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On the Trail (54/80)

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Ardent didn’t take them back to her apartment this time. Miro didn’t recognize the new space: it was a plain wooden cube, perhaps eight feet on a side. Ardent had trueshifted shapes, into a short fox-tailed man wearing a suit, trouser legs tucked into boots. Still a sparrow, Miro landed on his shoulder. A hummingbird-winged golem flitted up to Ardent and curtsied. “Greetings, my lord.”

“Hello. May I ask the price for an hour’s lease?” Ardent spoke in a baritone, neither his voice nor mannerisms familiar. Had he been unable to see Ardent’s familiar pure bonfire soul overflowing from this little stranger, Miro might have wondered if he’d somehow misplaced his friend.

“True hour or perceptual, m’lord?”

“True hour.”

“Two feyours.”

Ardent paid the golem four feyours. “Is privacy still warranteed?”    

“The Underground maintains the best publicly-available privacy wards in the Moon Etherium. If your privacy is breached, we will notify you at once and refund your fee. Would you like me to shift your scene before I go, or would m’lord prefer to do so himself?”

Ardent waved his hand. “I’ll take care of it. Good day.”

The golem curtsied again, and ported out.

Still a fox-tailed man, Ardent went to each wall of the cube and claimed it, then did a basic ward on it. Afterwards, he flipped through a few vistas on a crystal globe in one corner, and selected one.

The scene around them transformed. It looked like an empty stretch of ocean beach at sunset. Stars gleamed in the vault overhead, while waves broke and crashed against the shore. In the far distance, merfolk cavorted with seahorses and dolphins. With his newly-attuned senses, Miro could tell that much of the appearance of space was a glamour. But actual transformation magic was in play as well: the perceptual space had been greatly expanded. The water, waves, and the white sand under Ardent’s booted feet were all real, or at least, as real as anything made by aether ever was.

Ardent pulled off his boots and walked to the water’s edge, wriggling his toes in the sand. “Do you want your normal shape back? We’re not being watched.”

“Please.” He fluttered into the air and grabbed his homunculus token with both claws when Ardent proffered it. It trueshifted him back to his normal form, and Miro took in a deep breath. The air carried a tang of salt and dampness, but was otherwise clean and crisp. Much like the false sea scent at the previous night’s party, it lacked the other smells he associated with the ocean: no seaweed or decaying driftwood or sealife.

The waves washed about Ardent’s ankles, sinking his toes into the sand as he stared at them. “Toes are so weird,” Ardent pronounced.    

Miro laughed. “I’ve never been able to accustom myself to hooves. My father loves being a horse or a deer. We used to romp about the Broken Lands and even the mortal ones in those forms – we could trueshift into deer. But the hardness of those feet never felt normal to me. On others, certainly, I can appreciate the aesthetic. But I always prefered toes.”

“So you do shift in the Sun Etherium?” Ardent took his locket off and sat down in the sand. He pulled his bag out of the locket, and rooted past piles of messages.

“Oh, some of the time. Certain games require an animal shape, or shifting. It’s considered gauche to wear anything far from the base fey for ordinary daily purposes, but some will do so anyway. I like looking this way, so that did not trouble me. But it’s fun to borrow other shapes from time to time. Especially out of the aether. There is something about real space.” He lay back on the beach, pillowing his head on his hands and looking at the false sky. “I know expanded space is just as real to the senses, but it’s not the same.”

“Oh, I hear that, sugar. Aha!” Ardent produced the tracer golem at last. “Hey there, kiddo. You got anything for me yet?”

The small clay golem snuffled, scratching at one floppy ear with its hand. “Ocean Discourse was not in public when you left the Etherium last night. She was at the Promenade for a quarter of an hour after your return to the Etherium this morning. She was not in public for an hour, and is now at the High Ridge Flight Course.”

Ardent pulled a foot out of the sand, frowned at his toes, and trueshifted back to her normal satyress form. She gave a satisfied grunt and rummaged in the bag again, this time to pull out the Ocyale scrying mirror that Play had given her the day before. She summoned an overview of the Etherium on it, and had it show her the flight course. She zoomed in on the locale until Ocean Discourse was an ant-sized speck in the mirror, flying maneuvers with a handful of other specks. “Thanks, kiddo. Stop tracing her for now,” she told the golem.

“Why switch the tracer off if you’re going to be watching her anyway?” Miro asked, curiously.

“Mmm?” She glanced at him, then grinned impishly. “Ah, because of the limitations on the kind of enchantment Bull used to check you for tracers and scryers. It checks for spells that are watching you. Not spells that happen to be watching the area in your general vicinity. Also, this is Play’s stealthiest mirror, and it’s observing the scene from a high vantage. Even someone looking for spells in effect in the area probably won’t notice this one. Magic’s everywhere. And if she ports out, I can put the trace back on her.”

Miro nodded. “I see. What are you looking for?”

