Ardent had been back to the Moon Etherium many times since she’d joined the barbarians: trips to visit friends, engage in trade, and store aether to carry back to Try Again. She hadn’t forgotten the pleasure of soaking in the aether, the effortless joy of satisfying every whim with a thought. No drudgery of repetitive tasks, no trudging from place to place on foot, no need to scrape and stretch wisps of aether to make them last and only use it when it was most needed.
But she’d forgotten how much richer the aether felt to affiliates of the Etherium. She’d forgotten the fierce delight of ownership, of warding a place as hers: not just a building she’d made, but a place that could not be trespassed upon.
With so much power already at her command, Ardent thought she shouldn’t feel any need for more. Yes, it was practical to take some measures to protect Mirohirokon, but that was just common sense. There was no reason for it to be accompanied by power lust, by this intense craving, this hyperawareness of him. It felt as if the moon aether inside her could sense his connection to the Sun Etherium, and yearned for the union.
Which could, y’know. Kill him.
He awaited her on the couch, looking at ease, patient, and perfectly trusting that she wasn’t about to channel a lethal tornado of sun aether straight through his all-too-vulnerable corporeal form.
The man was utterly mad.
No fey trusted another fey like this. Her own mother didn’t trust her this much. And Miro didn’t even know her. Crazy.
Ardent sat sideways beside him, one furry leg curled beneath her and the other extended before the couch. She took his hand, swallowed. “I have no idea what this is gonna be like.”
He nodded, met her eyes, and smiled mischievously. “Should be fun.”
She laughed, half-afraid and half-certain that his words were literally true, at least for her. “Yeah. So. I’m gonna start, and then you tell me to stop. About that fast. I don’t want to take any chances. If it’s not enough, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be, we can do it again. Whereas I don’t know how to fix it if I take too much.”
“My lady is very wise,” Miro said. “I am ready when you are.”
Ardent caressed the underside of his wrist. He felt so different from the first time she’d done this, when aether brimmed through him. Now he felt weightless under her touch, empty, but behind that emptiness she could sense a floodgate, balanced and poised, awaiting only a nudge to open it. “All right,” she said, and nudged.
Warmth and light flooded into her, met the Moon Etherium aether inside, and twined through it with the caress of a hundred loving hands. It was—
She stopped, yanking her hands apart, panting from that exertion, from fighting down the yearning to continue. Ardent jammed her fists between the sofa cushions to make sure she didn’t grab him again. Miro had slumped against the backrest, strands of long indigo hair falling over his golden face. His eyes were open, looking at her. She took a deep breath. “You told me to stop.”
“Mm-hmm,” he agreed. “You said I should.”
“Right.” Power hummed through her veins, a sweet siren song, calling for more. “That was smart of me. Good call, me.” She scootched back on the couch, putting some distance between her and temptation. “I hope it isn’t always this overwhelming.”
“It’s a trifle distracting.”
She gave a shaky, nervous laugh at the understatement. “You think? You all right there, sugar?”
“Wonderful. You should do that again. I’m sure that wasn’t enough,” Miro said, straight-faced. He lay limp, completely relaxed against the sofa.
Ardent laughed again. “No, seriously, how are you feeling?”
“Incredible.” He finally shifted to raise his arms over his head, and stretched like a cat, back arched. “As if I’d just received the start of a truly magnificent massage. If channeling for the opposite host is always this good I don’t know why it’s not more popular.”
“I think that the ‘could kill you’ part serves as a significant deterrent for most fey,” Ardent said, dryly. He made a dismissive ‘pfft’ sound and leaned forward, eyes heavy-lidded, smile deeply contented. He did look well, much better than he had after the first time she’d channeled from him. No question, he was crazy, but sure as Love was an Ideal, he made madness look attractive. She reached out to tuck a lock of his hair behind his ear, and he gave her a bewitching sidelong smile. Ardent caressed his cheek, wondered what by all the Ideals she thought she was doing, and retreated again. She cleared her throat. “All right. Let’s see what I can do with this.”
She returned to the table to fetch the collar, and detached the chain from it with a flick of aether before pulling the collar straight. Then she turned it over in her hands, tracing her fingers across it to leave curling paths of aether. She’d never been a skilled enchanter, but over the course of two hundred-odd years of life in the Moon Etherium, she’d learned the essentials and completed a number of different enchantments. Infusing an item with its own supply of aether was the first step.
“You’re going to enchant the collar?” Miro lifted his head to watch her.
“Like you said. You gotta wear it anyway. Might as well make it useful.”
