany door behind us. I took Chrysm’s hand and brought it to my lips. Chrysm was one of those perfectly androgynous hara, like Seel, all slim litheness with the faintest hint of feminine curves, almond eyes and olive skin, but darker haired than Seel and an air of provocative mischief about him that I could not imagine my chesnari manifested even as a child.

“That’s odd. From my perspective all I have been able to see has been you and Pell mooning over one another.” He laughed with a self-deprecatory shrug. “I’m sorry, Swift. I’m having trouble guarding my tongue. Possessiveness is not a familiar reaction for me. You owe me no explanations. Now that I’m alone with you and have your complete attention, I already feel calmer. My first response was to be afraid that I would lose you forever into the vortex that swirls around the Aralisians and all those who draw close to them.”

“You know I won’t let that happen!” I almost cried out. Chrysm and I were good together. We made no demands upon one another aside from sharing an instinctive empathy and the fact that I have been spoiled and blessed in my life, finding it hard to spend even the rare week or two alone each year in Almagabra without taking aruna. “Haven’t I always been in their orbit, Chrysm, and still found time for you?”

“You have a big heart, Swift. And, yes, fortunately for me, you also very greedy.”

I grabbed Chrysm, gave him a hard bear hug, and then held him at arms length so that I could see his face. “I’ve been connected to Cal and Pell, since I was a tiny harling. I’ve kept my distance from Cal out of respect for Seel’s particular neurosis. And now that has been at least partially resolved . . .”

“Whose idea was it for the four of you to come together?”

“I agreed immediately, but it was actually Pell who . . .”

“I might have guessed that! Pell can be oblivious to hulking problems and then suddenly decide to try to unravel a Gordian knot with one ill-considered hack.”

I chuckled at his allusion. “One of the things I appreciate about you, Chrysm, is that you are perhaps the only har who could use a reference like that with me expecting that I would understand it.”

“Not really,” he answered, canting his head to one side with that characteristic Chrysm cockiness. “ It seems you’ve found yourself three others who would: Seel, Cal, and Pell. You don’t need me.”

“I do find well-read hara sexier,” I teased him. “I’m very attached to you, as you well know.”

“From the way you were looking at Pell earlier—and last night—you could have fooled me. I don’t believe it was his mind you have been thinking about either.”

Sighing, I touched his face. “We’re good together, Chrysm. We have been since I first met you. I won’t have a lot of time for the next few days, but then I am sure that you and I can . . .”

“We’ve never found time to be together when Seel came here with you. I’ve always accepted we would not. It’s this whole thing with Cal and Pell that worries me. Just don’t let him hurt you!”

“Him?”

“Pell! Who else? I sometimes find it hard to believe that hara call Vaysh the ice princess without seeing that attribute in Pell or how they can rave about Cal’s arunic conquests and yet forget the hara Pell has ensnared and dumped. At least Cal remains on good terms with those he loved and left. Well, except for Seel and apparently even that has now been resolved.”

“Don’t wind yourself up. I am neither as pure-hearted or naïve as you would paint me. I simply wanted to talk to you because the last thing I could bear tonight is thinking I might have hurt you. But Pell is not cold.” I had to laugh aloud. Chrysm raised a skeptical eyebrow at me.

I could feel my face reddening. “You’ve got it bad,” Chrysm said wryly. “Worse than I feared. I’ve heard Pell is surprisingly quite the tiger between the sheets and has a big -lim also.”

”Don’t be crass,” I responded. I could not make my blush subside. “That is not the reason hara find him compelling!”

I shoved Chrysm. He gently cuffed me against the side of my head. We ended up in a full body embrace. Just then I sensed that someone had entered the room behind me. Chrysm’s sly smile in the direction of the doorway provided further confirmation. I turned to see Pell standing there. A faint rosy hue of embarrassment tinted the apex of his cheekbones, visible even through his dusky complexion.

“I’m sorry,” Pell stammered. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”

”I was just leaving,” Chrysm drawled, content for the moment to have caused Pell discomfort. Faced with Chrysm’s smugness I wanted to protest. Instead, I simply dropped my arms from around his waist.

“Pell!” I bleated. By then Pell had regained his self-control, quicker than I had been able to and walked over to me and took my hand.

“I can leave now. If you want to join us later, we are going upstairs,” Pell said. “If not, I will make your excuses to Seel and Cal. Whatever you prefer, Swift.” He looked in the direction of Chrysm with earnest wide eyes, almost a supplication.

“I really was going to leave,” Chrysm said. “I only wanted to say ‘hello’ to Swift and perhaps torture him a little for neglecting me.”

“Stop it, Chrysm,” I said, laughing, giving him another kiss on the mouth before stepping closer to Pell. “Maybe we can see one another at the end of this week . . .”

“Probably not. Perhaps next time you are in Immanion. Or you could invite me to Galhea.” Chrysm smiled broadly, also appearing reassured. He nodded to Pell and then to me. “Have a lovely evening.”

As soon as Chrysm left, Pell took me in his arms. “I truly sorry, Swift. I saw you leave with Chrysm. I honestly had forgotten that I had you had a special relationship with him. Forgive me for blundering in on you. Seriously, you can follow him if you like. I don’t want to pressure you.”

“You’re not. I have been thinking of nothing but you the entire evening. I only wanted to talk to him for a moment. He surprised me by reacting more strongly than I expected. We’ve never had any expectations of one another.”

“Perhaps you never gave him anything to be jealous about before.”

“He told me he’s afraid you are going to break my heart.”

Pell stuck his lower lip out at me. “I couldn’t do that to you. We’re family. I didn’t realize how tightly all of us were bound together until last night. Anyway, if that sort of outcome were even possible, it would be more likely that you would break mine.”

4 – Expectations

As we drew closer to the main hall again, I could hear the sounds of pipes and drums and clear voices intoning a carol dating to the obscure past of Alba Sulh. It made me think of Cobweb and Forever. I wondered if he missed us. My hostling had no shortage of company. He had Snake, Azriel and Aleem, as always, and not only Tyson and Moon, but Terez and Raven had joined them at Forever for those holidays that year. No wonder Pell had wanted us in Immanion with him; his family had scattered.

As though he read my mind, Pell commented, “You look wistful. Are you thinking about Cobweb’s Winter Solstice celebrations at Forever again? Maybe we should take turns hosting Natalia. Our families are so intertwined. This year Loki and Geburael are in Freyhella and Darquiel in Anakhai. Somehow, I don’t think we could ever convince either Galdra or Tava-edzen to spend Natalia in Immanion.”

Pell persisted in distracting me by pushing my hair behind my ears and focusing his gaze upon my lips. I still had not accustomed myself to being the center of his attention. I struggled to maintain the thread of the conversation to cover my awkwardness.

“Maybe Forever would seem more neutral? How Cobweb would love that! He would try to push Seel to launch a building project. He’d want to be able to house everyone in a grand style within walking distance of the big house. Great idea now that I think of it. Would keep them both happy for months, might channel their sparring into a productive area.”

We rounded the corner of the hallway, bringing the entrance of the banquet hall into view. “Look!” Pell said. “Seel and Cal haven’t gone upstairs yet. Looks like Arahal ensnared them. Where is his chesnari? This is supposed to be a family evening, no trade talk allowed. Let’s wait here until Arahal leaves. I think know what he wants from Seel, and I can assure you that you and I do not want get involved in those negotiations tonight.”

We watched them briefly as they talked. The three of them stood almost directly in front of the center door to the main hall. Cal shook his head like a yearling colt, laughing at something Arahal had said, while Seel argued earnestly, using his hands. It was clear to me by the set of Seel’s shoulders that he fought to conceal his irritation with Arahal’s apparent badgering.

“Swift,” Pell whispered, his tongue touching my ear. I turned to face him. He pulled me into a nearby alcove. I could feel the heat of the ensconced torch blazing above us. It lit Pell’s face with flickering light, intermittently casting red and golden hued shadows upon him. His eyes shone as black as a moonless midnight; even in direct sunlight I can barely discern the hint of brown in them. There is a youthful aspect to the topography of his face, as though he still hovers on the brink of maturity. Like Vaysh, his loveliness includes more than a trace of boyishness. I wondered what that might tell me about Thiede, since he chose each of them consecutively as his archetype of Harish beauty, and they are totally different in their appeal than either Cal or Seel, for example. Pell seemed intent upon studying my more prosaic face, as though it were an intriguing canvas.

“I always thought you had black hair, like mine,” he said, “but actually it’s multicolored. It contains every shade from blond to red to true black. You truly are as stunning as Cal has always said you are.”

“He said that?”

“God! Swift! Are you honestly so self-effacing? Or is that a self-conscious attempt to manipulate hara?”

“That’s cruel. You’re embarrassing me, Pell!”

“You are blushing. That’s not something you can hide, with that pale Cobwebish skin of yours. It’s so fair it’s almost transparent—stereotypical Sulh. I’d bet you even sunburn. You fascinated me when you were a tiny harling. Reminded me of one of those tales of a changeling child from old faerie stories or poems. You looked as though you might have been the infant son of a treacherous elfin lord dropped into our world to be raised in secret, only to rise up some day, fair and strong, and claim your rightful heritage. I wasn’t far off in my adolescent musings, was I?”

I snorted at him, more in discomfort than derision. “I didn’t know you were so romantic Pell.”

“Actually, I can be very romantic. Probably because, raised in an isolated area as I was, I read a lot, perhaps too much, as a child.”

“Well, Cal certainly never thought of me as the changeling child of elves. He has always called me a little monster or reptile baby.”

“You certainly appeared manifestly inhuman, alien, particularly when I first saw you. All huge curious eyes and dark clouds of fine hair.” He put his hand up to trace a finger from my nose across my cheek. “Did you know you have a few freckles on the bridge of your nose and at the highest part of your cheekbones?”

“I am quite aware of my flaws, thank you!”

“Flaws? I love them.”

“Now stop it, please.” I grabbed his index finger and took it into my mouth, sucking on it suggestively for a second. “I’m not as comfortable being scrutinized as beauties like you, Cal or Seel!”

“Ha! I think you might be vain. Perfect, reasonable, judicious Swift has a fault.” He gave me a teasing kiss that made my heart race a bit. My crush on Pell had begun to play havoc with my physical reactions in addition to my emotions and mental capabilities.