“That, I don’t know yet. But that last conversation with Play…y’know, Play could’ve thrown us out at any time. She didn’t have to talk to me. But she did.” Ardent rolled onto her stomach and put the Ocyale mirror on the beach in front of her. “I don’t think she was just talking to vent. She wanted me to know something.”

“What, then? ‘You’re not that stupid’?”

“Yeah, that. I was asking the wrong questions. Or rather, she was confirming that the obvious answers were right. And more than that. She thinks I can already figure this out. ‘I can’t give you any more help’. Not ‘I won’t’. Can’t. She means that she’s already helped enough. We’ve got what we need. We just need to…add it up.” Ardent pulled out the messages with the information on Miro’s attackers, and spread them out on the beach. Then she added the notes she’d taken while Miro was writing about the attack, and Jinokimijin’s notebook. She stared at the pile, then used aether to turn the sand underneath the items into a sheet of glass. She handed Miro the notebook. “Can you find the pages on the whatchamacallit, that specific wazzit, extractor thingie, that Fallen’s building?”

“The Harbinger. Yes.”

While he searched for the section, Ardent pushed other items around on her glass board. She pulled the information on each of the three assailants apart to regroup them together. She smoothed the messages flat and kept them in place with aether after positioning them. When Miro handed her the notebook back, she made a duplicate of each page on the Harbinger and added that to her board. She put a glamour over the whole thing to illuminate it. “So. What do you think the odds are that there was enough natural ivory and alabaster in the Moon Etherium already to make the Harbinger?”

“Slim. My father spent months gathering natural resources for his proof-of-concept versions. I cannot speak for your Etherium, but, edibles aside, few fey in Sun Etherium care about the distinction between natural and aetheric items. Consequently very little was available. And the materials need a certain purity to them; reusing carved pieces seldom suffices.”

“Mm-hmm.” She summoned her farspeaker surface, but paused without starting a message. Instead, she eyed Miro speculatively. “So if you weren’t going to look like a fey, what shape would you choose?”    

Miro considered this. “If I wanted to fit in with the Moon Etherium?”

“Yeah, let’s say that.”

“A sphynx, I think.”

“The four-legged feline kind? With hand-paws? Those’re cute. Male or female?”

“Yes. Male. And winged.”

Ardent made a homunculus of a sphynx and offered it to him. “Mind being one for a bit?”

“By all means.” He accepted the token, and transformed into a winged man-headed lion, with forepaws as flexible as hands. He flexed and folded his wings, then rolled onto his back and curled, catlike, blinking at her.

Ardent giggled at him. “Yup, still adorable. Great, thanks. Mirohirokon. Sun Etherium names have meaning too, don’t they? It’s like you have a whole language just for naming?”

He waggled a paw in the air. “It’s not a complete language one could speak, at least not any more. But yes, each syllable in a name corresponds to a word, and when you combine syllables they often take on new meanings. So every Sun Host name has several meanings.”    

She nodded. “So what’s Mirohirokon mean?”

“A few things. Some of them make more sense than others. ‘Dawn’s Light Unbroken’ is one interpretation. And there’s ‘The Sun Shines Forever.’ My favorite is ‘Sunlight Falls but Never Breaks’.”

“Oooh, I like that one too.” Ardent beamed. “It suits you. Though it’s a little long for a Moon Host name, especially for someone your age. How do you like ‘Never Breaks’?”

He smiled. “It will do.”

“All right. As your new owner, thus say I: your true name is Never Breaks.” She wrote it in Moon Host runes made of light over his body. “I’ll still call you Miro for short.” The runes faded into him slowly.

His fur prickled across his body at her invocation, a strange sensation to add to the oddness of his formal renaming. “May I ask the reason for my reinvention?”

“There’s three ways you can trace a fey. By their looks, their name, and their aether signature. You can’t change the last, and everyone knows my aether signature. I’ve cast a billion spells in Moon Etherium, just like every other Moon Host fey. But you, sugar—”

“…I’ve never cast one here.” He grinned, suddenly seeing her point. “No one in the Moon Host knows what it looks like.”

“Just so. And my messages will be intercepted soon, if they’re not being intercepted already. But no one will expect you to send messages, and if they did, they couldn’t find you now anyway. So, sugar, would you message White Rose for me? He should know who’d trade in natural materials.”

Miro dispatched the message, amused to have been promoted to secretary after all. While he waited for the reply, he came around to Ardent’s side and sat in the sand next to her. His new feline shape was very comfortable for lazing about without furniture. He watched as she made notes beside the descriptions of each attacker on what they’d done during the attempted abduction.

“So what I want to do,” she said out loud, “Is surveil all these pus-sacks to see what they’re doing and who they talk to. Last night, they had a detector on them. I don’t know if that means they still do now. Let’s assume this one—” she tapped the picture of the peacock-tailed woman, Broken Song, aka ‘Bull’ “—still has it. If I watch her, she’ll know I’m watching. That may be something we can use to our advantage.”    

