Me 2012

Feedback and the Intersection with Stages of Writing

I was talking to @AlphaRaposa and @LynThornAlder on Twitter about the kinds of feedback writers receive and the kinds they want, and thought this might be a fun thing to expound upon at greater length.

 

The conversation was touched off by a post from an author who really, really hated comments of the "PLEASE WRITE MORE" variety.

 

I am not completely unsympathetic to that position. There were ten or so years when I was writing erratically and sharing my work as it was written. At that time, I found it guilt-inducing to have people ask after the next update. But at this stage of my life, I like it when people leave any kind of positive comment, including "WANT MOAR". Alpha and Lyn were much the same way. Encouragement is good!

 

On the broader topic of feedback in general, I find different kinds of feedback are helpful at different stages of my process.

So here are some broad categories of feedback:

  • Cheerleading: The best kind of cheerleading is not just "Yay, you wrote more, I love this story!" but responds specifically to the content of the installment. "I love the way this character snarks about that one thing!" Cheerleading is always beloved; I don't know anyone who objects to it at any stage. Some people may think "but it's not necessary -- it's not like you're going to change something after finding out it's good", but it actually is important to the revision process. If one person dislikes something and three people love it, but I only hear from the first person, I will probably change it. Similarly, a scene or a line might be cut for space or pacing, but if it's a favorite with readers, I would look for something less popular to ditch.
  • Spurring: I'll put "WRITE MORE" and "NOOOO I don't want to wait for the next installment" and "will you update soon?" kinds of comments into this category. These are specific, direct requests to the writer to produce more of this particular story.
  • Neutral commentary: This is general chatter about the story: "Hey, John Doe made it to the castle! I wonder what's inside?" or "Jane and JD met! I was wondering if they were going to". Neutral commentary lets the author know the reader is still following along and what things caught their attention.
  • Structural critique (major/minor): Criticism of the plot/characters/setting on the whole. This would be stuff like "I don't understand how the characters got to this ending" or "this character's motivations don't make sense" or "there's a huge plot hole here". Major structural criticism means "this is a thing that affects a lot of the events of the book and would require significant revision", like "I hate your protagonist, she is too passive and has no effect on the story" or "the plot feels really random and doesn't make sense" or "there is no depth to this setting". Minor might represent a serious weakness, like "you did not foreshadow the technology that your characters use to solve the crisis", but one that can be easily fixed. What I personally like in structural critiques is solutions. So not just "this is a problem" but "and here's one or more ways to fix it". I don't know if all authors appreciate this, but I certainly do.
  • Word choice: Noting sentences that are awkward or words that don't fit for the setting. These aren't strictly errors, just things that could be phrased better.
  • Typos, spelling & grammar errors: Simple, straightforward mistakes.

 

And here are my stages of writing:

 

  • Outlining: This is when I figure out the broad details of plot, character, and setting. This is a great time for structural critique, especially major ones, because it's much easier to revise an outline than a novel. Pointing out word choice issues or typos in an outline is pointless.
    • My desired feedback: Cheerleading, spurring, structural
  • Drafting: From 2002 to 2014 or so, I shared my drafts of novels and stories as I wrote them, with a small group of friends. The only kind of feedback I wanted at this stage was cheerleading or neutral commentary. Negative feedback of any kind did bad things for my likelihood of completing the draft. This is one of the reasons I stopped showing my drafts to people while I was still writing them. Other reasons: I don't want to "use up" my beta-reading audience on a stage where all they can do is cheerlead; I'd rather they read the finished draft and could give me detailed feedback. Also, I now write at a pace that's more likely to lose people who are used to reading in bite-sized serial chunks. Most importantly: in the past, I needed cheerleading to motivate me to finish a novel. I don't any more. I think this is mostly that I am now confident that several people besides myself will read what I have to write, and so I don't need them to prove on an ongoing basis that they will. Note: this is all deeply personal and no reflection on the reasons or motives that other people have. Anyway, I don't get feedback at this stage of my writing any more and for now I'm very happy with that.
    • My desired feedback: None. I don't share at this stage. Back when I did: cheerleading.
  • Revision: At this stage, I have finished the draft and done whatever revisions I personally thought were necessary. (My first draft usually ends up with some inconsistencies that I documented along the way and will fix on my own, and other such things, so I make those changes before I ask for readers.) Here, I can take pretty much any form of feedback: I don't need to worry that it will cripple my motivation to work on the project because, hey, it's basically done any way. I may be sad to learn the whole thing needs a major overhaul and makes no sense, but the worst that happens is "I don't revise it that way" rather than "I give up halfway through the draft and never look at it again".
    • My desired feedback: Any, but especially "how to fix structural issues".
  • Polishing: This is after I've let various people read it and made whatever changes I plan to based on their feedback. I am probably not going to make any structural changes at this point, but I don't really mind hearing it. Mostly I just want to hear about errors or awkward wording. In a more-perfect world, I would only get structural feedback at the first "revision" stage and not worry about wording then, and I would only get line-level and error feedback at the "polishing" stage. This is not that world, so I don't worry that much about getting both kinds at both stages. 
    • My desired feedback: Any, but especially word choice and typos.
  • Post-publication: Once It's out in the wild, I am not going to make any major revisions. I am not even going to make minor revisions. I once had someone write me a few months after I published A Rational Arrangement to tell me what major changes they thought would improve the book. Which, okay, that's fine, I can consider this in future books, I guess? But I'm not going to change a book that's already sold a thousand copies. I am in the middle of writing the next book. I am so done with the last one. SO DONE. However! I do continue to fix typos and other minor errors in my published books, so I am still happy to have people point out errors.
    • My desired feedback: Cheerleading, spurring, typos

This is my process right now, and everyone's process is different. Even my own process used to be different. What works for me may not work for other people, which is the most important thing to remember. We get taught things like "this is how to give a critique" and "this is how to receive one" as if everyone was stamped out of a cookie cutter. As if it were unreasonable to specify "these are the types of feedback that are useful to me" or "this is the type of feedback I am capable of giving". I have to love and adore a person AND their writing before I am willing to do anything other than point out typos and cheerlead or give neutral commentary. I hate giving structural criticism and I hate trying to articulate what I like/dislike about a writing style to the writer. Doing so requires tremendous effort on my part, and I have a hard time even reading novels for pleasure these days. So. I am deeply grateful to people who are willing to put in that work for me, and also for the fact that most people are less neurotic about giving feedback than I am.

I have some closing advice, which I will also put in bullet point form. BULLET ALL THE THINGS.

  • If you are an author and you want specific kinds of feedback, or dislike specific kinds of comments, make sure your readers know what you want. Asking for feedback does not bar you from expressing your preferences. It's okay to say "I just want someone to say nice things about this" or "I only want to know if these two characters sound distinct now" or whatever. If you offer some general guidance, you are probably more likely rather than less to hear from people, Just like writers often have an easier time starting with a prompt than staring at the blank page, so do readers find it easier to answer your questions than to start from scratch.
  • Seriously, if you're really want comments, putting specific questions-to-the-reader at the bottom of your post is a great way to get them. Even "what do you think of this?" often gets some bites, but detailed things like "what do you think will happen if [X] does [Y]?" or "I think John and Jack sound too much alike, can anyone suggest a good speech quirk for one of them?" or whatever.
  • If you are an author posting online and you don't want any kind of feedback, disable the comment box.
  • If you've read something online that you enjoyed, and you want to encourage the author, cheerlead. Whether a generic "I love this!" or a more specific "Your dialogue is delightful!", any author with a comment form will be happy to hear this.
  • It's generally safe to point out typos. Check to make sure they're typos first, and not variant spellings or a meaning of a word you're not familiar with or somesuch. Some authors do hate having their typos pointed out, though, so if there's an author's note or an info page you can check, never a bad idea to do so.
  • If you want to offer an author suggestions, check to make sure they are wanted. Some authors welcome ideas! Some authors hate them! If you can't tell which kind you are responding to, I recommend not doing it.

At this point, I should take my own advice and make sure this is linked somewhere that people can find it if they look for it. Oops.

