Miro understood why Fallen had made this suggestion. It was impossible for them to aether dance, and she assumed that whatever parody they did of it would provide her and her queen with some amusement. As petty slights went, it was petty in the extreme.
But it would give him a chance to talk to his father again. And if matters in the Moon Etherium went badly, he might not have another such chance. So he embraced it, and walked with a neutral expression, arm-in-arm with his parent, to the center of the glass deck. “Shall we do this your way or my way?”
“Oh, your way.” Jino leaned against his arm as they walked. Her voice was high and light, a breathy young girl’s. “My way hasn’t been going so well. And it’s easier to switch from yours to mine than the other way around.”
“True.” Miro turned to face her. All around them, Moon Etherium fey danced. They wore a hundred different shapes and sizes, from dragons and ogres to tiny sprites. They jumped, floated, and flew through elegant patterns, using party streamers and aether currents for abrupt changes of directions, narrowly avoiding collisions by fey evasion.
Miro dismissed them all from his thoughts, along with the chaotic Moon Etherium spread beneath their feet and the watching High Court, waiting for their unwilling jesters to make them laugh. He and Jino drew a pace apart and bowed to one another. They did have certain advantages of which Fallen might not be aware: the Sun Etherium regarded dance unaided by aether as an art form, and practiced it occasionally. And Miro and his father had spent a great deal of time in the Broken Lands and even mortal worlds, investigating one phenomenon or another, and conserving aether accordingly.
They rose from their bows and came together. “Do you know this music?” Miro asked.
“I think so. It’ll remain slow and in /-0.1em4 time for ten measures and then segue into something…wild.”
“Lovely.” Miro touched the palm of his right hand to Jino’s left and rested his left hand on his partner’s hip while she put a hand on his shoulder. Having his father be female didn’t bother Miro: while Jino had a general preference for male forms, it wasn’t a strong one. Miro had seen her choose female shapes many times in the past. Miro wasn’t used to dancing with Jino at her current size, but Peli took joy in being much too short for Sun Etherium standards, so the relative difference in their heights was not an unfamiliar sensation.
What did give him pause was the inscription on his parent’s arm: Property of Shadow of Fallen Scent. It wasn’t a tattoo, as Miro’d assumed from the glimpse during High Court. It was a brand, white skin raised and haloed by red.
They turned a slow, clockwise circle on the deck. Miro’s eyes slid again to the brand. “How are you?”
“Terrified.” Jino had her head tilted back to watch her son’s face, and followed his look. “Not over that, it’s just looks. Fallen likes dramatic things,” she said, and Miro wasn’t sure if that was the whole of it or not. “I am worried for you. What are you doing, Miro? What was that business in the court about? Don’t tell me anything you don’t want Fallen to know.”
“I made a deal with my lady, Ardent Sojourner.” The measure closed; they switched hands and turned counterclockwise. Miro spun Jino out and reeled her in again with her back to his chest. “I am honoring it.”
She pressed her cheek to his chest, letting him lead her through another turn. Softly, she asked, “Are you still with me, Mirohiro?”
“Always, Mom.” He spun her again, then brought her back face to face with him. “How bad is it?”
“Bad. I wish you hadn’t come. That oath. Did you have to swear that oath? Don’t answer me.”
Miro smiled. “I’m fine. More worried about you. ’Adolescent’ doesn’t suit you, Mom.”
“Do you think not? And Ele always said I was childish. Besides, it’s sort of fun.” She stayed in place as Miro took a step back in their dance, and then brought her left leg up smoothly to rest her sandaled foot against his shoulder, torso almost parallel to it, right foot still on the ground. “I can’t remember the last time I was this flexible without aether.”
Miro put his hands about her waist and lifted Jino enough to let her right foot point and trail the glass deck as he carried her through the movement. She felt feather-light in Miro’s current form. Jino put her hands over Miro’s, and he paused to take them. She arched backwards, almost impossibly far for a movement unassisted by aether, then tucked her right leg up. For a moment, she was suspended entirely by Miro’s hands on hers and her knee against his chest and foot by his shoulder. Miro’s muscles tensed with exertion. Then Jino launched her legs off of him to turn a somersault in the air. Her hair followed in a perfect arc, while her hands twisted in his. They released one another as she slid into a perfect sidesplit on landing. “Showoff,” Miro murmured.
