After that, Ardent put her chiton back on and woke Sessile. Miro made himself a new outfit in the everyday fashion of Sun Etherium. He offered additional information while Sessile returned them to the Moon Etherium. “Building this sort of extractor isn’t a matter of a few minute’s work with aether. Many of the pieces need to be natural materials, not aether-made. If she already had everything she needed, she wouldn’t need to gather natural ivory or alabaster now. And it takes seasoning to reach the full potential, which requires time and use. That she made that ward-siphoner for her lackey suggests that she’s far enough along to begin the seasoning process, but the construction cannot be complete. We have some time yet. Days, probably.”
“But not weeks,” Ardent said, grimly.
“Not weeks. No.”
She sighed, slumping in her chair. “Mph. Well, it’s not like she’d hunt for this stuff herself. If we could find her supplier before she picked up a package, I could use Play’s scryer on the shipment to see where it went. Though I’m concerned that she knew to check if you were being traced or watched. Suppose it could be coincidence. Those are the most common information-gathering enchantments and I used variants on them often when I was Justiciar.” Ardent rubbed her face with one hand.
“The extractor will be fragile while it’s under construction, especially since she’s started the seasoning. She wouldn’t want to move it, or move the phoenix rose, until it’s done, or she’d have to start all over from the beginning.”
“That’s something, I suppose.”
When they reached the Moon Etherium, Ardent had Sessile port directly to her apartment. Her living room had a hole in the glamour on one wall; underneath it was a new steel wall. She patted Sessile’s nose after they got out, and set Try Again for her destination. “Time for you to go home, little girl,” she told the earthserpent. “Much as I’d like to have Storm fix you up properly, I think you’ll be safer outside of the Etherium for now. You port as far out as you can, all right?”
“Aww. All right.” Sessile nosed at her hand, and departed.
With a sigh, Ardent flopped into the couch-pit and drew the rune to receive messages again. A flurry of messengers in different shapes and sizes poured in on her at once. Ardent massaged her temples and sorted through the pile, taking them one after another. She groused, “I need to make you my secretary.”
“I shall be glad to oblige in whatever role my lady desires of me.” He took a seat on the rim of the sunken couch, resting his hands to either side and dangling his legs beside her.
She wrinkled her nose at him, then grimaced as she read the first will-o-wisp message – the one he’d sent the night before. The messages were only readable by their intended recipient; looking over her shoulder he could see nothing but unintelligible squiggles. She swept the first message into her bag, and moved to the next, grimacing again.
“Just the messages from you and Play telling me not to be an idiot and stop messages while you’re being attacked.”
Miro leaned down to squeeze her shoulder. “I cannot vouch for Play, but I am confident that was not how I worded mine.”
“It’s how you should have worded it.” She covered his hand with hers and let Play’s first message evaporate, and half-laughed at the next three. “Poor Play. She was getting increasingly annoyed at me for using a fifteen-year-old messenger-block spell. ‘Every current variant of this spell allows for emergency override, under various conditions. Why are you using an antique? And if you’re going to use an antique, why doesn’t it have any of the loopholes every other antique does? I swear it’d be easier to intercept your messages than send you one to say Hi your friend is getting killed. I’m going to try breaking your apartment ward instead, it’ll be less frustrating’.”
“Why doesn’t your antique have the loopholes?” Miro asked her, curiously.
