Miro slept soundly for the first time since his return to the Sun Etherium, and knew why when he woke in Ardent’s arms. He smiled, stretched, and curled into a ball against her. She kissed the top of his head. “Good morning, love.”
He burrowed in against her. “You’re real. I didn’t dream you.” For the past week, he’d been haunted by his obligation to her, the rope of it knotted black by his betrayal, by his separation from the person he’d given himself to. He’d felt as though it were strangling him: he’d belonged to her. He’d had no right to keep himself away from her. Miro had been physically too weak to make the journey of a hundred eighty miles to the Moon Etherium, and even so he’d set out more than once. Only to pass out within a quarter of an hour; Ama or a golem would then drag him back to bed. All that balanced his desperate need to fulfill his vow against his body’s weakness was Ardent’s order: “Don’t die.” Which meant that taking care of himself at least technically fulfilled one of her commands. It had nonetheless made recuperating an unsteady process, as his physical inability to fulfill his vow itself made him sicker and weaker. Being freed of that tangled, corrupted obligation was a weight off his soul. Miro knew he was not yet healthy, but he was far healthier. He could feel the reserves of aether that had soaked into him during the night: still low, but enough for true spellcasting and not just glamour.
“Nope. Absolutely real.” Ardent took his hand and placed it against one breast. “See?”
“Mmm.” He caressed her through the thin silk of her sleeping gown and pressed his face against her breast to kiss the upper curve. His hand slid down to her waist, discovered the gown had ridden up, and stroked the soft fur of her hip. Miro uncurled to slide one leg between hers, and cupped her rear to pull himself hard against her. “I want you,” he whispered. He nipped at her breast through the gown, sank down to find her nipple stiffening against the fabric and tongued it.
She arched into him with a whimper. “We probably shouldn’t.” Ardent stroked a hand over his hair and cradled his head to her. “You’re still sick. I don’t want to wear you out.” But she parted her legs for him and let Miro roll her onto her back to nuzzle at her other breast.
“I know.” He knelt between her legs and pressed his clothed hips against her bare skin, stifling a moan at the inviting warmth of her, his body attenuated with need. “I do feel much better. You can’t imagine how much of a relief your presence is. Just to have you here, Ardent…everything is easier.” Miro sank down against her, squirming an arm under her to hold her close.
Ardent canted her hips into his and wriggled, making him tighten his grip. “Maybe if we were really careful…”
“Love, Ardent.” Miro gasped, and stripped away his nightshirt with a flick of aether. “Yes. Please.”
“Hey, you supposed to be casting spells? Are you all right?” Ardent asked, freezing in alarm.
Miro kissed her in answer. “I did say I was much better. If I promise not to overexert myself, may we…?”
She whimpered as he slid against her. “Yesssss. But you better be careful…”
They made love gently, with Ardent moving to the top in short order. She and aether did most of the work while Miro meekly deferred to her lead. The frustration of feeling both physically and magically inadequate as a lover melted away under Ardent’s obvious pleasure, and the joy of union with her.
As they cuddled afterwards, a folded paper messenger in the shape of a white-and-purple bird interrupted them. “Want to have breakfast with my dad?” Miro asked Ardent, after reading it.
“Will you be there?”
“Yes. I think I’m even up to sitting at a table for a while.”
“All right, then.”
The Sun King had breakfast laid out for them in a garden courtyard, on a gold and crystal table. Flower beds with peonies, daffodils and tulips in bloom surrounded them, in defiance of the autumn season. A spell spun their fragrance into ethereal music: light, airy, sweet, uncomplicated. Jino’d invited a couple of other fey, and Miro introduced them to Ardent properly this time. “Ardent, this is my sister, Prin – sorry, Chancellor Amalatiti. And this is our friend, Layotaloyon. Did you get stuck with a new job yet, Talo?”
Talo shrugged. “Technically. It doesn’t come with a title, though.”
“I can give you a title,” Jino offered. She’d taken a female form today: short but more adult and curvaceous than the form Fallen had forced on her, not to mention far more formally dressed. Her face was similar to Jino’s male one, but softened, with a narrower jaw and larger eyes. The circlet on her brow identified her to Ardent.
Talo made a warding gesture. “No, no. Thank you. I’m good without a title.”
Jino offered her son a put-upon look. “Mirohiro, I begin to see Ele’s problem. None of the people I will trust with power want it.”
“You’ll manage, Mom.” Miro bent to kiss her forehead, then pulled out a chair for Ardent before taking one beside her for himself. The furniture resized itself to accommodate the satyress’s larger form.
