Miro woke during the night to the smell of food at his side and a ravenous appetite. It had been quite a while since he’d had an entire meal of only real food. Aetherfood was always smoother and finer. He could taste the coarse grain of the flatbread, the silky strings of chopped onion baked into it, the grittiness of squash, the fibers of the chicken. Alongside the curious textures were rich, complex flavors: the tang and heat of spices in the curry, the subtle sweetness of onion. He could have masked some or all of it with glamour. Glamour required very little aether, and despite the channeling earlier, and the slow evaporation into the aether-depleted air of the Broken Lands, he still had a considerable amount. He could have made it taste like something else entirely, had he chosen. But he found he liked it as it was, strange textures and intense flavors and all. Before he was done, he’d mopped the last remnants of curry from the bowl with the last bites of bread. Afterwards, he fell back to sleep.
In the morning, he felt refreshed and alert, if bedraggled from sleeping in his clothes. Miro spared some aether to clean himself and his clothing, and to smooth the wrinkles from the cloth, then paused and gave the same consideration to cleaning and making the bed. He took the dishes from the bedside table, cleaned them as well, then stepped from the bedroom to the kitchen. Ardent was already up and scrambling eggs. He stopped by the doorway to stare at her soul. He didn’t know what he’d expected: for it to have corrupted overnight? That he’d misremembered how beautiful she was, or been deluded by the euphoria from channeling?
He had not been mistaken. She was still astonishing. He stepped closer and breathed her in. Even the scent of her – she was like fresh air after a spring rain. As if he’d spent his whole life choking on smoke and never realized until now what clean air was like. She was physically dominating, towering more than a foot over him, but her soul was so overpowering he barely noticed.
Her caprine ears swiveled towards him. “Good morning, sugar. Sleep all right?”
“Very well, thank you.” He took a glance through the door from kitchen to front room, and realized abruptly that the house only had three rooms. “I apologize; I didn’t realize I’d put you out of your own room, my lady.”
She waved it off. “No reason you would. It’s fine, I stayed with Relentless. He’s got plenty of space. Hungry?”
He nodded, holding out his bowl, and she dished up some of the eggs. “Feel free to glamour it up, kid, I won’t be offended.”
Miro smiled and tried a forkful, then dug in, enjoying the curious, unmodified texture. They took their dishes to the workroom – the small kitchen had no table – and ate in silence until he hazarded a question. “The matters you mentioned last night – were you able to settle them already, or…?”
“Mmm. Mostly.” She gave him an evaluating look. “There’s a few things we gotta talk about yet, your highness.”
Of all the ways she referred to him, his proper title was somehow the least pleasant. He took a sip of pear cider, and looked to her attentively. “Yes, my lady?”
“So. The reason I could tell you’re High Court isn’t just that you were holding too much aether for a regular affiliate of the Sun Host. It’s that you have a wider connection to the Sun Etherium. A much wider connection.”
He turned his eyes to his meal, with a suspicion of where this was going. “I am aware of that, yes.”
“Are you now? That connection’s not usable in the Broken Land, but it’ll be wide open in the Moon Etherium.”
There was no use in dancing around the truth. “Yes. It means that my body can be used to channel more aether at one time than I would be able to survive channeling, and this is not a form of mortality that aether or fey invulnerability could defend me from.”
“You could die,” Ardent said, voice low.
“I could die. Yes. I accept this risk.”
“I’m glad you accept it. As the person who might be killing you, sugar, I’m a whisker less sanguine about it. That channeling test last night…” She put her fork down, and scrunched her curly hair with one brown hand. “That didn’t go badly in any of the ways I expected it to, but it didn’t exactly go well, either. I took more than I meant to, and. Well. If we’re gonna do this, I kinda need to know that, first, I am capable of stopping when I intend to stop, and second, that you are capable of telling me to stop if I’m drawing too much.”
“I have every faith in you, my lady.” His voice was soft and earnest.
“That’s great, your highness, but I kinda need to have it in myself.”
“I am amenable to further tests, if that will help?” Miro fought to make the words neutral, to keep the eagerness from them.
“Yeah…” Ardent sounded reluctant, and he found himself disappointed by that. “Yeah, I think it would.” She finished her last bite of breakfast, wiped her hands on a napkin, and offered her palm. He lay his wrist against her fingers, and was chagrinned to see his own hand trembling. “This time, I by Truth am going to take just a little. Enough to charge a pair of walking boots. No more. And I want you to tell me to stop when I’ve reached that level. No, wait. I want you to tell me to stop before I get even that much. Let’s say half as much. Sound good?”
He nodded, feeling his own pulse beating faster under her touch. “Yes.” She took a deep breath, and he felt it again: this time slower, but still flying on the ebb of aether, still that sense of falling into her. He forced himself not to get lost in the sensation, to monitor the level of aether within him. He kept his eyes open, watching her face. She’d closed her own. There. That’s the limit she requested. “Stop,” Miro said, softly.