“Because Play told me what they were back when I was a Justiciar, and I tailored my messenger-block to prevent them.” She sighed again. “Never thought I’d regret making life harder for pranksters. Anyway, I’m sure it’s not impenetrable, especially not to Play. Just not quickly penetrated.” Ardent released the message to turn to mist, and looked at the next. “Aha! This is the good one. Play isolated the aether signatures and physical descriptions of each of the intruders.” Ardent conjured a notebook and duplicated the information on the aether signatures. She passed the notebook to Miro and tucked the original message into her bag. “Not that you can do much with it, sugar, unless we go to the trouble of making a verification charm for you, but just in case.” She opened the next message. “Nice! Play also sent me their names, list of commonly-used forms for each, and the history of complaints against them lodged with the justiciary. They’re all young-ish, judging by the names. The minotaur is Broken Song, and usually takes a woman’s form with peacock wings and tail. The wolf is Water’s Remorse, usually a dragon of various types and genders, most often wingless with blue scales and a spinal mane of misty hair. The panther-man is Stalks Hunter, has three different typical forms. Including a black & white merman.” She stopped, still looking at the message.
“What of the complaint history?”
“Oh – um – kinda long for Stalks and Remorse, not much on Song. Stalks is a blighted boil of a fey. I remember him. He used to kidnap and enslave mortals. I freed three. After that, we had him surveilled by golems for years. But Play says he’s not under watch any more. Queen’s orders. Considered ‘reformed’ now.” Ardent clenched her fingers into a fist and snarled. “Right. Play says to come see her today if I want to track them down.” She frowned at the message, then fished one of the earlier ones out again and looked at it. She dropped her hand from Miro’s, her face slowly draining of expression.
“What is it?” Miro folded his hands in his lap, trying to cover a sudden sense of apprehension.
“It’s…Miro, you told me this morning that your assailants looked like a six-armed humanoid panther, a minotaur, and a tentacled wolf. Right?”
“But the message you sent last night said one of them was a merman. A black-and-white merman.”
Oh. Pustulence. “My apologies – I hadn’t gotten a good look at any of them when I sent that. My brief glimpse was wildly off.”
“Yeah. That’d make sense.” She drummed her fingers against the sofa, and spoke her next words slowly, as if they were being dragged out of her. “Except that Stalks Hunter’s usual form is a black-and-white merman.”
“I did catch the first part of his name, when the wolf accidentally spoke it.”
“After you sent this message.” Ardent turned her face up to his, and the look in her black eyes was almost unbearable. Not just suspicion, but fear. Fear of betrayal, fear that he’d been using her. She knows I’m hiding something. “Miro, how did you know what he normally looked like, when you sent this?”
“…perhaps he trueshifted between my first glimpse and when I next saw him properly?”
Ardent shook her head. “No. Play would’ve detected the shift when she did the analysis. Same way she knew what physical appearances matched which aether signature. Miro…” She trailed off, her eyes pleading for the truth.
He looked away, unable to withstand the heartbreak in her expression, the fear of what other lies he might be concealing. The fear that his affection, too, was a deceit. Forty-four years I’ve kept this secret from everyone but my father, and I betrayed it to her after only three days.
But I know I can trust her.
And now she knows she can’t trust me. Miro swallowed hard. “May I entrust you with a secret, my lady?”
Ardent reached up to take his chin in her hand, and turned his face back to hers. “You’ve entrusted me with a whole lot more than that, sugar,” she said, softly, fingers straying to the pulse in his throat. “I’ll keep your secret, long as it’s not about endangering the Etherium or somesuch.”
“No, this is…personal. I knew Stalks Hunter’s everyday form because I can always verify people. Regardless of what they look like. It’s a Gift. I hadn’t even seen the shape he wore during the intrusion yet, I just knew he was the same person as that merman at the party.”
“A Gift.” Ardent covered her mouth. “From your father’s line. The reason the Sun Queen wanted a child from him. You do have soulsight.”
Miro took a deep breath, and nodded.
“But why – why keep it a secret? Isn’t that what your mother had been hoping for from you? Or – is she privy to it?”
