Jinokimijin brought them to a greenhouse garden in a crystal cupola surmounting a palace tower. The garden was overgrown but with a wild beauty to it, a fascinating blend of organic growth with the regularity of aether. The Sun King took a seat on a curved bench, one of two, and waved a hand in invitation to the other. He glanced at her now-empty arm. “Oh, good, it didn’t come with you.”
“It’s been hanging around me for the last hundred miles. Did you give it a flight speed spell?”
“It’s got one now.”
“Ah.” Jino looked out the cut-crystal walls of the cupola at the sky around his Etherium. “I am certain it can’t access its own powers without an extractor. But of course it’s fey now, so it can use aether. Records do say that animals would do so instinctively, back in the days before the Sundering, when Etherium rulers sometimes affiliated beasts.” He paused. “For the record, I am absolutely confident that bird cannot trigger another Sundering-level catastrophe all by itself. But if it does, I am truly very sorry.” Ardent eyed him. Jino covered his face with one hand. “Miro says it has a soul.”
“It does?” Ardent blinked.
“Yes. Not like a fey or mortal soul; more like one of the rare golems who do. Still. After that, I was even less inclined to kill it, and Miro said you and he had agreed to free it. It seemed the best solution. Perhaps I applied it too hastily.”
“Huh. So mortals have souls, too? And golems?”
“Not most golems. Just a few. He didn’t tell you?” Jinokimijin took his hand from his eyes and watched Ardent.
“He didn’t tell me he could see souls until the day before you took him away. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk about it,” Ardent said.
“Ah. Well. Mortals have souls just like fey. Exactly like fey. As in, Miro cannot tell fey and mortal apart by soulsight.”
“Isn’t it, though? Ever think about what you would be like if you not only had no aether, but didn’t have fey invulnerability, or evasion, or elusiveness, or immortality?”
Ardent smiled briefly. “When I was young, fey weren’t immortal. So that one’s pretty easy.”
“Yes. We weren’t always as good at the rest as we are now, or at least so all these quasi-historical immersions would have me believe.”
“That, I don’t remember. White Rose agrees, though, and they would.”
“Oh? Who’re they?”
“The Moon Etherium’s Archivist. They’re, um, about a century older than me, so around 350 now, I guess.”
Jino blinked at her. “In truth? I didn’t know there were any fey that old still alive.”
“There’s no one older who argues with them, anyway.” Ardent shrugged. “They were old when I was a little kid, and that was back when old fey still showed their age. White Rose was the oldest fey anyone knew then, too. When the Moon King made himself unaging, I used to ask White Rose if they already knew the secret of immortality, and the Moon King had taken it from them. I don’t think they did, but they never would answer me about that.”
“I wish I’d had a chance to talk to them while I was in the Moon Etherium.” Jino sighed. “Not likely to be back any time soon, under the circumstances.”
“Hah. Why did you let the phoenix rose go, Jinokimijin?”
“Because I’d done what I needed to do with it. And Miro had told you he would see it freed.”
“‘What you needed’ being the Sun Etherium throne?”
“No. That was just a means to an end. I’d step down if Miro would take it. He’d be a better king, but he’s too smart to take the job. I don’t suppose you fancy the post, Lady Ardent?”
She laughed. “Hah. Not a chance.”
“I knew it. He said you were clever.” Jinokimijin spread his hand over his breastbone. “I needed the Heart of the Etherium to free the enslaved mortals, and I needed to stop Ele before she brought the entire Etherium down to her level. It kills you, you know, living with injustice, day after day, year after year, and pretending it’s fine. Because it’s not happening to you. Because they’re only mortals, and it’s not like they had great lives before. Everyone knows mortals do worse to each other, right? Or they’re just ordinary fey, and destroying their reputations isn’t like killing them. They’ll live. I mean, if they don’t kill themselves, and if they do, it’s not your fault. You didn’t stab them. All you did was watch. And maybe laugh a little, just so the ones in power would know you were on their side, and not take you next. Or maybe you laugh a lot. No one else thinks it matters, right? So what gives you the right to judge? And bit by bit, your soul sickens and erodes.”
“Adorable, in a cruel kind of way,” Katsura had said to her. Ardent said, “Miro said the Sun Etherium was worse than the Moon.”
Jinokimijin nodded. “It was.” He turned over his right arm to look at the smooth, unbroken golden skin, where Fallen had once branded him. “Even for me. Believe it or not.”
Ardent shuddered and leaned back. “You really think deposing the queen will fix everything?”
Jino laughed. “Oh, no. No. If only. It’s a start, though. At least slavery’s illegal again.”
“Wouldn’t that be easier to enforce with the phoenix rose?”
“Yes. Everything’s easier with overwhelming force. Would you trust yourself with that power, Lady Ardent?”
She shook her head.
“Me either. That’s why I had to let it go now. As soon as I put the seven of them into exile. Ele, Fallen, and the worst of Ele’s cohorts. I used the phoenix rose to remove their invulnerability, evasion, and elusiveness, then scattered them thousands of miles away. It’s so satisfying to just act. To be the one to judge and then put that judgment into action. For six days, I was the one unstoppable force in the Sun Etherium, and when people tried to oppose me, I showed them just how futile it was. I could have used another two weeks of that, my lady. Or two months. But the worst are gone. And somebody needs to be able to check me, or I’ll be a worse tyrant than any of them.” Jino spread his hands. “So I let it go. It was convenient that I could fulfill my son’s oath in doing so.”
“Huh.” She watched him, skeptical, considering.
The Sun King dropped his eyes first. “I know you did not choose to help me. I used you, as I used my son, as I used most of the people in my life, without giving them all the details. Because I would not risk the exposure of my plans, or my pawns. Mistrust is the price I pay for that now. Understood. But—” He lifted his head and met Ardent’s gaze. “I know my son pledged his service to you, my lady, without limitation. If you feel he wronged you, then please know he did so because I asked him to. With all the persuasive force a father can muster over his only child. If you wish revenge, then take it on me. Please spare him.” The Sun King stood, only to kneel at her hooves. “I know I can’t stop you from doing as you will with him, but I beg you to free him instead. Name your price, and I will pay it. Please.” He closed his eyes. “Please.”
Ardent resisted her first impulse to sympathy. “You went to the Moon Etherium as Fallen’s prisoner deliberately. You always knew she had the phoenix rose. You knew Miro would ask me for help, and when we got the phoenix rose away from her, you planned for him to give it to you.”
Jino flinched at her tone, nodded. “Yes.”
He could have died. Ardent leaned forward, and said, very softly, “Little late now to convince me that Mirohirokon is the most important thing in your life. Your majesty.”
The Sun King closed his eyes, still kneeling. “Please.”
Ardent stood. “I want to see Miro. Now.”
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.