After breakfast, Miro and Ardent went for a walk along the palace’s parapets, which were more akin to a decorative walkway than a mortal fortification. They walked slowly, and Ardent made Miro promise he would stop before overexerting himself. The high vantage offered a magnificent view of the city. Now and then, they’d stop for Miro to point out landmarks of significance to him, and sometimes teleport to them for a closer look. “Everything’s changing now.” Miro gestured to one of the spires that stretched to the sky above the palace. “The old Sun Queen would never have tolerated that.”
“How would she stop it? She couldn’t force people to stop building, could she?”
“Not the way Dad stopped her, no. But she didn’t have to. Lots of people agreed with her that the architectural unity of the city was its glory and must be maintained. They’d’ve ostracized any who tried to violate it. That combination was always enough to deter it.” Miro rested his arms on the parapet rail and looked at some of the colorful additions sprouting on buildings below.
“Are you gonna miss it? The architectural unity.”
“I don’t know. I always thought I hated the sameness of it, but…the unplanned, haphazard layout of the Moon Etherium was overwhelming. Perhaps Sun will settle on something in between. I can hope.” Miro looked up as she leaned against the rail next to him, then slipped a hand around her waist and leaned against her side.
Ardent put her arm around his shoulders and bent her head to place her face against his hair. “Are you really gonna ask me to marry you at dinner time?”
“Yes. Unless you’d rather I didn’t. I can ask you right now instead. Or tomorrow. Or in two years. Or never.” He closed his eyes and breathed in the clean pure warmth of her soul. “I know it’s too soon. I should not have brought it up.”
“Hon, it’s fine.” She lifted him into her arms to embrace him and look into his eyes. “It does seem a little soon. And sudden. All right, a lot soon. I’d been basically living with Whispers Rain for eight months before I asked her to marry me.”
“That’s very sensible.” Miro looped his arms over her shoulders. “Just what I would expect of you.” He pulled himself closer to her, pressing his cheek to hers. “I do not need you to promise me eternity. That is, I am confident that I would like to spend eternity with you and that I shall not change my mind. But I am happy to take each day as it comes, and to be grateful for that.”
“‘Grateful’.” Ardent made a face at him. “Miro, honey, I’m already over seven feet tall. I’m a little uncomfortable about this pedestal you keep putting me on.”
“I assure you, I have an entirely realistic view of your perfection,” Miro said, earnestly, then laughed at her expression. “My apologies, Ardent. I shall attempt to bridle my admiration. In the interests of planning on a less grandiose scale: how long did you wish to stay in the Sun Etherium? Do you need to return to the Moon Etherium soon? Or to Try Again?”
“Ugh. I’ve missed half the harvest by now. I really should go back to Try Again, if only so Relentless and the others know I’ve not forgotten them.” Ardent set him down on the parapet rail, and rested her chin on his shoulder. “Skein wanted me to stay longer in the Moon Etherium.”
“She forgave you for not telling her about the phoenix rose? Or did she never learn the whole of it?”
“She forgave me, more or less. I’m afraid there might still be mortal slaves left there. Found several and freed ’em, but that doesn’t mean ‘all’. And there’s more mess, but there’s always been more mess and that never kept me there before.” Ardent exhaled, and circled an arm around Miro’s back. “To be honest, sugar, the only thing I really and truly want right now is to be with you.”
Miro closed his eyes and squeezed her. “Thank you for that.”
“I should’ve come for you sooner. That ridiculous vow. I should’ve known…”
“Pft. That ridiculous vow was my idea. So was violating it. You are not responsible for the consequences of my actions,” Miro said. Ardent screwed up her face, unconvinced, so he kissed her. “I love it when you make faces at me. Ama is right: you truly are adorable.” Ardent stuck her tongue out at him, and then they were both laughing and embracing.
After a long pause for caressing and kissing, Ardent spoke again. “All right. I don’t know exactly what I should do next. I’m thinking, ‘Go back to Try Again and harvest whatever I can before the weather turns. Then hike back to the Moon Etherium and see how things are going there and if I can actually help.’ Long term…I miss Try Again. I dunno if I can explain the barbarian life in a way that makes sense. I love the aether and the power and the easy Etherium life, but the longer I stay in one the more I feel like…I don’t know. Like living in one makes me insulated and isolated, wadded up in cotton and unable to touch anything real. That doesn’t make sense. Of course you’re real and I’m touching you right now. But…”
Miro kissed her as she trailed off. “It’s all right. I don’t expect you to move to the Sun Etherium for me. You know, I’ve always spent a lot of time out of the Etherium. I never resigned my affiliation, of course. But Dad’s research meant a lot of hours traveling, in the Broken Lands and even into mortal worlds. Mortal culture is fascinating. So different, from world to world.”
“I know! And their stories! They’re so short-lived, and they spend so much of their lives scrabbling just to stave off death a few more years. I can’t help feeling bad for them. But there’s so many more of them than fey. Millions upon millions, maybe billions of them, I don’t know. The fey shard is so small. You ever think about staying on a mortal world after the fey shard passes? On one where the shard comes back regularly to it, so you’d know when to come back. But just travelling the whole of the Old World for a hundred and twelve years, really seeing it.”
Miro smiled. “You make Dad’s exile of our enemies sound almost pleasant for them.”
“Heh. Exile beats dying, anyway.”
“It does. And I think I would enjoy exile, were I exiled with you.” Miro laced his fingers through hers. “But we can start with Try Again, first. Perhaps you can make a barbarian farmer of me.”
Ardent lifted his fingers to her lips and kissed them. “Is that something you really want to do, Miro? Or are you just saying it to please me?”
He smiled at her. “I’ve spent most of my life plotting to overthrow my mother. Well, no reason to do any more of that. I am in need of a new purpose, my lady. Yours sounds interesting.”
Ardent studied his face. “It’s just. About marriage. Eternity’s a long time to promise. And I guess…I think I’m asking too much, hoping you’ll love me enough to love a hard life. I don’t want to do to you what I did to Rain. And let’s be honest here: she may’ve been the one to suggest divorce, but I’m the one who left. I could’ve gone back to the Moon Etherium instead, but I wouldn’t.”
“I am not Rain. I like the Broken Lands. But I can wait to convince you. Besides.” He leaned back and pointed over her shoulder. “Life in Try Again may give me the opportunity to study the only free phoenix rose in history. Since you’re the only person it likes.”
She glanced back, to see the bird perched on the rail of a tower balcony several yards above and to one side of them. It cooed querulously at her. Ardent turned to face it, leaning back against the rail. She conjured up a dish with some cacao pulp in it and cooed back. The phoenix rose flew down to land on her outstretched arm. It pecked at the dish a bit, then ignored the rest in favor of settling on her arm with its feathers fluffed. “What do you suppose it wants?”
“To bask in the glory of your soul.” Miro snuggled against her side. “What more could anyone want?”
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