Before they arrived, Ardent put the notebook down to discuss their story. Whatever they said, Shadow of Fallen Scent would know Mirohirokon had come to the Moon Etherium because of his father. “She’s not gonna be all ‘Oh, what a coincidence! You just got a Sun Host channel too! However could that have happened to both of us in the same week?’”
But Ardent’s motive for coming with him would be less clear. They could portray her as a willing confederate, or one he’d manipulated into assisting, or one who was taking advantage of his desperation. Or some tangled combination of all three.
After discussing the advantages and disadvantage of various options, they settled on one, not without some reservations. Ardent admonished Sessile not to speak to anyone of their conversation along the journey.
“Awww.” Sessile’s pout was audible even in her distorted voice. “Not even to Whistler? Not even the bit about more aether not being the answer?”
The satyress suppressed a smile. “Sorry, sweetie. Not even that, not even to him. This’s real important. You can keep quiet for us, right, Sessile? Don’t even act like there’s anything interesting that you can’t discuss.”
“Uh huh,” Sessile said, obedient if still disappointed. “I won’t tell, I promise.”
Miro felt the pressure of the Moon Etherium’s nearness long before they arrived. Aether enriched the air, but instead of soaking into him as the Sun Etherium’s would, it felt like a barrier against his skin. It leeched away at the aether he’d stored when he left the Sun Etherium, faster than the dryness of the Broken Lands, a dissipation that was nothing like channeling. It did not leave him tired, merely parched. He’d read about the effect but never experienced it before – nor had anyone he knew. In modern times, fey who wished to go to the opposite Etherium unaffiliated first, so that the aether of the other Etherium would welcome them instead of rendering them helpless. He fed the last of his aether into his various enchantments before it was gone, even though it scarcely mattered at this point. The enchanted items had no affiliation and would recharge soon enough from the Moon Etherium’s aether.
In the fey world, the Moon Etherium rested in a crater-like valley between hills. On the uphill slope was a fanciful town populated by a mixture of barbarians and Moon Host fey. They were near enough to the Etherium to enjoy a much higher supply of aether than Try Again. The difference showed in the many golems working in the streets, and the splendour of their architecture. It was a haphazard fusion of individual Fey aesthetics with the styles of dozens of different mortal worlds, with no regard for their original purpose. Mortals reserved their most interesting designs for their rulers and their gods. Here, ordinary fey of no particular consequence lived in palaces and temples, pagodas and parthenons, cathedrals and towers. One marble street was shaded by golden trees with jeweled leaves, for a particularly gaudy touch. The buildings were as large as their mortal equivalents, but not as well-ornamented. Most of them had simple, repeating designs, instead of a proliferation of unique cartouches.
Sessile slithered up the gaudy marble street, with evident delight as she made the sparkling trees chime. Ardent glanced up at the noise, and put the notebook down in her lap to turn to him. “We’re almost there, sweetie. You still sure about this?”
“I still don’t have any better ideas.” He half-smiled at her. “Yes. I’m sure.”
She reached out to offer her hand. He took it, finding comfort in the strong grip of her weathered fingers, the clean warmth of her soul. Perhaps this could work, after all.
They crested the rise, and the Moon Etherium sprawled beneath them.
Mirohirokon’s first impression of it was of a dizzying, chaotic mass of colors and styles, with no unifying theme and no underlying reason.
In a true physical sense, he knew that the Moon Etherium proper was a sphere, a mile and a half in diameter. But with enough aether, space itself was a malleable thing. It was easy to learn how to make more space, or make distances disappear. To do both at the same time was tricky, but by no means impossible. At an Etherium, there was far, far more than enough aether.
Miro could see across the Moon Etherium valley to the not-too-distant hill on the far side. He was simultaneously aware that the valley was small, and also that it sprawled without end.
Within that sphere, less than two miles across, a vast metropolis spread before them.
Palaces drifted in the Etherium sky: one borne on the back of a pegasus, another resting on clouds, a third inverted, towers stretching towards the ground, foundation thrust into the sky, supported by nothing at all. A glass sailing ship with a dragon’s head prow and three masts hovered motionless in the air despite its rigged and billowing sails. A slender silver cable anchored it to a tower. On the ground, a vast flower garden formed a landscape painting more rational than the actual landscape around them. A stately mansion was at the center of the garden. Impossibly, its facade faced the sky, and at the same time faced forward at ground-level. Beside it was an incongruous collection of smooth, colorful, house-sized blobs against a matte-black surface. That surface should have been on the slope of the southwestern hill, but it looked flat and level. Beside that was a lake the size of a small sea, with water so clear one could see the underwater palaces made of air bubbles and coral reefs, fathoms beneath the surface. Hippocampi and sea serpents frolicked with merfolk. At the western edge, an ordinary-looking park of green grass and trees abutted a yawning abyss that oozed smoke, its bottom too deep to see, its sides fitfully lit by red flames.
Fey in a thousand shapes walked, flew, slithered, swam, and above all teleported as they moved through the scene: vanishing in an eyeblink, to reappear elsewhere in the Etherium. Many were humanoid, but few were as similar to a human as Miro. Some looked cast from metal, or stone, or sewn out of cloth: if he hadn’t had soulsight, Miro could have taken them for golems. Some were larger than Ardent, and most had some animal features. Feline ears, squirrel tails, scaled bodies, horns and wings abounded, as did skin, feathers, chitin, and more improbable substances. Others were not even humanoid. Some fey had shifted to the shape of dragons, unicorns, winged panthers, centaurs, and other impossible creatures.
