Music swelled as The Queen of the Moon Host descended the aether path. Her midnight skin sparkled with galaxies and nebulas. She wore white with silver accents: silver sandals, opaque tights, a loose tunic that bared her shoulders, belted with a necklace of silver and stars, with slashed sleeves to expose her dark star-dusted skin. Silver and diamond jewelry dripped from her long ears, capped and dangled from the points of her antlers, encircled her wrists and ankles. A long translucent white cape trailed behind her, held aloft by tiny fairy golems that moved with her. Additional will-o-wisps swirled about her, like comets trapped in her orbit.
Mirohirokon only spent a moment to take in the sight of her, then long habit from life in the Sun Etherium had him fall to one knee with head bowed. Around him, the rest of the Moon Host turned to their Queen and knelt as well. Even the chaos of Moon Etherium respected some customs.
The Queen walked among her silent, kneeling subjects until she reached Ardent. “Ardent Sojourner. Rise.”
The satyress rose to her hooves. Queen Skein of the Absolute was by no means short, but Ardent towered over her by over a foot. The satyress dipped her head as the queen gazed fondly up at her. “Your majesty.”
“Welcome back, Ardent.” The Queen clasped Ardent’s shoulders. Seamlessly, the Queen shifted her size larger as she stepped forward and embraced her returned subject on an equal footing. A surprised Ardent hugged her in return. Quietly, Skein said, “You have been missed, old friend. Come see me tomorrow.” Ardent blinked at her and nodded. Her majesty stepped back, returning to her original size. Her voice rang out: “Tonight, let the whole of Moon Host celebrate your return to us!”
That was the cue to the attendees to rise. The artists performing the music changed from the queen’s arrival theme to a lively song. Some of the guests resumed their conversations, but others took to the air, aether dancing among the streamers and currents.
The Queen continued to monopolize Ardent’s attention, asking questions about life in Try Again and how she was settling back in at the Etherium. Ardent spoke to her as easily as she had to any of her friends, with warmth and no particular deference. Whispers Rain had retreated out of sight at the change in music, perhaps to join the aether dancers. Miro remained at Ardent’s side, silent. For several minutes, the queen ignored him. Then she glanced sidelong to him. Long black fingers extended to catch the chain of his leash, perhaps a foot beneath the collar. To Ardent, she said, “I am pleased to see you are keeping your new pet in hand.”
“It’s little enough you ask of me, your majesty,” Ardent answered. It was the first time in their conversation she’d used the honorific.
Skein of the Absolute smiled. Pointed white teeth glittered. “Indeed, it is. I would not trust just anyone with a prize of such value, you know.”
“I’m honored.” Ardent crinkled her nose. “Though I’d be more honored if Fallen wasn’t the other person you trusted.”
“After fourteen years, still you have no love for her? But hers is less valuable than yours, you know.” The Queen glanced at Miro. Her round eyes were solid silver, no whites or pupils. Her fingers tightened on his chain, and pulled it down hard. He bent his head, then dropped to one knee at her feet. It was more graceful than stooping, and he could no more resist her aether-enhanced strength than he could evade her grasp. Helpless. She laughed. It was not a kind laugh. “He does that easily, doesn’t he? Do you have a lot of practice kneeling, Sun prince?”
“Yes, your majesty.” Miro focused on his breathing, on calm, on pretending that laugh didn’t rankle. Amateur. She’s an amateur.
Another giggle. “Why do you suppose that is, Ardent? Who did you practice kneeling for, Sun prince?”
“My mother the queen. Her senior husbands. The crown princess.”
“Such a dutiful child. I bet they liked having you kneel before them, little princeling.” His chain clinked between her fingers. “Do you think they knew they were training you to kneel for the Moon Etherium?”
A little jerk of his chain; he controlled his expression, but the collar bit into his neck and his head went up reflexively. “That’s not an answer, princeling.”
Miro bowed his head again. “No, your majesty. They did not.”
“If only they’d known. Think how much better you could be in your new…position.” The Moon Queen wasn’t a monster; he could read that much in her soul. She was no beacon: like everyone’s, her soul paled in comparison with Ardent’s clear, radiant colors. Skein was venal and proud, her soul streaked by petty grudges and cruelty. But there was good in her too: magnanimity, dedication, purpose. She had nothing to compare to the rotting corruption that pervaded Fallen’s soul. Miro wondered why she was doing this to him, what she was hoping to gain from it. “But you know who to bow to now, don’t you?”
“Your majesty. Whomever my mistress chooses, your majesty.”
The Queen smirked as she returned her attention to Ardent. “I could almost like them, when they know their place. Is something troubling you, Ardent?”
“Hmm? I’m at a party in my honor, your majesty. Whatever would be troubling me?” Ardent’s bland, neutral tone didn’t sound convincing to Miro.
The queen didn’t press it, however. She dropped Miro’s chain with a little flick of her stardusted fingers, as if releasing something distasteful. The music mutated to a new theme, dark rolling notes, and Skein of the Absolute turned to the aether fountain. “Look, Shadow of Fallen Scent has brought her new toy too.”
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