On the walk back to Try Again, Intia spoke to Awni, and Ardent learned how Awni had ended up partway to Sun Etherium. Several days earlier, he had met a fey child, whom he called “Tila” and somehow had decided was female. Tila and he had played a couple of times on the fringes of the fey lands. Two days ago, she’d showed up and asked if he wanted to go flying with her. He agreed, and she’d changed both him and herself into birds. They flew around for half an hour, and then Tila made him land and they turned back into people. She told him to wait on the hillside and she’d be back soon to get him. Then she ran away in “her funny big boots”. Awni grew frightened when “she was gone a long time”. He went to look for her and “fell through the hill” and had been wandering lost and scared since.
To Ardent’s fey ears, the story was depressingly plausible. She doubted Tila had even intentionally abandoned its friend, or meant any harm to him. The fey child must be Sun Host. The “funny big boots” were some adult’s traveling shoes that Tila was too young to know how to resize. Tila’d run out of aether during their flying jaunt, and gone back to the Etherium to get more. Then when Tila came back and was unable to find him, Tila might have been scared to tell an adult what had happened for fear of getting itself in trouble. For that matter, Tila sounded young enough that it wouldn’t realize Awni was in trouble. A five or six year-old fey had no real concept that mortal children were neither immortal nor indestructible, and wholly incapable of traversing dozens of miles unassisted. Tila might have assumed its friend had gone home on his own, as easily as Tila could. Ardent wanted to blame Tila’s parents for letting it run rampant like this…but the truth was, fey children were immortal and indestructible and lots of Etherium parents relied on scrying to monitor their children. Ardent sighed inwardly. What a mess.
It didn’t take long to return to the village. According to the crystal, the traders were still with Relentless Comfort. Ardent expected he was going to put them up for the night. Relentless lived in the largest home in Try Again, a miniature palace he’d imported from the Moon Etherium. It was night by now, but Ardent expected Relentless and his guests to still be awake. So when she arrived at his front door, a child on either shoulder, she leaned forward and had Intia ring the doorbell.
An incredulous Relentless answered the door. “You actually found the children? How? Where were they?”
“Scrying. I got some aether from the Sun lord. The older one was lost. The younger’d been abducted.” Ardent said in fey. She brushed past the naga and into his drawing room. “Hey-o, Finquio, Mifinto, Huanato. I found your strays.” She set the children down.
Intia rushed into the embrace of the oldest trader, who knelt to receive her. “Uncle Huanato! Uncle Huanato!”
“I’m sure the kids are hungry,” Ardent said, as the mortals had their reunion in a babble of recriminations, relief, and apologies. “I’ll go get them some food.”
“What do you mean, ‘abducted’?” Relentless followed her out, serpentine tail-tip twitching,
Ardent sighed and started explaining while she went into the palace’s cellar. She scrounged up some vegetables, fresh eggs, and cheese, and then returned to the kitchen. Relentless’s little palace had a pleasant, well-engineered kitchen, based on designs adapted from a half-dozen mortal worlds. An Etherium kitchen was far superior, but those consumed far more aether than was available in the Broken Lands. By the time Ardent had finished Awni’s story, she was halfway through cooking the first omelet.
“Great,” Relentless grumbled when she finished. “And you just handed it back over to them.”
“Uh-huh.” Ardent slid the omelet onto a plate and started cooking the second. “And the boy has a gender. So does the girl. Try to remember that when you’re talking to their relatives.”
“Ugh. Why do they assign genders to children so young? Are they going to have sex with a five year old? Mortal customs are disgusting.”
Ardent sighed. “You know, when my grandparents were kids, fey still assigned genders to children. When they were born.”
Relentless shuddered. “It’s still grotesque. And you know that child is just going to spread another tale about how we’re the monsters of the Cursed Lands, after this.”
“Sugar, until we stop acting like dangerous monsters, it’s not exactly fair to blame the mortals for thinking that we are dangerous monsters.” She sprinkled a little more cheese into the cooking eggs.
“Ha ha ha. You know full well that fey child wasn’t trying to kidnap or hurt their child.”
“Yes. And I know full well that he would’ve been dead because of Tila, if these folks hadn’t showed up to ask us to look for him. This is not acceptable, Relentless.” She folded the omelet over in the pan.
Relentless lashed his tail into the counter. “What the Etheriums do, or don’t do, isn’t something we can control, Ardent. Persistence! I came here to get away from Etherium politics.”
“Me too, sugar.” They waited in silence while the omelet finished cooking. Ardent transferred it to a plate and poured a couple of glasses of milk. She handed the milk to Relentless to carry. “I’m going back to the Moon Etherium tomorrow.”
“What? But – it’s the harvest season. You can’t leave now. Why are you going? Does this have to do with that Sun lord?”
“It’s complicated.” She picked the plates up. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I’ll bring back aether to make up for it.”
“Aether won’t harvest your crops, not unless you want to ruin the flavor. You might as well bring back aetherfood at that point,” Relentless grumbled. While food was growing or being harvested, the use of aether on it would strongly affect the taste. It wasn’t necessarily an unpleasant effect, but it would no longer taste natural.
“I know. Maybe I can work something out with the mortals tonight, get some of them in to help. Will you talk to the others for me?”
The naga flicked out his forked tongue. “I suppose so. But why now? Why the Moon Etherium? They’re not the ones who got that child lost. ‘Tila’ must be short for some Sun name. What did that Sun lord say to you?”
Ardent sighed. “Shadow of Fallen Scent enslaved his father, Relentless.” The naga blinked at her. “I don’t want to get into the details, and I’d as soon you didn’t tell anyone else.” She carried the omelets into the drawing room and offered them to the children, who fell upon the food like deer in a garden.
“Very well.” Relentless handed the kids their milk. “Good luck, Ardent.”
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