In the morning, Ardent woke before Miro. She took care not to wake him as she climbed out of bed and checked on the logs the golem had made. Tracking fifty-eight different individuals had taken up more space than she expected, since the tracer recorded movements every minute, even if they’d only moved a foot or two. She set to work devising a spell that would take all the coordinates and plot them onto a three-dimensional map of the Moon Etherium for her. After an hour of flipping through the references on information magic she’d gotten from White Rose, Ardent sorely wished that Play Until Collapsing Dreams was still speaking to her. Reading her monograph from the Archive was not the same. Maybe I can make a bunch of really stupid golems who’ll do this for me? Except I want it plotted on a three-dimensional translucent map, which means one made of glamour. And marked with glamour. And there are no really stupid golems that cast spells. Not even basic glamour spells.
She still hadn’t figured it out by the time Miro woke, so she took a break then to discuss breakfast. Which somehow turned into Miro nibbling on her. And then she made aetherfood for him to eat off of her, and then he insisted that she had to eat too…
It may not have been the best food she’d ever made, but the presentation definitely more than made up for it.
Afterwards, they talked about the plotting problem. “I’ve gone from far too little information to way too much, in a format I can’t make use of at all.”
“Perhaps instead of making a nice plot of all the coordinates, you could devise a glamour that highlights the values that are in the right range? The last number is the distance from the center of the Moon Etherium, and the phoenix rose will only thrive .67 to .68 miles from the center. So any numbers in that range are the only ones we care about.”
“Ooh, I should’ve thought of that hours ago, sugar.” Ardent laughed and cast the suggested spell. “Got too focused on doing it the first way that came to mind.”
As that spell worked, the tracer golem barked from inside her locket to let her know Verdant and his cargo had returned to the fey shard. Judging from his progress by the minute, he’d be back in the Moon Etherium in a couple of hours.
The highlighting of the tracer’s logs revealed four locations in the right range. They had no other leads to look at while they waited for Verdant’s return, so Ardent turned Miro back into a mouse and teleported to each location with him to have a look. They all turned out to be public places: a couple of parks, an aerial racecourse, and a farmshare. Nothing promising, not even cacao trees in the farmshare. Ardent scouted the farmshare from far above. Her lockets and Miro’s mouse form used too much aether for her to take them into a farm, and she wasn’t about to leave them alone while she went for a long walk. She couldn’t see Fallen keeping the phoenix rose anywhere public, regardless.
While Ardent was scouting the farm from the air, she received a note from Whispers Rain: “I heard about Miro last night. Can I see you?”
Ardent read the message a few times, conflicted, before she teleported back to her room at the Underground. She retrieved Miro from her cleavage and held him in one hand. “Rain wants to see me,” she told Miro. “We’ve got a little while yet before Verdant gets back. I’m gonna invite her here, and leave you as a mouse, all right? She thinks you left the Etherium, like everybody else.”
Miro crinkled his whiskers at her, mouse ears flattening back. “Ardent…there’s something about Whispers Rain I should tell you.” His voice sounded strange coming from such a small body. “She…has an obligation to Fallen. A heavy burden.”
The satyress stared at him. What? No. Not my Rain, she wanted to say, and remembered the Queen telling her: ‘Fallen has holds over everyone. Even your former wife.’ Ardent’s stomach cramped. “You knew. At the party. When you first met her. You always knew.”
He ducked his head. “I didn’t know how to warn you.”
And why would I trust you, a stranger, over my wife of thirty-two years? Why should I trust you? ‘Fallen has holds over everyone.’ “You think she set us up. You think Rain came that night to distract me while you were attacked.”
Miro sank down in her hand, miserable. “I have no evidence of that. Or anything against her. She has a beautiful soul, Ardent, truly.” I know that, Ardent thought, angrily. What makes you think I wouldn’t know that? Of course she does. “But she’s been controlled by her fears before. And she’s indebted to Fallen. That’s all I know. I’m sorry, my lady.”
It’s not true. She wouldn’t do that to me. To you. No matter what she owed.
‘Go after him. I’ll take care of Mirohirokon,’ Rain had said.
