Grain of the Lyre was skeptical at receiving a request from a complete stranger out of nowhere who claimed it was at Ardent’s behest. Lyre wanted to speak to Ardent directly. It took some cajoling to convince Lyre to port outside Verdant Generosity’s shop and get their aether signature.
Afterwards, Ardent did message Lyre, and they had a conversation staged for the benefit of anyone who might intercept it. In that one, Ardent asked it for a different favor: buying research data on firebuds from a local botanist. Lyre politely declined.
With the aether signature, the tracer verified again that Verdant Generosity was not in the Moon Etherium, nor within the tracer’s 50-mile range.
Ardent lay back in the sand of the beach, with the waves lapping against her furred legs. The false sun had finished setting on the horizon, and stars had come out. Miro wondered what time it was in the real Etherium. Still afternoon, or the Underground’s golem would have returned to collect more money or ask them to leave. “If I were Fallen, I wouldn’t be collecting this shipment from Verdant Generosity myself, any more than she got the cacao pods in person. And I wouldn’t tell him to deliver it, either. I’d send someone to get it for me.”
“Or something,” Miro circled the glass slate, enjoying the stability of walking on four legs. He lay down next to Ardent, high enough on the beach to stay out of the water, and pillowed his head on her stomach. “Natural ivory and alabaster can’t be aether-tainted the way food would be. There’s no reason a golem can’t transport it.”
Ardent put a hand on his shoulder, running her fingers over the transition from skin to velvety fuzz to fur as it went down his arm/leg. “True. And a golem would be a pretty safe way to transport it. For a simple task like carrying, Fallen can make a new golem at will. I can’t possibly watch them all.”
“But you don’t have to watch them. You just have to watch Verdant.”
“Mm-hmm. And she doesn’t have any reason to assume I know exactly what she needs. Unless Jino telling you about it was a deliberate ruse by Fallen.”
Miro ducked his head to kiss her hand. “I don’t think it was a feint on her part. My father is good at subverting the intent of a rule, when he wants to. If he’d been ordered to give me a misleading hint, he would have found a way to signal me not to trust it.”
Ardent considered this. “And telling Jino ‘you can’t talk about what I’m doing’, then feeding him a handful of false clues just in the hopes Jino would find a way to hint about it to you is overly convoluted even for Fallen. That’s the kind of plan that never goes right. So let’s assume we’re watching the right fey in Verdant. We want to start scrying Verdant as soon as they’re in range, and trace any entity that takes a delivery from them. Actually, what we really want to do is trace the package of ivory and alabaster itself. Because it will be going to the phoenix rose. And we want to trace it in a way that no one will notice.” Ardent pursed her lips. “And even Play didn’t know of a way to do that. Mm. Have you ever seen humans perform magic, Miro?”
“No, without aether. Entertainers who make coins appear and disappear, that sort of thing.”
“Oh! Yes. With trickery. Some of them are very clever.”
“It’s all about misdirection. It’s not so much that they hide what they’re doing. It’s that they make a lot flash and dazzle where the action isn’t, so the whole audience is looking in the wrong place.”
Miro grinned. “So we make sure Fallen is looking anywhere but at Verdant and that package.”
“Yeah.” Ardent sat up, smiling back. She ran her hand down his armleg, circled her fingers about the foreankle. “Time to get flashy. You good for some channeling, hon?”
He rolled onto his back and tilted his head back to offer his throat. “Always,” he murmured.
“Love,” she whispered. She gathered him into her arms and rolled onto her side, burying her face against his neck. Miro looped his forelimbs around her neck and curled one of his wings over her, to enfold her like a blanket. The sphynx form had much more flexible wings than he was used to from the avian shapes he sometimes used to traverse the Broken Lands. The sensation of covering the satyress’s body with an extremity was strange and wonderful. Warm waves lapped at his pinions as he stroked them up her wet calf and over one thigh. The wet sand didn’t stick to either of them, a touch of inauthenticity he appreciated in their setting. She wriggled closer, curling both her legs around one of his. Ardent murmured against his skin, “How do you do that?”
Miro closed his eyes, melting against her, wishing she’d take off her chiton, not quite confident enough to ask her to. “Do what?”
