Ardent was worried about Miro. He looked like he was taking things well, but this had to be rough for him. The sight of Jinokimijin all but naked and in blight-ridden chains, for the love of Justice, infuriated her. Not to mention that “adolescent girl” could not have been Jinokimijin’s choice of bodies. What was the Queen doing, permitting this vicious performance? It was one thing to acknowledge “I can’t save an individual from a bad deal they willingly entered” and another to showcase the most blatant and insulting trappings of slavery in the Moon Etherium’s most august institution. This was a travesty.
At the moment, the Court was hearing a storyteller’s request for an endorsement of a project that required more aether and more participants than a single fey could muster. The power of the Queen, Skein of the Absolute, was very different from that of a mortal government. The use of force did not work on fey individuals. An ordinary fey, even a barbarian, was immortal, nearly invulnerable, and all but impossible to imprison. Even fey possessions in an Etherium were generally much easier to safeguard than to harm. Crimes like assault and murder effectively didn’t exist. Theft in an Etherium did happen, but it was rare, in part because, except in the case of art, it was easier to make something new with aether than it was to take someone else’s creation.
The Queen did have power beyond the symbolic: she held the Heart of the Etherium, which replenished aether throughout the Etherium. The Heart did so automatically; it was not within the Queen’s power to withhold aether from the Etherium. But the structure and presence of the Queen and her High Court ensured that the Heart functioned smoothly and reliably. The most concrete power the Queen possessed was the ability to exile a Moon Host fey. Even that could not be used easily: it required the consent of a majority of the High Court. The Heart also empowered her to affiliate a willing subject with the Moon Host, but since a fey could do the affiliation ritual on their own, this ability was only ceremonial.
Its technical role aside, the High Court was more a social/cultural construct than a legal one. As a body, they wielded considerable influence, able to amplify or to ostracize, and the majority of the citizenry would follow suit. Members of the Moon Host did pay an annual tithe, but it was inconsequential by comparison with mortal taxes: a voucher for five hours of labor per year. The fey economy, such as it was, was backed by promises of labor. The crown issued generic feymin and feyour tokens as currency, secured by the crown’s supply of actual vouchers. Very few fey had minutes worth exactly a feymin, but the system worked no more badly than mortal standards based on precious metals.
The storyteller speaking now, a giant serpent with feathered wings and a fanned tail like a peacock’s, was fortunate to have received an audience. The time before the court alone would raise their importance in the eyes of the Moon Host. Their presentation was compelling, too. Ardent had missed the first half of their story and was distracted by her seething anger at Fallen’s treatment of her prisoner, and the High Court’s tacit acceptance thereof, but even so, she was drawn into the thread of the tale the coatl spun by glamour and voice. It was a retelling of the founding of the Moon Etherium, and how the Moon Etherium had wrested free of the Sun Etherium’s control almost six hundred years ago. Well-trodden ground, but Ardent liked the choice of protagonists: two families from the Sun Host who had come as colonists to the Moon Etherium, and the way their loyalties divided between their new home and the Sun King.
At the conclusion of the coatl’s presentation, the court hushed, all eyes on Queen Skein of the Absolute as they awaited her reaction. She was silent for a long time, and finally spoke. “Wisdom Draught, you have long been a favorite artist of Our realm. It is with no small regret that We inform you that We cannot endorse your current project. We look forward to your next proposal, and trust it will be more to Our…tastes.” Draught looked stricken as she waved them off. A tiny messenger fairy from Diamond of Winter swooped to the queen’s ear and whispered to her.
Ardent suppressed a scowl, wondering at the undertones of that rejection. She’d been unhappy with the Moon Etherium when she renounced it formally fourteen years ago, and her feelings about the Moon Host had long been mixed. She’d actually left the Etherium once before, for a couple of decades a century ago, and returned the first time at Skein’s request. She’d still respected Skein of the Absolute, even at her second departure. What happened to you, Skein?
The Queen nodded to her adjunct. Diamond of Winter drew itself up, a tall, heavyset glittering abstract of a humanoid figure, as if sculpted of cut glass. “The Crown welcomes Ardent Sojourner of the barbarian village Try Again to present her petition, and her companion, to the High Court of the Moon Etherium.” The courtiers assembled buzzed with sudden curiosity: those who hadn’t seen her enter recognized her name. And everyone could tell she hadn’t been kept waiting long, which surprised Ardent herself.
Ardent squared her shoulders and ascended the strange, barely existent stairs of the Great Hall, trusting Miro to follow in her footsteps. She stopped ten paces before and below the crescent throne. The queen turned her gaze upon them, and the moon illuminated them with the brilliance of stage floodlights. Ardent dropped to one knee and bowed her head; behind her, Miro did the same. “Your majesty, thank you for this audience. I come before the Court with my servant, Prince Mirohirokon of the Sun Host. If it pleases your majesty, I request my reinstatement in your majesty’s Etherium.”
The surprised murmuring around them intensified. Ardent waited with her head still down.