“I suppose it’s not too late to attempt the artificial incubation of a phoenix rose,” Jino said, glumly. Then she looked at Miro and brightened. “You look well, my child. You’re not just faking it this time.”
Miro chuckled. “What need have I for pretense? Ardent is right here.” He took Ardent’s hand, and beckoned over one of the drifting serving trays.
At Ardent’s raised eyebrows, Ama said dryly, “Miro’s been trying to convince us for five days that he was well enough to travel, if we’d just give him a little magic to help.”
“Really?” Ardent eyed him. “Honey, you were barely well enough to cross the room last night.”
“Some days have been better than others. But I truly am better now. Look, magic.” Miro snagged a couple of stuffed pastries from a tray with aether, and floated them to his plate. Ama applauded, and Miro gave her a mock bow, then offered one to Ardent. “These ones are my favorite. Stuffed with cheese and aether berries.” Miro fed it to her from his fingers after she bent her head to accept.
Across the table from them, Ama laughed. “Oh, Ideals! You two are ridiculously adorable. Will you have no consideration at all for our delicate Sun Etherium sensibilities, Miro?”
“I’m sorry, is there someone other than the five of us?” Miro made an elaborate show of looking around for more, while Jino and Talo grinned. Ardent licked berry juice off his fingers and sat back.
“There’s me!” Ama protested. “What about my delicate sensibilities?”
“You? Perhaps I’m misremembering, but are you not my sister Amalatiti who took a barbarian lover? As a dragon? While flying over the Sun Palace?”
Ama shook her fist. “That was almost good enough to dislodge Peli from last place, too!”
“What did Peli do?” Ardent asked, incredulously.
Talo and Ama laughed, while Jino sat back in her chair and rubbed the back of her neck. “We don’t generally talk about it.”
“They seduced Dad,” Ama said, jerking a thumb at Jino.
“I would like to note that I am not related to Peli in any way. Nor was I at the time,” Jino commented. “Also, they’re twelve years older than me. It’s not as if I lured my vulnerable young former step-child into bed.”
“It was three days after the divorce,” Miro told Ardent.
“In my defence, I didn’t know they were going to brag about it to the entire Etherium. In song form. At a concert for the Queen,” Jino said.
“That was a great song,” Ama said, wistfully.
“I loved that song,” Talo said. “Do you think Peli’d perform it for Jinokimijin’s ascension celebration?”
“Ooh, I should ask! I hope they still remember it.”
“So these are the members of my family that I like, my lady. In case you wished to reconsider your association with me,” Miro told Ardent.
“I’m not a member of his family,” Talo pointed out. “Just a hanger-on.”
“You’ve been hanging on since you were five. You’re family,” Miro said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Not reconsidering. You’re gonna have to do worse than this, sweetie.” Ardent had her eyes on Miro’s, a smile on her lips.
“Good,” Miro said, and leaned in to kiss her, then nibbled at her berry-flavored lips.
“Too adorable. When will you ask her to marry you, Miro?” Ama teased.
“Dinner time.” Miro kissed Ardent again, then glanced at Ama, who was being uncharacteristically silent. She blinked at him, stunned.
“Are you in truth?” Talo asked, on her behalf.
Miro nodded, watching Ardent again. She was smiling at him, the corners of her black eyes crinkled up.
“Ideals, Miro. Um. Sorry to ruin the surprise, Ardent,” Ama said, at last.
“Oh, it’s not a surprise. She told me to ask then.”
“I was thinking dinner time yesterday. Didn’t realize how late it had gotten.”
Miro glanced at Ama again, and said to Ardent, “We’ve rendered her speechless again! I am not sure this has ever happened twice in the same year before. Don’t worry, Ama. I’ll give her some time to come to her senses before we wed. If she accepts me.”
“This might be a little abrupt,” Ardent agreed. She leaned back and broke her gaze on Miro to ask Jino, “So what about you, your majesty? Didja have a better match in mind for your crown prince than a barbarian from a tiny village?”
“Me?” Jino touched her fingers to her breastbone. “A better match for my son than a fey of power and influence among mortals, barbarians, and the Moon Etherium alike? Than the fey who saved his life and mine, and gained me my throne? No, I cannot imagine a better match.” She took a sip from a crystal goblet of orange juice. “Well done, Mirohiro.”
“Thank you, Mom.” Miro had a bite of his own roll. He sought Ardent’s hand with his free one, laced his fingers through hers, and squeezed.
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