“Be so irresistible.” Then she was channeling through him, and he was lost in the sweep of a warm tide of power: not overwhelming or blinding, but steady, firm, inexorable. He curled closer to her still, his pleasure at the feel of her body blending with the joy of channeling for her. It was both like and unlike lovemaking, a sensual experience neither better nor worse, but manifestly different. Except the sense of I never want this to end was even stronger. I will miss this so much, when all is resolved. One way or another. The thought that this, now, might be the last time was unbearable, and he let the tide of aether bear it away for him. His consciousness sank into Ardent with the sun aether, leaving behind only the sense of happiness, of deep contentment.
Miro couldn’t contain a whimper when she stopped. He felt feverish, still in need of more, still wanting to escape into her. Ardent was saying something that was obviously much less important than what they’d just been doing, what they should still be doing. He’d have told her that, if he could remember how to speak. She kissed him, and that was right. He responded with enthusiasm, and when she drew back he kissed her throat instead. She gasped with pleasure, and that emboldened him further. He pushed her onto her back in the sand and crouched over her, nipping at the soft bare skin of her neck. He pushed the lower hem of her chiton up with his knees, one pawhand caressing at her breast. Straddling her hips, he pulsed his own against her, stroking his cock against her vulva. The position was wrong for penetration, and he desperately wanted to be inside her. He shifted one paw between her legs and she spread them a little for him, then frustratingly did not spread further. She said something else, and one of the words was stop.
Stopping was the last thing he wanted to do, but he did, holding himself motionless over her. He raised his head enough to look into her face. She wasn’t pushing him away: one of her hands curled through his hair and the other rested on the curve of his thigh. But there was worry in her eyes. “What’s the matter?” Miro asked at last, his tongue thick in his mouth.
“I want you, Miro,” she said, softly. “But I need to know this’s what you want, not just…”
“You are everything that I want.” He kissed her lips, licked his tongue up her ear. “And if you would give me my normal shape back and allow me to, I will prove it again. And again. Drunk or sober. Bound or free. My answer will not change.” He bent his legs lower and rubbed his erection against her furred thigh. “Please, Ardent. Tell me to stop or wait for your own sake, if you want, but do not do it for mine.”
She pressed something against the back of his pawhand where it rested on her breast, and he took it by reflex. His body trueshifted into his normal shape. Ardent spread her legs in open invitation. “Bit awkward, making love in a new shape?” she asked, her smile impish.
He mock-growled and kissed her again, moving to kneel between her legs. “Yes.” He thrust into her with a shudder of need, pleasure, relief, fierce possessive joy. She wrapped her arms around his back and pulled him to her chest, hips canted to take him deeper into her, a cushion of aether supporting and bracing them both. For a glorious interval, his world narrowed to only Ardent, the feel of her around him, her ecstatic expression, her pleased noises and incoherent exclamations. Then climax swept through them both. Their shared rhythm slowed, then stopped. Miro collapsed against her. “Ah, my lady, my lady, my wonderful, amazing Ardent.” He snuggled into her. “Curse it, where’s that purr capability now that I need it?”
Ardent laughed and gave him the sphynx form back. He curled up like a giant lapcat on her and purred, making her body vibrate with him. “You,” she said, kissing his nose, “are delightful. And distracting. And delightfully distracting. I should loose you on Fallen, she’d lose all ability to focus on her various schemes.”
He shuddered and shook his head. “I only have distractions for you, my lady.”
She cuddled him to her chest. “Sorry. Bad taste.” Miro closed his eyes and only answered with more purring. “How’re you feeling, sugar? I took too much. You’re still feverish.”
He purred more, caressing her side with one paw. “My lady, I feel very nearly as good as you do.” He cupped the underside of one breast in broad fingers, still marveling at the delicious softness of them. “Which is to say that superlatives fail entirely to encompass this sense of well-being. I am, granted, extremely tired. Albeit the best imaginable sort of tired. Would you mind if I fell asleep on you? It’s not actually night, is it?”
“It’s not actually night, no, and I don’t mind if you fall asleep. Although I expect I’ll move you once you do. Got some plans for all this aether I stole from you, and I don’t need a nap. But you do. So sleep.”
“Yes, my lady,” he said, and dropped off to sleep.
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