They arrived in a room with mirrored walls, ceiling, and floor, and extra freestanding mirrors in case those weren’t enough. There were also several dozen identical women with long fluffy white tails tipped in black, bat wings, and fox ears in a mane of white hair. Only one of them had a soul.
“Ardent!” the women cried, and charged in all directions, with the one who had a soul running straight at them. Ardent set Miro down and embraced the woman. After a moment’s disorientation, Miro resolved the situation into one woman and many, many reflections. “Beloved! You return home to us at last! Oh, we have missed you so, you have no idea. Look at you!” She leaned away from Ardent and flicked the short hemline of her chiton. “You look terrible, beloved, why do you do this to yourself? Look at your legs. No one has hairy legs any more. No one. Why are you still using those?”
“I’m not changing my legs for the High Court, kid,” Ardent told her. “I’ve had these legs for over two hundred years. I am very attached to them.”
“And your tail! Why do you even have a tail if you’re going to make it look like that? You might as well tie a dead rat to your butt. Now him, him, he is a classic!” She turned to Miro. “Such fine lines on this boy! I love that jacket, the asymmetrical fastening, novel yet traditional – is that the style in your High Court?”
“It is. Court dress has much more lace and the cut is tighter, but the lines through the torso are the same,” he said, in an effort to distract Threnody Katsura from denigrating Ardent’s appearance. It was better than giving in to the irrational urge to leap to her defense. His assistance there was surely neither necessary nor wanted. The diversion worked: Katsura pounced on the few details and demanded more. Soon, she was iterating designs upon him. A wave of her hand, and his existing clothing changed into a rough concept of his description. She then refined it, over and over again, as he clarified points and added details, and she toyed with her own embellishments.
While Miro had Katsura’s attention, Ardent stood before one of the wall mirrors and drew the High Court rune over it. Her reflection shifted to show a shorter version of her with human legs, wrapped in snug-fitted navy with silver trim, hair in elaborate winding braids. Ardent scowled at her reflection. She traced “clothing only” with her finger before the mirror, then waved her hand to replace the reflection with a new outfit on her current form. After a few dozen different outfits, Ardent yelled, “Katsura! Surely High Court fashion must still have some skirts? Dresses? Chitons? Robes? Caftans? Saris? Something?”
“What’s wrong with trousers?” Katsura asked, adjusting the lace visible through the slashed sleeves of Miro’s new jacket.
“I hate trousers. Can I go naked? Is naked still formal?”
“Beloved Ardent, naked hasn’t been formal since before I was born. There was, what, one summer in 1132 when it was formal?”
“One glorious summer.” Ardent gave a wistful sigh.
“Naked is not formal. Find something to wear or I’ll find it for you. You’re already wearing the right form for Sun High Court, I presume, Mirohirokon?”
He looked at his reflection, thoughtful. For most of his life, court dress had ranged between “entertaining nuisance” and “abhorred necessity”. For the last three decades, he’d kept much the same body regardless of what was in fashion. But here and now, he found that he wanted to do this properly. “No. I should be taller—” He gestured with his hand four inches over his head “— and broader, especially through the shoulders and chest. Muscular, like Ardent.” Reflexively, he tried to trueshift himself and could not. The uncomfortable sense of being hollow and parched in an aether sea intensified.
Katsura spun a homunculus out of aether, creating a tiny doll based on his current form, and then reshaped it in her hands according to his gestures. “I’m guessing you don’t mean you want Ardent’s bosom?”
Not as a part of me, he thought, and blushed. “No, thank you. Oh, hair should be much longer, and light blond.”
“Longer?” Ardent glanced over her shoulder. “Kid, your hair is already hip-length!”
“Pay her no mind.” Katsura fiddled with the homunculus. “She has all the taste of month-old milk. How long?”
“It should trail behind me, like a train. Aether to keep it off the ground and in order, obviously.”
At his direction, Katsura lightened the doll’s hair to a white blond. She darkened the skin to a tan with a faint golden sheen, suggestive of buffed gold but not metallic. She handed the homunculus to him, and he took on its appearance. She accessorized him with a thin gold circlet sparkling with diamonds. Matched chains draped about his long, swept-back fey ears. His new jacket was waist-length in front, but fanned out in back to knee-height. It fastened with a lightning-strike pattern along the left breast, and came to a high collar, almost at his chin. The sleeves suggested wings, long and draping, with lightning-strike slashes along the top. Tights covered his legs, and the gold chains of formal sandals wound around his calves and fastened below the knee. The dominant colors were cream and gold, intricate lace mixed with bold matte satins.
“Truth,” Katsura breathed out, leaning back to admire her handiwork. “Now that is a prince.” She turned her attention to Ardent. “Now we must make you worthy of such a pet!”
“I’m wearing this.” Ardent had chosen one of the mirror designs and copied it onto herself. It was a high-collared sleeveless gown, close-fitted from chest to waist, with a circular cutout of transparent silk to showcase her ample cleavage. Its skirt flowed down from the waist, cut so high in front that it barely reached the tops of her thighs, but lengthening to almost sweep the floor in back. It was colored in variegated rich reds, and trimmed in platinum and rubies.
Katsura made a face. “Darling, you can’t wear that without tights.”
“Watch me. You ready to go, Mirohirokon?”
“You cannot leave here looking like that!” Katsura protested. “I forbid it! I shall never let you set foot – hoof – in here again if you sabotage one of my designs like this.”
This gave Ardent pause, and Katsura pounced on the opportunity. What followed was a long negotiation over every aspect of Ardent’s appearance. In the end, she held firm in refusing trousers, tights, different legs, or fur removal, but did consent to silver patterns dyed into her leg fur. She also let Katsura talk her into fey ears instead of her current goat-like ones. (“What’s wrong with my ears? You’ve got animal ears!” “Mine are lovely vulpine ears. Yours are goat. They go.”) Her horns were lengthened from short buds to long, curved spikes, and adorned with silver jewelry. Her hands were stripped of their callouses, the mere existence of which offended Katsura. (“You’re invulnerable! Why do you need callouses?” “Because I’m not automatically invulnerable to myself. And yes, if I’m paying attention, weeding and harvesting and whatnot won’t hurt my hands if I don’t want them to. But it’s annoying to always have to pay attention.”) Katsura tried and failed to convince her to exchange her (in Miro’s opinion) adorable short fluff of a tail for a long and plush one.
While they were still arguing over the tail, Threnody Katsura’s partner, Intend and Illuminate, popped in. Illuminate, who had feathered wings and rosette spots, promptly began to rhapsodize over the possibilities of Ardent’s hair. Ultimately, she transformed it into an elaborate network of hundreds of small braids, spiraling and looping upwards. Katsura extended the dress’s collar into a lace confection that framed her face. Both clothiers wound delicate silver jewelry about her bare arms and calves.
Finally, Ardent attempted to shake the two of them off. “All right, enough. Enough! Can we go now?”
“You look lovely,” Illuminate said, kindly, and put a few final touches on the silver design she was making above Ardent’s eyes.
Katsura sniffed. “Adequate.” Honesty mixed with cruelty and arrogance in her otherwise healthy soul. Miro struggled not to take a dislike to her, since Ardent didn’t seem to mind it.
Ardent arranged to pay them after she’d had a chance to unload Sessile’s cargo, then picked Miro up again and departed.
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