Miro’s breathing slowed and his body slumped against hers as he fell asleep. Ardent cursed inwardly as she realized she’d given another accidental order. I have to be more careful. Well, I’m not gonna wake him up just to apologize. Poor thing. She stroked his hair, shoulder, the velvety fur of his back. I am gonna miss him so much.
All right, focus, Ardent. Stop thinking about maudlin stuff and get to work. Even after that thought, she remained beneath him, not wanting to move, to lose the warm comforting weight of him. With a final reluctant sigh, she lifted him on a bed of aether designed to mimic her body’s position and temperature, so he wouldn’t be disturbed. Some part of him sensed the change anyway, and one of his long fey ears twitched. But he nestled down into the aether cushion and did not wake.
Ardent got to her hooves and cleaned herself and Miro off with a quick wash of aether. She fiddled with the locale-crystal in the corner until she found an office-styled room. She changed to that instead of the beach, in the hopes of putting herself in the right frame of mind. Ardent left the office dimly lit and maintained the susurration of waves to help Miro sleep.
It was a splendid office, with a long arc of empty desk and a big comfortable chair. Various supplies were already at hand in cubby holes above the desk. It even included a bookcase stuffed with basic reference volumes. That was the thing about life in the Etherium: everything was always so convenient. With a gesture, Ardent mounted the glass slate with all of its component pieces on one empty wall. She waved her bag, locket, Ocyale mirror, and the tracer golem onto the desk, then picked up the tracer. She put a bubble of silence around them, and asked it, “How many people can you trace at one time?”
“One,” the golem answered.
“And you can only follow them in public places.”
“Were you designed to only follow one person in public places, or did Play Until Collapsing Dreams add those limitations to you before she gave you to me?”
“Play Until Collapsing Dreams has instructed me not to answer questions about my manufacture.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Let’s start breaking some rules.” Aethersense showed Play’s aether signature on the enchantment, still as clear and undamaged as when she lent it to Ardent. In case Play had felt generous when she handed it over, Ardent made the gesture to assume ownership of the golem. She raised her eyebrows and laughed when it took. “Oh, Play. You sweetheart.” Ardent used a reveal-spellwork on her new golem, searching it for any rules that prohibited behaviors. She skimmed past the standard rules against breaking other possessions, found one that she didn’t recognize, and excised it with a tendril of aether. “Can you follow people in private places now?”
“Yes,” the golem answered.
Ardent flicked the excised rule into her bag in case she needed it later, and continued through the spellwork. She didn’t find any other rules that looked out of place. “Guess you were built for just one trace at a time, though. I am sure Play would have an elegant solution for this. Or she’d just make more golems. But what I have is more power. So.” She focused her will on allowing this golem to trace multiple targets, and cast a spell fuelled with sun aether. “All right, how many at once now?”
“Oh, we can do better than that.” Ardent poured more sun aether into the effort. “Now?”
“…one hundred twenty-six.” The golem shook its head, ears flopping in confusion. “I’ll need more paper for this.”
“You can have all the paper your li’l clay heart desires, kiddo.” She patted its canine head. “Are you able to trace Mirohirokon?” She showed it an image of his present sphynx form.
“That person is not within my range or not in that form,” the golem reported.
Ardent grinned. “Perfect. Ooh, let’s see about increasing your range. How far outside the Moon Etherium can you trace?”
“Pfft.” Ardent focused on its range and poured extra sun aether into it, and kept pouring until the dog-headed golem started writing. She stopped to look at its report: Verdant Generosity was one hundred eighty-five miles to the southeast of the Moon Etherium. That put them in the Old World, in one of the mortal cities. Iltima, if Ardent recalled correctly.
The satyress paused. I am using aether to locate someone not only outside of the Etherium, but in the mortal world. Outside of the fey shard entirely. That’s pretty impressive, fey girl. She smiled and licked her teeth. Let’s see what else we can do at this range. Ardent turned her attention to the Ocyale mirror. She checked its range, which was surprisingly small: it could barely make it two miles out of the Etherium. Right, I asked Play for her stealthiest scryer. It is probably stealthy by using aether with high efficiency. Let’s not wreck its stealth by applying brute force to the poor thing. She patted the Ocyale mirror’s side, and summoned the largest scrying mirror she already owned, the one from her apartment that doubled as the standing mirror in her bedroom.