“It pleases Us to see you returned to Our Etherium, Ardent Sojourner,” the Queen said. “Please, rise.” Ardent stood. Miro remained kneeling, and Ardent nearly cued him to stand when she realized his grasp of etiquette was better: the queen hadn’t addressed him. “You are the second in recent days to come before us with a Sun Host member.” The queen didn’t turn her head, but the eyes of many went to Fallen and the enslaved fey at her feet. Fallen was watching Ardent with narrowed eyes. “You do not seek Moon affiliation for him?”
Ardent gave a mirthless smile. “If it pleases your majesty, he’s of more use to me in Sun Host.”
Skein of the Absolute watched her, appraising, for a long moment. Ardent cultivated a bland expression and awaited the next question. “We would know how you came by this prince, Ardent Sojourner.”
“Well,” she drawled, “Happens one of his parents had gotten into a deal with Shadow of Fallen Scent. Prince Mirohirokon was not real happy with how it turned out. For some reason.” Ardent looked pointedly at Fallen and Jinokimijin. The latter had a worried look on her delicate girl’s face. “The prince came to me, pretty desperate for help. He wanted me to intercede for Disgraced Jinokimijin, and offered a gamble for it: if he beat me at Turns, I’d help him, and if I won, he’d serve me.”
“At Turns? You thought you could beat Ardent Sojourner at Turns, little prince?”
Mirohirokon flushed, still kneeling with head bowed. “It may be that poor choices run in my family line.”
“It may be that he thought he had an edge,” Ardent offered, kindly. Everything they’d said so far was true, including the game of Turns. Which Ardent had taken a massive handicap in, and lost, before they made the ‘deal’ which hinged upon its outcome. “But…well, here we are.” She smirked.
The Queen’s silver eyes were on her again. Ardent expected her to ask more questions: why did that bring you back? Why would the power of a Sun Host channel tempt you to return, when the power of a position in my High Court could not convince you to stay? Ardent had answers prepared for those, too. But instead, the Queen steepled her fingers. “We are pleased to welcome you back as affiliate of Our Moon Host, Ardent Sojourner. But We are concerned at the presence of two Sun Host affiliates in Our midst, and their potential as spies, or as a source of conflict in Our realm. Shadow of Fallen Scent has demonstrated that her servant is under her complete control.” A negligent gesture towards the pair on her left. “Are you able to do the same, Ardent Sojourner?” The Moon Queen circled a finger in the air, and a trace of glamour conjured a leashed collar in its wake. In a moment, it faded away in a sparkle of stars.
Ardent stared at her, disbelieving. You aren’t just tolerating that humiliation. You’re demanding it. Fury made blood roar in her ears; it was all she could do to keep it contained, to keep herself from lashing out. Servitude was one thing; she could understand the utility behind wanting servants, even if she disapproved. But degradation? In the name of Justice, what possible point could there to be to this?
The queen met her gaze, calm, unmoved, as if her suggestion was reasonable and not an unnecessary insult to not only Mirohirokon, but to his entire Etherium. “Is something amiss, Ardent Sojourner?” The queen’s eyes slid past her. “Surely you are in no position to object, Prince Mirohirokon?”
“Your majesty? Why would I object?” Miro’s voice tone was honestly perplexed, with no trace of dissembling, sarcasm, or resentment. “Your majesty honors me with this opportunity to prove my devotion to my new mistress and my willingness to fulfill my bargain. I thank you for your kindness.”
Ardent pivoted to him as he spoke. Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you? But he spoke with such conviction, as if he truly were honored. They were committed to this story already, and Ardent’s hesitance was only weakening their position. “Rise,” she told him, voice harsher than she intended, “and accept your chains.” Ardent shaped a plain collar of white gold between her hands as Miro stood. His brown eyes lifted to hers, for just a moment, and she could see nothing in them but a perfect trust, an inappropriate serenity. He bowed his head, meekly. Ardent closed the collar around his neck, a seamless metal circle he had no magic to remove. She drew her hand back, holding him leashed, feeling sick with helpless anger.
“Thank you, mistress,” Miro said, softly. “May I beg permission to speak?”
“Granted.” Ardent had no idea what else he had planned. Is this enough? she wanted to snarl at the Moon Queen.
“If I may beg your majesty’s indulgence?” Miro turned to the throne, but kept his head bowed.
“Go ahead,” the Moon Queen said, curious.
Miro knelt again. “By aether, by Justice, by Love, by Family, by Duty, by Truth, by Persistence: I give my oath and loyalty to you, Ardent Sojourner, without reservation. I swear to serve you in all ways, and in turn to act only in the best interests of the Moon Etherium and all her lawful inhabitants.” Ardent listened, shocked speechless, appalled by the thoroughness of the oath, the sweeping breadth of power he was granting her over him. He recited it two more times, giving it a binding weight the whole court could sense.
The satyress clenched her fingers around Miro’s chain to stop them from shaking. The entire court was stunned and silent, amazed. Ardent turned to the throne, and glimpsed Jinokimijin’s expression of unadulterated horror, terrified for her son in a way she had not been even for herself. Ardent met the Moon Queen’s gaze. “Is your majesty satisfied with the extent of my control?”
A smile formed on dark blue lips. “We are.”
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