The Moon Queen reaffiliated Ardent with her Etherium personally, and embraced her when the ritual was complete. Miro found that sign of personal affection interesting, especially given the tension between the two fey. Ardent had a string on her queen: thin, but real. Until the queen had offered a slender thread with the reaffiliation, she’d had none on Ardent.
Neither of those compared to the enormous cable Miro had handed Ardent during the court, of course. That was a tangled thing, threaded with contamination from his conflicted motives. Oddly, it looked uglier on her end than it did on his, and was still purer than he’d expected.
Miro felt strangely light, despite the collar on his neck and the new tether on his soul. He didn’t regret that extravagant oath to Ardent: he was confident she would never abuse it. And it had served to convince the entire court of his sincerity. No fey would make such a binding oath in bad faith. Even made in good faith it was all but unimaginable, to place unlimited power in the hands of another. But he’d already placed his life in her hands: what was an oath?
He should’ve been troubled by it: it would be all too easy for that oath to conflict disastrously with his other obligations. In some sense, it probably already did.
After their dismissal from the Moon Court, Ardent ported him to her old home, still intact after all these years.
The main chamber, where they entered, was a round room some hundred yards across, with a domed ceiling. The walls and ceiling looked transparent, providing a lofty view of the chaotic Moon Etherium that sprawled far below their perch in an improbable tower. Miro suspected that only one section of the wall was truly transparent and the rest were glamour. It was unsettling that he couldn’t tell for sure, but the foreign moon aether interfered even with that skill.
“Gimme a minute, sugar.” Ardent put him down and surveyed the room with a sigh. She began walking the perimeter, making gestures of ownership and warding as she went. In one half of the chamber was a network of five empty pools of differing sizes, from eight feet across to eighty. The other half was a living space, with a massive sunken pillow nest at its center, and chairs and sofas of various sizes. To one side of the pillow nest was a library, shelves still full of books, and on the other was a kitchen and dining area. A thick layer of dust coated everything. A spiral staircase came up from the level below the floor and led up to the ceiling and vanished – a strong hint that glamour covered the ceiling.
Miro unfastened his excessively formal jacket, pulling its collar out from under the snug white-gold one Ardent had given him. He placed the jacket across one chair back. Absently fingering the cool metal of the collar, he glanced about the main room. Ardent went through the entire room, then disappeared down the stairs. Miro walked to the wall that he thought was genuinely transparent – it had an oval door leading out to a balcony – and leaned against it, looking out at the strange city, waiting. At length, he heard her hoofsteps even through the plush carpet around them. He turned around to smile at her.
She didn’t smile back. “I’ve reclaimed the quarters and warded them. We should be safe now.” And then: “I release you.”
“What?” But he already knew, before the startled syllable was out: the rope connecting their souls was dissolving.
“From that insane oath you made. Justice!” she swore. “What was that about? Are you mad? Why would you – you don’t even know me! Why would you make a promise like that to anyone, ever?”
Miro watched her soul’s hands, and all the pure strings she held without conscious awareness. Is that why she is owed no warped debts? Does she refuse to retain anything that’s tainted? He closed his eyes. “I needed to convince the court I wasn’t a threat.”
“Well, you did that, at least assuming they’re not scared of crazy fanatics,” she said. He felt her fingers brush his neck, and opened his eyes as she pulled the seamless metal collar apart and removed it. She held the now-open circle in her hands for a moment, then hurled it across the room, sending it skittering over the tiles by the pool. “Those degenerates! Those smug, self-satisfied, degenerate maggots! ARGH!” She punched her fist into the transparent wall, and it trembled under the impact.
Miro tensed, unsure how to respond. “My lady?”
Ardent pivoted to put her back to the wall, then sagged, sliding down until she sat on the floor. “Katsura. She knew, curse her. She knew, and didn’t even tell me.”
“They wanted that performance. That whole sick game, just to humiliate you. Not that they care about you, just what you stand for. Sun Host. And I played right into it. Curse them! I should’ve told the whole truth.”
“And had your Queen take the phoenix rose? Do you trust her with it more, now?” Miro crossed the room to where the collar lay.
Ardent scowled. “No. But I could have told them I was here to intercede on your father’s behalf.”
“With your vast influence over Shadow of Fallen Scent.”
Miro bent to pick up the collar. The alloy was almost too soft for jewelry: it bent in his hands. He put it back around his neck and pushed the ends to touch. Without aether, he couldn’t make it seal together the way Ardent had.
When he turned back, Ardent had restored her earlier appearance: a short chiton in place of the elaborate court gown, all the jewelry and dyes gone, her hair a fluffy curly mass held back only by a headband. She’d neglected to change her ears back; they were still fey instead of caprine. “Why are you putting that thing back on?” she asked him.
“Because it will be expected of me while I am here, and I don’t want to forget it.” Miro touched the metal again. “I am sorry to cause you distress, my lady. I’ll take it off.”
