As they walked back to the entrance hall, Ardent tried to puzzle out all the implications of that audience, and determine the true nature of Skein’s game. A tiny part of her whined, This is why I left the Moon Etherium! To get away from all these twisty contradictory motivations!
She squared her shoulders and quashed it. When they reached the entrance hall, she still hadn’t sorted her own thoughts. “Ugh. I need some time to think.” Ardent rubbed her face with one hand. “And somewhere to think. You all right with going to a shrine?”
“I would be glad to,” Miro said.
Ardent sent messages to the golem attendants of a few different shrines, and selected the one that told her there were no visitors at the moment. She teleported them to it as soon as she and Miro reached the foyer of the Midnight Palace.
It was the Moon Etherium’s oldest shrine, and though it was the least impressive of them it was far grander and larger than the shrine at Try Again. It had a traditional Moon-Etherium look: rows of silver benches on a star-dusted midnight floor. The ceiling and walls had cartouches to represent the different major Ideals: Persistence, Duty, Truth, Justice, Loyalty, and Love. Between each, stained-glass scenes illustrated the major and minor Ideals. Each was exquisitely rendered, and from a time when mastery of aether was still primitive and such things required much more manual skill and labor. A rich mix of different incenses scented the air, the residue of many offerings.
The only attendant was the golem, which surprised Ardent. When she’d last lived in the Etherium, there’d always been a volunteer confidant at this shrine, to talk to anyone who came by if they needed advice. Now the golem said there were only confidants on schedule for a few hours a day. In case it wasn’t obvious enough that the Moon Host doesn’t care about the Ideals any more.
The shrine had several altars, so that multiple people could engage in private meditations at once. Since none were in use, Ardent went to the front one. She lengthened the leash for Miro to several yards, but did not unchain him. The Moon Etherium’s oldest shrine was a sacred place and should be safe, but she didn’t trust it. While she was being paranoid anyway, Ardent cast reveal-spellwork, and looked for signs of any watchers. There weren’t any. Either Fallen doesn’t think I’m a threat, or she doesn’t want me to think that she thinks I’m a threat. Ugh, my head hurts already.
Miro could have chosen another altar, but he took one of the seats instead and bowed his head.
Ardent set out the Ideals before her, though Truth knew it was there more as apology than observance. She knelt before the altar and lit a candle for Love first. Do I ask for your help? Apologize for the way I’ve abused you too? Tell you I don’t have time for you now, please come back later?
Love’s carved eyes watched her with a kindly, accepting expression. Ardent imagined her words: You’ve been telling me to wait for twelve years. How’s that been going for you?
I don’t love him, Ardent answered herself, and wasn’t sure she believed it. Pretty sure I’m still in love with Whispers Rain.
Do you still think the one is exclusive of the other?
Ardent sighed. Right, I’m not settling this one today, either. She lit a candle for Truth next.
Part of her wanted to tell Miro everything that had happened with Skein, but she couldn’t. Not because she didn’t trust him, but because it wasn’t her secret to share. And she didn’t know exactly what it meant.
I can’t tell a Sun Host fey that the Queen of the Moon Host has lost control of her own Etherium. I can’t tell him that Fallen may’ve tricked Skein, perhaps into thinking that when Fallen tore apart the Sun Etherium and built her own, Fallen’s new one would be subordinate to Moon. Or maybe Skein is just so scared of Fallen that she doesn’t dare oppose her. But I know now they’ve been discrediting the Sun Etherium to make what Fallen will do to it palatable. Forgivable. Acceptable. And maybe Skein’s just now figuring out how untrustworthy Fallen is, or maybe I’m just the only person she thinks might have a shot at stopping her. Hah. Maybe there’re other agents she’s putting into motion, but she wants to keep them all deniable so that Fallen won’t take it out on Skein if we lose. Skein’s hedging her bets: pretend to be on Fallen’s side so that Fallen won’t make her a target, and covertly oppose her in the hopes someone else can stop her. Clever enough. Cowardly. But clever.
