Comfortable as Ardent’s guest bed was, it was nonetheless far less comfortable than the satyress herself. Miro lay sleepless in it for some time, wondering if it was possible Ardent was attracted to him or if he was misinterpreting friendliness and a kindly tolerance. And even if his wild optimism was justified, was it worth it to complicate matters further, with his position already so precarious?
To distract himself from his problematic infatuation, Miro directed his thoughts to the problem he’d come to the Moon Etherium to solve. Alabaster and ivory, he remembered. I need to check the notebook for exactly which extractors need those. But Ardent might already be asleep. I shouldn’t disturb her for this. It’ll keep until morning. His mind drifted from that to his father, and then to the Sun Etherium.
It had started twenty-five years ago, at one of Miro’s mother’s lavish breakfast gatherings.
The Sun Queen did everything attended by an array of sycophants, favorites, and courtiers. Miro had long ago lost her favor and was seldom subjected to a breakfast invitation, but he’d been summoned today. In theory, he did not have to go. In practice, it was less trouble to attend than not. He arrived exactly on time, sat at the far end of one of two lesser tables, and waited for the event to end so he could leave again.
But before that happened, the Sun Queen craned her neck about from her throne at the high table, and beckoned to him. “Come here, Mirohirokon. I’ve a question for you.”
Miro braced himself and approached with all the equanimity life as a Sun Host prince had drilled into him. He knelt to her, as was the queen’s due. “Your majesty.”
“Dear Tiqo—” Eletanene favored her youngest child with a smile that did not strike Miro as genuine “—has urged me to acquire a new garden for the Palace of the Sun, in that new plant-sculpture style. You have a friend who dabbles in that, don’t you, Mirohirokon?”
“I do, your majesty.” Miro’s closest and oldest friend, in fact. Miro had no desire to bring him to the Queen’s attention.
His mother wrinkled her golden brow in a frown at his reticience. “Well? What’s his name?”
Obviously, I should have concealed this friendship twenty-two years ago, when I formed it. At age six. It was not as if he could conceal it now. “Lilaqalilan, your majesty.”
Eletanene’s brow smoothed, returning her face to flawless perfection. She smiled, expression slight enough that it created no new wrinkles in her skin. “Lilaqalilan. I shall hire him, then.”
Next to their mother, Tiqo clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, thank you, Momma! You won’t regret this!”
“Your majesty is most considerate.” Miro regretted it already.
Lilan was excited about the commission, despite Miro’s misgivings. The pay was excellent, and while no one in the Etherium needed money, per se, luxuries like golems and custom-made art, particularly well-designed clothes, were much in demand.
Lilan had been plant-sculpting almost since the art form had been invented, just twenty years ago. It was an art practiced by making small alterations to a plant as it grew, and allowing nature a part in shaping the final work. Because it was such a new art, Lilan’s youth had been less of a hinderance in cultivating his reputation as an expert.
Ama, Miro’s favorite sister, shared his concern about their mother’s motives. “Tiqodomiqon’s been badgering her about plant-scultping for months. It’s all Tiqo talks about. She wants to learn it,” Ama told him one afternoon. They were just outside the Etherium, flying in bird form with one of Miro’s other childhood friends, Talo.
“So perhaps your mother wants to buy Tiqo the credit for designing a garden?” Talo said. “If Tiqo wants to bully Lilan into designing according to her specifications, Lilan’s not got the spine to stop her.”
“Oh, I wish. Mom hates plant sculpting. She thinks it’s an undignified pursuit.” Ama canted the brown and beige wings of her peregrine’s body and turned in the air.
Talo and Miro dipped to follow her. “What if Tiqo changed her mind?” Talo asked.
“Her majesty is not known for changing her mind. Especially in response to badgering,” Miro said, grimly.
“What Miro said. The best possible option is that she’s decided to tolerate it for Tiqo’s sake.” Ama flapped her wings to level out.
“I hope so. For Lilan’s.” Miro did not ask what Ama considered the worst option. He could envision plenty of those himself.
The Sun Queen gave the new garden a good location, at the top of a Palace tower where it could get plenty of natural sunlight and even rain, if Lilan wanted. Lilan gave it a greenhouse shield, which could be attuned to be transparent or opaque, and to permit, filter, or block wind or rain. From the outside, he kept it screened by privacy wards, to preserve the mystery.
Not that Lilan minded if people watched his work in progress. Miro dropped by often to visit, sometimes helping and more often distracting his friend. Lilan’s typical form was of a fashionably handsome man: tall, with a muscular build, dark oversized eyes in an oval face, bronze-gold skin, and deep red hair. He had long, mobile ears that he canted up and down to reflect his mood. Miro had always liked Lilan’s soul, blues and greens full of kindness and gentle affection. He had an eagerness to please that made him good company, if unassertive. That was his soul’s greatest weakness. His fear of being disliked made him easy to manipulate. The occasional streaks of corruption in his soul were the result of times he’d done things he knew were wrong because someone else had talked him into them.