“Maybe I am vain. Cobweb says my reluctance to be able to graciously accept any praise is a form of vanity in itself. But I don’t know if it is. It doesn’t feel like it.”

Pell frowned, drawing his lips into a tantalizing pout. “Actually, we are all perfect, aren’t we? Cal, Seel, and I are the perfected reincarnations of our original human selves. And you were born that way.”

“Terzian told me, when he returned destroyed to Galhea . . . . in the act of accusing me of betraying him and our hara . . . . that he had seen Seel and could see how I might believe that my dastardly deed was worth the prize I was given.” My dry laugh stuck in my throat. “And he had no way of even knowing what aruna with Seel is like.”

“Or maybe he did have an idea,” Pell replied wryly. “What aruna with Seel can be like, I mean. Maybe Cal told him. He told me what you were like. In glorious, lascivious detail. Made me a little jealous I must admit. All of his waxing eloquent about how second generation hara are spectacular in comparison to incepted hara.” I couldn’t restrain a horrified choking sound.

Pell chuckled at my mortification and continued, “Or maybe he didn’t tell Terzian anything about Seel. The first time I saw Seel, he intrigued me also—almost outshone Cal.” I raised a skeptical eyebrow at that, which made Pell smile.

“Seel was so very young I now realize. What an apparition he was: all wild braids of multi-colored dyed hair, stylishly ripped clothing that revealed more of his elegant body than it concealed. A chain smoker, heavy drinker, cocky as hell . . . . I’d never seen anything remotely like him.” Pell said, laughing out loud. “I wish you could see the pre-Gelaming Seel. Share breath with me and I’ll show you. I recall him perfectly, down to the smallest detail.” I saw my love as a young har in Pell’s breath. Heart-wrenchingly young, striking, arrogant, exotic and free. When we separated Pell asked, “What do you think of that vision?”

“I would have loved him then as well.” My voice echoed astonishment, however. I’m not sure if it might have been because it was hard for me to imagine Seel before I had known him, or simply my attempt to comprehend that the Seel I know is completely different from the Seel who had loved Cal as his chesnari. “It’s easy to see how Cal fell in love with that Seel. But they both are so different now. Seel more so even than Cal.”

Pell cocked his head to one side. “We all change. But we still retain all of those varied aspects of our pasts and ourselves. I finally figured that out about myself. Cal still loves Seel and Seel still loves Cal. They always will and that has little to do with you or me and certainly has no effect upon how much they love us. That is why I felt compelled to force them to put an end to their nonsensical estrangement.”

“I do understand that,” I snapped, unsure of myself again at the idea of Cal and Seel reconciled and unsteady in the face of my own bewildering newly discovered infatuation with Pell. “It’s just that I can’t help but appreciate how outclassed I am within this foursome.”

“You are infuriating! Who is the Lord of all of Megalithica? Seel is your counselor and consort. True, he has great authority with you and with the Hegemony in Immanion, but in Galhea you stand alone in the eyes of many of your countrymen as the absolute ruler of Megalithica, benevolent though you may be. And then, this posturing of modesty about your own physical attributes–the son of Terzian and Cobweb, legendary beauties of Wraeththu? How could you be anything but dramatically, heart-stoppingly gorgeous?”

“Hmm. I have a legion of collaborators in Megalithica. Foremost among them are Seel and Cobweb, even Tyson and now Snake are voices I could ignore only at my peril. I think I might be more of a figurehead, a mere administrator, than you realize.” Pell popped his eyes at that, which reminded me that a few persistent critics had called him a trumped-up figurehead and paper-pushing bureaucrat for years. I gave him a foolish grin, but didn’t stop talking. “I’ll admit, in regard to my looks, that once when I was still a harling I heard Ponclast say that I was as fair of face as both of my parents. I honestly assumed he said that only to please Terzian.”

“Oh, Swift! Sometimes just looking at you causes my chest to ache. Your eyes are so dark and filled with mystery. I had always assumed they were black or brown, but instead they are the darkest shade of blue I have ever seen in anyhar’s eyes. I adore your perfect translucent skin, that almost too masculine swagger of yours, and your pretty, pretty mouth.” Pell leaned forward, his breath catching, to lick along the seam of my lips. I opened my mouth to his questing tongue and he filled me with a visualization of silver-misted dreams, central to those was a tableau of him laid out before me, totally soume, his impressive ouana-lim retracted, a vibrant, yet fragile, crimson-petaled flower displayed against his groin. Forgetting that I was still in one of the principal passageways of the ground floor of Phaonica, I groaned loudly.

Pell laughed in little stuttering pants, still short of breath himself. “It won’t be long now,” he said.

“Tell me what you like best about me?” I asked. By tracing his full, sensitive lips with my fingertips and kissing him on the neck and shoulders I thought I could distract him, make him focus on my arunic talents. I did not feel insecure about those at least. I had exemplary tutors in that area: first Cal, then Rue, and finally Seel.

“Your broad shoulders,” he said, smirking at me, waiting for a reaction. I munificently gave him one.

“That figures,” I grumbled. “They are a consequence of the weapons training Terzian forced me to undertake as a young har. I’d have preferred to hide away reading books.”

“Your athletic build is attractive to me, but I was joking. It’s your boundless heart and your responsiveness that has enthralled me,” he said, with a reflexive shiver. Naturally, I melted at his reaction. He had kept me in a constant state of semi-hardness the entire day. I had determined that I would be ouana with him before the evening was over or die trying. It felt more and more like my goal was imminently obtainable. His breathing had become uneven and his pupils dilated. When Pell becomes aroused his skin appears to shimmer as though lit from within. That was one of those moments.

Although we had been keeping a close eye on the discussion in the hallway among Cal, Seel, and Arahal, we completely missed the moment when it finally ended. Suddenly, Cal clapped his hand upon my shoulder, my lips had been poised above those of Pell, almost but not quite touching. We had been teasing one another with wispy threads of breath-sharing, a playful exploitation of the sensation of one of the most magical of Harish features.

“Break it up, you two!” Cal said, his voice magnanimous with affection and wine.

5 – Everything Will Be Fine

Cal and Seel wore identical smug expressions.

“Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee,” I said sourly. Pell choked with amusement and hugged me tighter before releasing me.

“Let’s go upstairs before somehar corners us with another harebrained scheme involving the assets of Megalithica,” Seel said.

Pell kissed me on the forehead and gently shoved me in the direction of Seel. For some reason I did not quite understand, I felt oddly like a parcel of prime real estate or a disputed natural resource myself. For a moment Pell and Seel locked gazes before Seel folded me into his arms. Seel’s embrace spoke to me of a deep heart’s peace and the fires of home, yet, as always, an underlying promise of passion simmered there. I thought myself a lucky har indeed.

The music we could hear drifting toward us had grown softer. The ancient carols had been traded for slower, more contemporary music. I could imagine hara dancing, moving languidly in one another’s arms, while manic harlings were being coerced to settle onto their parents’ laps. No doubt the tunes would grow more raucous again after the youngsters had drifted into sleep or the parents of the more recalcitrant ones had left Phaonica to tuck them into their beds.

“You set me up,” Pell complained to Seel, as we climbed the wide marble staircase four abreast.

“It’s your own fault for being so oblivious,” Cal chuckled, tickling Pell under the arm and eliciting an undignified squeak from him.

“What now?” I demanded. I had no clue what they were talking about.

Cal grinned. “Pell asked where you and Chrysm had gone earlier. Seel told him that he ought to go find you himself if he wanted to know.”

My mouth dropped open. Seel certainly knew why I would have wanted to speak to Chrysm alone.

Jerking his chin up in injured pride, seeming to grow taller in an instant, Pell spoke with a haughty sniff. “So I embarrassed myself a little. Swift is worth that minor humiliation a hundred times over.” One has to see it to believe how Pell can immediately shift from an ordinary har, needless to say one of extraordinary beauty, into the imperial Tigron Pellaz. Unfortunately for him that night, he was not among hara likely to be intimidated by that show. Even I could not resist the grin pulling at the corners of my mouth.

“Pell!” I crooned at him, clutching for his hand amidst the silken folds of his robe. “I was thrilled that you came after me.”

Pell said, “I have to admit that I had an uncomfortable moment back in the library wondering if you would come back with me tonight.”

“It’s character-building,” Cal teased, “to be uncertain whether one will be turned down or not.”

“Not as though you would know anything about that,” Seel sneered. The rest of us chuckled. It seemed to me that the balance of the universe had been maintained if Seel could still snipe at Cal. My chest expanded with gratification at having Seel as my own, faults and all.

“Perhaps I have not been refused as often as some hara,” Cal said. “But I have suffered some spectacular rejections over the years. There is always somehar somewhere who won’t find one irresistible. Pell has largely avoided that by making far fewer overtures.” His face took on a dreamy, wistful sheen. I could only think of one har who might have resisted Cal for long and that would have been his first, Seel. Admittedly, I don’t know everything about Cal, but over the years, I have been privy to his rambling, drunken confessions, perhaps more of those than anyhar else, even Pell. During the time when Cal and I could not touch one another out of respect for Seel, we had sublimated the physical into verbal interaction. Unwilling that my ruminations about Cal become obvious, I sought to stir up further playful bickering as a diversion.

“You wanted to embarrass Pell!” I said. “The two of you are shameful.”

Seel smiled as we neared the door to Pell’s apartment, turning to Pell and pulling him into his arms. “Not true. Pell knows we all love him. Don’t you, precious?” Pell kissed Seel hard on the mouth before pushing him away.

“Play nice now,” Seel said. “Remember, I’m not Chrysm. If I asked Swift nicely, he would not roon you senseless tonight like you are hoping that he will.”

“Oh, Seel,” Pell said, replacing his pout with a penitent expression. “I realize that every touch, every breath I share with Swift is granted me by your leave.”

“I didn’t mean to sound cross,” Seel admitted. “I cannot help but feel protective. If you do anything to hurt him . . . “

Apparently shocked, Pell responded, “I would never!”

Cal laughed and pulled me against his chest. “They are scrapping over you like a couple of alley cats. Flattering isn’t it?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered. “Maybe I would rather go back to my room and take you with me.”

