The Sun lord closed his notebook and rose at her approach. He bowed with the fluid, flourishing grace of a Sun Etherium native. “Thank you for seeing me, my lady.” His pleasant tenor held a Sun courtier’s accent: precise and clear.
“Ardent’s fine, sugar,” she told him. He looked like a man in the prime of his life, but most fey chose to look young. He was clearly an adult, at least twenty, probably older given his mature deportment. But he could be no more than a hundred, judging by his name. Older Sun Host names all ended in vowel sounds. That made him less than half Ardent’s two hundred fifty years. He was fresh from Sun Etherium: so drenched in aether she could almost breathe it off of him, a palpable aura to fey senses, if not a visible one, as evident as the scent of male hormones and clean skin. He was a lovely example of the Sun Host type: human in shape save for elegantly elongated ears, with long limbs and a dancer’s build, lithe but strong. He had a heart-shaped face with sensual lips, and almond-shaped dark brown eyes. His skin was a natural hue, warm beige a couple of shades lighter than the mortals she’d just been speaking to, and hair distinctly unnatural: thick, rich indigo locks. He looked short to her, but centuries ago Ardent had trueshifted into a form over seven feet tall. Everyone looked short to her. He’d been taller than the mortals; perhaps a whisker under six feet. “Mirohirokon, you said?”
“Yes, my la – Ardent.” He colored as he corrected himself, an odd affectation in a Sun lord.
“My lady’s fine, too.” She smiled at him, and his stance relaxed as he acknowledged this consideration with a nod and a wry smile. “So, this a private matter? You wanna go somewhere less public?”
“If it pleases you, my lady, I would appreciate that.”
“Sure. C’mon.” She fell into her usual long strides. Mirohirokon walked quickly to keep up, but did so without effort. Her house was a quarter-mile away. It was of local stone, mottled tan-white, but the pristine and supernaturally resilient ceramic of its roof and casements had come from an Etherium. Though built to her height and breadth, it was otherwise of modest size, just three rooms. Familiar smells mingled inside, from leather and oils to fresh bread. She used the front room as a work room, not a parlor. Equipment and incomplete projects cluttered it; a work bench was the only seating. She cleared a heap of tack off the right side, and planted herself straddling it on the left. She gestured to the cleared side for him. “What’s on your mind, sugar?”
He accepted the offered seat on the bench, but sat normally, legs both on one side. The bench was sized for her and too high for him: his feet dangled like a child’s. Mirohirokon turned to face her. “The story is – complicated, to say the least. The short of it is: my father has been enslaved by Shadow of Fallen Scent, of the Moon Host, and taken to the Moon Etherium. I seek your assistance in rescuing him, my lady.”
She raised her eyebrows and blinked at him. “I’m gonna need the long version of this one, sweetie.”
He inclined his head. “My father and Shadow of Fallen Scent have both, for some decades, sought a particular legendary creature. Independently of one another, of course. They were, my father thought, both very close to locating it. In the Stone Forest, my father pinpointed a spot where conditions were right for one to nest. He asked for my aid at this point, and I went with him to the Stone Forest. Shadow of Fallen Scent was there as well. My father sent me on ahead to the site where the creature’s nest would be, while he moved to intercept Shadow of Fallen Scent.” Mirohirokon took a deep breath, and turned to face forward instead of meeting her eyes. “He pretended to believe that it was just the two of them there, in a race to the site. He offered her a deal: whichever of them claimed the legendary beast would possess the other as well. She accepted.”
“Because she already had it?” Ardent guessed. Mirohirokon nodded. “Yeah, I can’t see her going for that deal any other way. He should’ve backed out the moment she said yes. Sorry, sugar.” Mirohirokon turned one palm up and shrugged. Ardent grimaced. This was as bad as it had sounded from his précis. A Sun Host slave in Moon Etherium would be a tool of considerable power. He’d be wholly unable to work aether himself, but Fallen could use him as a channel to draw upon Sun Etherium’s power as well as Moon’s. It’d vastly increase her personal capabilities. In another fey, this would be less worrisome, but Fallen was not only power-hungry but personally vile. Ardent was disillusioned with the Moon Host, but they didn’t deserve Fallen armed with a deadly weapon among them. “So how’d you want me to help? Fallen’s not the type to give up a servant easily. Your legendary beast’d probably die first. What is this creature, anyhow?”