I feel like I'm leaving some significant stages of writing out, or some kind of feedback that ought to be picked out distinctively, but that since the difference isn't important to me I'm overlooking it. Anyone else have different categories they use in their process? What kinds of feedback do you appreciate most?*

* Yes, I realize I am demonstrating the "use questions to get comments" technique, but I am super-curious what other people think about this topic, so yes, I am gonna encourage y'all to weigh in. :)


Me 2012

The Difference

I'm at Panera, and I don't really feel like writing anything in particular. But I do really feel like playing 4thewords, so Imma just ramble for a while. 

My Twitter feed is All Politics All the Time Now. A big popular thing is Punch Nazis in the Face. Some white nationalist dude got punched in the face and my Twitter feed is now all Pro-Violence All the Time. I am still not pro-violence against people who are not actually using force themselves. Like, sure, yes, if Nazis have declared war and are attacking people in the streets, you should definitely fight back. If Nazis have seized control of your government and are rounding people up to take them to concentration camps, that is a great time to start shooting Nazis. If Nazis have taken control of your government and are repealing the ACA, I am not sure violence is the optimal answer for that problem, though. Like I think you might still have other options you could explore. I mean, I don't remember the part where Obama started shooting GOP members so he could get the ACA passed so it's possible that's not necessary? Just a thought.

I recognize that the white nationalist creep who got punched has views far more contemptible than "repeal the ACA". But I am still a big fan of the first amendment and letting people voice their views no matter how gross and despicable. I advocate fighting speech with MORE SPEECH, not punching.

I didn't realize this was a controversial position. Apparently it is not only a controversial view, but possibly a minority one.

I don't talk about this on Twitter because Twitter remains literally the worst medium ever invented for talking about politics. I remember when I thought political ads on TV were the worst but wow, they are nuanced and rational compared to Twitter's PUNCH NAZIS IN THE FACE THAT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING.

I don't really know where I draw the line and I am afraid at some point I will need to draw it.

A few people have linked to articles that talk about actual life under authoritarian regimes, and how in the real world most people live banal and ordinary lives under authoritarian governments. Like Americans have this picture of what countries under a dictatorship look like and it's all burning, hollowed-out cities and jackbooted thugs dragging people away in the middle of the night and broken families and ... that's not really what it looks like for most people living under oppression.

Some of my friends get deeply upset by these articles: "You're normalizing evil! You're saying authoritarianism is Not That Bad."

And I keep thinking, "No. They're saying that when authoritarianism happens here we are not going to notice. Because we expect it to look really obvious and horrible and it's not gong to be like that. If you keep exaggerating how bad it is to live under one then people are going to say 'This can't be what authoritarianism looks like! There's no fire anywhere!'"

I can't remember his exact words any more, but one of the things Koogrr used to say was "If this was an actual evil person doing [X], how would I know the difference?" Where [X] is any morally difficult choice.

How would I know the difference?

A lot of my Twitter friends are very angry at anyone who didn't vote for Hillary Clinton in the last election. In the "if you didn't vote for HRC you are irredeemably evil" kind of way.

I voted for HRC and I am ashamed to have Trump as my president and I hate that the GOP will soon control* all three branches of federal government. But I don't think the people who voted for Republicans or independents in the last election are evil, or stupid, or ignorant. I especially don't think they are irredeemable.

* I have to note that this is a value of "control" that doesn't actually have the kind of ideological solidarity that people generally think it does. It is, nonetheless, bad.

That last point is the most important to me. Because the truth is, history is full of people who supported and did horrible things, and I don't mean Nazis and Hitler. I mean George Washington, the father of my country, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, both of whom owned and raped slaves. I mean Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal, who imprisoned tens of thousands of American citizens in internment camps for years solely because they were of Japanese descent. I mean that our heroes are problematic.

Like, a truckload more problematic than "opposes the ACA and doesn't trust Hillary Clinton."

The point where I knew I would never, under any circumstances, vote for Trump came for me in 2015, when he said that he supported banning Muslims from coming to America, including American citizens traveling abroad. The point where someone starts talking about internment camps based on race or religion like that is a reasonable step is the point where I am done. That is Not Acceptable.

But that he said it doesn't mean it's on his agenda of Things To Do, and I understand that, too. Lots of presidential candidates say things that please their base and no one expects them to do a thing on it. I can't say that I understand overlooking it. But I recognize that's what most of the people who voted for Trump did, for whatever reason, by whatever means.

There may come a point when it does come to this. When the government is rounding people up based on their religion and locking them up. And if that day comes, and people I know are defending that action -- if they say "Well, you know, Muslims, most of them are terrorists supporters" or otherwise try to justify that due process is unnecessary and irrelevant and this really isn't That Bad: that is the point where I will say "yup, you must be evil or stupid or ignorant."

That is the point where I will stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.

There are other lines to cross. Criminalizing homosexual behavior, say -- not just "outlaw gay marriage again" but "lock people up for having gay sex". I can live with the former but not the latter. Literally not the latter: I am one of the people who'd get locked up.

But we are not there yet. None of those things are on the table; they are not in bills before Congress or in acts that the president has authorized. The Supreme Court has not ruled that any of them are constitutional, and every recent judicial precedent goes NOPE NOPE NOPE on them. I know people are afraid that they will come to pass, but "afraid of what might happen" is not the same as "this is happening RIGHT NOW and ONLY VIOLENCE CAN STOP IT."

I don't believe in using violence to stop people from talking, even when what they talk about is, in fact, evil and stupid and ignorant.

That is principle; that is the first amendment. But it is also self-defense. Because whatever I support being done to people I disagree with may someday happen to me. Given the government we have right now, I expect it will happen to me first.

I thought a lot about whether or not I wanted to post this, because ugh, politics. Then I remembered that very few people read my journal these days, which is strangely empowering. *waves to the ten or so of you* *hugs you all* You will probably forgive me for being insufficiently in favor of violence. n_n
Me 2012

The Archive (20/80)

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The Moon Etherium’s archive was a round tower, perhaps sixty feet in diameter, lined by bookshelves and cabinets that stretched out of eyesight far above. It had neither stairs nor ladders, although perches and platforms of varying sizes extended from the walls at regular intervals, forty or so feet apart. Ardent and Miro had arrived at the base, near a set of shelves that held a dozen statues of winged lemurs, each perhaps a foot and a half tall. The floor level had seating, including a cushioned ring wider than a bed that ran most of the wall. The lowest shelves that held books were ten feet above it.

“Hullo, White!” Ardent shouted, to no one visible. She wandered over to the lemur statues. “Huh. The index used to be here. Are you lot the new index?”

One of the lemurs animated, and nodded to her.

“Huh. I’m looking for something on channeling between opposite hosts. Moon Etherium affiliate channeling from Sun Etherium affiliate, or vice versa, I suppose. Where do I go?”

“You don’t,” a voice boomed from above. Miro looked up to see a vast red dragon with a thirty-foot wingspan descending upon them in a tight spiral. The rich aether of the Moon Etherium swirled around the dragon, tendrils pulled in to sustain an otherwise impossibly large shift. White rose tattoos bloomed along red flanks, long thorny stems intertwined down to the tail tip. The dragon was missing the lower half of their left foreleg, as if amputated from just below the knee. The amputation was an unusual affectation; the same shift which gave this individual dragon form could easily have restored a missing limb. They had no visible sex characteristics, but even Miro’s dulled senses could detect the mixture of male and female hormones in their scent. The mix was wholly unlike the genderless scent of a child or neuter shape, and not distinctly male or female. Unimpeded by the absent forefoot, White Rose landed neatly on a perch above the shelves of lemur statues. They craned their long neck down to just above Ardent’s head. “That’s what the golems are for. I’ve had enough of fey idiots tromping through my hoard, re-shelving my books in the wrong place, and making an enormous mess of everything. You want something, the lemurs can get it for you. Stay put.”

Ardent reached up to pat the dragon’s nose. “Hey, great to see you too, White.”

