It had been a week since Jinokimijin had taken his captive and his son from the Moon Etherium, and only Duty kept Ardent there. Duty and, perhaps, Justice.
She’d rescued nineteen enslaved mortals from the Moon Etherium, which was work worth doing even if nothing else was. They deserved better than glamour-addled minds, sexual slavery, and the particularly vile ‘games’ that one secretive club had used them as playing pieces in. It was work that would have been much easier to do with Miro there to help.
She missed Miro, and hated herself for missing him. In her mind, she went back and forth trying to decide if everything he’d told her was a lie, or if he’d been a dupe of his father’s, or something else entirely. And was he still alive? He had to still be alive. If the phoenix rose could steal the Heart of the Etherium from its queen, it could surely cure someone of over-channeling. He’d still been alive when Jino took him. The news from the Sun Etherium had frustratingly little about Mirohirokon, but he was the crown prince now, the King’s only son. If he’d died, that would be news.
In spare moments, Ardent pecked at the other questions that badgered her. Folks who’d been to the Sun Etherium agreed with Miro’s assessment of his mother. She’d run the Sun Etherium openly the way Fallen had run the Moon Etherium covertly. Some felt sorry for her, being deposed, or reviled Jinokimijin for his illegal coup. But none of them actually wanted the Sun Queen back on her throne.
Play Until Collapsing Dreams started farspeaking Ardent again after Fallen’s dismissal from the Moon Court. Ardent invited the other fey to drop by her apartment.
“I see you haven’t fixed the wards yet,” Play remarked, as soon as she teleported in. She was still all in white, and wearing a tall, muscular form instead of her more usual slender self.
Ardent shrugged from where she sat, sprawled in her couch pit. It’d only taken a few minutes to repair the cosmetic damage to the walls, but ripping out the ruptured wards and replacing them would take hours. “Too busy with everything else. I’m not keeping anything valuable here.”
“Yeah, well, anyone who can get through fey invulnerability won’t be deterred by a few little spells, either.”
“It’s not just about stopping intruders. It’s about giving you some warning.”
Ardent smiled at last. “It’s good to see you haven’t really changed, Play. How’s Storm?”
“Grieving.” Play sighed and slid into a feline curl in the couch pit across from Ardent. “We’ve got recorded images of The Marvel, you know, but it’s…not the same. He could rebuild it, in less time that it took to make it the first time, but it’s years of work. And what if something like this happens again? I need to be able to promise him it won’t. That nothing like this will ever happen again. And I don’t know how to do that. Short of capturing my own phoenix rose. Which has occurred to me, believe me.” The white catgirl stared at Ardent. “Is Fallen coming back?”
“I don’t think so.” Ardent sighed. “I was as perceptive as a flying mole when it came to Miro, mind you. But they were definitely using me to target Fallen. They hauled her all the way to the Sun Etherium. She’s useless to them now, but I don’t see them letting her run home to lick her wounds and plot revenge.”
“Good.” Play bared pointed teeth in a snarl. Even the inside of her mouth was white. “I hope they kill her.”
Ardent crinkled her nose. “That’s a lot of retribution for one sculpture, sugar.”
“I’m not talking about just one sculpture and you know it. She’s poison. She deserves death.”
The satyress didn’t argue further. She wouldn’t’ve killed Fallen herself, but she sure wasn’t going to mourn her. And it was out of her hands, anyway. “Oh, right.” She fished the tracer golem and Ocyale mirror out of her locket and rose to hand them back. “It was still tracing Fallen for a couple of days after Jino grabbed her, before it ran out of sun aether. She never left the Sun Etherium.”
Play made her gesture of ownership over the tracer golem as she accepted it. “I have to get myself one of those Sun channels for experimenting, one of these days.”
“Hah. I don’t think they’re gonna be so easy to come by as they were a week ago.” Ardent moved to sit beside Play, and put a hand on her side. “Play, thank you. For helping me out. I never would’ve gotten the phoenix rose out of Fallen’s hands otherwise.”
Play met her eyes. “You figure it’s better off in Jino’s?”
Ardent crinkled her nose. “I dunno. Yes. I think so. Fallen meant to destroy an Etherium. If Jino had planned to do that, he would’ve already, when the Moon Etherium and the Sun Etherium were both depleted. Now there’re no High Court channels in either Etherium. I dunno if he’ll be any good for the Sun Etherium, but this’s better for us.” I hope. “And if it was a mistake, it was mine, not yours, and I appreciate you helping me just the same. I’m sorry I got you and Storm hurt.”