He curled his lip back. “No. The only person other than you who knows is Jinokimijin. The Gift didn’t come to me until I was nine, and by then my mother had already given up on my having it. My grandfather had been revealed as a fraud. My great-grandfather never returned from the mortal land he’d disappeared to. Half the fey in Sun Etherium do not believe soulsight is real. It was too late to save my father’s marriage. My grandfather’s hoax had already demonstrated that it is all too easy to fake the ability to read the measure of another’s soul. That I can identify fey without error – that I can prove. That I have soulsight? There’s no fey in the shard who can challenge or verify such a claim. If I tried, I’d spend my life contending with accusations of fraud. And…” He had to force himself to finish the sentence. “I do not want to serve the Sun Queen with my Gift. She is not worthy of it.”
Ardent put her hand on his knee; he was still sitting on the rim of the sunken couch, while she sat below him. She rested her chin on her fingers, looking up at him. “Heartless, is she?”
“You do not understand. My lady…I do not like to speak of what I see with soulsight, for the reasons aforementioned. Sometimes even I doubt the accuracy of my own vision. But I will tell you this: Queen Eletanene of the Sun Host has the most corrupt soul of any person I’ve ever seen. And that includes the fey who wanted to rape me last night.”
Ardent stared at him, wide-eyed. “That’s some condemnation. I mean, ‘make your kids compete for who you love best’ is awful, but ‘torturer and rapist’ is a whole different category of vile. What must she have done?”
“She stranded her own father in the mortal world, at the least. Perhaps killed him, or arranged for his death. And that was not the first nor the worst of her crimes.” Miro gazed through the transparent walls to the sunlit day outside of the apartment.
“And that’s your mother.”
“Yes. That is my mother. You perceive why I am uninterested in offering her any tool that might further her ambitions. Even if she believed my Gift were true. Which is far from given.” He shook his head. “Even I am hesitant to rely on it overmuch. It’s too easy to become judgmental. And my own soul, what I can see of it, is hardly flawless.”
“I don’t suppose any of us are.” Ardent stroked his leg, comfortingly. Yours is, Miro wanted to say, but he couldn’t. She won’t believe me. She’ll think it mere flattery, and be more likely to consider me a fraud after all. Please don’t ask me what your soul looks like, my lady. “You can’t see your own soul?”
He shook his head. “Parts of it. Mirrors do not reflect the soul, so what you can see of your own body, more or less. Somewhat less than more; shapeshifting does not affect how much of my own soul I can see. May we return to the matter of the assailants, my lady?”
“All right.” Ardent caressed his calf again, and then turned back to the pile of messages. “Let me see what else we’ve got.” She flicked the next message open. “Play says that my home wards are a disaster zone. She put a patch over the biggest hole, but I should rebuild them from scratch, or maybe just move. Ouch.” The next message came from a different sender: a little messenger fairy presenting an unrolled scroll. Ardent smacked her forehead with one hand. “Aaaand Skein wants to see me today. Just like she told me last night. And I forgot. Good job, me.” She wrinkled her nose at the fairy. “For a private audience this morning. Which I have not…quite…missed yet. Blight.”
“Not before the High Court?”
“No, and…I guess that’s a good thing. I don’t think the High Court meets today anyway. But at least it means I won’t have to pretend to be cordial with Fallen. I hope.” She sent an answer to the Queen’s adjunct, then summoned their costumes from the High Court two days ago and dressed both of them. She changed the colors – hers to varied greens, his to cream and gold. “I have no idea what proper dress is for a private audience in the fall of 1253. There’s no time to consult with Katsura, so we’ll just have to fake it and hope for the best.” She stood and held out a hand to him. “Let’s go.”
Miro touched his collar. “The leash.”
Ardent made a face and touched the white-gold collar to attach an ornamental chain to it. She linked the other end to a matching bracelet around her wrist. “Not like I want you out of arm’s reach anyway.”
He stepped down onto the couch to stand before her; with her standing on the floor of the sunken couch pit, their heads were about on level. She swept him into her embrace and surprised him with a kiss. He looped his arms around her neck in return, welcoming the intimacy with gratitude, easing his fear that he’d lost her trust. When she broke it off, she smiled at him, then shifted him to one arm and ported them away.
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