A serpentine tongue flicked out and licked her arm. “And you, Ardent.” Yellow eyes turned to Miro. “And you’re Prince Mirohirokon.” White Rose pronounced his name in proper Sun Etherium style: Mee-roh-hee-roh-cone. The dragon had an interesting soul, a mixture of clear, intense colors and dull patches, with a strong gangrenous tentacle of greed snaking through it, alongside spreading tendrils of arrogance and pride. They and Ardent shared strings upon one another: the bright, healthy connections of long friendship, untainted by unwanted obligation. The dragon had a collection of other strings, but owed few obligations.

Miro bowed. “Mirohirokon is fine. The ‘prince’ is rather out of place, under the circumstances. A pleasure to meet you, noble dragon.” 

White Rose answered with a little snort. Ardent was explaining her request in more detail to the lemurs, several of whom had clustered closer to her to listen. One gave a little squeak and flew up, while the rest still attended. “Do you know Sudesunene?” White asked Miro.

“Yes, she’s the Sun Etherium’s archivist.”

“Is she still? Good. How is her collection?”

“Pitifully small and woefully inadequate to the needs of a modern Etherium, due to the callous disregard of a decadent, indifferent Sun Host for the value of true learning,” Miro answered. “Without Lady Sudesunene, the culture and history of Sun Etherium would have been lost beyond hope of recall centuries ago. Or so she has informed me on many occasions.”

The dragon laughed. “Wonderful!”

“She’s working on a project to have golems translate the written Old World tongue to ours,” Miro added. “It is a source of endless frustration to her. She loves it.”

“Oh?” Draconic fan-ears widened, tilting towards him. Ardent had finished instructing the lemurs and a dozen or so were winging about the tower in search of materials. “Does she have any results yet?”

“Yes. The phrasing is awkward, but reasonably intelligible.”

“How delightful. Perhaps I will write her and see if we cannot arrange an exchange. When you see her again, be sure to tell her of the immense superiority of my hoard.” A negligent wave of their tail toward the stacks that yawned above them. “Through dedication, one may overcome even the indifference and ignorance of the masses.”    

“If I see her again, I shall, noble fey.” Miro bowed. “I am sure she will find it…inspiring.”

“Indeed.” The dragon snorted a puff of aether from their nostrils. The first lemur returned, a book almost as large as it was in its hands. Ardent accepted the volume with polite thanks. “I will leave you to your inquiries. Remember: no flying around my archive. And that includes you, Ardent.” They tapped their chin against the top of her head for emphasis.

Ardent flopped the book open in one hand, and scritched the underside of White Rose’s jaw with the other. “You got it, sugar. Thanks for letting us in.” The dragon chuckled, patted her back with their only forefoot, and then leaped into the air again, flying upwards with lazy wingbeats, on a current of aether.

Another lemur came back, this one with a box of correspondence instead of a book. “Ooooh, doesn’t that look intriguing?” Ardent passed Miro her book and took the box. “Let me know if you find anything insightful, sugar.” She strolled to the couch-ring that girded the wall and flopped on her stomach to leaf through the box’s contents. Miro took one of the chairs and skimmed.

§


Half an hour or so later, they had a score of books, boxes, and even two scroll cases littered around them. Ardent looked up from her current book. “Miro, sugar, you wouldn’t lie to me about enjoying channeling just to make me feel better about doing it to you?”

Miro wrestled unsuccessfully with a smile and looked to her. “No, I would not. I will admit, had it been unpleasant, I would have done my best to conceal that fact from you, because it would in no way change what needed to be done. But I would not invent taking pleasure in it. For one, it would not have occurred to me, and for another, I would not be able to make such a lie convincing. My – what was the phrase? – pretty Sun Host courtesies only extend so far.”

She wrinkled her nose at the pages before her. “It’s just – this guy hated it. A lot. A lot a lot. It’s weird your experience is so different.”    

“What account is that?”

“It’s from, um, the year 630ish? By Red Griffon. He was the only survivor of the Sun Etherium channeling experiments on their Moon Host prisoners, during the war for freedom.”

“If I may make a suggestion, my lady? You’re looking for someone who knows how to channel well. War criminal reprobates from six centuries ago would be the exact opposite,” Miro said, and she laughed. “I suppose you might learn what not to do from them.”

“Fair enough.” Ardent set the book to one side.

There were few first-hand accounts of channeling between fey members of opposite hosts. Channeling within the same host was fairly common. It was an easy way of getting a modest aether boost. Fey used it to infuse aether into a spell faster than one could draw it in from the air, or when one needed to cast more spells in the Broken Lands than one could personally store aether for. Host-to-barbarian channeling was much less common, but still well-documented. But since the Sundering, some four hundred and fifty-odd years ago, it was rare that Sun fey were willing to come to the Moon Etherium, or vice versa, without renouncing their affiliation first. Trust between the Etheriums had never recovered. Such cases as might have happened weren’t documented. The Sundering was the last known time that a member of the High Court of either Etherium had even visited the other Etherium.

Miro did find a detailed account of the channeling practices in use prior to the Sundering, written shortly before that disaster took place and full of unwarranted optimism. “Oh, now, this is counterintuitive.”    

“Mm? Wazzat?”

“So everyone says if you increase bodily contact, you can increase the speed of aether transferance.”

“Yes. ‘Too slow’ is not exactly the problem here.”

“True. But Venodeveve writes that it also increases control. You get a better understanding of the state of your channel, how much you’re drawing, what the impact is, and so forth. You can draw faster, but you can also draw slower. She has a whole set of techniques regarding it.”

“Oh! Lemme see?” She caught the book in a current of aether and floated it to her outstretched hand. Ardent read the section while Miro picked up a new volume. “Huh. Well, that’s not going to make things even more awkward at all.”

Miro gave her a chagrinned smile. “My apologies, my lady.”

She waved it off. “Not your fault.”

They continued to skim for a little while after that, but found nothing else promising. Finally, Ardent closed the last volume and sat up, stretching. “All right, looks like Venodeveve’s method it is. Let’s go home. I don’t want to keep you up all night with this.”



Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.
Me 2012

A Lack of Information (19/80)

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After they had left the cacao orchard, Ardent teleported them back to her suite and made the gesture to accept messages again. She flopped onto her stomach on a couch and picked through the horde of messengers that swarmed in, looking for the ones she cared about most. She wrinkled her nose as she read the one from her Archivist friend, White Rose. “Hmph. Fallen is not the registered owner of any sky or tower-top properties. Which doesn’t mean she doesn’t own any from a private transaction.” She conjured her farspearker surface. “I’ll ask the Archivist if there’ve been any recent sky or tower transactions from anyone. You got any other angles to pursue, sugar?”

“I don’t know.” Miro walked to the dining table and leafed through his father’s notebook again. “She might have someone babysitting it, and apparently not my father, if today is any example to go by. She has strings on a lot of people, I imagine, but probably not many she’d trust with that secret.”

“I’d make that ‘not anyone’. Does it need a babysitter? She can watch it by scryer, and set farspeaker alerts for it, and port in herself to check on it if anything turned up.”

“True.” Miro took a seat at the table, still reading. “What story are you giving your Archivist to explain your new interest in real estate?”    

“Mm? Oh, them and I go way back. I don’t need to give them reasons – it’s all public records anyway, kinda the point – and I asked them not to tell anyone I was asking. They won’t talk.” Ardent checked through the rest of her messages. One was from the Queen’s adjunct. “Oh, Duty.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Skein is throwing a welcome-home party. Argh,” she said. At Miro’s blank look, she added, “Skein of the Absolute. Queen of the Moon Host.”

“You refer to your Queen by nickname?”

“Don’t you?”

“Ugh. No.” He made a face.

“But she’s your mother.”

“And I’m her eleventh-favorite child. And she’s my second-favorite parent. Or seventh, more accurately; I’d sooner count her other husbands as parents. When is the party?”

“Tomorrow night. And it’s utterly inescapable. I’ll have to go, and I’ll have to bring you, and there will be mobs of people who will all expect me to talk to them. Some of them in private. Persistence,” she cursed again. “I might want to leash you just so well-wishers can’t drag us apart.”