Ardent lifted her eyes to his, her look heartbroken. “Oh, sugar. Don’t – don’t apologize to me. None of this is your fault.” She climbed to her hooves.
“I am the proximate cause of your departure from Try Again and your presence here at all,” he pointed out.
“Hah. We could argue that your dad’s the cause of that. And I’m not mad at him, either. Much less you. I’m mad at the Justice-deprived Moon Court. And Fallen, aether desert her. You’re the last person I should be taking it out on.” She crossed the room to him, cupping her hands around his as he held the collar before him. Her hands were still soft: she hadn’t restored their callouses, either. “I’m sorry, Miro. Are you all right? You seem to be taking all this a lot better than I am, and I can’t tell if that’s because you are, or if it’s just your Sun Court manners.”
He laughed, because Sun Court manners did indeed demand equanimity in the face of provocation. Miro tilted his head back to meet her black eyes. “I am fine. I am not humiliated.” He laughed again. “On the contrary, I am vindicated.”
“Vindicated?” She raised full eyebrows at him.
“Indeed! I swore an absurd, overbroad oath to you, confident that you would not take advantage of it. And not only was I right in that, but the first thing you did, once it was safe, was release me from it. You may think me a fool to trust you, but I know: my trust is not misplaced.”
“I don’t think you’re a fool.” She took the collar from his hands, reached with one hand to brush his hair – still longer than he was tall and white-blond – back from his neck. “I think you’re a madman. There’s a difference.”
“I stand corrected.”
Ardent dropped her hand. “Did you want your original form back, or to stay like this?”
“Restored, if you please.” Miro walked back to where he’d left his jacket, and retrieved a homunculus of his original shape from its pocket. He could no longer use it on his own; it was not an enchantment itself, merely a token that stored all the information on what his body should be like. He gave it to Ardent. “Less ostentatious clothing would be appreciated, too.”
She empowered it for him and returned it, giving him back his everyday body. “There’s a spare bedroom downstairs. I reactivated its wardrobe for you, in case you need the fancy suit again. You hungry?” she asked. “I’m gonna make some food. You want aetherfood or real or both?”
“Both, please.” He started down the stairwell.
“Sure. Any preference?”
“I liked the curry and bread you fed me last night,” he called up. The lower floor was divided into a few rooms. He stepped into the one with an open door and a visible bed large enough to sleep a dragon. Its wardrobe had a mirror similar to Threnody Katsura’s, albeit with far fewer options. He stored his current outfit inside, then flipped through the mirror until he found an outfit with a long jacket, trousers, and simple shoes. The jacket was different from Sun Etherium’s – it sealed up the front with a seam, and had narrow sleeves – but it was close enough to look comfortable to his eyes. He opened the wardrobe’s mirrored door, and the outfit waited inside.
When Miro returned to the living space, Ardent had swept all the signs of disuse from it: the pools were filled with water, and the thick dust was gone. Sessile was half-curled in the massive sunken pillow nest, with her mouth open. Aether-carried bags of food floated out of her to stock the kitchen. A curry simmered on the stove. Platters of hors d’oeuvres were on the dining table. “Help yourself.” Ardent was by the stove, gesturing vaguely to the table. A handful of messengers hovered about her, and she had an aetheric surface open to one side. “That’s all aetherfood. Lemme know if you want anything different, sugar.”
He sat and popped one of the nearest confections into his mouth. It proved to be a puff of pastry wrapped around spiced meat. It crunched delicately between his teeth, and melted on his tongue with the characteristic smoothness of aetherfood. “Thank you! It’s delicious. Might I see my father’s notebook?”
Ardent tugged on a current of aether, and her bag floated out of the golem too. It set itself on the table, opened, and the notebook rose from within. “I think that’s everything from you that’s mine, Sessile,” she told the earth serpent golem.
“All right!” The golem brought her great jaws together again. “Do you want me to deliver the rest for you, or are you coming along?”
“I think I’ll let you deliver it.” Ardent took the scrying crystal from Sessile’s nose. “I’ll give you a list of prices to go with your destinations. If anyone doesn’t want to pay that price, don’t make the delivery and tell them I’ll come negotiate with them later. You got all that?”
Sessile nodded, squirming in the pillow nest as Ardent finished setting destinations and socketed the scrying ball back in place. “Uh huh. You can count on me!” She teleported out of the room.
While they spoke, Miro ate another pastry, and leafed through the notebook. Ardent had added some highlights and notes of her own in the margins. He laughed aloud as he read over one of them.
“What?” the satyress asked as she fetched the pot of curry from the stove and brought it to the table.
“Your outrage at the delicacy of the creature.”
“Well, it is absurd. All right, so they can only hatch under natural conditions at least fifty miles from an Etherium, and only in the fey world while it’s overlapped with our original mortal one. They need natural air, natural sunlight, and natural water. With you so far. But then they have to bathe in aether-created rain showers? They need to be fed on an aether-natural hybrid of the plant that hatched them? How does this thing ever survive in the wild?”
“It doesn’t,” Miro said.