“Hopefully, tomorrow.” Cal gave me a lascivious wink. “I’d do it in a second, but I think if I tried to spirit you away tonight that Pell would scratch my eyes out.”

“We’re very simple hara compared to those two, Swift.” A surge of affection for Cal hit me with the force of a tsunami. What he said was so true. Despite his enormous gifts, those he had been born with and those hard-won by what had always seemed to me an unreasonably long dark night of the soul, Cal remained a straightforward har. He might have left a trail of former chesnari behind him, but now that he had reconciled with Seel, there was not a one of those hara who did not look on Cal except with warmth and esteem.

“I heard that,” said Pell.

Seel walked over to the liquor cabinet. “Shall we have a drink here before we go into the bedroom? I see Pell has a bottle of sparkling Zheera. Not only is it one of the most potent forms of sheh but in Galhea it has the reputation of acting as an aphrodisiac. Not that Swift or Pell need that.”

“You’re sounding as vulgar as Cal now,” Pell said.

“Am I supposed to take that as a challenge?” Cal asked. “It’s hard for me to resist. I do have one question for you, Pell. When did you first realize that you were dying for Swift to fuck you?”

Pell snarled at him, able only to produce a growling sound at the back of his throat. “You see, my friends,” Cal drawled, “our lovely Pell does not usually gift hara with such singled-minded attention.”

“Unlike you,” Pell snorted, regaining his power of verbalization.

“True. I am a big-hearted har. But you, sweetheart, are stingier with your favors. I’ve only seen you overcome like this by Galdra. Well, and me, of course. It seems you reserve your love for those who have already fallen head over heels in love with you.” Turning to me, he asked, “Are you in love with him, Swift?”

“Of course, I’m not in love with him!” To my surprise, Pell looked injured at my words, sticking out his lower lip at me. “Well, maybe a little in love with him,” I conceded. “Intoxicated by infatuation certainly. But you all know my blood bond with Seel is unassailable. I expect if Seel were reincarnated in another life as a little woodland creature, I would come chittering after him.”

“How many people have you thought you were in love with, Cal?” Pell asked, gifting him with an indulgent smile.

“Seel was first, as you well know, and will always be special in the way that first-loves are. Then maybe Wraxilian in an odd way. Zack for certain. Then I met you, my heart’s own blood, the other half of my soul, my sweet wild child Pell. I’d venture to guess that even Swift’s passion for Seel could not rival that one, certainly not for longevity or irrationality. I can’t deny that my compulsion for Terzian would have to be labeled love. And I still love both Swift and Cobweb. Like I said, I’ll always love Seel. He is my conscience. The one who knows me best. I feel something for Galdra–not sure how to label it–maybe more empathy than love.”

Cal knelt in front of Pell, who perched on the edge of the sofa pouting in the most adorable way imaginable. “Look at me, Pell! You’re the only one, truly though, aren’t you? You know that! It pains me that you still need me to confirm that.”

“See what I have to put up with?” Pell complained, transparently insincere, holding Cal’s face in his hands. “And in addition to all that, he is just so incredibly beautiful. The truth is that Cal is claustrophobic, but if one leaves all the doors open he is far less likely to panic and bolt.”

“Well, I was far too young and insecure to have understood that,” Seel said. We all knew he referred to their first estrangement shortly after their inceptions, most of a lifetime and a world away, the details of which I for one had never heard but could all too easily imagine.

“Can we talk about something else?” Seel asked.

“I’m starving. I couldn’t eat my dinner earlier,” I said, which was the unvarnished truth. Between my preoccupation with Pell and my wondering what to do about Chrysm at the feast I had barely eaten a thing.

“Someone will be around. Attica wouldn’t leave us unattended, even on this night,” Cal said. “He also is leaving for the rest of the holidays in the morning and will want to say ‘good-bye.’

As if he had been eavesdropping or waiting for a summons, the door opened and Attica popped his head into the room.

“My lords, is there anything more that you require?” The implication behind his tone was that we should ask for what we needed and make it snappy, because he was overdue to go to bed.

Cal smirked. “Lord Swift is hungry.”

“Anything will do,” I said, unused to asking for this kind of service at this hour of the night.

The smile Attica gave me appeared sincere. “I noticed that none of you ate well earlier. I’ve prepared a light supper.” Shifting his gaze to where Cal’s hand moved upon Pell’s upper thigh, Attica frowned. Cal had pushed aside Pell’s festival robe and was caressing his leg. Slight as he is, Pell’s legs are long for his height, sleek and beautifully muscled, neither overly soft nor too wiry. “It will only take a few minutes to fetch everything,” Attica warned.

“Attica, is unconvincingly prudish given what he has witnessed here over the years,” Cal said.

Attica grinned and shook his head at Cal. True to his promise, he returned in less than five minutes with a serving har pushing a trolley made of polished dark wood, stacked with serving plates and a lavish selection of breads and rolls, sliced cold meats, cheeses, condiments, vegetable salads, smoked fish, and fresh fruit. He carried two large pitchers. The aroma of cinnamon, cloves and oranges filled the air. “This is hot cider,” he said, lifting one of the containers. “And the other is spiced tea. Neither should prevent you from sleeping later.”

I apparently was not the only one who had neglected the sumptuous feast in the main hall earlier. We dug into the more modest fare with enthusiasm.

“This is wonderful,” I sighed. “Attica takes good care of you.”

“He should,” Pell said, laughing. “He has had enough time to get good at it and he is scandalously well compensated.”

“I certainly cannot complain,” Attica interjected, somewhat cheekily.

“Did you like the gift that Pell gave you for Natalia?” Cal asked.

“Very much, thank you. I thought I saw your hand in that choice, my lord.”

“Hmm. You might be right. I hope you have a lovely holiday. You need to get away from here more often. Please give our regards to your partner.” Cal rose to give Attica a hug, which caused Pell’s personal attendant to blush.

“Have a safe trip,” Pell called after Attica as he left the chamber.

“I truly was starving,” I said.

“Did you taste the pickled herring with onions?” Pell asked. “Galdra sent us that. He says it is one of the treats particularly associated with the celebration of Winter Solstice in Freyhella.”

The mention of Galdra again sent a frisson of prescience down my spine. Only a single day had passed since I first touched Pell intimately and already I felt like I needed it like water or air. How would that fit in with their relationship with Galdra and our return to Megalithica? I felt like a foolish adolescent. In fact, I thought I had more sense as an adolescent than to allow myself such fanciful crushes.

We ended up in the bed with Pell and I in the middle and Seel clinging to me from behind, nipping and sucking on my neck and shoulders, leaning over both of us to kiss or share breath with Cal and joining Pell and I in endless three-way kisses. It was Cal who finally untangled the four of us and pushed Pell onto his back.

Pulling me between Pell’s sprawled legs, he said, “I really, really want to watch this. You and Swift have no idea how hot you look together. Don’t you think so, Seel?” Seel only moaned and bit me on the shoulder.

“You didn’t exaggerate about this either, Cal,” Pell said, taking my ouana-lim in his hand.

“I can’t believe he talked to you about me like that!” I complained.

“Don’t blame Cal,” Pell said, his voice husky with desire. “I was the one who asked him about you. I wanted to know everything and bothered him until he told me.”

None too gently, Pell stroked over my flowering petals using both hands, until I could not bear it any longer. I grabbed his arms and pinned them over his head, while Cal guided me into him.

Pell was still laughing softly when I entered him for the first time. He almost overwhelmed me–elemental soume, crashing over me like waves, surging up around me–a fantasy realized that I hadn’t even known I harbored two days earlier. Waiting to experience him as soume over the previous twenty-four hours had felt interminable. I rooned him with deep slow movements, exercising every bit of restraint that I could muster, until we were no longer sharing breath but moaning mindlessly into each other’s mouths. Seel whispered in my ear, “I can feel what he is feeling, Swift,” as he brought himself off rubbing against my upper thigh.

Afterwards, Pell looked up at me and smiled, dazed and happy-looking before a shadow of melancholy passed over his exquisite face. “How can I do without this when you go home to Galhea?”

“We’ll just have to visit more often,” Cal said, matter-of-fact in tone. “You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”
Chapter 6 – Jilted

When I woke up, Seel and I were alone in the bed. It is impossible to tell the time of day in Pell’s bedroom. We had drawn the curtains the night before, although the windows of the suite do not catch the morning light in any case. When I stirred from my sleep, Seel snuggled closer to me, the warmth of his body welcome against mine. I briefly considered waking him up, but the smell of fresh coffee wafting in from the adjoining chamber appealed to me more at that instant than my habitual interest in morning aruna. Desire does not spring to life so easily when one is still floating in the afterglow of a night like the one I had just enjoyed.

Audible from the next room, the sound of another voice, not recognizable as that of Pell or Cal, aroused my curiosity. My newfound ease in the domestic world of Pell and Cal gave me license to rifle through his closet and find a morning robe.

Pushing open the door to the parlor, I discovered Pell and Vaysh standing in the center of the room. Pell was massaging Vaysh’s shoulders. There was no sign of Cal. They did not notice my presence immediately.

“Did you enjoy your visit to Ferelithia?” Pell asked Vaysh.

“You know I always do,” Vaysh replied, his tone with Pell one I had never heard from him, relaxed and companionable.

“You look rested,” Pell said, continuing to knead Vaysh’s shoulders. “Yet the tension has already returned to your neck muscles.”

“Give it a rest Pell.” Vaysh sighed. “This place and the aggravating hara here could cause anyone’s neck to knot up.” He was clad in riding clothes, russet and darker shades of brown. A good look for him. Tight trousers accentuated his finely muscled thighs and knee-high riding boots made his long legs look even longer. His startling red hair had been pulled into one long thick braid. He is somewhat taller than Pell, thin as a rake yet with an appealing softness. Vaysh is the quintessential beautiful soume har, much more so than Pell, who despite his undeniable prettiness always projects a hint of machismo. Whether that side of Pell is a cultural throwback, the result of the habit of authority or some subtle hormonal variation, it is an inextricable factor in my attraction to him.

“I stopped by the Listeners offices as I came in . . . “ Vaysh said.

