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Darquiel’s pearl hatched on the eve of midsummer when, outside Phade’s Tower, clouds of mosquitoes hung above the pools in the courtyard, so thirsty they would drink water rather than blood. It hatched in that strange hour when neither light nor dark holds sway, and hara walked home through the balmy air, drunk on the perfume of wild roses, thinking of love. But high in the tower room, where it had long been twilight, there were no thoughts of love. The walls to the room were white, and they glowed in the dusk. The narrow window frames were painted black, devoid of drapes or blinds, and the floorboards were bare and unvarnished. It was a room that was never used, not until now.
The pearl rested in a nest of woolen blankets, surrounded by lamps, on an old wooden table. In the soft glow the pearl gleamed, semitranslucent. Limbs writhed slowly within it, pressing against the decomposing membrane. Eventually, the pearl ripped and a meaty sweet smell came from it.
For some moments after the leathery sac fell apart, the lone har who observed the event feared the harling within the pearl was dead, for there was no further movement for over a minute. Then Darquiel’s head emerged, his brow creased in a frown. He pulled aside the scraps of leather that had once enfolded him and wriggled forth from his bower of nutrient slime. His head waved this way and that, like the head of a cobra. His black eyes surveyed all that he saw before him with what appeared to be a critical view. He expressed a sigh of ennui. Life had come. He did not, nor ever would, resemble a normal child.
While nighthawks hovered outside the window, and dogs in the courtyard pulled upon their chains and wept at the night, Phade har Olopade, sole witness, lifted the newly hatched harling in his hands and held him at arm’s length. Its body was covered with viscous fluid and the smell of the nutrients that had nurtured it within the pearl stung Phade’s nostrils. He half expected the harling to spray him with black venom or utter a curse. Surely his tongue would be forked? “I name you Darquiel har Aralis,” Phade said and the child went limp in his hands.
The second heir to the throne of Immanion had gone to sleep, exhausted by the thought of what was to come.
Nohar had come to witness the hatching, except for Phade, and he had had no choice, because the pearl had been transferred into his care. There was an air of desolation in that stark chamber, high in the main tower of Phade’s domain. He had not asked for this responsibility and did not welcome it. If a harling of high birth had to be hidden away in this forgotten corner of the world, it could not bode well. The harling must be reared ignorant of his parentage. Phade must attempt to raise him as an ordinary child, but it was clear, from the very first breath that he took, that Darquiel har Aralis was far from ordinary.
Ten days before, a sedu had emerged from the otherlanes, bearing a tall, aquiline-featured har, whose hair was the color of bright platinum and who was swathed in black.
The visitor had been presented to Phade in his office on the second floor of the tower, which overlooked the yard. It had been a blustery day. Phade had been called from the stables and knew he smelled of horse. He tied back his thick black hair to appear more businesslike, then sat behind his desk.
Somehar knocked on the door and Phade called, “Come in.” He folded his hands before him.
One of his house-hara came into the room and bowed. Behind him, the white-haired visitor loomed in an imposing manner. Phade cleared his throat. He wondered what kind of business such an exotic creature could have with him.
“Your visitor, tiahaar,” the house-har said, and fled.
The har was not known to Phade and did not offer his name. At first, he said nothing, but appraised Phade overtly and perhaps came to private conclusions.
“Good day, tiahaar,” Phade said. “Forgive my house-har, he did not tell me who you are.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
The visitor said only: “I come from Lord Thiede. He has a task for you.”
Phade had gone cold from head to foot at once. In the past, he’d been used to dealing with Thiede’s often bizarre requests, but since Thiede had left the realm of earth, Phade had been left unmolested. He could now run his domain independently, free from the nagging fear of what tomorrow might bring. He could walk the fields with an easy stride. He was free. Hardly anyhar outside of Samway knew he even existed.
“What task is this?” he asked, noting that the har before him was concealing something within the voluminous folds of his robes.
His visitor brought forth the pearl and unwrapped it. Phade stared at it for some moments, unaware of what it was. “In perhaps as little as ten days’ time, this pearl will hatch,” said the visitor. “Thiede requires you to care for this harling and raise it, here at Samway.”
“Whose pearl is it?” Phade asked, knowing that this was the most important question.
His visitor barely paused. “It is a child of the Aralisian dynasty,” he said. “Its father is Pellaz, Tigron of the Gelaming.”
Phade was silent for a moment. “He is known to me.”
The visitor inclined his head. “Indeed, I understand the Tigron came to Samway before Thiede crowned him in Immanion.”
“Yes. He stayed here for a while.” Phade cast his mind back to that time and remembered the shriveled husk who had been brought to his domain, and the golden har who had later risen from that husk, reborn. Pellaz har Aralis. Phade had not forgotten him. “Is my tenuous connection with Pellaz the reason why a child of Immanion is brought to my tower?” he asked.