Ardent sank to sit on the edge of the bed, shaking, angry, sick. “I still have to see her,” she said, mechanically.
“Yes, my lady.” His tone was diffident.
“You…stay out of sight.” At his nod, Ardent put Miro back into her cleavage. She sent a reply to Rain: “I’d love to, sugar. When’s good for you?”
“Now’s fine, if you’re not busy?”
“Sure, just give me a minute. You want to come to me?”
“I’d be happy to. Whenever you’re ready.”
Ardent went to the locale globe of the chamber and dialed through different places while she tried to pull herself together. No point in seeing her if I don’t know how to play this. Oh Justice, Loyalty, Duty, I don’t know how to play this. Does she want to see me, or did Fallen ask her to? Is Fallen distracting me again, playing for time while she waits for her extractor to be complete? Do I confront Rain or play along and see what she lets slip? If I poke her in the right place, will she confess?
I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this. Not to Rain. Justice desert us all. Ardent selected a fairy-tale meadow, with green grass and flowers and dappled sunlight filtered between trees that reached without end towards an impossibly blue sky. Big white mushrooms offered unexpectedly plush seats. “Now’s good,” she told Rain, and gave the room’s wards permission to let Rain in.
Rain arrived in an unfolding flower, dressed in tights and a bodysuit made of straps. They crossed over her chest and ran between her legs to form a straight line between her wings and up her back. She launched herself into Ardent’s arms and the satyress caught her up. “Oh, Ardent, I’m so glad it wasn’t true!”
Ardent blinked, caught off guard despite every intention to be wary. She struggled for a cautious reply. “…what?”
“About Mirohirokon. I couldn’t believe you’d do it, make a slave of another fey. Not for anything. It’s not like you.” She had her arms wrapped behind Ardent’s neck. The satyress held her carefully in return. Miro was well-warded now and being squished between them wouldn’t hurt him, but even so. Rain gave a little laugh. “I should’ve known it was some scheme to help him.”
“Oh. That. Yeah.” Ardent sat on one of the mushrooms, putting Rain in her lap. “Funny, I thought it’d sound more plausible as me being selfish and wanting power.”
Rain giggled and slid an arm around Ardent’s waist. “Maybe to someone who didn’t know you.”
“Oh, c’mon. Everyone knows I always wanted the power to actually stop people. As opposed to the power to say ‘you naughty boy, don’t do that again or I’ll call you naughty a second time’.”
The faerie-winged woman braced her tiny feet against Ardent’s opposite thigh as she perched on Ardent’s other leg, and tilted her head to look up. Rain had turned her oversized eyes the same blue as her hair, vivid in her warm brown face. She shook her head. “No. Not to hurt people. You wouldn’t ever take advantage of a helpless fey, not even in the service of some greater good. You’re not that kind of person.”
“Heh. I don’t want to be that kind of person, anyway. Not so sure that I ain’t.”
“I am.” Rain leaned into her, pillowing her head against one breast, and Ardent’s heart twisted at the rightness of it. The wrongness of it. I don’t know how to do this. “Are you all right? I only heard gossip, but it sounded like a bad fight.”
Ardent nodded, kissed the top of Rain’s head because it was the normal thing to do, because it was what she wanted to do, because what else could she do? “You know me. I’m tough. And his highness will be a lot safer back in his own Etherium. Do you know, some goons tried to steal him again? Justice. I was afraid somebody’d kill him outright eventually, trying to get him for themselves.”
Rain nodded. After a moment’s silence, she said, “You never really meant to stay, did you? For good. You’ll go back to Try Again, soon.”
Ardent felt ashamed. I guess she’s not the only one who lied about her real motives. “Yeah. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Rain squeezed her, slender arms barely reaching around Ardent’s broad back. “It’s just as well. The Moon Etherium…it’s no place for good people, Ardent. It hasn’t gotten any better since you left. Everyone’s petty and self-absorbed and false and…and…I want to say I’m surprised that they’d try to hurt your friend…and I guess part of me is…” Ardent felt a dampness against her chiton, and realized with a start that Rain was crying. “…but I shouldn’t be. It’s not unlike this place. It is just like this place. Everyone is so selfish they can’t tell what really matters. It’s no wonder you left. There’s nothing good here.”