“That’s one of the complications. It’s a phoenix rose.”
Ardent stared at him. “What.”
“A phoenix rose, my lady. I didn’t know myself, until I found the plant it had bloomed from.” Mirohirokon kept his eyes on the opposite window, hands clenched in his lap. “My father wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Is this some kind of joke? Are you mad?” Ardent stood, towering over the smaller fey in her crowded work room. “Are we seriously talking about a for-real, actual, let’s-use-this-to-break-the-entire-world-O
“And my father. Yes.”
I take that back. This is much worse than the précis. “If that ain’t a disaster and a half.” Ardent rubbed one brown hand over her face.
“Yes,” Miro repeated, softly.
“Sorry, kid.” She touched his shoulder, and he looked to her, those expressive dark eyes shining with a pain that made her heart hurt. “I don’t mean to be insensitive. This is…a lot bigger than I expected.” Her mind spun, trying to work through the possibilities. It all seemed so improbable; she wondered if Mirohirokon was telling her the truth. Was this some Sun Host ploy to manipulate her? Into what?
“It’s…there’s more. My father left me his notes. His research into the phoenix rose.” Mirohirokon took the leather notebook from his pocket. “He’d considered the possibility that Fallen might get the better of him in this deal. But he specifically worded it so that it would only apply so long as she owned the phoenix rose. In the Sun Etherium, our queen would never allow such a thing to remain in private hands. I trust the same is true of the Moon?”
Ardent buried her fingers in her thick hair, pacing. “Yes. If the Moon Queen knew Fallen had it and wouldn’t give it up, there’d be a tower of outrage built over it. Fallen would be a pariah. We’d hear the screaming from here. Do you have any proof of this?”
“Other than my father’s enslavement? I can show you the plant where it bloomed, if that would help?”
She considered that. According to legend, the blooming of a phoenix rose was distinctive: a conflagration that left everything scorched save the bird’s host plant. But an Etherium fey would be able to mimic such aftereffects, and she didn’t have enough detailed knowledge that she’d be able to tell the difference. It didn’t need to be Mirohirokon’s deception: Fallen or even his father might have tricked him first. She shook her head. “What’s your mother think of all this?”
“Of my father’s predicament?” Mirohirokon gave a mirthless laugh. “‘He deserves it, the shiftless fool’. They did not get on.”
Ardent winced. She stopped pacing to lean against the worktable and eye her guest. As a rule, fey were skillful liars, but Ardent had spent over a century as Justiciar of the Moon Host. She was good at telling when people were lying to her, even fey. Mirohirokon wasn’t using glamour to feign or accentuate his distress. If anything, he was employing typical Sun Host mannerisms to cloak it. Her instincts said he believed everything he’d told her, but also that he was holding something back. Not a surprise, when one of the Sun Host was asking a barbarian for help. “Why me?” she asked. “Why some barbarian fey you don’t even know? Surely you have friends who’d help?”
“Friends with strong ties among the Moon Host? Who’d have any leverage inside the Moon Etherium at all?” A smile flickered on his lips and died as he shook his head. “I know you were Justiciar for them; I am sure you still have allies there. And I understand you have little love for Shadow of Fallen Scent.” He flashed another smile as she snorted at that. “I need your help, my lady. Ardent. Please.”
She looked away, not wanting to cave to the desperation in his voice. “What is your plan, then? If it’s ‘go ask Fallen nicely to release him from the bargain,’ I don’t think it’s going to work.”
“It won’t?” He feigned a considering look. “I see. Let me think. I suppose we shall have to get the phoenix rose away from her, then.”
“If it were easy, I wouldn’t need help.” He pushed a lock of indigo hair behind one ear. “But it’s a living being, and, according to my father’s notes, one with particular requirements. It’s not as if she could transmute it into a charm and wear it around her neck. It needs sunlight – natural sunlight – and air. And she won’t want the whole of the Moon Etherium to learn she has it, either, or we wouldn’t be the only ones trying to take it.”