Tiqo did come to help with the garden, but not because the Sun Queen commanded Lilan to work with her. Nor did Lilan object: Tiqo accorded Lilan the deference due an elder fey and a master artisan, which he found endearing. The fey teen was more eager to learn the art than to impose her own vision over Lilan’s, and she was not so obtrusive as to be in the way. Tiqo had a healthy soul, especially for one of Eletanene’s children. She was full of enthusiasm and energy. While she’d been spoiled by too much deference and attention from fey courtiers, it didn’t mar her company most of the time.
The garden grew and blossomed into a mix of fanciful shapes, most organic, with some touches of mathematical regularity. A canopied tree that had each branch fork into two exactly half the original length, at a forty-five degree angle, and each of those fork again, and again. Tree “families” paired two trees of different breeds and surrounded the pairs with a brood of miniature trees that blended their traits. Bushes so dense with flowers that their leaves were obscured. Miro loved it without reservation, a little microcosm of everything that made life in the Etherium worthwhile. And since it was not yet open to the public, it contained none of the people who made life in the Etherium unpleasant.
“You can’t truly like it just because no one else comes here,” Lilan teased him one day. Lilan was working in one of the flower beds, adjusting the spells on the blooms so they’d be more natural and less rigidly controlled.
“Why not?” Miro lazed on his back in one of the garden benches. He batted away a messenger bird made of folded paper as it loomed close. “You should put up a wall that won’t let farspeaking work in here, too. That’d make it perfect.”
“Only for you, Miro. Besides, it’s not as ‘safe’ as you think. Your mother’s been in here a few times.”
“She has? What did she say?” Miro propped himself up to look at Lilan.
“Not much? I can’t tell if she likes it or not. But she hasn’t said anything bad, and she’s been quite understanding about it taking time.” Lilan had his ears canted down. “Princess Tiqo did turn into a mouse to hide from her one time, though. Apparently her majesty told Princess Tiqo at the start that she wasn’t supposed to be involved with the garden at all.” He glanced at Miro. “I told Tiqo I wouldn’t tell, but that she shouldn’t come any more. And now she’s showing up in the form a of a giant bear of a man and calling herself ‘Domi’. Domi claims to be a gardener the queen assigned if I need help. I dunno. Should I keep pretending I can’t tell it’s her?”
“I don’t know, either. I wish you hadn’t taken this job.”
Lilan laughed. “But you’re my biggest fan, Mirohi. You wouldn’t even have this garden without the commission.”
“You’d’ve made another garden. It’d still be great.”
“Not like this. I couldn’t have afforded all the assistants and special plants and tailoring on my own. I know you hate court intrigue, but how bad can it be? It’s not like I’m a courtier. I’m just a gardener. Seriously, though, if you think I should keep Domi out, I will. I don’t want to make trouble.”
Miro shook his head. “I don’t know what’ll make trouble, Lilan. I truly don’t.”
After several months, Lilan finished the garden, or at least pronounced it ready for public viewing. To Lilan’s gratification, the Sun Queen planned a large party with an exclusive guest list to celebrate its completion. The party would be the first time the garden would be seen by more than the handful who’d watched its development.
As the artisan responsible for the garden, Lilan received an invitation to the celebration. Miro was not invited, which did not entirely surprise him. Queen Eletanene wasted no love on him, after all. Still, after she’d made a point of asking his best friend to do the work, leaving him off the guest list seemed a little tasteless even by her standards. But at least Tiqo will be there; Lilan will have one friend already, and probably make more on the strength of his artistry.
On the afternoon of the party, Miro was working with his father in Jino’s laboratory. They were dispensing firebuds to various extractor prototypes when Miro received a message from Tiqo: “Miro, Miro, you have to come to the garden. Right now. Justice, please, it’s a disaster, please come.”
Miro summoned a farspeaker scroll to write out his reply. “What happened? I’m not invited, I can’t get in.” The scroll tore a square of itself off, folded itself into a paper bird, and winged away. Aloud, he told Jino, “I have to go, Dad, something’s happened with Lilan’s project.” He teleported to the Palace foyer, then shifted to a sparrow and flew through the corridors and up the stairwell towards the tower top.
Tiqo’s reply came “I know, I opened a gap in the wards on the southeast tower wall, by the peonies. Please, Miro, I can’t – just come.”
Heart in his throat, Miro flew out one of the windows and winged his way to the southeast wall. He half-expected to see the garden in ruins, but it looked fine. Miro ducked down and wriggled through the gap in the wards, still in sparrow form. Tiqo was there, dressed in an elaborate jacket and full-skirted gown, but with tears on her cheeks. He landed on her outstretched hand. “What happened?” he asked again. From the interior, the garden still looked as splendid as ever. The party didn’t look like a disaster, either. Most of the attendees were clustered near their queen at the center of the garden, laughing uproariously.