“No,” said the visitor. “It must simply be concealed.”
“Like a changeling child in a fairy tale,” Phade observed.
The visitor pulled a mordant face. “Perhaps. Thiede creates stories. The child must never know who created it.” He swept back his platinum hair with both hands. Phade saw there were black pearls plaited into the hair, and the har’s jewelry was also set with pearls. He must be high-ranking. “The Olopade are hidden,” said the visitor. “Samway is virtually unknown.”
“And why must the harling be concealed?”
The visitor pulled a wry face. “Let us simply say it is a child of grissecon, born before its time. Many powers of the realms would desire to own it, should they know of its existence. What you see before you is, or could be, the seed of our kind’s destruction. Or it could be a savior. It is difficult to say. Far better that it lives a normal life, ignorant of its heritage. It must not know its origins.”
Phade stared at the pearl and tried to match the image with the words. It wouldn’t work. The pearl looked like a gourd or a wizened black melon. It did not look like destruction or salvation.
“I have no experience of raising harlings,” Phade said. “I have no idea what to do. None of my hara here have . . . bred. It is not our territory.”
“You will learn,” said the visitor, in a tone that reminded Phade eerily of Thiede. “Harlings are simply miniature hara. Feed it as you would a young hound. Discipline it well, for I expect it will be willful. Put it to work in your domain. Train it as you would one of your own hara. You will name it Darquiel har Aralis, but will tell it only the first part of its name.” The har placed the pearl carefully on Phade’s desk. “Keep it warm,” he said, and turned around in a dramatic swirl of cloth to leave the room.
Keep it warm.
Phade continued to stare at the unwelcome object on his desk for some moments, the fingers of one hand tapping his lips. It was hard to credit it contained new life within it, that it had been expelled from the body of a har, as a fish or a bird might lay eggs. But as Phade stared at its dark knobbly surface, he thought perhaps he could see something moving inside it. It was not an altogether pleasant image.
Phade called for one of his household staff, a sixteen-year-old har named Zira, an attractive creature with strawberry-blond hair to his shoulders and a heart-shaped face. Phade got up when Zira entered the room and walked around to the front of his desk. He felt more comfortable examining the pearl with another har beside him. Altogether, he felt somewhat light-headed. He explained the situation, omitting to mention who the harling’s father was. “I’d like you to care for this . . . pearl until it’s ready to hatch,” Phade said.
Zira looked dubious. “And how long will that be, tiahaar?”
“I don’t know exactly . . . days, a couple of weeks.” Phade walked back behind his desk. “In the meantime I relieve you of all other duties. Instruct Malech to take over your daily tasks.”
“But I’ve never . . .” Zira began, bewildered.
“None of us have,” Phade interrupted. “Do as you’re told. Take this thing away.”
Phade had forbidden Zira to attend the hatching, unsure himself of why he felt the need to be alone. Perhaps it was because, on those occasions when he’d inspected the pearl, he had felt strange emanations wafting from it, like a steam of dark thoughts. He believed that the harling within the pearl suffered from nightmares. It turned uncomfortably in its protective cell. While he’d been caring for it, Zira had complained of feeling depressed, assailed by a terrible melancholia, which was unusual, for he was a har of sunny nature, incepted quite recently from one of the pairs of breeding humans that Phade kept in the village next to his tower.
Phade knew that the visitor who had brought the pearl to him had neglected to tell him the most important aspects of this pearl’s history. Pellaz har Aralis would not have given up a son willingly, Phade was sure of that. No Tigron would: unless there was something unusual about it, something warped or something bad. Who was its hostling? The Tigrina? Perhaps it was an undesirable conception, some bastard offspring from an unsuitable har.
Although Phade kept away from harish society, he also kept himself informed. He knew that the infamous har, Calanthe, had recently gone to Immanion and that he had been responsible for removing the self-styled leader of Wraeththu, Thiede, from power and banishing him to another realm. Calanthe had become joint Tigron with Pellaz, and had therefore acquired for himself a Tigrina, in the form of Caeru. Now, a triumvirate ruled the Gelaming, or rather acted as figureheads for the all-powerful Hegemony.
Phade had little more information than that. He kept himself apart from the world. Phade had been, and perhaps still was, one of Thiede’s most loyal servants, but he was also somewhat grateful to Cal for what he’d done. Phade had felt that with Thiede’s removal from the realm, he’d been released from a subtle kind of slavery. But no. Even beyond this realm, Thiede could still call upon him.