“Your first mistake,” Pell taunted. Vaysh leaned to rest his back against Pell’s chest. Pell nuzzled him on the neck. My mouth went dry and blood rushed to my head in a wave of retrograde possessiveness.

“You know how I am. I wondered what, if anything, I might have missed. Sure enough, the first thing they told me was that they were holding two messages for you. They didn’t want to deliver them. Claimed you have been entertaining visitors this week, rising late, not wanting to be troubled with any messages that were not labeled as high-priority.”

Pell laughed, wrapping his arms around Vaysh’s waist. “Might I presume you have those with you?”

“Yeah. I do. Well, the one addressed to you, as ‘personal and confidential’ . . .” Vaysh pulled away from Pell and turned to look up into his face, which allowed him to spot me hovering in the doorway.

Pell held out his palm to Vaysh. “Hand it over, you tease.” Apparently noting that Vaysh’s face had closed-off almost imperceptibly, Pell swiveled around also. “Good morning, Swift,” he said, giving me a secret smile. Naturally, I couldn’t read what was hidden there. My much touted adeptness at being able to look into the hearts of others vanishes with the first stirring of strong emotions of jealousy or insecurity. I wanted to kick myself for having the temerity to feel resentful of Pell and Vaysh. Their intimacy dates back to their first days in Immanion together, rooted in long years of companionship and daily collaboration.

Pell must have sussed to my discomfort. He walked across the room, took my hands, and lightly kissed me on the mouth.

Vaysh cleared his throat. “Good morning, Swift.” The greeting was a bland dismissal, so typical of the Vaysh that I knew that I could not muster the energy to take offense.

“Hello, Vaysh,” I said. He looked me up and down, taking in my bare feet and loosely wrapped kimono and shaking his head with a silent chuckle.

“The messages, Vaysh?” Pell asked.

“I have the one from Galdra. The other, from Tyson, was marked for either you, Cal, Swift or Seel. Cal was having coffee when I came in. He read it and then ran off to send a response, although it purportedly was not urgent. He didn’t tell me what it said.”

“Swift and Seel have been staying here with us.” Pell cocked his chin defensively. Vaysh’s face lit with mischief at the crack in Pell’s assurance.

“Well, I am not going to be the one to ask you if you really believe that is wise.” Vaysh actually winked conspiratorially at me, as though to elicit my guaranteed concurrence that when the opportunity presents itself the impulse is uncontrollable to rattle Pell’s chain. That was probably the first time I had ever been the recipient of any sign of warmth or sense of liking from Vaysh. In an instant I understood why Ashmael had loved him so madly and Pell held him in such esteem. He is wickedly perceptive and stunning when he smiles.

“It’s personal, not political,” Pell snapped.

“Will you ever acknowledge that the personal is necessarily political for you, my dear?” Vaysh asked. That time he didn’t even try to hide his ironic grin.

“Did Cal look worried?” I asked. A nasty rodent of anxiety gnawed at my entrails with the thought of Galdra insinuating himself into my happy little fantasy world, the one I had so tidily sealed off from real life and its concerns.

“Mildly apprehensive perhaps,” Vaysh answered. “He said he would try to reach Tyson and then come right back.”

Meanwhile, Pell had ripped open the envelope Vaysh had given him and walked over to the bay windows, standing with his back to us while he read it.

“Bloody hell,” Pell swore, his delicate nostrils flaring. “Galdra claims he needs to talk to me and will be here this afternoon. Loki’s bringing him.” I felt relieved that at least he didn’t sound happy about seeing the Freyhellan.

“Pell, Pell, Pell,” Vaysh crooned, wagging his head back and forth in a parody of disbelief. “That’s all? What was the ‘personal and confidential’ about? Everyone will know he’s here in an hour or so.”

“I don’t know! Drama? Sense of self-importance? Bid for attention?” Pell’s voice was ratcheting up into a semi-hysterical bracket. “I wish Rue were here. He’d know what to do.”

“You never cease to astonish me,” Vaysh said. “You’d actually try to fob him off onto Caeru while you snuggle in the cozy little love nest you’ve made for yourself here? Sorry, Swift, I certainly don’t mean to criticize you in any way. It’s only that after all this time, Pell can still flabbergast me with his insensitivity.”

“Whose insensitivity?” Cal asked, coming in from the hallway.

“That of your chesnari, of course,” said Vaysh.

“What time is it now?” Pell asked.

“Quarter past noon or a little later,” Vaysh answered.

“I’d better get dressed,” Pell said storming out of the room, not even looking back at me.

“Would you like some coffee, Swift?” Vaysh asked, helping himself to another cup. I nodded, happy that I didn’t have to try to speak.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” Cal said. “I just talked to Tyson. Nothing to panic about immediately, but it is worrisome. Apparently, Azriel and Aleeme announced yesterday that they are expecting another harling.”

“It’s a little soon,” I said. “But honestly, I am not all that surprised. They seem to relish being parents.”

Cal exhaled loudly and grimaced. “Aleeme is carrying the pearl this time.”

“Oh, no!” I said. Aleeme and Azriel had a harling of two years of age that Azriel had hosted. They kept in contact with the son of Ponclast that Aleeme had borne in Fulminir, although he had been fostered out of the Harling Gardens by another couple. He had grown into a fine young har. All of us had assumed that Aleeme would never want to carry another pearl. The healers and physicians who had overseen his recovery had advised against it as well, although not expressly forbidding it.

“Oh, yes. Tyson says that Aleeme seems to be handling it emotionally, but . . . who really knows,” Cal answered, throwing his hands up in frustration. “Azriel claims it wasn’t intentional. I’ve heard that one before!” He laughed mordantly. “I told Tyson that maybe we should try to talk Aleeme into coming to Immanion to be examined before he is further along. I’m not even sure that’s a great idea. Maybe we should send someone there to look at him. They are your kids, Swift! What do you think?”

“They are not kids as you say. They are grown hara and will have to decide for themselves. But age doesn’t seem to provide any insurance against stupidity, does it? I’d be the last one to cast a stone at someone else. I’m not feeling spectacularly brilliant at the moment myself.” I truly was concerned for Aleeme, and by extension Azriel, but I could not get Galdra and Pell out of my head. “Galdra sent Pell a message that he is coming here today. He could arrive at any moment. Says it’s personal. Pell was surprised.” Not sure thinking back on it if my voice trembled or not, but I would not be surprised if Cal told me that it had.

“I’ll bet Pell was surprised.” Cal laughed. “Come here, Swift.” He opened his arms to me. I didn’t even try to resist.

I do not recall either when Vaysh left the room, or how I ended up on the sofa, sitting on Cal’s lap, with my head buried in the crook of his neck. When a chime at the door alerted us to someone’s presence, that was where I found myself. My nose was stuffy and my eyes were wet. Cal patted my back, while a sleepy-looking Seel stared down at me holding out a handkerchief.

Vaysh walked across the room from Pell’s bedroom to admit Attica’s temporary replacement, who announced that Galdra had been made comfortable in Pell’s larger parlor. Pell left in a flurry. Again he did not say ‘good-bye.’

“He should have talked to Galdra months ago,” Seel said. I had no idea what he was talking about. Something that had begun to feel like a chronic state for me.

I said, “Seel! I’m such a fool. I don’t know what is wrong with me.”

“Absolutely nothing is wrong with you. You woke up still woozy and not fully conscious from some mind-boggling aruna with him and he ran off to talk about who-knows-what with another lover. Who wouldn’t react to that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not like he made me any promises.”

“Hey, baby!” Cal said, lifting my chin with two fingers to look into my eyes, before kissing me on the forehead. “You’ve still got us. There are times I would like to wring Pell’s pretty neck. No doubt he’ll muddle through this and come out shining. He’ll come to you all wagging tail and puppy-dog eyes, wanting you to forgive him.”

“There is nothing to forgive. Pell owes me nothing.”

“A little common courtesy would not be amiss,” Seel said, white-lipped with anger.

“Trust me, Swiftling. He has not forgotten you,” said Cal. “You’re not so easy to forget.”
Chapter 7 – Going Home

“I just want to go home,” I groaned.

“I’m crushed!” Cal said. “I thought today was to be my Swift day. How many years have I waited for one? I’ll bet Seel can tell us.” His terrible joke almost made me laugh.

Seel was having none of Cal’s clowning. He knelt in front of Cal and me. “If that is what you really want, sweetheart, then we will. But let’s go into the other bedroom now. This place is like a train station.” The human reference I had heard a hundred times out of Seel’s mouth always made me smile. It did that morning in spite of myself.

I looked from Seel to Cal, who tightened his arms around me. “I know a better place, more private. Let’s go to my apartment,” Cal said.

“Lead the way,” Seel said.

“I think you’ll want to dress first,” Cal said. “It’s on the other side of Phaonica.”

“I suppose that would be a good idea then,” Seel grumbled.

Cal waited for Seel and me in our bedroom while we changed into day clothes. The idea that we had not used the cozy space except as a dressing room since the afternoon we arrived in Immanion for some reason made me sad again. However, I had finally begun to sober up from my dizzy post-aruna stupor. My hysteria continued to wane, but a dark depression threatened to replace it. At least I had begun to feel semi-rational again.

For those who have only experienced more mundane forms of aruna, I hope I don’t sound condescending to say that it is hard to describe the aftereffects of a night like one that I had spent with Pell, Cal and Seel. The force of the arunic magic of Cal, Pell, and Seel together renders one’s contact with reality hazy at best. An unexpected interruption of that dreamlike state causes an extreme physical reaction—in addition to my emotional crackup, I felt nauseous and headachy. The ordinary actions of choosing clothing and dressing helped restore my balance. Walking helped as well.

We traversed almost the entire length of that wing of Phaonica and crossed to the other side. I recognized Rue’s suite of rooms as we passed them. At last we turned onto a short corridor shortly before reaching a long narrow staircase leading to the ground floor. Our goal was an apartment immediately in front of a back entrance, which opened onto the beach.

Inside of the room that Cal had claimed, I felt as though we had entered into another world. We might have been in a cottage on the beach. The marble floor had been hidden under wide planks of bleached wood. The wall that faced the beach was floor-to-ceiling glass. Two doors had been thrown wide open, allowing the taste of salt air and the sound of surf to enter the suite.