“True.” She eyed him. “And if ‘we’ did get the phoenix rose, what happens to it then? What’s your interest in it?”
“My interest in it lies in not seeing my father enslaved to the most reviled member of Moon’s High Court. I have no desire for its power myself.”
“Then you’d be a good citizen of the Sun Host and give it to your queen?”
“No!” He recoiled at the suggestion. “Must I swear it three times? I do not want the phoenix rose for myself or the Sun Queen. I do not want the phoenix rose for myself or the Sun Queen. I do not want the phoenix rose for myself or the Sun Queen. I want my father free.”
Ardent raised her eyebrows at his vehemence, and the Sun lord looked away again. A statement repeated three times was not made lightly. It might not have the binding power of ritual bargain, but it would still have consequences for a fey who betrayed it. “All right, sugar. So. You go back to Sun Etherium and resign your affiliation there. Then we go to the Moon Etherium, affiliate ourselves with the Moon, and nose around until we find this thing?” They didn’t technically need to affiliate with Moon Host to use the Moon Etherium’s aether. Barbarian fey, who had no affiliation, could absorb and use aether in either Etherium. But an affiliate in their native Etherium absorbed aether faster and stored more, making their spell use more potent. Also, there were certain things, like using the sigils of ownership, that the unaffiliated could not do. If Ardent was pitting herself against Fallen with a Sun channel, she sure wasn’t doing it without affiliating with Moon first. She was a little surprised Miro hadn’t already resigned his Sun affiliation, but perhaps he wanted to be sure he’d have help first. The Etheriums were magical opposites; one could affiliate with either or neither, but not both.
“Something like that. But I won’t be affiliating myself with Moon.”
She looked askance at him. “What’re you gonna be doing while I poke around in the Moon Etherium, then?”
“Oh, I’ll be with you. As a member of Sun Host.”
“Sugar,” she said, as gently as she could. “You can’t go into the Moon Etherium as Sun Host. You’d be helpless, completely unable to use the aether. I’m sure you think it’s bad out here in the Broken Lands, with the aether so thin, but it’s nothing like being the wrong Host in an Etherium. It’s not just that you can’t draw aether. You can’t store it either. Not even the slightest trickle. You wouldn’t be able to do the simplest spells, not to teleport or farspeak or even for glamour. Not even to evade, sugar. You’d be as vulnerable as a mortal. You walk into the Moon Etherium without renouncing Sun Host, and I guarantee you, you will end up as someone’s channel.”
“I know.” His hands clenched together in his lap. “I know.” Mirohirokon turned to her and met her eyes. “I planned to be yours.”
Ardent stared at him, mouth agape. “You cannot be serious.”
“Can I not? Fallen already has a channel in my father, and that’s not even mentioning the phoenix rose. We need some kind of edge to compete with that, and I cannot provide it as an ordinary fey of Moon Host. I will be of much more use to you as a channel.”
She sat heavily again on her end of the bench. It rocked beneath her weight; the Sun lord braced himself against the table to avoid sliding into her. “You – sugar, have you ever channeled for anyone before?” He nodded, and she added, “Anyone not of Sun Host?” At the shake of his head, she said, “Because it’s different with a barbarian. Even more so with the opposite Host. And in the wrong Etherium – sweetie, you don’t know what you’re offering.”
“I…” He swallowed. “You’re right. I don’t. I’ve never done this before. But I did not reach this conclusion lightly. My father was taken three days ago. I have done research. I know the theory of what’s involved, if not the practice. I know the risks. What I don’t know is a better way.” A smile flashed and faded on his lips. “I am open to suggestions.”
The worst of it was: he was right. To oppose Fallen, his faction would need an edge, and there was no better one. “Why me?” she said again. “Surely there’s someone in Sun Host you can trust. Someone who’d affiliate with Moon Host for you, someone you know that you could channel for.”
“There…isn’t. And even if there were, they wouldn’t know Moon Host. I’d still need you.”