It got a much better range: thirty miles. Ardent boosted it with sun aether until it was up to forty miles. At that point, she decided getting it all the way to Verdant’s current position was not worth Miro’s sacrifice. She regretted that she’d sent her crystal ball away with Sessile; its natural range was better. Still, seeing isn’t the important thing, here. Ideally, what I want to do is get something like a golem to Verdant’s position, then use that golem to put a Mark on Verdant’s cargo. While Verdant’s not looking. That last part is unlikely to be a challenge. I doubt Verdant is expecting either trouble or trackers. But getting a golem to a shifting position outside of the Etherium…ugh. Messengers don’t work outside of the Etherium, and I doubt even sun aether is going to fix that. I’d have to send my only tracer with it. Or send a smart golem, like Sessile. Whom I already sent out of the city. Justice. Well, I can wait for Verdant to get closer, or I can go myself to meet him. Which would have the advantage of getting Miro safely out of the city. And also make Fallen instantly suspicious again.
…or I could just send Miro by himself. He’ll be out of the Etherium so not in danger. And he’s untraceable, so Fallen won’t be able to see him leave. Hmm.
The other thing she wanted to do also required Miro to be conscious. Ardent took one of the reference books down and browsed through it instead. After a few pages, she decided she wanted a higher-quality library and considered her options. All right, this part I kinda want Fallen to know I’m researching, so I don’t care if she’s watching. She sent a message to White Rose.
They groused in their reply: “Those’re restricted books. I can’t let you see them without authorization from the Justiciar or the Queen.”
“I’ve got authorization from the Queen. Would you pull them for me and let me know when it’s ready for pick up?”
“Really? The Queen?”
“Really! Promise. I’ll show you when I pick it up.”
It only took a few minutes – White Rose must have been curious to see her carte blanche. Ardent grabbed the tracer golem and popped over to the Archive. She showed the dragon the queen’s authorization.
While White Rose was reviewing it, the Underground notified her that her privacy had been breached. “Justice!” Ardent ported back to Miro.
She appeared in a combat crouch on the aether cushion above Miro in the office. He’d stirred only enough to raise his head and blink. The wards on one side of the room were a wreckage of collapsed space and broken wood. Two unfamiliar fey were in the room with them. One, a three-headed chimera, noticed her, squawked a warning, and ported away. The other, a minotaur holding a rod similar to the one Cat had wielded, took a moment to grab the Ocyale mirror. That gave her enough time to pounce him. He tried to evade, but she used sun aether to catch him anyway, and wrapped him in both arms. “Hello, kid. What’re you doing in my room?”
Surprised and frightened, the fey teleported away. Since Ardent was wrapped around him and he couldn’t evade her, he brought her with him. They were in a round room, with a vaulted ceiling full of murals and ringed by tall white columns. A balcony beyond the columns overlooked a garden. “Nice place,” she told him. “I’ll remember it.” She took them back to the Underground room. “One more chance: why’d you come to my room and try to steal my stuff?”
He shifted the wardbreaker rod in his hand, and Ardent said. “Wrong answer.” She twisted it out of his grip, while he tried ineffectu- ally to squirm free of her arms. He ported them again, to the top of a tower. Ardent took them back to her room. She formed an intangible spike of aether from her knuckles and punched her fist into his face. His eyes rolled back in his head and he buckled, collapsing in her arms.
Miro was standing on all fours, fur bristling, staring in shock. “You didn’t – did you kill him?”
“Nope.” Ardent dropped him unceremoniously to the floor. She put a privacy bubble around them to supplement the room’s damaged wards. “Just used a sleep-aid spell on him. With a lot of sun aether. Forcefully. Maybe too forcefully. I can probably wake him intentionally in an hour or so. Otherwise, I expect he’ll sleep for eight.” She turned the wardbreaker rod over in her hands, thoughtfully. It was a short wand, a foot and a half long, made of smooth dark wood, with a kind of fetish of long cream-and-purple feathers tied with thongs to the tip. She glanced from it to Miro. “So what’s this cretin’s soul like?”
Miro waggled the fingers of one handpaw. “Mediocre to unpleasant. He has more vices than most. And a major obligation to someone. I wonder who that could be,” he finished, with heavy sarcasm.
“Can’t imagine.” She eyed the sleeping minotaur, and made a gesture to record his aether signature. “You sleep all right? I’d meant to let you nap longer.”
“Oh, I’m awake now,” he assured her. “And alert. Have you need of me, my lady?”
“Always.” With a sweep of aether, Ardent dumped all her things from the office back into her bag, including the Ocyale mirror, wardbreaker wand, the full-length scrying mirror and the glass slate she’d organized her notes on. Then she jammed the bag into her locket. “I may be pushing the limits of how small I can crunch even nonliving items,” she commented, squeezing it shut. “You said you can follow the trail of his obligation?”
“Yes, my lady.”
She handed him the homunculus for his normal form, then put his collar about his neck again, complete with the chain to her wrist. “If you would be so kind, my prince?”
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