“But your dad says it can’t be cultivated?”
“He was unsuccessful in cultivating it, yes. But the phoenix rose stage of the creature’s life cycle is naturally brief. They hatch, they ascend, they fruit, scatter seeds, all in one day. The seeds almost all blossom into firebuds, which will never be a phoenix rose. All these finicky requirements are how you entrap it at the phoenix rose stage, because that’s when they have all the interesting magical-aetheric properties.”
“Huh. So if you stop doing all this now it’ll – what – fruit and seed?”
“No, not after it’s been cultured for several days, not if Fallen is doing it properly. Right now, it would probably just die if it couldn’t get what it needs to remain a phoenix rose. In a week or two it’ll move out of needing most of the specifics.”
“Mm-hmm. So we’d better find it fast.” Ardent dished up curry for both of them, and offered a basket of flatbread. “Didn’t have the patience to bake real bread, I’m afraid, but the aether version’s still good.” The curry was chicken-and-tomato based this time, and the bread garlic and rosemary and fine-grained, but no less delectable. Miro ate with a will, while Ardent turned the notebook about to glance over it as she ate. “So it’d have to be in one of the towers or the floaters, to be far enough from the core of the Etherium not to overdose on aether, and still close enough to grow up big and strong. And still get natural air and sun, which it couldn’t underground. That…doesn’t narrow it down as much as you’d hope.” She glanced out her window at the crowded Moon Etherium sky.
“It has to be somewhere Fallen owns,” Miro added. “Or it wouldn’t be in her possession and my father’s bargain with her would be out of force.”
“Ah! Good point.” Ardent finished her meal, then conjured a new surface beside her, and dispatched a few messages. “I’ll ask around, see if I can find out what properties are known to be under her control. But she could’ve made a private deal for a deed, and not registered it. Which she might have, given that she wants to keep the creature and her ownership of it a secret.” She tapped a blunt-tipped finger against the notebook. “The food requirements are interesting. Do you know what plant type it hatched from?”
Miro nodded, swallowing curry-soaked bread. “Yes. Cacao tree.”
“Mmm, now, that’s convenient.” Ardent twisted about in her chair, and summoned a glamour to show the entirety of the Moon Etherium.
“Because there’s already an aethcacao cultivar.”
Miro leaned back. “So Fallen wouldn’t have to splice together her own hybrid before the phoenix rose died.”
“Mm-hmm. And, even better, there’s only a few fey who grow it. Three farmers, if memory serves and they’re all still operating.” Ardent walked through her illusory three-dimensional map to examine the north slopes of the Etherium’s crater-valley. “Looks like the farms are still there. You can only grow it on the slopes, in real soil and sun, and the northwest slopes get the best exposure. Needs just the right amount of raw aether for that magic-chocolate flavor. The aethcacao farms are almost as manual as barbarian farms.”
Miro rose to join her by the map, watching as she pointed to miniature slopes dotted with green trees, fruit nearly invisible beneath their leaves. “You think Fallen will have bought from them.”
“Yup.” She turned to him with a grin. “Wanna go visit some chocolate farms and see if they’ve had any new customers lately?”
He offered his hand. “It would be my pleasure, my lady.”
Ardent took it, but she hesitated rather than leaving.
“My lady?” Miro asked. Her large fingers curled around his hand, thumb tracing over his wrist. It was a slight gesture, to feel so sensual, to make his pulse race. “Is there…something else?”
“Yeah. Kinda. Um.” She rubbed one brown hand over her face, still holding onto him. “Right. So this is a pretty safe place. It’s mine, it’s warded, nobody should be able to get through the door or port in without me letting them.”
“You’re not thinking to leave me here because it’s safe?”
“No…well, I hadn’t been…” She giggled as he narrowed his eyes at her. “No, I won’t leave you here. Although it is tempting. But I don’t want you running around the Moon Etherium completely vulnerable if we get separated. I want to at least forge a teleport connection for you to here, so you can port here on your own. And give you a farspeaker device, since you can’t summon one.”
“I am certainly amenable to this.”
“Right. But I’m not much at enchanting and while I know it’s possible to make stuff like that by using aether efficiently I only know a few people who know how and I don’t know what it would cost or how long it’d take but I’m pretty sure I could do it if I…” Ardent spoke in one long breathless rush until she trailed off abruptly.
“Channeled power from me?” In some way, her obvious uncertainty made it easier for Miro to feign equanimity. As if she were nervous enough for both of them. Although it wasn’t nervousness that he felt at all. It was excitement. Longing. Both of which were inappropriate to the situation, and less intelligible than Ardent’s nerves.
“Yes. That.” Ardent covered her face with her hand.
“That sounds very rational and practical.” Which it did, Miro reminded himself. “Shall we begin? I had best sit for this.” She nodded, face still in her hand, looking adorably embarrassed. He withdrew his hand from hers and moved to a seat on one of the sofas, reasoning he’d be less likely to fall off of that than a dining chair.
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