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.”
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