Phade, still holding the harling at arm’s length, left the room at the top of his tower and went down to one of the lower floors, where the decor was more homely. He went into one of the empty bedrooms that he’d allocated for the harling. It was a small, cozy room and seemed right for a child. Phade had already ordered a crib to be placed in the room, and he now lowered the sleeping harling into it, drawing the covers over the small perfect body. Phade had never seen a harling before. Just hatched, Darquiel appeared like a tiny version of a two-year-old human child. It was uncanny. He had a thick growth of black hair upon his head, and his dark eyelashes lay long against his smooth cheek. A beautiful thing, a homunculus created by magical means. A changeling. An elf. A demon.
Phade went to the door and found Zira waiting outside in the hall. The young har had wrapped his arms around his body protectively. He looked haunted. “I felt it,” Zira said. “I felt it . . . come out. It feels so tired already.”
“We must call it ‘he,’” Phade said. “It’s—he’s—hatched now. He’s a har, like you are.”
“Not like me,” Zira said, rather too quickly. “Must I still care for it?”
“I would like you to,” Phade said. He reached out briefly and touched Zira’s hand. “See how you get on. Keep me informed. He’s asleep now. When he wakes, feed him. Give him something soft to eat, like soup.”
“Is that what harlings eat? Won’t he need milk?”
“No,” Phade said. He paused. “Go to the village. Bring your mother here. A harling is not like a human child, but she is undoubtedly more qualified to deal with this situation than we are.”
Zira did not bother to conceal the relief he felt at this instruction. He left at once.
The human community had been collected by Phade over the years he’d lived in Samway. They had been imported from Megalithica and Alba Sulh, and some even from Almagabra. Phade was a conservationist at heart, and felt that humanity should not become extinct. He had the same feeling toward rare animals, and felt sorry for the bewildered human souls who had lost all that they knew. He settled his collection in the beautiful country of Anakhai, where Thiede had installed him a long time ago to create the relatively small, and certainly private, tribe of Olopade. Samway, and Phade himself, had been used by Thiede for various purposes over the years. He was happy to indulge Phade’s hobby, as he saw it, and had gathered some prime human specimens himself, from all corners of the world. This was easy for Thiede, because at the time he’d been scooping up the cream of harish specimens as well to create the tribe of Gelaming.
It was not Phade’s practice to incept automatically every young human male; he allowed them to make their own choices. In the beginning, hardly anyhar had had a choice about what they became, since inception had been forced on every available body, in order to expand Wraeththu, but as time went on, and humanity waned, there were fewer people to incept anyway. In Phade’s community, few suitable young males resisted the idea of becoming har. Why remain human and die at an early age, when you could become something else, with an expanded lifespan, and dozens of other physical benefits? These boys had grown up with hara; they didn’t fear the transformation to androgyny. Phade knew that eventually this would cause problems with his breeding program. It would ultimately become more difficult to find fertile humans to bring to Samway.
But for now, the human community functioned like an old-fashioned settlement from hundreds of years before. Olivia, Zira’s mother, had borne three children. She was thirty-four years old, a strong-boned creature, who had survived against all odds in a world that no longer nurtured her kind. Whether she was grateful to Phade, who had rescued her from certain slaughter at the age of five and brought her to his domain, was difficult to say. Certainly, she had later submitted without complaint to being paired with Raymer, and even called him her husband. She worked with the other humans, alongside hara, who treated her well, much in the same way that they were kind to their horses and dogs. She had surrendered her firstborn son to inception without a word, even though she had been forbidden to attend the ceremony or care for Zira during his althaia, the time when the transition from human to har took place. He had gone to visit her two weeks later; no longer her son, yet wearing his face. Now, she came to Phade’s tower in the middle of the night, a shawl cast over her dark green homespun dress, her thick auburn hair coming loose from a bun at her neck. Her wide handsome face was expressionless.
Phade took her to inspect the harling. Olivia peered into the crib, betraying nothing. “I’ve appointed Zira as the harling’s guardian,” Phade said. “It will help if you could advise him and so on.”
Olivia had noted at sundown that the blackbirds in her garden had not sung their welcome to the night. She had noted that the smell of wormwood was very strong on the air. “The child needs a bath,” she said. “In lavender and thyme. In hawthorn. At once.”
“Hmm,” murmured Phade, then: “Why?”
“It will clean him good,” said Olivia. “Then you will all feel better.”
“Will you do this?”
Phade nodded thoughtfully. “Olivia,” he said, “I want this harling to be absorbed without trouble into my household. He will be raised here, no different from any other har. Your skills will help in this matter. If things go well, your family will be rewarded.”
Olivia rolled up her sleeves and picked Darquiel up. She did not appear as discomforted by the harling as Zira and Phade had been. “I will bathe him,” she said. “Show me where.”
Copyright © 2006 by Storm Constantine