“It’s Momma,” Tiqo whispered. “I tried to—” she gulped air “—make her stop, but I, I can’t, she’s horrible—”
Miro launched into the air and flew towards the group. Queen Eletanene was presiding over the crowd with Lilan frozen at her side, her hand gripped about his. “Now, tell us what inspired this group?” the Sun Queen cooed, her voice full of false sweetness. “Ooh, wait, I know. Pubic hair! Just that kind of thin tangly sparseness. And now I know why that little concealed stream is right there!”
The attendees swarmed about her laughed even harder. Lilan did not even try to respond. A few of the partygoers looked embarrassed or sorry for him, but even they had a hard time not smiling. One courtier offered a contribution: “All it needs is a few rabbits! To represent lice!”
“An excellent suggestion! Do make note of that for the revisions, Lilaqalilan. Now, what’s next…”
Miro moved to Lilan’s side and shifted back to his fey shape as the Sun Queen continued her brutal dissection, mocking everything that was beautiful, elegant, and graceful in the design. She must have spent a lot of time working out the right quips, finding insults with just enough resonance to make the crowd smile, perfecting the delivery of her satire for maximum impact. Miro put an arm around Lilan’s shoulders and ignored everyone else. “Let go of her hand,” he told his friend. “We’re leaving.”
The crowd had stirred in surprise at Miro’s appearance, and his mother glanced over her shoulder to see the source. “But Mirohirokon, he can’t leave now. Why, we’re not even halfway through! There’s so much left of this abomination to explain!”
Miro ignored her. “It doesn’t matter that she’s queen, Lilan. She can’t make you stay. You don’t have to listen to this. Let’s go.” Lilan turned to him, oversized eyes brimmed with tears, features otherwise lifeless. He slid his hand from the queen’s grasp. Miro shifted himself into a bird and Lilan into a mouse to carry him away. The queen would make him pay for this, Miro knew – she’d find a way, just like she’d found this way. But at the time, it seemed more important to help his friend. As soon as they were outside of the Palace’s teleport blocks, Miro teleported them to his house.
Alone in Miro’s home near the edge of the Etherium, Lilan disintegrated in Miro’s arms. “I don’t understand. If she hated it, why didn’t she ever say so? She was there a dozen times. I’d’ve changed it. Or stopped. Or anything.”
Miro led him to a couch and pulled him down, holding him, with no idea what else to do. “It doesn’t have anything to do with your garden, Lilan.”
His friend shuddered, slumping against his chest. “You didn’t hear her, oh Love, she despised it, everyone did, they just laughed and laughed—”
“Shh. Shh.” Miro kissed the top of Lilan’s head, helpless to soothe him. “It doesn’t matter what she said. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, or your work. She’s making a point to someone else. Me, maybe. Tiqo, probably. To show Tiqo what she’d do if Tiqo took a hobby her majesty didn’t approve of. Your work is wonderful. Nothing she said can change that.”
Lilan shook his head. “I can’t, I can’t ever do this again. I think I’m going to be sick.” He conjured a basin and bent over to retch into it. Miro held back his hair until he finished, then cleaned his face with aether and magicked away the waste. “Justice, is this what she did to your dad? I never knew. I never knew how horrible people can be. Court’s not always like that. Is it? It can’t be.”
It can be. “It doesn’t matter, Lilan. It’ll be all right.”
But it wouldn’t.
Queen Eletanene paid Lilan the balance owed on the commission, of course. She would not have it said the crown did not pay its debts.
On every feyour, she’d had a little picture drawn and a quip written, in mockery of the garden.
Miro found the scrip two days later, scattered across the floor of Lilan’s foyer, spattered with blood. Lilan was dead in the bathtub, with his wrists slit. As Miro wept beside the tub, he wondered if this last twist of the knife had been because of him. Was this the price Eletanene had exacted because Miro had taken her prey away before she’d finished?
Later, at the funeral, his father had said, “It’s not your fault,” but Miro was never sure that was true.
The Sun Queen did not attend, nor did she express any hint of remorse or apology for her actions. She did not even offer condolences to her son.
Tiqo came to the funeral, in the giant male form Tiqo’d called “Domi” before, but this time identified as Tiqodomiqon. The garden party was the last time Miro ever saw Tiqo in a female form. After that, he was always male. If Eletanene’s performance had been intended to terrify Tiqo into obedience, it had the exact opposite effect. Tiqo studied the methods of justiciars, after that, although there was no chance the Sun Queen would ever make him the Justiciar. But Justice was his obsession now.
Miro’s too, in a different form.
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