The satyress lifted Rain’s chin with one hand, to meet her tear-filled eyes. “You’re here,” she said, softly.
“Yes.” Rain closed her eyes and pulled away. “And just as bad as all the rest.”
No you’re not. It’s not true. Ardent’s throat felt tight, too choked to speak.
“You should leave, Ardent. You should go now. It’s only going to get worse, and you can’t – I know you want to save Jinokimijin, but you can’t. You can’t save any of us, and we don’t deserve it even if you could.” Rain drew her arms back and wrapped them around her own shoulders. “I’m afraid, Ardent. I heard what happened to Contemplation After the Storm. If you don’t get out…they’ll find a way to hurt you, too.”
Ardent touched Rain’s cheek, fingers curving under her chin. The delicate woman let her turn her face up again. “Is that what you want, Rain?” she asked, as gently as she could. “Or is it what Fallen told you to do? Talk me into leaving.”
Rain closed her eyes again, blue lashes bright on dark cheeks. “Yes,” she whispered. “And yes. I’m sorry, Ardent. It’s just…Shadow of Fallen Scent is too powerful. Even the Queen can’t stand against her any more. Even if she wanted to, and I don’t think she does. Fallen is the only piper now, and everyone is dancing to her music.”
“I’m not,” Ardent said, her voice harsher than she intended.
“Then you don’t understand—”
“When you came to my apartment after the party,” Ardent said, interrupting her, “you were following Fallen’s orders then, too. The message you got, that ‘reminded’ you to block messages. And reminded me too. That was from her. You were to distract me and get me to block messages. So I wouldn’t hear Miro when he called for help.”
Rain shuddered. “I didn’t know! I didn’t know why—”
Ardent stood, pushing her former wife away. “You didn’t ask! Justice, Rain! He could have died. Did you even think about it? Why did you think she’d want me distracted?”
“I don’t know!” Rain wrapped her arms around her stomach, doubled over. “I didn’t want to think about it! I know I shouldn’t’ve but Ardent, you have no idea what she’s capable of. You can’t take her on and win. Not even with a Sun prince channel, and certainly not without one. Don’t you understand? You have to stop. You have to get out! While there’s still time! While it’s still safe in Try Again. While it’s still safe somewhere.”
“No,” Ardent said, breathing heavily. “I don’t understand.” There was a tinny banging from inside her new locket. “And I’m not going to leave. Because someone has to stop Fallen. While there’s still time. I’m not running away from this. Tell your master that, Whispers Rain.” She opened the locket, hooked out the golem inside and looked at the latest coordinates. Verdant Generosity was in the Moon Etherium. “I have to go.”
“Where are you going?” Rain asked, desperately.
The satyress gave her a cold look. “What, by all that remains and all that was Sundered, makes you think I would trust you?”
“Ardent, wait,” Miro’s voice said. Ardent froze, startled, as he poked his mouse’s head over the neck of her chiton. “Whispers Rain – I forgive you.”
Miro what are you doing—
“Prince Mirohirokon?” Rain’s big blue eyes grew even wider.
He nodded. “Yes. I just want you to know – whatever happens next – I know you did not want to see me hurt. I know you don’t want to see Fallen succeed. I know how hard it is, when everyone with power is against you, not to go along with what they want. I know how reasonable they can make it seem, when you already owe them, when it’s just some little thing, and you know they will get what they want one way or another, with your help or over your body. I understand. It doesn’t make you a monster. It just makes you a person. I bear you no ill-will for that.”
I do, Ardent thought. You could have died, Miro.
Rain bowed her head. “Thank you,” she said, softly. “You…really think you can stop her?”
“I believe we must try.”
Ardent glanced at the log again as the tracer golem wrote new coordinates down. Verdant Generosity and the two marks were no longer in the same place. The marks were now at a coordinate 0.6742 miles from the heart of the Moon Etherium. “Goodbye,” she said to Rain, and ported away.
Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.