Just like that, Ardent did. Her eyes fluttered open, meeting his. Her dark eyes sparkled with flecks of orange, aether dancing behind them. Her wide, full lips parted, breathing out, breathing in, and he wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Would she be as gentle as her fingertips against his wrist, or as overwhelming as her bonfire soul, as overpowering as her channeling?
Guide, help me. I need to keep the Path. He took a deep breath himself. “Better?”
Ardent answered with a nod. “Yeah.” She hesitated. “We should do that again. Wait, no, I’m sorry, you—”
She started to draw back her hand, and he curled his fingers slightly against the base of her palm, arresting her motion. “No, you’re right,” he agreed, surprised at the steadiness of his own voice. “You stopped when I asked you to. You want to be sure that you can stop when you mean to, even if I don’t say anything.”
“Yeah.” She exhaled. “Right. I’ll draw the same amount of aether as last time. Tell me to stop if I go much over that. Understood?” At his nod, she began, and this time Miro closed his eyes, letting himself relax into the delicious sensation. It ended much too soon, and exactly when she’d said it would.
Miro smiled at her. “Your control is excellent, my lady.” He stroked his fingertips against her wrist; the skin was much softer there than on her calloused hands. He wanted to fall against her, to tuck his head beneath her chin and snuggle in against her broad, inviting bosom. He leaned against the table instead.
“Guess so,” she said, as if unconvinced by her own example. She withdrew her arm. “Sorry. This is…a lot more intense than I’m used to. And I know it’s going to be dozen times worse when we’re in the Moon Etherium. Guess I’m a little nervous. A lot nervous. Heh. I’m not used to being nervous either, sugar. You sure you’re all right?”
I love it. But if you’d like to do another test, just to be sure… “Very certain. Is it so unpleasant for you?” he asked, dismayed. “I am sorry to be the cause of distress.”
Ardent laughed. “Oh, sugar, ‘unpleasant’ is definitely not the word. Definitely not. I’m just worried about you. You look a little peaked.”
“Don’t be. I feel fantastic.” Miro touched the smooth dark skin on the back of her hand. “Of all the things I am apprehensive about, my lady, I assure you: this is not among them.”
Hey eyes glanced to his hand, then back up to meet his, with a shaky smile. “All right then.” She turned about on the bench to lean back against the table and gaze out her window. “Sweetie, do mortals ever come to the Sun Etherium to trade?”
He blinked at the change of topic. “To the Sun Etherium? No. It’s much too far into their ‘Cursed Lands’.”
Her mouth twisted. “Right. That’s what I thought.” Ardent stood, drawing herself up to her full imposing height, a giantess looming over him. “Mirohirokon, my help in securing the freedom of the phoenix rose and your father from Shadow of Fallen Scent comes at a price.”
Miro bowed his head. “I will be deeply in your debt,” he acknowledged. He had no expectation of ever being free of her string upon him, not after this. Surprisingly, he found the prospect did not trouble him.
She wrinkled her nose and continued, “This is my price. The Sun Etherium is abducting mortals. I want this practice stopped, and I want any captive mortals freed and returned, if possible, to their own people. If such is not feasible, then they must be allowed to choose their own course, whether to live as free people in the Fey World, or whether to take their chances in a foreign mortal one. I know, you’re the ninth-to-eleventh-favorite prince, but you’re still High Court. I do not require you to guarantee success, for neither can I guarantee our success. But I require that you do your best to end the enslavement of mortals.”
Of all the things she might have asked for – aether deliveries or materials for her village, trade concessions, his permanent obligation – this was not one he’d been prepared to hear. For a moment, he imagined the Sun Queen’s reaction to such an accusation: her sneering contempt, her outrage at a mere barbarian telling her how to order her Etherium. He could see the string upon her hand form, a bright clear orange: the obligation to her, offered alongside her aid, untainted on her side. “My lady. I will do all that I can.” Am already doing all that I can, in fact. At his promise, he saw the orange connection reach out and half-encircle him to join to the back of his neck. About midway, it changed: the thread twisted, a few flecks of corruption in it, as it made the shift from Ardent’s untainted string to an obligation Miro was less certain he would keep.
“You already knew,” she said, and he thought she was disappointed. In him? In his Etherium? Both?
Miro supposed that was fair; he was disappointed in both himself. “My lady.” He wanted to apologize, explain, but what was the use? It was not excusable.
“Justice,” Ardent swore. “You’ve got aether beyond measure! What do you people even need slaves for? Never mind, don’t answer that. I know.” The disgust was plain in her tone. “Justice. I thought the fey’d moved past this four hundred years ago.”
“I cannot speak for the Moon Etherium, but I fear the Sun has…backslid, during my mother’s reign.”
Ardent snorted. She patted his shoulder. “Sorry, kid. You’re not to blame for your parents’ failings, you know. C’mon. Let’s see about prying your Dad out of this cage.”
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