“Yeah.” Play dropped her gaze. “You know I didn’t blame you, right? You’re not responsible for Fallen being a vicious little monster. It was just…I was scared.”
“I know. And you did right, helping me without letting Fallen know that’s what you were doing.”
“Heh. So you did notice that.”
“You know I did.” Ardent smiled, then sobered again. “And…Storm? Does he blame me? He doesn’t have me blocked but I haven’t heard from him since.”
“No, he doesn’t blame you.” Play’s voice was low. She swallowed. “I think maybe he blames me, though. Not in so many words. He hasn’t really talked about it. But I’m the expert. I’m the one who’s made him live in a fortress for years because I want to be careful. And then I let this happen.”
“‘Let’ ain’t exactly the word, sugar.” Ardent gathered Play up in a hug. “I don’t know how anyone would protect against what Fallen was doing with that bird. Storm’s gotta understand that.”
Play leaned into her and sighed. “He does. Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t. Garbage like this isn’t supposed to happen, Ardent. You know I’m not the type to throw up my hands and say ‘no help for it!’ I am not quitting. There’s a counterspell that’ll work even against exceptions like that Justice-deprived extractor. And I’m going to find it.”
Ardent held her close, smiling. “I bet you will, too, sugar.”
Ardent had seen Whispers Rain a couple of times in the ensuing days, too. They tried to talk. It didn’t go very well. Ardent wanted to forgive her. She came to my side, at the end, and risked herself to stand up to Fallen. Even Miro’d told her he forgave her.
But: Rain betrayed me, and he could have died because of that. He could have spent the rest of his life as Fallen’s slave.
And: he lied to me. Why should I care so much about what might have been? Why should I hold a grudge when he didn’t?
A part of Ardent still loved Whispers Rain, but she didn’t know how to trust her again.
I just want to go back to Try Again and forget all this.
But Ardent stayed anyway, doing what she could to fix the mess in the Moon Etherium, and wondering if it wasn’t as hopeless now as it had been when she’d been there fourteen years ago.
On the afternoon of the seventh day, the army from the Sun Host arrived at the outskirts of the Moon Etherium. Its leader wanted to speak with the Moon Queen, and with Ardent Sojourner.
Ardent teleported to the ridgeline to see for herself. She half-expected the whole thing was a prank by the random Moon Host denizen who’d passed the message along. It was not a literal army, fortunately. It wasn’t even mostly Sun Host. There were twenty-one Sun Host fey, plus a hundred or so of the most mortal-looking barbarian fey Ardent had ever seen, plus a couple hundred actual mortals. They were a disorderly mob, gathered in conversational groups. By their appearance they covered the entire range of mortal ages, from babes-in-arms to small children to stooped, elderly ones.
A couple dozen of the barbarian fey wore armor of mortal styles and bore mortal weapons. There was no cohesion to them – the armor and weapons were those of a dozen different worlds. Ardent could not think of a single sensible reason for this. If the Sun King wanted a fight, he had the phoenix rose. What difference would a handful of armed fey make?
She shrugged inwardly, landed at the top of the ridge, and walked down to meet the host. Moon Host fey gathered within the aether to watch. Every fey was used to being immortal, invulnerable, and impossible to imprison, but the events of the last week had shaken everyone’s confidence. Ardent knew they were nervous. She didn’t feel great about this situation either.
Members of the mob of newcomers whispered amongst themselves as she approached. For no reason, some started to bow in her direction, after a dozen different mortal fashions: dropping to one or both knees, or pressing forehead to the earth, or curtseying, or bowing with arms together or at their sides.
One of the Sun fey, a large man dressed in their high court regalia, walked to meet her. His only concession to the aether-poor Broken Lands was his long white hair gathered into a doubled braid instead of floating behind him. One of the strangely mortal-looking fey walked next to him. She wasn’t wearing armor, but instead a multi-layered gown. “I am Tiqodomiqon, Justiciar of the Sun Host,” the Sun fey said. “Do I have the honor of addressing the Lady Ardent Sojourner?”
“I dunno how much of an honor it is, kid, but yeah, that’s me. What’s going on?”
“May I verify you?”
“Be my guest.” She waited while he cast the spell to take her aether signature.
“Lady Sojourner.” He kneeled to her, with a motion to the crowd behind him. All the ones who weren’t already kneeling did so. The barbarian fey next to him lifted her layered skirts and curtsied with her head bowed.