Miro smiled, touching his collar. “At least I can flee here if need be.”

“Yeah.” Ardent glanced to him. I need to make a farspeaker he can use. And for that, I need to channel. Her tongue flicked out, licking her teeth at the thought. She dug her fingers into the couch cushion as she wrestled down a surge of formerly-banked desire. Justice. What is wrong with me? …huh. Maybe I should find out. She dispatched another message to White Rose, then answered some of the myriad messages from friends. When White’s answer came back, she sat up. “I’m gonna go visit White Rose – that’s the Archivist – in person. You wanna come?”

“Certainly. You wish to review the property records yourself?” He rose to join her.

“No, I’m good on White doing that for me. This is kinda tangential research.” She stood and took Miro’s hand. “I thought I knew enough about channeling already, but it’s gotten real clear that no, I don’t. I’ve not one clue what I’m doing. Someone must’ve written about Sun-to-Moon channeling, before the Sundering if nothing else. White’s got the largest archive in the Moon Etherium, so if anyone has documentation on how this works, it’ll be them.”

He gave her another of those irresistible smiles of his. Oh boy do I ever need more information. “An excellent plan, my lady. Lead on.”



Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.
Me 2012

Up at the Farm (18/80)

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For Ardent’s sake, Miro concealed his disappointment at her decision not to channel more aether. He didn’t bother trying to pretend to himself. He couldn’t even convince himself that being stupidly, hopelessly in love with the satyress was a mistake, or making a miserable situation worse. Ardent was the one bright spot, the one thing that gave him hope and confidence in this desperate fool’s gambit. If the price he had to pay for that was unrequited love for her: so be it. He did have to remember not to harass her with his unreciprocated affections, though. Alienating her with unwanted attention would be self-sabotage.

Hence: pretend you are not disappointed. You have no right whatsoever to be disappointed.

Ardent brought them to the base of the northwest slope, but they had to hike up it on foot. The perimeters of the farms were warded against teleporting, because the use of magic around the crops would tamper with their flavor. It was a steep climb along a dirt track, but even without the direct use of aether, Miro did not find it arduous. His body was in peak physical condition – not from any particular use of it, but simply because “peak physical condition” was how he’d designed his homunculus and accordingly what Ardent had restored him to. Ardent was equally at ease; her cloven hooves were as sure as any mountain goat’s as they made the ascent. It struck him, suddenly, that since she had been a barbarian, she must have earned the thick muscles on display in her bare arms, the breadth of her shoulders, the flex of back muscles beneath her chiton, and her certain, effortless stride. She’d made no visible alterations that were more than skin-deep since their arrival, not even under Threnody Katsura’s criticisms. He wondered if Ardent’s ample, inviting breasts had been by her own intent, before she’d left Moon Etherium, or if they’d been shaped by her time in Try Again. There was something mesmerizing about the sway of them as she hiked up the slope. This entire line of thought falls under ‘unwanted attention’, he reminded himself. Even if you’re not saying it out loud. Stop. To distract himself, he asked, “Do they use golems to tend the orchard?”

“Sparingly. There’s a whole science behind measuring and managing the level of aether exposure.” The aethcacao trees grew tall to either side of them, towering over even Ardent. Large green oval leaves on slender branches partly concealed the ripening cacao pods budding along the trunks, big heavy fruits in yellows, oranges, and reds. Upslope, even taller trees cast shade over the whole of the orchard. The air smelled of rich earth but not of cocoa; the small white-and-purple flowers on the trunks had little scent.

Up the slope, a fey voice called out to them. “Ardent Sojourner, by the cycle continuing! Is it really you? What brings you to my farm?” Miro looked up, and then higher, to spot a fey clinging near the top of one tree. The farmer had a lower body like a spider’s, though with only six legs radiating from his cephalothorax. From the front of the cephalothorax rose a man’s torso, with four arms. The whole figure was flamboyantly colored, in deep iridescent blue with red and gold accents, reminiscent of a peacock spider. He had an attractive soul, pink with some corrupt striations from carelessness and indifference, but generally wholesome.

Ardent stopped and squinted at him, perhaps using a spell to identify him by his aether signature, which could not be changed. “Uhhh…Dragon Rampant?!” she said, incredulously.

The spider-centaur chuckled. “The same!” He scuttled limberly down the tree and threaded the orchard to join them. He was shorter than Miro, though more massive, given the extra limbs and counterbalancing abdomen. Presumably Dragon Rampant was trueshifted into his form so that it wouldn’t require active aether. There was a limit on the quantity and type of mass one could add or remove with a trueshift. Shifting could make one as small as a mouse or large as a dragon, but unlike a trueshift it used aether continuously. Ardent’s natural adult shape must have been over six feet, given her substantial trueshift size.

“That is some form!” Ardent craned to one side. “Let me have a look at you,” she said. Dragon Rampant did a neat rotation, all six legs moving to turn him in a circle in place. “How long have you worn it? You’ve got fantastic control!”

“Eight years now, and let’s not talk about how many times I almost gave up on it in the first year. Every now and then I still forget to just walk and try to think about how to do so instead, and this is always, always a mistake. Such a mistake. But I was so sick of always wishing I had more hands to hold tools, or more legs to hang on with, and do you know what?”

“Now you have enough?” Ardent guessed.

“No! I still want more hands.” Dragon Rampant laughed, waving all four in the air. “I’m stopping here for now, though. I’d have to trueshift smaller to get more material for the bones and such, and this is short enough.”

“Heh. Eight years, huh? Have you actually been male for eight whole years or do you still change that?”

“Oh, no, I switch genders half the time that I’m in town. Still don’t understand the appeal of monogender. What’ve you got against males?”

“Nothing! I like males fine. I just don’t particularly want to be one.”    

“But you make such an impressive one.” He gestured with his hands, indicating her height and breadth.

She makes an impressive female, too. Miro bridled at the implied criticism of Ardent, even as he recognized that her friend was teasing and she was unperturbed. “When did you have a male shape?” he asked her, by way of diversion.

“Oh, I don’t know. The occasional come-as-you-aren’t party?”

“‘Come as you aren’t’?” Miro asked.

“Yeah, where you take a very different body from your usual? Don’t they have those in Sun Etherium?”

“We do, but they’re called masquerades.”

“Oh, our masquerades are when everyone shows up as one of their friends and you try to guess who’s really who based on how they act,” Ardent said, and then glanced to Dragon Rampant. “Sorry, where’re my manners? This’s my servant, Mirohirokon of the Sun Host.” The two men exchanged civilities, then Ardent explained the reason for her visit. “So I’ve got a Sun Host channel now and figure I’ll hang around the Etherium for a while, but I’ve gotten to enjoy, y’know, actually doing things and not just ‘let me think about doing a thing but never mind aether will do it for me’. Figured I’d come talk to some of the aether-crop-farmers and see if I’d like doing some of that now and again.”

The cover story was not intended to fool Shadow of Fallen Scent. If Fallen heard about this visit, she was bound to know the reason they were nosing about cacao orchards. At best, Fallen might wonder if Ardent was being manipulated instead of assisting Miro outright. But mostly, the ruse was to distract anyone else who might be paying attention to their movements. If Ardent did not give some excuse for her investigation, rumormongers would invent one. It would complicate matters further if anyone else figured out there was a phoenix rose in the Moon Etherium.

Dragon Rampant was more than happy to talk. He led them up to his house and fed them processed samples of his crop while chatting. One such product was a fermented beverage made from aethcacao pulp. “Though I don’t like grinding or brewing or cooking enough to do a whole lot of it,” he said. “It’s just a hobby. Mostly I sell the raw beans.”

“Is business good? Do folks hike up here to buy or do you deliver?” Ardent asked.

“Duty yes, I make em come to me. It’s enough trouble growing and harvesting. Sometimes I make customers harvest their own. Who wants to work that hard?”

“Hah! You’re lucky you can get customers to come to you.”

“We’re not all fool enough to try the full barbarian life, girl. Semi-barbaric’s bad enough.”