At the center of this spectacle rose the Midnight Palace, a towering edifice that defied physical law. Among the absurdities were outer sections that swept out like a bird’s wings from the main body. Towers rose from absurdly narrow bases into house-sized protuberances. Upside-down staircases formed skybridges between peaks. Towers were at once behind and in front of walls. The whole was midnight blue in color, with galaxies and nebulas of stars that swirled slowly across its surface. The shape of a large glowing moon made a gradual orbit over the outer walls, changing from full to new to full as it progressed. It was currently gibbous, and rising to the left and above the doors into the east wing.
The riotous appearance of Moon Etherium – so unlike the more naturalistic and harmonious look of Sun Etherium – distracted Miro from the sudden thickness of the aether surrounding them. That sense of a barrier intensified: aether everywhere, rich and deep, all denied to him. Something inside him had opened in response, as if by the pressure of vacuum: the channel that would allow Ardent – or any fey who wasn’t Sun Host – to access the Sun Etherium’s aether. He felt uncomfortable and hideously vulnerable.
Next to him, Ardent had released his hand. The same moon aether that had deprived Miro of all magical ability had filled Ardent with potential. As an unaffiliated fey, she would not have the breadth or depth of connection that a Moon Host fey did, but it was still more than enough power to fulfill a mortal’s wildest dreams. She’d summoned a farspeaker surface into the air before her. Her hands flew over it, writing, drawing symbols and pictures, as she dispatched messages to her friends and contacts in the Moon Etherium. Return messages flowed in almost at once, in forms as varied as the Moon Etherium itself. A scroll appeared and unrolled itself at her elbow, a bird swooped in through the opening of one of Sessile’s carved nostrils and landed on her wrist, a glowing ball of light drifted through Sessile’s side and hovered to one side at eye level, and more. At least that flurry of activity had a familiarity to it, even if the shapes of the farspeakers were different.
“Where do you want to go here?” Sessile asked. “And do you want me to teleport?”
Ardent made a distracted motion, and Miro answered in her stead. “I believe we’re going to the Midnight Palace, Sessile.” Technically, Ardent didn’t need the Moon Queen’s permission to reaffiliate; it wasn’t as if anyone could stop her, especially with Miro to channel for her. But it would be polite, and there was no reason to antagonize the High Court. “And there’s no rush.”
“Yes!” Sessile said, triumphant. She slithered into the top of a steep switchback ramp with sloped sides, then slid down it by gravity alone. A muffled “wheeeee!” echoed through her interior, and Miro laughed despite his discomfort. He leaned back in his seat and enjoyed the ride down, watching the Etherium flash past. At the base of the ramp, Sessile slithered along a broad and all but empty road to the Palace.
By the time they reached the door, Ardent had dismissed her farspeaker surface. She swept a few still-waiting messengers into her bag and drew a symbol in the air that would prevent new ones from arriving.
“How did it go?” Miro asked her.
Ardent massaged the base of her horns with one hand. “Ugh. So much noise. Let’s see. One of my friends, Threnody Katsura, has attempted to fill me in on a year’s worth of gossip. This included Fallen’s newest acquisition of a Sun Host channel. So if we had any doubts that she wouldn’t be showing your dad off, that’s settled. I spoke with the Queen’s adjunct, Diamond of Winter. It said that the Queen looks forward to seeing me and I should attend her ‘as soon as you have recovered from your journey’. Which translates to ‘clean up first, you uncivilized barbarian, and in the name of Duty wear something presentable’.” She looked down at her chiton and sighed. “I have no idea what’s in fashion these days. Let me amend that: I have never had any idea what’s in fashion. But I’m pretty sure ‘mortal peasant chic’ will not be it.”
His lips twitched. “I can tell you what’s current in the Sun Etherium High Court, if you wish to present yourself in high style for the wrong court.”
That won him a laugh. “Oh, now, that would make a statement. Let’s save that thought for when I’m not trying to be on my best behavior. I better ask Katsura for advice.” She made the gesture to allow messages again, and conjured the farspeaker. Miro watched her expression as she received Katsura’s replies by successive scrolls. Ardent stowed a few scrolls, dismissed most of them into the aether after reading, kept one, and violently incinerated four, with a ferocious scowl. “Argh, Katsura!”
Miro reclaimed his father’s notes to peruse while he waited, and kept his peace throughout, struggling not to smile.
After frowning at yet another scroll, Ardent turned to him with a sigh. “Sweetie, I think we’d better see Katsura in person. The latest High Court trends are things I haven’t even seen before, so I’d make a hash of replicating them myself. And we should probably dress you up, too. Katsura thinks you ought to wear the fashion of Sun High Court. I’m gonna guess it’s way more elaborate and ridiculous than that nice outfit you’re wearing?”
Miro laughed and nodded.
“And I’d make even more of a disaster out of that, insofar as that’s possible. Katsura loves fashion, she and her partner have a business doing it.” Ardent sounded glum. “So. Yeah. You all right with getting dressed up?”
“Of course.” For some reason, the prospect of dressing for the Sun High Court while in the Moon Etherium amused him. He rose and offered his hand. “Shall we?”
Ardent stood, stooped to avoid bumping her head, and scooped him up in one arm. “Go have fun, Sessile, I’ll farspeak you when we need you,” she told the golem, then ported herself and Miro away.
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