The satyress looked to Justice. Maybe it’s not justice to rescue Skein from her own terrible decisions, if that’s what’s happening. But it’s sure not justice to let Fallen succeed. Ardent lit a candle for Justice and stopped trying to solve her problems by conscious thought. She meditated on the Ideals instead, contemplating each one with familiar abstract litanies, centering herself upon them.
When she’d finished meditating, or at least decided more meditation wasn’t doing her any good, Ardent rose and walked back to Miro. He lifted his head and started to rise at the jingle of the leash, until she waved him to sit again. She sat on the bench beside him instead. The section resized itself and the space around it to accommodate her, without displacing Miro. She asked him, “How’re the Ideals observed in the Sun Etherium?”
“Much the same as here, I believe,” Miro said.
He smiled. “Perhaps.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to slight you, hon. Or Sun Host. Just kinda curious, since you look like you’re meditating but not to an Ideal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everyone’s got their own way, doesn’t need to be same as mine.”
“Praying,” Miro said, quietly.
Ardent blinked at that. “What?”
“I wasn’t meditating. I was praying.”
“Uh…you mean like mortals to their gods?”
“Exactly like that, yes.”
“Huh. I didn’t know the Sun Etherium had gods any more. I mean, I know there’s some barbarian villages where fey have religions, but I thought both Etheriums were pretty secular now.”
“Sun Etherium is, yes, but there are still a few religious fey left. I practice Vya Aymthial, the Divine Way. It’s a mortal religion, from the world of Thial.”
“When were we last on Thial? I don’t even remember that one.”
“Thirty-two years ago. We were synchronized with it for several months. My father and I travelled it for two months, gathering stories, books, and research materials. We ran into a Vya Aymthial missionary, and she converted me.”
Ardent smiled. “That must have been one persuasive mortal. Not like the lure of eternal life’s much of a promise to a fey.”
“Well. It was a persuasive religion.” Miro hesitated, then said, “The missionary had soulsight. Just like me. She said that Vya Aymthial’s first prophet also had soulsight. That the Divine had given it to him to help show other people the Path. Vya Aymthial has a tripart god: the Divine, the Guide, and the Path. The Divine is the power behind all things, the creator and the universe. The Guide is the force that shows the difference between right and wrong, the one that helps you know what to do. And the Path is the way you’re supposed to go, to accomplish the goals of your life.” He gave a little shrug, as if he’d said more than he’d intended to. “Anyway, their holy book taught me a lot about soulsight and the meaning of what I can see. And their message, that people should love one another and do what will create the most good in the world, resonated with me.”
Ardent nodded. “That’s what you meant when you were talking to Sessile. About your purpose.”
He blushed, his long ears pinkening. “Yes. And also…that the Path isn’t the same for everyone. Sometimes there’ll be things that need to be done that aren’t the right task for me, because of my skills and limitations. Sometimes they are. I just have to try to figure out what’s what.”
The satyress reached out to take his hand. “And saving your dad is your Path?”
“I think so. Part of it.” Miro laced his fingers between hers. “Yours too, I hope. Not that I expect you to believe in the Divine Way.”
“Yeah. Mine too.” Ardent offered him a smile.
Miro smiled back for a moment, then his expression sobered. “What did the Queen want, my lady? If I may ask?”
“It was complicated. But I got this.” She took the carte blanche from her locket and showed it to him.
Miro stared as it activated. “That’s genuine? It has her aether signature?”
“From the queen’s hand to mine.”
“But – how did you convince her to offer it? What did you give her?”
“An oath. Don’t worry, sugar, it was nothing I wasn’t already doing, and nothing as ridiculous as the one you swore to me during High Court.” Ardent put the token back in her locket. Miro still had the same worried look anyway. She twisted to face him, curling one leg atop the bench, and held out her arms in invitation. He entered her embrace with a gratifying eagerness and snuggled into her lap. She stroked his long indigo hair. At least this still makes sense. Wait, no, this never made sense. Nothing in my life makes sense any more, least of all this. But it does feel right. Which is more than I can say for anything else.
Ardent blew out a breath. First things first. She glanced around the empty shrine. Guess this is as good a place as any to try this. Not like my apartment’s safe any more. Maybe a shrine’ll be auspicious. “I’m gonna try to ward you now, sugar, all right?”
