About a half-mile outside the city, the phoenix rose took off, though she caught glimpses of it overhead now and again.
Ardent arrived at the Sun Etherium in the late afternoon, and was amazed by how little it had changed since the last time she’d been here, a decade ago. Half of the Moon Etherium would be brand-new and different every time she saw it, even if it had only been a year or two since her last visit. But the Sun Etherium was still a glittering jewel of cut crystal and gold and white set in its bed of aether on the plains. The Palace of the Sun was still its tallest feature, a fanciful palace in a crystal globe at the top of a spire.
No, wait, she thought, as she closed on it. It’s no longer the tallest feature. Three other towers rose higher now, at asymmetrical heights and angles. And a pair of skyships floated in the once-empty Etherium skies. New colors bloomed among the gold and white, like flowers: red, indigo, blue, pink, as roofs or accent colors on buildings
The main thoroughfare through the city, the golden spoke that led from the outskirts to its center, had been as popular as the Moon Etherium’s Promenade as a place to see and be seen. When Ardent entered the city by it, she realized it still was. As she walked the street, she slowed, taking the measure of the city. The other streets were deserted, but many fey used this one. With its little sidewalk cafes, shade trees, and park benches, it was a pleasant place to while away the time. Individual appearances varied more than Ardent remembered. Adults ranged in height from just under five feet to almost seven, and builds varied from delicate to plump to brawny. She wondered if that had changed, or if she’d grown more attentive to minor differences after her time with Miro. More Sun Host fey sported non-human features as well, although the city was still homogenous in comparison with the Moon Etherium. The greatest variety came from the occasional barbarian in their midst.
The Sun Host fey watched Ardent; with curiosity, she thought, not hostility. The mood in the city was far livelier than she’d expected, given the recent coup. With enhanced senses, she caught scraps of conversations. To her surprise, folks spoke openly of the coup: some in praise of their king, and some condemning his use of force to subdue his enemies. “At least he hasn’t killed anyone,” one waitress said. “And I’m sure he could have.”
“That’s what you think. I heard the crown princess is dead.”
“She is not. I took her aether signature myself. She was exiled with her mother.”
From a different group: “What’d that Fallen character ever do that we should be exiling her? She’s not even Sun Host!”
“I heard some stories, let me tell you…”
Others discussed Ardent herself: “Is that Ardent Sojourner?” “No, it can’t be her. Some imitator of her look.” “I heard she helped the King catch the phoenix rose.” “Oh, so this mess is all her fault, is it?”
About halfway to the palace, a fey man teleported onto the street a few paces away from her. “Welcome to the Sun Etherium, Lady Ardent Sojourner.”
She glanced at him, and stopped with her heart in her mouth, because he looked so much like Miro had when dressed for the Moon Court. The biggest difference was this stranger had Miro’s everyday indigo hair, instead of white-blond locks. And the face was – similar, but different, more squared-off. He offered an apologetic smile so like Miro’s that her heart twisted. “I forget, I have the advantage of you; I wore quite different features the last time we met. I am Jinokimijin, King of the Sun Host.”
“Your majesty.” Part of her didn’t want to kneel, but Ardent did anyway. “I am honored. Does your majesty personally greet every barbarian visitor to the city?”
“Only the ones who saved me from durance vile and assisted in my ascension to the throne. Please, rise, my lady.”
Ardent stood. She folded her arms and took a step closer to tower over Jino. “I wasn’t trying to help with your coup.”
“I know. But you did mean to rescue me, and I thank you for that, Lady Ardent.”
“I didn’t come for your thanks, either. I came to see Mirohirokon.” Her voice broke on his name. She swallowed and fought to ask in a level tone, “How is he?”
The Sun King’s expression sobered. “Alive, my lady. But not well. I will not keep you from him. But I would speak with you first, if I may?”
Movement in the sky caught her eye, and Ardent glanced up to see the phoenix rose perch on the rail of a balcony overlooking the street. She took a step back from Jinokimijin, raised her arm, and clucked. The phoenix rose glided down to land on her forearm. It cooed. Ardent looked to Jinokimijin. “All right. Talk.”
The Sun King stared at the phoenix rose, verified it, then stared at Ardent. “How could you – it’s fey – how did you catch it?”
“Didn’t. It came to me.” Ardent held her index finger out to it. The bird pecked at it, then rubbed the side of its head against the tip.
“Hah. Ah hah. Apparently, I did not think of everything.” Jinokimijin offered his hand. “Will you come with me to the palace to talk?”
She eyed his hand, considering, then gave a mental shrug and took it. The phoenix rose flapped away from her arm just before Jino teleported the two of them away.
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