Skein’s private quarters were much less ostentatious than the Great Hall where she held court. The rooms were spacious but not vast, at least not by Etherium standards. Skein received them in a parlor large enough to accommodate a dragon of modest proportions. It was an old-fashioned chamber, with a mosaic floor and stuccoed walls. Large, arched windows and a balcony door looked out upon the Palace gardens, letting in fresh air and a subtle, pleasant mix of floral and earthy scents. Except for the furniture, the room was natural: unenhanced by shifting, expansion, or glamour. The furniture was the one modern touch visible: faintly glowing oblongs that floated in the air. Sophisticated use of aether meant that they supported the occupant in whatever position the individual chose. Skein was reclining on her side in hers, suspended at a thirty degree angle with the seat conforming to her. She wore her usual star-skinned, white-haired form, though today her hair was a mass of tight curls in a vaguely spherical shape, off-center from the top of her head as it drooped down against her rack of antlers. Curls strayed against her face. A simple silver toga, ankle-length and trimmed with ornamented ribbon, served as her only garb.
“My queen.” Ardent knelt to her, as did Miro.
“Ardent, beloved. Rise. Thank you for joining me. Your servant may wait without.” She made a shooing motion with the back of one black hand.
“If your majesty does not object, I prefer him where I can keep an eye on him.” Ardent caught the chain leading from her bracelet in her hand and jingled it meaningfully.
Skein raised a white eyebrow. “I am sure one of my people may be spared to watch him for you, if he’s proved troublesome.”
“He’s proved trouble-attracting, your majesty. He was assaulted, injured, and almost stolen from me last night. If you don’t want him to overhear us, then put him in some immersion. He has no more defense against them than a mortal; he’ll be unaware of everything without. But I want him with me.” Ardent tensed her fingers around the chain, then made herself relax her grip. Don’t press me on this, Skein, or neither one of us will be happy with the result.
Skein studied her for a moment. “Very well.” She dispatched a message with a flick of one hand. “There’s no need for formal attire today, Ardent. Diamond of Winter should have said. Feel free to change to something more comfortable.”
Being more formally dressed than her queen definitely wasn’t comfortable. Ardent bowed and exchanged her formal dress for the kind of thigh-length chiton she usually wore. She gave Miro a similar short toga.
“I am sorry to hear that your servant was attacked, Ardent. Have you identified the responsible party? Has the Justiciar been informed?”
“After the attack last night, I had to take Mirohirokon out of the city at once to heal his injuries. We only returned a few minutes before this appointment. I will look into the matter, of course, but I haven’t visited the Justiciar yet.”
A regal tilt of Skein’s head acknowledged this point. She gestured to the drifting oblong seat nearest herself. “Please, make yourself at home. Would you care for a refreshment? Have you yet a fondness for aether brandies, my Ardent? The Palace vintner composed a truly magnificent blend twelve years ago, of which we’ve only uncasked one barrel so far. If you would care to taste?”
“Your majesty knows me well. Thank you; I’d be delighted.” Ardent took the offered seat; Miro rose enough to follow her, then sank to his knees at her hooves. Just as Jinokimijin had done with Fallen. Ardent struggled to ignore the similarity. Invisible aether servants uncorked a decanter and filled a snifter for her, which floated to her hand. Ardent sipped it, and was startled into a direct exclamation. “Fantastic! You didn’t exaggerate on this one, Skein.”
Skein grinned at her, and for a moment it was as if they were both just people again. Blight, she’s got a whole court full of fey to treat her like a queen. If she wanted someone to treat her like royalty, she’d’ve summoned one of them and not me. Ardent was about to ask a question when a white centaur entered the chamber and knelt to the queen.
“Reflections on Water. Would you kindly provide an immersion for Ardent’s servant? Did you have a preference for type, Ardent?” Skein asked.
Why don’t you just ask him? Would it kill us to acknowledge he’s a person? Screw this, I don’t care what she wants me to pretend. Deciding for him that he’s gonna be mind-fogged again is enough high-handedness for me. “Sugar, what kind of immersions do you like?” Ardent asked.
“If it pleases my lady, a racing or flying immersion would be enjoyable.” Miro kept his head bowed, his tone subservient.
Reflections glanced to Skein for confirmation, received a slight nod, and cast the immersion. Miro’s posture relaxed, eyes unfocusing as the sophisticated glamour filled his senses and took control of his mind. Skein waved the kneeling centaur away with her thanks, and he withdrew.
Once he was gone, Ardent asked, “How’ve you been, Skein? You look fantastic, but you always have. Do you do your hair like that a lot now?”
“For informal occasions, so far. It’s a little…messy, for Court.”