He chuckled. “Oh, no, don’t protect me, my lady. I am so looking forward to the next abduction attempt.” He grinned. “I mean, it did end very nicely for me.”
Ardent made a face at him. “Hush, you.” She kissed his nose, and then made the basic gestures for ownership and warding over him. Even before she was through, she knew it wasn’t working. She tried feeding what Sun aether she still had left into the spell, but it was as if the spell couldn’t even start. The magic wouldn’t go into it. She might as well have tried to soak up water with a rock instead of a sponge.
“No luck?” Miro asked, watching her face.
“No. Not even with Sun aether. Aether knows you’re a fey, and you shouldn’t need this kind of protection anyway.” She compressed her full lips into a thin, unhappy line.
He made a thoughtful noise and withdrew from her arms. “Or perhaps aether knows I am not a possession.” Miro rose to his feet, then knelt at her hooves and said, “I give myself to you, Ardent Sojourner, in all ways and all things, to use as you see fit.”
“What – Miro, what are you doing, you can’t—” Ardent bolted upright, staring at him in horror as he repeated that insanity two more times. “I don’t want to own you!”
Miro flinched at her words; he looked pale and shaken, head down, still kneeling. “I know. Please don’t release me from it yet, my lady. If my lady would be so kind as to try the warding spell again?”
I don’t want this to work. She almost released him anyway. Instead, she leaned forward, breathing shallowly, and made the warding gesture again. Before she was partway through, she knew it was going to work, and hated it, and hated the Moon Etherium, and the Sun Etherium, and aether, and the entire justice-lost fey race.
“My lady?” Miro had turned his face up to watch her, his expression worried. “It didn’t work?”
Ardent realized she was crying. She wiped her eyes with the back of one brown hand. “No. It did.” I don’t want this. It’s too much. “Miro.” There has to be a way, some way to make it more bearable. She chose her next words carefully. “This is my command to you. You are to behave exactly as you would had you never given me this pledge. You will act in accordance with your own best judgment. You will give no more weight to anything I ask of you than you would have without that oath. Nothing I or anyone else says in the future can or will change this command. Do you understand?”
Miro relaxed visibly, and rose to his feet. “I do, my lady. Ardent. Thank you.”
“All right.” She let out a breath. The ward was still intact upon him. “C’mere, let me do a better version of the ward.”
He sat beside her obediently. “Yes, my lady.”
Too obediently. She started to gesture, stopped. “Back up, sugar.”
He did so. “My lady.”
“Stand on your head,” she told him, and he moved to comply. He didn’t even look confused. “No, stop, Miro, what are you doing?”
He stopped, frozen with one hand on the floor. “…obeying.” With a visible effort, he pulled himself together and sat, carefully, on the bench. “I don’t think contradicting your own future orders quite worked.”
“Justice find it!” she swore. “I can’t do this. I’m going to release you.”
“Please don’t,” Miro said. He put a hand over hers. “It’s not as bad as that. See, I can even argue with you. Give me another silly command.”
“Turn a pirouette.”
Miro remained seated. “See? I don’t have to obey—”
“Do it now!” Ardent snapped.
Miro twisted sideways to face her on the bench, and clenched a hand against its back. He turned no further, meeting her eyes. “All right, yes, it feels wrong to disobey. But I am not forced to. It’ll be fine, Ardent. It doesn’t have to change anything. And we both know you are putting up with this for my benefit, not yours.” He touched her damp cheek, his index finger caressing beside the corner of her eye. “Everything you have done in the Etherium for the last three days has been for my benefit, and my father’s. I am the one taking advantage of you, Ardent.” He gave a little self-conscious laugh and looked at his hands. “Did I unintentionally put you deeper into my power by trying to put myself into yours? I am sorry, Ardent. Of course you should release me if you wish.”
Ardent smiled weakly, covering his delicate hand with her own larger one. She lowered her eyes and took a deep breath. “Is crazy contagious? Because you’re starting to make sense to me and now I’m really worried.” He laughed. “Fine, when you put it like that it doesn’t seem quite so awful. But Justice, Miro, I will be glad when this is all over. I’m going to finish warding you now.” And be very careful in how I phrase things, from here on.
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