The walls had been painted a pale but warm, bright yellow, the color one imagines for sunshine, the color of Cal’s hair. A mishmash of new and old furniture filled the room without overwhelming it. The older pieces had been whitewashed and the newer ones left the light color of their natural woods, polished to a dull sheen. Bringing together mismatched patterns in different shades of light blues, white and creams had further enhanced the casual vacation-home ambience. A collection of homely quilts and blankets of coarsely-woven fabrics had been layered over a large bed, several upholstered chairs, and a long rattan sofa. It looked nothing like Phaonica and completely like Cal–handsome, strong, natural and unpretentious. It was a studied effect, of course, but a pleasing one nonetheless. Several rough bookshelves of varying shapes and sizes lined one wall, stuffed to overflowing, not with the expensive leather-bound volumes of the bedroom Seel and I had been assigned or that would be found in the various reading rooms throughout the palace. Cal’s books included ratty crumbling paperbacks mixed with old finely bound volumes of the human era, as well as new crisp editions recognizable to me as the products of the best publishers of Almagabra.

“Wow!” Seel said. “Look at all this. I am impressed.”

“Rue did most of the actual planning, acquiring the furnishings, and supervising the work. I had thought about a space like this for ages and had rambled on to him about how much I hated Phaonica as a building and most particularly as a home. I’ve heard all the stuff about how a home is where your heart is and Pell is here. But Phaonica can be so antithetical to me at times—can make me want to smash things. It can suck the soul right out of one. Finally, Rue shut me up. Said there was no reason why I should not do something instead of just whining about it. He’s good, isn’t he?”

“Very good,” Seel said. “It reminds me somewhat of Ferelithia, but without the flashy, trashy aspect.” That was as magnanimous of a compliment to Caeru as Seel was capable of making. I wondered if Pell liked Cal’s hideout.

“This is nice. I love it here,” I said and flopped into the largest chair, throwing my feet onto the footstool sitting in front of it.

“I thought you would,” Cal grinned.

“I’m a little cold though,” I said, shivering suddenly, not knowing if it was in response to my emotional state or the temperature of the room.”

“Pell would say it’s fresco, meaning cool or fresh or both, I’m not sure which. I’ve asked the staff to leave all the windows open after they clean the rooms. Perhaps it is a little too cool in here for this time of year. Sometimes I’m desperate to clear my head of the incense that seems endemic to Phaonica. I like the smell of the ocean. Let me close the doors to the terrace. We’ll still have plenty of air.”

Cal threw one of the shawls hanging over the back of the sofa at me, hitting me in the face with it before jumping up to close the broad high doors. “Catch,” he said too late. Despite my tragic aspect, I could not help laughing. Cal is impossible to resist.

Seel sat on the floor leaning his back against the leg of my chair, lazily stroking my leg, content to cosset me, while observing Cal play host to us in his surprising little domain hidden in the warren of back hallways of Phaonica. Cal, with his back to us, brought water to boil on an elegant hot plate on a sideboard placed against one wall and made tea. We both watched his economical, graceful movements. It’s clichéd but true that a thing of such beauty is always a joy to behold.

“He’s got the longest legs in proportion to his body that I have ever seen,” Seel finally said.

“You think so?” I asked. “Perhaps you’re right. I certainly thought that of him when I was young.”

“The look really works for him,” Seel said.

Cal turned to us beaming at the compliments. He does love to be admired. “If you’d like to bathe–you didn’t have a chance earlier–I have both a shower and a bathtub. It’s nothing like Pell’s bath, but it will easily accommodate the two of you.”

“Maybe later,” I said. “I don’t want to move from here.” I felt like if I held very still, didn’t think, and snuggled under the coverlet that Cal had given me I just might survive.

Seel cocked his head and lowered his eyebrows at me, looking as if he were not quite convinced I should be trusted to make my own decisions or even left alone. He then made brief eye contact with Cal, as though securing the promise from him to look after me for the moment. “I think I will take a quick shower then.”

“I’ll call to have some lunch brought in,” Cal answered. “It should be here by the time you are finished.”

I closed my eyes and took in the fragrance of the woven straw rugs scattered about, the marvelous scent of new-mown hay. Cal’s scent and one of the predominant physical sensations of sharing breathe with him. “Rotten deal” I said half aloud and half to myself. That had been the day I had hoped to spend some time one-on-one with Cal. I certainly had waited long enough to be in a position to respond to him without constraint. Instead, there I was more than half-sick with anxiety and dread and moping like a spoiled harling.

Seel had no sooner closed the door to bathroom than Cal spoke. “I’ve never seen you like this, Swift.” He handed me a cup of golden tea. It smelled similar to chamomile and tasted surprisingly good.

“I’ve always been like this with Seel and the same with you as well,” I protested.

Cal barked in irritation, “Morbid and inconsolable?”

“No, idiot. Unguarded. Open. Not expecting to be tossed aside like a used-up piece of rubbish.”

“Oh. You don’t know Pell very well. It’s nothing like that in fact.”

”You’re saying it only looks and feels like it is?”

“I’m saying you’ve read him all wrong. You really ought to trust me, Swift. I love Pell, but I am not in the habit of defending his behavior when he doesn’t deserve it.” The tone of Cal’s voice was soothing although the subject matter was not.

“Never mind then. The last thing I want is to be a bother to him. It’s humiliating. Apparently, I let myself see or feel something that didn’t exist. But he was all over me. For two days. You saw him. All full of ‘beautiful, Swift,’ ‘love me, Swift,’ ‘can’t get enough of you,’ and then he gets a message and I don’t exist.” It was making me feel sick once more thinking about Pell and I began to shiver again. It embarrassed me as well to feel so strongly. Maybe Cal was right. Maybe I was crazy and sick from the abrupt interruption the natural course of the post-arunic letdown. I still felt hypersensitive, like I had no skin.

A serving har arrived with food, interrupting the conversation. Cal helped him arrange it on the table to hurry him out of the suite.

“Would you like to sit at the table, or do you want me to make you a small plate?” Cal asked. “I am going to insist that you eat. There was something in the tea you drank that ought to make you feel better.”

“You dirty rat!” I laughed, just as Seel came back into the room.

“What did he do now?” Seel asking, smiling, looking fresh and appealing. Seeing Seel like that made me wonder if more aruna would help.

“He claims to have drugged me.”

“I only gave him something to settle his stomach.”

I decided that I had all the time in the world to go back to being miserable after lunch and forced myself to make my way to the table to sit down to eat with them. Cal was right. I was able to eat a couple of pieces of toast with honey and a few bites of the eggs scrambled with scallions, herbs, and cheese that the two of them were inhaling. Seel wearing only a towel around his waist, looking into my eyes with affection and concern, and Cal rubbing my back had begun to make me feel roony.

Seel had been talking with Cal about trivial things, when his face sharpened into wariness of my mood.

“I would be cautious if I were you, Swift, about wanting aruna again so soon,” he said, his voice taking on a professorial tone. “You should not underestimate the power you unleashed last night. It can be draining under the best of circumstances.”

In my state of over-sensitive irritability, his know-it-all tone grated. “Are you implying that only somehar who is Nahir-Nuri or one who purports to be nearly so can withstand rooning Pell? I think I more than held my own with him, if I recall correctly what happened last night.”

Cal smirked sardonically and snorted with that irritatingly superior laugh he can use. “Oh, you certainly had him whimpering like a baby. No question you are formidable as ouana. I will be the first to attest to that. You surprised me when you were little more than a harling.”

“I’m only warning you that last night’s session might have depleted more energy than you realize.” Seel sounded injured. “That could be why you have been feeling so ill and emotionally overwrought.”

“Or it could be I’m simply angry with Pell for acting like an ass!” I said.

Cal laughed. He made me feel like a brat again, or perhaps on some unconscious level I forced that image into his mind. There is something about Cal that makes me want to believe he will take care of me, not leave me to be chewed up by fate’s vicissitudes even if they involve his beloved Pell.

“I’ve tried to explain to you that Pell is complicated. I know you can handle him. For Christ’s sakes, Swift, you’ve lived with Seel for years and haven’t let him bring you down. Pell is a pushover compared to Seel.”

“Thanks a lot,” Seel sniped. When I looked at Seel I saw nothing but warmth in his beautiful almond eyes.

“Maybe that’s true,” I said archly, “but Seel was made for me. He is my perfect match.”

“No doubt about that!” Cal said. “You are both three-quarters witch, or should I say warlock? And only about one-quarter Wraeththu.”

“What does that mean?” Seel asked. “That is nothing but nonsense.”

“You are still so easy, Seel,” Cal said. “You take the sport out of trying to torture you.”

We did end up taking aruna. They are both incredibly easy to seduce. I hardly had to work at it at all. Once we ended up in bed, I couldn’t be bothered to be irritated with them for being careful with me either. Aruna felt healing to me: no doubt a combination of their obvious enjoyment soothing my wounded ego and the therapeutic energy created by those two skillful har being directed at me.

I woke up after sleeping an hour or so to find Cal and Seel sitting at opposite ends of the sofa talking softly. The afternoon sun had washed most of the yellow out of Cal’s hair leaving it white enough to hurt my eyes while bringing out the gold and red in Seel’s tawny hair.

“I meant it earlier when I said I am fond of Galdra,” Cal said, stopping to take a deep drag off his cigarette. “But he is not right for Pell. What Galdra needs Pell cannot give him. For a long while he tried to offer Galdra what he could but he realizes now that will never be enough.” He shrugged. “It seems unlikely that Galdra will ever admit it, either. I thought, I hoped that perhaps being with Swift would make that clear to Pell. I gave up a worthy har who loved me and whom I could have loved once. For Pell–for us–I should say, because of the same inequality that exists between Pell and Galdra. For me to have been willing to ask Pell to share our life with him, he would have needed to have had his own Pell, they way Swift has you. Believe it or not, Pell can be more self-absorbed than even I am.”

Seel sighed deeply in response. “Should I presume you are talking about Panthera of Jael?” Seel asked at last. Cal simply nodded. They hadn’t noticed yet that I had awakened.

I didn’t want to hear any more of Cal’s theories. “I want to go home,” I said.