Ardent grinned. “Since when is the Court anything but messy? C’mon, our aesthetic’s never been about brutal perfection.”
“Brutal perfection!” Skein gave a real smile for that. “Oh, I like that one. It fits the Sun Etherium. There is something brutal about perfection, isn’t there? Regimentation is oppressive.”
“Yeah. So how’ve you been, sweetie? Because you seemed kinda regimented, y’know?”
The queen shifted to rest her cheek against one hand, her body-conforming seat reshaping itself to reflect her position. “Perhaps I am,” she admitted. “I don’t suppose you want your old job back?”
“Not really. Something wrong with your current Justiciar? Who is it, Captivate Interpretation?”
“No, they resigned two years ago. The Justiciar is Endless Steel, now.”
“Endless Steel? Isn’t it kinda…young for the job?”
“Yes. And I do not trust it,” Skein said, bluntly.
“Then why’d you appoint it?”
“It was Captivate Interpretation’s recommendation. And Shadow of Fallen Scent supported it.”
“Well, there’s your first sign that it was a mistake,” Ardent said. “Why is Shadow of Fallen Scent your Surety now? What happened to Leaping Stallion?”
Skein thinned her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Surely even you know what Leaping Stallion did, and if you don’t, you can find someone else to tell you. As for why Shadow of Fallen Scent…she is qualified for the position, as well as ambitious and…persistent.”
“Where by ‘qualified’ you mean ‘she bullied the right people’ and by ‘ambitious’, power-mad?”
The queen sighed and rubbed her temples. “Perhaps. She is a force to be reckoned with in the Moon Etherium, now more than ever.”
“Because you promoted her! Seriously, Skein, what were you thinking? You can’t appease a power-mad tyrant by giving her more power!”
“You haven’t been here!” Skein shot back. “You’ve been off, playing your little game in your little barbarian village, and left this mess to us!”
“Playing my little game? You think what I do is a game? Nothing that happens in the Etheriums is real! You eat fake food and live in fake houses and sit on fake cushions and make up fake problems for each other so that you can whine about how awful it all is! We’re all immortal and invulnerable and uncontainable, and the Etherium dwellers have all the aether anyone could want to make anything they could need and somehow – somehow – the only thing anyone here really wants is to find a way to make other fey suffer. Can’t hurt ’em physically? Let’s stab each other socially. You want to talk about games? Let’s talk about that game. Let’s talk about the game where you want Fallen to display some poor dumb Sun Host fey like a Justice-deprived bed slave in High Court. High Court, Skein. Is Humiliation the new Ideal you’re gonna put alongside Justice, Love, Persistence, Truth, Duty and Loyalty? Are you putting it up beside Vanity and Social Standing? Did you just throw Truth and Justice away entirely?” Ardent was on her hooves without realizing at what point she’d stood, her chest heaving.
The Queen of the Moon Host rose from her oblong and crossed the few paces between them, her height increasing with each stride. She stopped a bare inch from Ardent, tall enough now to look the satyress in the eye, the points on the forward side of her antlers almost touching Ardent’s little horns. Her expression was blank and calm, though her breathing had quickened. One star-dappled-hand reached for the chain that dangled from Ardent’s wrist, and lifted it. It jingled. She brought it higher, until it drew taut against Miro’s collar and pulled the Sun prince’s head upright with it, collar tight beneath his chin, eyes dreamlost, body limp and unaware. Skein stopped, holding him there. “And what game are you playing, Ardent Sojourner, that gives you the right to come lecture me about mine?”
…Well, everything I just said was a terrible tactical mistake. Ardent felt her face heat with embarrassment. She started to fall back, to kneel and start over.
Skein caught Ardent’s chin in her free hand instead, and the satyress did not evade. “You are about to call me your majesty and tell me some new evasion you think I want to hear. You are going to apologize for your heated words and say you did not mean them. Don’t. You meant what you just said. You have always been Loyal to Truth, Ardent. Don’t betray him now. Why did you say that to me?”
Because I’m an idiot. “Because you’re better than this, Skein. Truth knows, I’ve told you before that the Moon Etherium is full of petty dramas, as if torturing each other over nothing will make up for the fact that we’ve eliminated all the real ways we could suffer. But this, what Fallen’s doing to Jinokimijin, it’s not just petty. What happened to Mirohirokon – he could have died, sugar. And I can’t believe this is what you want. I know you. You are better than this.”
Skein lifted the chain an inch higher, pulling Miro’s upper body from his resting place against his heels. Ardent winced. “And what of you, Ardent? Did you stop being better than this? Tell me what your game is.”