“Uh. If this is for my benefit, please stop,” Ardent told them. “What are you doing?”
“Please allow me to present Diani of Cairwelint,” Tiqodomiqon said, with a flourish to the barbarian fey beside him.
“Uh.” Ardent stared at Diani. She looked like a mortal from Cairwelint, with their characteristic death-like pallor to her skin, barely tinted with pink and orange, and a narrow, raised ridge of a nose. She had wrinkled skin around her eyes and mouth, like a middle-aged mortal. Stubby mortal ears.
And she brimmed with aether, like a fey.
“My lady.” Diani rose from her curtsey. “We have come to express our gratitude to you, for securing our freedom.” She spoke the fey language well, but with a distinctive accent.
“Diani is a mortal name,” Ardent said, stupidly.
“Indeed, for I am…or at least was, until three days ago…a mortal woman,” Diani said.
Diani smiled, adding more wrinkles to her face. “The King of the Sun Host, Jinokimijin, may the gods honor his name forever, freed the mortal slaves of the Sun Host. When he did so, he offered us several choices, at your behest. We could go to the mortal world here, what you call your ‘Old World’. Very few of us were from this world. We could remain in the Sun Etherium and wait until the fey shard travels back to our original worlds. We understand that in most cases, the fey do not know when this will be, or if it will happen in a mortal lifetime. We can try to make a life for ourselves here, in the fey shard, either in an Etherium or in the Broken Lands. And, if we wished to remain permanently in the fey shard, we could become…fey.”
“What,” Ardent repeated.
“If I may?” Tiqodomiqon glanced to Diani, and she nodded. “One of the powers of the Heart of the Etherium is to affiliate fey with the Etherium. It is rarely used, because fey can affiliate themselves. But King Jinokimijin discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, that the Heart may be used to affiliate…non-fey. Making them fey. All the barbarian fey you see here were mortals who chose affiliation with the Sun Etherium, and then chose to unaffiliate. Making them barbarian fey, beholden to no Etherium.”
“Free,” Diani added. “Like all fey beings. We who chose this path can no longer be harmed, caught, or held prisoner. Because of you, Lady Sojourner.”
“I swear before Duty and Justice that I never talked to Jino about freeing you,” Ardent said. “I had no idea there were even this many of you.”
“Ah, but you spoke to his son of it,” Tiqodomiqon said. “My brother, Prince Mirohirokon, gave you his word. King Jinokimijin wishes you to know that the Sun King will honor his pledge.”
Without thinking about it, Ardent took a step towards Tiqodomiqon and grabbed him by the front of his coat. She hauled the tall, broad-shouldered fey to the level of her face. He allowed it, looking a little bemused but unafraid. “Is Miro—” dead – she couldn’t say the word, couldn’t say did I kill him? Justice, just tell me, “—tell me he’s alive,” she finished, in a choked whisper.
He dropped his eyes. “He is alive,” he said, but she still held her breath, certain there was a but coming. “Yet gravely ill, with a sickness aether cannot treat.”
Ardent set the Sun fey down and took a step back. “I have to see him.”
“I have a mission to speak with the Moon Queen first, and deliver these people to their destinations, but I will be glad to escort you afterwards—”
“No,” Ardent said. “That’s fine. I know the way. Lady Diani—”
“Just Diani, my lady. I am no noblewoman.”
“Me either, Diani. Me either. Anyway, it’s great to meet you, and awfully nice of you to have come all this way just to say thanks, and wow, that’s a lot of walking boots you must’ve brought, good on Jino for that.” Ardent turned to the rest of the crowd too, and raised her voice. “So, you’re all very welcome for whatever small part I played in getting you free. And I don’t know if anyone’s apologized to you yet for you being captured in the first place, but let me apologize for that. It was a crappy, unjust, wrong thing to do, and against every fey Ideal, and you don’t owe me – or anybody else – gratitude for fixing that. We owed you that. We owe you a lot more than that, and I don’t know if you’re ever gonna get back enough to make up for the time and homes and families we took from you. And I’m sorry for that too. Uhh.” She waved vaguely to them, and some of them, especially the children, waved back. “Anyway. Good luck to you all, and I hope I get to see you again someday, but I gotta go now. Bye!”
They looked confused as she waved again and backed away. Then one of them started cheering her name. Soon they all were, despite that being a terrible congratulations-you’re-free speech. Ardent didn’t stop to question it. She had to go.
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