All I could absorb was that Pell did not want me as much as I wanted him. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I, not unlike Galdra, wanted more than Pell could give. True, my needs were different from those of Galdra. I already shared with Seel what Galdra dreamed of receiving from Pell. But I did want to be more important to Pell than I was. I supposed that was equally unreasonable and untenable.

Cal laughed sympathetically. “You sound like a broken record, Swiftling.”

“Maybe we should wait a while longer,” Seel said. “I don’t know if you are fit to travel yet.” His words annoyed me. Surely he knew that I understood what he really meant was that he was willing to wait longer to see if Pell would seek us out. Cobweb was right. I was pampered. I had never loved anyone who had not reciprocated. Cal was like a rock for me. And since our first night together, I had never questioned how Seel felt about me.

“You could come with us, Cal,” I said. I sounded even to myself like a child, one who had been playing a game with the adults, but that I didn’t really understand the rules and had grown impatient and wanted to make my own. Perhaps this whole mess was what Chrysm had meant when he said I ought not get tangled up in the affairs of the Aralisians.

Cal shook his head. “Be reasonable, Swift. You know I can’t.”

Seel walked over to the bed and took me into his arms. Looking back at Cal, he asked wistfully, “You’ll visit us soon though, won’t you, Cal?”

“A team of wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”

Chapter 8 – We Dwell in Forever

Forever’s lights, warm and yellow, shining in the late afternoon’s growing darkness, looked exactly as I had imagined they would. Snow covered fields stretched out before us in blatant contrast to the splendid indigo sky. It’s no wonder I have never left Forever. I love Galhea with the same foolish, unquestioning love of my youth and yet with the passion of a har who after traveling and seeing other places still prefers his home. As we drew closer to the house, we could see that lights shone from most of its windows. However, the entire top floor, recently restored by Snake and Cobweb, literally blazed. My heart dropped. Of course, they must be entertaining. We weren’t even half-way through the week-long celebration of Winter Solstice.

Seel quickly fathomed my disappointment. “I told you it would have been better to have waited until the morning to return,” he said, too gruff in tone for my mood. I bristled at what I interpreted as callousness.

“Swift!” he said, appalled at my hypersensitivity. “Everything will be all right. I am here with you. You won’t be expected to be the life of the party after just emerging from the otherlanes.”

Two handsome stablehara–brothers in blood as well as spirit–ran toward us. Cobweb liked to call them Frick and Frack, his sardonic acknowledgement of their reputation for high-spirited mischief. Seeing them clad in fleece-lined jackets and heavy boots, with the knitted scarves wound around their necks drawing attention to their exposed red ears, made me consider not for the first time that the Varrish fashion of short hair had its disadvantages. Always eager to handle the Sedim, they nonetheless appeared happy to see Seel and me greeting us with a cheery mixture of affection and respect.

Seel dismounted first and reached up to help me down. Instead of accepting his assistance, I vaulted off the horse with more flamboyance than necessary. I might have been depressed, but I needed to show that I hadn’t given up yet. He wasted no time in winding one arm around my waist and pulling me tight against his side. The first snowflakes of the fast approaching night had begun to fall, silhouetted like bright feathers against the luminous sky.

“You look so beautiful in the last of the day’s light, your hair floating loose against the falling snow . . . . Swift, I adore you,” Seel whispered.

“It’s good to be home,” I said, leaning into him to share breath so he might read the depth of my sincerity.

When we entered the front hallway of Forever, music drifted down from the top floor. “Do you think we can dare to hope they’ll stop at a decent hour since they’ve started so early?” I asked.

“Don’t be a sourpuss,” Seel teased.

“I don’t know how you’ve managed to put up with me today!”

Laughing as he got me out of my heavy coat, Seel said, “I’m surprised you can think of saying such a thing. In all fairness, I must point out that you would have to maintain a mood like today’s for a couple of decades at least before we could call it even.”

We looked up to see Tyson and Moon descending the large staircase. The moment they spotted us they simultaneously stopped in their tracks. I had long grown accustomed after visiting Immanion to being struck at how Tyson freakishly resembles Cal, but this time Moon caught my attention. He looked like the Pell I had not known before, the relaxed and loose and unguardedly sweet Pell I had first been exposed to over the past few days. Whether the different side Pell had revealed to me had been the result of the copious amounts of sheh he had consumed or his distraction at seeing Cal and Seel together, my pain at the memory of him ached at the core of me with a poignancy that bordered on the sensual. It was going to be a long night. The big house virtually crawled with Cevarros, all sharing that preternaturally strong family resemblance.

The ever irrepressible Moon broke the spell by opening his mouth in a large ‘O.’ He looked like a clown miming ‘oh, no!’ Not a Pell expression at all. The pair of them hustled down the last several stairs together.

“Did you come back early because you heard about Aleeme?” Moon asked, wide-eyed with surprise.

“Oh, shit!” Tyson said. “Aleeme is going to strangle me! He didn’t want anyone to tell you yet. And now everyone who might have any reason to know anything about his condition is saying he appears to be doing very well.”

Great, I thought. No one would believe I did not come home early because of Aleeme, unless I told them the entire truth and I was loath to bare my emotional breakdown to the entire family for dissection.

“It was not entirely because of your message, Tyson,” Seel said. “Immanion was overwhelming as usual. Swift wanted to be able to rest a little.”

Moon cocked a speculative eyebrow at me. He apparently guessed there was a lot more to that story. I do not fit the picture of a vaporous, fragile har. But he chose not to voice his opinion. “If you want to sneak up to your rooms, we can cover for you,” he volunteered. “No one needs to know that you are here before morning.”

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked.

Tyson grinned. “Just a little evening at home–the latest in a string of them–hosted by Cobweb for fifty or so of his closest friends and family.”

I must have sighed tortuously, because Seel grabbed hold of my hand. “I think it will be more trouble than it’s worth to try to skip out on Cobweb’s party. Tyson, when you go back upstairs would you mind mentioning that we are here but that we need to rest for a while before coming up?” Seel asked.

“Consider it done,” said Tyson, happy to be let off the hook for dragging us home from our holiday.

We escaped to our bedroom. The makings of a fire had been laid in the grate, but not lit. Seel took care of that. He continued to act the nursemaid to me. I felt so drained and pathetic that I had almost begun to enjoy his fussing. I managed to undress myself but was too tired to put on sleeping clothes or crawl under the blankets. I stretched out on top of the covers and looked at him. He flushed with appreciation. I certainly was not up to being ouana, but watching Seel disrobe never fails to interest me.

“Do you wish to refresh yourself with another a nap or by taking aruna? Or might you want both?” Seel asked. His smile, feline and seductive, left no question in my mind of which he would prefer. Aruna for Seel and me can be urgent and hot or it can begin with a low-key playfulness that slowly turns to passion. I certainly did not feel playful at that instant. But Seel’s expertise includes the ability to turn my rare lethargy into a languid awareness and then he does relent until he has me crying out in desperate need. I decided I would allow him take care of me.

“Be ouana,” I said. “And make me beg for it.”

“Don’t forget you asked for it,” he teased. “No fair complaining when I am doing all the work.”

“Get over here now,” I demanded. I felt my soume-lam becoming wet and slippery—my responses were not so sluggish after all.

When we had finished, Seel rolled off me onto to his back, panting as though he had run a great distance. His voice sounded husky when he spoke and his cadence broken by the shortness of his breath. “Thank Aruhani, you still enjoyed that.”

“Seel! Don’t be weird! Of course, I did. I’m not entirely sure what’s caused me to be so out of sorts or why I feel so dejected, but I know we’ll figure it out. One thing I am absolutely certain about is that it has nothing to do with you and me or what we share.”

“Fine, then,” he said, not entirely convinced. “Rest now, sweetheart.”

When I woke up, the fire had died again. Seel slept soundly next to me, curled as close as he could get. His warmth and proximity under the heavy blankets prevented either of us from feeling any chill. And, fortunately, the ambient heat in the room made it tolerable for me to rise, find a robe, and begin to sort out the clothing we had scattered on the floor around the bed. I pulled a black shirt and pants out of the closet.

“Don’t wear that! Let me find something for you,” Seel said.

“I thought you were still asleep.”

“Obviously not. Let me dress you. Don’t wear black tonight. Like your hostling, tragic and put-upon does become you–that darkling, slightly mad beauty look–but it will also call unwanted attention to you. It is quite out of character for you.”

“All right. As long as you let me choose for you as well,” I said. “I don’t want to see you in one of those shapeless robes you favor.”

He selected a deep blue shirt for me, claiming it brought out the color in my eyes. I forced him change into the skin-tight, buttery-soft black leather trousers that he usually wore for riding, and only in much milder weather, paired with an emerald green silk shirt. The combination accentuated the red tones of his hair and showed off his long legs.

“You look so good that it makes me want to stay here with you. Maybe I have recovered enough to be ouana now,” I said.

“Forget it, Swift! Aruna cannot solve everything.”

“True. But it’s had a wonderfully palliative effect so far today.”

Seel laughed softly at me, generous in his mild condescension to the ‘crazy har.’ “Cobweb will come up here and jerk you right out of bed if you don’t show up soon. He must be going crazy wanting to why we are here.”

“Do you think I have to tell him everything?” A silly question. I couldn’t help but think Cobweb probably already knew.

“Tell him as much or as little as you want, assuming he hasn’t already guessed.” He took my hand and kissed it.

When we entered into Cobweb and Snake’s large sitting room on the third floor, it was crowded with hara, dimly lit, and smelled of pine branches and spiced sheh. Cobweb naturally was the first to spot us.

He walked over to us and embraced me first. He then took Seel’s hands into his and gave him perhaps the first unguarded Cobweb smile that Seel had ever received. “Felicitations, Seel,” he said with high solemnity. “What you have done took courage. Snake and I are very pleased for you and for ourselves as well.”

“You heard about Cal and me?” Seel stammered.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Cobweb said, enigmatically. “I also know about my son. Swift apparently has more pride than even his father had. It amuses me that he expects by leaving Immanion in a huff that he can force the Tigron to travel all the way to Forever to beg his pardon for injuring his vanity. And to imagine I’ve often wondered if he thought highly enough of himself.” Cobweb then gave me a dazzling smile expressing exactly the sort of approval I had no desire to see.

“I don’t what you’re talking about,” I grumbled.