“Seems like that’d make it harder to get new customers.”

“Oh, I’ve got a dozen regulars that’ve bought up my entire crop for years now.”

“Loyalty! All of it?”

“Yup. Last four years I haven’t even produced as much as all of them wanted. They make up the difference from the other farms.”    

Miro sipped at the cacao-pulp wine – it had a dry, fruity flavor that was almost entirely unlike cocoa – and listened as Ardent continued the conversation. She asked about the competition, what other crops were popular, the kind of work involved, potential for employment (“Ardent, if you’re offering to work for me, you’re hired now, let’s get started.” “Heh, thanks, think I’m gonna check my options and consider it a whisker more before I commit.”) and general gossip in the local produce industry. Before they were done, Miro himself was wondering if her interest in the Etherium farms was sincere.

After they left, they hiked to the adjacent orchard and spoke with two of the farmers working it. They also hadn’t had any new customers recently. Miro was impressed by the ease with which Ardent steered the next conversation as well, hitting on her desired answer naturally, without showing any sign that it was her goal. By the time they finished at that orchard, the sun was setting.

“Better wait til tomorrow to check the last farm,” Ardent said, as they made their way down the slope. “Sorry, sugar. Maybe there’ll be some news on the property front.”



Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.
Me 2012

Othering

Anke wrote a Tumblr post on sexism in sf&f. I have complicated thinky thoughts related to this, and decided I should unpack them in my own post.

First, I want to talk about the broad spectrum of "arbitrary human prejudice". I'll define this as "any time a human makes an assumption about another human in one area based on information about them in an unrelated area". For instance: "You are old, so I assume you don't know how to use Instagram" or "You are a man, so I assume you can change a tire" or "you are gay, so I assume you have good taste in clothing" or "you like the Yankees, so I assume you are a jerk".

Humans make these kinds of correlations, both negative and positive, of "If you are X you are also Y", based on pretty much EVERYTHING. Not just gender/race/religion/sexual orientation/class but even more trivial and random, like whether they're fans of video games or sports, of Star Trek or Star Wars, of fantasy or westerns, of romance or action. Whether they like knitting or crocheting, what kind of clothing they wear, what kind of makeup they wear, how they style their hair. There is nothing that humans do that is so minor that somewhere, someone isn't making a connection between it and unrelated behaviors.

Making connections between seemingly unrelated things is what humans do. Some of these connections are highly usefu, some of them are highly annoying, and a lot of them are somewhere in between.

Beyond that, disliking people who are Not Like Us is also an innate human behavior, observable even in infants over something as trivial as food preference. (This is such a depressing study. I hope it turns out to be wrong or unreplicable or something.)

I am pretty bored with fiction that explores oppression based in gender/class/orientation/race/religion/etc. I wrote The Moon Etherium in part because I wanted to write about a society that did not particularly care about any of those things. But even they did not turn out completely free of prejudice; they just have prejudices along more esoteric and personal lines. And there are reasons why they don't care about the differences that matter to my society. (In most cases, "because we're all shapeshifters and if a given shape stopped us from doing anything we wanted to, we would just change".)

I don't particularly want prejudice in the books I read. But if an author presents me with a society that is "just like medieval Europe, but without gender roles or ethnic stereotypes", my first thought is "that's not going to be 'just like'." And if you write it as if it is, it's going to feel implausible, as if you're not writing about humans at all. If there are no ethnic stereotypes, why do the ethnicities persist instead of everyone just blending into one ethnicity? If they're highly dependent on manual labor, why are men and women doing the same jobs at the same rates regardless of whether their physiques are suited to it? I'm not saying these are unanswerable questions -- only that I want answers stated, or at least hinted at.

It's not that I want oppression because it's realistic. I read f&sf. I do not require realism. But I want my dragons and mages and unicorns to be internallly consistent and well-thought-out. Not just "dragons because dragons are cool!" but dragons who do X, Y and Z and have impacted society in ways A, B and C, etc.  I want the causes and implications of an oppression-free society to also be considered. The human beings I know about from history and my world are pretty terrible at it. I'd love to know why they're better at it in a fictional setting.

OTOH, I don't give it any more consideration than I give the assorted fantastic elements of a story. When a movie or a short story happens to have a diverse cast with no visible prejudices, I don't care if it explains the why of it, because that format doesn't lend itself to explaining all the details of the backstory.

But I wrote an epic fantasy, Prophecy, my unpublished first finished draft, where I did lots of world building. But I literally never explained why there are basically no ethnic tensions or sexism. It's a low-tech world, reliant on manual labor, with no sophisticated forms of transportation or labor. This is not a situation where global open-mindedness has historically flourished. It feels sloppy to have gone "because I said so" on the topic.

I'm only giving fantasy examples because, eg, if the setting has good communication and transportation, where most work is intellectual rather than physical, then it makes sense to me that stereotypes that arose from distance and physical differences will die out. It's only when the society looks analagous to an Earth one that's loaded with discrimination that I will go "huh. Weird that you didn't get that here."

Still, overall, I am probably more inclined to overlook "because I said so" as the explanation for a bias-free society than I am to overlook other inconsistencies in a setting. I've read a lot about prejudiced societies and lived in one my whole life. It's refreshing to just skip all of it. But I still like it better if there are hints about how the fictional society managed to escape it.
Me 2012

Rush of Power (17/80)

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Ardent had been back to the Moon Etherium many times since she’d joined the barbarians: trips to visit friends, engage in trade, and store aether to carry back to Try Again. She hadn’t forgotten the pleasure of soaking in the aether, the effortless joy of satisfying every whim with a thought. No drudgery of repetitive tasks, no trudging from place to place on foot, no need to scrape and stretch wisps of aether to make them last and only use it when it was most needed.

But she’d forgotten how much richer the aether felt to affiliates of the Etherium. She’d forgotten the fierce delight of ownership, of warding a place as hers: not just a building she’d made, but a place that could not be trespassed upon.

With so much power already at her command, Ardent thought she shouldn’t feel any need for more. Yes, it was practical to take some measures to protect Mirohirokon, but that was just common sense. There was no reason for it to be accompanied by power lust, by this intense craving, this hyperawareness of him. It felt as if the moon aether inside her could sense his connection to the Sun Etherium, and yearned for the union.

Which could, y’know. Kill him.

He awaited her on the couch, looking at ease, patient, and perfectly trusting that she wasn’t about to channel a lethal tornado of sun aether straight through his all-too-vulnerable corporeal form.

The man was utterly mad.

No fey trusted another fey like this. Her own mother didn’t trust her this much. And Miro didn’t even know her. Crazy.

Ardent sat sideways beside him, one furry leg curled beneath her and the other extended before the couch. She took his hand, swallowed. “I have no idea what this is gonna be like.”

He nodded, met her eyes, and smiled mischievously. “Should be fun.”

She laughed, half-afraid and half-certain that his words were literally true, at least for her. “Yeah. So. I’m gonna start, and then you tell me to stop. About that fast. I don’t want to take any chances. If it’s not enough, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be, we can do it again. Whereas I don’t know how to fix it if I take too much.”

“My lady is very wise,” Miro said. “I am ready when you are.”

Ardent caressed the underside of his wrist. He felt so different from the first time she’d done this, when aether brimmed through him. Now he felt weightless under her touch, empty, but behind that emptiness she could sense a floodgate, balanced and poised, awaiting only a nudge to open it. “All right,” she said, and nudged.

GLORY.

Warmth and light flooded into her, met the Moon Etherium aether inside, and twined through it with the caress of a hundred loving hands. It was—

She stopped, yanking her hands apart, panting from that exertion, from fighting down the yearning to continue. Ardent jammed her fists between the sofa cushions to make sure she didn’t grab him again. Miro had slumped against the backrest, strands of long indigo hair falling over his golden face. His eyes were open, looking at her. She took a deep breath. “You told me to stop.”

“Mm-hmm,” he agreed. “You said I should.”

“Right.” Power hummed through her veins, a sweet siren song, calling for more. “That was smart of me. Good call, me.” She scootched back on the couch, putting some distance between her and temptation. “I hope it isn’t always this overwhelming.”