“I like it.” He gave her a slow, sensual smile.
Please stop being sexy at me, sugar. It’s distracting. Ardent didn’t say anything. She was pretty sure he wasn’t doing it on purpose and wasn’t entirely sure he was doing anything at all. It might just be her ancient libido waking up, stretching, and going whoa hi remember me? It’s been too long! It hasn’t been that long, she told herself.
Yeah, and that’s not that long. In the grand scheme of my life. Go back to sleep, I’m busy. She concentrated on the collar and finished the infusion, nerves still humming with aether. She set the collar down to go over the pattern of a port in her mind. Without engaging one, she remembered each step of how it happened and analyzed the process. Ardent took the collar to the center of the suite, beside the spiral stairs, and traced a pair of runes in glamour in the air: one for herself, one for castle. She curled the collar around the runes and let it hang in the air, tracing the same runes at the compass points of it. “What triggers do you want, sugar? I was thinking a threefold one: either snap your fingers on both hands, or click your heels twice, or say ‘home home home’. Ones that you won’t set off by accident, but also where you’d be able to trigger it if someone was trying to grab you or stop you. Think that’d work?”
“I can remember those. Sounds good.” He was draped languidly over the sofa, turned to watch her.
“All right.” She swirled the teleport pattern over the air around the collar, then used a surge of channeled power to fuse the pattern to the collar and bind it to the suite. Ardent felt the pattern wavering on the collar, and clamped down on it with another surge, shaping a net of aether to secure the two together. Blue light flared in lines across the circle.
As the light faded, the white gold circlet dropped from the air. Ardent caught it. “Blight and aphids!”
Miro straightened. “Did it fail, my lady?”
“No, it worked.” Ardent felt aether whisper inside the metal, the lines of enchantment true and strong. “But I’m tapped out again.”
The Sun lord chuckled. “Oh, no. Whatever shall we do now?” She shot him a glower, and his expression sobered. “I shall have to stay close to you, my lady, as we investigate the farms, and take care not to be separated.” Miro rose to join her, his stride as graceful as ever, if not more so: easy and relaxed, not weary. As he stopped before her, he lifted his chin in silent invitation. “I’ve no one to message but you in any case. The other may wait, if you’d rather.”
Ardent secured the collar around his throat. Her fingers trembled. She didn’t feel in control of herself at all, and almost wished it was harder for him, that he would be less tempting. “I think…yeah, that’d be for the best.” Maybe with a little time I can pull myself together again.
Miro dropped his eyes, like the meek obedient servant he wasn’t. “As my lady wishes.”
The satyress crinkled her nose at him, then floated Jinokimijin’s notebook to her hand before they left. Safe as her Etherium apartment was, she still felt better keeping important things on her. She contemplated the notebook, wondering how much she ought to trust Jinokimijin’s notes. Miro might have faith in his father’s capabilities, but Miro was hardly unbiased.
Ardent had never met Jinokimijin in person before, but the man was infamous, even in the Moon Etherium. His grandfather had supposedly possessed the Gift of soulsight. Soulsight purportedly gave one the ability to judge a fey’s worth by sight alone, to read the history of failings and virtues in one’s soul. Jinokimijin’s father had claimed to have the same Gift. Jinokimijin had never said that he did, but the possibility that his line might carry it had drawn the attention of the Sun Queen. She had married him in the hopes of having a child with the same talent.
Then, a few years after the birth of the child – Mirohirokon, apparently, though Ardent didn’t know if she’d ever heard anyone mention the kid’s name – Jinokimijin’s grandfather was stranded in a mortal realm when the fey shard moved on unexpectedly. Then Jinokimijin’s father was proved to be a fraud, who’d gotten by on cleverness and imitation of the grandfather’s prognostications. Some doubted that even the grandfather had really had the talent he’d claimed. Jinokimijin’s child with the Sun Queen had shown no signs of any particular talent, and their relationship soon soured. Before their child was ten, the Sun Queen had divorced Jinokimijin. He became a laughingstock, desperate to regain his lost standing through a series of vain, self-aggrandizing schemes that only humiliated him further when they failed. Ardent felt sorry for Mirohirokon. Whatever his dad had done, it wasn’t his fault. Maybe Jinokimijin had learned something in the forty-some years since his fall from the High Court. The notes certainly looked thorough and methodical. But that didn’t mean they were.
She shook off the train of thought as she realized Miro was still waiting on her. After putting the book in her bag, she took his hand and teleported the two of them away.
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