“Shh. It’ll be fine.” The fey man stroked the head of the owl perched on his shoulder. Despite the reassurance, the bird’s head circled one way and then the other. They were alone in the Broken Lands, surrounded by a silent forest of stone spires whose jagged tips lanced the darkening sky. The last purple-red light of the sun was dying in the west as a full moon rose in the distant east. The dry, dusty air nourished little: some lichen along the northwest sides of the spires, and the occasional scrubby bush. A few spindly but determined trees made stark shadows on the eastern horizon.
Petting his owl absently, the fey focused on a scrying crystal in his other hand. The sphere showed, one after another, different sections of a landscape similar to their own surroundings. At first, each scene was empty of animate life. Then it showed the figure of a tall fey woman with silver fox ears and a long lush tail tipped in black. Her attention was split between the small white dog leashed by a silver chain that she was following, and a scrying mirror in her other hand.
The fey man exhaled; with a twist of his hand, image and scrying crystal both vanished. “Well, here we are, Mirohiro. Go.” The owl’s wings shifted, and the fey transferred him from shoulder to gloved wrist and raised him. “You know what to do. Go!” The owl took wing, silent and hard to see as he angled upward towards one of the stone spire tips.
With arms outstretched, the man’s outline blurred, then his form shrank and shifted. In an eyeblink, a sparrow hovered at shoulder height where the man had stood. The bird darted between stone spires. Soon, he saw through sparrow eyes the same fox-tailed woman he’d spotted in his crystal orb.
The woman dropped the leash and shifted into a raven’s shape. Her wings flapped as she rose, circling.
The sparrow flew forward with a fresh burst of speed. “Shadow of Fallen Scent!” he called out to her. “What a pleasure to find you here!” The raven’s head twitched in his direction, but she continued to ascend undeterred. “Oh, don’t rush away! Surely you can spare a moment for an old friend.”
The raven circled the twisted stone pillar a few feet above him. “I’m sorry,” she answered at last. “Do I know you?”
“Oh, of course, where are my manners? I am Jinokimijin of the Sun Host. We’ve met before. At the Convocation of 1220 we shared a dance on the Lily Pavilion. Do you recall?”
She laughed, and her ascent slowed fractionally. Jino struggled to catch up. “Naturally. Jinokimijin the Disgraced; I should have known it was you. What are you failing at today, Jino?”
The sparrow chuckled, self-consciously. “I daresay I’ve succeeded at the same thing you have, Fallen. May I call you Fallen?”
“You may not.” The raven eyed him warily, still rising.
“Excellent. Surely it’s no coincidence that we’re both here, Fallen. Flying around this same stone pillar, when the fey shard coincides with the Old World, and sun and moon stand in perfect opposition. Literal sun and moon, that is. No need for opposition between our respective Hosts, I’m sure.”
“Oh, I know it’s not a coincidence, Jino. You’re following me. Do you think you can catch me, your highness? Forgive me: your former highness.”
Jino flapped his wings harder. “Maybe. Do we need to make this a race, Shadow of Fallen Scent? We both know the potential of a phoenix rose. We’re both here for it. We could share.”
She cocked her head, as if considering for a moment. “No.” She flew higher.
“You must be tempted!” Jino shouted after her. “Think of all the work we’ve duplicated! Think of all we could teach one another. Do you know how the Moon Etherium formed?”
The raven slowed, and Jino almost closed the gap between them. “Do you?” she asked.
“Share this find with me, and I’ll share everything I know with you,” Jino offered.
“You don’t.” Fallen dismissed him and rose again.
“Wait wait wait. All right. If this is going to be a race – well, we should still be on the same side, whoever wins. Whichever of us possesses the phoenix rose, let that one be served by the other.”
The raven turned, and spiraled in a tight circle above the sparrow. “Are you offering yourself as my slave, Jinokimijin?”
The sparrow wobbled in the air as he tried to meet Fallen’s gaze. “Only when – and if – you gain the phoenix rose, my lady. If it falls to my hands instead – well. I suppose you could say you’d be mine.”
Fallen laughed again, a sharp, staccato sound in her raven’s throat. “Very well. I accept your bargain.”
Jino staggered in the air. “You do?”
With a glance at the spire they flew beside, she chose a spot along one of its winding curves to land. She resumed her fox-tailed human shape. “I do. Shall we formalize it, Jino? You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”
“No…no. I haven’t.” His eyes flicked upwards, to the still-distant peak. Then he dropped into place next to her. His man’s shape was taller than hers by some inches, and broad-shouldered; height and strength were fashionable in the Sun Etherium at present. He had gold-dusted brown skin, long golden hair bound in a narrow queue, and the elongated ears with pointed tips that were common among the fey. He wore a long formal jacket with a jagged, asymmetrical fastening down the front, and no jewelry save a hoop earring of white gold, studded by rubies.