“It’s a trifle distracting.”

She gave a shaky, nervous laugh at the understatement. “You think? You all right there, sugar?”

“Wonderful. You should do that again. I’m sure that wasn’t enough,” Miro said, straight-faced. He lay limp, completely relaxed against the sofa.

Ardent laughed again. “No, seriously, how are you feeling?”

“Incredible.” He finally shifted to raise his arms over his head, and stretched like a cat, back arched. “As if I’d just received the start of a truly magnificent massage. If channeling for the opposite host is always this good I don’t know why it’s not more popular.”

“I think that the ‘could kill you’ part serves as a significant deterrent for most fey,” Ardent said, dryly. He made a dismissive ‘pfft’ sound and leaned forward, eyes heavy-lidded, smile deeply contented. He did look well, much better than he had after the first time she’d channeled from him. No question, he was crazy, but sure as Love was an Ideal, he made madness look attractive. She reached out to tuck a lock of his hair behind his ear, and he gave her a bewitching sidelong smile. Ardent caressed his cheek, wondered what by all the Ideals she thought she was doing, and retreated again. She cleared her throat. “All right. Let’s see what I can do with this.”

She returned to the table to fetch the collar, and detached the chain from it with a flick of aether before pulling the collar straight. Then she turned it over in her hands, tracing her fingers across it to leave curling paths of aether. She’d never been a skilled enchanter, but over the course of two hundred-odd years of life in the Moon Etherium, she’d learned the essentials and completed a number of different enchantments. Infusing an item with its own supply of aether was the first step.

“You’re going to enchant the collar?” Miro lifted his head to watch her.

“Like you said. You gotta wear it anyway. Might as well make it useful.”

“I like it.” He gave her a slow, sensual smile.

Please stop being sexy at me, sugar. It’s distracting. Ardent didn’t say anything. She was pretty sure he wasn’t doing it on purpose and wasn’t entirely sure he was doing anything at all. It might just be her ancient libido waking up, stretching, and going whoa hi remember me? It’s been too long! It hasn’t been that long, she told herself.

Twelve years.

Yeah, and that’s not that long. In the grand scheme of my life. Go back to sleep, I’m busy. She concentrated on the collar and finished the infusion, nerves still humming with aether. She set the collar down to go over the pattern of a port in her mind. Without engaging one, she remembered each step of how it happened and analyzed the process. Ardent took the collar to the center of the suite, beside the spiral stairs, and traced a pair of runes in glamour in the air: one for herself, one for castle. She curled the collar around the runes and let it hang in the air, tracing the same runes at the compass points of it. “What triggers do you want, sugar? I was thinking a threefold one: either snap your fingers on both hands, or click your heels twice, or say ‘home home home’. Ones that you won’t set off by accident, but also where you’d be able to trigger it if someone was trying to grab you or stop you. Think that’d work?”

“I can remember those. Sounds good.” He was draped languidly over the sofa, turned to watch her.

“All right.” She swirled the teleport pattern over the air around the collar, then used a surge of channeled power to fuse the pattern to the collar and bind it to the suite. Ardent felt the pattern wavering on the collar, and clamped down on it with another surge, shaping a net of aether to secure the two together. Blue light flared in lines across the circle.

As the light faded, the white gold circlet dropped from the air. Ardent caught it. “Blight and aphids!”

Miro straightened. “Did it fail, my lady?”

“No, it worked.” Ardent felt aether whisper inside the metal, the lines of enchantment true and strong. “But I’m tapped out again.”

The Sun lord chuckled. “Oh, no. Whatever shall we do now?” She shot him a glower, and his expression sobered. “I shall have to stay close to you, my lady, as we investigate the farms, and take care not to be separated.” Miro rose to join her, his stride as graceful as ever, if not more so: easy and relaxed, not weary. As he stopped before her, he lifted his chin in silent invitation. “I’ve no one to message but you in any case. The other may wait, if you’d rather.”

Ardent secured the collar around his throat. Her fingers trembled. She didn’t feel in control of herself at all, and almost wished it was harder for him, that he would be less tempting. “I think…yeah, that’d be for the best.” Maybe with a little time I can pull myself together again.

Miro dropped his eyes, like the meek obedient servant he wasn’t. “As my lady wishes.”

The satyress crinkled her nose at him, then floated Jinokimijin’s notebook to her hand before they left. Safe as her Etherium apartment was, she still felt better keeping important things on her. She contemplated the notebook, wondering how much she ought to trust Jinokimijin’s notes. Miro might have faith in his father’s capabilities, but Miro was hardly unbiased.

Ardent had never met Jinokimijin in person before, but the man was infamous, even in the Moon Etherium. His grandfather had supposedly possessed the Gift of soulsight. Soulsight purportedly gave one the ability to judge a fey’s worth by sight alone, to read the history of failings and virtues in one’s soul. Jinokimijin’s father had claimed to have the same Gift. Jinokimijin had never said that he did, but the possibility that his line might carry it had drawn the attention of the Sun Queen. She had married him in the hopes of having a child with the same talent.

Then, a few years after the birth of the child – Mirohirokon, apparently, though Ardent didn’t know if she’d ever heard anyone mention the kid’s name – Jinokimijin’s grandfather was stranded in a mortal realm when the fey shard moved on unexpectedly. Then Jinokimijin’s father was proved to be a fraud, who’d gotten by on cleverness and imitation of the grandfather’s prognostications. Some doubted that even the grandfather had really had the talent he’d claimed. Jinokimijin’s child with the Sun Queen had shown no signs of any particular talent, and their relationship soon soured. Before their child was ten, the Sun Queen had divorced Jinokimijin. He became a laughingstock, desperate to regain his lost standing through a series of vain, self-aggrandizing schemes that only humiliated him further when they failed. Ardent felt sorry for Mirohirokon. Whatever his dad had done, it wasn’t his fault. Maybe Jinokimijin had learned something in the forty-some years since his fall from the High Court. The notes certainly looked thorough and methodical. But that didn’t mean they were.

She shook off the train of thought as she realized Miro was still waiting on her. After putting the book in her bag, she took his hand and teleported the two of them away.



Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.
Me 2012

Principled Opposition and the Affordable Care Act

A recurring sentiment I keep seeing on Twitter is 'Those conservatives oppose the ACA because they want poor people to suffer!' That's about the nicest way I see it phrased. Most of the other ways are more hyperbolic. 'I didn't think that real evil -- the kind of monsters who want to make people suffer -- existed on a large scale in the world. But then I realized a large fraction of the voting population wants the ACA repealed.'

I don't feel strongly about the ACA, to be honest. It's of modest personal benefit to me in a few ways. I suppose there are people who choose their policy positions based on whether or not those policies benefit them personally. I have never been that person. I want my government's policies to benefit the population as a whole.

Here are my health care ideals:

* Incentivize high quality care
* Incentivize the development and exploitation of effective new treatments, drugs, vaccines, etc.
* Incentivize breakthroughs: revolutionary care
* Disincentivize fraudulent and ineffective treatments, drugs, etc.
* Make high-quality care accessible to everyone

These are all good things.

They cannot all be accomplished simultaneously. You cannot just push all the sliders to 100% and Acheivement Unlocked: Perfect Healthcare.

You can minmax it. Regulation deters fraud (good!), and it also slows and sometimes prevents innovation (bad!) But all regulation is not created equal. You want the regulations that do the most good and the least harm. It is totally possible to make regulations that do no good (unless you count 'protecting the market of existent companies' as a good) and lots of harm. It's not possible to make regulation that does zero harm, but that doesn't mean it can't be minimized.

The truth is, health care in the real world has long since passed the point where I have any clue what policies are doing best on my sliders above. I don't really want to argue the specific details of the ACA or health care policies.

Mostly what I want to say is:

* I do not think people are evil and selfish if they want the ACA repealed. Most of them believe one or more of the following:
-- the free market will encourage more smart, dedicated people to enter and remain in healthcare professions.
-- heavy government regulation leads to corruption
-- the free market will provide a wider variety of healthcare options for more people
-- the free market will encourage more innovation and advancement in healthcare.

