Ardent could tell at once, by watching them, why Fallen’s suggestion had not troubled Miro. The Sun Host fey were performing the wrong dance in the wrong way for the wrong music, and they were brilliant. The aether dancers were hypnotic, yes. But the nearly-mortal Sun Host dance was remarkable in its own way for its absence of glamour and magic. They relied on trueshifted flesh alone, and it was astonishing what they could do with it. It was considerably more impressive than the dances Ardent had seen in barbarian villages, probably because both Miro and Jino had recently trueshifted forms that hadn’t had time to lose muscle tone or flexibility from their original peaks. Ardent was pleased, though she suspected neither Fallen nor Skein were getting what they’d hoped for. And maybe it’d be better if they did. Otherwise, they’ll keep prodding for it.
Fallen stood beside her as the dance unfolded, her dark mouth compressed in a thin line. “You know he’s only using you, don’t you, Lady Sojourner? That boy wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think he could get his parent free of our bargain.”
Ardent smiled lazily, bracelets chiming as she folded her arms. “I know he thinks he’s using me.”
Fallen glanced sidelong at her. “Then what’s your game, Lady Sojourner?”
“Winning. C’mon, Shadow of Fallen Scent. You heard his oath to me. He’s not squirming out of that.”
“Then what’s his game? You cannot honestly believe he showed up to bet his life’s service for your aid on a game everyone knows you’re an expert at.”
Ardent laughed. “Well, he did carefully word the deal so he could cheat at Turns.” She grinned. “He significantly underestimated how much he’d need to cheat to beat me, though.”
The corners of Fallen’s mouth turned up in answer. “Like father, like son.”
“Ha! Is that how Jiji ended up in your service, too?” Ardent kept her expression one of mild amusement, and hated herself for every word of this conversation.
“Something like that.”
“Heh. Pretty sure that wasn’t the kid’s only play, though. He’s High Court, and the Sun Queen’s brat to boot. She wouldn’t give a broken spindle for Disgraced Jinokimijin, but she’ll want her boy back. This way, he makes them send a negotiator for him. And his extravagant oath to me is a bargaining chip for him to use, by way of demonstrating his determination not to leave his father behind.” She shrugged. “He knows he doesn’t have any leverage with Moon Etherium. Bet he knew I didn’t have any leverage with you. But his whole Etherium? Expect they can muster something worth our while.”
“And his father means enough to him that he’ll bet his life on it?” Fallen watched the two dancers, pale blue eyes slitted in thought.
Ardent gestured to them. “Isn’t it obvious? I mean, just look at them.” Dancing together, moving together, they were more than just similar in appearance. They had the coordination of a true partnership. She watched Miro toss Jinokimijin into the air, confident she would catch the spar. Jinokimijin descended on her hands, sure that her son could support her. Then the throw into nothing more than a silk streamer, Jino sliding down it, certain that her son would catch her when she fell. Ardent hoped she was doing a better job convincing Fallen of her indifference to Miro than she was herself. This isn’t just because he’s pretty, or because channeling from him is an incredible experience. It’s the way he puts his whole self into everything he does: no half-measures, no holding back. Hard not to admire that. I really have to stop admiring that.
A flicker of aether as Fallen cast caught her eye; it was a subtle spell, a snag of Miro’s foot for no more than an instant. Ardent might’ve missed it had she not had the remnants of a reveal-spellwork in her vision. Before she could react, Miro was stumbling – and then caught, by another’s spell. Ardent looked for the source, and spotted the traces of the aether from it on the fingers of Contemplation After the Storm. She was watching the performance intently, and applauded when Miro completed his catch. She wondered if Storm’d done it for Miro’s sake, or to spite Fallen, or – most likely – as an artist who hated to see artistry spoiled. I’ll have to thank her for that later, whatever the reason. Ardent applauded as enthusiastically as any in the crowd of fey. Their Sun Host servants returned and knelt at the feet of their mistresses and the Queen.
“A creditable performance,” Skein said. “Sun Host’s mastery of such…old-fashioned skills is considerable. Perhaps it’s for that reason that you are in Moon Etherium, where they’ll be of use to you, when nothing more…modern…is. You may rise.” Ardent gritted her teeth. Skein couldn’t disparage the performance itself without losing credibility with her people – but she could still twist it into an insult for Sun Etherium. The skill needed to take a magnificent and unrehearsed performance and make a snide jibe out of it might have been impressive were it not so petty.
“Yes, well done,” Fallen cooed as the two Sun fey stood. “Aren’t they adorable together? Such a fine catch deserves a reward! Give your savior a kiss, Jiji,” she commanded. Obediently, Jinokimijin stood on her tiptoes and kissed Miro’s cheek. “Not like that. A proper kiss.”
What in the name of Justice is wrong with you? Ardent wanted to demand, almost badly enough to undo all the careful work she’d just done to position her interests and Fallen’s as, if not aligned, at least not in opposition. Miro’s carefully blank expression flickered for a moment, then he turned like a golem to face Jinokimijin as the little fey girl looped her arms around his neck. He swept her backwards and leaned over her as she pulled her head to his. They kissed like lovers, like dolls, with all the trappings of passion and none of the substance. Fallen watched with a thin dark smile at her own tasteless joke. Ardent stepped forward. “That’s enough, Miro.” She put her hand to his collar, leashing him again. Miro straightened as she put her hand on his shoulder, and set Jinokimijin down again. His face was as still as wax, betraying nothing, but Ardent could feel him tremble under her fingers. She pulled him to her, his back against her chest, and curled her other arm across his front. She directed a cool look to Fallen. “I’m very possessive of my toys. You understand.”
“Oh.” Fallen made a lazy gesture, and Jinokimijin was leashed and chained again. She reeled her in to kneel at her feet. “Of course I do.”
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