Fallen had produced a short silver knife from a pocket in a gauzy overskirt that swirled over her trousers. Without a wince, she sliced open her own right palm and watched him with ice blue eyes in a gray face. She had a fox’s whiskers, white and almost invisible against her skin where they grew, but dark at the tips.
Jino slashed his own palm and they clasped arms, palm to wrist.“Whichever of us possesses the phoenix rose, the other will be bound to serve. Only the one in possession of the phoenix rose may choose to release us from this binding.”
Fallen repeated his words, squeezing his wrist. They repeated the oath a second time together, this time touching blooded palm to opposite wrist. For the third recitation, each rested their own palm against the other’s throat.
“Shall we race, my lady?” Jino still held his hand against Fallen’s throat. A trickle of blood leaked down the side of her bare neck. A droplet fell from the smear of blood she’d left on his wrist.
Fallen laughed again, revealing sharp white teeth. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
His eyes darted to the peak. “…uh. My lady?”
“Do you think I don’t know what you were doing, your former highness?”
A faint sheen of sweat formed on his forehead. “Making a bargain with you?”
“You are going to be such an adorable slave, Jino.” She smiled, baring her fangs. “I know you’ve been stalling for time. I know about your owl. I know you’ve been waiting for him to come back with the phoenix rose for you.” A long, mournful hoot cut through the twilight gloom. “And there it is! Right on schedule. Except for one teensy-eensy problem.” The owl swooped past their perch on the spire.
Its talons were empty.
“I already have the phoenix rose,” Fallen pulled her hand from his throat, and it came away holding a silver chain. Jino lifted his own hand to his neck to touch the hard silver collar now formed around it. “I acquired it two days ago. I only came back today to collect the roots of its nest-plant. Really, Jino, how stupid do you think I am? Do you think I’d take the slightest chance of becoming your servant?” Silver cuffs formed about his wrists; a chain linking them pulled his hands together. “You thought you were clever enough to fool me? You, Disgraced Jinokimijin? You’re not even clever enough to stay married.” Fallen pulled on the chain to his collar, dragging his head down to bow before her. “Perhaps it’s a good deal for you after all, though. You’re not actually fit for any higher position in society, are you? Call back your bird.”
Jino blinked, his head still bowed. “What?”
“Call back your bird! You belong to me; it may as well too.”
Jino lifted his head and peered into the gloom. The owl had circled a few times while Fallen was talking, but now it was winging away. “Come back?” he said, half-heartedly. Fallen glowered at him and wrapped a loop of the leash about her knuckles. Jino swallowed and yelled, “Come back! Rohi! Rohi, come!”
The distant owl wheeled in the air to face them. Jino whistled. “That’s it, Rohi! Come here!” He whistled again, but the owl had continued its circle and was flying off again.
“Oh, seriously! Can’t you leash it?”
Jino raised his bound arms and flicked one wrist up: a length of leather tether spun out of aether, snaking towards the owl. The bird dodged the tether and continued to fly on. “Sorry, my lady. I guess I’m not a very good animal trainer, either.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “Then I’ll have to find some other use for you. Perhaps you’ll make an adequate whipping boy. Come along, pet.”
The owl soared out of the forest of stone spires as the moon rose higher in the sky. The ground turned from cracked stone to scrub over the course of a mile or so, and then, suddenly, a hill covered in tall grasses rose over the brush. The owl dropped to the level of the hill top, flight wobbling badly. Legs extended, the bird spread its wings to brake, but was still going too fast when the shift wore off. In an instant, a fey figure with golden skin and indigo hair replaced the owl in the air. Human legs struck the ground, arms flailed for balance against the momentum, and then he tumbled through tall fragrant grass. Mirohirokon rolled to a graceless halt a half-dozen yards later, breathing heavily, with no bruises or marks to show for the abuse. Seed fluff shaken loose from the plants drifted around him.
He lay on his back and stared at the night sky. Miro knew he’d pushed it, holding the shape so long. He was better than most at storing aether when outside of the Etherium, but there were still limits. He just wanted to still be an owl. It was easier that way: easier not to think about what had happened, about what he had to do next.
About how it had felt to see his father in chains.
Don’t think about that. It’s done, it’s too late for recriminations now. Just keep moving. You know what you have to do.
Miro climbed to his feet, and clicked his heels to activate the enchantment in his boots; they had their own aether source. Then he took a step forward that arced him through the air with such speed that when his foot came down he was almost ten yards away. Another step, just as swift, and another.
Just keep moving. You can do this.
You have to.
May the Guide lead you on your Path now, Dad. And me too.
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