They lingered for a few extra minutes in the castle, taking in Storm’s astonishing sculpture again. Eventually, Ardent recollected herself and they left.
Once outside, Ardent ported them to the Promenade, one of Moon Etherium’s few streets that actually saw some use. Not because fey needed it for travel, but because it was a beautiful place, an arching crystal bridge between two towers. It had shop entrances to either side for its full length, and artists competed to install new works in its display areas. It served as a destination in its own right, a place to see and be seen. Today was no exception: scores of fey were walking, flying, sitting, and hovering in the vicinity of the elegant bridge and its shops. A quartet of aether musicians distorted the sound waves to transform a hundred different conversations into anonymized music, rising and falling with the rhythm of the crowd. Food smells from small cafes permeated the air: almonds roasting in cinnamon sugar, fresh baked bread, caramelized onions, curries, and spices.
Ardent traced the runes for “reveal” and “spell” in the aether before her, and infused her casting with some of the sun aether she still had leftover from last night’s channeling.
“Is anyone watching us? Or, er, tracing us?” Miro asked.
Ardent turned a circle, studying the shapes and patterns revealed to her sight by the spell. “Nope.” She offered him her arm. “Let’s go for a stroll and see if anyone does.”
“Shouldn’t you be leading me by the leash?” Miro asked, accepting her arm.
“Fuck the leash with a rusty fork,” Ardent said, with uncharacteristic vehemence. “There’s only so much depersonalization I can credibly pull off, anyway. Half my random messages are from friends who can’t believe I’d take a servant, even a Sun host one. Some of my acquaintances think Fallen and I must be plotting something. Together.”
Miro chuckled, then paused, an alarmed look creeping over his features.
His expression made her giggle. “Ah, is the reality finally dawning on you, pet?” She patted his arm fondly.
“…I have made a terrible mistake.” He tugged at the collar about his neck, as if his bare fingers might loosen metal.
“I could’ve told you that two days ago. Didn’t I tell you that two days ago?”
“You did. If I survive this, remind me to listen to your warnings next time.”
“Listen to my warnings next time.” Ardent glanced around them. Her enspelled sight still revealed no watchers, either aetheric or golem. Of course, the fey around them were watching – that was half the point of the Promenade. ‘Oversized satyress’ was no oddity in the Moon Etherium, but Ardent’s reputation and her status as a returned barbarian meant they were attracting more than their share of attention. Higher up on the crystal arch, a fey male formed of ruby glass gave a shriek and pelted towards her.
“Ardent Sojourner! It is you! And you do have a Sun Host slave! And here I was just telling All Kind Trails that it must be an imposter. But that trueshift’s too hard to forge, my dear, how have you been? It’s me, Wind Sought.”
Ardent verified his identity; Wind Sought rarely kept the same appearance for a week straight and pranksters often impersonated them. Wind Sought did little to discourage that, as they rather enjoyed playing tricks on people themselves. Other fey drew closer to exchange greetings and gawp at Miro. Ardent kept her hand over Miro’s throughout, afraid he’d be all too easy to misplace in the throng. After an hour of idle conversation with one old acquaintance after another, Ardent attempted to extricate herself to get lunch. This effort was thwarted by mass insistence that she and Miro should dine with them.
Two hours and one delicious meal after that, Ardent escaped with her Sun prince on the pretext of getting ready for the night’s party. She ported back to her apartment with Miro.
“My lady, might I persuade you to rethink the value of a leash?” Miro flopped into the pillow nest. “At this point, I think I would feel better knowing I was firmly under your control at tonight’s gathering.”
“Um.” Ardent sank down next to him. “You serious about that, sugar?”
The fey prince rested a hand against his white gold collar. “…yes. At the least, I seriously do not wish to be involuntarily separated from you. I am open to other alternatives.”
“I’ll think about it.” Ardent opened her bag to look through the messages she’d shunted into it while she was with the group. “Oh Persistence. Katsura sent me the design she wants me to wear at the party. I’m scared to open it. Hold me.”
She’d spoken in jest, and was surprised when Miro rolled onto his side and held out his arms in invitation. Well, why not? She snuggled into him, resting her head against his chest while he circled his arms about her shoulders. “If it shows you with furless legs or in pants, you have my permission to incinerate it,” Miro said, solemnly.
“Thanks, sugar.” She unrolled the second sheet that had come with the messenger bird. “Oh, that’s not bad. What do you think?”
“It will not interfere with your radiance,” he replied, making her smile.
“It beats looking through a whole catalog again, anyway. She thinks you should wear whatever it is that Sun Etherium’s court wears at parties and Justice this is going to be another thing where they try to humiliate you isn’t it.” Ardent fisted her hand around the message sheets.
He raised a hand to stroke her fluffy hair. “It’s fine, Ardent.”
“It is not fine. What is wrong with this Etherium? What happened to Skein, that she thinks this kind of soul-shredding pettiness should be encouraged? I had no idea it’d gotten so bad.”
Miro rested his cheek against her hair. “Don’t be too hard on them,” he said, softly. “It’s still better here than Sun Etherium.”
She twisted in his arms, propping up on one hand to stare at his face in disbelief. “What did they do to you there?”
A flicker of a smile, dry, bitter, and he glanced away. “How often do fey die in the Moon Etherium?”
Ardent kept staring. “What do you mean? Fey don’t die. We’ve been unaging for over two centuries, and invulnerable since before I was born.”
“Not quite invulnerable.” The smile was back, strange, melancholy.
“All right, yes, you could be hurt, while you’re in the wrong Etherium. Your dad too. But it’s been almost a century since the last time, before now, that a fey was in the wrong Etherium and didn’t change affiliation. Hasn’t it?” The hair at the nape of her neck prickled.
“I wasn’t thinking of being hurt by someone else. We can still hurt ourselves.”
“Suicide. You’re talking about suicide.”
“Twenty-three fey have died in the last twelve months, in the Sun Etherium.”
Ardent covered her mouth with one hand. “What – why—”
“In one year, Ardent. Twenty-three. It’s been a bad year. But we’ve had a lot of bad years, in the last few decades.”
She didn’t even know where to start, what question to ask. “But it’s an Etherium. They could have anything they wanted with a handwave. Justice, they could have left. Why stay and die?”
“Because if you’re in a place where you can have ‘whatever you want’ with a handwave, why would you think it’d be better if you left?” He cupped her cheek with one pale hand. “Ardent, you need not fear for my pride. I have been mocked and humiliated by experts. Trust me, Moon Etherium’s amateurs are no threat at all.”
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