Likewise:

* I do not think people are evil and selfish if they want the ACA to continue. They believe one or more of the following:
-- the ACA helps more people get access to care
-- healthcare in the US without the ACA was a balkanized disaster that left tens of millions uninsured and was an accounting nightmare for medical professionals and financially ruinous for the ill and really anything is an improvement.
-- government involvement in healthcare will not deter innovation and/or will spur it. And/or innovation is less important than access.

My point is not "the arguments for each side above are all true and if you disagree with them you are an idiot". They may all be wrong! But people who believe them are not evil or stupid or insane. They are acting on a combination of facts and heuristics to try to encompass an enormously complicated system.

I am personally okay with the ACA being repealed or not. I can't tell how much good vs bad it is doing and feel like it's probably roughly equal.

I am pretty sure I have said all this before, more eloquently and with more evidence, and all the people who say "the only reason anyone opposes the ACA is because they think poor people deserve to die" are going to ignore me this time too.

So I guess I am writing this whole rant for the three people who already know everything in it but just want to hear someone else say it. So they know they're not alone. So they know not everyone on the Internet thinks they're evil monsters.

You're not an evil monster. It's okay.
Me 2012

Are You Mad? (16/80)

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The Moon Queen reaffiliated Ardent with her Etherium personally, and embraced her when the ritual was complete. Miro found that sign of personal affection interesting, especially given the tension between the two fey. Ardent had a string on her queen: thin, but real. Until the queen had offered a slender thread with the reaffiliation, she’d had none on Ardent.

Neither of those compared to the enormous cable Miro had handed Ardent during the court, of course. That was a tangled thing, threaded with contamination from his conflicted motives. Oddly, it looked uglier on her end than it did on his, and was still purer than he’d expected.

Miro felt strangely light, despite the collar on his neck and the new tether on his soul. He didn’t regret that extravagant oath to Ardent: he was confident she would never abuse it. And it had served to convince the entire court of his sincerity. No fey would make such a binding oath in bad faith. Even made in good faith it was all but unimaginable, to place unlimited power in the hands of another. But he’d already placed his life in her hands: what was an oath?

He should’ve been troubled by it: it would be all too easy for that oath to conflict disastrously with his other obligations. In some sense, it probably already did.

After their dismissal from the Moon Court, Ardent ported him to her old home, still intact after all these years.

The main chamber, where they entered, was a round room some hundred yards across, with a domed ceiling. The walls and ceiling looked transparent, providing a lofty view of the chaotic Moon Etherium that sprawled far below their perch in an improbable tower. Miro suspected that only one section of the wall was truly transparent and the rest were glamour. It was unsettling that he couldn’t tell for sure, but the foreign moon aether interfered even with that skill.

“Gimme a minute, sugar.” Ardent put him down and surveyed the room with a sigh. She began walking the perimeter, making gestures of ownership and warding as she went. In one half of the chamber was a network of five empty pools of differing sizes, from eight feet across to eighty. The other half was a living space, with a massive sunken pillow nest at its center, and chairs and sofas of various sizes. To one side of the pillow nest was a library, shelves still full of books, and on the other was a kitchen and dining area. A thick layer of dust coated everything. A spiral staircase came up from the level below the floor and led up to the ceiling and vanished – a strong hint that glamour covered the ceiling.

Miro unfastened his excessively formal jacket, pulling its collar out from under the snug white-gold one Ardent had given him. He placed the jacket across one chair back. Absently fingering the cool metal of the collar, he glanced about the main room. Ardent went through the entire room, then disappeared down the stairs. Miro walked to the wall that he thought was genuinely transparent – it had an oval door leading out to a balcony – and leaned against it, looking out at the strange city, waiting. At length, he heard her hoofsteps even through the plush carpet around them. He turned around to smile at her.

She didn’t smile back. “I’ve reclaimed the quarters and warded them. We should be safe now.” And then: “I release you.”

“What?” But he already knew, before the startled syllable was out: the rope connecting their souls was dissolving.

“From that insane oath you made. Justice!” she swore. “What was that about? Are you mad? Why would you – you don’t even know me! Why would you make a promise like that to anyone, ever?”

Miro watched her soul’s hands, and all the pure strings she held without conscious awareness. Is that why she is owed no warped debts? Does she refuse to retain anything that’s tainted? He closed his eyes. “I needed to convince the court I wasn’t a threat.”

“Well, you did that, at least assuming they’re not scared of crazy fanatics,” she said. He felt her fingers brush his neck, and opened his eyes as she pulled the seamless metal collar apart and removed it. She held the now-open circle in her hands for a moment, then hurled it across the room, sending it skittering over the tiles by the pool. “Those degenerates! Those smug, self-satisfied, degenerate maggots! ARGH!” She punched her fist into the transparent wall, and it trembled under the impact.

Miro tensed, unsure how to respond. “My lady?”

Ardent pivoted to put her back to the wall, then sagged, sliding down until she sat on the floor. “Katsura. She knew, curse her. She knew, and didn’t even tell me.”

“…knew what?”

“They wanted that performance. That whole sick game, just to humiliate you. Not that they care about you, just what you stand for. Sun Host. And I played right into it. Curse them! I should’ve told the whole truth.”

“And had your Queen take the phoenix rose? Do you trust her with it more, now?” Miro crossed the room to where the collar lay.    

Ardent scowled. “No. But I could have told them I was here to intercede on your father’s behalf.”

“With your vast influence over Shadow of Fallen Scent.”

Ardent growled.

Miro bent to pick up the collar. The alloy was almost too soft for jewelry: it bent in his hands. He put it back around his neck and pushed the ends to touch. Without aether, he couldn’t make it seal together the way Ardent had.

When he turned back, Ardent had restored her earlier appearance: a short chiton in place of the elaborate court gown, all the jewelry and dyes gone, her hair a fluffy curly mass held back only by a headband. She’d neglected to change her ears back; they were still fey instead of caprine. “Why are you putting that thing back on?” she asked him.

“Because it will be expected of me while I am here, and I don’t want to forget it.” Miro touched the metal again. “I am sorry to cause you distress, my lady. I’ll take it off.”

Ardent lifted her eyes to his, her look heartbroken. “Oh, sugar. Don’t – don’t apologize to me. None of this is your fault.” She climbed to her hooves.

“I am the proximate cause of your departure from Try Again and your presence here at all,” he pointed out.

“Hah. We could argue that your dad’s the cause of that. And I’m not mad at him, either. Much less you. I’m mad at the Justice-deprived Moon Court. And Fallen, aether desert her. You’re the last person I should be taking it out on.” She crossed the room to him, cupping her hands around his as he held the collar before him. Her hands were still soft: she hadn’t restored their callouses, either. “I’m sorry, Miro. Are you all right? You seem to be taking all this a lot better than I am, and I can’t tell if that’s because you are, or if it’s just your Sun Court manners.”

He laughed, because Sun Court manners did indeed demand equanimity in the face of provocation. Miro tilted his head back to meet her black eyes. “I am fine. I am not humiliated.” He laughed again. “On the contrary, I am vindicated.”

“Vindicated?” She raised full eyebrows at him.

“Indeed! I swore an absurd, overbroad oath to you, confident that you would not take advantage of it. And not only was I right in that, but the first thing you did, once it was safe, was release me from it. You may think me a fool to trust you, but I know: my trust is not misplaced.”

“I don’t think you’re a fool.” She took the collar from his hands, reached with one hand to brush his hair – still longer than he was tall and white-blond – back from his neck. “I think you’re a madman. There’s a difference.”

“I stand corrected.”

Ardent dropped her hand. “Did you want your original form back, or to stay like this?”

“Restored, if you please.” Miro walked back to where he’d left his jacket, and retrieved a homunculus of his original shape from its pocket. He could no longer use it on his own; it was not an enchantment itself, merely a token that stored all the information on what his body should be like. He gave it to Ardent. “Less ostentatious clothing would be appreciated, too.”