“And this, this is how you’ll tempt me into accepting?”
“Perhaps,” he admitted, one corner of his mouth quirking up. His eyes were on hers, hopeful, afraid. “Is it working?”
Maybe. Ardent realized she was leaning towards him, sensing the stored aether that filled him, that overflowed, like a fine mist over his skin, or like water held in place by surface tension alone. She didn’t want to admit how tempting it was. “If I wanted power, I’d’ve joined the High Court,” she said, dryly. “Not become a barbarian.”
He dropped his eyes. “Heh. No, I suppose power would not hold much allure for you.”
But it did. It was true, what she’d said. She could have been on the High Court of the Moon Etherium, and she’d walked away from that with no regrets. She’d left a glorious abundance of aether that would let her make anything with a wave of her hand, for a rural life of hard labor for necessities. She’d had power, and given it up.
But not because she didn’t want it. Because it had never been enough power. Because it had come with so many strings attached, with so much petty, stupid, pointless nonsense. Give people invulnerability, immortality, and the power to turn their dreams into reality, and what did they do? Quibble over petty insults. Inflate a flea’s sneeze into a hurricane of self-important outrage. Plot elaborate social revenge for imagined slights. Sure, she’d had vast power, but it wasn’t enough to make the people around her listen to each other, or respect one another. They’d been given everything, and they acted like spoiled children in return, squandering it all to make one another miserable. Ardent didn’t miss any of that.
But she did miss the power.
And maybe a Sun Host channel would be enough power to make a real difference.
She shook her head, trying to clear it of such thoughts. No. I’m not re-affiliating just for aether. No matter how much of it. I can’t say ‘yes’ because I want power. Mirohirokon’s eyes were downcast again. He’d turned on the bench to face her, one leg pulled up on the bench before him, back still Sun-Host-erect. “Is he worth it?” she asked, softly.
“He’s my father,” Mirohirokon said. “I would do anything for him.” Another little quirk of his mouth. “Literally, it appears.”
I can’t say ‘no’ just because I don’t want power, either. “Give me your hand,” Ardent said, extending her own. He placed his palm against hers, without question or hesitation. His hand was small, fingers long and soft in contrast with her thick, calloused ones. She wrapped fingers and thumb loosely around his slender wrist, her palm against the pulse of his artery. The currents of aether within him sung against her skin, beckoning. “If we’re gonna do this, sugar – and I’m not saying we are, but if we do – I need to know what it’s like to channel from you first. And so do you. So I’m gonna channel a li’l now, all right?”
“Certainly.” He met her eyes with an unwarranted trust. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, kid. I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“You’ve given me your time, and listened to me,” he pointed out. “And I thank you for that consideration, which I’ve done naught to earn.”
“Don’t think your pretty Sun Host courtesies are gonna score any points with an old barbarian, boy,” she said, gruffly, because she was afraid that they were. Mirohirokon only smiled at her, unintimidated. “Let me know if it hurts, all right, sugar?” He nodded.
Ardent took a deep breath, and called to the aether.
She expected resistance. That he was consciously willing and consenting didn’t mean his body would readily surrender its aether to another.
But there was no tension, no internal struggle. Instead, he felt open and yielding beneath her fingers, aether released to flood into her parched body. She braced her free arm against the bench between them to keep herself from falling against him. She’d been thirsty so long she’d forgotten how good it felt to be quenched. Receiving from a channel, from another fey, was always sweeter than drinking in the rich air of the Etherium. More focused, more concentrated. But this, this was something beyond even that pleasure. It was as if the aether had been filtered by his body, the impurities leeched away, leaving a flavor that was pure, refined. Delicious.
She’d told him, told herself, that she would only take a little. Just to see how he held up to it. To learn how much he’d resist, how hard it would be. But the sense of power in him, the steady pulse against her palm, drew her deeper. He held so much, much more than she’d expected, and she plunged deeper. At the center of the current, she felt the well within, the connection between him and the Sun Etherium itself, capped off but still far larger than anything she’d anticipated.
The shock of realization jolted her from the aether-trance, and she jerked backwards, gasping.
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