“You always were a terrible liar, Swift,” Cobweb said, shooing me away with a flick of the wrist.

I refused to be shooed and sighed loudly. “I’m not lying. I suppose that I do know what you refer to, but I have not the vaguest idea what you mean by your remarks.”

Cobweb hooked his arm through the crook of Seel’s elbow. “Run along, Swift,” he said. “I want to speak with Seel now. Go ask Aleeme how he is feeling and reassure him that you did not cut short your holiday in Immanion because of him. You’ve made him a nervous wreck. Here we have all been trying to look after him and you single-handedly completely disrupted his hard-won tranquility.”

He struck bone with that accusation. I had not thought of Azriel and Aleeme all day except in relation to how their potential troubles might affect me. I felt like a terrible father as well as a miserable, love-sick brat.

“You are right,” I said to Cobweb, contrite. “Please tell me what you think about Aleeme’s condition.”

“I don’t mean to be so hard on you!” Cobweb said, his face softening. “It’s just that I’ve come to expect so much more from you. You’ve been a wonderful son and are a levelheaded and compassionate ruler. Hara here depend upon you.” He reached up to touch my cheek; his hand felt cool and pleasant. His tenderness made me long that he could comfort me as he had been able to do when I was a harling.

“About Aleeme,” Cobweb said, eager to share what he had learned, “Snake and I examined him as thoroughly as we were able, as did the healers available to us here. He is definitely with pearl. He and Azriel claim that they conceived it three weeks ago. Azriel had already taken him to a healer in Galhea who did not recognize them. They told him nothing of Aleeme’s history. He found nothing wrong. Of course, after they told the rest of us, we arranged for every healer we could contact to see him. Cal also sent a physician from Immanion earlier today who examined Aleeme while you were resting. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the development of the pearl seems normal at the moment. There is no unusual pressure on any internal organs and no apparent strain on any scar tissue. More of his internal damage has healed since he was last seen in Immanion. His prognosis for successfully carrying the pearl to term seems excellent. The delivery is another matter, but there have been dramatic recent advancements in that area. And we all know that a har can recover from the removal of a pearl under the worse of circumstances. So with the best medics available there is every reason for optimism.”

“I’ve been a selfish brute,” I said.

“Don’t be hyperbolic,” Cobweb responded. “Just go speak with Azriel and Aleeme. I’d like to talk with Seel now if you do not mind.” He lifted his chin in a typical Cobweb gesture of imperious dismissal. Behind Cobweb’s back, Seel’s eyes, crinkling in suppressed hilarity, met mine.

“Fine. I’m going now,” I said, skulking off to find Azriel and Aleeme.

It did not take long for me to spot my son and his chesnari. Aleeme had that clichéd glow of the happy hostling carrying a pearl—something one hears talked about constantly, but that I have rarely if ever seen in real life. As beautiful and healthy as Seel is, even he had been tense and pale when he was with pearl. Azriel looked pleased with himself, if slightly abashed at his recklessness.

They both commented that Seel looked marvelous, but I appeared tired and worn. I tried and failed to imagine myself ever having the nerve to say something like that to my father! They pestered me relentlessly, but I avoided revealing what troubled me. The rest of the evening passed slowly, but with less drama or discomfort than I might have feared. My hopes that the gathering would end early were fulfilled and Seel and I were finally able to slip away. Not, however, before Cobweb cornered me again.

“Rest well, Swift,” Snake said, squeezing me on the shoulder. In his wisdom and innate nobility of spirit, he allowed me my privacy by averting his seeing eye. Cobweb, on the other hand, with the shameless frankness one can only tolerate in one’s hostling, warned me, “You may have avoided me tonight, son, but I will speak with you tomorrow.”

Chapter 9 – The End of The Beginning

My first full day back at Forever encompassed elements of all the circles of hell that I had feared the evening before and been spared. The morning began with a sluggish grey cast to the sky and steadily rising temperatures. Long before midday, Forever appeared cut off from the rest of the world by a sea of mud. I had intended to slip out for an early ride, but when I opened the back door of the kitchen I was greeted by the rank odor of thawing dog shit and horse manure that had been buried beneath the snow.

The path from the back of the house to the stables might have been better tackled in rubber waders than my best riding boots. I returned to the kitchen to find Cobweb questioning Bryony as to my whereabouts.

“I am so glad I caught you, Swift,” Cobweb said, an intimidating embodiment of no-nonsense determination. “We need to talk.”

“Please. I’m exhausted.” That pitiful attempt on my part to beg for mercy was met with a pursing of the lips by Cobweb.

“Come along, Swift. It’s not all bad! I merely need you tell me exactly how you are feeling and I want to explain some ideas I have about what might have happened to you and how you may be able to mitigate the worst of it.”

“What do you need to know? Who was ouana and who was soume? How many times? Incidentally, he was fantastic as both. Is that is the kind of information you need?” I immediately felt angry with myself. It was a cheap shot. However difficult Cobweb may be at times, he has never had anything but my best interests at heart. “I’m sorry,” I added, not quickly enough.

“Oh, Swift,” he replied, sounding sad and disappointed in me, but he was unable to resist a swipe. “No, not those kind of details. I took aruna with Pell once many, many years ago. I well remember how lovely it was.” One should not play dangerous games with Cobweb if one doesn’t want to get cut.

I threw up my arms in despair. “Alright! Alright! You win. What do want from me?”

“Pick up that tray, please.” He pointed to a serving platter holding a plate of freshly baked bread, a pot of butter, and a large teapot covered in a cozy. “Come with me. We’ll find somewhere more private. Sometimes I don’t understand you, Swift. I do wonder if there is something wrong with you. When you were a harling, you never wanted me to wash your hair either. As though you thought I might try to drown you!”

For a moment I could imagine Cobweb as a young har: proud but floundering in an alien world. He had fallen in love with the devastatingly attractive, emotionally distant Varrish ruler in Galhea. Suddenly, he found himself not only alone and isolated from everyone and everything he had ever known, but also trying to process the concept that he, once a human boy, had given birth. I sometimes wondered how any of the hara of his generation had escaped madness. I reached out to touch his hand, a gesture of acquiescence.

“I want to make it easier for you,” Cobweb said. “Nothing more and nothing less. Do you have any symptoms aside from the despondency?” I speculated about how much he actually knew. He probably had managed to pry a good deal of information out of Seel, who would have volunteered it in the hopes of helping me also.

“Headaches and attacks of nausea,” I admitted, “but they seem to be occurring further and further apart.”

“Do you remember how you felt when you awakened yesterday?”

“I felt woozy and unfocused, but happy. Then the next thing I knew I was watching Pell and Vaysh talking. Pell read the message from Galdra. Cal burst in talking about Azriel and Aleeme. And then, Pell was gone.”

Cobweb held his teacup in front of his face and blew on it. “You’ve taken aruna with powerful hara often enough before. Seel and even Chrysm, Cal, obviously . . .”

“Not for years with Cal until this Natalia,” I said, my face reddening as usual at any attempt by Cobweb to talk about the more intimate details of my personal life. “Do you have to know this? There have been a few others. I don’t ask someone their caste ranking before I kiss them!”

“Bear with me, Swift. Snake and I have been talking about you.” As though he might have thought that would reassure me! “It is possible that a certain level of emotional and psychic openness, might have triggered a caste progression in you and Pell. You are an unusual har. The two of you possess high degrees of extremely disparate forms of magic. Your own formal training has been limited, but you read and meditate and have a rare natural talent. If you had not been Terzian’s heir it is clear to me that you probably would have naturally gravitated toward becoming a hienama or using your innate skills in some appropriate way. I am not just saying this because you are my son and, of course, like all hostlings, I believe you are exceptional.

“Aruna with Pell, with both of you in highly vulnerable and exposed states, might have had dramatic consequences. Might have—clearly did! Look at yourself, Swift. You’re a mess! You and Pell needed to stay close together, but out of his obliviousness and your quick temper, you’ve allowed yourselves to be forced apart by circumstances.”

“I don’t know, Cobweb. That sounds complicated and unlikely. I am just the same as I always was, only upset. I’ll get over it. Seel has been wonderful. If he can just put up with me for a few more days, I know I will be fine.”

“I do not want to torture you, Swift. Just think about it.” Cobweb maintained a bland, kindly outer expression, but was unable to prevent me from reading his frustration at having to deal with a loved one whom he believed was at best as dense as a block of wood or at worst seriously mentally defective. I did not have the energy for it.

“May I have another piece of bread and butter, please?” I asked. Cobweb sighed deeply.

Later that morning I cornered Seel and gave him an earful.

“Unintentional making of pearls. An unplanned caste ascension interrupted by my foul temper. This place reminds me of a mad house in a melodrama. And Cobweb is the queen of the mummers.”

Seel laughed aloud. “I’ve been trying to tell you that for years and you have insisted it was all me.”

In light of my inability to control my emotions and my painful reactions to others, Seel and I decided to hide out in my study, under the guise of working at home. To have ridden into the administrative offices in Galhea would have been tantamount to declaring that we were back from holiday and ready to attend to business as usual. We both would have been inundated with hara wanting to make appointments.

I sat at my desk, the same desk that Terzian had always used. Seel, who was still sticking close to me, had commandeered the worktable that he occasionally used in my office and spread some of his current building plans upon it. He honestly intended to work. We both knew that I was still far from able to engage in my normal activity. I wondered why he did not seem more concerned about that. He quickly immersed himself in some project or another, pausing only occasionally to give me a supportive smile.

Time after time, I found myself staring at the psycaller on the corner of the desk, taking care to look away whenever I sensed that Seel might glance at me. The compulsion to reach for it and try to contact Pell was all but overwhelming. The wooden apparatus holds a polished oval-shaped stone that lights up with an inner glow if I touch it with intent or if someone tries to contact us. The mechanism seemed to mock me with its inertness. A few times when I had almost succeeded in quieting my riotous, circular cogitating by reading, the sunlight would play a trick on me and I would imagine I saw a glimmer out of the corner of my eye, only to turn abruptly and find it sitting there dull and lifeless, dumb as lump of wet clay.

The sun had slid down close to the horizon, a flaming ball of fire throwing orange shadows onto the remaining patches of snow, when we heard someone beating on the main door at the bottom of the stairs. After a few minutes of silence, the knocking began again.