She empowered it for him and returned it, giving him back his everyday body. “There’s a spare bedroom downstairs. I reactivated its wardrobe for you, in case you need the fancy suit again. You hungry?” she asked. “I’m gonna make some food. You want aetherfood or real or both?”

“Both, please.” He started down the stairwell.

“Sure. Any preference?”

“I liked the curry and bread you fed me last night,” he called up. The lower floor was divided into a few rooms. He stepped into the one with an open door and a visible bed large enough to sleep a dragon. Its wardrobe had a mirror similar to Threnody Katsura’s, albeit with far fewer options. He stored his current outfit inside, then flipped through the mirror until he found an outfit with a long jacket, trousers, and simple shoes. The jacket was different from Sun Etherium’s – it sealed up the front with a seam, and had narrow sleeves – but it was close enough to look comfortable to his eyes. He opened the wardrobe’s mirrored door, and the outfit waited inside.

When Miro returned to the living space, Ardent had swept all the signs of disuse from it: the pools were filled with water, and the thick dust was gone. Sessile was half-curled in the massive sunken pillow nest, with her mouth open. Aether-carried bags of food floated out of her to stock the kitchen. A curry simmered on the stove. Platters of hors d’oeuvres were on the dining table. “Help yourself.” Ardent was by the stove, gesturing vaguely to the table. A handful of messengers hovered about her, and she had an aetheric surface open to one side. “That’s all aetherfood. Lemme know if you want anything different, sugar.”

He sat and popped one of the nearest confections into his mouth. It proved to be a puff of pastry wrapped around spiced meat. It crunched delicately between his teeth, and melted on his tongue with the characteristic smoothness of aetherfood. “Thank you! It’s delicious. Might I see my father’s notebook?”

Ardent tugged on a current of aether, and her bag floated out of the golem too. It set itself on the table, opened, and the notebook rose from within. “I think that’s everything from you that’s mine, Sessile,” she told the earth serpent golem.

“All right!” The golem brought her great jaws together again. “Do you want me to deliver the rest for you, or are you coming along?”

“I think I’ll let you deliver it.” Ardent took the scrying crystal from Sessile’s nose. “I’ll give you a list of prices to go with your destinations. If anyone doesn’t want to pay that price, don’t make the delivery and tell them I’ll come negotiate with them later. You got all that?”

Sessile nodded, squirming in the pillow nest as Ardent finished setting destinations and socketed the scrying ball back in place. “Uh huh. You can count on me!” She teleported out of the room.

While they spoke, Miro ate another pastry, and leafed through the notebook. Ardent had added some highlights and notes of her own in the margins. He laughed aloud as he read over one of them.

“What?” the satyress asked as she fetched the pot of curry from the stove and brought it to the table.

“Your outrage at the delicacy of the creature.”

“Well, it is absurd. All right, so they can only hatch under natural conditions at least fifty miles from an Etherium, and only in the fey world while it’s overlapped with our original mortal one. They need natural air, natural sunlight, and natural water. With you so far. But then they have to bathe in aether-created rain showers? They need to be fed on an aether-natural hybrid of the plant that hatched them? How does this thing ever survive in the wild?”

“It doesn’t,” Miro said.

“But your dad says it can’t be cultivated?”

“He was unsuccessful in cultivating it, yes. But the phoenix rose stage of the creature’s life cycle is naturally brief. They hatch, they ascend, they fruit, scatter seeds, all in one day. The seeds almost all blossom into firebuds, which will never be a phoenix rose. All these finicky requirements are how you entrap it at the phoenix rose stage, because that’s when they have all the interesting magical-aetheric properties.”

“Huh. So if you stop doing all this now it’ll – what – fruit and seed?”

“No, not after it’s been cultured for several days, not if Fallen is doing it properly. Right now, it would probably just die if it couldn’t get what it needs to remain a phoenix rose. In a week or two it’ll move out of needing most of the specifics.”

“Mm-hmm. So we’d better find it fast.” Ardent dished up curry for both of them, and offered a basket of flatbread. “Didn’t have the patience to bake real bread, I’m afraid, but the aether version’s still good.” The curry was chicken-and-tomato based this time, and the bread garlic and rosemary and fine-grained, but no less delectable. Miro ate with a will, while Ardent turned the notebook about to glance over it as she ate. “So it’d have to be in one of the towers or the floaters, to be far enough from the core of the Etherium not to overdose on aether, and still close enough to grow up big and strong. And still get natural air and sun, which it couldn’t underground. That…doesn’t narrow it down as much as you’d hope.” She glanced out her window at the crowded Moon Etherium sky.

“It has to be somewhere Fallen owns,” Miro added. “Or it wouldn’t be in her possession and my father’s bargain with her would be out of force.”

“Ah! Good point.” Ardent finished her meal, then conjured a new surface beside her, and dispatched a few messages. “I’ll ask around, see if I can find out what properties are known to be under her control. But she could’ve made a private deal for a deed, and not registered it. Which she might have, given that she wants to keep the creature and her ownership of it a secret.” She tapped a blunt-tipped finger against the notebook. “The food requirements are interesting. Do you know what plant type it hatched from?”

Miro nodded, swallowing curry-soaked bread. “Yes. Cacao tree.”    

“Mmm, now, that’s convenient.” Ardent twisted about in her chair, and summoned a glamour to show the entirety of the Moon Etherium.

“Convenient?”

“Because there’s already an aethcacao cultivar.”

Miro leaned back. “So Fallen wouldn’t have to splice together her own hybrid before the phoenix rose died.”

“Mm-hmm. And, even better, there’s only a few fey who grow it. Three farmers, if memory serves and they’re all still operating.” Ardent walked through her illusory three-dimensional map to examine the north slopes of the Etherium’s crater-valley. “Looks like the farms are still there. You can only grow it on the slopes, in real soil and sun, and the northwest slopes get the best exposure. Needs just the right amount of raw aether for that magic-chocolate flavor. The aethcacao farms are almost as manual as barbarian farms.”

Miro rose to join her by the map, watching as she pointed to miniature slopes dotted with green trees, fruit nearly invisible beneath their leaves. “You think Fallen will have bought from them.”

“Yup.” She turned to him with a grin. “Wanna go visit some chocolate farms and see if they’ve had any new customers lately?”

He offered his hand. “It would be my pleasure, my lady.”

Ardent took it, but she hesitated rather than leaving.

“My lady?” Miro asked. Her large fingers curled around his hand, thumb tracing over his wrist. It was a slight gesture, to feel so sensual, to make his pulse race. “Is there…something else?”

“Yeah. Kinda. Um.” She rubbed one brown hand over her face, still holding onto him. “Right. So this is a pretty safe place. It’s mine, it’s warded, nobody should be able to get through the door or port in without me letting them.”

“You’re not thinking to leave me here because it’s safe?”

“No…well, I hadn’t been…” She giggled as he narrowed his eyes at her. “No, I won’t leave you here. Although it is tempting. But I don’t want you running around the Moon Etherium completely vulnerable if we get separated. I want to at least forge a teleport connection for you to here, so you can port here on your own. And give you a farspeaker device, since you can’t summon one.”

“I am certainly amenable to this.”

“Right. But I’m not much at enchanting and while I know it’s possible to make stuff like that by using aether efficiently I only know a few people who know how and I don’t know what it would cost or how long it’d take but I’m pretty sure I could do it if I…” Ardent spoke in one long breathless rush until she trailed off abruptly.

“Channeled power from me?” In some way, her obvious uncertainty made it easier for Miro to feign equanimity. As if she were nervous enough for both of them. Although it wasn’t nervousness that he felt at all. It was excitement. Longing. Both of which were inappropriate to the situation, and less intelligible than Ardent’s nerves.    

“Yes. That.” Ardent covered her face with her hand.

“That sounds very rational and practical.” Which it did, Miro reminded himself. “Shall we begin? I had best sit for this.” She nodded, face still in her hand, looking adorably embarrassed. He withdrew his hand from hers and moved to a seat on one of the sofas, reasoning he’d be less likely to fall off of that than a dining chair.



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