They appeared on a rolling green hilltop outside of a fairy-tale castle, complete with its own moat and a drawbridge. Spatial distortion enchantments had given a tiny plot the space for a mansion, complete with grounds. It was a round ivory structure with decorative crenellations of coral, and towers topped by pointed roofs at each compass point. A fantasy garden with a maze of thick brambles as its perimeter surrounded the moat. A glamour haze distorted the air; not all of the surrounding land was real, insofar as ‘real’ had any meaning in an Etherium. The appearance of the hilltop and the impression of empty land save for the occasional small castles in the far distance were all illusory.
Ardent strode up to the bramble maze entrance and poked her head inside. After a moment, Ardent drew back, rolled her eyes, and then summoned and dispatched a farspeaker messenger.
“Why did we port to the outside?” Miro asked, looking about curiously.
“Because Play is a paranoid titmouse.” The brambles before them drew apart to reveal a straight, grassy path to the drawbridge, which clanked as it lowered.
“Paranoid? Surely this doesn’t serve a purpose beyond show.”
Ardent took Miro’s hand and strode down the path. “The appearance is mainly for show, but there’re a bunch of enchantments underlying it that are functional. Including a port block. With no exceptions made even by Play’s permission. No way in or out except physically.”
“What is your friend worried about?”
The golden portcullis cranked up as they crossed the drawbridge. A realistic sea serpent golem leaped from the moat and arched over the drawbridge as they crossed. Miro stopped to watch the creature, struck because she had a soul, just as Sessile did. Ardent paused too as he hung back, rather than dragging him forward by the hand. “Something wrong?”
The sea serpent pivoted around in her moat and rose to return Miro’s regard with bright, intelligent eyes. Her soul was simple, and aether reacted to her as a golem, not a fey: she wasn’t the latter in disguise. “No…no, nothing,” he answered Ardent, and followed her inside.
The courtyard held a garden of bright, improbable flowers, shaped like animals, or tools, or faceted gemstones. Some of the animal-flowers moved under their own power, leashed by their stems to their plots. The plants that had flowers like gardening implements turned this way and that to tend one another. The various scents mingled into a complex musk, sweet and tangy.
A slightly-built fey woman awaited them on a bench in the garden. She had a long feline tail and pointed cat ears, her skin a golden tan that darkened to brown points over her hands and the center of her face. Short dark hair framed her round, open face. She had a pleasant soul of uniform colors, tainted by a few streaks of amorality and indifference, but generally sound. When her guests entered, she bounced to her feet. “There you are!” A gesture, and the portcullis dropped behind them, the drawbridge winching itself up. “And this must be the infamous Sun prince! You finally found someone as careless and reckless as you are, Ardent. Amazing! I’m so sorry,” she added to Miro. “I’m Play Until Collapsing Dreams. Let’s not talk here. You can come up to my workroom. Well, you’ll want to see The Marvel first, but after that.” She crossed the courtyard, her long tail beckoning to them.
Miro blinked after her, and glanced to Ardent. The tall satyress gave a helpless shrug and followed Play, so Miro did the same. Ardent and the catgirl shared the obligations of long friendship between them.
The double doors from the courtyard into the castle swung open silently at Play’s approach. She shouted, “Hey, Storm, guess who it is? Ardent Sojourner! She’s got a friend or a slave or something with her, we have to talk shop, but they need to see The Marvel first.”
“Play, sugar, we don’t…need…” Ardent followed their host inside, and trailed off, staring to the left. Miro glanced in that direction as he entered, about to ask what was the matter. The words died on his lips.
In a hall almost as large as the Palace of the Moon’s, an intricate sculpture of aether and life rose. It was, at first glance, two fey figures, some forty feet high, dancing. The female fey had a heavy, curvaceous build, and was clad in the world, green forests and golden deserts and blue seas and snow-capped mountains. The male wore robes of the sky: drifting clouds, setting sun, red and purple at the horizon and midnight blue at zenith, dusted by a flock of birds at the hem. They moved with an animated, synchronous grace at odds with their great stature.
But the sculpture was more than that: the sun in the sky finished setting and stars came out on the male’s robe. The world the female wore lived and breathed, seasons changing as they danced. Tiny animals frolicked in its fields. Tsunamis rose and subsided in the folds where ocean met land. Volcanic eruptions spread soot into the man’s sky; rain fell from the sky and brought life to the woman’s deserts. And still they danced on.
The detail in it was astonishing, mesmerizing. Miro drew closer without conscious intent, Ardent at his side. He knelt at the sculpture’s feet, and watched a herd of miniscule horses running from a descending dust storm. The creation did not exactly have a soul, but it had an aura, a spiritual resonance of love, beauty, awe.
“Wow,” Ardent breathed out.
“Tell Storm it’s marvelous.” Play had sat down on the lowest step of the hall’s grand staircase, to admire it with them.
“It’s marvelous,” Miro repeated obediently, and then added, “‘Marvelous’ doesn’t do it justice.”
“It really doesn’t. How long have you been working on this, Storm?” Ardent asked.
Miro managed to tear his eyes away long enough to search the room for the other fey, and found him hovering by the hair of the female figure. The hair was made of ocean waves, curls crested in breaking foam. The fey sculptor was male, with a long-limbed human body, long curly black hair, a thick tail, and tufted feline ears. At Ardent’s question, he drifted down on a current of aether. “What counts as ‘working’?” he asked in return. “I have had them in the planning stages for thirty-five years. But I did not start sculpting them at full size until nine years ago. Since then, they have been my main project.” He looked up at the pair, the expression on his dark brown face wistful. “They are growing closer to completion. Some day.”
Play said, “He thinks they’re not done yet.”
Storm curled back his lip as he landed next to the visitors. “They are not done yet. The timing issue remains unresolved.”
“Timing issue?” Miro asked.
“Yes. The Earth shows events on multiple scales: seasonal, cataclysmic, and glacial. The Sky reflects daily events, and the turning of the stars through the years, although that’s subtle. But the different scales don’t mesh well, and I have not yet found a graceful way to handle the conflict.”
“They look pretty graceful to me, sugar.” Ardent stepped back to gaze up at them.
“That’s what I keep telling him!” Play crowed.
Storm patted the satyress’s arm. “And this is what makes you a great Justiciar and barbarian, Ardent Sojourner. So who is this friend-or-something of yours?”
“Oh, this is Mirohirokon of Sun Host. Miro, the master artist here is Contemplation After the Storm.”
“I am honored to make your acquaintance.” Miro rose to shake the artist’s offered hand, and then asked, unable to resist, “Did you make Sessile?”
“I did,” Storm answered. “Ardent told you?”
“Nope. You’ve got a good eye, spotting that without aether,” Ardent said.
“Your work is amazing,” Miro told the artist. “The life and love you put into them shows. Like that water serpent outside. Extraordinary. Superlatives fail me.”
Storm smiled, self-conscious but pleased. “Thank you. I’m glad you like them.”
“Told you.” Play folded her dark arms together. “He won’t make golems any more, can you believe it?”
“If you want one, Play, I’ll make it. I just don’t want to trade them any more, after what happened with Jewel. How’s Sessile doing?”
“Happy, bubbly, and enthusiastic about her work. Charming,” Miro said, and Storm smiled again.
“You got Jewel back and she’s fine now,” Play said, with the air of a long-rehashed argument. “I think you’re being a little oversensitive about one incident. But fine, keep working on The Marvel, don’t let me stop you. C’mon, Ardent, let’s get out of his hair.”
Miro went with them, walking sideways so he could still watch the aether sculpture in its intertwining, ever-changing dance.
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