“We did say your way. Spin?” Jino offered her hands. Miro took them and danced back a pace, turning quickly as he lifted Jino by her arms. Instead of standing, Jino kept her legs spread, letting centrifugal motion carry her into a spin, long hair whipping behind her. After a few revolutions, she folded her legs with knees tucked together, and Miro slowed to set her down, spinning himself in the opposite direction, aether-enspelled hair flaring around him like a cloak, coat following the motion. He slid to a stop in a crouch, one leg almost straight behind him, the other bent under him to support his weight. He leaned forward to touch his fingers to the glass deck, and looked to his partner. She was curled gracefully on the sides of her legs, torso angled towards him, breathing deeply.
Miro grinned and sprang to his feet in a sprint. He caught Jino up under her arms and set her down, gliding into a stately turn. “How’s your stamina?”
“Not as good as it could be,” Jino admitted, between deep breaths.
“How’d you get Fallen to give you enspelled hair?”
“She’s very vain. If I trip over my hair while she’s promenading me, it makes her look bad. Why did Ardent give you yours?”
“Ardent Sojourner is power-hungry,” Miro said, because he wanted Fallen to believe that, “but not cruel.” They reversed their turn. “Can you tell me what Fallen is doing?”
“I am forbidden from discussing my mistress’s activities,” Jino answered, as Miro dipped her back at the end of a turn. She grinned mischievously. “But I can tell you what her activities aren’t. For example, she isn’t gathering any natural iron.”
Miro’s eyes widened, thoughts going to the necessary items for different kinds of extractors for the phoenix rose. “Has she gathered any firebuds?”
“No.” Jino gave a small smile. “She’s never worked with firebuds.”
Miro allowed himself a moment of relief. With firebuds, Fallen could have made a working extractor – or extractors – before acquiring the phoenix rose, and had the devices ready and waiting for use with the bird. He’d thought that wasn’t the case, given Fallen’s lack of overt activity with the phoenix rose so far, but it was still good to have it confirmed. He pressed on with the inquiry: “Has she amassed natural aloe? Trinodon? Platinum?” He pulled Jino upright and danced backwards several steps, going through the list as Jino answered negatively to each. He focused on the ones that couldn’t be made by aether: materials that had to be harvested or mined by hand, and needed to be pure, not reused from some prior purpose. Miro turned and dipped her again as he asked, “Alabaster?”
“I can’t answer that,” Jino said, arched backwards, hair sweeping the glass deck. Miro smiled grimly and continued the interrogation. ‘Ivory’ also couldn’t be answered. They were dancing with Jino’s back to his chest again when Jino warned, “Music will go wild at the end of this measure.”
“Let’s go wild with it. What are you up for?”
The shift in the music vibrated through the deck with a new grinding beat. There was no time to ask if Jino was sure. Miro shifted his grip to her ribcage and turned as Jino folded her legs to let Miro support her. He lowered her for wind-up, then raised her high and tossed her into the air.
She soared on the momentum of the throw, arms outstretched. She grasped one of the ship’s glass spars and whirled around it, legs together at first, then split to clear the bar lengthwise. She shifted mid-spin to straddle the spar, hooked one knee around it, dropped to hang upside down and reach for her son. Miro raised his arms, back arched, to meet her. Jino pressed her palms to his and released the spar with her legs to handstand on his hands. This would be a great time to have some aether, Miro thought. Both their bodies trembled with tension, balanced too precisely. He lowered them, one leg going back, and Jino sprang off his hands to flip to the deck.
Jino’s landing was slightly off balance, but she recovered well. She stalked towards Miro, one hand raised palm out, and Miro moved backwards in time to her advance as music swelled around them. Jino dropped her arms and ran to him. You are mad, Mom, Miro thought, but when she jumped, he boosted her lift and sent her soaring again. Miro twisted to watch her. She caught one of the silk streamers and rocked upon it, one arm wrapping about the upper portion and the other lower, her back against it. She went down in a controlled slide as the streamer circled above the deck, losing momentum with each pass.
Miro spun across the deck to position himself beneath her when she dropped. Just before he reached the spot, something tripped him and he started to fall. Miro twisted as he fell, trying to recover, knowing he wouldn’t be in time. Music crashed to a climax around him.
An unexpected current of aether intercepted him, gracefully positioning him with one leg bent almost double beneath him and the other straight, arms out to catch Jino as she fell into them. The music fell, notes scattering like drops of rain, white blonde hair surrounding them like a halo. Jino curled gracefully into his embrace. Miro cradled her to his chest, pulse pounding, breathing too fast, until the last notes died away.
Applause rose in its place; the assembled guests had stopped their own dancing to watch the Sun Etherium fey. “Well done, son,” Jino murmured. Miro took a few moments longer to recover, but finally stood and set Jino down. Arm in arm, they returned to their mistresses, while Miro wondered if Fallen was the one who’d tripped him, and Ardent the one who’d caught him.
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