“Where is everyone?” Seel complained, rising from his chair to go down to answer it himself. Normally, I would be the one to be more easily interrupted, but that was from an excess of energy rather than a lack of concentration. That late afternoon, I certainly was not absorbed in anything, but felt too self-pitying and lethargic to move.

Ten or perhaps fifteen minutes later I heard someone fiddling with the latch on the door. I looked up to see a slim harish figure robed in black standing in the doorway. A hood shielded his face from me. I stood up quickly in alarm. His hand reached up and pulled the hood back. It was Pell.

His face, drawn and tired, was the picture of stark misery, a fair study for a painting of tragic loss. He opened his mouth to speak; his lower lip trembled and he said nothing; a single tear caught the light from the fireplace as it trickled down his face.

“Swift?” he asked at last, in a tremulous whisper.

I hurled myself across the room at him with enough force that I might have knocked him down, had I not grabbed him and clutched him to my chest. “Pell! Pell! Oh, Pell!” I sobbed, kissing his head, his face.

“I hope that means you are glad I came,” he said.

“Pell,” I said breathlessly. “Why did you come?” I could not hold back the rush of hope that flowed over me.

“You left without saying good bye,” Pell complained, sticking out his lower lip.

“I didn’t think you even noticed I was still there. I can barely believe you are here now.”

“I almost did not come. I was afraid I would not be welcomed. But Cal said I owed you an apology, that you left because of Galdra.”

“I did. I couldn’t bear to be there knowing . . . knowing . . . .” I could not finish the sentence.

“Knowing nothing, apparently,” Pell said, daring a shy smile, “if you for a moment believed that I did not care if you left or not.” Then the words began to tumble heedlessly out of Pell’s mouth. “I almost did not see him at all because of you, but I knew immediately how horribly wrong that would have been. I should have spoken to him much sooner. I should have told him how I felt. I once thought I loved Galdra. He offered himself to me when I desperately needed his help and his power. Then when Cal came back and I turned away from Galdra, I mourned for him because everything had been left unfinished between us after Fulminir. I denied myself the opportunity to seek closure, fearful it would threaten Cal and me. Later when I saw him again, I constructed a fairy tale that I could love both Cal and Galdra and even tried to bring them together.

“For a while, it even seemed like it might work. They like one another–a lot. But I had Cal and Rue, and Galdra had only me. It never could have worked that way. Every time we saw him after that first coming together of Galdra and Cal, I felt the pain behind his façade of acceptance.” Pell shuddered, making me aware of his cloak dripping cold water.

“Pell! Take this off!” I said. “You’re freezing.” Pushing him away from me, I unfastened his cape and threw it in the direction of the nearest chair. I took his icy hands in mine.

“It is raining and sleeting now,” Pell admitted. “Almost worse than snow. And the ethers are always so cold.”

I dragged him to the fireplace and lowered him onto the soft shearling rugs layered in front of it, pulling off his sodden boots and tearing off his stockings. His feet were as cold as his hands. I tried to chafe some warmth back into them. “Please don’t stop. I want to hear everything you are telling me.”

“Then you don’t hate me?” He took me by the back of the head and kissed me.

“Hardly,” I snorted. “Your trousers are sopping wet too!” I peeled off the light linen pants clinging to his legs like a second skin. “What you were thinking coming out of the ethers and into Galhea in mid-winter dressed like this?”

“I was in a hurry,” he chuckled. “Do you want to hear what I am trying to tell you, or do you need to scold me for a while?”

I kissed him back greedily. “Tell me everything.”

“Fine then,” he said. “Where was I? Oh, yes. Galdra made every effort not to ask for anything I could not give him, but he reeked of his need. He is a strong har, a good one, and the perfect leader for his people. But everything about us together was wrong. Cal tried to talk to me and I couldn’t listen. I was overwhelmed with remorse. I fought first with Rue over the situation. Later Vaysh and I had a spectacular falling out when he tried to tell me that I was using Galdra to assuage my own guilt at a cost that was too high. Even Seel eventually tried to talk to me. Then after the events of this Natalia, I finally understood.

“You opened my eyes. It was so easy to be with you. You were able to love me without that slightest hint of wishing you could fill Cal’s place in my life. The four of us know one another so well. You are nothing like Cal either. Can you even begin to realize how strange it might be if you became involved with someone who caused you to think of Seel every time you held him in your arms?”

“Never,” I shook my head at him and smiled. “Oh, people often have tried to tell me that Chrysm resembles Seel.”

”That’s hardly the case. Perhaps in the most superficial ways. But more importantly, you’ve never thought you loved him.”

“So do you think you saw Cal in Galdra?” I couldn’t see it myself, except, as he had said of Chrysm and Seel, a noticeable physical resemblance that grows less the closer one looks.

“I don’t know. No. I am lying. Of course, his likeness to Cal attracted me! The color of his hair, the shape of his lips, his body . . . ”

“Well, I noticed one difference!”

“What? That he is somewhat broader in the chest?”

“I was thinking of something more significant. You know that we all watched as the hara pulled him off of you after the Grissecon. We had a clear view of . . .”

Pell actually grinned at me. “Shame on you, Swift. Yes, there is that.”

“But you know what they say,” I said, leaning in for another kiss. “It’s not how big it is but what you do with it.”

By then we were both laughing softly. My relief at holding Pell again made me feel giddy.

Pell said, “Ah, yes, you say that with the supreme confidence of one who has never had a moment of anxiety in that area.”

I could feel my face burning. “Enough. There was more you wanted to tell me?”

“Ah, Swift! I love it when you say things like that and even more when you blush. Have you ever had a lover who was serious all of the time? Who never cracked a joke about aruna or teased you about your reactions?”

“I can’t say that I have. Although there have been a few who made a bit too much fun of me.”

“Who has made fun of you?” He said, drawing his eyebrows together in the most endearing way, looking as though he would like to hunt down and punch anyhar who might have done that. I couldn’t hold back any longer. I realized that I had completely thrown my heart wide open to him again. Any ideas I had about holding myself aloft had been cast aside the instant he had walked into the room. I pulled him onto my lap, there on the carpet in front of the fire, punctuating every other word he tried to say with a kiss. He squirmed to pull a leg free so that he could wrap them both around me, holding my face in his hands.

“You mean besides Cal, you, and Seel?” I answered. “So did you tell Galdra any of how you felt yesterday?”

“No. Cal says I am the luckiest har he has ever known. It was not necessary. Galdra, principled and decent har that he is, came all the way to Immanion to tell me that he is involved with someone else. I listened to him and I even met the har.”

My mouth must have dropped open. That scenario in no way resembled the ones that had run through my head. I had even imagined that Galdra came to Immanion to fight for Pell because he sensed he had been become involved with someone else.

“What is Galdra’s new love like?” I asked.

“Exactly what you might expect—extremely Freyhellan. Blond, handsome, tall, serious. A perfect partner for him in every way.” Pell laughed in a self-disparaging way. “How did I ever think I could somehow fit into that picture? But, Swift, why did you run away? Did you think that I would not have looked for you as soon as I was finished talking with him?”

“I didn’t know if you would ever be finished. Or even want to find me again. I don’t know what I thought. Mainly that nothing that had happened between us meant anything. I wasn’t thinking at all, just feeling. I felt really, really ill, Pell. None of it involved any rational thought processes.”

“What did happen between us?” Pell asked, his voice falling so low that I could barely hear him. “I’ve been sick as well since you left Immanion.”

”I’m not sure. Something happened,” I answered, realizing that it was becoming easier for me to breath. The heaviness in my chest continued to lift minute by minute.

“I knew it, but I haven’t thought it through either. I thought we had a few days to adjust to one another, with some help from Seel and Cal. Then when I found myself faced with coping with Galdra amidst all that, I panicked. Just hold me.” Pell tucked his face against my neck, tightening his arms around me.

“What now?” I asked.

“Another chance for us? May we stay here at Forever for a couple of days?”

“We?”

“Cal brought me. I never could have managed on my own.”

“Where is he now?”

“Probably with Seel. Wondering what the hell is going on with us.”

“I’m sure they know. I can’t keep anything from Seel. Most of the time I am projecting wildly straight into his head and I don’t even realize it.”

“Does that mean that I get Seel along with you?”

“Pretty much,” I answered, smirking to myself a little thinking of Cal. We both started laughing and tumbled onto our sides, a tangled mess of arms and legs and loosened clothing.

“Swift, Swift, darling Swift. You can’t imagine what the last twenty-four hours have been like for me,” he said.

“Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea!”

“Show me then,” he demanded. “Show me how much you’ve wanted me.” His luscious, full lips parted for me, irresistibly kissable. He reached for my hand and brought it down between his legs. I found him completely retracted, soume, and wet. His entire body had turned boneless and pliant under me. “See how I have wanted you?” he gasped.

That week marked the beginning of the beginning for Cal, Seel, Pell and me. It has only gotten easier since then for all of us. I don’t have to see Pell constantly to remain centered. Sometimes we go for weeks, busy with the concerns of Galhea and Immanion, and then the reunions are epic. Seel and I are thinking of having another pearl. We have no idea how long hara remain fertile. I know I feel as young as springtime and I promised him years ago that I would host the next one. The four of us are good together.

The End

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7 Comments

  1. Teka said,

    March 25, 2010 at 2:02 am

    Much, much love. This has gone straight into my personal canon.

    • Oshun said,

      March 26, 2010 at 7:46 pm

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I am totally thrilled that you liked it!

  2. Jennie said,

    April 28, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Loved this one so much…you are good!!!!

    • Oshun said,

      May 20, 2010 at 10:54 am

      Thank you so much, Jennie. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the story.

  3. Clare said,

    May 12, 2010 at 5:49 am

    This is a great story. Like Teka this is also in my wraeththu canon now. Brilliant.

    • Oshun said,

      May 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm

      I am so happy that you liked it, Clare. It was so much fun extrapolating on Storm’s canon (I tried to make it fit, but have no illusions that any of this could have been her choices!).

  4. Oshun said,

    May 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

    I am so happy that you liked it, Clare. It was so much fun extrapolating on Storm’s canon (I tried to make it fit, but have no illusions that any of this could have been her choices!).


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