“I’m trying to help him save his parent. The Sun Queen can’t just leave a Sun Etherium High Court channel here, not for long, and he won’t leave without Jinokimijin. So she’ll come up with an offer to entice me and Fallen to let them both go. And since I don’t care about ‘my share’ whatever she comes up with can all go to Fallen. If it doesn’t work, well, Jinokimijin’s no worse off. And as long as no random blightstricken fey cripples him while I’m trying to protect him, neither is Miro.” Ardent met Skein’s eyes as she spoke, the deception as earnest and level as she could make it. Pustulence, it’s true enough as far as it goes. If the Sun Queen makes an offer for them, I’ll gladly boot both of them out of here and take my chances on finding the phoenix rose on my own. At least Miro’d be safe.
The Moon Queen dropped the chain, and Miro slumped to the floor. “And what happened to ‘you can’t appease the power-mad by giving her more power’?”
Blight. “I didn’t realize how bad things were here when we hatched this plan,” Ardent admitted.
“And now that you have?”
“I’m trying to figure out how to screw Fallen out of Jinokimijin and any bargain she’d get for giving the Sun fey up.”
A bitter smile formed on Skein’s dark lips. “Come up with anything yet?”
“Still working on it. I’m pretty sure she’s the one who tried to abduct Miro. Once I can prove that—”
“You can’t take her down with that alone. Even if you can prove it.”
“It’s a wedge. I’ll find other ones. If nothing else, I’m giving her a target to distract her from all her other targets. Skein, are you with Fallen? Are you happy about the level of power she has here? Do you want to see her gain more? Because I don’t think she’s gonna use it to help you, or the Moon Etherium, or anyone except her own narrow interests.”
Skein turned her side to Ardent and walked a few paces, shrinking to her normal size as she did so. “No. No, I don’t think she will, either,” she said quietly. “I can’t stop her, Ardent.”
“What do you mean? You’re the Queen. You can kick her off the Court. You can blighted exile her, for that matter. You hold the Heart of the Etherium!”
But Skein was shaking her head. “You don’t understand. Too much of the Court supports her. It’d take weeks, months, to bypass all her supporters and push through an exile, and in weeks…it’ll be too late.”
Yes, it will. You know she has the phoenix rose. You’ve always known. Ardent licked dry lips, tried to think. “There has to be something you can do.”
“Yes. I can ask you to stop her.” Skein turned back to Ardent. “You have a Sun High Court channel. Use him. Gather whatever evidence you can against her. But do not go to the Justiciar; you cannot trust it. If you will do this, if you will use all your talents to dismantle Fallen’s power base and not allow her to build upon it further, then I will give you my carte blanche, Ardent. With anyone whom the Queen of the Moon Etherium yet holds sway, that will suffice for their cooperation. Be aware that number is not as high as it once was. And that I cannot be seen as openly in opposition to my own Surety. I will say that I gave you carte blanche because I am appalled by the assault on your servant, and I know you would not abuse it. Do we have an agreement, Ardent Sojourner?”
Ardent regarded her queen for a moment, trying to parse the offer, to process ramifications that were both better and far worse than she had feared. After too long a pause, she fell to one knee and bowed her head. “I am at your service, my queen. I will use all my talents to put an end to Fallen’s influence. I will use all my talents to put an end to Fallen’s influence. I will use all my talents to put an end to Fallen’s influence.”
Skein summoned a crystal marble to her hand and set a spell upon it. “To all Loyal members of the Moon Host: Ardent Sojourner of the Moon Host acts with Our authorization and for the good of the Moon Etherium. Give her your full cooperation and do not impede her in her work. As Holder of the Heart of the Moon Etherium, We are your liege, Queen Skein of the Absolute.” She stepped to the still-kneeling satyress, and pressed the token into Ardent’s palm. “In a fortnight, this will expire. If it still matters then, come to me and I will renew it. Remember: play this with care, my friend. Do not trust anyone; Fallen has holds over everyone. Even your former wife, Whispers Rain.” Ardent’s head jerked up at that, and Skein continued, gently, “I am sorry, Ardent. But give no one more information than you absolutely must. Maintain for as long as you can the ruse that you hope for a trade from the Sun Etherium to rescue Jinokimijin.” She stepped back. “Rise. You may take your servant and leave now.”
Ardent felt shaky on her hooves as she stood. She opened the locket around her neck and tucked the queen’s authorization into it. A gesture over Miro caused the immersion glamour to dissipate. He blinked a few times as his vision cleared, then gazed up at her. “My lady?”
“We’re done here, sugar. C’mon.” She helped him to his feet, then bowed to the queen as they withdrew. “Your majesty.”
“Ardent Sojourner. Justice be with you.”
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