“How so?”

“Oh, various ways. You manipulate people when they know you’re watching them. They do the things they want you to see them doing. Usually that’s not as good as seeing them do the things they don’t want you to see, but sometimes…” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m thinking out loud here, honey, don’t mind me too much. Also, if Fallen thinks I’m paying attention to one of her people, she may feel more comfortable that I can’t be watching the others. Of course, these blighted aphids aren’t the only tools she’s got.”

Miro nodded. He exchanged a few more messages with White Rose, and then said, “According to your Archivist friend, there are three Moon Host fey who engage in the natural-products trade with mortals. One of them hasn’t done any trading since we returned to the Old World. The other two are Truth Smiles and Verdant Generosity. They trade with fey only by appointment.”

“Mmm. Message all three of them. Some generic inquiry, like ‘do you trade in non-aether materials?’”

Obediently, Miro complied. As he finished the second message, Ardent sat up and shot him a stricken look. “I’m sorry, Miro, I forgot, I didn’t mean to order you—”

He glanced to her, perplexed, then rolled to all fours and leaned forward to kiss her. “It’s fine,” he told her, and then kissed her again because he could, because she would let him, because she was glorious.    

She touched his cheek as she drew back after the second kiss. “I just don’t want to take advantage of you.”

“Well, you should,” he told her, teasingly. “If there’s any advantage to be made of me. Ah! Fallen’s other tools. There’s a way I can help you with that, although it may not be practical.”

Her long fey ears canted up. “How’s that?”

“Hold that thought.” Miro sent the last requested message, and his wisp messenger returned at once with a reply. “Verdant Generosity is out of the Moon Etherium and has a golem taking messages for them.”    

“Oh, now that’s promising. Ask – would you please ask the golem why they left and when they’ll be back, sugar?”

Miro did so, and read off the golem’s reply. “They’re trading with mortals for natural materials at a customer’s special request. Expected back today or tomorrow.”

A slow, sensual smile spread on Ardent’s face. “There’s our fey.” She wakened her tracer golem with a gesture. “Did White Rose send a likeness for Verdant Generosity’s normal form?”

“Yes…” Miro sorted through the messages, and made the gesture to decrypt it for general view. Fortunately, decryption was a function of the existing farspeaker spell, not a separate spell he had to cast. The image was of a centaur. “Here.”

Ardent showed it to her tracer golem. “This’s Verdant Generosity. Trace them.”

The dog-headed statuette snuffled the picture. “They’re not within my range, not in that form.”

“That’s fine, keep waiting for them.” Ardent crinkled her nose. “Ugh, wait, that’s not a trueshift. They’d wear a different form to go trading with mortals. I need to know that shape. Or their aether signature. Can you see if White Rose has that?”

Miro checked. “Not directly. But they’ve got the coordinates of Verdant Generosity’s home.”

“And I can get their aether signature from the possession-mark on that. Except that Fallen’s still tracing me, and I don’t want her to know I’m looking for her suppliers. Mph.”

“Fallen’s tracing you?”

“Yes, she started when I showed up at Play’s. Sorry, did I forget to mention that? The Underground broke her scrying, but not the trace. I expect she can penetrate the Underground’s privacy wards if she wants. But she probably figures intercepting my messages will be just as good and less conspicuous. That reminds me, I should send some messages for her to intercept. I’ll send my condolences to Storm about the sculpture, and ask him to tell Play I’m sorry. If Storm’s not blocking me.” She started to write, saying absently, “I’ve got plenty of friends I could ask to check on Verdant Generosity for me. Just wish I knew who I could trust not to let Fallen know.”

Miro cast his mind back to the crowd of Ardent’s associates at the party. “That neuter made of water at the gathering last night, Grain of the Lyre? It had an honest soul, and no obligation to Fallen, and a good obligation to you. It would help.”

Ardent flopped onto her side. “Ooh right you can see souls! Wait, you can see obligations too?”

He dropped his eyes and nodded. “Yes. Like strings from the hands, leading to the nape of the neck on the obligated. That’s what I was about to tell you a few minutes ago. Fallen holds more strings than I’ve seen from anyone but the Sun Queen. Even more than your Moon Queen. For people in the same room or area with her, it’s pretty obvious who she does or doesn’t have a string on. Farther away than that and it’s muddier. But I can follow a single string to its source. So if I were close enough to see her, I could, say, follow back the thickest or most corrupted strings, to find the people most indebted to her. I remembered that merman because he was not only corrupt, but thoroughly in her debt.”

Ardent’s eyes widened, and she flopped onto her back in the sand. “Oh, Justice! That’s amazing. I wish I’d known sooner. I mean, no criticism, sugar. Just. Ooh. There’s gotta be some good stuff we can do with that. All right, let’s start with Never Breaks asking Lyre for a whisker of a favor.”



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Tags: #fantasy, #romance
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